Last summer, in Brooklyn, I witnessed the advanced screening of several episodes of the indie webseries The Adventures of Shakespeare & Watson, Detectives of Mystery. I was familiar with Chris Miskiewicz's madcap projects via his curatorial role at the Brooklyn digital arts salon TRIP CITY, where I was a also a contributor. At the screening, I also met Kat Green, Chris Piazza, and David Blatt, and was as impressed by the massively long hours they had spent on their project, the ingenuity they had cultivated to shoot many of their scenes on location in a busy city, and their ability to work together to produce what can only be described as a hallucinatory mash up of literary culture, sci-fi, toilet humor, drug satire, and slap-stick violence. The screening was replete with horrifying humor, cleverness, and a total lack of predictability that induced a fair amount of vertigo. Nothing was sacred, from the great bard Shakespeare's chemically induced highs to Detective Watson's rabid appetite for homoeroticism, and the vision behind the series was clearly one that only a very unusual group of people could have produced.
Now, the team are ready to launch 6 episodes of the show on Youtube in a run-up to Kickstarter launch, and it seemed like an appropriate time to hold them accountable for the unadulterated insanity they are prepared to unleash on unwitting entertainment-seekers trawling the internet. I threw so many questions at the team that I thought there was no way they would possibly choose to answer them all, but they ripped into my demands with the tenacity of feral animals. I'm glad they did. Here you will find insights into the strange genesis of Shakespeare & Watson, a tale of time-travel, hedonism, and descent into extreme depravity constructed around painful humor, insights into casting and filming indie projects, ruminations on the role of Youtube, and forecasts about the future of the webseries. You have, however, been warned. This interview itself is a strange trip. See you on the other side.
Hannah Means-Shannon: How did this idea come about? Who do we prosecute for this madness?
Chris Miskiewicz (Exec. Producer/Co-Writer/Dr. Watson): I think I'm to blame, along with all the growers in Humboldt County who have "influenced" me over the years.
The story goes like this, I was out with actor, David Blatt, when a conversation came up about the "Sherlock Holmes" film. I kept referencing Jude Law & Robert Downey Jr. as "Shakespeare & Watson" instead of "Sherlock & Watson." I must have said it a dozen times before David corrected me. I broke out laughing thinking it was hysterical, immediately followed by a, "Could you imagine if…"
Weeks passed and I couldn't get those two unrelated names out of my head. I'd say the title and start to laugh, so I wrote out the first three scripts and began bothering my cousin, Director Chris Piazza. Chris and I had just worked together on the short film Secret Identity which is currently on TRIP CITY, (shameless plug). He shook his head and squinted his eyes the same way everyone has when I pitch this project. Soon enough we started co-writing the property. I approached Kat Green next. She busted out laughing. "Sure. I'm in." Once the three of us were on with David as our lead, it flew from there.
Chris Piazza (Director/Co-Writer): Miskiewicz & I are cousins, and he often comes to me with crazy ideas, and this was definitely one of the craziest. My first reaction to the initial scripts was "This is hilarious" followed closely by "This is impossible to film." I'd say that the initial concept for the show and most of the characters come right from Chris Mis' uniquely warped mind.
Kat Green (Editor/Producer): I got involved after meeting Miskiewicz at Paul Bosche's (Moriarty's) birthday party. They were about to start shooting, and I had just finished my last day at Weinstein, and we got to talking about editing. It was the polar opposite of working at Weinstein, so in many ways it was me being reactionary and acting out. Yeah, sure, I'll cut your web series that offends everybody for free, why not?
David Blatt (Actor/William Shakespeare): It's Miskiewicz's fault. It was his idea, and he wrote the first three episodes. No, wait, it's Piazza's fault. He believed in S&W and wanted to direct the series. Well, actually you could say it's Kat Green's fault for editing and building the series. No, no, no, it's definitely Miskiewicz's fault for releasing the madness of Shakespeare and Cracky. Or is it Piazza's fault for containing the madness….or….oh I remember now. It's the pot dealer's fault.
HMS: How did you track down and rope in actors and extras for this travesty against high culture?
Chris Miskiewicz: Well, it all started with David Blatt, who was born to play a time traveling drug addicted Shakespeare. Jokes aside, I've been close friends with David for years and we've always been looking for something to do together. He was in this the moment we drunkenly spoke about it at the bar. Which is lucky for us, because David is by far the best actor I've ever worked with. He's got chops, range, skills, and a really smart eye for humor. We completely relied on him to tweak all of Shakespeare's dialogue. When it comes to pretending, David Blatt is a total pro.
