This is going to get me into a world of trouble, but I’m going to say it anyway: on the whole, Canadian TV is not very good (let he who has not changed the channel on something saying “Ugh, this looks Canadian” cast the first stone). I know we’re not supposed to ADMIT that, because God bless all the folks behind these shows, it’s a Herculean task to get something made in this country – but as someone with a nerd’s pedigree in television watching (and a tendency to really, really TRY to like every show we produce), I am disappointed. OFTEN.
Every now and then, though, Samsonow and I find a Canadian television show, web series, or movie that really blows our hair back – and we drive everyone nuts, badgering them relentlessly to “watchitwatchitwatchitwatchitrightnow“. We do this because despite what most of us non-industry-types tend to think, there is substantially more to Can-con than rural dramas, sketch comedy shows and Danger Bay reruns. Finding something made here at home that we love, can relate to, and best of all, can share, is an unsurpassed thrill – and we really need to rally behind the good stuff when we find it, or else one day the Canadian TV industry will be nothing more than one channel, broadcasting a single episode of CityLine on a loop 24 hours a day.
It is in this spirit that I’ll be conducting an ongoing series of interviews with some of our favorite Canadian Content creators – we can support them and enjoy their work, and they, in turn, can share their knowledge and experience with us.
Mark De Angelis is more than just an affable guy who’s willing to take my Skype call at 9 a.m. on a Thursday – he’s also an accomplished Canadian performer and writer, and one half of the team behind Bill and Sons Towing, the hilarious web series we told you about last week (Mark co-created the show with writer/producer Charles Ketchabaw).
In case you jerks didn’t do your homework (dammit, I have to do everything around here!), Bill and Sons is a webcom about four brothers trying to keep their father’s tow truck business afloat, and it stars Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci’s Inquest) and my favorite Canadian comedy troupe, the Imponderables.
Jeff and I discovered Bill and Sons Towing last year, through the Indepedent Production Fund’s web series website. (What is the Independent Production Fund, you ask?). We were instantly addicted to the show with its remarkable blend of heart, silliness and killer one-liners (“Lee Aaron – who’s that?”).
I had a chance to speak to Mark by Skype earlier this month about comedy writing, web series producing and more. Start with the video, and if you’re hardcore, the full Q&A is after the jump:
SALLY: Can you tell me a bit about your background? Because from some of the research that I’ve done, you started as an actor?
MD: That’s right, yeah. I studied poli-sci in university.
MD: (laughs) Yeah. But I was always doing acting in high school even in university, and when I finished, I just really wanted to give it a go. So I started performing around town, mainly with a sketch comedy troupe, some guys that I knew from university. So that’s when I started writing and acting. And then I found some work doing acting stuff, you know – commercials, theatre, some TV stuff. Which was great and it was fun, but that work is hard to come by, and so I started to write and get involved more on the producing side of TV. And that’s sort of how I got into it.
SALLY: So how do they compare? Do you have a preference? In a perfect world, are you a performer? Are you a producer? Do you stay everything?
MD: I think perfect world would be sort of like what some of those guys do on “The Office.” Like writing and performing, would be the most ideal for me.
SALLY: When you guys did Axe Lords, what were you doing professionally? Because it was a web series, I’m assuming you didn’t earn your living off of Axe Lords.
MD: No, no. (laughing). And still don’t! Yeah. Well, when Axe Lords started, at that time I believe…I had just finished writing on Dan for Mayor. And I was at that time, I believe I was writing on the Ron James Show.
SALLY: Okay, and was that the first thing you had produced with Charles? Axe Lords?
MD: First web series. But we had worked together on…a one hour radio comedy for CBC. Just like a Christmas special. So we had done that. We had worked on several other smaller projects, some corporate stuff as well, that we were commissioned to do. But that was, I think, the biggest sort of project that we had worked on to date.
SALLY: A web series is a really big undertaking, a lot of bodies involved, a lot of people. How did you find that? Was it overwhelming at first? Or, having worked in television, we you like “Oh, this is okay. I’ve done this before. I’m familiar with how it should work.”
