Carmilla: An Interview With the Co-Creator and Producer
In a world full of heteronormativity, male-dominated casts, and unadventurous television networks, a new YouTube webseries featuring the world’s tiniest feminist, her merry band of redheads, and a brooding lady-vampire of the non-sparkling variety, is effortlessly capturing the adoration of the Internet.
It’s called “Carmilla,” and it’s an adaptation of the 1871 Gothic novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu set at fictional present-day Silas University, where offhand mentions of “goat sacrifices and a self-aware library catalog,” among other oddities, give the series a very Welcome to Night Vale vibe. (The university’s fan-run tumblr only ups the ante.) The plot revolves around Laura Hollis, a delightful, pint-sized Veronica Mars/Rachel Berry hybrid who has just begun a vlog project for her investigative journalism class when her roommate mysteriously disappears overnight. Several increasingly-panicked phone calls to various university authorities prove fruitless, and the school’s only response to the situation is a replacement roommate: the mysterious, sarcastic, black-leather- pants-wearing Carmilla.
Laura enlists the help of her very own Ginger Scooby Gang—besties Perry and LaFontaine, as well as freakishly tall (and gorgeous) English TA Danny—to get to the bottom of things, and the situation spirals from there via bi-weekly episodes that range anywhere from three to seven minutes long and are packed to the brim with clever writing, adorable (and occasionally flirtatious) banter, and downright Emmy-worthy eye-rolls.
The icing on the cake is hands down the cast and crew’s absurdly interactive Internet presence; neither the actors nor the show-runners have shied away from responding to fans’ tweets and tumblr messages, creating a fascinatingly blurred line between content and audience that has viewers interacting with Laura’s webcam and pillow, of all things, as well as a mix of show-run and fan-run character twitters all conversing with each other as canon progresses.
Dying to know more? Series producer Steph Ouaknine and writer/co-creator Jordan Hall took the time to answer some questions via email about the series.
Kelsey O’Regan: What is it about the original Carmilla novella that compelled you to write a modern adaptation?
Jordan Hall: Steph (our utterly stellar producer) was the one who proposed adapting “Carmilla” to me, and at the time, I hadn’t even read it. So I did what all writers in that position do, I nodded and said “Yeah. Carmilla. Awesome.” and then ran home and read through the whole novella twice in one night while madly contemplating ways to adapt it.
Once I started breaking the novella down, though, I could see why Steph loved it so much, and also why it was just begging for an adaptation: You have this compelling relationship between two women, gorgeous dialogue, and the character of Carmilla, who is fascinating—but you also have these tropes that are played out for the modern vampire-saturated (vampire-supersaturated?) audience, and these moments when you just want to scream at Laura, the protagonist, because she’s such a complete deer-in-the- headlights. Just reading it, I could see the bones of what I wanted to do with the story for the update, and that’s always very exciting.
Steph Ouaknine: We at Smokebomb (dot ca) are always interested in experimenting with form and transmedia. Some of our series have been released in apps, some have Google Glass extensions, and some have crossed to TV. None of our previous series exceeded 12 episodes, and the [less] episodes you have, the harder it is to build and cultivate a fandom. We also wanted to create story arcs that would stretch throughout a full season.
Seeing Pemberley Digital’s model (lizzie b, emma approved, etc) able to achieve this on digital budgets, we sought out a public domain property we could reinvent in our own fashion. I searched for a while. I was looking for Bechdel-passing storyworlds and multiple lady leads. Something I’d really want to work on and watch.
Perused Goodreads for too many hours. Lots were full of potential, but nothing seemed to click. Then I asked my twitter folk for any recommendations, and Ellen [Simpson] suggested Carmilla.
Boom. There you have it: a public domain property that hits both niche interests (vamps + queers) that’s not done to death (a la Dracula) and has an existing group of people who’d loved the story.
I had also wanted to work with Jordan for about a year. Hadn’t managed to get one of her shows in the company, but I thought she’d have the perfect voice and writer brain for Carmilla. She became the lead writer and was absolutely phenomenal. We also brought on Ellen (who I had also been in touch with regarding the series) as the story editor/script coord and they developed the series together before Jordan went off to bang out all 36 wayy fast! Spencer [Maybee] (the director) and I only did one or two rounds of notes.
