Livin’ the Dream: A Conversation with Filmmakers Kim Spurlock and Mai Spurlock Sykes
An unapologetic love letter to anyone who’s ever achieved their dream, then wondered “what now?” – Livin’ the Dream won’t necessarily give you any answers. Yes, this multi-layered and humorous web series isn’t necessarily a solution, but it does provide the space to reflect and discover something about yourself, while laughing with and at a women journeying through similar territory.
Shot and set in Los Angeles, Kit Scanlon’s commitment to being the go-to indie director in Hollywood doesn’t quite match reality, as her latest feature film has been shelved. And with her 20’s having long abandoned her, along with the corporate job she gave up for film school, she’s tasked with rediscovering and redefining the idea of success and what she’s willing to compromise in order to get it. “We really liked the idea of this character that just screws up,” says series co-creator Mai Spurlock Sykes during our interview. “She has all of these ideals in the beginning about never compromising her integrity; she’s a gritty, independent filmmaker all the way. But by the end, she’s just so desperate for validation in her career that she sets herself up to betray that. But is that a betrayal?”
Mai Spurlock Sykes and Kim Spurlock are certainly no strangers to these types of internal challenges. But you wouldn’t know that speaking with them as both sisters are poised and polite with a sense of freedom that I imagine only comes from full self-expression. While working together- writing, producing and directing several projects- both short and feature length, the immovable pair have spent enough years navigating through Hollywood to know that having integrity mostly just gets in the way. But instead of complaining and resisting, the sisters chose to take the significance out of the topic, instead, writing about the absurdities in a humorous way that takes you inside the struggle through the eyes a dynamic character. “Growing up, you have all these ideals, then you meet the real world, you meet conflict, and you meet the real you emerge out of it. So that’s what we’re exploring in this story,” Mai comments. “We’re making Kit question whether or not she’s really out to make these gritty dramas that nobody sees, or is she perhaps more set up to be a more blockbuster type filmmaker. So that’s something she has to decide for herself. And there’s also a real sense of personal accountability that we as the filmmakers explore too.”
Photo by Kim Spurlock
It was, in fact, that sense of personal exploration that led to the making of Livin’ the Dream to begin with. While the series is not a biopic, it certainly draws heavily from Kim’s experience on the heels of completing her MFA from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Film Program. After writing and directing several award-winning short films while still in film school, even receiving a Student Academy award for her thesis film Down in No. 5, Kim began focusing her attentions on writing feature film scripts with her sister Mai. And while those scripts did get some attention from industry professionals, they didn’t go on to become produced feature films. But, unnerved, Kim and Mai continued to create their future rather than be at the affect of their circumstances in the present.
“We were tired of writing really nice scripts, and then waiting for somebody else to make them,” Mai says. “So a few years ago, I was listening to a pod cast on NPR about The Guild, which is a fun web series about gamers. And I thought it was very clever and would be very easy to do production and budget-wise because it was all interior shots and dialogue-based. So I called Kim, and I said, ‘Let’s do a web-series. Let’s just have some fun and take the pressure off. We could control the story, shoot everything in your apartment.’ And she was open to it.” So it was Mai who came up with the idea to base Livin’ the Dream on her sister Kim’s experience after completing grad school. She, in fact, diligently wrote four episodes within a couple of weeks, paying humorous homage to her sister and what she perceived Kim’s world to be like, including actual accounts from various meetings they’d had with talent and executives over the years. Yes, it’s this type of meticulous detail, along with the pop culture tie-ins, relationship drama and challenging of stereo types- that gives Livin’ the Dream the authenticity and suspense that audiences find so appealing in a web-series, a genre some would argue is still in it’s infancy.
“Doing a web series just seemed like a happy medium,” Kim says. “It allows us to move beyond the shorts and grow and develop, but without having to make the big financial and time commitment that comes with doing a feature. And I thought, ‘You know, that’s a really great challenge. How do you make something that’s really funny and entertaining with very limited money?’ And after three years of struggling to get our previous films made after doing really well in film school, it was demoralizing. So this project was a way to express all of that; it was like therapy.”
Yes, the process was therapeutic for the creators, and it’s been quite a similar experience for the audience as Kim and Mai have managed to take situations that could be considered upsetting, and flip them on their heads in a way that allows for laughter. “I always think about writing things that are fun and that we can shoot for minimal, but things that also say something about the struggle,” Mai says. “If you had told Kim that she would go to the best film school in the country and be living a great life as a freelance editor and director of photography- if you had told her that when she was 15- she would have been ecstatic. But as adults, every time you reach a goal you set for yourself, especially if you’re an ambitious person, the next thought is always ‘what’s next?’ So at what point are you living the dream?”
