Robin Bell | TWISTED SHOWCASE

PrintE-mail Written by Andrew Pollard

Here at STARBURST, we’re huge fans of the demented brilliance of Twisted Showcase. A hugely acclaimed webseries that began life back in 2012, the series has become a bit of a cult favourite throughout its three series and two eBooks to date. With genre favourites such as Norman Lovett and Gareth David-Lloyd part of the dark and sinister short films, many have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the show's Series 4. As Robin Bell takes centre-stage while longtime collaborator Rhys Jones takes a backseat for now, we caught up with Robin to see what lies ahead for the webseries ahead of its impeding return.

STARBURST: So, Twisted Showcase is back for Series 4! Obviously a lot is being kept hush-hush right now, but what juicy details can you let us in on?

Robin Bell: The two big highlights are Gareth David-Lloyd is directing an episode – his directorial debut – and we’ve got a BAFTA winning writer writing an episode as well, Debbie Moon. I put together the trailer and it was really weird. I looked through previous trailers, and you don’t want to give the big plot details away, so I was thinking, “I can’t reveal that, I can’t reveal that, what can I put in to the trailer to make people want to watch this? They’ve been on TV, they’re a recognisable face.” Then I was like, “What am I going to cut out?!” Even though they’re not massive names, they’re people who have been in sitcoms, kids’ TV, Being Human, stuff like that. Like we’ve got Mark Fleischmann, who’s probably not a recognisable name but he’s been in Inception and Being Human and stuff like that. That was the most mental film, that was in Gareth’s film. His character’s this really out-there, weird kind of character, and he was so intense filming it that in between takes he’d go and have a sleep.

Did Gareth have any involvement in the writing side of that then, or was that just mainly you?

I remember you interviewed him for Series 3 and you asked him if he’d ever want to direct something, then I thought, “Maybe he’d direct one for Twisted Showcase,” so then I asked him. I said, “We’ve got three scripts that we’re working on for Series 4, I’ll send them over.” One stuck out, and he said he’d do it but asked if he can rejig a few bits. We passed it back and forth, but it’s really weird getting scripts from Gareth or from Debbie, giving them notes back; it’s crazy. It is really, really difficult.

This is the first season you’ve done without your longtime partner in crime Rhys Jones. Have you found it better or worse to be flying solo this time out?

Probably worse! It’s taken a lot longer. Even though I think Rhys would sometimes take a backseat, when we’re sending out press releases and stuff then we’d split it in half so it wouldn’t take all day.

And what’s it been like from a creative standpoint in that way? It makes more work for yourself but you can do whatever you want without having a sounding board.

I think it’s definitely changed the series a bit. All of the episodes were quite dark but Rhys always wrote the ones that were more comedy, like the one with Norman [Lovett] in last time. Even though it was people being forced to eat piss and shit. Yes, it’s quite grim but you’re meant to laugh at it more rather than think this is horrible. Then [Twisted Showcase veteran] Gordon Mitchell’s directed two this year. I know he sometimes has all of these ideas in him, then he gets a bit stressed. A lot of the films he makes himself are with his mates and are over six months, picking it up on weekends. But we were shooting with Rachel Teate from Boy Meets Girl, and she was in Wolfblood that Debbie wrote. So we only had one day to shoot, so we just had to keep him calm. Once you guide Gordon and get him to get the stuff he needs, he’s brilliant in the editing.


Series 4's Be My Head

In terms of the idea bank, is that purely you now then? Obviously you have some writers such as Debbie Moon involved, but do the crux of the episodes come from just yourself now?