Honestly, casting this project was pretty simple. I've worked with Alex Jones, Paul Coughlan, Jacob Declement, and Paul Bosche, in Justice & Control: Cop City Blues. And then I work with the rest in crew positions on various New York TV shows. We'd be on a job talking about what we've been up to and I'd ask, "Wanna play a Russian thug? Wanna be Nick Cage? Wanna play Ziggy Stardust?" And one by one they'd shake their heads and say "yes".
Somehow I conned award-winning cartoonist Nick Abadzis to play Sherlock Holmes. I think the bar we were at was at fault. And then there's guilt. I used guilt to cast Mr. Ozzie Martinez to play the part of Cracky the Crackhead. We had been in a band for years together. I basically bullied him into it.
Chris Piazza: Chris Miskiewicz is mostly responsible for the actors on the show. One thing I will say is that it's a real pleasure working with an actual Shakespearean actor, David Blatt, who is willing to go as far out there as we need him to, but still ground all the insanity in a sort of truthful way to our ideas of Shakespeare as a man and a playwright. He's been an enormous help and should be credited as a dialogue coach for the series, at the very least.
Kat Green: We know a lot of people who have a good sense of humor and are (obviously) game for just about anything. And like attention. Most of my recruits are either old friends from the LES open mic scene, or weird Burning Man people. In both cases, S&W is among the tamer things I have asked them to be a part of.
David Blatt: Actors are like zombies shuffling about aimlessly till they hear a loud noise or casting notice. Then it's a stampede. Never underestimate actors, they are always on the lookout for the next volcano into which to throw themselves.
HMS: What are the practicalities of shooting a show like this? What was your schedule like?
Chris Miskiewicz: We shot over weekends due to everyone's schedule. Almost the entire cast & crew of S&W works an 80 hour week on various TV shows. Then they came out on the weekends to donate another 24 hours of time. It was a total labor of love.
Chris Piazza: Being a totally indie project, you can imagine that coordinating this many people to do this much insane shit on the same day for practically free wasn't easy. We mostly filmed big bursts on weekends over the course of a few months. As for locations, we either stole everything (my personal favorite was shooting inside a department store in Bay Ridge until we got kicked out) or used our co-producer and editor Kat Green's awesome basement.
Kat Green: Well we all freelance, and work pretty regularly. So both Chrises are on set 40-80 hours a week, and then for the first three episodes, I was cutting commercials at night. We'd basically identify 2-3 days that we all had free, and then crammed as much shooting as humanly possible in to that time. We got an incredible amount done for what amounted to basically ten days of shooting. Most of that was made possible by reconfiguring every corner of Miskiewicz and my houses to make up all of our locations. My basement is very versatile.
David Blatt: We shot three episodes at a time. The first three were smaller, run and gun, and therefore easier. We got away with shooting in places where we did not have permission to be. We had more crew on the second shoot and bigger set ups and some special effects shots, so by nature the shooting was more complex and more difficult to do without getting noticed. Case and point was the first day of the second shoot when the cops came to location because I was auto-erotique asphyxiating myself from the fire escape. Used to be we could get away with stuff like that without a big hullabaloo.
HMS: What do you think of Youtube as a creator owned film/TV platform? How can you make it work for you?
Chris Miskiewicz: I think it's fantastic that this site exists to showcase episodic fiction in this manner. Where else would we test something like this? But it's also a small fish big pond kind of thing. There's gonna be a lot of digital grassroots pushing to get the word out because of the size of Youtube.
Chris Piazza: You Tube is a very weird phenomenon to me. I've released my own work on You Tube for years and I'm super psyched if a music video I directed gets to 10,000 views… that is, until I see that the "cat sneeze" video on the sidebar has 60,000,000 views.
In my money-making life, I shoot a lot of concerts and events. I actually filmed You Tube's "upfront" this year, where they make their pitch to advertisers. It was one of the biggest shows I've ever shot. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis played. Fucking Snoop Dogg played. Clearly there's a LOT of money there and a LOT of eyeballs on You Tube. How does it trickle down to people like us? I'm not sure.
As a vehicle for distribution, it's wonderful and impossible – anyone can upload anything, which is great… but that's also what makes it so hard for content to get noticed. It's all buried in a sea of cats sneezing and babies laughing. I love it and hate it and need it desperately.
