Believe it or not, the first instance of a web series occurred in the mid-‘90s with the invention of ‘webisodes’ for something called Internet the Animated Series and then Rat Chicken. Although small potatoes this did lead to a development deal with MTV for the production company Bullseye Art. As technology has moved on and broadband and fibre optics have made using the internet more pleasurable, the concept of viewing a series on your laptop rather than your TV has become a viable commodity. So from 2003 until 2006 the first germs of what we know as the web series came through in shows such as Red VS Blue. YouTube became a thing and the mainstream started to take notice even producing webisodes for popular TV programmes like Battlestar Galactica and The Office. Popularity and notoriety have continued for this new medium with shows like Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, The Legend of Neil and The Guild. They even have their own awards ceremonies now called things like the Streamy Awards. Which brings us nicely to The Bloody Mary Show, the kind of product of such imagination and wit that it’s simply too good for television and simply could not exist there in its current uncompromised form.
The Bloody Mary Show has won multiple awards and is the creation of writer and producer Darren Chadwick-Hussein. The show premiered in the summer of 2012 and can be found on the show’s own website as well as on YouTube and Blip. The show is an unholy mash up of love for the horror genre, urban legend and soap opera and takes place mainly in Hemingway’s pub. We follow ‘Bloody Mary’, the Candyman like figure of urban legend popular with teenagers who like scaring themselves. This version is played by actress Hollie Taylor who along with her friends Viscera (Elizabeth Webster), Abdabs (Thomas Coombes) and Malevolent (Jenny Fitzpatrick) deals with the comings and goings between the supernatural world and the real world. Of course there are villains of a sort with characters you love to hate being represented by Samantha (Erica Emm) and Amicus (Richie Hart). Here Mary is less interested in scaring the bejesus out of people and more helping people which brings her to Chris (Craig Daniel Adams) a troubled young man with whom Mary gets romantically involved leading to all manner of complications.
What makes The Bloody Mary Show so compelling a piece of entertainment is its absolute refusal to be pigeon holed. Imagine the waiting room scene towards the end of Beetlejuice mixed with the pub bound soap opera of Coronation Street with the comedy and celebration of something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and you are only just coming close to describing this. There are seven episodes so far and together they total about 55 minutes or so. The series works as a soap opera because each episode ends on a suitable note meaning that you are desperate to see what happens next. It’s a credit to the show that I unintentionally ended up watching all of the series in one sitting because at the end of each episode I was desperate to see what happened next. This is always a sign that, in an episodic drama, it’s definitely doing its job. There is also such a warmth and love to the characters which definitely helps. Each character has their own moment to shine with the various complications in their lives and you care because the performers behind the masks or make up are giving it their all. Hollie Taylor as Mary is one of those actresses who is naturally very pretty, appealing and has the likeability and warmth factor that has made the likes of Natalie Portman so popular. So when she faces trouble and strife you are right there with her as an audience. Thomas Coombes might be familiar to many from EastEnders but here he is under a simple but effective prosthetic as Abdabs, a grim reaper like figure. Coombes’ performance is totally there despite not being able to see his facial expressions and he makes Abdabs arguably the most likeable character, even getting his own romantic arc. Elizabeth Webster might be familiar to eagle eyed genre fans from the recent Cockneys vs. Zombies and here plays the reliable friend par excellence.
What surprised me most about the show when I went through it was how much production value it actually had. I had some kind of internal prejudice beforehand where I thought that all web shows were cheap handheld exercises in found footage nonsense. The Bloody Mary Show looks fantastic and is so above and beyond what I would have aimed for if putting together my own web series. The special effects are also super impressive and towards the finale, the make-up and creature work gives anything in Doctor Who a run for its money.
The impetus for the show first came to the writer/producer during an instance of sleep paralysis. This lead to the creation of a screenplay for a short followed by a re-write process which meant that the web series became the best medium with which to tell the story. The Bloody Mary Show has won several awards including awards at the Indie Soap Awards and the Los Angeles Web Fest. Darren Chadwick-Hussein is currently knee deep in the writing process for series two which promises to cross the boundaries of sex, violence and involve more characters of urban legend only hinted at in the first series.