MD: Working in TV was certainly a huge asset going in, because … you would know what was involved from a scheduling standpoint, from a casting standpoint, you know, right down to scripting and things like that. And just knowing all the roles of everyone, from your director, to the utmost importance of a strong AD, who can get the show moving. So I think, yeah, having worked in TV was a huge, huge benefit for me going into it, knowing what was involved.
SALLY: How long did it take you guys to shoot it?
MD: Axe Lords was pretty fast and dirty. I mean, we shot that over, I think 3 or 4, no – maybe 4 or 5 days we shot it over. We did two consecutive weekends.
MD: Yeah. But that one was pretty quick. Charles knew these guys who run this real live axe league in Toronto. It’s so bizarre. Because they’re about a block north of …I don’t know how familiar you are with Toronto, but College Street is like Little Italy. And they live about a block north – not even a block, like if you throw a tennis ball from their backyard to College Street…
SALLY: And they’re just doing this in a dude’s backyard?
MD: Yeah, and on the corner, they have like this cute little ice cream shop where families go with their kids and have ice cream in the summer, and there’s guys drinking beers and throwing axes just up the street. It’s very bizarre. And so I went there one night, just to have a beer and see this crazy place. Charles said, “You should come check this out, I think it’s a really cool place.” And we were thinking of maybe doing a documentary or something about it, we didn’t know what yet. And then we thought, “Oh, maybe there’s something funny here for a web series.” And so it was just born out of that. And we just wanted to, you know, write and produce something and throw it online. And so we turned it around pretty quick, from the writing to the shooting, not like Bill and Sons. Bill and Sons was a much longer process, because of the Independent Production Fund. We had applied for funding, and you know, there’s a shortlist, and you have to go through various stages of submitting scripts and budgets and things like that. So that was a much longer process.
SALLY: Was there anything that you learned on Axe Lords, like any challenges that you faced, that you were glad to have gotten out of the way by doing it yourself on a smaller scale, when you moved on to something bigger?
MD: Yeah. The biggest thing we learned from that was don’t ever film a series outside. (laughs) Because it was so…not even rain, which is the obvious thing, but just the changing light conditions, when you don’t have that budget to do color correction…oh it was just, it was awful. I would never do it again. We shot almost the entire series outside.
SALLY: But that’s surprising to hear you say, because it actually looks really good. I thought “These guys are geniuses, they shot it outside so they wouldn’t have to light anything.”
MD: Yeah, it almost creates more work for you. And see, I’m not a technical guy, my background is more on the creative/producing side, but I thought the same thing. We’ll shoot outside – we don’t even need lights! But it was just the opposite. You needed more lights and more bounce and things because of shadows and the changing light…it was just..(shakes head). I would highly recommend, if you’re thinking of a web series, do not do it outside. I mean, parts of it are okay. It looks great in the backyard, but it certainly posed a challenge. And so with Bill and Sons, you see, it’s all inside. Pretty much all of it is inside.
SALLY: What was your writing process like for [Axe Lords]? Did you work alone? Were the actors improvising on it? It feels really improvised.
MD: We had a lot of great actors, who we’d worked with before. It is scripted; I think I wrote 4 of the 5, and my brother, who is also a writer, co-wrote the final episode, episode 5. Yeah, we stuck to the script just for time constraints, but because we know these performers and they’re really great, we would let them you know, just open it up a little bit, and so you always got some great improvisation and some added lines and things like that.
SALLY: Okay, so now I’m going to make you talk endlessly about Bill and Sons because I’m obsessed with it, and I think you’re a genius. Tell me about where the idea came from.
MD: So, Charles and I sat down – he had told me about this Independent Production Fund deadline that was coming up, about the idea of doing a web series. And we had done Axe Lords already. We had worked with the Imponderables over the last ten years in various capacities. And they’re just a great bunch of guys – really funny – that we always had a great experience working with. And all of us, them included, had always said, “You know, it would be great to work on a bigger project together.” And so when Charles and I sat down, he said, “You know, I wonder if maybe this is the project for the Imponderables. Maybe this is a chance for us to work together”. So, that’s where we started from.
