There are hipsters everywhere, but no one makes 'em like Austin, Texas, an oft-overlooked hot spot for 20-somethings. This is exactly what #ATown aims to showcase: the beautiful, weird, ridiculous things that make Austin and its occupants so special. #Atown's co-creators Elena Weinberg and Mallory Larson met in 2012 doing a play, and quickly realized their comedic and professional chemistry. They briefly flirted with doing a short film but eventually agreed there was enough story to warrant a full series, which follows Weinberg and Larson's characters navigating adulthood, art, and love in the liberal oasis of the Lone Star State.
#ATown has two complete seasons online, as well as a robust transmedia slate with character social media pages, all produced by Weinberg's company TurtleDove Films. If you're interested in a hilarious show that, amazingly, isn't about living in New York or LA, be warned: spoilers ahead.
STAREABLE: What is TurtleDove Films, and how did it come about? Who else is involved?
Elena Weinberg: TurtleDove Films is a micro-budget video production company based in Austin, TX co-founded by Duncan Coe and myself. Back in 2013, Duncan entered the Jameson First Shot scriptwriting competition but realized he'd need to provide samples of work if he became a finalist. Having only produced stage plays of his work at that time, he asked if I wanted to start producing films with him. We then made what we now call "The 12 Month Project" we made one short film per month that year, each one focusing on a challenge we felt we needed to achieve to improve our filmmaking skills. At the end of the year, although Duncan did not become a finalist (although he did enter again in 2014 and was one of seven in the U.S. to become a finalist in that year's competition!) we decided we wanted to keep the company going, so we LLC'd and raised funds for startup costs for the company. #ATown was our first production under the official LLC.
For season 2, you expanded your writer's room to include writers other than the two creators of the show- why did you make that decision, and what about the writing/plotting process changed as a result?
Elena: During Season 1, Ash Nunley and Ivy Koehler Meehan were incredible assets to our team. They are both brilliant actresses, comedians and writers, so when we decided to expand both of their characters, it just made sense to bring them into the writer's room. So many things changed between Season 1 and 2 (we learned a LOT) and Mallory and I realized we wanted (and needed) help in the writer's room. Our process definitely changed; it went from Mal and I throwing ideas at each other and seeing what stuck to weekly meetings, me having to step up as the head writer and make sure everyone got their assignments in on time, and, of course, making sure all four of us were happy with the direction of the season as opposed to just two of us. I became more of a "boss" through this process, which was difficult. I had to figure out how to make sure the gals on my team were getting their stuff done while balancing being their friend as well. It wasn't always perfect, but we figured out how to make it work and are all really proud of how Season 2 turned out.
Your website has a donate option but states that you don't actively seek donations- how did you raise the funds to make season 1, and do you have any tips for other creators if they didn't want to go the typical crowdfunding campaign route?
Elena: We actually did do crowdfunding before Season 1, when we raised startup costs for TurtleDove via Seed & Spark. However, we just raised money for equipment and a little bit of production costs in general, we didn't know #ATown would be what we'd use it all on. We promised our audience two short films in 2014 and a feature in 2015 which turned into two seasons of #ATown instead. After the initial fundraising, we still needed some money for Season 1 which all came out of mine and Duncan's pockets I 2nd ADed a film called Time Trap (which actually just premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival!) and spent my whole paycheck on paying #ATown actors, we put some stuff on credit cards and figured it all out. When we got to Season 2, we knew we wanted to expand the team and increase our production value, so we knew we'd have to spend more. We had a little bit of money in our account from doing corporate videos, filming local improv and stand-up shows, and other small projects (we never pay ourselves when people hire us to make videos, we leave it in our TurtleDove account for our next original production) but that wasn't enough. We were very fortunate to win $5,500 from a local commercial spec competition for Deep Eddy Vodka which made up the extra costs. So, I guess my advice is to use your skills to help other people and pocket any money you get from it, even if it's$25 here and there. It adds up. I currently have a jar hidden in my kitchen where I put all cash I get to use on our next production (Please don't rob me). it'sa way to trick myself into thinking I have less in my bank account than I think to force myself to live more frugally so that I can spend money on people and projects that really matter.
What about the show and its characters do you think is most unique to its inspiration- Austin itself?
Elena: The most frequent comment we get is how well we captured the essence of Austin through the locations that we chose. We went to businesses that were both iconic to the city and where we knew employees, so that securing locations wasn't a total nightmare. In a lot of instances, we picked locations and then wrote scenes that would be perfect for those places, so they really did inform the story and character arcs. I wouldn't say that any of our characters are extremely unique to Austin, I mean, you can find hipsters anywhere, but we do breed a certain kind here, which I think we were just starting to scratch the surface of. Being a born-and-bred Austinite myself, I think my character, Layla, is the best example of what it'slike to be a true Austinite, but hey I know I'm being extremely biased here. We really are that proud of our city (and our margaritas) though.
How much of the series is inspired by true events and people?
