Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being on set when some friends of mine shot the pilot for an upcoming web series. While there, I met a wonderful group of talented people, several of whom worked on a Chattanooga based web series called The Steps. While I usually watch sci-fi and fantasy shows, I am a huge advocate of indie films and web series in general so I checked it out. While I was at first really just curious to see what kind of production value I could expect from the project we were working on together, what I found was so intriguing and impressive that I was immediately a huge fan. The look, the feel and the sound of the show was beautiful and unique and I was immediately hooked.
The Steps is the story of Charlie Madison, an P.I. from L.A. who is now hiding out in Chattanooga, living under a fake name. He’s trying to flee his troubled past but trouble seems to find him. It’s a gritty, intense, high-quality crime drama with a touch of film noir, dash of mystery and a pinch of thriller.
Tim Cofield, who was director of photography for The Steps, put me in touch with series creator, writer, director and star Dylan Kussman. You might recognize him from his long career in film and television including Dead Poets Society and Leatherheads. He was gracious enough to take some time to answer a few questions for me about the show.
ÜberSciFiGeek (ÜSFG) What were your inspirations while creating the concept and writing The Steps?
Dylan Kussman (DK) I was inspired by two things. One was my own physical move from Los Angeles to Chattanooga in the winter of 2008. My wife and I moved here to be closer to her family, and while I have personally enjoyed the transition, I enjoyed conceiving of a character who wouldn’t. The second source was the story of Anthony Pellicano, the infamous “P.I. to the Stars”, who is in jail for extortion and blackmail. You can read about him in several places online. I liked the idea of someone who worked for him having to flee Los Angeles in order to escape Pellicano’s legal fate, and what that person might have to do in order to hide out for a while in a small town.
(ÜSFG) Did you write the story and then decide to make it for the web or did you decide to make a web series and then write the story?
(DK) The second one.
(ÜSFG) Why did you choose the web?
(DK) The Web just proved to be too tempting to me as a distribution platform. It’s just… there. And I knew I could shoot something and put it up on there and someone on the other side of the planet Earth could watch it. For free. That’s just… nuts. It is a vastly powerful tool that we’re still trying to figure out how to use. It really is, in a sense, the Wild Frontier. How any of us filmmakers are gonna make any money with it I have no idea. But you gotta start somewhere, and for now, it’s allowing a whole new generation of artists to cut their teeth and explore their talents for very little money, and then have their work seen and commented on. That’s amazing to me.
(ÜSFG) The Steps had a really ambitious marketing campaign with Space Truffles Entertainment. What did you do that is different than most web series marketing and how do you think it paid off for you?
(DK) I suppose the most interesting thing we’ve done in terms of marketing is put up a few ads on the back of some Chattanooga city buses, promoting the series and the free wi-fi on all the bus lines. Other than that, we’ve been out in the scrum with everyone else, looking for online reviews, getting active on Facebook and Twitter and Digg and whatnot. I’d say our efforts have paid off with a solid, supportive fan base, one that we’re working every day to expand. It’s a step-by-step, day-at-a-time process, it’s slow, it doesn’t go viral while I’m in bed, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. I’m learning a ton.
(ÜSFG) You’ve been acting since the mid 80s, appearing in some very well known films and TV series. When did you start writing? Have you always wanted to write and direct?
(DK) I’ve written all my life. I wrote my first feature in 1990… it’s called Burn, it won a grand jury prize at Slamdance but never found distribution, so you can’t see it, so I can tell you that it was pure, unadulterated genius. I’ve been directing shorts since high school, but this is my most ambitious project to date, no doubt. I’d like to do more. I enjoy it immensely.
(ÜSFG) Who were your influences in filmmaking?
(DK) Wow. There are so many filmmakers whose work I admire. I’ll list a few… Akira Kurosawa, the Coen Brothers, Billy Wilder, the David Simon-Ed Burns writing team (the writers behind the HBO series The Wire) was a huge influence on me as I was writing the show, Robert Rodriguez, Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes. That’s far from a complete list, but it’s enough for now.
(ÜSFG) The Steps received some praise from big names in Hollywood right from the beginning. I imagine that made you feel pretty good. What kind of feedback have you been getting since the launch?
(DK) People have been really positive. I had hoped that we would fill a void in the Web series world by doing a drama, a mystery, a neo-noir with an anti-hero at the center of it, and I think that’s been the case. We’re appealing to an online audience that hasn’t been catered to yet, and it’s been a pleasure to find those people out there who are into what we’re doing.
(ÜSFG) You wear a lot of hats in The Steps. Writer, creator, director and star. How did you juggle everything? Is the end result what you had in mind all along or has it gone through changes as it went into production?
(DK) First of all, I couldn’t have done any of it without my cast and crew. Their dedication and hard work is what made it possible for me to get this thing done, period. For me, it has been an absolute thrill watching my vision get realized. I can’t even tell you how close the end product has come to the one I initially conceived at my writing desk, and that has been such an incredibly powerful and humbling experience. Sometimes I don’t know how we pulled off what we did. I am continually amazed at everyone’s contributions, and I’m so grateful for them.
(ÜSFG) In addition to the episodes, Charlie has a vlog with additional backmatter included. What made you decide to do the vlog in character?
(DK) That idea came from Executive Producer Adam Paul and also Gennefer Snowfield at Space Truffles, and it stemmed from their belief that Web series have got to offer personal, highly immersive subsidiary content in order to engage viewers, who increasingly demand more in-depth, more interactive ways to experience a story online. I did it for them, but I ended up having fun with them. They’re little mini-episodes that I can do by myself late at night when I’m wondering why my episodes don’t have a gazillion hits each yet like The Guild.
(ÜSFG) We’ve learned a bit about Charlie. Will we eventually learn any back-stories of the other characters?
(DK) I hope so. I probably could have done a better job in that area. But the shortness of the format, and my overriding desire to propel Charlie’s story through each of the installments, just kinda shoved the other characters to the periphery, to a certain extent. I think we’re learning something about Doris in these latest episodes, and I’ve enjoyed watching that develop. But as for more… might have to wait until next season.
(ÜSFG) Did you hold auditions or are you working with a group of actors and crew you already have a history with?
(DK) No auditions. I cast local actors I had done theater with in the area, ones that I knew could fill out the roles, take direction, be human beings on camera. In not a single case was I disappointed. The crew formed organically around us through Tim’s and my professional networks here in Chattanooga. We reached out, asked for help, and people climbed onboard. Some were performing their jobs for the first time; but there’s nothing like on-the-job training in the filmmaking world. If you’re smart, and you pay attention and listen, you can grab on for the ride and you come through the other side with a head full of knowledge and experience, maybe even a little confidence. I liked watching some of my actors and crew go through that, it’s one of the joys of the art form.
(ÜSFG) Once you decided to put it together, how long did it take to make it happen?
(DK) Well, we did some initial shooting in the Fall of ’08, and we’re still in post on episode 10, so… a year and three-quarters and counting, I guess?
(ÜSFG) What are your hopes for The Steps, both as a series and as a vehicle to other productions?
(DK) I want to shoot a fully-financed season 2. Barring that, I’d be happy to transform the idea into an hour-long cable television show, I think it could do really well in a format like that. I’m also developing my first feature to direct, which I’m really excited about.
(ÜSFG) Any news on if there will be a season 2 yet?
(DK) I’d love to do a second season, I’ve got a bunch of good ideas for where the story can go, and for how much deeper trouble my old friend Charlie can get into.