The mastermind behind this show, Darren Chadwick-Hussein had the kind of childhood that could only lead to a career in writing such vivid fantasy. Being pulled out of school at a young age to go with his mother to see Poltergeist or whatever horror film was playing and then growing up to discover the delights of Russ Meyer, John Waters and of course The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This love of genre is evident in the casting of David McGillivray as Herzog the landlord of Hemingway’s. McGillivray is the writer of old school horror films House of Whipcord, Frightmare, Schizo and Satan’s Slave and still works as a writer. An interest in alternative narratives lead to Chadwick-Hussein discovering the likes of The Guild online and the brand new opportunity to tell stories in this new medium was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
The show was filmed at The Mayflower Pub which overlooks the Thames in Rotherhithe South London. The Mayflower just happens to be the oldest pub on the River Thames and the perfect location for the subject matter. The bulk of the show was filmed upstairs in the dining area. The pub has recently also been host to the Kardashians, Hugh Laurie and Japanese erotic entertainment who all used its uniqueness to varying degrees. It’s testament to the affection and hard work that went into the production that The Mayflower comes across in the show (as Hemingway’s) as a much bigger and convincing modern bar.
We met Darren at the Mayflower where we chatted about the show, its reception and the plans for series two...
Starburst: What was the idea behind getting horror and blending it with the characteristics of a soap?
Darren Chadwick-Hussein: Continuing drama is always a thing I enjoy, what I like is the ability to create continuous stories with soapy elements, and I am not afraid to say ‘soapy’ elements.. The thing I like about horror is how they let you explore emotions even though they are extreme. Clive Barker, Stephen King did it well and the late James Herbert. Soap combined with this is a great way of exploring emotions. There was a great blog the other day on Koldcast TV about the show and it was all about how watching stuff like Monsters Inc. you see the emotional side of the monsters and this was where the soap opera side comes in. There are lots of typical soap opera elements in there with shagging and pregnancy, I thought of them as drama rather than soap but then people were really liking the soap elements and there is a site in America called We Love Soaps and they loved it and I was like Okay… and we were winning ‘best couple’ and ‘most romantic lead’ and beating out actual soaps on the site. We ended up being nominated for nine indie soap awards and we went to New York for the ceremony and met big daytime soap stars who were going into web stuff and they were all over us like a cheap suit asking to be in the show. We won an award for best web series-comedy and I was nearly crying I was so happy but we were presented the awards by these people who I had never heard of. The great thing about shows like Ugly Betty and other soaps was that you had all the characters that you love to hate and I try and get that into my characters. Very often when characters get their comeuppance it’s comedic rather than nasty.
How did you go about getting the show financed?
I didn’t know what crowd funding was, never heard of Indie Go Go or Kickstarter and happened to work in a large company, so I just emailed everyone in the company with “Hi I want to make a web series; you wouldn’t be willing to put in £10-15 would you?” I almost got sacked! My crowd funding was sending emails out and luckily people were generous. I’m probably not doing that for series two, I have been looking at sponsorship and branding and as much as I don’t want to it may go crowd funding. People forget how much hard work it is and the majority of these crowd funding things never make it because people are being unrealistic. If it’s a decent project though and you can see it then I will give money to a decent project. The Veronica Mars crowd funding thing made people think it was a piece of piss when it isn’t, it is really difficult. Identify between 15 and 100 people who will put money in on day one and if you don’t get that then you won’t reach your target.
Being the writer-producer and the show essentially being your baby, were there ever times when you were looking over the director Victoria Howell’s shoulder and disagreeing with her direction?
There were a couple of times where I stepped in but Vicky is twice the size of me and could snap me like a twig. We butted heads at times and I think that we worked really well together and I am glad that she made certain bits as extreme as they were because I had originally envisioned an audience of teenage girls and we didn’t get that audience, we actually got grown men! A very good gender split from about 20-55 who are fanatical about it. When I was writing it I had to censor myself in ways that, if you are writing for a teenage audience there are certain things that are not allowed in things like Hollyoaks like smoking! You could be murdering or whatever but you can’t have a cigarette dangling out of your mouth.
How did you go about casting the main roles and finding the performers necessary to bring the characters to life?