We thought, okay, well, we want to work with them. Let’s figure out some characters, and a setting that would fit their sensibility, and so we were kicking around a bunch of ideas. And there was this idea that I was developing for television, that I hadn’t even gotten around to pitching but it was set in a tow truck company. I just loved that idea of that world, again I’m a huge fan of Taxi, and just this idea of these guys are just despised. It doesn’t matter what they do, however they start their day, they’re just hated. Everyone hates them. They’re like parking enforcement, maybe worse. So there was something interesting to me about that. And of course, it is a very male dominated world, towing, so that fit, because the Imponderables are four guys. So I threw that idea out, and then Charles and I started to expand on it and thought more specifically about the characters and who they are and how they work in there. And it just, it just seemed to really fit. And that’s how the idea came to be.
SALLY: One of the things I found interesting about the series is that it’s really dense. Like for that 7 minutes, you feel like you’ve watched 30 minutes of television, because the writing and the structure of it is so dense. Can you talk a little bit about your process for writing it? I know that you, in the credits, have story editors – were you going off and writing a script and coming back and everyone’s tightening it up? What was that like?
MD: So, I wrote the first two scripts on my own, because we had to submit them for part of the IPF package. And of course, I had friends read them, or give input, or things like that – but generally speaking, I wrote them on my own. And then when we got the green light – Eric Toth is one of the members of the Imponderables, and also a really great writer, so we wanted to have their sensibility and input in on the scripts as well. And so Eric and I – and Charles as well – sat down and broke the story over the season arc. So we originally started with 8 episodes, that was the pitch to the IPF, and then we started sort of expanding the story and seeing the season arc, and decided that ten episodes felt a little better to tell the story. And so with the ten, I already knew where it was ending, I knew where I wanted it to go, so that was our endpoint; and we had our beginning, which was Bill having this second heart attack and handing the business over, and then it was just about filling all the middle. And so, I had a few ideas, for scripts – one of the earliest ideas I had was the Eric and Jon switching jobs for the day. And then we had others, and we sort of just talked them through, and that’s sort of how it came to pass.
SALLY: That was probably the thing that when I saw it, really got me – you’re so accustomed to seeing people shoot a 30 minute show and break it down into 5 minute segments, so there’s no real character development, there’s no real arc in the shorter episodes, and that’s what made it really impressive. How much of the character development came with writing it – I’m a big fan of the Imponderables – how much of that was what they brought to it and how much of it was done up front?
MD: That’s a great question. They’re all very… I mean, you know them, so when you see their characters in Bill and Sons, they are…they play various characters when they do their sketch comedy, but there’s a kernel of truth in every character the play in Bill and Sons as to who their sort-of stage persona is. You know, Jon tends to be the more quiet one, and Dave tends to be the more upbeat, happy-go-lucky guy. So there are these elements, and again, as big fans of the Imponderables for a decade plus, [having seen] them over the years, that was a big advantage too. And then having Eric in the room – because we knew everyone’s strengths, or what that sort of sweet-spot character that they could play. So we developed the characters around those personas. They’re exaggerated, obviously, and you know, Tony is way, way crazier in Bill and Sons than he is in real life, as is Jon and Eric – you know, Eric’s not an uptight guy like that. But there was all these little truths to the characters that they really play well, and so we started there and then just expanded on that.
SALLY: Do you have a favorite episode?
MD: Yeah, my favorite episode is the Bikini Calendar, Episode 4.
SALLY: Congratulations – you got nominated for that episode! That’s awesome.
MD: Yeah. Just got nominated for a WGC [Writer’s Guild of Canada] award, which was really nice. I think that’s my favorite episode. It’s pretty off the wall, it’s pretty crazy. But I also really like…you know, it’s fun seeing those four guys in that episode, yelling at each other and then coming together and realizing that they have to figure something out to let this girl down easy. There’s a real… as insensitive as that episode may seem on the surface, if you really look at it, they’re really trying their best to let her down as gently as possible, and so, yeah. It’s definitely my favorite episode.
SALLY: Well, it’s interesting that you say that, because one of the things I loved about that and Axe Lords is that I’m a big fan of the bromance – it’s probably my favorite genre. And there’s so much warmth and heart in those two series, even though there’s some highly offensive stuff in both of them. So do you think that that is your style as a creator, as a writer? Is that something that you consciously think about, the beating heart of the relationships between people? Is that something that’s important to you in writing comedy?
