How To Find Funny in Darkness: the Journey of 'Binge'

(Bri Castellini) #1

In the immediate wake of the 2016 election, Happy Little Guillotine Studios, a decade-old digital production company, uploaded a 25-minute pilot episode for a show called “Binge.” The dark comedy, written by star Angela Gulner and HLG co-founder Yuri Baranovsky, follows a young woman’s struggle with bulimia and the events that lead her to seek treatment. Binge is based largely on Gulner’s own struggles with eating disorders, with the goal of “creating brutally honest content by and about women,” and it’s hard to argue with their success. Since November 2016 the pilot has amassed over 600,000 views on YouTube, a massively motivated community of fans, and momentum leading to raising $42,000 with their IndieGoGo campaign to make the rest of the first season.

Long time friends and collaborators, Gulner and Baranovsky co-wrote and co-produced the series, with Gulner starring and Baranovsky directing. Stareable talked with both about building an audience willing to go to bat for your content, how the digital media landscape has changed in the last decade, and what’s next for Binge.

Editor’s note: this interview has been editing slightly for clarity and conciseness.

Stareable: When did you know you wanted to work in the entertainment industry, and how did you ‘get your start’?

Angela Gulner: I knew early. I always thought I wanted to do theater, and that’s why I went to theater school. But I did film between my first and second year of grad school [Harvard, MFA in acting] and really fell in love with being on sets and that whole process. It really changed the game for me.

Being a “multi-hyphenate” came later. It started as frustration as an actor, feeling like my life was dependent on things that were out of my control. I was just fed up by how actors are treated and fed up of feeling like it was hopeless. It kind of came around at a time where everyone was like “create your own work!!” So I decided to do that. Binge. All this frustration coincided with when I got out of treatment so it was the perfect storm of feeling frustrated but feeling I had the emotional and brain space to own my creative self again. And treatment was a goldmine of nutty stories to draw from.

Yuri Baranovsky: It was a series of accidents that lead me there.

In college, I was already writing a few sketches here and there after binging a bunch of Monty Python when I saw our college production of Romeo and Juliet. I realized that in that play, Friar John, sent by Friar Lawrence, has a really weak excuse about why he didn’t deliver the letter to Romeo in Padua about Juliet’s “I’m going to pretend kill myself” plan. So, a few nights later, I wrote “11 Variations on Friar John’s Failure” (I wrote it all in one night!) – a short play on the various real reasons that Friar John failed. I self-produced it at my college and the reaction was fierce. I was surprised. On a whim, I sent it to a publisher, Playscripts, Inc., it got published and then performed all over the world. That’s sort of how I started writing and how I realized that I might have a knack for this whole thing.

After college, a friend of mine – Justin Morrison, who continues to be one of the co-owners of my company and my DP – suggested we turn one of my plays into a film. So, with the innocence and enthusiasm of 19-year-olds, we shot an entire feature. We never finished it (didn’t have the money to fix sound in post) but we learned so much and I really fell in love with filmmaking. This rolled into a series called Break a Leg – which really launched our careers.

When Break a Leg took off and we started getting write-ups in major newspapers and got meetings with HBO and NBC (our first time venturing into the business), I realized… oh… I want to do this for the rest of my life. I enjoy being on set so much, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self as you began your entertainment career?

AG: There was this moment in undergrad where I was like “I’m gonna be a performance artist,” but in grad school, I got away from that for a while. Getting an MFA in acting means surrendering yourself to your teachers, forgetting everything you know and starting over. That was an important process but I would have told myself not to write off my feelings so quickly. I wish I hadn’t given it all up so freely- shouldn’t have doubted what feels like the most ridiculous idea and just tried it out.

This career path isn’t a straight line; it’s not like going to law school. I had an incredible experience at Harvard [where I got my MFA]- I absolutely loved it and got incredible training. It was two and a half years that were really intense and I took it really, really seriously. I’m not sure how it’s influenced my “hire-ability,” though. In LA, a masters degree makes you seem older, which is always a bad thing as an actor, and I’m in crazy debt. So the one thing I tell people is that although I loved my program, I would advise someone to go only if they can get scholarships, or if they can not end up in debt somehow. But I don’t regret going.

