Writers’ Circle Confidential: Deconstructing Phil

Okay. Who’s ready for their internet comedy series to get real?

Caught up? Let’s get started. Joining me this week are both of my co-execs, Keith Kollee and Ian Pond.

Letting Go

Ian: I always imagined that the super dramatic scene that is being rehearsed at the top of the episode is actually part of a laughably melodramatic sci fi play. Maybe about immortal cowboys.

As I’ve stated before, I started writing Phil Payton way on back in 1997. He’s been the main character, or at least amongst the main characters, in three plays of mine. I’ve used him as a vehicle to… exorcise some demons more than once.

So imagine, then, the trust involved in having the principle writer of Phil’s big solo episode be my co-exec Keith Kollee.

This isn’t the first episode Keith wrote. That’s coming in two to three weeks. And Keith’s first episode showed us that we’d achieved something important: we wrote the characters consistently. Super consistently. To the point that the cast–including Aaron, who’s been following my writing for years– couldn’t tell at first glance which episodes were mine and which were Keith’s.

That is an excellent thing to pull off. That Keith could write these characters as well as I could was a relief (part of why I dragged him into this was so that I wouldn’t have to write the whole damn thing  for his writing talents). That he could write them as the same people as I do was a blessing. Because there’s little worse than when a show is so inconsistently written that you can tell who wrote it by how the characters act.

Ahem.

Ahem.

Aside from, you know, opening with a tragic death, thus far we’ve kept things light and funny. As you’ve no doubt seen (and if you haven’t, what the hell, the video is right at the top, what is keeping you, here be spoilers!), Keith went a different way with this one. When we were plotting out the season, the rough summary we came up with was “Phil has a crush on an actress, but can’t ask her out because he can’t stop picturing all the ways it could go wrong.”

Me, I pictured a series of brief fantasy sequences in which Phil does indeed envision a dozen different tragic outcomes of asking out the actress who eventually became George, because as we discussed, I am goony for cutaways. Keith, not sharing my demented and annoying-to-film obsession, tried something different.

…You know what? Let’s let Keith himself take over for a bit. Ladies and gentlemen, Keith Kollee.

Keith’s take

Deconstructing Phil was not the first episode I wrote for season one, but it is the first to see air. That will ensure that it always has a special place in my heart. It is also the darkest and least funny episode. Why is that? Why did I feel like this was necessary? Despite Dan’s half-hearted protests, I know that Phil was based on him in the original iteration of Writers Circle. (I half heartedly protest! -Dan) What Dan doesn’t know is that once upon a time, Phil Payton was also me. I suffered the same insecurities and self-sabotage. Writing those awful things for Sydney to say (sorry Syd!) was easy because I had thought those same things about myself a thousand times. Because I could see so much of myself in Phil, I felt it was important that he not be some buffoon that we propped up and poked fun of. We will, of course, still laugh at Phil and his foibles, but we will also understand that he is a real person, and that his pain comes from a real (if ridiculous) place. I feel like this will actually make him funnier in the long run. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. I just feel like all the great sitcoms over the years had these kinds of episodes (MASH is the one that immediately springs to mind), and the characters were always stronger after being forged in that fire. I hope the audience agrees.

Heart rips

This was also a special episode because it book-ended the shooting of the season for us. It was the episode we shot on the first day, and again on the last. I remember standing outside the theatre, looking at these two other people (Dan & Ian) that I had decided to embark on this journey with. It was not unusual for the three of us to sit around and talk about the awesome things we could do, under the right circumstances. But we made a plan, set one foot in front of the other, and were on the verge of creating something real. I had never been more proud of us. And I had also never been so scared. I had no idea what I was doing and I was sure that was evident to everyone. In hindsight, I still don’t think I’m wrong about that. But then we flash forward to the last day of shooting. We were all so much more comfortable with ourselves and each other. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I had made my peace with that. And no one was impolite enough to call me on my bullshit. We had become a family. I remember feeling a profound sadness that last day. An emptiness. What was I going to do when I didn’t see these people everyday? It was soon filled with the flurry of post-production and other projects, but it was not forgotten. It fuels the fire for season two.

Ian: This episode was shot on two separate occasions MONTHS apart. Being that the first day was THE FIRST DAY of shooting, the day after first read through (and a party) when we were first trying to figure out how shoots would work, Keith ended up noticing that he wanted more wide shots. Add to this that at some point I accidentally deleted half the footage from the day. All this culmintated in scheduling a reshoot day some time in October. By this time the theatre we were shooting in, which was empty for the summer, now had a set built in it. Also by the time we were scheduling reshoots Ryan had grown a beard for another shoot and couldn’t shave down for our show until he was done with that. Heh. Good times.

Anytime someone says “See you next week” I think “See you next Tuesday”. I’m not proud of it. But I doubt I’m alone.

Getting Real

Thanks, guys. Now, to elaborate on some things Keith brought up…

This episode is brutal and unflinching in a way I’m not sure I would have delivered on, and I do have some experience chasing Phil up a tree and throwing rocks at him. And it’s important that it happened this early in the season (would have been earlier if someone hadn’t shoehorned in Origin Stories, but here we are).

