In December 2009, Ryan Gibson Stewart interviewed the creative team behind the Slow Burn webisodes: writers Zach Craley, Oliver Grigsby, Foz McDermott, and Jim Martin, and directors Chris Hanada and Tanner Kling. (Writer Harrison Wilcox stopped working for Heroes at the end of the summer and was unavailable for the interview.) Below is a compilation of their responses to fan questions.
Ryan Stewart: How did the idea for the Slow Burn webisodes come about?
Jim Martin: Back in June, Dennis Hammer and Adam Armus were discussing new media and integrations that the show could do. A discussion came about with Sprint, and they liked the idea of telling a story that lasts for the first 11 episodes of Volume 5 (Redemption). We talked about how interesting the carnival was and how beneficial it would be (and how intriguing it could be) to delve into the carnival and these characters beyond the show. So, after a meeting with myself and Oliver Grigsby, we decided to come up with an arc for the series.
Ollie Grigsby: It was one of those things where everyone absolutely felt that the carnival was the place to spend some more time and explore a world that was new to the show and would be intriguing to fans. Jim and I worked pretty fervently over a few days and came up with the idea of centering the story on Lydia and discovering that she had a daughter, and with the help of the other writers the story spun itself out from there.
Foz McDermott: Adam, Ollie, and Jim started to give bullet points to what they thought would be a good arc for the story, and then after all the writers got together and fleshed out a general outline as to what would happen in each episode. After that each writer took his own episode and wrote it.
Ryan: What were the biggest challenges in creating Slow Burn?
Zach Craley: Time constraints, time constraints, time constraints. Because the spots were so short, they had to be written to length before we shot. Trying to write a scene to look, sound and feel like Heroes and come in on time at 30 seconds was definitely a challenge. We'd put out a version, get the script timing back from our script supervisor –- still too long, and then go back to work. "Okay, what else can we cut from of this page..." Doesn't leave much room for nuance, on anyone's part -- writer, actor, or director. Every scene had to be boiled down to the absolute essence. There was definitely a learning curve, I think by the later 'sodes we really got it down.
Foz: Production wise, making this look great was a big priority for us. We wanted this to look like it was part of Heroes, part of the carnival, and part of us. To achieve this we needed to use our usual Heroes shooting crew. We were already shooting two episodes at a time so adding more work was a huge undertaking. In usual Heroes form, we pulled it off beautifully but had to do so stretched out to almost a month! The leadership of Dennis Hammer, Jim Chory, and the fabulous directing team of Chris and Tanner really pulled us through smelling great on the other side.
Chris Hanada and Tanner Kling: Our biggest scheduling challenges were twofold: our lead actors for Slow Burn had their "day jobs" shooting for the main series and we were shooting on the show's sets. We had to be very strategic with our scheduling which was not easy. In addition, we were working with a minor -– Sasha Pieterse who plays Amanda -- which meant we had a finite number of hours with her and she was in just about every scene. We used a body double for shots of her from behind.
Ollie: We had to be very selective about what we chose to film and how we filmed it. Kudos to Chris and Tanner for being so organized and planning out well in advance exactly how everything was going to happen. We couldn't have done it otherwise.
Chris and Tanner: We shot a lot of scenes in drastically different order and it meant scene continuity was critical. Speaking of continuity, let's talk about costumes! We literally spent hours in conference rooms discussing what characters were wearing when, as we were shooting webisode scenes that had to match up with future episodes that hadn't even been written yet. On top of it all, we didn't know with any certainty where our on-air webisodes would end up being placed!
Zach: Since the scenes of the webisodes are theoretically taking place in the same timespan as that episode it proved to be a bit of a challenge as we prepped to shoot these. For example, the 9th and 10th 'sodes were slated to shoot before the crew (or actors) had even seen a script for those Heroes episodes (Thanksgiving and The Fifth Stage respectively). So we were shooting scenes about the aftermath of Edgar leaving the carnival before anyone read that episode. Making continuity tricky, our wardrobe department was costuming people in advance, etc. Some intrepid fan can probably go back and figure out how successful we were by finding any continuity flubs, but I think we pulled it off pretty well.
Jim: As we were writing Slow Burn to go alongside the show and trying to match emotions and integrate story line, the show would sometimes change and go in a different direction, so we would have to take sharp detours to stay on track.
