The new web series, “Shadow Free,” premieres Wednesday, March 14.
“Shadow Free“ is an online horror series about an underground self-help company that uses magic to create ideal versions of people, but at the cost of the person’s current life. Directed and co-written by Douglas McGinness ‘10, co-written by James Tynion IV ‘10, and produced by Brian Donegan ‘10, “Shadow Free” asks the question, “Would you risk losing everything that makes you the person you are today for the chance to become the person you wish you could be?”
“It’s a hideous choice,” says McGinness, “but one that forces people to confront their current realities – if you don’t like yourself, and could be better, what would you sacrifice to make it so?” The show has three main characters: Cameron Smalls (Colin Fisher), the protagonist, a psychology grad-student who is opposed to Michael’s process; Michael Valentine (Brandon Johnson), the creator of Shadow Free, and Lauren Gray (Rachael Hip-Flores), the woman who stands between both of them but whose alliance is not ultimately clear.
Following today’s series premiere, new episodes will be released every Friday and Monday. In anticipation of the big launch, we caught up with McGinness and Tynion to chat about the genesis of their passion project, how SLC influenced their careers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer with mummies, and what we can expect from season a chilling season one storyline.
How did you come up with the idea for “Shadow Free”?
DOUGLAS: I started “Shadow Free” because I really wanted to explore the world of self-help. My mother is a psychologist and as I was growing up, she was an active member of several social programs to help those with addictions, suicidal behaviors, and other self-destructive tendencies. Our library at my parents’ house is full of self-help books, and I grew up reading them on my own as I was fascinated with the concept of self-improvement. As I grew older and started to see the ways that some people inherit and develop destructive patterns, I knew that this was an area I wanted to investigate as a storyteller.
With “Shadow Free,” James and I thought it would be most interesting to literalize the internal horrors of going through self-help into an actual horror story, and to do so in a way that doesn’t attempt to preach or moralize, but simply shed light onto an interesting and mostly untold facet of modern society. We also wanted to tell a story with magic in it. Because: magic.
Why a web series?
DOUGLAS: Web series, right now, is the perfect medium for beginning filmmakers because you have complete creative control over what you’re doing. James and I have been talking about doing a web series for at least a year now and “Shadow Free” kind of evolved out of a lot of lengthy conversations.
JAMES: Unfortunately, this story has a few less mummies than previous concepts but the thing that I find very attractive about web series is the total freedom of the format. As opposed to sticking to the standard format, if we have a story that’s seven minutes long or an hour long, we can tell it the way we want to and it’s all part of one evolving project that we can release in selected increments. Without those restrictions, the story can be a lot more fluid.
With so much entertainment production based in LA, why did you decide to film in New York? Is this indicative of the freedom of web series production?
DOUGLAS: We couldn’t have told our story in LA — not just because it has a New York feel to it, but also just because of logistics. New York is the center of independent filmmaking. And there’s a reason for that. All of these local businesses really helped us out in making this. We were able to film without having to get a license or permission through the state. That’s just the way that New York is set up for film, whereas in other parts of the country, there are much more rules about where you can film and put your camera. New York is very supportive. It’s great for web series, too. You can be on the street with a handheld camera, filming your actors, and you don’t have to worry about getting the proper permission to go through the process. You can just do it and follow your idea.
And your cast is New York-based — including recent IAWTV Award winner, Rachel Hip-Flores?
DOUGLAS: Yes, we cast everyone from New York. We’ve been tremendously lucky with them. I can’t stress enough how incredible these guys are. When we were casting the role of Lauren, we knew who this woman would be but we didn’t know what she would look like. Rachel Hip-Flores contacted me regarding the casting call and I was already a big fan of “Anyone But Me,” so I thought I’d give her a shot. I wasn’t sure what she would be like for the role, but I figured I’d have her audition. She walked in and I think I knew instantly that she was perfect for the role. I had given her sides to look at and I made an error in the script when I typed them up. Nobody else had commented on it in auditions. But Rachel immediately pinpointed this exact thing and knew that it didn’t make sense. She had the charm and intellect that was just right for the character. And then she went on to win the IAWTV Award for Best Actress in a Drama for her work on “Anyone But Me.” We couldn’t be more proud of her and we couldn’t be more proud to have her on our show. Our whole cast is truly remarkable. They’ve created a unique balance.