YB: I’d say a couple of things:

  • Have multiple ideas to pitch. When we got meetings for Break a Leg, execs would ask my brother and me what else we had and we’d be like… well, this. Just this. This is all we have time for. I think that was a missed opportunity.
  • Don’t stop creating your own stuff. We got burnt out on Break a Leg and for a moment there was this long pause with no bites, no work, nothing. We looked at all the press we got, all the meetings and we were like… this is it? We’re back at square one? And for a while that really got us down and we stopped producing. Then, on a whim, I started a blog briefly (about the new little digital industry) and that started leading to work, connections… etc. So, I would say to myself: don’t stop working, don’t take time to be down on yourself, keep creating in whatever form and opportunities will happen as if by magic.

The story behind the story of BINGE has been pretty well publicized, but can you both speak about why you decided to make this series?

AG: We wrote it a long time ago; like four years ago. I had written a feature with Yuri previously, which was helpful because he had been working for a long time. Work with people who are more experienced than you are! We wrote it and it got me representation and I think it read mean on the page, meaner than it plays. And also this was four years ago and thankfully and unfortunately, our cultural and political climate has changed drastically. Our feedback from a lot of people was “we like it but she’s unlikeable.” And we pitched the script around and we went down the road with this company to produce it and it didn’t go anywhere. And we just got frustrated and realized that no one was gonna take a risk on this. Yuri thankfully had a small production company and his partners really liked the script too. So we thought… let’s pool our resources and make this thing! Looking back, I wish we had moved a little faster.

I did a pretty intense press push but we didn’t have any publicity money. I just emailed people for four weeks. I was really worried about how the eating disorder community would receive it, but all these places were so supportive. This community formed around the pilot and it became something that was bigger than all of us. Then we spent the next year taking that and our very documentable success and trying to get someone to take a risk on it and still no one would. Frustrating, but also all these digital companies are struggling to make money.

YB: I loved Angela’s story. It was raw, honest, hilarious and I hadn’t seen it before. I wanted to tell it not only because it was super important – because it is – but also because, as a storyteller, I was really drawn to it. So many layers, so much humanity in a disorder that, on its face, seems so simple, but when looked into, is so complex and intense and fascinating (and horrifying for the people going through it!)

We had hoped that some people would enjoy it enough that we could bring it to studios and say, “see? Let’s make it.” What’s funny was it happened in a totally different way – the audience was amazing and the show exploded, but we still had trouble selling it… so, now we’re making it on the strength of our fans, which, what could be better?

Gulner and actress/ executive producer Daniela DiIorio in the Binge pilot

What kinds of advice would you offer other indie filmmakers in building and maintaining an audience for their series based on your experience?

AG: Ask yourself: who is your demographic? For us, there are a lot of people who have struggled with eating disorders; 1 out of 10 Americans has one. But we honestly get a huge range of people watching the pilot. We get emails from people who have Aspergers or schizophrenia or depression or whatever; people who have felt shame about something they’ve experienced. And we also once had this 40-year-old trucker who was driving across the country who emailed us, this Republican dude, who thought it was so damn funny and bought a mug. The comedy allows it to bridge a larger audience. We don’t talk about eating disorders in the US very well, but internationally they don’t acknowledge they exist at all. This young age group is scouring the internet for content to feel seen, and that’s what our show hopes to help with.

YB: Tell stories that people haven’t seen and desperately want to see. The most passionate audiences are the ones underserviced by the entertainment industry and when many, many shows are about white dudes doing stuff, that’s a vast array of subjects one can cover. But also, we went into it with a strategy. We reached out to outlets that would write about the Pilot when it launched, we went on message boards, blogs, etc. – we didn’t put it on YouTube and wait for people to magically come, we did a LOT of legwork to get it in front of people.

As far as maintaining that audience – constant interaction, videos, vlogs, be active, talk to them, that’s the best way to keep them engaged. It’s a full-time job, something that I wish we had a bit more time for sometimes.

Yuri, you’ve been working in digital media for a long time- what are the biggest things that have changed over the years, especially in terms of what is successful?

YB: One of the biggest changes – a thing I’ve been fighting for since we started in 2006 – is quality and length. People are pushing away from that, “it should just be a low-quality vlog that’s a minute and a half! That’s all anyone watches!” For better or for worse, digital is now competing with TV – and that’s always the way it was going to go. It’s exciting for me because that’s the bar I always set for myself, but it definitely means digital is getting more and more expensive (something that studios and executives are still not quite understanding.)