Elena: Melanie and Layla are based on Mallory and I and how our friendship came to be, but they are definitely exaggerations of ourselves. She moved to Austin from Seattle (we chose Portland in the show since it'sso iconically hipster) and we were cast in a play together and instantly became friends. I definitely bragged on Austin a lot and tried to show her around a bit, so that informed the show. The very first scene ever written, actually, was a scene where Melanie and Layla meet outside of an audition room that Mallory wrote. It was extremely funny, but we ultimately decided not to use it because we didn't want to be another one of those shows written by actors about actors we wanted our characters to have some other experiences and wanted to resonate with people outside of the industry. Whitney and Travis are *sort of* based on our friend Britni and her ex who broke up with her shortly before we started writing, but Ivy and Eric really took those characters and ran with them and totally made them their own. Britni certainly isn't that neurotic and annoying, heh.
What was the most challenging part of production (other than raising money)?
Elena: For me, personally, it was figuring out how to manage 30+ people to get things done while still remaining their friends AND star in the show. Every single person who worked on the show was someone who we were friends with first that wanted to learn about production we didn't hire anyone we didn't know, or wasn't a direct referral from someone, so it really was just a big group of friends figuring out stuff that most of us have never done before. I had to figure out how to do everyone's jobs to teach them how to do their jobs and not piss them off by being too bossy (which I definitely was, like, a lot)... Also, we filmed in summertime in Texas two years in a row. That was really hard. it'sreally hot down here, and nobody is happy when you have to turn the AC off for sound.
You have a fairly extensive transmedia slate- why did you decide to expand the story to other forms of media, and what do you think the story gained from it? Any advice about running that many transmedia accounts?
Elena: Honestly, we just wanted to figure out fun ways to market the show. Forcing your core cast and crew to share every Facebook post that says the same thing over and over is super boring and everyone hated it. So, we tried to create ways to have fun while promoting the show. It was a lot to ask of my actors to manage fake twitter accounts, so, they're pretty inactive at this point, but it was a fun experiment. I think the story gained extra dimension from it though, for sure. When we knew we were releasing the episode where Travis asked for Whitney back, we had Ivy real-time tweeting about it, when my 2nd season tweet went viral, I actually tweeted it out from Layla's account, etc. It certainly opened up possibilities for one-off short films about individual characters or spin-off series if we ever wanted to go in that direction. My biggest piece of advice is: carve out actual time to make a plan, and stick with it, but don't be afraid to experiment. We definitely lacked focus, and if I had had a better plan to begin with, we may still be thriving in the transmedia sphere, but I'm glad we tried a bunch of things to see what would stick.
Are there plans for another season?
Elena: Right now, there are no plans for another season. Right after we wrapped Season 2, Mallory got married and her interests shifted and we collectively kind of just knew a Season 3 wouldn't happen. Mal and I were really happy with the way Season 2 ended and feel like it wrapped up pretty well, so I don't think there's a huge need for a Season 3. I've fantasized about doing a Season 0, a prequel season from when Layla, Whitney, and Travis are in high school. I see us putting terrible wigs on the three of us and kind of parodying all those CW shows that cast 30-year-olds as high school students, but that's on hold for now. Ivy is having twins any day now and will have her hands full with her family, so I'm not breathing down her neck about it. We'll see what happens in the future, though. Mostly, we are very proud of Seasons 1 and 2 and believe that they serve as a great proof of concept for what TurtleDove is capable of with very little money. We're hoping that we can build upon that success when approaching film festivals, distributors, investors, etc, in the future.
Is TurtleDove still producing things together, or are there plans to continue producing things?
Elena: TurtleDove is still alive and kickin'! Duncan is in the middle of writing his first feature, which will be our first feature to produce ourselves. We went from making short films to a web series (which we filmed out of sequence like a feature and each season runs at feature length when binging) so we feel like a feature is the natural next step in our progression. it'sabout a guy whose entire world disappears around him, and he has to figure out how to not be a giant dickhead to get his people back. I've been calling it a Mumblecore-Meets-SciFi micro-budget film, which probably sounds ridiculous. I don't have much more info on that at the moment, though, since I'm waiting for a script to start pre-pro. We may crowdfund for a portion of the funds, but that's all I've got for you right now.
Elena: Well, when I finally have a script in my hands, I'll be producing the TurtleDove feature. Aside from that, I'm currently working with Team Teamwork Productions here in Austin as a crowdfunding manager for their next short, And Breathe, which will launch on Seed & Spark in July. I'm actively auditioning for indie films and commercials and work production on various projects in between it all as well.
What are some of your favorite web series?
Elena: One of the things I researched a lot when we were creating #ATown was webseries that went to networks, so I know this is kind of a cheating answer, but Broad City and Drunk History are a couple of my favorites. I also got into a LOT of female-centric best friend duo shows since themes were similar and my favorite is a show based out of New York called DIBs. They did 2 seasons as well. I'm actively anticipating the launch of Or Die Trying, an LA based female-centric web series that comes out on June 9, which I'm sure is going to sky-rocket to the top of my list as soon as I watch it. Sarah Hawkins and the gang are amazing. Basically, go watch stuff made by women, please.