John Early and Kate Berlant Talk Their New Hollywood Web Show, ‘555’

Photo: Vimeo

John Early and Kate Berlant have a new series of web shorts coming to Vimeo called 555, out today. The series, made up of five separate minimovies, tells various stories of different characters leading different lives around the greater Los Angeles area. One finds Early as a lip-synching pop star stealing Berlant’s original song. Another follows a stage mom dragging her silent son to an audition, another focuses on two students in Kristen Johnson’s acting class, another about two extras dressed as aliens in a big budget film, and the final short follows two agents racing through Hollywood from event to event.

The series is gorgeously shot and, thanks to director Andrew DeYoung, has a very cinematic, thoughtful feel to it. These characters are not at all caricatures, but flushed out people who experience sorrow, anger, and jealousy. It’s just icing on the cake that each short happens to have us doubled over in laughter as well. We sat down with Early and Berlant to talk about creating these worlds, working with each other, and what can be done in a post-inaugural America.

Obviously these episodes are about different factions of the Hollywood world. I’m assuming you drew inspiration for these characters from people you’ve been seeing. How did you create these characters and stories?

JE  Our ambitions as a duo are multifaceted. We don’t just have one dream, or one style, that we’ve seen ourselves doing. We’ve always wanted to do a million different things. And one of those things has been tropey, archetypy, single white female psychological thriller… that style. So the first one – “Pop,” is one of our oldest ideas, as a duo. We wanted to do some very dark tale about lipsynching to a song that Kate wrote, which is actually loosely based on the hit Debbie Deb song “When I Hear Music.” We never had the money to make it, so we just waited it out, waited until our careers exploded, and we were able to get some money behind these. Basically it just comes from a place of wanting to see each other in these Oscar-winning roles, like Kate as the single, harried mother.

Are you writing for each other, basically?

JE  Yeah. It’s about realizing our dreams, but with the irony of knowing these are roles we would probably never get cast in. We’re not leaving it up to Hollywood to do this. We’re championing ourselves in these meaty roles. Once we started working with Andy, who we’ve done some really great shorts with before this, he has this really cinematic style and they each became their own little nuanced thing. Lumpy misshapen little babies. Instead of these campy Hollywood satire kind of things, they became kind of tender and sweet.

They each have a story, and you really see into these characters. They’re very sad, at points. Andy, you mentioned – how did you find him, and what made you want to work with him?

KB  We found him in a public pool. No, we found him through Twitter, or something. He had reached out about a video I had made, called “Rock Collection.” So we met up with him, and we said, “Let’s make something!” The first video we did was called “Santa Monica,” and just features John and myself as a straight couple that had tribal tattoos on our faces. And we met up with Andy – it was a one day shoot, it was just us and Andy, and we improvised all day, and Andy went away with it and edited this really graceful short. It was just really easy to work with him, and very fluid. And then we went on to make a couple more shorts with him: “Dinner Party.” And I made a short with him called “Shopping.” He has cinematic aspirations, and is in comedy, and works with a lot of improv. These shorts, 555, though probably not apparent, they’re largely improvised.

That was my next question. So did you write what you wanted to happen and improvised that?

KB  We had scripts and we knew sort of loosely what the shape of the scene should be, but after improvising, it ended up that most of the improvised dialogue was what made it into the final product.

For both of you, individually – did you have a favorite and/ or a most challenging of these shorts to film?

JE  Such a fun question. Most challenging – there were so many different challenges in different points of the process. The most challenging to edit, which was a surprise to all of us, was “Pop” – the first one. In writing, it wrote itself so quickly. It had a very clear structure. Then in editing it was hard to hit the heights we knew it was supposed to hit, dramatically. And it still had to be funny. It was very challenging. Also I had raging Sciatica at the time we were shooting, that I had not gotten looked at. So pushing Kate’s wheelchair with Sciatica was really hard. Then I think the most fun one – it’s so hard to choose – I just think “Aliens” was so fun, and so simple in its execution.
KB And it’s the funniest one, really. Definitely characters that are not ourselves, but the closest to us.