Chris and Tanner: Many discussions went like this: "Okay, in Show Episode 11, we have Samuel and Lydia in the morning, but the webisode scene is being shot at night so we can either place it after their show scenes in the day or we can place it before their scenes. If the webisode scene is after their show scenes in the day then should they be wearing their day clothes or should they be in evening clothes? Well, maybe we should do separate evening clothes so we don't lock the main show into what they will be wearing for those scenes. Does anyone know exactly what happens in that scene on the show? No, we don't know yet, but it could be that the show scene gets cut altogether or maybe takes place in flashback so it doesn't matter what they're wearing...unless we decide to write the show scene in the night time in which case we have to decide if they should be wearing in the webisodes what they are wearing on the show...or make believe it's a previous night or the following night." And that's how we all went cross-eyed.
Ryan: What were the hardest scenes in Slow Burn to write or direct?
Ollie: For me the hardest ones to write were trying to work the phone in near the end when all I really wanted was an emotional moment between mother and daughter.
Foz: The 30-second intros with the phone features were the most difficult to write. We kept coming up with other ideas, then the episode of Heroes they were playing during would change and then we needed to change it again to fit the continuity of the show. I would think the 30-second intro of #8 (that had Samuel addressing the crowd and showing the Prē) was the most difficult to direct. Robert is such an awesome actor, making him tone down the way in which he acts to fit the short 30 seconds...was tough, but as always, he nailed it!
Chris and Tanner: The writers had the challenge of having to communicate a lot of information in very little dialogue and we had the challenge of fitting it into the 30 second spot (which actually was 25 seconds of content and 5 seconds of Sprint messaging). The early episodes were feeling a little rushed so we all sat down to figure out how to make the later episodes smoother.
Ryan: Sprint's Palm Prē is featured heavily in all ten installments of Slow Burn. How did you go about highlighting the phone's features in a smooth and natural way, without turning the series into a giant commercial for Sprint?
Zach: And here I thought it was a giant commercial for Sprint...
Ollie: It wasn't always easy. The phone had to be in the first 30 seconds of every episode and when you only have 90 seconds total it can get tricky. Making the story about a girl searching for her mother and about a mother desperate to learn if her daughter is okay certainly helped make the phone feel natural to the story -- even if we weren't partnering with Sprint I would still use a phone if that was the type of story I was telling.
Chris and Tanner: It helped that the integration was a phone and not, say, a juicer. Phones are so ubiquitous today that it's pretty easy to integrate them into a storyline. The hardest part was coming up with exactly what the phone was doing -- what features the new Palm Prē had and how that could be used effectively without feeling forced. The writers did a great job there.
Jim: I personally was trying to let folks out there know that the Palm Prē is not only one of the shapeliest new phones out there today (it's similar to the shape of a svelte chicken egg -- in the most awesome way) but also we just considered the phone part of the world and were conscious not to make it too obviously a prop that we needed to display.
Zach: It's a balance, on one hand you want to tell a story and service the fans; on the other you have Sprint putting up the money and that's what makes this possible. So you have their interests in mind too -- since they're essentially the client. Hopefully you can succeed on both points.
Chris and Tanner: When shooting the phone's insert shots we always tried to have some sort of action involved with the phone (scrolling through pictures, reading a message, etc.) so that viewers weren't looking at a static phone too long.
Foz: Fortunately with Adam Armus on our side he made sure we stayed true to the story we were telling and to the voices of the character. It also helped having a great partner in Sprint. They were very receptive to what we were trying to do and say, and were supportive every step of the way.
Zach: It seems like this is really going to be the future of advertising, and storytelling for that matter, because advertisers want their money's worth and they're not getting that when you skip through commercials on your DVR. It's the nature of how we consume our media now, everyone's struggling to adapt.
Ryan: The webisodes were written by a lot of people. How did you all coordinate your work so that it would be cohesive and smooth?
Zach: It came together in stages. I came in when we actually started putting down the words on the script pages, and assisting to rework some of the later installments once we shot the first batch and saw what we were up against. Everyone shared the load because this was a relatively long process, in comparison to how long the episodes take to write and prep. Jim really deserves the honors, because he was the one who carried the torch through the entire process, from inception to air.
Jim: Because the "story" was broken by Oliver and me so early, there was a lot of room to change things to make sure it jived with the show. As we moved along, we all worked together very diligently to keep the feel cohesive and realistic, and we all had input in the story changes, thus making sure the story was linearly on the same page.
Ollie: We all work within about 100 feet of one another so it was pretty easy to keep each other apprised of any changes that were happening.