MD: Yeah, you know, I think after writing Bill and Sons and Axe Lords, I started to sort of see that pattern as well. I never really consciously thought of it. I have two brothers, so there were three boys in the house, so I think that’s really influenced my writing and sort of character relationships. I’ve always been fascinated by that, you know; brothers can be extremely close without ever saying the things that you would, I guess, say in a close relationship with people. It’s a lot of unspoken kindness or understanding between guys and brothers. Which is what I grew up with, and I guess that’s really influenced some of my writing.
SALLY: Now I would like to ask you just a little bit about your more general [approach] towards writing comedy. What do you think when you think – like you mentioned some of your favorite comedies like Taxi and Cheers – what was it about them that drew you in? What do you think that you need to have to write great comedy?
MD: If you look at all those comedies, at their heart, they have these very real, relatable people that you really feel for. And I think that if you can do that with a character, then that’s where you find the comedy, you know? I see a lot of shows now that are very, very joke heavy, which is great, and they’re funny – but I miss the shows like Taxi and Cheers, where you could go two minutes in a scene without a hard laugh. It was just turning the screw on that character and figuring out what makes them tick, and that would lead to a lot of the comedy. So I like that. I like to really ground the characters in having real problems and relatable problems that connect with people. I think that’s where you get a lot of comedy.
SALLY: So, in order to achieve that in your work … are you spending a lot of time developing the characters before you get into even considering the plot? Because you mentioned that you had the concept for Bill and Sons, and then you guys sort of figured out what would work with the Imponderables. So maybe a bit about your process? From gestation to execution, how do you generally flesh out an idea?
MD: With Bill and Sons specifically, it was “Well, if Eric is the eldest brother who has now come back, then who is the guy who is getting under his skin?” We knew Jon was sort of that guy who had worked here all his life and felt like, “Who is this guy who’s coming out of nowhere?” But we didn’t want to stop there, we really wanted to know how – for character development – how each of the four, and even their dad, react with one another. So, what is it that somebody does that pisses somebody else off , or the opposite, what is it that somebody does really really well? Like Dave is the guy that wants everyone to get along.
So we really were looking at fitting all the pieces of “How does every single character react with every single other character?” That’s how we developed it. And then once you figure all that stuff out, once you map all that out….you know it’s that old thing where you say if you really know a character and you’re writing, you almost know what they’re going to say without even thinking about it. And by the time we sat down and were writing the third episode of Bill and Sons, you really started to feel that. You almost started thinking in your head, “Oh I already know how…when Jon walks in to this, I already know what he’s going to think and what he’s going to say.” You know the words and the joke might come out differently, but you know the attitude. And I think that was a huge, huge plus.
SALLY: From development to release, how long were you guys working on Bill and Sons?
MD: All told, from application right through to execution, was about a year of our lives.
MD: Yeah. I mean, the application was first submitted in March, and then I believe we released our first episode …I believe it was in March or April of the following year.
SALLY: And was that an overwhelming process for you? Was it just really fun? I imagine it had to have been exciting.
MD: Yeah, it’s hands down the most fun project – most fun? Can I say most fun? – it was the most exciting and rewarding project I’ve ever worked on, and I miss it. It was great. But it was a lot of work. You know, anybody who works in web series will tell you that there’s not a lot of money in it. And even though we were blessed with having funding from the Independent Production Fund, which was great – it allowed us to hire a great crew and things like that – but you know when you look at the amount of hours we put in…we didn’t do it for the money. Certainly.
SALLY: Is it something you would take on again? Would you do a second season, given the opportunity?
MD: Yeah. Right now, we’re in discussions with a few people… Our whole idea is if we go back to do season 2, we want to step it up and make it even better. So we’re looking at some people who may draw some additional money to the project, and through the IPF as well, should we get greenlit for another season. But doing it with their budget was challenging, it was tight. And we would want to go back at it with a little bit more money and a plan as to how do we now really expand it. Something we wanted to do so much in season one that we just couldn’t because of time and budget was taking stories out on the road. You know, it’s a tow truck company and there’s this whole other world that we haven’t even explored yet, which is outside of the garage. So I think that the focus of the series will always be the garage, inside, but there is opportunity for great story outside as well.