Well you see those people every day in LA.

KB  Maybe the most challenging one for me, just in a superficial way, was playing the mom, because I have no accent training. And I had this tendency of, “I’m going to go into an accent!” Literally I can just Google, and I never did it. John was like, “It’s fine – who cares!” And I just kind of had to pretend that I knew what this accent was. So in that way it was challenging.

That one was maybe my favorite.

KB  Good! We hoped that people would like that. I just thought that was genius with the little boy and then John’s face instead of his. I want to ask about the child actors – casting that boy and the two backup dancers in “Pop.”
So guest stars – you have the amazing Kristen Johnson. Was her stuff improvised?
JE  Well Kristen was my actual acting teacher at NYU, my third year. And I was such a fan of hers before she was my teacher, and I was so deeply looking forward to it. In some ways those scenes really do mirror how she taught. It was very conversational, and then would suddenly get very personal. And people would cry. She was really probing and great. When we asked her to do it, we didn’t write her a script – it was more just like placeholders: “This is the kind of speech we want you to give, this is where we get up to do a scene and you immediately grill both of us. This is where you’re trying to get me to say goodbye to my father.” So she was reading the script a lot, and on the day we shot – she was like, “You just want me to teach a class, right?” We said, “Totally.” She said, “Ok, I’m just going to teach a class.”
KB  It was beautiful.
JE  It was so beautiful. And it was the easiest thing we shot the entire time. We did both of those scenes essentially in one take, except for a moment where we realized we didn’t have a certain angle. We did it all in real time – we didn’t stop anything. It took no time. Because she’s just such a phenomenally good actress, and when I’m improvising I feel like I’m frantically generating text in my brain, like I’m at a typewriter, to keep up with Kate. Then there’s some people like Kate, or Kristen Johnson, who it’s not even about text – it’s just flowing for them. And she was just in a state of flow. It was shocking.
KB  It was really hard to edit, because she said things what were so profound.
JE  When she was giving that first speech, she was saying stuff that was so in Kate and my shared philosophy as comedians, and as friends. We never told her to say that stuff. It was really moving. And she was very vulnerable – she told real stories from her career that were very dark. We were so lucky we got her – she’s so brave.
KB  And Jane Adams is the mom in the audition short – she’s criminally underused. It was very crazy for me to even know her, because she’s one of the stars of Happiness, which changed my life when I saw it. So it was just really wild to have her be in it. It was crazy. Like I said, criminally underused.
JE  We were both just so overwhelmed to have her on set.

So Trump – Michael Moore spoke at this rally the other day and said that comedy is the one thing that’s actually getting to Trump. That that’s the greatest weapon. I’m going out on a limb here assuming that really speaks to you both – if you want to say anything about how you might see your comedy helping in this dark political time…

KB  That’s so interesting because I have kind of been of the opposite mindset, in a way. Although I do think so many people have been glued to social media during Trump’s campaign, and now, dealing with the aftermath of him hijacking the election. And I absolutely tell jokes on Twitter – that’s my coping mechanism, and a way to express anger, and to commiserate with people, of course. I guess with someone like Trump, it’s potentially true, that he actually-
JE  The point of comedy is to puncture ego.
KB  And he’s pure ego.
JE  It is interesting – I am more and more scared of the way we are doing it. SNL will fuck with him, which they absolutely should be doing, and then – is literally something going to happen where he gets so upset he goes on Twitter and then we wake up and he blows up a country? This idea that making fun of him is getting to him, which is clearly true – that’s a thing.
KB  He’s so fragile. I’m with you. I think he’s going to do whatever he feels – he’s a punisher. He’ll want to punish people that are making him feel smaller. He’s pure toxic masculinity. My mom texted me recently and was like, “Be careful with your Twitter. You don’t know who’s monitoring you.”
JE  My parents were like, “We’re going to get shot at your show.” I don’t know.
KB  I think more than ever – rise up. Activism. Probably be on Twitter less. I say that as someone who’s donated my life to the internet and doesn’t make eye contact anymore. I think we should put our phones down and do something in the real world. Something physical. Not exercise. But something.

