Genre Queens: Learning Lessons From Betsy Kenney and Dara Katz

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It’s been a year since we discovered writing duo Betsy Kenney and Dara Katz’s 80s action spoof, Bounty Hunters, a super low budget series about two…well, you can probably guess.

Now, the multi-hyphenates are back with another genre parody called The Place We Live (TPWL), and it’s just the kind of cultish fodder that surreality-loving Melrose Place fanatics will flip over. Not a big population of those you say? Hm. Well, Betsy and Dara don’t really give a shit, it seems, and that’s what makes this whole production so beautiful.

The series is born from a total allegiance to their own creative sensibility, with a can-do production mindset to match. It’s one thing to have a “vision.” It’s quite another to make that vision come to life in a way that’s this textured, and for a measly $2,000, no less. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, though. That’s four times the budget of Bounty Hunters. Two profiled series for $2,500? Most people can’t even buy a sandwich for that.

How did TPWL come to be?

Dara: I think after doing Bounty Hunters, we got a little hooked on the whole “genre” thing. We really loved it. We loved the genres that we covered and it’s very easy, if you do certain things, to make the videos look super genre-specific on a lower budget. We were self-funding our own projects, so it was just one way to make our stuff look entirely different and in its own world, by making it a genre. We almost started off by saying, “Okay, we did the 80s action thing, let’s do a soap opera” and, from there, we just started riffing about 90s specific prime time soaps – like Melrose Place, 90210, those types of things. Then, we just watched a bunch of Melrose Place and got really inspired because that show is just so ridiculous.

Betsy: Yeah, so the series just kind of popped out to us, we weren’t really looking to do it specifically. We were just throwing out ideas and then it came to both of us that we were both big 90s TV fans and thought it would be funny to do a web series in that genre because we had never done something like that. It was just a nice surprise that we both landed on this thing we each liked so much.

What was your biggest challenge in creating the series?

Betsy: I think getting the exact cast that we wanted. All of the actors we used are very busy so just scheduling everything exactly was very hard. Also, the weekend we were originally going to shoot it – we had the biggest blizzard there’s ever been.

Dara: It was one of the weekends in late January or February. It caused flights to be cancelled and was so bad, it was like “You can’t even leave your apartment.” I just kept denying it the whole time, like I kept telling the actors “I’ll see you tomorrow at 6am call time,” and it was like “There’s no way that’s going to happen, the trains weren’t even running.” We had to cancel the whole day and reschedule around everyone’s different schedules. Then, we wound up doing all of the exterior shots on the coldest day of the year, so we just have very bad meteorological luck.

Did you have to rewrite episodes, since you couldn’t have certain people in a shot or in the room together like you had originally scheduled?

Betsy: Yeah. In the episode “Van Sweet Van,” where Corey moves into his car, there was supposed to be a montage of all his roommates playing sports and doing a bunch of fun stuff that he cant take part in, but it was too cold to have everyone outside so we couldn’t do it. Hayley had to shoot everything from the exterior of the car, and she was freezing. We felt really bad.

Do you guys mind sharing your total budget?

Betsy: $2K.

Dara: We were always looking for ways to make things cheaper.

What did you shoot on? 

Dara: Hayley used a Blackmagic pocket camera.

Great shoestring option, for sure.  

Dara: In terms of working on a shoestring budget, we ended up getting a lighting person for $100 a day who was amazing, and did it on goodwill almost and changed the entire way it looked.

Betsy: I think a lot goes into our end on the production side – Dara and I do a lot of planning and a lot of reaching out to the right people because we do pay out of pocket for all of this stuff. We make sure to get the best people for the best price and who are willing to work with us. It’s a lot to do beforehand but we’re always happy with our results.

And you’re tapping friends, I assume?

Betsy: Dara actually did a lot of work and found some of our crew on Craigslist.

Wow. And they worked out?

Dara: Hayley was our DP and director and we know her and so were very involved with that, but when it came time for sound and lighting and production assistants, we were reaching beyond our own scope, so we had to use those sites. These people came on board and were so great to work with, which made us feel incredibly lucky. You can plan as much as you want but if, on the day of, people show up and are happy and working hard, you’re very lucky to have them there.

What has the TPWL reception been like so far?

Betsy: Well, we had a premiere party in Brooklyn and it got a lot of great feedback. A lot of comedy and industry people came. A lot of our comedy friends said they were really impressed with a lot of the writing, which feels nice to have people compliment that. They were also really impressed with the production value of it. People were impressed – The Huffington Post liked it, which was great.

Dara: My mom liked it. Really though, we did spend a lot of time writing on this, so we were really happy that people were like “There’s a lot of good joke writing in here.” That made us really happy. We were nervous originally that it was too absurd because a lot of my humor is really on the surreal side of things, which some people really love and others don’t always, but they did with this so I’m really glad. We stuck to our voice and what we thought was funny.

From the time you had the idea to release, how long have you guys been working on this TPWL?

Betsy: We were working on it from October 2015 and then we released it in May 2016. We filmed it in January and, before that, wrote it and did like 7 drafts of each episode, which is probably too much!

What’s next?

Betsy: That is a great question.

Dara: I think we love doing genre-based stuff, but we also feel like we’ve kind of worn out our welcome with it a little.

Betsy: Yeah, I think Dara and I kind of want to move away from genre a little bit, and go towards grounded characters and grounded scripts and worlds to explore. Characters closer to ourselves.

Is that kind of change a little scary? 

Betsy: Yeah, definitely, but there are so many shows on TV now that are sort of more real so it feels like we really have to separate ourselves and make sure our next script can stand out from everything that exists on TV already.

Dara: Part of the reason we were doing all of this is because Betsy and myself are actors and the best way we can do that is by giving ourselves the best possible material to play with. The best way to do that is to write things we’d actually want to do, too.

Have you learned anything from this project that gave you a kind of, “A-ha” moment you’d like to share with readers?

Betsy: I think “don’t rush things” is a big one. That would be my advice, if you actually want to put work into something and make it look good and legitimate. There’s no rush to put content out, you’ll have a lot of time. If you put more time and effort into the writing and the pre-production stuff, you can have a great product at the end.

Dara: We realized we’re doing this for ourselves, so, with that in mind, you don’t really need to worry if other people find it funny. Just make what you think is funny.

Episode #1, Van Sweet Van

Episode #2, Post Traumatic SORRY! Disorder

Episode #3, Roid Rager

Luke is a writer/director at CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.

h/t to Matt Visconage for transcribing. 

Genre Queens: Learning Lessons From Betsy Kenney and […]