You’re both interested in entertainment and have come together for this project, but tell me about your backgrounds — what brought you to this point?
JAMES: I’m writing the background features in Batman starting next month. I’m co-writing, with Scott Snyder, these stories at the end of every issue of Batman, which is a great experience. I’m also co-writing the Batman annual of the New 52, which is the current publishing line at DC Comics. I really like all scripted media, but comics are my one true love.
DOUGLAS: I got started by working on other people’s sets and making short sketch videos on the side with my friends. After I did that for a while, I started to meet a lot of great filmmakers in the city and slowly began collaborating with them on our own productions. Fellow filmmaker Alex Colby and I entered Duran Duran’s genero.tv music video competition and, much to our surprise, we ended up winning.. That was the first time I thought that I could maybe make a living off of this. Since then I’ve been doing more music videos, some corporate videos, and commercials. But “Shadow Free” is really one of the first projects I’ve done outside of school that is a personal passion project and I really feel like I’ve poured my heart and soul into it, as has everybody else on the team.
How have your Sarah Lawrence experiences influenced your work post-grad, most specifically, on the web series, of course?
JAMES: For me, the biggest Sarah Lawrence experience that has continued long past the classroom has been my relationship with my former writing professor, Scott Snyder, who is now a close friend and co-writer on many of my upcoming comic book projects. I also remain close with a number of other former professors, and I think the environment at Sarah Lawrence really encourages students to nurture these kinds of close relationships.
I miss the experience of the creative writing workshop, so I do my best to recreate it with every writing partnership I have. Writing is a refining process, and being a good editor is just as important as knowing how to craft a good story. When Doug and I were plotting out the first season of the series, I spent a lot of time picking the story apart and talking through the elements before we reworked it into what it is today. Learning the necessary balance between writing and and re-writing, and how to lay out a story are skills I learned every semester at SLC, and I don’t think I’ll ever shake them.
DOUGLAS: I think the biggest gift Sarah Lawrence gave me was the knowledge that everything you learn shapes your future – even if you can’t imagine how. When I enrolled in Sarah Lawrence I didn’t start my studies in film – I started in computer science and creative writing. I got into film my last two years and was concerned that I had missed too much by jumping in so late in my academic career. But as I got older, I started to see how all of the pieces matter. My years in comp. sci. gave me a familiarity with computers that was invaluable for editing, and afforded me a speedy learning process with Final Cut Pro. The creative writing seminars helped me tremendously not only with story ideas but also with learning the discipline and diligence of writing. I learned the importance of getting other opinions on stories, which is partly why I approached James to help me co-write from the beginning. And when the idea for “Shadow Free” came to me, on a night when I was working at my starving artist job, I used my co-workers as a focus group and at a dull moment asked them the pivotal question of the series: would you give up who you are to be who you want to be? All of them had very different responses, and that was my first clue that this idea had a lot of promise.
When you reach a point where you can pinpoint specific classes you took or books you read that had nothing to do with your career, and yet you find yourself appreciating and drawing from them anyways – that’s when you know you’ve received a good education.
I have to ask: Would you risk losing everything that makes you the person you are today for the chance to become the person you wish you could be?
DOUGLAS: I wouldn’t as I am now – because I like myself and am happy with the person I am, despite my flaws. But I think where the question gets very difficult to answer, and something I would like to explore with the series, is when the “fix” isn’t just cosmetic: perhaps the person is suffering from an incurable physical condition, or is extremely depressed and can’t find relief, or is just tired of being the person they were born into being. The line between right and wrong gets blurred in those situations. At the series’ core is an honest discourse about self-help, and the concept of being and loving ‘yourself’. Who are you when you are ‘yourself’ – are you being the person you currently are, flaws and all, or are you being a better, more likeable, version of you? The choice between becoming your ideal self or staying the person you are isn’t about right or wrong – it’s about what you can live with.
JAMES: At a different point in my life, the proposition might have tempted me more than it does today… But I think self-improvement needs to come from within rather than from external forces. There are definitely parts of myself I would love to change, but I want to do the hard work to change them myself. And more importantly, I like the person I am today, and I wouldn’t want to give that up for a semblance of perfection.