Photo by Lyle Vincent
Fortunately for Kim and Mai, coming up with an answer to that question was probably the most difficult part of process of creating the series. The actual writing, casting and filming of the series was far less complicated. Normally, the sister who comes up with the idea will be the one responsible for coming up with the general conflict, story arcs and the outline while the other sister supports and acts as a sounding board. But this project was actually their first “co-birthed” project, with Mai writing the first draft and sending it back to Kim for rewriting. Then Kim would write her version, and they’d continue to kick it back and forth to one another until coming to a solid consensus. And it was during this process that they really discovered just how much of their own lives are applicable to this story even down to the conversations they have.
“Sometimes we would actually blur the lines between when we were writing dialogue for the characters and when we were just talking to each other,” Mai remarks. “Like, the character would say, ‘When will this ever happen for me?’ And then we’d sort of drop character and think, ‘When is this going to happen for us?’ So we learned a lot about not giving up and not making excuses.”
And out of this excuseless attitude came a main character who’s funny and devoted, but not overly sensitive or significant. “I’ve been talking a lot recently on panels about the conscious decision to create a female character who’s not necessarily nice but a kind person because in TV shows and in the movies, with female characters, the tendency is to think ‘Do I like this girl, or do I not like this girl? What is this woman’s likability factor?’ So Kit is a person making decisions like any person, but we wanted to remove the ‘girl’ assessment. And it is a world we’re creating, but we were building stuff into her character that was interesting and dynamic and not necessarily feminine.”
Photo by Lyle Vincent
And this is exactly what leading actress Laura Campbell embodied when she showed up to audition on the day reserved for callbacks. Campbell was not someone Kim and Mai were originally considering to play the role; she was a last-minute add-on, courtesy of their co-producer. But her presence was undeniably spot on. “She just walked in dressed in what she wears in the web-series, sat down and started saying the lines, and she really seemed like a neurotic, artsy, self-involved director,” Kim says. “And then after rehearsals, I realized that she wasn’t like that at all. So she really just walked in and completely nailed it.”
After casting was done, Kim and Mai shot a total of 50 pages in 6 days between four sets, one apartment and a couple of paid venues. They were every bit as unstoppable with this project as they had been since Kim’s award-winning short films back in grad school. In fact, Kim credits getting into NYU’s graduate film program as one of the real turning points in her life because that admission gave light to the very real possibility of being that in-demand filmmaker that she’s always wanted to be. And that didn’t include solely making films about being Asian just because she happens to be bi-racial. No, she wanted to tell stories about being human with actors who could potentially be Asian. “But something that I did that I didn’t even realize I was doing with all of my previous films was I was telling stories solely with male protagonist,” Kim admits. “None of them were about women. And until very recently, I just wasn’t drawn toward making them because I thought if I make films with male protagonist, they would do better.”
Fortunately, Kim has since given that idea up and currently embraces stories about women, wholeheartedly, starting with Livin’ the Dream. And not only are they using this series to further female-driven stories all around, but they’re also getting some economical traction out of it as well, using it to promote their unproduced scripts. Yes, every script that’s mentioned in the series is a screenplay that Kim and Mai have either written together or alone. In fact, they are going into pre-production soon for a script called Kin. And there’s a script called A Case of the Dismals that Kit is work-shopping in the series that is an actual script that Kim wrote, which she took to the Venice Biennale Film Festival to pitch. So not only are the sisters great storytellers, but they’re also great marketers.
And in that, they already have their eyes set on a bigger platform. “One of my favorite shows is High Maintenance,” Kim says. “I love how it’s gone from Vimeo to HBO; I think it’s a great model, and it’s basically promoted through word of mouth. So that’s one route we could go with Livin’ the Dream. Another way would be to generate interest from Hollywood where we could produce it as a half-hour show. I think it would work really well as a 25-minute, eight-episode season. And it also works as the first act of a feature film.”
Whatever the platform, the message and the impact on anyone watching will be the same. Kim Spurlock and Mai Spurlock Sykes have created a smart, savvy and socially conscious series that will create a space for viewers to really look at and re-evaluate what success and living the dream really means. And, again, it may not give you any answers, but you will certainly have all the space in the world to discover something for yourself that could potentially shift your mindset, while leaving your entertained in the process.
“We’ve done a lot of poetic films together, but this was our first shot at comedy,” Kim says. “So we wanted to create something that would have people walk away with a smile. And also some idea of what it’s like to be a struggling filmmaker in the film world. It’s a world I’ve been involved in for about 15 years, and all of my friends are pretty much also independent filmmakers. And that was something I was ready to share.” For more information Livin’ the Dream on please check out the following: http://livinthedream.tv/ | Facebook
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