August 17, 2007
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (1 of 4)

This July, Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman launched an ambitious online serialized film called The West Side here. Rather than trying to generate attention on YouTube, these two young filmmakers, who met at their day jobs at MTV, are trying to offer something distinctive on their own terms, creating a visually rich and leisurely-paced genre mixture of the urban Western. The first episode has been up for around a month, and due to some technical challenges of no-budget filmmaking, the next episode won't be out for a few weeks.

To fill the gap, I conducted an online interview with Ryan, who is a former student of mine, and Zack, discussing how they see their project fitting into the online video moment and broader possibilities of independent filmmaking. The filmmakers speak to many of the issues surrounding convergent media--serialized storytelling, innovative distribution strategies, viral promotion--but places them within the context of ambitious creators trying to make something new rather than make a quick splash. Be sure watch the first episode to get a sense of the project and their combination of ambition and imagination - and keep an eye on these emerging filmmakers!

I am running four weekly installments of the interview in the Consortium's C3 Weekly Update, but I thought I would put the interview segments here after they appear in the newsletter as well.

JM: To start things off, can you briefly walk us through the origins of The West Side? What were the initial goals you two set out to accomplish and how did you start the pre-production process?

RBK: Everyone in the independent film world has hyped Digital Video as the revolutionary filmmaking tool of the decade--cheap, readily available, easy to edit--but it wasn't until free internet distribution became viable that filmmaking really became "democratized." While DV was a huge step towards enabling the little guy on the production side, there were still too many obstacles to getting a film in front of a physical audience for just anyone to be able to make and distribute a movie. Once online video started taking off, Zack and I saw an opportunity to showcase our filmmaking abilities without having to worry about the costs and pitfalls of traditional distribution. We saw that we could independently produce something with our own equipment, in our own spare time, without going into debt, and distribute it for free. In our eyes, however, the majority of the content on the web at the time was lacking in originality: most shows were merely online versions of a story that we'd seen a hundred times before, innovative only in terms of delivery mechanism. Our goal was thus to put forth an innovative concept to go along with an unconventional distribution angle.

ZL: It was the right time in both our lives, we were both looking for our chance to make a dent somewhere, and saw this amazing convergence of opportunity that we were really excited about. And I also think it's important to note how anxious both Ryan and I were to get more involved in a project of our own--separately, before we even met. So by chance really, we both got new jobs working together in New York City, quickly became friends, and in the midst of having some drinks the very first night we hung out, made a pact that we would seize the opportunity. We started developing ideas over lunch for the next few weeks until we decided we needed to start getting things on paper, which is when we started getting more seriously committed to the idea.

I think it's also fair to say that initially the process of working in tandem was a bit awkward in that we had both been involved in failed partnerships before and were understandably a bit wary. That said, one of the most valuable things about our long preproduction process--it was eight months from the initial concept to the first shot--was the notion of doing the entire thing together from start to finish. It takes a good partner to voice concerns that are in the back of your head but to which you wouldn't otherwise listen. Working trust like that can be a really hard thing to cultivate, and we were fortunate in that it came naturally with our friendship.

RBK: This won't be our last co-production, not by a long shot.

JM: Can you give us a sense of the budget for this project? Are the actors & crew being paid, or is it all functioning as a collective leap toward potential fame & fortune?

RBK: We wrote on our production blog that we produced the first episode for three figures--meaning, less than a thousand dollars--and while we haven't added up all of the receipts, I expect that to hold true. It's almost an unprecedentedly low number. I had accumulated a lot of film and video equipment in my years living in North Carolina, where the rent is a fraction of what it is in New York, so we didn't have to sink much money into that area. We signed a special Internet-distribution deal with the Screen Actors Guild wherein we can work with SAG talent without paying them (it's a bit more complicated than that, but both our actors and SAG have been very accommodating). Most of our budget has consisted of props and on-set food so far. For all involved, it's an opportunity for exposure, which... should I say it?... is priceless.