Exclusive Interview: Curt Mega and Mike Tobias Discuss Wrapping Up Debut Season of BUFFERING
If the promotion for the final episode of Buffering season one is any clue, Buffies can expect an epic battle between good versus evil — superhero style. The question of who ends up victorious in this metafictional web series is something we’ll soon find out in a 50-minute showdown, three years in the making.
Both a satire and homage to Hollywood, the Mike Chinnici-directed comedy follows Ben Little (Curt Mega), a young actor whose brief taste of the spotlight comes to an abrupt halt, leaving him down-and-out. But rather than throwing himself a pity party over his unemployment, our hero started a web series with his group of wildly unpredictable friends (played by Eric Caroll, Matt H. Zimmerman, Stephanie Stuart, Malgosia Tolak, and Chase Edmondson).
Against all odds, the ensemble of misfits managed to make it past the principle photography stage. However, when we last saw Ben, in what is arguably against his better judgement, he decided to abandon the project altogether in order to accept a development deal from his villainous agent, Power Furberg (Joe Moses). Although the decision could do wonders for his career, he now risks losing his dignity as well as the relationship and trust (albeit wavering) of his friends.
I recently had a chance to interview Ben Little himself, Curt Mega, as well as executive producer/writer Mike Tobias to talk about the three-year process of developing this successful debut web series and its highly anticipated conclusion. You can check out the spoiler-free Q & A below.
The basis of the series is about a struggling actor’s motivation to rise from his career low and make something, which in this case is a web series. Even if you’re not aspiring to be in the film/television industry, the theme of overcoming misfortune and finding inspiration is something that everyone can relate to. From your experience in interacting with fans of the show, what was the thing that connected them most to it?
CM: I know for me initially it was really the idea of somebody who’s resiliently attempting to overcome the odds again and again. A lot of people would write me initially on Twitter and stuff and be like, “Wow. Even though it’s stilly, and weird, and surreal, whenever I watch Ben go through what he goes through,” which is the character I play, they’re like, “I see myself. I’ve been in those situations where my friends, my circumstances, or my career falls apart.” They’re like, “It just means a lot to watch someone keep getting back up on the horse.” That’s always the thing people share with me, and that’s why the show, as silly as it is, has actually connected on some sort of deeper level that people take inspiration and say, “Hey, I see myself in him.”
MT: When we started this project. we maybe only spent like thirty dollars to cover lunch for the day. We borrowed everything for ourselves. We kinda hope to inspire other people to take those risks. Maybe the grander message is that it doesn’t really matter if you end up where you thought you did, what reality matters is actually taking the journey in the first place. I don’t think any of us could have predicted some of the cooler things like fan art. Had somebody told us, “Oh, yeah, that’ll be part of the process,” we would’ve jumped in. But we never really jumped in hoping for that. It just kind of all made us this nice, fun journey.
Buffering presents viewers with a very exaggerated and comedic depiction of the Hollywood industry. I’m sure the fans want to know, have any of the characters or storylines been inspired by personalities or experiences that you’ve encountered?
CM: I’m pretty sure every single person represents one of or several people here in L.A. that we’ve met. Specifically, like, Alex [Brody]. I’ve met and know several people who represented that kind of archetype. I think the thing that I always resonated with was Ben, who is the everyman of the show, is literally confronted every single day with having someone in his life, literally in his apartment, who has all the things that he doesn’t have. He’s chasing after these dreams, and this person who doesn’t understand seem to appreciate or even understand how lucky he is, just has everything in the world, has a TV show, has fans — all these things that we as artists, we chase after. That’s a reflection for a lot of my own experience. You meet people, and you go, “Do you realize how lucky you are? To get what you’re getting to do is something that most people would never go to.” That whole storyline is very much something that has mirrored my life.
MT: The crazy thing about Hollywood is that nobody seems to be exactly where they want to be just yet. You can be better, or doing something else, or getting a bigger role in something. It’s a constant push upward, and then you have Ben who just kinda has completely fallen down to the bottom and is back where his friends are. (laughs) Even the expectations of the friends and the series — Darren and Tim are constantly pushing to try to make it something bigger than it is. They try to push him to give them something that they thought he obtained already, but he really didn’t.
CM: The whole meata-ness of the show is the idea that for all the ego and bad attitude that you encounter here, the things that have changed my life are encountering people who are making really incredible work on their own. That’s the good side of what we’re trying to show.
In addition to being a parody of Hollywood, the show revels in awkward and outrageous moments. The two that most stood out for me were the tongue kissing scene and the drug-induced abduction storyline. I would describe it as kind of a mix of screwball comedy and moments of dark comedy also. Why do you think it’s such an effective style of comedy?
