Earlier in the year, STARBURST had the privilege of speaking to Robin Bell and Rhys Jones about Series 3 of the widely-acclaimed Twisted Showcase anthology web series. With Series 4 currently being worked on, the duo have now released the Twisted Showcase Story Collection, an eBook that is full of terror, dark humour, and a whole heap of social commentary and satire. We were lucky enough to grab some words with the twisted twosome about the book, about their influences, and about the future of Twisted Showcase.
STARBURST: Where did the whole notion of putting an anthology book together come from?
Robin Bell: I think it was just something we’d talked about for a while, wasn’t it?
Rhys Jones: We talked about it.
Robin: I know Rhys wanted to do more kind of story and prose stuff.
Rhys: I remember you said you had some short stories you’d written that were lying around and not doing an awful lot. I think that gave us the idea of doing a collection of them rather than them just sitting on your laptop. They had the Twisted Showcase vibe, so it just made sense.
Robin: Then we found a really horrible Christmas story.
The festive tale definitely had a feel, like most of your stories, that it could be something from Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow; darkly humourous but a little messed up at the same time.
Robin: Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to go for a lot of the time. Those kind of things that you mentioned, and Cronenberg.
So were the majority of the stories already in mind when you decided to put together the book or was a lot of it having to come up with fresh ideas?
Robin: Quite a lot of them I had written already. I think the Fear of Living sequel was quite new and a new idea that I’d had. Both of the zombie ones, too.
Rhys: My other stuff in there, that’s also very new, like the black mould story .
And for somebody not familiar with Twisted Showcase or your work, how would you describe it?
Rhys: Yeah, weird.
Robin: I guess we always say it’s like a modern Twilight Zone mixed in with the domestic and, not supernatural, but the domestic and the uncanny, I guess.
Rhys: Blending those few things together.
We guess that coming up with the stories for this was a similar process to how you would do so for the web series, but what did you draw inspiration from in terms of the narrative style for the stories themselves?
Rhys: With the zombie one I wrote , I was reading The Catcher in the Rye. I know it sounds strange but the teen angst tone and the voice of the character of Holden Caulfield – that’s what I was trying to focus with the zombies. But I also sort of married it with this sort of light-hearted zombie story about trying to find out who you are.
Robin: I said it played like a John Hughes zombie film, that one. Kind of a ‘Brat Pack’ type of thing.
Rhys: That’d be the teenage angst, I guess.
Robin: The thing we say about the whole collection is, you know the M. R. James ghost stories? Those kind of short stories. The Attic is quite inspired by those, especially.
One of the few, if not hazy, pictures of Robin (left) and Rhys (right) in existence
How does writing short stories for an eBook compare to writing for the web series?
Robin: I prefer doing screenwriting. I find prose really difficult; you start going into just writing dialogue, then little bits of description, like writing a screenplay. So I find it really difficult writing prose.
Rhys: I really like writing prose because I feel like you can waffle on a little more.
Now that Twisted Showcase is to be available as an eBook and a web series, are there any plans to do a longer format or a more continuity-based, progressive story?
Robin: We’ve got a TV pitch all kind of written and ready. We’ve got a pilot episode for that written, it’s just waiting for the right time for someone to take a chance on an anthology really. The only anthologies that people really take a chance on are from big names like Charlie Brooker and The League of Gentlemen guys, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. I think, for a new one, it’s not quite the right time at the moment. I think that there’s a Twilight Zone remake in the works at the moment, then there’s the new anthology stuff like American Horror Story where it’s a whole series – we could do something like that. Then we’ve got a radio thing, we’re pitching that. I think we’d like to go back to writing anthology films as well.
An anthology film like a Creepshow, a Body Bags, a Trick ‘r’ Treat?
Robin: We love that. We had one once, but I think we were thinking too kind of big really. We had characters going into the underworld and stuff like that. We need to get the Twisted Showcase version of that and do that properly.
