Q&A: SO Productions writer and director Justin Olstein on writing his web series ‘Echo Chamber’

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Fun_City_1.jpgSO Productions writer and director Justin Olstein on writing a webisode series.

Just this time last year, SO Productions writer/director Justin Olstein was nervously waiting to debut his feature documentary ‘Curtain Call’ at MIFF. He needn’t have been nervous. It went down a treat and was subsequently acquired for broadcast by Foxtel.

Since then, he’s been to New York to workshop the fiction feature adaptation of ‘Curtain Call’ with screenwriting doyenne Marilyn Horowitz, completed a director’s attachment on ‘Strangerland’, and is readying a deliciously ‘yuccie’ webisode series, ‘Echo Chamber’ for production. Inspired by the works of Noah Baumbach, Jane Campion, Alan Ball and Tamara Jenkins, Olstein’s films are known for their sincerity, emotion and a good measure of dark humour. He’s been nominated for a gaggle of awards from St Tropez to Locarno. The emerging director shares some of his learnings and advice on creating web content.

You’re currently working on a webisode series, ‘Echo Chamber’. A witty slice of life parody of the recently coined ‘yuccie’. According to Mashable, a ‘yuccie’ is a ‘Young Urban Creative. In a nutshell, a slice of Generation Y, borne of suburban comfort, indoctrinated with the transcendent power of education, and infected by the conviction that not only do we deserve to pursue our dreams; we should profit from them.’ Your webisode series is such a timely piece that taps right into this subculture.

The transcendent power of education… lol! For the web, I think you have to be brief. It’s quite a skill to get something across in a few short minutes, but this is what the web is built for. People might watch your work at the bus stop or on the toilet, so they won’t usually have a lot of time. My writing partner and I are just surrounded (almost exclusively) by people pursuing some kind of artistic of creative dream, so we have a lot to draw on. We’re wanting to parody this aspiration but also for it to have some truth and drama to it at the same time.

There’s so many opinions out there about writing webisodes. Some say three minutes is absolutely as long as you can go, others suggest genre should inform the length and structure. Having gone through the writing process yourself, what advice can you offer newcomers to this territory?

I definitely agree that shorter is better. Webisodes still have to be structured well – you don’t get to not worry about craft just because something is short. On the contrary… The web has created direct avenues to reach new niche audiences. There certainly seems to be space in the online world to be more adventurous, more nuanced, dare I say more niche. And audiences appear very responsive and engaged when something has been created specifically for them.

How did you research?

We watched a lot of stuff and there’s a lot of stuff out there! We’re fans of the American web series The Slope which is similar in tone to ours… Webisode writers seem to have one bit of advice in common: make an impact and make it quickly, as within 30 seconds the viewer will decide whether they continue watching or not.

Let’s chat production value in webisodes. They’re economical. A bit like the ‘bottle episodes’ in TV, do you think this puts onus on the script, and the performances? Production restrictions can force you to get to the heart of your characters, and take them to new depths. The sense of ‘lock in’ can add to the dramatic intensity. What’s your take on this?

I completely agree. With Echo Chamber, whilst still wanting to achieve a good level of technical polish, it’s really not our main concern. We want it to look nice, but we don’t need to shoot on an Alexa and we don’t need Melbourne’s best colourist. It’s more about the characters, what they are saying and revealing about themselves to each other. That again sounds trite, but for us good webisodes are often based on thoughtful, clever dialogue. Let’s not forget that people watching your scene might be cooking dinner at the same time. They’re not in the cinema. So if they are adding some olive oil to the pan, they may not even see everything on screen, but they can certainly still hear everything. So dialogue has a slightly different purpose. We’re approaching the production in a smart and efficient way, without compromising on the overall style.

How has the process enriched you as a director?

It’s honed my storytelling and reinforced the importance of understanding the type of screen format you are working with. Web content needs to make an immediate impact – so you’ve got to pair the concept and stylistic approach back to its bare essentials, work out its salient features and emphasise them quickly.  

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 9.45.06 am.jpgTo read more click here.

To view Olstein’s work, click here.

If you would like to speak to the team at SO Productions about having Olstein direct your next campaign, contact Clare Monte at SO Productions clare@soproductions.com.au.