In recent months, fellow Cheese Magneteer, Scott Phillips, has been posting some entertaining interviews that made me want to try my hand at something similar. Scott has made a good start on the B-Movie industry so I thought I would try a slightly different niche for my first couple of interviews. Fortunately for me, Jay Ferguson, creator, writer, and director of the award winning (including an International Emmy) web series, Guidestones, was kind enough to take some time out to talk with me.
MD: First, let’s learn a bit about Jay Ferguson. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into filmmaking?
JF: I think I was, as a kid, really fascinated by the process, really fascinated by film. I probably had a very typical experience of a lot of people my age in that I was interested in film and television, but then I saw a movie called Star Wars in a movie theater and it really did totally blow my mind. What was the most interesting thing about that experience was that it came to my attention, because I was seven years old at the time, that there’s actually people making the content. There were actors and there were people writing stuff. There is a whole process to make this thing. So I became totally enthralled in the process right from that point. Then it wasn’t until I got involved in the theatre for many years that I became very interested in this idea of storytelling. Then amazingly, I guess when I got to university, I found people who were actually studying filmmaking and I was fascinated by that so it was like, “Okay I’ve got to try to do this.”
So I went to school. I was very lucky; I got some early breaks and got some jobs as a cinematographer. This would have been in the early 90’s, and the technology wasn’t fully there to just go out and shoot whatever you want the way it is now. You had to spend a lot of money on film and equipment. So I started as a cinematographer and that was a really great opportunity for me because I got to work on a lot of other people’s projects. I got to learn about filmmaking and the storytelling, while other people were footing the bill. <Laughs> And throughout that whole time I was writing and trying to get my own projects on the go. I would make a project of my own here and there. Obviously when the digital revolution came around about the turn of the century, I guess, things started really opening up for me, for everybody really. You could start to edit it on your computer instead of having to have a whole system. So I just started doing more and more of my own work at that point.
I was becoming frustrated about 7 or 8 years ago. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with traditional media in terms of it becoming harder and harder to actually get your projects produced. And I was really fascinated by what could be done online. I started this company called 3 O’Clock TV and started doing a bunch of different initiatives in terms of trying to create content for online, like high quality content. That eventually led to me meeting up with iThentic and then we developed Guidestones and then we made Guidestones.
MD: I guess that kind of answers my second question. What lured you in the direction of web series over more conventional film making? Was it the frustration with traditional media?
JF: Partially. It was partially frustration. On the one hand it is really, really hard to get traditional media made. On the other, I find it tremendously frustrating that media in [Canada] is more often than not a fully subsidized activity meaning that most content is financed by government funded agencies, including Guidestones, including everything I do. I think that I would like to wean myself off of that. I would love to be able to create a sustainable business model. It might not be possible but I’m really trying. I’m not saying I don’t want their money. I need their money right now. But the fact is that I want it to be a business. I want this to be a business. I feel that that’s a genuine possibility. That maybe I can actually do that online.
MD: Through web series rather than conventional formats?
JF: Yeah. I mean I’ve had conversations with people at Telefilm who have said they would love to see people go off and be successful and not have to give them money and then the money could go to other people. [Telefilm Canada is a corporation reporting to the Canadian federal government. Its primary mandate is the financing and promoting of Canadian audiovisual productions.] But, whatever. It’s a hard business.
MD: For people that may not yet be familiar with Guidestones, give us your best marketing pitch. Tell us a bit about the production and the story being told.
JF: Well, Guidestones is the story of two journalism students who discover this unsolved murder. As they start to look into and uncover what happened in this murder, they uncover a global conspiracy. What’s great about it is that it’s a good old fashion thriller. It’s very engaging but it’s unique in a couple ways. Because it’s online, the episodes are very short and there’s 50 of them so you get 50 cliff hangers. If you like a cliff hanger, if you like whodunits, it’s fun because after three minutes there is another cliff hanger. The episodes happen very quickly and they’re fun to consume. You can consume one here or there and it doesn’t take up a lot of time but there’s still a lot of bang for the buck.
