The “world wide web” is your oyster. Why not take the plunge into the exciting medium of webisode-writing!
Tina Cesa Ward is the executive producer, writer, and director of the multi-award winning hit web series Anyone But Me, which is about New York teens coming of age in a post-9/11 world. Between the stage, screen, and web, Tina has been awarded nearly a dozen times.
Tina speaks with Write On! about creating and writing a web series, working with a creative partner, the art and craft of storytelling in a variety of media, and more.
What inspired you to create Anyone But Me?
I wanted to do something different. I had been working as an independent filmmaker for quite a while and I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were going. I had fleeting thoughts about working in a medium that was episodic but I really wasn’t up to going down what essential was the same avenue but now with television. A good friend had brought the idea of the web series to me. At that time there wasn’t much out there to reference. Quarterlife was the big one. I wasn’t immediately taken by the idea but then I thought the fun I could have in tackling a new medium and to tell a story in this short form but in an episodic way. Also I started to realize the promise of the web series as a medium, and I wanted to be in on that while it’s still in its infancy.
How did you develop the concept?
I live in New York City and still very much remember the events 9/11. One day back in 2007 it hit me that kids that were in their adolescence at the time of 9/11 were now teenagers. And that a lot of them have no memory of what New York was like before 9/11 or the U.S. in general. Things are very different. But to them, it’s the same as it always was. So they think very little of the police or sometimes military at subway stops, random bag checks, or billboards telling us to “be ready.” I wanted to tell a story that reflected a post-9/11 world, but I didn’t want it to be the main focus because to focus on it would pretty much contradict the original idea. And then all of that lead me to Vivian, who is our main character and who’s father is now in bad health from his work at ground zero and they’re forced to move from the city to get help from Vivian’s Aunt, her father’s ex-sister in-law. From there I wanted to tell stories about identity and the struggles of figuring out who you are when you’re a kid, so more characters came into play from every background, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
What steps did you take to get it going and get it out there?
I wrote the outline for the 10 episodes and then me and my friend Steven Alexander wrote out the episodes. Then I went on the hunt for someone to help us. I initially wanted to find someone with a great resume in television, who would also not shy away from lesbian/gay issues, to come on as a Supervising Producer and in some ways mentor us through the process of episodic storytelling. I had only done film, so this was a whole new world to me. I came across Susan Miller in my search and thought she’d be great. Obviously her work on The L Word and thirtysomething stood out to me. Lucky for me, she had a contact email on her website. I sent an email and she called me. We met, she wanted to be involved, and the rest is history.
What is your process for working with your creative partner?
Collaborative. That’s the key word. When you have two passionate, creative people in one room, either it’s going to be a disaster or you’re going to end up with something great. Disaster averted. The show wouldn’t be what it is without our work together. I think you’re always better when you have someone that is pushing you to be better and that’s what we do. In terms of the actual writing, we sit down before the start of the new season and hash out the stories we want to tell. Once we settle on the storylines, then we go episode by episode and outline them. Then we get to the writing. We just decide who wants to write what and take off. Obviously once we get into the writing we’re sometimes led down a different path than we thought when we had the initial sit down. When that happens, we talk to each other about it and then move on from there. So I suppose it’s pretty straight forward actually.
How is writing and directing a web series different than writing/directing stage plays and screenplays? Are there any similarities?
There are a lot of differences for me. I’ve always loved telling stories in short form, such as short screenplays and short fiction. I’ve not done a whole lot of one-act plays but the two I’ve done, I’ve certainly enjoyed. I’ve never been a writer that rambles. I always just get to business. I like to say a lot on every inch of the page. And that’s a big reason why I love doing a web series. Every word, ever action in every episode of ABM counts. We work in a very short time frame, about 8 pages an episode. And so we have to pack as much in there as we can without going too far and pushing the drama instead of letting it come. And with a web series I think it’s important to always end on a note that keeps the audience wanting more. Sometimes that means ending in a cliffhanger; other times, it’s ending on a really high emotional note that hopefully really hits the viewer strongly. Nothing ever wraps up, it just keeps building.
With direction it’s quite different, as well. I like to say it’s an amalgamation of both TV and film. I had to learn how TV direction worked a bit when I took on directing Anyone But Me and then tried to blend that with my cinematic sense. It was a process but I started to find my groove in the first season. Of course, our low budget tends to dictate directorial choices. We are a very ambitious production and work incredibly hard to make sure the look of the show is up to our standards. I wanted to set a tone for the show in the first scene of the first episode and I think we succeed and we’ve only gotten better. And I’ve learned a few tricks here and there.
How does creating a series for the web aid a filmmakers’ career?
I think any time you get to direct, you get to tell stories, it’s an aid to your career. I’ve learned a lot in 19 episodes. I have a lot more respect for television directors. And I completely understand the difference in directing for film and directing for TV, and that’s a great asset for any director to bring to the table. I’ve always wanted to just tell stories and now I have the tools to do it in different mediums from film to web series to tv to stage it’s all opened up to me and I find that really exciting.
Additional advice for web series writers?
Get out there and do it. This is your chance to tell the stories you want to tell. It’s the best time to get in there and make your mark. Sooner or later, TV—like film studios in the 90’s—are going to get in there and take over the web series, making it harder to do independent production. It’s already started. So now’s the time.
But more importantly, when you tackle writing a web series, know who your audience is. They don’t call it the world wide web for nothing. There’s a lot of content out there and you have to know who your audience is, because not only are you going to be the writer, you’re going to have to market the hell out of your series to get viewers.
Advice for screenwriters?
Screenwriters have to start to take action. Get out there and tell your stories. I produced and directed a great deal of my screenplays and not with a lot of funds. But I’m also a director and I was determined. I couldn’t wait around until someone thought my script was marketable enough to take a chance on. Digital technology has really given storytellers a great gift. Making a film is so much cheaper now AND it can still look great even if it’s not on film. And believe me you won’t find a bigger film snob than me. Of course there’s more to making your film a success than simply putting it on the camera’s hard drive. But getting it made is half the battle. Screenwriters need to learn to be producers, and that means truly understanding what producing is. It’s not just, “I want to make this film so I will.” You have to understand budgetary concerns and find creative ways to tell your stories on a manageable budget. There’s not been one time since I’ve started producing my work that I haven’t thought about budget while writing. On Anyone But Me we are constantly aware of production and often write creatively around our constraints.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
That’s really hard to say because I feel everything I’ve done has led me here. I will always maintain that I think it’s a blessing the scripts I wrote as a teen and in my early twenties have not made it to the light of day. My writing got so much better in my mid to late twenties forward, because I started to find my voice and realize where my niche was as a writer. To me, every writer has one genre and/or medium that they excel in. And when you find that and embrace that you can really take off.
Tags: Anyone But Me Author Q&A Debra Eckerling Quarterlife Susan Miller The L Word Thirtysomething Tina Cesa Ward Web Series Webisodes Write On! Writing