With Debbie, I was meeting her in Wrexham – she was doing a talk at Glyndwr [University] so we went for a coffee afterwards – and my plan was to ask her if she wanted to write Twisted Showcase. We sat down and she said, “I’ve got an idea for Twisted Showcase!” So she pitched this idea to me and it was like this kind of body horror. With a massage, it’s like different areas of the body hold different memories. There’s this person who’s suffered this trauma, and as they get massaged then these memories start coming out. It’s not gory in a body horror way like Cronenberg does, but it’s the secrets in the body that come out in this weird way that always creep me out. It’s like when people say you’ve got something wrong with your foot then it means you’ve got something wrong with your heart. You put your symptoms in Google and it says it’s cancer whatever you do. But that’s what I think Twisted Showcase is really; that thing that you fear, it’s just put through the Internet, put through Google, and it reaches this weird level where it’s terrifying.

How many episodes for this new series then?

Six episodes this time. We normally do five. We were doing five this time but we had this script left over which is a really kind of odd, small idea. We thought there’s no point doing this idea if we don’t get someone big in it to sell it, because it’s just such a weird idea. This one character just has this one word apart from this speech at the end. So we thought, “I wonder if Norman would be up for this?” It’s an odd episode, it’s in his sort of field, and I thought that it’s not as out-there and mental as [Series 3’s Norman Lovett-starring] Toilet Soup but it’s an odd idea that he might go for. I sent it to him, he got back straight away to say he was up for that. In Toilet Soup, he played the guy in the suit in the toilet. In the script, he was listed as “man in the suit”, so he was telling how he does actually have only one suit and so it’ll be the same suit he’ll wear.

So he could realistically be playing the same person in both episodes?

Well, this episode is kind of set in the future. We’ve got two episodes set in the future. There’s no flying cars or anything, though.

You’ve brilliantly utilised Kickstarter over the past few years, so how has that experience been?

We did two Kickstarters this time. We did five episodes then we thought we’d do a Kickstarter for Norman’s episode. They’re always really stressful, but it was really good; we exceeded the target for the first one, and did well for Norman’s episode. It’s really weird this time. I always feel that you always need something to draw people in, and that’s normally where we’d get Gareth or Norman.

And with both Norman and Gareth, they’ve both got a huge fanbase out there from their days on Red Dwarf on Torchwood, respectively.

It is, it’s insane! Gareth’s fanbase is really intense. He is a great actor, and I always remember the first film we did. We were all kind of, “What are we doing? We’ve got a plan, but…” And he came in and just told us all what we needed to be doing. He’s actually working on his own webseries. I met up with him a couple of weeks ago to talk it through. I think he wants me to co-produce it, so I said, “Well, if you let me write one…” So we’re kind of putting that together slowly.


Series 4's Fortune Teller

As a writer with a visual eye, have you noticed whether your influences have changed since you first started Twisted Showcase?

The thing that’s changed is that instead of a four or five-minute John Squire guitar solo, I can get the same sort of emotion in thirty seconds now. When you’re trying to get a point across, it would’ve taken me four or five pages before. Now, I’ll get that in a line.

And do you feel that you can manage to make that line have the same impact as the four or five pages?

I think so, I hope so, yeah. Sometimes, I sit and watch an episode and think about how you need to pay attention to it. There’s one episode, there’s a guy in his sixties. He turns up at this girl’s door, she’s in her late-teens, early-twenties, and he’s telling her he’s her eighteen-year-old boyfriend. It plays out over a five-minute episode but there’s four or five twists in it, so you need to pay attention. And I do sometimes worry about that, that you might lose people.

Earlier this year saw you put out your first DVD, bring together all three series to date. How did things go with that?

It went better than expected really. We always said we wouldn’t release it on DVD. It’s free on YouTube so why would you want it on DVD? Then there were loads of people on Twitter asking if we were ever going to release it on DVD. So I put a Twitter poll up, and enough people said they would buy it. And I think we’ve only got, like, five left now.

Where was the furthest afield that you’ve had to send a copy?

That was the most insane thing! Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, New York, somewhere in Texas, Atlanta. It’s crazy! When I got up in the morning and saw Japan, I was just, “This is mad, how did they find us?!”

How has your fanbase built and changed over the years?