Foz: Heroes has always had its own definition of "smoothly". With a program this big and crazy, portions of Heroes life take on its own persona at times. Luckily we have all worked together for so long now (wow--coming up on 5 years?!?) we all have a shorthand with each other and understand each other's idiosyncrasies, so reading one another is something I believe we rely on.
Ryan: What kind of preparations did you make before filming Slow Burn?
Foz: Well, I prepared by giving up sleep. Added to other duties, revisions, changes, and meetings with Slow Burn basically added another show to our schedule. What people don't realize is that when you add "Heroes" to anything that will be produced, it still has to go through the approval of the studio, the network, and in this case we needed to add the Sprint step to it. There were a lot of steps that had to be followed, listened to, changed, and resolved.
Zach: These were actually shot, designed, story-boarded, etc. top to bottom just like we would any episode of the show. So they were prepped just like an episode of the show. Also shot on film, not digital like the previous webisodes. But all done on an extremely tight schedule, so my hat's off to our crew and especially our AD Diane Calhoun, the DP John, and of course Chris and Tanner for pulling that off. It was a serious undertaking. And they turned out looking beautiful.
Chris and Tanner: Because the schedule was so tight, we really had to plan out each and every little detail. Webseries, in general, are shot on a very fast pace, anyway. When you're shooting 40 setups in a day with a minimum of two 35mm cameras, if you spend even 2 minutes per setup figuring something out that you could have resolved beforehand, then you've already lost 80 critical minutes for the day. Every shot was meticulously blocked out.
Jim: I think Slow Burn was the first time our show shot the carnival back alley "at night during the day". We tarped the top of the roof and we shot in there during the day. I remember coming to set at 7am and having it look like it was 10pm. It was surreal.
Chris and Tanner: The carnival looks best at night and we really wanted that smoky streaked light look for the carnival backlot. But with actors who are minors you can't shoot through the night -- not to mention that no one else particularly likes working all night long. So the solution that Dennis Hammer came up with was to build an enormous tent over the whole carnival backlot to block out any daylight so we could shoot day for night. Many, many grips worked throughout the day before our shoot to create the perfect night look. It was so successful that the main show continued using the tent for quite a while after we wrapped out.
Ryan: Slow Burn introduced us to several new characters, including Amanda, Caleb, and the Bowman family. It also gave us a deeper look at more established characters, like Samuel, Lydia, and Edgar. How did you go about making these characters unique from one another? What did you do to ensure that they would be interesting characters?
Foz: From the start of this season, it was obvious from the feedback we were getting that the carnies were a hit on Heroes. We also wanted to give Sprint their own space and let them own it for these stories. Edgar, Samuel, and Lydia were a perfect fit since at the time they were a blank slate. Sprint was excited to be a part of this new venture, and we were happy to have them. Adam, being the only parent out of us, had a great idea revolving around one of the lost offspring of our new family.
Ollie: A large part of it is how you write it. I think Amanda was a very compelling character from the beginning as she had a very clear problem and a very clear drive -- "I'm inexplicably lighting things on fire and my birth mother knows why. I'm going to find her and learn what's happening to me." It's a pretty classic origin story. We were certainly helped by Sasha Pieterse who played Amanda. She got the character right away and did an amazing job.
Jim: I think by casting different actors and by assigning them different super powers (and giving them different dialogue) we attempted to make them independent of each other. And as far as interesting goes, I give all the credit to the actors and the directors.
Chris and Tanner: The actors all brought their A-Game. Sasha is immensely talented, and I expect you'll be seeing more of her all over the place. Dawn really brought her character to the next level and did a great job of it. Robert and Ray were also incredible to work with. They were all such professionals and absolute pleasures to work with.
Ollie: Caleb started off as a much smaller character and grew from there -- I think at one point we described him as a "weasel" and casting (Jason La Padura and Natalie Hart) did a great job of finding Dusty Sorg for us. He was perfect for the part and did a great job with it.
Ryan: How involved were you in the casting process?
Chris and Tanner: The Heroes casting team was great. They provided the selects who came in to audition and we made our choices right there along with Dennis Hammer, Adam Armus, and the writers. It was great not to have to pour over hours of audition tape. With both Sasha Pieterse (who played Amanda) and Dusty Sorg (who played Caleb) we knew immediately that they were the right actors for the roles. Sasha blew us all away in the audition.