Do either of you have feature-length plans? More collaborations on the way?

JE  We don’t have any plans of expanding any of these specific shorts, but I definitely think a byproduct of doing 555 is these will become a calling card for this style. A lot of dumb people probably have a very small idea of what Kate and I can do, as collaborators and as performers. I’m sure a lot of people see us and go, “Oh, yeah, you guys should do some bitchy show where you’re best friends.” A lot of people over the years have said, “You’re stuff is mean.”
KB  We’ve never related to that. To the classic thing of “fag hag” – which can be hilarious, but… It’s always weird when someone comes up to us and describe our stuff as “mean,” somehow. We’ve never related to that. So hopefully with this, the characters in 555 – it does get sad in places, and devastating in a way. But we hope it’s a loving portrayal. Not just us making fun of people who want something.
JE  We love these people, and all the characters in 555. They are absolutely all based on parts of ourselves, and parts of our friendship.
KB  We’re hyper ambitious and it’s so weird living in LA, people being like “I don’t care.” You’re living in LA. You’re clawing your way towards anything. We all are.
JE  Hopefully all of the aesthetic care we put into these shorts will show people that we do have big, filmic ambitions.

555 – I know it’s the beginning of fake phone numbers. Is that why you chose it?

JE  Basically we wanted to do something simple that indicated it was five shorts. And the phone number thing was indicative of movies, and cinema, which attracted us.

I’m curious how the five shorts intersect. There’s a few moments where the scenes blend…

JE  We wanted you to see in the viewing experience them intersecting, but we didn’t want to force it, like – “The waitress from that is now the main character in this scene!” We didn’t want to do that, but it was fun to purely in editing discover ways – like, “Oh, this boy looking out the window can see the agents crawling through the tube. It’s just a fun way to watch to remind you all these people are living in the same world.

Watch the trailer for 555 below:

BlackBook Premiere: Listen to Two Beautiful New Tracks From Essie Jain’s ‘All Became Golden’

This Friday, beautifully talented British songstress Essie Jain will release the stunning audio visual album All Became Golden. It’s a remarkable collaboration between herself, filmmaker Natalie Johns, and the incomparable talents of composer Nico Muhly that not only provides a haunting sonic immersion into Jain’s soothingly gorgeous voice and Muhly’s genius arrangements, but a visual look at the imagination and execution behind the project. From rehearsals and performances to the emotional journey that sparked the album’s inception, All Became Golden is a captivating and honest look into the heart of true creative experience. 

As the fourth album from Jain, music has long been a passion—however, the pursuit wasn’t always easy. "I couldn’t get any breaks at all, I just couldn’t seem to bridge the gap that needed bridging," says Jain. "Making music had become very complicated and made me very depressed. When something gets really painful you stop doing it, because it becomes impossible to continue." But after meeting director Natalie Johns, she and Jain began working on a collaboration to meld their talents. "When someone suggests filming you with a 20 piece orchestra, it’s pretty hard to turn down," says Jain. "That’s such a beautiful thing to be offered, and for that to be possible, to actually get to work with an orchestra, that was miles away from anything I thought I would ever be able to get near." And speaking to Muhly’s work on the project, Jain notes that, "he does things incredibly quickly and works really spontaneously, he’s so gifted in that way."
Recorded over two days in 2012 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, All Became Golden premiered its trailer earlier this week at The Huffington Post—but today, we’re more than pleased to premiere two brilliant tracks from the album. The first, "Why Worry" a Dire Straits cover; the second, "I," the opening track for the film. "I just wanted to do this project for the creativity of it," says Jain. "Even if it hid in a cupboard for the next 30 years, it knew it would be an amazing thing for me to do as a musician." 
So take a listen below, watch the video for "Raise You" and see the All Became Golden for free on Vimeo this Friday, June 28th.