The other thing that I think is really engaging about Guidestones and probably the reason why it has been getting a lot of attention is because it has interactive elements. The interactivity is such a key element to it. At the end of every episode there’s the cliff hanger and everything in the episode is searchable. So if you see a mysterious license plate, you can Google that and that will actually take you to hidden content that we put online. So you can kind of get ahead of the protagonists. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, it’s all summed up in the beginning of the next episode, but the thing I think that’s really cool about it is that you can actually participate within the story. That’s never been done before.
Another thing that’s really cool is the fact that you can sign up for it. There’s different ways you can watch it. You can just go and watch it. Or you can sign up and actually have the emails sent to you. They get sent to you in real time sort of how the events happen for the characters. So if you start now over the course of the next month you’ll receive emails for 3-4 weeks and they will be links to each new episode and it happens in real time as it is happening to the characters. There’s so many different ways you can consume it. That’s what’s really cool about it.
MD: Because you brought it up, let me just say that the short episodes were a factor in drawing me into the series. I met you guys at Toronto ComicCon, signed up, received the first episode, and thought, “Hey, at worst I spend five minutes…”
MD: “…and if I don’t like it well then I’m out five minutes of my life.” And then another five minutes was not going to kill me. Before I knew it, I was hooked. I think that was a very clever marketing approach.
JF: Well I’ll tell you, it’s my goal and why my company is named 3 O’Clock TV. It was always this idea of hitting that sweet spot at 3 o’clock when you need a break; when you just need something. You need a quick fix. It was this whole idea that you could take a five minute break, watch something, be engaged and active, and leave until the next day. Like you said, it’s not a huge commitment.
MD: You centred the story on the Georgia Guidestones, a real monument and real modern day mystery. How did you first hear about the Guidestones and why incorporate them rather than create something uniquely your own?
JF: Wired magazine put out this article on the Georgia Guidestones, a friend of mine forwarded it to me, and I was totally fascinated. I was actually at the time looking for something like that, some kind of interesting mystery. So I started doing research and I met this woman who had a very fascinating story around the Guidestones. So I loosely adapted her story to make this into an actual fiction.
Why I went with something real was for a couple reasons. One, her story was fascinating. But also it really tweaked in my mind this idea of being interactive online. We created a lot of the interactive elements that you would seek out online like the websites that supported the things you can search. But I also thought about how I could actually take a bunch of a real stuff and put it in there as well. So the whole story is intertwining real things that actually happened or real places or real locations with things that are fictitious so that you could kind of get lost in it if you want to. So if something happens at a certain location, we actually shot at that location. We went to actual real locations so you can street view any of those locations. Certain things happened there and you can Google them. You can spend all this time online if you want looking at these things like very cool abandoned buildings or that kind of stuff. So it was really deliberate to do that so your online experience can be as rich as you want it to be.
MD: I have read Raymond Wiley’s book about the Georgia Guidestones. There are a lot of different people with a lot of different opinions and conspiracy theories about the Guidestones including individuals that seem somewhat militant and maybe even of a violent tendency. Were you hesitant at all with throwing your name out there and associating yourself with the Guidestones? Were you concerned that maybe somebody will not like what you’re saying?
JF: Certainly. We were definitely wading in all sorts of very interesting waters. And we put out our own theories that are kind of interesting and based on certain facts, or certain theories anyways. There were points where I felt a little bit nervous, actually. There were couple of points where I thought, “Oh what is going to be the fallout of this?” You kind of rush into something because it’s fascinating and interesting and you’re just thinking about what a great story it is to tell. And then you think, “Hmmm, who could I actually possibly be offending along the line?” So yeah, it crossed my mind. It certainly crossed my mind. And I know that other people that I’ve come across who have dealt with the Guidestones have had seriously unfriendly experiences around it. So far that hasn’t really happened.
Originally when I met this woman who Sandy was based on, I actually thought I should make a documentary about her. But she wasn’t interested. Then I thought, well if I fictionalize it then in some ways I almost have more leeway. It’s almost a safer way to do it, through fiction. You’re not actually naming somebody specifically. It can always be sort of said, “Oh it’s just fiction.” So it’s kind of almost a safety in a way. Does that make sense?
MD: Until the conspiracy theorists decide that you’re telling the real story and just calling it a fiction.
JF: Yeah. Exactly! <Laughs> We’ll see what happens.
