Robert Bruce Carter takes us back to the storytelling basics with his web series Words Fail Me. With a jolly soundtrack and quick editing, each pair of characters find themselves in wacky situations under a simple premise: I know something you don’t know. From there, things get delightfully weird. Fans of improv will love it, and the casual addition of absurd plot points gives both the actors and the audience more to chew on than just a simple sketch.
The scenes, all written by Carter, are built for the actor with a competitive edge, and I don’t mean simply aggressive. The competitive actor is actually an expert listener and a sensitive scene partner always ready to adjust their tactics based on a careful reading of their other half. For example, in the episode “Coffee and Sex,” we see actor David Jackson pulling out all the stops to talk his girlfriend, played by Dayna Shrader, into a threesome. He is goofy, playful, seductive and pleading based on Schrader’s waxing and waning enthusiasm for the idea. When she finally warms up to it and makes some suggestions of her own, he backtracks and she is the one who must reel him in.
One limitation of the short format is that the focus has to be on moments of discovery and realizations, and can’t extend too much into action. For example, in “The Affair,” Brendan Murphy’s character threatens action after hearing about the antics of his mistress, played by Annie Sauter. There are valid reasons that keep the characters from running to save their lives, but we might not feel the panicked pressure that keeps them in place without the jump cuts and quick editing from Carter.
In the third episode an offer to collaborate on project seems too good to be true, and actors Russell Stern and Flavia Borges must figure out who is manipulating the other. Of the three episodes out so far, I felt this one made the most of the tension in these close-up situations and had the viewer switching sympathies every time new information came forward. There is so much potential for great awkward moments, and Stern makes the most of every last one. Episodes are released each week through August 11th, with Episode 4 out on June 28th at http://wordsfailmeseries.com/episodes/
Three of four stars!
Interview with Robert Bruce Carter:
I was taking acting classes at The Artistic Home, where they teach Meisner Technique. We used to do these improvised setups, where two actors were given a scenario to improvise. The fun part was that each actor also received some secret information that the other actor didn’t know.
I loved watching these scenes because they put people in a sort of emotional crucible where they’re forced to be vulnerable and go after what they want. The result was acting with a lot of genuine human behavior. Some of them were so funny that I decided I wanted to create a few of my own and put them on camera to see if the work translated to the screen.
I spent about a week coming up with different scenarios. I keep a Word doc on my computer with a running list of odd situations and some just came to me. And I found the appendix of Keith Johnstone’s Improv for Storytellers to be helpful.
I started with 45 different scenarios and narrowed that list down to six, based on comedic potential and how feasible they were to shoot.
I had to cut some that I really liked, like “man awakes to find his wife has been turned into a dog” for obvious reasons. I really wanted to do one where a woman kidnaps the casting director for Chicago Fire and demands a part as an arsonist, but I just couldn’t get it to work the way I wanted. Maybe Dick Wolf will produce season two of Words Fail Me and we can figure it out together.
The Process Question
There was no script per se. I wrote a treatment for each episode that included a set of shared circumstances (things that both characters know) and private circumstances (things that one knows but the other doesn’t). I also wrote a rough story outline to help me keep the story on track while we were shooting.
I spent a lot of time honing the treatments because I had to make sure that the characters needed each other and that they had some surprises for the other character. For instance, in episode two, I had to give the boss (Annie Sauter) ways to keep the employee (Brendan Murphy) in the room. Any sane person would just run home and wait for the mail, but that would be boring. So I told her that he was bad at his job and had a big gambling debt so that she could use that against him when he tried to leave. In the end, it he got out, but it forced him to make a real decision.
The editing process was in some ways more like editing a documentary than a typical narrative, because the dialogue was improvised and changed on every take. So in a way, the stories had to be recreated as I edited—I used the original outline that I had and then rewrote it based on what the actors said, and did my best to put it all together in a cohesive story. Going from 75 minutes of material to 5ish minutes was not easy and took a long time.
I tried to not waste a single second of screen time, because web audiences are pretty quick to pull the cord when they get bored. People will give a new TV show four or five hours to get going but close the window on a web video after 15 seconds.