Keith named MASH. I cite Scrubs. Which may seem like a less impressive reference but too late it’s happening. Scrubs started its run with broad, zany comedy, and while they toned down the foley a little after the pilot, that’s primarily where Scrubs lived. Then in episode four, they gave each of the three lead doctors a patient, announced they were going to kill one of them, got you invested in the patients and their stories… and then killed all three. In a montage set to a cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, just to make sure you were every bit as depressed as they wanted you to be.

Why? Same reason I’m glad Keith wrote this episode the way he did. As a warning shot that we’ve got this in our toolbox, and while we’re primarily a comedy show, we are not afraid to get heavy when that’s where the story goes. Last week was hilarious, next week will be too, but this week we pull a knife and go for the heart. Because we can.

Plus, you know, all the stuff Keith said. About Phil’s pain coming from a real and difficult place.

We could just phone it in, have a punchline for every setup, end on the laugh track, never grow and never challenge anyone…

AHEM.

AHEM.

But I’d rather be Scrubs. I’d rather be Community. I’d rather be Bojack Horseman. I’d rather be the show that makes you laugh but can still stab you right in heart, because you care so much about the characters that their pain becomes your pain, their triumphs all the sweeter because you’ve been rooting for them this whole time.

Fortunately, Keith agrees, and this episode is the result.

First Day on the Job

Like Keith said, this was the very first episode we ever shot. Our first day on set. One day after our table read, we set up in the Pumphouse Theatre and rolled camera for the first time.

Lights, camera, excitement!

Lights, camera, excitement!

That wasn’t a small thing for us. Keith, Ian, and I had been working on this for over a year. Thirteen months since the train in Switzerland where I told Ian this was what we were doing now and started writing what became episode twelve. Ten months since Keith, Ian, and I had a drink on my balcony and started breaking the season’s stories, defining the characters, divvying up episodes. And now we were filming. It was a good feeling. And having an entire episode in the can by the end of our first day? A great feeling. We wouldn’t get an entire episode done in one day again until the first day of Super Fun Happy Good Times Week, when we managed to shoot all of Stonebluff Road (episode 10, coming in April).

Not that having an episode in the can lasted. As it turns out, we were forced to reshoot chunks of this episode, hence it also being one of our last days on set (I’m honestly uncertain which was last, the reshoots for this episode or Becky’s flashback from episode three). Not ideal, but hey, there was symmetry.

Also reshoot day was the last time all five leads were in the same room, as that was the day Dave Moss of Abby + Dave Photography came by to take the character photos you can see on our website.

Astute viewers will recognize Matt “Coffee Shop Douche” Pickering in the lower left of that photo. This was Matt’s one day on set as AD/Production Manager, a role we talked him into through no small amount of charm on Keith’s part. Sadly, health issues forced him to step down from the position, but if you’ve been watching/reading carefully, you’ll find the signs that he’s still with us in spirit.

And sometimes with us in the flesh, getting tormented by Becky.

Such torment.

Such torment.

And he wasn’t the only casualty…

Ian: The thing about shooting a passion project is you tend to do it for free and have to get people to do things for free. As such it’s kind of a dick move to be angry when someone takes paying work over your thing. Such was the case of our short lived camera op Alexis Moar who started early in the project shooting auditions, test shoots and up to the first full day of photography but then went back to working in television and film once they started calling again. I’ve worked with her plenty in the corporate AV world and seen many of the things she has worked on. If you get a chance to work with her, take it but for gods’ sakes pay her or you run the risk of losing her to someone who can. 

My favourite moment from day one? That is, aside from our talented and adorable costumer/slate girl trying to keep up with some of the trickier shots?

And we didn't even use that one.

And we didn’t even use that one.

While filming, Keith paused, turned to me (or someone, I forget, I mean I replied but people tend to forget I’m in a room so he could have been talking to anyone) and said “We haven’t had any good bloopers yet.”

That’s right, his big complaint from day one on set was that things were going too well. But I was right there with the reassurance.

“Don’t worry, Keith,” I said. “Once Aaron and Steph are on set, that’ll change.”

Rumour has it a blooper reel is heading our way which should prove I was right.

Ian: This episode was a nightmare for me and Pat. (“Pat” being Patrick “DJ PEENS” Murray -DG) The two shooting days with different equipment made post production incredibly difficult. Matching colour was a huge problem as on the original day we used some of the theatre’s existing house plot for much of our lighting. By the time we shot a company had moved in for a show and hung and focused their own light plot. And then there’s the matter that Pat needed the sound equipment we’d been using for another shoot that day so we were forced to use my far lesser equipment. What followed was some of the most hurtful and mean spirited criticisms I’d ever read in Keith’s post production directorial notes. We could but try. He’s a monster.

This also marked the last day I used a soft box for lighting. I had one bulb for that thing and when it broke had no money to replace it.

On a personal note, this was Nathan Iles’ one day on set as Ian (the actor), which turned out to be just excellently timed. See, partway through the shoot, I lost a cast member from the production of Frost/Nixon I was directing. As I was exchanging messages with my stage manager about it, I looked up and said “Hey Nate, wanna be in Frost/Nixon?”

“Sure!” he replied. “I was wanting to find a show to do.”

“Awesome,” I said. “But… remember how you were excited to get your hair cut?”

“Yeah…”

“Not so much.”

Next week we’re going to talk about internet trolls. So the episode will be funny, but the commentary might get dark. Circle of life, man. Circle of life.

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