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”Dorm Life” Interview

July 20th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Imagine a whole floor of strangers, picked to live together in a dorm and have their lives taped… what you end up with isn’t the Real World, it’s Dorm Life. In this clever, often hilarious web series, cameras follow the freshman residents of 5 South, a floor in a college dorm, as they take baby steps toward adulthood. The first years include the sheltered nerd, Danny B.; party animals Shane and Gopher; nice-guy Mike; aspiring auteur/all-around freak Josh; overzealous Steph and her shy roommate Abby; and roommates/BFFs Brit and Courtney. They’re all closely monitored by their egocentric resident adviser, Marshall, played by Brian Singleton. As Season 2 (second semester) of Dorm Life wraps up this week (catch the finale here), Hulu recently spoke to Singleton, who is also the series’ co-creator, as well as Josh McHugh, President of Attention Span Media, the studio behind the web series. The Q&A follows below. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: Can you set up Season 2 of Dorm Life for anyone who might not be familiar with the series?

Brian: I’m one of the creators of the show. The show is a mockumentary that’s set on a college dorm floor. Each season is one semester of college, so the second season is the second half the year. The first season, we met the characters and we saw them meet each other and become friends with each other and get involved in a lot of antics and relationships, and kind of get comfortable in their own college skin. So, for the second season, we play a lot with where all those things lead. A lot of the relationships and ideas that we planted in first season are now coming to fruition. One of the big storylines last year was Mike and Brit. They have the sort of relationship where it may never work out. Danny B. is the new-to-everything guy who gets a lot of firsts in the second season. And you see more of the same fun antics and wacky situations.

Josh: From the outside, I’d have say that as fine as the first season was, the second season is sort of taking a lot of things to a new level. Part of it is that the episodes are longer, so there’s more time to develop the storylines within the show, but there are a lot of growing up moments in this season.

Brian: I think, with the longer episodes and the fact that our audience is comfortable with the characters at this point, we were able to make the show a little sweeter and have a little more heart. Yeah, I like that, “the moments of growing up,” which definitely happens when people are in college. We were thrilled to be able to incorporate those things in the second season.

What prompted the decision to move to longer episodes?

Brian: The fans, the users. We started the show two years ago, when the word in the web show world was “Oh, three minutes! People get super-itchy if it goes past three.” The creative side of us always wanted longer episodes. I think through the first season, the episodes trended longer as we went along. The fans just ate it up and demanded longer and longer episodes, so we kind of doubled the length for second season. And even now, some of our episodes are running 15 minutes long, and even then, people are asking for more stuff, and longer episodes.

Josh: I think that’s partially Hulu’s fault, not that it’s a bad thing. I think people have gotten used to watching longer-form content online, and they want more of what they like. It turns out, probably a large part of the reason that people only watched things that were short before was that the user experience wasn’t there yet. Hulu’s kind of taken it to a place where people can really enjoy the longer length.

It’s great to see that you guys responded to that kind of feedback from your fans. And it’s also given you an opportunity to develop your characters and storylines more.

Brian: From a creative perspective, the writers were frantically trying to make this show longer, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to tell more stories, and tell those stories more in-depth than we would have been able to otherwise.

You mentioned that Dorm Life is shot as a mockumentary. What are some of the disadvantages of that format? Advantages?

Brian: One of the disadvantage is that you can’t do some of the fun cinematic stuff you see in movies or some of the wacky effects that sometimes exist in comedy. Our fictional reality is that these characters are living on a dorm floor, and there’s a camera crew living with them and filming them. You can’t really do hardcore fighting scenes with swooping camera movements. I don’t know if we’d want to do that, otherwise. That’s really the only drawback, and I don’t think it’s a drawback at all. We play a lot with that, and we’re able to explore a whole other level of the story. We get to see these characters living their lives in college, but we also get to enter the discussion of how being on a reality show and living with a film crew on their dorm floor affects them. Sometimes the characters are aware that there’s a camera crew there, and they act one way. And when they don’t know the cameras are there but the cameras are filming in hiding, they act another way. It gives us a lot of tools to be able to tell a creative story.

Josh: I would add one thing: Shooting a mockumentary definitely makes production easier at the level of spending that we’re looking at. You can shoot something that’s believable for a lower budget than you’d be able to do another genre. Shooting a reality show is cheaper than shooting 24. And so a mockumentary is cheaper than sci-fi or a thriller. The mockumentary form is also a really good sort of onramp to the interactivity that’s a huge part of the show’s success. The viewers and the characters are both aware of this third party, that they’re being shot and there’s a film crew. The characters are reacting into the camera, which means they’re actually looking at the audience. There’s a connection there, almost like the first step of the connection that fans go on to make with the characters on social networks and in the comments field, and getting phone calls on their birthdays from the characters, or whatever form it takes.

Brian, you’ve been active on the social networking sites — you’ve got your Twitter page and you’ve been responding to Hulu users in character as Marshall. How do you guys leverage these tools to spread the word of Dorm Life?