Jim: One room, multiple roles -- Jim, Oliver, Dennis Hammer, Kay Foster, Tanner Kling, Chris Hanada, Jason LaPadura, Natalie Hart & Kendra Patterson... So, I think I was like, 1/9th involved... but you'd better believe I had a voice!
Ryan: Where were the webisodes filmed?
Chris and Tanner: Everything was shot on the Sunset Gower lot in a very narrow alleyway between two stages. In the final webisode where you see a Ferris wheel and other carnival life -- that's all blue screen set extension.
Zach: The carnival set is the exact same set on our backlot that we shoot for the show. Although I believe Lydia's trailer was built especially for these webisodes, but that set has since been reused in the series as well. Sylar/Nathan wakes up in that bed in one episode.
Foz: On the production side we were trying to do this scene that in the grand scheme of things was a short shot the easiest way possible. For a while we were trying to use three of the four walls in a set we just built for Becky's dorm room. We would just re-dress three of the walls and then shoot away. When it became obvious that we were going to need more than just the three walls, and we were going to need the Becky set a lot more and sooner than we had time to re-re-dress back into Becky's and then maybe having to do this three or four times...and then we added some fire we decided in the interest of time we just built a new set.
Chris and Tanner: Amanda's room was piecemeal from the old Bennet house and also shot on a stage at Sunset Gower. It was rebuilt for us with a couple of walls that we could actually burn to show off her powers, but because of time constraints we were never able to really light the place on fire.
Foz: When we built the Amanda set, the plan was to use it for a special favor we were doing for our sister NBC show. Betty White was on 30 Rock this season, but couldn't get her schedule straight to make it out to NYC in time, so we helped out Tina Fey and 30 Rock by filming Betty's part here on set on the other side of the phone with Tracy Morgan's character. When we were thinking about doing this we needed the set again to reshoot more Becky stuff so the set went away and decided to use Matt Parkman's home instead. Fans of both shows can definitely figure it out if you watch it now with that info! It was nicer to give Betty White a house instead of an apartment anyway wasn't it?
Ryan: If you were to join the carnival, what would your act be? What powers would you use? What would your costume look like?
Foz: I like to scare people, maybe be a beast man à la Wolverine in Arcades's circus. Chain me to a wall and let me growl and roar at people. It has to be a stress reliever, plus I don't like costumes...maybe just pants...ripped like the Hulk? Food for thought!
Ollie: I can juggle, so I guess maybe I'd do a juggling act. Though if I had a power, telekinesis could really help that act out. And for a costume...as Ando says, "You even mention tights and a cape, I'm going home."
Jim: I would be the human guy who could juggle three things. I'd probably wear a tie. It would have some real flare to it...the tie, I mean.
Ryan: Is there anything about Slow Burn that you'd like to add, or any stories you'd like to share?
Foz: I have known Tanner Kling since I first started at Smallville back in the day. I was so happy I could bring him and Chris Hanada over to help us make such cool stuff the last few years.
Ollie: Lighting the charred body on fire was a lot of fun.
Foz: On the third day I was looking at the camera and just to the left of it, Jim Martin was standing. If you have never met Jim Martin, I liken him to a burnt out matchstick. He has this mop of black hair and he is ridiculously skinny. He was standing there in some ridiculous hipster shirt he wears right next to Ray Park, who was standing off camera. If you have never met Ray, he was friggin' Darth Maul! The guy is jacked up--muscles everywhere and is dressed all bad ass style. If Ray wanted to he could have destroyed Jim at any second with some sort of Ninja type fire breath mode and that would be the last we ever saw of Jim. I remember thinking how funny that looked. Jim came over a bit later and said, "Ray Park is big". It made me laugh pretty hard.
Zach: Ray Park is, like, the nicest guy ever. In case you were wondering!
Foz: Carol, Amanda, and presumably Lydia's name is Strazzulla as you mentioned [in an email a little while ago]. A few weeks before Slow Burn came across our desk I wrote a comic called Boom which was about Amanda. I needed to give them a last name. In these situations when I have to write in names of people or places, I try to make them mean something to people in my life. I do it with everything, numbers, books, etc. In this case, Strazzulla is my sister-in-law's maiden name. Even though we don't mention it on the show, Dawn herself is Italian, and looks it, so why not give Amanda and Carol an Italian name? I stand by the choice. I dig it, and I think it fits nicely, although the name was not meant to go past the comic. (Surprise, Kate!)
Jim: This was the first thing that I ever worked on that I got a Chair with my name on it!
Ryan: Thanks so much, everybody!
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