I worked with Hollie Taylor who plays Bloody Mary as I wrote her a graduation piece that a friend of a friend was directing and I met her and she was wonderful and it was like ‘who is this actress?’. So I originally wrote what was Winifred and we were going forward with that but with the re-writes I always had Hollie in mind, she was my lead actress. It feels great to write for someone you know but I also knew what Hollie was capable of - but she completely surprised me as well. The first person who was cast was Erica Emm who plays Samantha and she was in a film called Love Bug which played Frightfest in 2011, where she goes on a date and gets a germ and turns everyone into crazed loons, she happened to be on that date in the film with actor Tom Coombes who plays Abdabs. We went to the Frightfest screening and I met Tom and he is a real cockney character and I told him about the show and the character and he came on board. Through Tom, Elizabeth Webster came along because they were in a film together called Taylors Trophy and there was a bit where Tom gets his face shoved against the bar and Liz’s character licks the crisps off his face and it was like ‘get me this woman!’ and so through that the characters were cast. Jenny Fitzpatrick who originally played Malevolent had worked with Hollie and Craig Daniel Adams had worked with Hollie as well which was great because there was very little rehearsal time and everyone more or less knew each other. The people we used were all very much up and comers and Tom recently won an award for an off Broadway show. When we tried to advertise for actors we got the wrong people and we had to have professionals. People are worried about approaching professionals but what is the worst they are going to say? They can only say no. We didn’t get one though, we approached the actress who plays Martha Jones’ mum in Doctor Who who dropped out and then we got Judith Rosenbauer in. We had to take a break with filming because we ran out of money and the great thing was they all came back apart from one person and that was Malevolent so we had to re-cast and luckily nobody notices although we drew attention to it and made a joke of it! Jenny was unable to come back as she was in Ghost the musical. It would be great to have Jenny back but probably not as Malevolent but maybe a different character in one episode and have her face off with the actress who plays Malevolent now.
For a web series the show has a look and production value far above and beyond what I would have aimed for or imagined was possible with a web show, especially with Abdabs’ mask, how was this achieved?
Abdabs’ mask was done by Lifecast who do all the Hollywood prosthetics and we went to them and said ‘hey we have no money’ and they put some students on the job. If it was a big production then that mask would probably have cost 25k. The original one was kind of saggy and didn’t work properly. What we did was black up the actor’s face and there were two pieces, a face piece and a jaw piece, which on camera looks like bone moulded to Tom’s face. Originally the jaw was too heavy so the two pieces were attached to the cloth and this meant that the prosthetic became the easiest to do. I’m looking forward to getting Tom back into that role to see what he can do in series two because now the jaw is much more moveable. The Wraiths were also Hollywood prosthetics which cost us about a grand too which would have cost more for a bigger production. We may have been low budget but the one thing I couldn’t scrimp on was the look of it, we shot on a 7D camera ultra-cheap but got deals for the lighting and stuff like that. The industry is in flux at this moment in time and people are scared and I get excited when I hear about people doing it because they should be, but get the story right first of course.
Is it easier to get a web series financed than it would be a short or a feature?
I am going to say no, I think it’s actually harder. You can go to the BFI and say you want to make a short film and if you have the right people and know the right people then they will say yes. If you are being screened at a festival across the sea then they will have a big pot of money for you but if you’re a web series then they don’t want to know. We need about 5 or 6 more good British web shows before people are going to pay attention. There are some good ones and there are some terrible ones out there. There is nothing to be afraid of being low budget and mostly on this everyone worked for free and were fed and treated like a god and a lot of people forget that. We were at the church round the corner getting everyone dressed to come over here and I would be here at 5am and people would ask why? As the producer with people working for me I wanted them to be fed. Simon Beaufoy, the writer of The Full Monty, said the best time he ever had was when he catered his own short film and it’s nice to give back, especially on days when I could treat the cast and crew to fish and chips. We would gather down here (in the pub) afterwards for a drink.
Do you think it will get easier with places like Netflix and Amazon producing their own original content like Zombieland and House of Cards?