It’s hard to tell really. I think more people watch the episodes as soon as they go up now, where before they might have gone, “Oh, that Twisted Showcase thing is up. I’ll watch that soon” and then forget about it and watch it in a month’s time. Now, even putting up videos to say who’s going to be in an episode brings in plenty of views. I think there’s more people looking forward to it. It’s been three or four years since the last series. With two Kickstarters and the DVD and the exhibition we did in Wrexham [at Undegun], we’ve managed to keep our name out there and ticking over. And we’ve cast people along the way, so that’s caught people’s attention.

In terms of stories, what can you tell us about the new series without giving too much away?

I think the first episode’s the one people will be talking about the most, the one Gareth’s directed. It sounds like a really difficult thing to watch, it’s all about grief. Basically, Gareth’s character is called Lucifer Jones, he’s gone through this massive tragedy. It opens up, he’s got a shard of glass against his wrist, so he’s suffering this intense grief. Then Mark Fleischmann‘s character, who’s called Godfrey Cavendish, turns up. He’s this whirling dervish of insanity, and he says he’s got this machine that can take away your grief. So it’s about what life would be like if you didn’t suffer grief. He goes to this machine and has his grief removed, and it spins off from there. It’s a black comedy really, it’s a really funny episode. People will either think Mark’s character’s insane or they’ll love it. We thought whether to reign him in or just let him go, but even just watching it back it sends chills down the spine. It’s not got special effects in it but it’s kind of got things in it that I didn’t think would look that good. The machine that takes away grief is a tape recorder and lights, but it looks quite impressive. And I think it might have the first Twisted Showcase wanking scene in it.


Series 4's TheValley Below

How do you come up with these ideas, and do you ever feel that you need to reign yourself in at times?

I think when me and Rhys were together there were times where we thought things were too stupid.

Too stupid or too dark?

Too stupid, I think. We could go as dark as we wanted. We had an idea before, it’s a guy and a woman who have hooked up over a dating site that’s like Skype. For some reason, this guy’s an alien and the things that unlock him are “Arsehole, arsehole, bumhole, backdoor”. So Rhys has this idea that when she said arsehole, he starts rubbing his head and then eventually reveals himself as an alien. We thought that was brilliant! In the room at the time this was the best idea we’d ever had. Luckily, the next day we decided we weren’t going to do that.

Is there any part of you that feels like you miss having somebody to possibly pull you back at times with certain ideas and decisions?

Rhys was there in the script stages, so it was just the filming that he wasn’t there. Saying that, Gordon shot one of the films with his friends over six months, and Rhys said he’d chase that up for me. So he kind of still was there. We co-wrote the episode about the guy in his sixties who thinks he’s eighteen, and we filmed that at Rhys’ house, so he was there that day. But that was sad because that felt like the last time we’d be proper Twisted Show on set. It’s a lot more serious on set without me and Rhys. I was saying to Gareth the other day, me and Rhys would do this good thing. Being on set can be stressful, and me and Rhys would look like we’re messing about, but Rhys would always say, “It’s really weird because you’re messing about with me but I can see you’re watching what other people are doing. I’ve started doing it as well, and if something isn’t going on that should be happening then I’ll tell people to do it.” That was good and it creates a good atmosphere; me and Rhys would joke with each other yet still keep an eye on what was going on. I think after four seasons you stop worrying you’re going to get something because you know you can pull something together in the editing. The other episodes, I think one of the ones Gordon did was the darkest. I did send that to Rhys and he asked whether I really wanted to do something this horrible.

Is there anything at all that’s ever totally off limits?

I think showing it on camera, I think we wouldn’t show certain things. We did have one episode once where we thought we’d really make an exploitation episode. It wasn’t a Twisted Showcase script to begin with. It was one of the first things I wrote, and I was in touch with a producer who said he was looking to make really out-there short films that might not win awards but that would get lots of attention due to their content. I debated whether I really wanted to write something like that, but I started writing and it was quite fun when I realised I could just Spinal Tap this. If he wanted horrible, I was going to give him horrible. And I gave it him, and he said he wasn’t going to make it because it was disgusting. So I showed it to Rhys and told him, “I want to make it, I want to make it!” Rhys was really in to it for a bit, and I think we even put a casting call out for it. We had to put disclaimers about the kind of content it would involve, then loads of people applied! Then we decided that if so many people were taking it seriously then we couldn’t really make it.