Kat Green: We're still figuring that part out. It's really hard to get noticed, and even with all three of us harassing everybody we have ever known or worked with, it still might barely make a blip. We're also trying to figure out a way for it to viably pay for itself. It started as a really goofy project with a bunch of friends, but it turned into something way better than we originally expected. Since we all work in various parts of film and TV, once we saw that it was like, wait, what if we could make this our job?
David Blatt: Think about this. Right now, because of Youtube, and outfits like it, you can make your own TV show or movie or stupid pet video and distribute it virtually for nothing. Orson Welles never had that opportunity.
HMS: What are your plans for the project? Would you consider doing live performance events as well as screenings? The comic series Kill Shakespeare has famously been doing really successful performance events with comic screenings, for instance.
Chris Miskiewicz: The first season of Shakespeare & Watson will be 13 episodes long, ending on a musical. Right now we have 6 finished episodes. Once those have aired we'll be starting up our Kickstarter at the "mid season break," if the internet has mid seasons. During that time we're going to put out several Shakespeare & Watson comics on TRIP CITY. More to come on that over the next few months.
I believe the next screening will be at a "Rock 'N Comics" event hosted by TRIP CITY Curator Jef UK at the 5th Estate, on 10/9/13 where we'll be showing the pilot with an advanced screening of Chapter Two.
Chris Piazza: We're very much into the idea of doing screenings and live events. Keep an eye on our twitter (@shakeswatson) and Facebook for updates.
When we're releasing the series over six weeks in October and November, our characters Shakespeare, Watson and Lord Cracky will be making appearances at various cultural events in New York. They will be chronicling their exploits on Twitter and You Tube. It's gonna be pretty epic.
Kat Green: Oh, they are extensive. All three of us are kind of hyperkinetic, and we have backgrounds in film, TV, live events, music, comics. So once the ball was rolling, we all had absurd ideas for tie ins and spinoffs and random gags, just to entertain ourselves. There are definitely some live plans, and some talk of comics. I already made trading cards. We're insane. We're constantly making our own jobs more complicated just because we think something is funny.
David Blatt: Without revealing too much, music videos, live events, staged mysteries, bar mitzvahs, escort services are all possible. And, as for Kill Shakespeare, I say we challenge them to compete against us on Family Feud!
HMS: Can you describe your particular role in the project from start to finish? Did any training or background that you have come in useful in expected or unexpected ways?
Chris Miskiewicz: I wore a lot of different hats on this production, but so did everyone. I'm the co-writer/exec producer of S&W, and I play Dr. John Watson. I also booked talent, locations, costumes, props, set dressing, did some make up, schedules, and yes, that was me waking up at 4 AM each day to go and make the Peter Pan Donut run as well.
I was also the guy who had to talk to the eight NYPD Officers who raided the set one morning due to a complaint by a neighbor that someone was, "hanging themselves from a tree." The truth was that David Blatt was "hanging himself from the fire escape while performing an autoerotic asphyxiation gag." I just wish Jon Fordham had his camera rolling. I was dressed in full costume during the entire exchange, including the glued moustache.
Chris Piazza: I'm the director and co-writer of the series. Chris Miskiewicz and I worked together very closely in the early stages of script-writing to keep these little stories grounded in some sort of feasible reality. I joke that our writing process is basically like this: Chris Mis' brings me a script that's utterly insane, I rewrite it to make it filmable, then he goes back and adds more insane things. Eventually we balance to a point where the lunacy is just this side of non-sequitur (We hope).
I have worked as a camera assistant, camera operator and director of photography for all shapes and sizes of TV, film and live events. I like to think that comes in handy when directing. I worked on Law & Order for three years, and if you look closely at our final episode of the first season, "The Case of 1,000 Faces," I think you'll notice just a bit of L&O DNA in there.
Kat Green: I started out as the editor, but as we were working on the first couple episodes, we all started brainstorming. After we shot the Russian nightclub scene in my basement, the boys were like, "Wait, you have this clubhouse full of weird shit, and you can get us a group of ten of your hot friends to come over dressed like hookers and pretend to snort cocaine off this madman dressed like Shakespeare?", I think you're a producer, too. But I do lots of crap. Make props, do David Bowie's makeup, order pizza, whatever.
My background is all over the place. Production, post, art department, plus I make weird fire breathing sculptures with my husband. It all gets used on this. The great thing about this team is that we all have many talents, and when we think of stuff to include, its often drawing on all of those nooks and crannies. We all just jump in and do whatever needs to get done. Or learn how to do it. Together, we definitely become something that is more than the sum of our parts.