More people are paying attention and this is a good thing. However once the big boys start getting involved it can push out the independents somewhat if you’re not careful. There are lots of things to discover, like I Am Tim is a good one and has won awards but it’s very niche. All of the web series from Britain at the moment are for urban youth. Some shows are financed via crowd funding but there isn’t much to it and the end product is not good. At London comic con last year I was between a couple of other shows with millions of views and yet we won because we got the audience involved with Liz as Viscera in character to the Q&A and they loved it. You don’t have to have a huge amount of money if there is something people will remember at places like that. Comic con have taken notice which is a good thing and we will back this year. We don’t know where things are going but things sort themselves out. I am lucky I can do a job where I can do this as well but it would be nice to get paid for it too.
You play with folklore characters but was there any you wanted to include but couldn’t due to budgetary constraints?
Originally Herzog was supposed to look like Nosferatu but we couldn’t do that. Originally in the short film the pub was described as if Tim Burton took acid at the monster club but we couldn’t do that. In series 2 I am really looking forward to portraying a character called Krampus which is a European bad Santa character; Santa’s opposite, but he won’t kill anyone. There will be a couple of other little things like a character in Islamic mythology that exists in the toilet but not the Japanese one which is the Japanese equivalent of Blood Mary who was also going to be in there for a while but we ended up dropping that one too. We got a couple of references in there like the appearance of the character from The Ring and we planned an appearance for a character that would be introduced by emerging from a TV but the props guy couldn’t get a TV. A lot of characters I would have loved to have been able to do but couldn’t afford it but hopefully with series two. We had Wraiths in there, which I refuse to call Wraiths and call Ralphs instead because it’s spelled Wraith in French but Tom was adamant we were pronouncing it correctly and had an argument with another actor even though we just called them Ralphs because it’s a take-off of Ralph Fiennes and how he pronounces his name! Malevolent is a banshee and originally it was an Irish actress who suddenly became unavailable who would have been perfect but the actress who came in turned out to be better for the character. Abdabs was originally supposed to be very campy and effeminate but Tom couldn’t do it so we just had him play it as himself which works even better.
How did you go about getting The Bloody Mary Show out there and appealing to who the audience eventually became?
I noticed that Goth girls of a certain age do not have a sense of humour and take themselves very seriously and it’s not until years later when a sense of self-awareness comes in. There is a small group of Goth girls in North London who were forced by their parents to go see a pantomime and Craig Daniel Adams was playing Peter Pan and he is a hot guy and these girls were reading the program and got wind that he acts in The Bloody Mary Show and then they kept coming back to see the show and so there is a sub section of girls in North London who adore it and were tweeting me whilst in class, so they are out there. You approach blogs and get the word out there. I would love to have a wide audience but I have a good audience now and I’m not too proud to beg for a new audience. I was the weird Goth in high school and I was in the minority for being self-aware but there is a sub section of those people who like to laugh at themselves. You have to be very careful though to not be seen as poking fun but actually celebrating the sub-culture. People have to smile at themselves once in a while. Plus Bloody Mary’s costume is like really good cos-play! Whatever you do there will always be a market, it may not be the market you expect but it is a market.
What are your biggest influences in terms of genre?
Throughout my life I have always liked stuff that laughs at itself. I love piss takes but stuff that is done with a lot of love. I love Shaun of the Dead because it is done with so much love unlike Lesbian Vampire Killers which was shit as they were just mocking it. You can tell the difference between mocking and laughing with something. I loved The Rocky Horror Picture Show as it was a celebration of being different and I was always different. Even little adverts for things like Head and Shoulders in the ‘80s like an advert where a woman wearing a Halloween mask who opens the door to someone like ta da! And someone telling her she looks great and the line “dandruff too… nice touch” - that really inspired me. That was the genesis of The Bloody Mary Show right there, the fact that these monsters want to have fun. I was 19 when The Nightmare Before Christmas came out and I was at film school at the time and wanted to be an animator but I haven’t got the patience. The film was a huge influence along with Roald Dahl as I read The Witches as a child and loved the film. I was a child who loved to be frightened. I had a flirtation with Dungeons and Dragons and all the stats and monsters information that I read religiously. I read James Herbert for the smutty bits and then when I was older I got into Night of the Living Dead, expecting it to be shit because it was black and white but no it was terrifying! We were also one of the first families to get cable TV because they tested it in 1981 in Lancashire and so saw all these terrible films that nobody else would remember like Nightwing and Phase 4. I didn’t go to school in my last year and ended up hanging out with a crowd who had access to Russ Meyer films and the film Bad Taste which I loved. If I was that age again I don’t know which way I would go because it’s all so instantly available. It takes some of the joy away but I suppose I wouldn’t know any different if I was that age. John Waters as well was a huge influence on me. Jonathan Ross did a show about John Waters called The Incredibly Strange Film Show and opened with Hairspray and I went and sought that out and then saw everything by Waters that I could at 15 or 16. Things like getting on Manchester buses to places like a student union to a screening and I hope that joy is still there for people.