Sidenote: before Jordan and Ellen were onboard, we had been pitching the show to multiple brands and digital buyers. Turns out one lady-focused one (later revealed to be U by Kotex) came onboard and helped fund the series.
KO: How has the webcam-style filming shaped the way you tell the stories? Have any scenes been more or less of a challenge?
JH: It’s probably worth noting here that in the other half of my writing life I’m a playwright, and so I’m used to having entire stories play out in single rooms. That said, writing a web series is also very different, because you can control the dimension of time (you can still do that in a play, but time-lapse performance is hard on the actors), and you have different structural requirements, like the placement of the act-outs (which can start to crop up when, say, your work is going to be delivered in a long series of 3-5 minute episodes.)
For my part, I find that limitations like “everything happens in Laura’s dorm room” can be very freeing.
Do I have to think of a new location for every scene? Nope. Do I have to think of creative ways to pack the action into that one little room? Yep. The challenge is exciting, and when I come up with a juicy reason to bring the plot to the camera, it’s very satisfying, craft-wise. Though I do wonder if Spencer Maybee (our director extraordinaire) and the cast felt the same way about the insanely compressed shooting schedule…
KO: Having an almost exclusively female cast where everyone seems to be somewhere on the LGBT spectrum is such a lovely thing, especially since the narrative acknowledges their attractions to each other without spotlighting or revolving around their sexualities. Talk about what it’s been like exploring those characters, and also how fans have been receiving them.
SO: I’m so thrilled about the fannish reaction. Crazy!!
JH: You have no idea how happy I am about the way the characters are being received. When I started working on the adaptation I knew that I didn’t want to tell a coming out story, as though every LGBT character we meet owes us an explanation of their “otherness”. Ellen Simpson (our invaluable Story Editor and tumblr Queen) and I were both on that page from the moment we started breaking the season arc. We wanted a story where Laura, as a complete character, could be at the centre, and never have to justify her attractions any more than she would have to justify her quest to rescue her roommate, or her addiction to delicious cookies. I want equity in representation, and I’m a big believer in intersectionality, and the project was to create a funny, pulpy, sci-fi/horror/romantic comedy filled with characters that reflected that vision of the world.
KO: Along that same vein, talk about Internet culture—what’s it like using YouTube as your platform, and interacting with fans via twitter and tumblr?
JH: Surreal. I’m a Canadian playwright. Who’s political. And a woman. I’m kinda used to anonymity, y’know?
Our fans, though Man. I am continually blown away by how smart and funny they are! I tend to handle the twitter accounts, because it’s essentially like writing dialogue. When I write responses, I sort of lob out these ideas and jokes to see if people will catch on—and they catch on so fast, and shoot back their own ideas and jokes—it’s getting to the point where there are so many I can barely keep up. I’m endlessly grateful that Ellen is handling the tumblr responses, because I suspect that task would kill me dead.
KO: It’s kind of amazing (and refreshing) to have a love triangle between three girls, but what’s even more amazing is that the fandom seems perfectly content with just about any combination (even all three of them together). I’m not even sure this is turning into a question; I just LOVE it.
JH: Yeah. I love that about the fandom too.
KO: What are your goals/hopes for the series? Any thoughts about longer episodes, alternate locations, expanding the cast?
JH: Ahhh! I HAVE SO MANY. I’ve pretty much got a three-season arc plotted out in my head. You never know if you’ll get to tell the whole story in a medium like this, of course, but if we get another season or two, I’ll be over the moon. I think I’d want to keep it (mostly) in a single location; that’s part of the series’ charm, after all. But if the web series gods happened to give us the budget for a longer shooting window, I’d consider tithing them a piece of my liver. We had to cut a few of my favorite gags because we just didn’t have time to execute them, and I’d love to be able to show our audience the real depth and breadth of my insanity.
KO: Again, thank you endlessly for your time, and for producing such a wonderful series!
JH: Thanks for interviewing us on Velociriot! (You folks are awesome!)
Seasons 1-3 of “Carmilla” can be found on KindaTV.