Looking ahead past the fourth series, are there any tentative plans for more Twisted Showcase in the future, be that in eBook form or the webseries?

I think Rhys’ plan was to write more short stories for them, and I don’t think it’s kind of worked out. I think he’s got a couple of shorts bubbling away, but I think he’s trying to write something a little bit longer. So they’re probably on hold. If we’re going to do another series, we might try and do something different. We did write a sitcom actually. It was about two old guys and we thought that Norman Lovett would be brilliant for it. It’s about two characters, one’s an aging rock star, one’s his friend who’s a bit glum. I sent it to Norman and told him he’d be great for it. He read it and said, “I love it, I want to be in it, I want to be the rock star! Give me five minutes, let me dress up.” Then he sent me a picture to show what he’d look like. So we’re going to send that to a few places and see if people want to do it. If not, we’ll make it ourselves with Norman. That would be me and Rhys again.

Would that be a full episode format or still shorts?

Well, we’ve got half-hour scripts.

How do you feel about the idea of transitioning from five-minute shorts to a half-hour sitcom?

If we got the same budget that we got for a full series of Twisted Showcase then we could afford to do it. I don’t know if people would want that, though. Have you seen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip? It’s basically a bit like that. It’s two old guys talking about their own mortality and realising they’re close to death – so it’s cheery! – but between that they’re just like two children. Norman’s character, the rock star, keeps asking his grumpy friend if he’s ever put his finger up his bum, if he’s ever tried that. So it keeps alternating between this really childish stuff and death.

So Norman would be the rock star?

That’s the plan. Maybe we could do it where he plays both characters, just that they’re never in the same shot. That saves money!

Series 4's No Hotline

Is there any chance of fifth series of Twisted Showcase still, or are you just looking to go in a different direction with a different project next then?

I think if we’re doing more Twisted Showcase, I think we’d do a big, big kind of episode, like Be My Head. We usually try to keep them under ten minutes, usually around five to seven minutes, but Be My Head is fifteen minutes long. It’s an epic, it’s like Lord of the Rings for us! If we were going to do another one, we’d like to do a bigger budget. We do have an anthology feature script where it’s three twenty-five minutes stories with a linking device through them. So we have thought about maybe doing that. It’s tough because you’re not going to get in cinemas with anything low budget. Then selling an anthology of DVD to a regular punter is difficult unless you’ve got a main character that you can put on the DVD or maybe a big horrible puppet or something. Like The Value Below episode of the new series, it has no named cast in it, so that’s the one I thought had to be really dark. That was the one I worried about, because each time we release one without a name I always feel you need to give people a reason to watch.

How do you find that balancing act? On the one hand, a name such as Norman Lovett or Gareth David-Lloyd instantly brings people in, but then having relative unknowns means the audience has a fresh slate in their mind when thinking of what to expect.