Tumblr, Vimeo Founders Talk Creativity At SXSW Brunch

Want to brunch with Tumblr founder David Karp? Split an omelette with Vimeo founder Jake Lodwick? Have an espresso with the lead singer of OK Go? Yep, so do I. And maybe someday we will, but for now, we’re getting the next best thing: a video from GE’s two-hour Brilliant Brunch at SXSW, when eight leading creators of all things tech, media, & music came together to dine on waffles, sip Bloody Marys, and tackle how they got started, what challenges them, and how they stay on top.

In this video, the innovators discuss their “Path to Creativity.” Check out the full list of videos, sit back, grab a coffee, and get instantly inspired. Or at least hungry.

Follow Bonnie on Twitter here.

A Robust Roster: The Best New Android Apps

Usher in the beginning of spring with seven of the best new android apps on the market. Find a spot under the shade of a tree, grasp that ‘droid in your hand, and just press "install." Soon, you’ll be playing the trombone, managing your TiVo, and creating your own app. Ah, the good life. 

IBONE [$1.99]
Winner of the “Best Musical Instrument App” in the 2009 Best App Ever Awards (there is such a thing), this standard has finally joined the Android club, eliciting more sonorous waves of trombone sounds from passersby and their phones. Users can not only play along with music from their own customized collection, but also choose from the iBone Songbook. With a lot of touching, blowing into the mic, and sliding of the fingers, you too can make beautiful music. Arthur Pryor would be proud. (Google him.)

Launched as part of a $35 million campaign to promote personal relationships via their site, MyLife lets you plug into multiple social networks, like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, all in one place. No more opening each individual app—a daunting task, we know. With all major social media newsfeeds pulled in, and a database of 700 million user profiles to view, this all-purpose hub allows for optimal stalking of ex-friends, estranged family, former flames, and people you cannot tolerate but are strangely fascinated with.

TIVO [Free]
Admit it: there’s no feeling as desperate as when you’re at work and it suddenly dawns on you that you forgot to set your DVR to record the latest episode of Bachelor Pad. Stupid! Not to worry. With this long overdue app, your phone transforms into your cable remote, allowing TiVo and non-TiVo DVR users to browse a 14-day schedule, manage and schedule future recordings, and comment on shows on Facebook or Twitter. The app also lets you search for on-demand shows from Netflix, Blockbuster, or Amazon Instant Video. Control your DVR, control your life.

Promoting an uninterrupted life, PauseApp presses “pause” on all mobile distractions by giving you a breather from calls, texts, and critical emails from your boss. Calls go directly to voicemail, texts and emails are held in purgatory, and auto-replies are sent when prompted. Except for five essential contacts of your choosing, no one else can reach you, so decide carefully. It’s a refreshing dose of 20th century-style privacy in this overloaded I-just-ate-a-tuna-sandwich-so-now-I’ll-tweet-about-it age.

VIMEO [Free]
When you’re dying to watch that home video of your friend’s failed attempt at krumping—or want to upload it for the world to see—this mobile version of the popular video platform allows you to do just that. Personalize your channel viewing preferences, browse and comment on videos, add and edit your own, and upload your raw footage in high-def. Don’t thank us—we’re sure your friend will.

You can finally look up the genus of the helmeted guinea fowl and the mysterious origins of the bicycle chain without ever opening an actual encyclopedia. As if Wikipedia needed an introduction, this crowd-sourced, 20-million-article game–changer comes with more features than the actual website. You can save articles for offline use, view any single entry in a different language (try Esperanto), and share them with your pals to prove that there really is a sport called dwarf tossing. The best part: it’ll be accessible the next time Wikipedia decides to go dark.

Think you can create the next Angry Birds, but don’t have the money, time, or coding chops? There’s an app for that. Andromo, coined “The App Maker for Everyone,” is a platform where you can create and customize your app’s appearance and add features like YouTube videos, Flickr galleries, social media feeds, and more. Whether you’re a business owner, musician, student, or podiatrist, Andromo gives you the space to communicate and promote whatever idea you have and add it to the Android Market for sharing. With over 700,000 Android devices activated every day, your app will be seen, so don’t slack.