What is your career plan in terms of what you want to achieve and where you want this to go?
It changed because the original plan was for a franchise pilot for The Bloody Mary Show where the first episode could be sold off to other countries and they could each have their own version of the show. I like the web show community too much now but there again if someone offered to buy the rights I would happily sell but at the same time I am enjoying where I am going with it and it’s such a completely new market. There is a bible if the networks come knocking. When the question of funding came up one of the original things that happened was I was approached by a company that would have funded series two but demanded the rights but I was like ‘No I am not going there’, you cannot copyright Bloody Mary as it’s an urban legend but the situation she is in is copyrightable. She is such a wonderful character and I don’t know why there isn’t more written about her, there was Candyman but not Bloody Mary, who isn’t very well known in the UK. In the states though she is everywhere, but back here there is a lack of knowledge and everyone thought we were talking about Queen Mary when we were trying to raise money.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to write and produce something low budget and carve out a niche for themselves?
Do it, the only thing that is stopping you from what you want to do is yourself. It’s a hell of a lot easier said than done. There were days when I was so blocked or scared that I couldn’t get out of bed. But get it out there and don’t be afraid. You will be rejected but you won’t know until you have tried. There is a great web series someone shot on an iPhone so you can take advantage of the equipment that you have got. Don’t write a script about 5000 elephants if you can’t get them and write to your budget. There is always a way to tell your story with what you have, it’s just figuring out a way round it. There is always a rich kid with funding and you can find crew if you want to do something and there are a lot of like-minded people out there but also a lot of bullshit so you have to be careful. Embrace your limitations and do it or you’ll regret it but it’s easy to say - but if I can do it and continue to do it then you can too.
What are the plans for series 2 and when will we get to see it?
We will go more extreme and have more comedic soap elements but also horror. We are all about docu-soaps now like Made in Chelsea etc. and so for series two we will bring in this element and there will be a sub-plot about the Succubae that will be the docu-soap subject called ‘Made in the Realm’. I’m writing for a different audience than when I started as we know our audience now and it was not the audience we expected and they are passionate about it. It is allowing me to explore elements I didn’t think I would be able to. So there will be things included like references to ‘Cenobites’ and things like that and our characters will view them the way we view Scientologists, a bit extreme. There will also be a few love scenes… of a certain nature, because of course you have an Incubus dating a Grim Reaper and the complications of that with Abdabs walking in on someone! The ramifications of what happened at the end of series one will be a big part of series two and the fact that they killed someone and what has happened to Chris? The point of Abdabs is he is a reaper and meant to collect souls but he didn’t do that so someone out there is a soul that is lost. There will also be new characters introduced from folklore and Herzog’s sister will be introduced. Series 2 is more or less written in my head but not down on paper yet. I had given myself until now to write it but I haven’t finished yet. I will raise money over the summer to try and get the show up by Halloween with one episode per week up until Christmas; I have scaled the original plan back though because I am trying to do this for less money than the first series. Hopefully by the end of the year there will be a series or if not then little bridges will be done. All the questions will be answered posed by series two including lots of The Woman in Black jokes because some of that is too good to not take the piss out of! It’s very exciting to be able to do this after discovering the direction we can go in and do the material that I didn’t think we would be able to do, the floodgates are open.
THE BLOODY MARY SHOW can be found on its official website, BloodyMaryShow.com.