David Blatt: I play William Shakespeare, and while I have an MFA in Acting, it was actually years of swimming that helped me out during some scenes requiring breath endurance.
HMS: Describe the series in your own words. What, to you, is the appeal of the show?
Chris Miskiewicz: It's great fun. If you're into science fiction, sarcasm, and strange fictional characters who shouldn't be together blended together, and a good amount of piss joke/gags, then I think you'll dig this.
Chris Piazza: My sense of humor tends to be "banal surreality." The stuff I find funniest is stuff that's completely crazy but grounded in emotional and physical reality, like Being John Malkovich or any number of Coen brothers movies… in our own little world, I'd like think we've created a banal, surreal comedy full of dick and drug jokes.
One thing that drives me crazy when I look at web comedies is that SO MANY of them are "three friends in Williamsburg" or "hipsters do something." It's like, "I don't care about you filming your own life. I want something imaginative and different and smart and dumb as a ton of bricks at the same time. I want something that's shot, edited and scored with care that also has a ton of poop and drug jokes. That's what I want". And that's the appeal of Shakespeare and Watson to me.
Kat Green: Insane, hilarious, absurd. Twisted. And still totally playful.
I love weird shit that can surprise me and make a sharp left turn. This is that, constantly. It goes from being very deeply bizarre and dark, to totally ridiculous. It is both really smart and really, really stupid. It speaks directly to the twelve year old boy who rules my sense of humor, who also happens to be a physicist on acid in BDSM gear.
David Blatt: S&W is a spoof time traveling detective series for everyone who likes to break the rules. You know all those time travel shows that stress you can not change anything in time without there being unimaginable repercussions? Well S&W is the show where every rule can be broken, fixed and then broken again. Nowhere and no one in time is out of bounds. Who among us has not daydreamed of a super bad guy team made up of Marilyn Monroe, Houdini, Frankenstein's Monster and Mother Theresa? (Or is that just me?)
HMS: Can you give any advice to indie filmmakers who want to develop short projects and build an audience? How important are social media or live events?
Chris Miskiewicz: All I can say to anyone in any corner of the arts who's got a thing in them that they want to make is, make it. Find a way, find a gang, find a crew, and just make it. Build your content. And keep going.
Chris Piazza: Two things: originality and volume. If you're doing the same thing as everyone else, you're not going to get noticed unless you have corporate backing. That's a fact. Also, it's a sad truth that people searching the internet are being bombarded from every direction with stuff to watch. So the only way to get noticed is to have an incredible volume of work out there. In addition to our six episodes, we've been talking about doing little "micro-clips" with our characters just to keep the show fresh in viewers' minds.
Social media is the most important thing for a small show, but it's a Catch-22… if no one follows you, no one reads your stuff… if everyone follows you, everyone reads your stuff… how do you break through without shamelessly piggy-backing on other cultural events? #mileycyrus.
Kat Green: Just make stuff. Have fun. Be serious about what you do, but don't take yourself too seriously. Find your team. It's a collaborative medium, and your project is always better when you work together and share the load. It makes things happen that none of you expect. Social media is hugely important, but it's so fickle. I really don't think I'm qualified to say a best way to do things, but I also don't think most people are. If we make this fabulously well-known, I'll give you a better answer.
David Blatt: Get a good team together to build something. Take yourself seriously enough to be organized. People will help you but don't waste their time or talent. Test material on friends, family and anyone else willing to watch. Identify who your audience might be and use every form of social media you can to build that audience. After all, Facebook is really just a marketing algorithm. Use what the system gives you, and listen.
HMS: So you're going to Kickstarter. What's your game plan?
Chris Piazza: We'll release the first six episodes on our own, using our own means to try to hype it and get it noticed on comedy blogs, whatnot. Then toward the end of our six completed episodes, we're going to release our Kickstarter video and campaign. The script for the Kickstarter video is hilarious.
After that, we're going to get Spike Lee and Amanda Palmer to donate everything we need to make another seven episodes and use the leftover money from the public to install a swimming pool in my apartment.
Also, we might write some stand-alone comics.
Kat Green: Jerry. Lewis. Telethon.
David Blatt: Let Miskiewicz and Piazza do a lot of talking, sit in the background smoking weed and muttering to myself.
HMS: Don't say you weren't warned! View these videos at your own risk. But what you have here is some serious talent turned in some seriously weird directions to create something highly original. Congratulations on your progress so far, Chrises, Kat, and David.
Hannah Means-Shannon is senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.