What is your marketing outlook, and what do you and your team tend to focus on to help spread the word about your projects?

YB: For us, for Binge, we believe the show is strong enough that all it needs for success is to get in front of people. So, we’re on constant lookout for places to write about it, for ways to get connected to the community, etc. etc. To be honest, I wish sometimes we had a dedicated marketing person – we’re all artists, we can make stuff, trying to market it is a thing we’re all still learning.

AG: By the end of our initial marketing push, I was wearing arm braces- it was really intense. I’m a really intense person and I tend to go all the way, so I recommend having a team. We started promoting right after the election- I contacted people who I thought were interesting, people whose work I read for coverage about similar topics, as well as indie film and women in film places. I just kind of reached out to all of them. I had a rough template I worked from, but I really tried to be as personal as possible with people, especially writers whose work I really liked.

I oftentimes learned to give people as little work to do as possible. I’d offer pitches or offer to write the articles myself… I wrote things like what it’s like turning your bulimia into a TV series, how creating this show solidified my recovery.

People at these outlets are working so hard and have article stacks that are scheduled out months in advance, so if you’re not contacting them months in advance, making it easy to say yes to you is really key.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned while self-producing projects?

YB: That’s a tough one because I have literally learned everything from self-producing. I came into filmmaking with 0% knowledge and learned everything I know on the job, having never taken classes in it or anything like that. But, after doing so much of our first series, and then taking 7 years off to produce things with bosses and budgets and then go back to Binge to create our own show again, the biggest thing is… freedom. Freedom to explore, freedom to mess up, freedom to hold a shot for way too long because it feels right. Freedom to experiment and make art and I think that gets lost sometimes when you’ve got the pressures of money and bosses hanging over you.

Get a group of like-minded people together who have varying skills and make stuff together. Justin, our DP, can make a scene look good with three Home Depot lights and a DSLR camera. It’s on me to make the scene read well and look professional with my direction. What I’m saying is, you don’t need to spend a ton of money, you can borrow and beg and steal – but first you need a supporting team that’s willing to go on that adventure with you. If I didn’t have my people, I would’ve never even had a company.

AG: We didn’t have a line producer for the pilot, so I just ended up doing it. Everyone was volunteering their time, but if you can get an AD or line producer to volunteer their time, I would recommend it. That was the hardest part for me, as I was also acting in the pilot; I was constantly switching hats. Also, you have to work with people you like. We had no money and we worked crazy hours but we all really like each other.

Also, just do it! Don’t wait for people to say yes. And if you feel like something is good and true to your voice and people around you don’t agree, get different people around you.

Do you think digital creators need to be in LA to make a sustainable filmmaking career for themselves?

AG: I’ve been in LA for 5 or 6 years, and honestly, I’ve never lived anywhere else while trying to do this. So I can only speak to living in LA, but I would imagine that if you have people that you like to work with nearby, I don’t think anyone has to be here. Being here makes it easier to get celebrity cameos for a day, because they’re not gonna travel, and there are so many young filmmakers here who are willing to volunteer their time as PAs for experience. In the end, though, living where you’re happy is the most important thing.

YB: Here’s my thinking on this: yes, you can create anywhere and you can make great art and you could get noticed. Hell, that’s what happened to us in San Francisco. That said, the studios are here. The high-end talent is here. The prop houses and wardrobe houses are here. Not only is it easier to shoot because there are SO MANY talented people and resources, but also, if you want to reach the upper echelons of the industry, you have to be where that industry is, you know? It’s a little different with feature films, where you can make them anywhere and get them into festivals… but, even then, a lot of the funding is here, a lot of the name talent that’ll help you get into those festivals is here…

So, it just depends on your goals. You can make a living in other towns as a filmmaker, absolutely – but if you want to reach the very top, Los Angeles is the only place to be, at least in the beginning.

When are you hoping to release the first season of BINGE, and where do you expect it to be available online?

AG & YB: We’re hoping at the end of the year or early next, but we’ll see how it goes. We want to actively find good distribution for the show – but, at worst, it’ll live on the HLG channel! But, fingers crossed that in a few months the answer is, you know, “Netflix.” But we also want our audience to be able to see it, and sometimes on these other distribution platforms it can limit the audience, so it’ll be an interesting exploration when we have the full season ready to go.

What are your favorite web series?

AG: Leap Year, The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, Whatever Linda

What Is The Goal Of Your Web Series?