Brian: The fact that our show is about college students, we want to make these characters live fictional lives, just like any other college student. So it’s a no-brainer that they’d have Facebook and MySpace profiles and user accounts on YouTube and Hulu, and can behave as if they were on a reality show and as if they were connecting to the fans that they do have. So I think that it being set in college definitely helps a lot. When we started this show, we knew we wanted to use that social marketing element as a grassroots campaign to get out there and to communicate with as many people as we can, and to give them a sense of ownership over the show, the theory there being if we make a real connection between one of our characters and a possible fan, then that fan will enter the realm of “superfan” and bring along a lot of their friends as well. Plus, we’re lucky to have an incredible cast and writing staff who are still, to this day, excited about playing in those spaces, and maintaining their own profiles and interacting with their fans, continuing to write in the character voice. I think the talent behind the show was very good, but totally committed to this ongoing process. I don’t think you see this very often, that actors on a show get this involved. You know, they’re actors: they show up to film, and when they’re done, they’re done. But our actors have stayed on and continued to be in character even when we’re not filming the show.

And you’ve even gotten your mom involved — does your mom watch your show on Hulu?

Brian: [Laughs.] Yeah, she didn’t tell me — I didn’t ask her. Basically, she left a post after my character [Marshall Adams, the floor’s resident adviser] left a post, and pretended to be my character’s mom. She just took it upon herself to cast herself as my mom. I was actually impressed that she was able to make an account, because she can hardly email. I guess that speaks to the ease of Hulu’s account creation interface.

I loved her comment about how a minute and 30 seconds can make the difference between a Rhodes scholar and an R.A. of 5 South.

Brian: I know, my mom has game. She’s funny

Josh: I think Brian touched on this, but [the cast involvement] is what sets what we do apart from a lot of the other stuff out there. Whereas some groups believe it’s most efficient to basically do a smaller version of a TV show, where you make a show, and you go on and make the next show and the next show, and eventually the thing that you did three jobs ago finally sees the light of day. The way we approach is that it’s almost like a quasi-live interactive overlay. I think that’s something that’s better as an acronym … but that’s what it is. So people, no matter when they find it, can experience it as though they were the first people to find it. A lot of that is due to the ongoing commitment by the cast and crew of the show to be involved and stay in character.

Given the mockumentary style and all the antics, it seems like this show is well-suited for improvisation. How much is scripted versus done on the fly?

Brian: The episodes on Hulu are pretty scripted. We have a solid script and our stories and arcs are important, so those are pretty well scripted. The cast, they’re all incredible improvisers and involved in improvisational theaters in L.A. and in college. When we have moments, we definitely encourage that, because the show is raw; it’s supposed to be a reality show so you want that feeling. So we definitely want to encourage that within the script. But the Spring Break miniseries — the five episodes within the second season — those were all improvised. We basically had three plot points that needed to happen at some point, but we basically sent the characters off. The story is that the characters leave the floor and they leave the production crew, and basically they film themselves on their spring breaks, so we wanted a real raw feeling for those five episodes. Those are fully improvised; we didn’t write any script pages for those scenes. And that was fun and I think people responded well to that. It was sort of a special going off the floor, and it was like “Dorm Life Gone Wild” a little bit.

We also produce a lot of character-created content on our own site; we do a lot of bonus webcams and character-created videos, and all of that is improvised content. We wanted to offer that outside of the episodes to let people who are interested explore the depth of world and depth of character if they wanted, because we didn’t have enough time within all our episodes to include that. We wanted it to be sort of a library of stuff that people can find.

What’s in store for Season 3? Obviously not everyone is going to be a freshman, so will you follow the floor as sophomores, or get a fresh batch of students?

Brian: Creatively, a lot of things are a bit up in the air. We’ve talked a lot about it, but you’re right. The freshmen in Season 2 are going to be done with their first year. So we’re not totally sure yet. I think we will have new characters; there will likely be a new batch of freshmen coming along. We’ve talked about the possibility of studying abroad or doing a semester at sea, or doing a summer session or some sort of summer trip, or maybe they are back on the dorm floor again for Year 2. Maybe some of them move into a sorority house, and some of them don’t. We don’t have it written yet, so we’re not sure. But yes, there are a lot of fun options out there to keep the characters interacting with each other, but it will be different than the first two seasons.

Can you tell us about the finale?

Brian: Yeah, it’s the end of the year. These characters have gone through a lot together — they started out as total strangers and ended up as best friends, so we sort of see how they finish the year. There are a few things left up in the air in terms of relationships. The Gopher-Abby thing, we’re going to get some resolution of that in the finale, and kind of learn how the floor deals with saying goodbye and trying to get that sense of closure. But at the same time, we want to deal with the feeling you get when something’s ending, and you may not want it to, but you know it’s going to anyway. You sort of have to be as open and aware to enjoy it.

Anything you want to add?

Josh: For Season 3, there are still sponsorship opportunities available. It was nice; we had Carl’s Jr. come on board for Season 2. That’s a big piece of doing original web content.

Brian: In terms of things to look forward to in the future, we’re going to be doing a DVD for Seasons 1 and 2. We’ve also talked about doing some sort of spin-off show that wouldn’t require the full cast or the full dorm floor experience, so it’d be something focusing on one character, or a couple of characters. We’re excited to move forward and we’re thrilled with the fan base. They’ve responded to us, and we want to continue telling the stories about the characters we all love very much.

It’s been great to see the show rise up on Hulu.

Brian: Hulu has been great to us, we’re definitely thankful for what Hulu has been able to provide us. It has been great to see it grow over the last season.

Last comment: Aug 15th 2013 9 Comments
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