MD: The factual basis combined with the interactive aspects of the series gives a unique sense of realism to the story. I know from my personal experience that the line between fiction and reality starts to blur when an internet search for clues stumbles across real articles about the Guidestones and their designer, R. C. Christian. Have I found something you guys put out there or the real thing?
JF: Yeah, and it adds to the enjoyment, right? And it’s kind of fun. The fact that happened for you is so great. That’s always been the thing. We would get emails from people saying, “Oh my gosh! That building! I have a story behind that building!” or “I have a personal thing that happened around that.” That’s really cool.
MD: So, what came first, the factual basis or the interactive component? Where did the idea to take this interactive approach originate?
JF: The idea was to do something interactive online. I wanted to do something with this interactive component even before Guidestones became the story. In my research I was finding out certain things about audiences and online behaviors. One thing was that people wanted content for free so you couldn’t charge for it. The other one was that people wanted to be interactive in a way that was different from just the traditional one way dialogue that you have with media, the sort of passive engagement with media. Passive engagement with media, while it’s still an important part of what we do, is sort of becoming less and less in a way. The Divinci Code was a real inspiration for me, say what you want about the book; the idea that so much stuff in this is real that you could seek out. It was engaging enough that you could kind of just check it out. That I found was extremely cool.
So I guess the point is that having that interactivity was something I really wanted to do. Everything sort of lined up and then the Guidestones came into my life. And I was like, “Oh, there is something I can really do here in terms of making those two things work.”
MD: I’ll be honest. I was a little sceptical of the interactive component at first because I wasn’t sure I would be able to willingly suspend my disbelief. But dealings with the Guidestones Keystone and doing Internet searches and stumbling across real facts, allowed a deeper immersion in the story. I actually feel that those viewers that chose to watch the series in a more traditional manner missed out on something. How successful do you think the interactive aspects turned out? Were there any problems with that approach?
JF: The interactive side of it and your skepticism about it at the beginning as you’ve expressed is, I think, probably not atypical. The thing is it’s a totally unique format that we’ve created. I mean it really is from scratch. It’s never been done before and so one of our biggest problems is that we have to explain to our audience how the hell you use it. It’s not hard. Watch the show like you would watch a show. If you see something you feel like Googling, Google it. Those are really the instructions. But I think that most people probably go into it like, “I’m not going to play this.” I think probably most people are kind of like, “What the heck is this thing?”
MD: Did you get any negative response to the interactive aspects?
JF: It’s really interesting you ask that because nobody’s ever criticized the interactivity itself. But, negative feedback? Yeah, absolutely. When we first launched you could only get Guidestones the way that you watched it. You had to sign up; that was the only way you could watch it. So a whole bunch of people signed up for the beginning and we were getting lots of feedback. We got two pieces of criticism. One was that the emails are coming too fast. I can’t keep up. So then they’re piling up. And then it becomes intimidating. The other criticism was that they didn’t come fast enough. So, okay. All right. So they don’t come fast enough. I can live with that because it just means you’re drawing out the anticipation and the people who are really into it can wait a bit. But I was worried about people saying that it was coming too fast. I know people are busy and it’s hard to get to them every day. So I actually slowed it down. It was originally three weeks and I slowed it down to four weeks. That was a direct response to our feedback. I always try to make changes based on feedback from people. I didn’t know what to expect when we launched. I really didn’t. But it was very cool in terms of seeing how audiences reacted. We kind of adjusted to it in various different ways but then ultimately after a few months we realized that everybody’s consumption appetites are different. Some people like to do the more interactive way, the way you did it, and then there are some people who just like to binge. It’s classic now, right? Netflix just puts a whole season out and people watch it in a day, right? So we wanted to make sure there’s a version of that out there for people who wanted to watch it. So there’s three different ways you can essentially watch it on our website. You can do the more interactive version by signing up. You can just binge watch it right there. Or you can buy it and own it.
MD: So the emails were simply timed?
JF: Yeah. Yeah.
MD: I find that interesting. I assumed they were timed because I didn’t know how else you would do it. But sometimes I would just finish an episode and another would immediately show up in my mailbox. And I would get this feeling that somebody was watching me. Again it comes back to the suspension of disbelief and giving in to it.
JF: That’s cool. That’s very cool.
MD: Fit well with the story too.