CM: There’s something kind of powerful as a writer and creator, forcing your audience to look at something so horrible. A lot of times in comedy or even in just stories, you address the horrible things and just kind of get away from it. But there’s just something to me about owning that moment and be like, “You will look at this. This is the worst thing you could possibly see.”
MT: We kind of have this formula where we love these tender moments, and we want that sentimentality to be on the show. Butt we can’t let the audience enjoy it for too long because at the end of the day the personality of our show is to take it away from you immediately. Specifically, in episode four, we had this nice, tender moment between Ben and Kristen where they finally reconcile their relationship and really come to terms honestly with each other. Right after that we have two tongues dancing upon each other. (laughs)
CM: Yeah, I thought that comedic goal of setting a tone and then popping that bubble, being like, “Oh, look how sweet it is,” then being like, “Pop!” As far as the outrageous sort of drug-induced kidnapping, I think some of that comes specifically out of just stories that we’ve heard and some of the crazier things I’ve witnessed. But at the same time, you know, that’s borrowing from that model of Always Sunny [in Philadelphia] or Arrested Development, where they thrive on taking very ordinary people and sticking them into just the most outrageous of situations and seeing how their personalities play out.
MT: Yeah, in that episode, you see the logic play out. To these two characters it makes total sense. “Oh, we’re just trying to help our friend Ben out,” and all of the sudden they take it to the nth degree by just one-upping each other and eventually forgetting their last spot. (laughs)
CM: I also think it helps by setting a tone. If we’re experiencing two characters who sort of live in their own heightened world in their own minds, we sort of play to that cinematically, whereas when it’s from Ben’s perspective, it’s a little more like, “Eh, things are not that great.” But when we play from, say Alex or Cindy’s perspective, which is such a heightened point of view, we’re like, “Let’s let the camera point of view capture what they see in their own minds.”
Going into the topic of the tone of the show, when you wrote or filmed each episode, were you ever faced with the dilemma of wanting to push the envelope of shock value and how provocative it could be versus trying to maintain an audience (which is primarily young people)?
MT: We had several discussions of “is this too much, or should we bring it back?” Sometimes we did bring it back cause we’re like, “No…”
CM: We had a whole sequence planned in episode five, where a character throws a grappling hook out the window. We really thought it would be funny that when the hook gets close that his clothes get pulled off, and…
MT: He would be bare bottom, just butt naked.
CM: We wanted him to have a Doctor Who tattoo on his butt.
For Darren, right?
CM: Yeah, it becomes an aspect of — you don’t wanna close people off. I realized from my end that some of the people, fans, who watch it tend to be younger — the Glee audience. But whatever. Glee is not really a kids’ show. There’s a lot of young people out there, so we figured there’s a way to compromise ideas without just punching someone in the face with abrasive content. But we do have something in episode six — we’ve definitely gone there with a comedic element. It’s a very kind of sexualized element that we…It’s all about the intention behind it.
MT: Yeah, we really try to layer our jokes. It’s either an homage to something… If you don’t understand the reference, you still appreciate the joke. If it’s going to be a little more adult, it has to have more substance to it. We don’t want to come from left field just to get attention or shock.
Unlike most shows, whether on TV or online, Buffering’s season spans three years in production. Since you had more time in developing the episodes, did it affect how the story evolved from how you originally planned it?
CM: We always wanted to make them faster, but logistically we hit this moment with episode two or three where we’re like, “Okay, so we’re making something here that has seemed to evolve organically beyond your typical living room web series.” That being said, the downfall of that is just pulling together the pieces to make something cinematic when you don’t have the money for it.
MT: One of the greatest things that’s come out of having to do it this way is how to create an event out of an episode. It’s been great watching people get excited for the finale. Really, it’s a much cooler payoff in that we get to see how connected people still are to the show, even though we’ve taken a year to get this final episode up.
CM: The last episode was like 22-23 minutes. Well, the finale is a 55-minute long zone. That one episode is the scope of many people’s scope of web series. Now that’s really difficult to pull off, but when people see what it is — I don’t know many web series that have attempted to pull it off. I’m not just saying this cause I was part of it. I think, objectively speaking, it’s a hell of an episode. It’s like, “You guys put that on YouTube? Dang.” Sit down, make yourself some popcorn, and invite your friends over — this is a movie.
MT: This is like our masterpieces of everything we’ve learned from the last five episodes put into one episode and finally, maybe, perfect it? We’ll see. [laughs]
The show is described as a “community-driven project.” In addition to the fundraising through Kickstarter and Indiegogo, fans support it through the merchandise and social media. Has the feedback from the fans towards each episode ever influenced how the story developed? Were any of their suggestions ever taken into consideration?
MT: Oh, absolutely. Episode five had the Quidditch scene. It was important to give that as a nod to our fans, who we know are — you know, so many people are Harry Potter fans, but, in particular, our fans kind of build around different fandoms. In episode six, we’re going to have a few nods to that. We know exactly who you guys are because we’ve been interacting with you on Twitter, and following your feeds, and seeing what you’re up to and what you’re interested in.
