Here is the second part of the inteview with The West Side creators Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman that ran in our internal C3 Weekly Update newsletter last weekend. I am posting the interview sections here on the C3 blog a week after they run in our newsletter. You can see the first part of this interview here.
JM: So why an "urban western?" What brought you to that genre mixture, and where there specific films, programs, or other media that inspired you to try to create such a fictional world? The threads of influence that I see weaving through the project are The Wire (in part because I know Ryan's devotion to the series), early Spike Lee, Firefly, and of course classic John Ford/Howard Hawks/spaghetti Western films. What else helped shape your aesthetic?
RBK: Zack had been talking about writing a Western--I'll let him talk about his influences there--and I'd had an idea in college for a thesis on "hip-hop as the new American Western." In terms of ownership of property, personal freedom, living by the gun, disregard of the law, etc., I felt that hip-hop's relationship with American culture today was very similar to that of the Western fifty years ago (or thirty years ago with the Spaghetti Western). I never wrote that thesis--I wasn't alive during either of those eras anyway, so I couldn't really speak to the cultural climate--but once Zack and I started talking about internet video and Westerns, the idea came right back.
ZL: I've wanted to do a western since I became interested in making movies. The idea of an ambiguous character getting involved in something beyond himself fascinated me by its limitless potential; you have this sense that anything can happen but it's also tied down to the reality of the social situation and set of injustices in which the characters or the society find themselves. And since frontier characters are necessarily solitary, you can have these rich and nuanced portraits of characters trying to cope what it takes to survive in a chaotic world.
While the Urban may seem counter to the Frontier, I think there are definitely parallels to the isolation one can feel in the chaos of the city; it can also provide a drastic magnification of injustice. And being a passionate and interested observer of my daily urban life, I can't help but feel the need to portray some of what I see.
RBK: In terms of aesthetics, we went with black-and-white for both creative and practical reasons. Creatively, The West Side is a harsh world, and high-contrast black and white brings out that edge. Also, some of my favorite black-and-white Westerns--High Noon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--have more of an "urban" feel compared to the typical frontier-set Western, and I think the black-and-white aesthetic contributes to that feeling. Practically, we knew that creating an alternate universe out of New York City meant obscuring immediately recognizable details like street signs and advertisements, and in order to suspend disbelief we wanted to shoot The West Side as if it were another time and place.
JM: I've seen you refer to the project as an "online television program." How do you see it relating to TV, film, or other media? What makes it television per se, or is it just a label of convenience for episodic storytelling?
RBK: I see it as a label of convenience--we've also referred to The West Side as a serialized novel, and I also like to think of it as a version of the old Western comic books my father read as a kid. Neither of us watches much TV--I don't even have one--so I think both of us would rather think of it as a feature film in chapters, instead of as a TV show. But the landscape of television is also changing--in the past several years continual story lines have become more common in mainstream TV, wherein a season consists of one long yarn instead of every episode functioning as a standalone chunk of entertainment. This is partially due to audiences getting more sophisticated, and it's also reasonable nowadays to expect loyal viewers to catch every episode thanks to TiVo and rebroadcasts online. But I also think it's just naturally more rewarding to audiences to have more continuity across episodes and seasons, ultimately enabling more meaningful storytelling. Growing up, I remember watching The X-Files and wishing that every episode would be part of the aliens-being-covered-up-by-the-government storyline, but the majority of episodes in each season were mere standalone cases that ended with Scully's filing away a manila folder. As a viewer, you were entertained for the episode's running time, but you didn't go to sleep reflecting on how that episode fit into the larger puzzle, and other than the show's quickly-cut teaser at the end, you had no inkling of what would happen next. Today, shows like 24, Lost, and The Wire do away with the filler episodes and reward the viewer with an experience akin to a 15-hour movie in chapters. So while I'd love to take credit for the idea of serializing a feature film, it's been done plenty of times before, and I also think we're merely fitting into a larger movement towards more tightly-woven, serialized visual storytelling.