This Indie Thing (clockwise): M. Devon Dunlap, Joshua Kwak,
Steve Royall and Sacaar Williams.
The essence of successful improv comedy is friendly collaboration. While stand up comics require a predatory aggression to survive being alone on the stage, improv comedians use a wolf-pack approach to killing the audience.
Performers trained at The Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade learn that while any good improv comedian must trust their instincts, the best teams must trust each other. They have to. It's all skills, no script...but making it up as you go along can yield some incredibly funny results.
While performances at either theater are worth watching, after the comedy storm is over it's depressing that a lot of the laugh lightning bolts of satirical wit, as well-hurled as they were, are gone forever. Why doesn't somebody film that?
A few directors, like Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), are able to capture these moments to create narratives that deliver solid jokes, but it's a science most film directors seldom attempt to explore.
Steve Royall uses his own formula to keep the lightning in a bottle with his original comedy webseries, This Indie Thing. Set in Los Angeles, the show follows the lives of four friends who are trying to carve a career out of the challenging (and frequently absurd) Hollywood landscape.
Largely based on Royall's personal experiences, the young director works without a script, trusting his actors to build the narrative from their own inspiration. Two seasons later Royall's series is success, with impressive web traffic to show for it and viewers worldwide.
Royall's winning alchemy is the result of years spent as a professional actor, writer, director and producer working in Los Angeles. While some of the episodes contain elements that are potentially autobiographical, most of the humor is derived from absurd situations that, while surreal, are certainly plausible in an industry so weird it can only thrive in Hollywood.
In one episode, "Words of Wisdom," Royall's character (Sean) finds himself confronted by an actress on the front steps of his apartment who auditioned for a part she didn't get and is more than willing to boil a bunny or three to get it, while Teddy (played by the effortlessly charismatic Sacaar Willliam's) is advised by a successful actress that, for the sake of his career, he has to stop associating for the rest of his life with people who "aren't at his level," just like she ditched her own twin sister.
In another episode, "Only in Hollywood" the characters are invited to what they believe is an industry mixer, only to discover (too late, of course) that's everyone there is a swinger and the night's festivities will include an orgy.
Steve Royall took some time away from his film schedule to talk to me about his series and try to explain some of the success of his system.
How long have you been directing in Hollywood?
I’ve been directing for six years now. I started out with two short films. One short film, "Friends, With..." made it into the LA Shorts Fest, so I tried my hand at a feature film called K-Town. It was also half scripted, half improv. It was about a girl who gets her boyfriend stolen by an Asian girl. She’s white, so she decides to do a documentary to discover why Asian girls were so popular.
How successful was that project?
I didn’t do much with it. I had a distributor interested in the film, but I ended up deciding not to sell it because they wanted me to help pay for sending it out.
What did you learn from directing K-Town?
I learned to trust the actors with improv, as far as it was concerned. I wrote a script, but I let the actors deviate from it. They would come up with stuff that was better than what I wrote. So I decided to write story lines, but let the actors create the dialogue. That’s why it has such an organic feel to it.
You have experience performing improv comedy, right? I can see a lot of those elements at work in each episode.
I went to The Groundlings and I also went to the Acme Comedy Theater. I definitely recommend both of them.
As a director, do you prefer to cast talent who have trained with the Upright Citizen's Brigade or The Groundlings?
I actually rarely pay attention to the resume. I go by the audition, because I have the actors perform improv comedy for the audition. A lot of people may say they went to one school or the other, and then you give them an improv scene and they can’t do it.
Many of the story lines in your series are at times painfully authentic. Becoming an actor is hard work, and I'm sure a lot of your actors have stories of their own. Are their experiences also a part of the plot?
For the storylines, it’s all me. I have a lot of storylines that are based on what I witnessed or what happened to me, although the show is mostly a story about four friends trying to make it in Hollywood and the interesting people they meet along the way.
Has writing this been a cathartic experience for you?
I’d say that. I know that in season one, I was going through the storyline where my girlfriend was complaining about doing kiss scenes. That was actually real. She wasn’t a fan of it. I thought that it would be funny to see an episode about it.
In season one, episode twelve, where the Teddy character is doing a commercial, the girl who is preparing the food is coughing and touching the food that the actors are eating. That happened to me. It was one of my first commercials. She would cough in her hand and I saw this and was horrified. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I could call SAG, so I ended up asking for a spit bucket. I would eat it for the commercial and then spit it out.
Just like in the episode, I tried to complain to the assistant director and they act like they were going to handle it, and nothing got done. It was a terrible experience.
Black Christmas (1974)
A lot of directors who have created brilliant comedies have also gone on to do successful horror films, like Bob Clark, who directed both the comedy A Christmas Story and one of the first slasher flicks, Black Christmas. Have you ever though of writing and directing a horror film?
I’ve never done a horror film before. I would like to do one, though. I’ve done a few action shorts. I’d like to work on a film similar to Descent, where the characters get trapped underground and run into these evil, monstrous people.
What’s your favorite horror film?
You can’t wrong with Poltergeist. I also also really like Paranormal Activity.
What I like about Poltergeist is that it has a lot of things you wouldn’t expect in a horror movie. The tree grabbing the kid and eating him, the guy tearing his face apart in the mirror…that mirror scene gave me nightmares for days.
Would you be willing to incorporate a lot of improv into a horror project, given your experience working with the technique?
I love adding improv scenes to films, if it works. I'd try it.
What is one of your favorite films?
There’s a movie called Finishing the Game by Justin Lin. That was a pretty funny movie, it’s about when Bruce Lee died, and they had to complete his final film, The Game. They had to find a replacement for Bruce Lee, so nothing goes right and it’s hilarious. The movie has MC Hammer and James Franco.
How long do you want to go on with This Indie Thing?
I have a lot of story lines, so I’m only going to do three seasons. I plan on filming the third in February of 2012. I’m going to put a lot of strong storylines into the third season, but I don’t want to end the series where people are famous.
I want viewers to want to know where those characters might go so they will want to know what happens next. What the guys who wrote It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia did was shoot a pilot episode that got people interested in the show before it became a series.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Do you have any other projects planned for the future?
I want to do a girl version of This Indie Thing. I wanted one main girl and her friends, but it’s going to be more documentary style, like a girl that is new to town. When I was writing the storylines, I talked to a lot of actresses in town, and the stories I’ve heard, it was like, wow, one alone could be a whole series.
I’m planning to finish this Doritos commercial, then I’m going to write a script for a feature film I'll be working on in 2013. The premise of the film is how people seem numb to the idea of cheating.
I've seen commercials for those websites. It's really disturbing.
It’s like cheating on your spouse is on the rise. People are just cheating like crazy. I did some behind-the-scenes camera work for a company that helped married people meet and have discreet affairs.
The subject matter would have some great comedic potential.
I want to write a film about it, and make it a cross between Forgetting Sarah Marshall and 500 Days of Summer. It would be a comedy, but have it’s serious moments. That’s my style.