CM: We made this joke a long time ago that one of the characters drives a large, white van for a vehicle, which is a very creepy vehicle to drive. These girls [Superhouse] in London, who all live together in a house, recorded a really funny song about it. We thought the song was so funny that we were like, “Hey, can we put it in this episode?” That’s the song you heard when the tongues are — that’s a song that three girls who live in London, all recorded and contributed.
MT: It is cool to see the fan reactions via Twitter. That’s such a cool new tool that we get to take advantage of, in which we can see the thought process of how they react to an episode. Curt, one time, showed me a tweet in which somebody was like, “I just wish Ben would see that the industry is not what matters — that it’s his friends that matter.” Thematically they’re seeing what we’re trying to do here in terms of story.
CM: It helped us to think that, yeah, we are circling on the right idea. Let’s keep on honing on that idea because this is working, and this is resonating, and this is connecting with people. I mean, there’s this sort of a debate of “should an artist just write what they want to write and screw the fans?” Well, no. I don’t think so. It’s a sort of business where if you don’t have something people want to watch, nobody’s going to watch it. Sometimes you don’t just take every suggestion you get, but on a large part there’s something amazing about getting to see how people feel about it…Even the arc of the finale is very much a homage to superhero movies, the Marvel universe…
CM: I think that came directly because we’d done a Quidditch scene and people seem to respond so enthusiastically to the idea of dipping our toe into the Harry Potter fandom. We thought, well, if they like that, maybe they’ll enjoy Marvel. That’s such a pulse right now in culture.
Curt, you’re also involved in the spinoff, The Ben Diaries, as a director and writer, alongside Eric Carroll. Do you have free reign on what happens to Ben’s life behind the scenes? If so, did it ever sway what happened next in the main series?
CM: Basically, I would have to fact check with our director and Mike Tobias to be like, “Hey, is it okay if I say this happened?” And they’d be like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” We actually did have quite a bit of free reign, and, you know, we just started those because we just like those characters so much. We wanted to figure out a way to provide more content and more character development in a context that didn’t require a massive production. The really wonderful thing that happened is we actually discovered a lot of things organically by improvising with each other. There’s actually some major plot points in the finale that tie directly into some of those things that we established in that.
Can the fans expect more Ben Diaries episodes in the future? Cause they seem to come a lot more frequently than the main episodes.
CM: Yeah, that’s something that I would really like to do. As far as season two of the main episodes, we are definitely a position where we would have to get more funding and all of that. Eric [Carroll] and I have tossed around the idea that all of us have acquired significantly better equipment, sound production quality, than we did even a year ago or two ago. Making content would actually be easier than ever in a sense of production quality. We want to focus on the episode first before we branch out…I love doing those. It’s like going to improv class and just getting to play a character, you know.
Ben’s main dramatic arc throughout the entire story is trying to bring together his dysfunctional crew to make this web series a reality. But when we last saw him, he made the decision to drop the project in favour of one that would revive his career. Is this the ultimate test for him, or is he going to be put into more obstacles that will test his character?
CM: I would say it kind of leads to the ultimate test. One of the major plot things of episode six is that we find Ben, having sold his concept, and he’s abandoned his friends, and he’s been able to go and do these things he’s trying to do. Well, he gets screwed over. That’s literally the opening of the episode. He gets completely screwed over by all the people who promised to make him famous again. That is the ultimate test. Can he still get back on his feet when everything has been taken from him.
MT: He’s kind of faced with the same problem he was in the pilot. As a character it’s like, “Why does this keep happening to me?” It’s actually going to take the introduction of a new character to finally get him to realize why he’s been on the wrong path. It’s going to be a relationship we’re excited to show. It’s introducing Brittany Belland — she’s a very funny, funny actress, who I believe worked with Curt on Spare Change…This is the ultimate reckoning of the sins of the past. He abandoned all of his friends and realized it wasn’t chalked up to what it could’ve been.
CM: Of course, we find all the gang in this episode feeling completely screwed over by him. Despite all their flaws and failures, you know, they thought they had something together, and they come find out that he completely cut them out of all of it. Ben is gonna be forced to go and attempt to reconcile with four people who absolutely hate his guts and don’t want to have anything to do with him. But he’s gotta humble himself and be like, “I messed up. Will you come back and be on my team again?”
Well, those were all my questions for today. Thank you so much. Sorry I took overtime.
CM: Not at all. Those were fantastic questions. Any time I get to talk about it is cool.
MT: Thank you so much.
Buffering‘s season one finale is set to debut on the web series’ YouTube channel on Friday, December 11.
(All photos courtesy of Curt Mega.)