Apart from assembling the story, the biggest editing challenge was maintaining a balance of power and likability between the two characters so that the audience wasn’t too far in the camp of one character—I wanted the audience to empathize with, if not relate to, both characters in each episode. I think if we’re honest, we can all find more in common with them then we’d like to admit publicly.
Lately I’ve been listening to Radio M on WBEZ while writing. I really love Tony Sarabia’s playlists on that show and I recreate them on Spotify and listen while I write.
As for film and TV, I was trying to detox from streaming TV but then Hulu added Seinfeld and so that’s happening now. I’ve been trying to watch films that take place in a single location or revolve around a dinner party – stuff like The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie, The Dinner Game, Coherence, and even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I want to make a feature film next and I’m going to be limited in terms of budget and locations, so I’m doing my homework.
Art vs. Bank
It’s a delicate balance and a constant struggle! For the last five years I’ve been alternating between full-time work and freelancing for a day job. So I’m either short on time or short on money—there doesn’t seem to be any way around it.
Lately I’ve made peace with having a day job, in part because I’m going to need more money to do the kinds of projects that I want to do. I’m inspired by writers like Franz Kafka, who worked in an insurance office for most of his life, while writing amazing novels at night. If Kafka didn’t get paid for his passion, then I don’t really have any right to demand a creative salary from the world.
I meet a lot of people that are in a hurry to do something artistic for a living. I’m less in love with that idea now than I used to be. There’s a great freedom from not making a living from your craft or art or whatever you want to call it. I can write whatever I want and if I want to make a web series or a film or a Dadaist musical about autistic chipmunks, then nobody can tell me no. It means fundraising and working with lower budgets and being creative with marketing, but there’s a lot of value in the freedom. Not that I don’t like money.
If I do get to make a living from writing or directing someday, it will probably be because I built up an audience slowly, one project at a time, hopefully in a way that allows me freedom to work on what I want to work on. As for getting things done, I’ve made it a priority to write every day, even if it’s for only 30 minutes. Sometimes that means waking up at 6am so I can write before my day job starts or it means being disciplined about working a little bit every night.
If I gave a commencement address, spreadsheets would feature heavily in the advice portion. Everyone today thinks they should follow their dreams, and maybe that’s true, but it’s going to take a lot of mundane life-management-type stuff to get there. You have to take care of the mundane stuff so your mind is free to think about the crazy stuff.
Pros and Cons
The hardest part is getting people to watch it, and that aspect sort of permeates all art forms nowadays. As a consumer of culture, I’m totally overwhelmed. There are so many good shows, books, movies, etc. out there – it’s impossible to consume all the great stuff.
Trying to get people to watch it raises all sorts of existential questions for me. Am I adding something worthwhile to the vast ocean of content? Do people really need this? Just because I can make something, should I? Wouldn’t the world be better off if I started an orphanage instead?
I would say that being on set and hanging out and laughing with the actors and crew was definitely the most rewarding part. Actors are so busy—the easiest way to spend time with my friends is to cast them in something. And the feedback on the series has been great. I’m OK with Words Fail Me not being a hit – the positive feedback from people who have seen it has been really nice.
The Chicago acting and stage/film community is amazing and vast. We have so much acting talent here, it’s unbelievable. Most of my friends here in Chicago are from classes or shows I’ve done. I met a lot of great people going through the various improv training programs at The Annoyance Theatre and Second City.
For filmmaking, Chicago Filmmakers is a great organization in Andersonville – I took classes there with Jerzy Rose and Stephen Cone, two really great filmmakers working in Chicago, and I’ve made some good friends there too. IFP/Chicago is another great filmmaking organization here and they do a lot to support the community, bring people together, and educate people on the craft and the business of filmmaking.
And it really helps that we have Columbia College and a few other really great film schools in Chicago, supplying the city with a steady supply of young and ambitious filmmakers. Both of our crew members on Words Fail Me, Hannah Welever and Erin Turney, are recent Columbia grads with impressive projects of their own.
*Interview has been lightly edited + condensed.