A couple of months ago you may remember I wrote about a very funny philosophical web series called A Conversation While… from St Jake productions. Well, St Jake productions is no more, but the guys behind it are pushing ahead with a new project. I got in touch with Steven Boatright, Jason McMahan and Kevin Joiner, the rather clever creators of ACW, and asked them about how the series came together and what they’re up to now.
GN: First of all, well done on making what has got to be one of the most intelligent web series I have ever seen, whilst also being very funny.
SB, JM and KJ: Thanks!
KJ: We’re glad you liked it. And really glad that you understood exactly what we were going for.
GN: How did A Conversation While… come about conceptually? Did the three of you know each other previously? What was the genesis of St Jake Productions?
KJ: Jason and I have been friends since the early 90s after appearing in a stage show together. Stephen and I met in Nashville in 2007, where he was doing photography and I was doing music. Fast-forward to 2009, Jason suggested I develop a web series out of one of the various ideas I had floating around. I asked him to cowrite and talked to Stephen about directing. This culminated in the three of us working together and shooting an unaired pilot which was an earlier imagining of our current project, Sleepwalk the Series.
SB: ACW was one of those ideas that came from multiple brains at the same time. Kevin, Jason, and I all had simultaneous ideas for a “next project” that melded perfectly together into this strange, little, existential, crime comedy. The name St. Jake as an umbrella company for the web series was Jason’s idea. He noticed that you could form that from the first two letters of each our names.
KJ: As I recall, we were continuing development on our main project when Stephen suggested that the team needed something strong and unique under our belt, both to put the team to the test and to create a video calling card, if you will. So, he asked for ideas. At the exact same time, Jason approached me with an idea about a web series featuring the two of us discussing philosophical ideas. I approached Stephen with the general idea, but he and I agreed that the premise needed to be a bit more exciting to really catch attention. Stephen suggested a couple of crooks a la Tarantino, but more bumbling and with conversations that were a bit more cerebral.
JM: For me, ACW is very personal. My impetus for the project came from seeing how our received wisdom doesn’t exactly jive with reality and wanting to shine a light on that fact. From what I remember, I wrote a short monologue titled “Memento Mori,” which later became the opening to Chapter 2. I sent it to Kevin, and told him, “This is the kind of thing I’d like to do.” Next thing I know, he’s showed it to Stephen who came up with a show title and a list of strange crime scenarios. If you guys don’t believe me, I’ve got the emails to prove it!
GN: Were there any other web series’ you looked to for inspiration?
KJ: Not specifically. At that time, web series were still not being taken seriously in industry terms. And for good reason, because the bulk of what was being created was sub par. But there were some that stood out, like “Riese”, “The Steps”, “Lumina”, and “The Guild”. Naturally, none of these are in the vein of ACW, but what inspired us and what we respected about them is that they were being created more-or-less independently, on relatively small budgets and with scaled-down crews, but were really interesting, quality work. That, more than anything, was something we wanted to emulate.
SB: We were definitely watching projects like The Guild and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog before we went into production. While we were open to expanding the story from the beginning, we wanted to make something that would play as a cohesive whole after one season, along the lines of what Joss did with Dr. Horrible. So we approached it more as a chapter-based short film than a traditional serial narrative.
JM: Not for me, no.
GN: What was the writing process like for the show? Were the discussions scripted, or were they largely improvised and improved upon?
JM: The discussions were completely scripted. If you compare the scripts to the finished show, you would see that, minus a dropped word here and there, we didn’t stray from the written page. For the most part, I would email Kevin snippets of dialogue or these huge chunks of thoughts about a certain concept which he would then mould into a dialogue. Sometimes lines from emails or chats, in which we were discussing the scripts, would actually find their way into a script. Then he would add his own take on the concept. We would then read through and edit. Chapters 3, 7, 9, and 10, Kevin wrote on his own.The process went really fast.
KJ: One of the really interesting things about the process was that any particular view espoused did not always remain in the mouth of the one originally espousing it. A good example is Chapter 9. Jasper is played by Jason, but the side he takes in the argument was basically mine. If it seemed more in line with the characters to flip it in the final script, we did so. For the most part, the characters are exaggerated versions of us. To paraphrase your review, you referred to my character, Horace, as a rational romantic and Jasper as a skeptical spiritualist. That is pretty much us in a nutshell!
GN: Each episode of A Conversation While… features a specific criminal act, which often playfully ties in with what the St Jake brothers are debating. Did you choose these situations based on how they related to what you wanted to discuss, was it the other way around or are the criminal acts incidental to the conversation?
SB: Kevin and Jason started with brainstorming the topics for discussion and I went off and drafted a list of possible episode titles which included the criminal activity that would be featured. We then came back together and matched the best topic to the crime. So in that sense it was something we gave some thought to, but the crimes really were ancillary to the topics.
KJ: Right. That the crimes often play into what we are debating is entirely serendipitous. We put them in the order they’re in because we wanted to create a logical plot flow where each episode led into the next. Some of the incidental dialogue and action was added to heighten this effect, but none of the essential philosophy was changed to fit.
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