SALLY: One of the things that I found was really cool was the way that you integrated elements like Dave’s podcast, things that weren’t directly part of the series, but they didn’t just feel like “Oh yeah, we forgot, we need extra elements”…tell me a bit about that. Were you guys aware going in that you were going to have extra features for people that they’d be able to enjoy? Or even the twitter stream, the twitter stream is fantastic – that you actually tweet as Bill and Sons is fantastic.
MD: Thanks. Part of the IPF had us thinking of those things early in the game, because they do ask you those questions: what are you going to do from a social media standpoint, how are you going to roll this out? So as we were breaking down the creative of the series itself, we were also thinking of those other things. And I’m pretty sure it was Charles’ idea, you know, credit goes to him, for the 1-800 number. Which was great. It was a great way that..it felt part of that world. It didn’t feel slapped on. And it allowed fans to call in and just have some fun with the number, and it allowed us to incorporate those into the podcast, so yeah it was fun. It was fun to do that. It was fun because it didn’t feel tacked on, you know?
SALLY: Yeah. That’s often what I find is that it’s “Oh right, the character has to have a blog or something,” and it’s disappointing as an avid TV watcher when it’s something that feels a bit disingenuous and none of the Bill and Sons stuff did. We laughed at it incessantly. You mentioned Charles. How do you know Charles? How far back do you guys go?
MD: We go back about like 8 years maybe? (laughs) Charles will hear this and go “We’ve known each other longer.” When I was doing a theatre show in Toronto – I was doing Tony and Tina’s Wedding at Second City – and he was involved on the technical side, and we met then, and we just hit it off. We shared a similar sensibility and then we just started working on little projects here and there and just hanging out. We had a lot of mutual friends. And then we started working on smaller things – we did a project for MySpace Canada which was great, and then we just always kept in touch and kept talking about working on a project. It was just all a very natural sort of progression.
SALLY: That’s great. So what would you say he brings to the table as a collaborator? What is great about working with him?
MD: Nothing. (laughs) Charles is a very very smart guy. He sort of compliments what I think I do, by thinking of, like, again – that 1-800 number was sort of his idea – and as soon as he said it I thought, of course. That seems like such a natural idea but, he can certainly think outside the box, and think of how to put all of those elements together. And a lot of the creative too, of Bill and Sons – I mean, Bill and Sons was co-created by him and I, and he always comes to the table with great creative ideas. He’s also one of those guys where I can pitch an idea, and if it’s not funny, he just knows it’s not funny. And so it’s great to have a collaborator who can not just say “No, that’s not funny,” but “No, what about this.” So he’s great that way.
SALLY: So what’s next on the horizon for you guys? You mentioned you’re talking about a second season of Bill and Sons, do you guys have anything else in the works?
MD: Yeah, we’re currently developing a half hour for television, so that hopefully will pan out into something. I don’t know. I’m sure it will be pitched around soon, so we’ll wait and see how that goes. So we’re developing that, and as I said, we’re talking with people about season 2 for Bill and Sons.
SALLY: Cool! Well then my last question for you, Mark, is what advice would you offer to writers and comedians in smaller centres, who maybe don’t have a Second City or larger infrastructure to develop their talents in? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that helped you get better at writing comedy?
MD: Write, and write a lot is what I would say. And there is so much that you can do now. You know, even the changes from when I finished university to now, the ability and write and execute something – shoot it and put it online is so quick, and relatively cheap. So what I would tell those people who are aspiring writers or directors or editors or what have you –especially in the smaller centres – is find that community of people who want to work. You know there are, I’m sure there are aspiring cinematographers and directors in the smaller centres…and you know Facebook is a great tool for that too, to connect with those people. But have something, have a script and say “This is an idea I have that I want to shoot” and then shoot it. And the first time you do it, it might be totally shit. But you start to learn things. When you see it, you go “Okay, now I can see why that didn’t work” or “I can see what I have to do to get better.” And then do it a second time and a third time. And each time I really believe it does get better and better.
Additional Info on Mark, Charles and the Imponderables: