I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the world of indie film in the last year, diving into epic web series like RWBY and The Gunrunner Billy Kane and supporting awesome Kickstarter film projects like the Mythica fantasy series, so you can imagine my excitement when the brilliant mind behind The Gunrunner Billy Kane, M.D. Selig, agreed to do an interview. He’s taken the time to provide incredibly detailed insights about the indie film industry along with some spectacular advice for anyone interested in creating their own web series.
Please enjoy the wealth of knowledge M.D. Selig has to share and don’t forget to check out The Gunrunner Billy Kane yourself! It is one science fiction web series you can’t afford to ignore.
What part of the story for Gunrunner Billy Kane came to you first?
I was reading “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil and was fascinated with the idea that once we are able to augment our neurons (in our brains and throughout our body) with nanotechnology – we might just end up connecting with each other like laptops can connect to each other.
That is the crux of the work Dr. Billy Kane is experimenting with. The augmentation of the brain using nanobots. In our show it’s called “Enhancement”. Essentially it’s what futurists call “The Singularity’”.
I study emerging technologies especially those where we are slowly going to become hybrid humans and how that will effects us as a race. From enhanced limbs to enhancing the brain’s speed through nano-technology, enhanced vision and other capabilities and how those adaptations will effect our interactions with each other.
Kurzweil and other futurists talk about “spoken language” will only be used as a delicacy between two humans – because to use it as a means of communication will be much too slow. Once we are all connected via wireless, speaking will seem like sign language in some ways. Effective but really inefficient.
Once we are augmented, you will be able to exchange all you are thinking and feeling in the blink of an eye with whoever you choose to share it with. Fun and or…a little scary…depending on how it’s used.
I’m fascinated with where it will all go. But we are certainly moving in that direction.
Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?
My writing process is consistent in a number of ways.
- I always write at coffee shops on a small laptop.
- I front-load the writing process by doing all of my research around a story idea and work hard to create a 10-20 page “bullet” treatment of the intended scenes in the order they will appear.
Before any writing on the treatment I do the following:
- I will watch other TV shows or films that I think are relative to the type of story that I’m trying to create.
- I have no qualms about borrowing great ideas or themes to suit my project, with the idea of not copying another writer – but to take what they have done and adjust it to my own style and story.
For instance, when studying a successful show like Breaking Bad or House of Cards, I look at – what is the THREAT, and how is threat sustained throughout the show or the book or the movie.
All great stories thrive on threat, be it relationships, physical threat, or resolution of a threat to a characters existence etc.
If the stakes are high enough…we keep watching.
So to me…establishing threat and then sustaining threat until the end of the story, with rising tension toward the final resolution, is the toughest thing to do. It’s the most challenging and rewarding thing about storytelling.
Once I understand the threat they’ve established in a show…I watch for the next level of story; characters.
How many characters do they focus on? How many leads, series regulars, and recurring roles are there?
Writers of top shows have learned through experience just how many characters will hold an audience without making the story too complicated.
Why re-invent the wheel.
If anything, I think less characters provides deeper dives into each characters arc. More fun, more intense, more to relate to as a viewer.
I watch to see how often the story comes back to the main character and how often the show goes off on an ancillary character and story arc before they return to the main characters of the show.
In my opinion The Wire is one of the best TV shows from a writing standpoint. The characters are many and the show has a very slow reveal and pace. But the power of the show is it’s depth – and there is a reason it’s on everyone’s top 10 list as the best written show of all time.
Stuck on an island with only a TV, I would take The Wire as my choice above all others. Worth studying on many levels. Breaking Bad is certainly right up there.
I will often watch the pilot episode of a series and then get on my computer and try to recall every scene from the beginning to the end. Thereby understanding more organically how the writers created a world, the threat and the characters that must deal with the threat. Not to mention it’s fun to work your story memory.
I BEGIN WITH THE END IN SIGHT. (This is a trait in the “7 habits of highly effective people” book, but it works well for storytelling)
I take a lot of time to see the end of my story, visualize it, write notes about it, try to imagine sitting in a theater at the end of the show and loving that feeling of wanting to watch the credits roll… because the show left me breathless.
If I can see the end of my story – then I know that everything must lead to that ending – then I’m ready to write the treatment.
I will begin the treatment as a “flow-through” process. No editing, just free writing for as long as I can keep it up. I won’t edit until I’m through with the 10 pages, finishing of course, with my ending that I’ve already got in the bag.
My treatment might start like this, notice it’s really rough, bad punctuation…and I don’t care. It’s about getting through it.