JF: Yeah, yeah. <Laughs> For sure. That’s good. I’m glad. That’s a good feeling for you to get.
MD: Having limited exposure to web series in the past, I had associated them, perhaps unfairly, with a lower grade of product. But, despite being a small production with a small budget, Guidestones has a real shine to it. The cinematography, the locales, and some truly great acting raised Guidestones to a level of quality that surprised me. Can you tell me a little about how everything gets done under a tight budget?
JF: Well, the real, honest-to-goodness fact is that there are not a lot of high budget web series out there because there’s just no funding for them, because the monetization model is really unknown. In the United States now we’re starting to see some web series coming out that have a little bit higher production value. It’s hard to raise money for them. Again it goes back to this notion that there are certain public monies out there to make content and the providers don’t have a web series category. The exceptions are the Independent Production Fund and the OMDC [a provincial funding agency in Ontario]. Those are the two places that we went to get money and we were very lucky. Other than that there is very little money out there to create this content. So the fact is that it’s hard. People are making these things on shoe strings and so the criticism of there being a lot of web content that is sort of sub-standard in terms of quality, it’s totally true. It’s totally true and it’s not for lack of trying. It’s certainly for lack of resources to do this.
With Guidestones we were lucky because we also managed to get some brand partners together which helped us finance it. So we have a little bit more resources. But we also, between my company and Ithentic my co-production company, poured all our resources into it. We put everything we had into it. So we subsidized it in many ways. I mean, I think of Guidestones really like it would probably take about a million bucks to make Guidestones. The fact is that we had about a third of that and the rest of it was basically sweat equity. It was also a team of people who have been creating content for a very, very long time. Between Ithentic and 3 O’Clock TV we have been doing this for close to two decades. The fact is that we had a lot to draw on in terms of our skill set and experience. I think all those factors coming together really helped us make Guidestones something good. And to me, my goal and I know Jonas’ goal, the executive producer, was always to make this a really high end project and try and make it as good as possible. That we would, through the course of that, hopefully start to discover what the realities are of producing this kind of content and if we can actually create a sustainable business model.
MD: When you are dealing with, what did you call it, sweat equity, how do the bills get paid? Are there days when the bills are due and the funds are just not there?
JF: Yeah, there is certainly some of that. We, both Ithentic and myself, are gap financing the project in many ways. There would be times when we didn’t have money so I would be running up my line of credit until we would get our money in. There’s certainly a lot of balancing on that front. Same with iThentic. But the way we tried to not go too far down that road was that basically most of the people who worked on Guidestones worked either for free or they worked for very little. It has always been, was and is on-going, a very dedicated team of people who are not getting paid necessarily industry standards for the amount of time and work and effort that they’re putting into it. And I knew going into it that it was going to be like that. So I’ve always been very upfront with people when they’ve come to work on it. I’ve said, “We’re doing a project; it’s interesting. This is quite literally how much money there is for you.” And we certainly have had a lot of people not come on board because of that, which I fully respect. But the fact is that, yeah, it’s not a great paying job down here at Guidestones. <Laughs>
MD: So is the process of casting the actors any different because of that?
JF: No, actually. The one group of people who got paid pretty well were the actors. The actors have a pretty strong union, which is good. When we were first going into it, I didn’t think we could afford the actor union and I started casting non-union. That’s reality in most web series. They are non-union for the most part or I would say the majority of them are anyways. But I had in my mind some actors that I knew and had worked with. So finally we just had to go union. I needed that strong talent base so we went union and I’m very grateful for that. They were incredibly important. But I also know that ACTRA [Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Arts] is trying very, very hard to find ways to be more supportive of low budget web series ‘cause the fact is that none of them have big budgets. And they’re a great place for actors to practice their craft. That’s an ongoing thing. But right now the cast is still probably the single largest line item for Guidestones for sure and, like I said, well worth every penny. I wish I had enough money to pay everybody what they are paid because everybody who’s worked on the project has been well worth whatever they contributed. But the actors tend to get paid a little better.
Jay had a lot more interesting insights into the film making industry. Be sure to check back next week for the exciting conclusion to my interview with Guidestones creator Jay Ferguson. In the meantime, check out Guidestones at guidestones.org. Hey, at worst you spend five minutes…