I think that’s the good thing about The Value Below. It’s difficult to pick favourites, but when I saw it I thought it had come out much better than I ever thought. Even saying to Rhys, I’d said about how I’d written this one that was really dark – even when I was writing it, I thought it was far too dark. I think Gordon’s quite good with that heightened stuff, and this was in his ballpark. So it was going to come out terrible and over the top, or it could come out really well. It was a risk. So I gave it to Gordon to see what he could do. He shot it over six months, and I was thinking that he was never going to get it done. One of the cast worked on an oil rig or something where he had to go away for months, and he came back and said he couldn’t shoot this time because he’d had to shave his beard off for a job interview. So we were really panicking over that, that it was never going to get finished. Then we shot something in Undegun, we were going to shoot one time there but they didn’t have the availability. It was quite stressful and I thought it was going to come out terrible because there had been such a long gap. He sent me the film and I had such low expectations. I put it on and was just, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” I hadn’t even read the script for two years so I was trying to work out how it pieced together, what was going on through the story. Then there’s flashbacks and I found myself wondering what they all meant. I’m not sure if it was even in the script or if Gordon just put it in when he was editing, but all the flashbacks come back at the end. That was the first time I was watching one of my own things and just being amazed by how well it all comes together. I text Gordon to tell him that’s the best thing he’s done. He’s got a script from Debbie Moon that’s actually the best thing he’s done, but still. Then I had to decide whether to put this episode early on in the run.

We guess that’s the tricky decision of whether or not you launch the new series with an episode that’s headlined by a strong name or not.

We’re putting Gareth’s out first but then part of me thinks whether we should make people wait for that. I think if we had got the series out like we wanted to – a year after the last one – then I think we’d have made them wait for that because they know what’s coming.

Of course, Twisted Showcase made headlines a few years ago by being listed alongside some huge names on The Guardian’s Top 25 Must Watch Web Shows. How was that at the time?

The weirdest thing about it was that we got it when no one had heard of us. It was insane. I think Peter and Paul was our biggest episode, and that had just scraped a thousand views at the time. We thought nobody had seen this. There were three of us then, me, Rhys and Leigh [A. Jones] – Leigh’s come back to direct an episode now, which is good because he went away after Series 1 to have kids and stuff. On Series 1 we thought nobody was watching, even the one with Gareth that we thought would take off. We saw somebody post on Twitter the Top 25 Guardian list, so we decided to have a look at it to take notes on how to market a webseries. It was a Saturday morning and we were all out with our wives or whatever, then I saw it. I rang them straightaway and said, “You know that list? We’re fucking on it!” Everyone we met or we were interviewed by, they just asked who we knew at The Guardian. We didn’t know anyone! We didn’t even know we were on the list! I think it’s because of all of the other names on it – Joss Whedon, David Lynch, John Woo. We’d just made the first series, it cost nothing. I think we paid Gareth’s travel and that was it; that was all we spent. If we didn’t get in on that list then we probably would’ve just thought about moving on to something else. The thing we did do, though, was we rushed out Series 2. We decided to make more comedy episodes, we thought we didn’t need any big names because we’d made The Guardian now. And that was shit! Rhys didn’t want to write anymore but he said he was going to do Series 3 because he felt he we’d let ourselves down. So we got it back a bit, we did Series 3, and then Rhys said that he’d done his bit and left me to do mine now. With his episode Clone Alone, he wanted it to be quite hard-hitting about this guy who can’t leave his home and is scared of being outside. But it ended up being more of a superhero kind of film. There was that sort of superhero element to it, but we wanted that to be subtle. That’s another thing I’ve learnt over the years, though, what people’s strengths are. We’ve got a new director, Leonie [Abisgold-Rayner]. That’s the first female director we’ve had. I remember watching the first season and realising, “Oh god, there’s no women in this!” And Series 2 was the same. I think your instinct is to write from your perspective. As we’ve gone along, we’ve thought how we needed to open this up. But she was brilliant. She shot the last episode, which was the first one we shot, and it’s got this really weird effect in it. I’m not sure if we’ve pulled it off; it sort of works but we just about get away with it. I did think it was a bit overreaching for what we can do but we thought we’d see if we could pull it off. You need to try and push things like that. We’ve got no money but let’s try and do this effect that most big budget things couldn’t get away with! So we tried it. But she shot it so fast, she knew what she was doing. I wasn’t that together when I was that age, I was just a wreck.

Series 4 of Twisted Showcase premieres on October 3rd, and more details can be found on Twitter, Facebook or TwistedShowcase.com. In the meantime, be sure to check out the sinister trailer for this genre favourite’s return below:

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