Exterior Italian hardware store, Boston 1955. The snowy streets are busy and our protagonist Larry, 35, dressed in a salesman suit of the era, enters the store. If you didn’t know better, you might think he was Italian. He puts down a large suitcase on the counter. The old Italian proprietor watches him with interest. Larry was expected. Larry whips on some serious Italian fluency and knows how to small talk. He opens a small suitcase showing a faucet of gold, made in Italy. The Proprietor reaches for the piece and picks it up impressed. He taps the gold with his fingernail and we are suddenly on LARRY as Larry FLASHES BACK to A NAZI GUARD holding a rifle against his throat, this is a YOUNGER LARRY, pinned against a wooden fence – in a Lithuanian Ghetto. Larry WINCESS, his hands UP in a defensive gesture as the Nazi squeezes his TRIGGER! CLICK. Larry GASPS as the guard realizes his trigger is FROZEN. Larry reacts to the guard who violently SWIPES the butt of the rifle ACROSS LARRY’S FACE. Thud. FLASHFORWARD. The Proprietor is asking Larry if he’s okay? Larry comes to…and shakes off the horror in a moments notice…and makes an excuse in Italian, something about a long night of drinking…and gets back to selling. The proprietor nods his head and says he would like twenty of the gold faucets. Larry shakes his hand and closes the case. Says “you got it” in perfect Bostonian and departs.
Ext street day, Larry walks through the snow…straightening his tie and wiping the sweat from his brow…that was a close one…fuck. He pulls out a cigarette and his nervous hands SHAKE as he light the stogie, takes a long drag, sniffles and walks on…. (END)
So it’s not perfect, I don’t give a damn about punctuation at all…I just try to get the friggin scene in a rough way as I see it and keep going.
Why this way of writing?
In WWII, Germany used “The Blitzkrieg.” very successfully and the concept of it, works in life with regards to pursuing your dreams.
Simply put: Once you go on the attack… (or begin writing) …go around any obstacles or barriers or resistance….just press forward to the end of the terrain….and the pockets of resistance will simply dissipate through being surrounded. And it works!
I find writing this way to be really pro-active.
Here is the reader’s digest version of all of the above.
- Get your story idea.
- Research it like crazy and watch all the shows that are roughly like yours.
- Know your ending cold. (Begin with the end in site)
- Blitzkrieg through your 10 page treatment, no editing until every scene you can come up with has been vomited on your paper.
- Then and only then…do you go back and edit the scenes into an order that you think will play well.
- Writing the script with the same Blitzkrieg abandon. No editing on the first pass. Just get through all your scenes according to your treatment. Write any dialog that comes to mind and keep moving to the next scene. Write fast and stay with it without editing whatsoever until all 120 pages are splatted down …then hit SAVE again and walk away.
- Come back to it a few days later…and guess what? You are reading a rough draft! Awesome. Give yourself a coffee and treat reward and get back to work.
- Momentum is key for me. Editing and polishing are just absolutely fun…because by then you know you have a story.
- Btw…it generally takes me, up to a year of re-writes before I’m happy enough with a script to begin shooting.
One of my favorite writing books is Steven King’s “On Writing”. Tiny book. Critical to read as he talks about his process and the discipline of it. He also talks about who he shares rough-drafts with and why. Invaluable.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you and how do you make it easier for yourself?
Getting back a draft from a produced writer is always tough. After a year of rewriting my script…I find it very difficult to think that it needs adjustment…but the fact is…I’m too close to it and my scripts always get better via feedback.
So pick your readers carefully before you send anything out. You better really respect them, otherwise you are going to hold on to your silly idea and defend it…so what’s the point of sending it out if you are not willing to really hear constructive criticism.
When you absolutely can’t make it any better…pay to have a produced screenwriter (meaning someone who has actually had a screenplay produced as a movie or a TV show or an on-line series) read it.
They truly understand how your script will play when shot.
Listen to them. Take notes. Make adjustments where necessary.
Do you believe in writer’s block? Why/why not?
The two words are diametrically opposed.
The produced writers I’m friends with call it “Lazy”.
There is always reading to inspire the next story idea.
There is always a scene you can write that might generate something else.
There is always a concept to be developed.
There is always a feeling you can express between two characters that chat in a diner…and maybe they are discussing something redundant like dysfunctional family…or something that is always a perfect excuse to be at Dennys at 2am., eating and not writing. “Writers block.”
You filmed the first two seasons of The Gunrunner Billy Kane entirely with money from private investors. How did you find these investors?
My first feature “Southern Justice” is on Netflix. Funded with Visa and MasterCard meaning I went 150k in debt to shoot it Super 16.
GBK began with a 15k “gift” from my old roommate (who made a chunk on an internet buyout) saw me finish Southern Justice and knew about my new show GBK. My “track record” of having finished a movie and getting it distributed was enough to inspire him to give me a gift. He wanted to see me succeed at the next level.
My eventual “Executive Producer” Herb Warme happened to be renting a garage near me for his vintage motorcycle collection and we became friends. He saw the trailer to GBK which I had created after using up the 15k.. He then watched Southern Justice. He surprised me a few days later and said he was an investor in movies and wanted to know how much I needed to finish GBK.
I had shot roughly 60 percent of GBK on the 15k I started with. (No permits anywhere…just full guerilla shooting.) By the time we finished shooting and editing Cycle one and two…we were into 350k when you add in all the visual effects.
LESSONS LEARNED TO GET INVESTORS.
- Create a track record. Produce your first show…whatever it takes. Get it in the can. Not a short…but a feature. (Shorts are basically worthless in my opinion. I’ve done them and they simply get watched and discarded)
- If you can get distribution for your feature – all the better.
- Think of yourself as an investor. Are you going to give money to someone who has never completed a feature film or TV show? No. So if you are an investor…you are looking for someone with a “soup to nuts” completion record of producing a show. Just like betting on horses…investors want to pick a “proven” winner.
- Write your follow-on show and set a date to begin shooting and do it. Come hell or high water. Just shoot…even if it’s just you and one actor. Do it. Things happen when you prime the pump.
- I now have investors that call to inquire about participating in the show. Only because they see it’s already produced at the beginning level. Again, the track record is everything in any industry.
I directed Southern Justice and The Gunrunner Billy Kane series. Mainly because I wrote the scripts and I knew exactly what I wanted to see on the screen. I also knew how to edit and so I know exactly what I need to capture when shooting a scene to piece it all together in post.
In my perfect world, because I love acting as my primary passion, I would love to be able to use a director I admire…and that might be coming soon.
I’m about to do a crowd-sourcing for Cycle-3 for a director as well as an actor and a writer.
For the Director and Actor crowd-sourced scene, I will write a scene and post it on the GBK website. Any director and or actor can get a group of friends together and shoot the scene and post their finished scene on YouTube, which will link back to our website.
Fans of the show, worldwide, will be able to go to GBK website and watch the same scene shot by many different directors and then cast a vote say by October 1st, 2016.
Once we have a “top 10” based on fan voting, I will watch those top 10 scenes and pick a director to actually direct that scene in the show. That director will be invited to join me for pre-production on the scene all the way through the completion of principle photography.
Depending on how good they are with my crew, there will certainly be room for them to direct more scenes and later full Cycles.
Concurrently, the actor videos will also be voted on. (Our last actor competition was so large, that on the final voting day, it crashed our server. )
Robert Donnelly won our last actor competition. He now has a recurring role. Not bad for a guy who lived no-where near the film industry.
We had video auditions of that scene come in from all over the world. It was really awesome to see the creativity that different actors brought to their auditions. You can still find those auditions posted on youtube. Look under Gunrunner Billy Kane/ Rat Auditions. One woman shot her scene on a mountaintop in Alaska. Talk about interacting with your fan base.
It’s all happening again very soon, so stay tuned on our website and subscribe on the top right of the website to be informed of the upcoming competitions.
For the writer competition I will announce it based on the current characters in the show and ask the competitors to write a scene that I will actually shoot for the next cycle. It will be the same process as above. We will allow worldwide voting and the top 10 scenes will be read and I’ll pick a winner to come to the set and hang out as their scene is shot. If they are fun to work with, then there will be ample opportunity to have them continue. (Not to mention the other top 10 writers.)
I look forward to the day when the show is truly self sustaining and we can afford to pick new writers to help me as well as find a few directors that can really see our vision so that I can let go and just focus all my energy on bringing Billy Kane closer to his truth from an acting standpoint.
If you could give an aspiring writer any one piece of advice, what would it be?
Finish your book. Finish your screenplay. Finish your Pilot.
Put a finish date on it and make it happen.
If you are in the visual world, film/TV…then produce it.
There are a million writers in L.A. still “waiting for money” so they can produce their show”. I’ve met many who have never produced anything in the 10-20 years they have been there due to “waiting”.
Because of seeing that when I first arrived in L.A. I decided to produce my own…by going in debt. It was the best thing I ever did.
What you learn by seeing your words come to life on screen really changes the way you write. And you might not enjoy the experience. But at least you’ll know.
What are you working on next that readers can look forward to?
We’ll I’m writing Cycle Three scenes now. I also have at least two features that are complete that I would like to produce. But first…I need to see if I can make GBK sustainable from a financial standpoint. The online space is tricky to monetize, but we have a growing, activated fan base. So if it continues to grow at the current rate, we should be able to attract advertisers soon. Once GBK stabilizes…then perhaps I can think about my next endeavor.
M.D. Selig is the lead actor and series creator of The Gunrunner Billy Kane Sci-Fi episodic. Selig’s first feature as Actor/Writer/Director “Southern Justice” aired on Showtime and is currently on Netflix! As an actor he appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, Ashton Kutcher’s PUNK’D, and many independent shows. Selig is currently producing Cycle Two of the Gunrunner Series and writing Cycle three. He lives in San Francisco with his partner and 3-year-old daughter.
A sci-fi western series. A rogue scientist runs guns to fund brain experiments that may save his dying daughter. MAD MAX meets FRANKENSTEIN. Cycle One (Ten Episodes) was released online in December of 2015. The show ‘s cast is all Hollywood rising stars. Cycle two will post in late June. Cycle three filming in late August.
Did you enjoy this interview? Find any one piece of advice particularly useful? Let us know in the comments section below!