If you were looking at a TV series or a pilot for one of these ideas, where do you think would be a good home for it?
Robin: I initially kind of thought BBC3, because they had the older audience who were more familiar with anthologies, like The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, Tales of the Unexpected in the ‘70s. So that was from a nostalgia kind of point. Then you bring in a new audience who watch BBC3, it’d be something new for them. Then BBC3 ended.
Rhys: We had thought about maybe approaching the Horror Channel with it.
Robin: Yeah, we were going to approach the Horror Channel but we never really got round to it. We’ve got some big name writers attached to the TV series as well, like Stephen Gallagher (Doctor Who, Eleventh Hour, Crusoe), Debbie Moon (Wolfblood) was attached, and Neil Jones who wrote Bedlam.
How did they get involved then? Did you approach them directly or did they get in touch once they’d seen the web series?
Robin: Wasn’t it over Twitter mainly?
Robin: I can’t remember whether we approached them or they approached us. I think in some cases we were introduced and in other cases they were just fans of the show.
Rhys: We just kind of came together somehow.
You mentioned the Horror Channel earlier, and that’d be a great home, especially how they showcase British talent and low-budget projects…
Robin: The other thing that I think could happen with it is, because it’s quite well-respected as part of The Guardian’s Top 25 Web Shows and that multitude of people in that, with BBC3 stopping, why don’t the BBC make iPlayer have exclusive stuff on there, like have the only British independent web show from that list on BBC iPlayer so that people can watch it on there? You could do half-hour episodes exclusive to iPlayer. Not that we’re telling the BBC what they should do…
It was pretty impressive to see you guys on The Guardian’s Top25 list with names like Joss Whedon, Seth MacFarlane, and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. What came from that in terms of interest in yourselves and the work? Did you find that you were head-hunted a little or did you just get your heads down and get cracking on the next series?
Rhys: We just got down and got straight on with Series 2 when we saw our names on the list.
Robin: We rushed Series 2, maybe panicked, because we didn’t have any kind of plans. We thought we’d get maybe a couple of hundred people watching if we were lucky. When that happened, we kind of rushed the next series.
Rhys: It was probably quite bad, actually.
Robin: We were a three, then one of us kind of dropped off. But the Top 25 Guardian got us some meetings at places, including the BBC for the first time.
Rhys: And with Series 2, I think we learnt an awful lot. Probably more with Series 2 than we did for Series 1, perhaps. That led to us doing a much better Series 3.
Rhys: It also helps when you’re chasing actors, by saying, “We’re a Guardian Top 25 series.” Like approaching Norman Lovett and others. It says we’re not just a bunch of dickheads!
Red Dwarf's Norman Lovett in Twisted Showcase's "Toilet Soup"
Do you find yourselves able to get away with a bit more in the book format because you don’t have to worry about how to bring it to life on the screen?
Rhys: I’m not sure I’d say get away with more, but we can certainly do some bigger things in the stories.
Robin: I think you just think a little bit bigger; we can have demons, we can go to the end of the world.
Rhys: Different locations, or even an attic.
Robin: Some of the stories that I’ve done for the book, in the web series it’d be absolutely ridiculous, would look terrible. But then there’s toilets. You love your toilets.
Rhys: I do love my toilets!
In both the web series and the book, there’s a fine balance between grim, dark stories but with a dose of black humour involved. Do you find yourselves having to make a constant effort to keep the stories balanced?
Rhys: I think the stuff I tend to do tends to be more funny before it’s necessarily dark. But it’s still pretty dark.
Robin: You always tell me you have a really dark idea, then you send it me and I’ll go “Oh, you put loads of jokes in there?” I think the first story in there was the first story where I thought “I’m not going to put any jokes in this at all.” I think I was inspired by The Guardian column that said that we’re like The League of Gentlemen but with no jokes. Aside from taking jokes out of that one, that’s probably the grimmest one…
Rhys: Well the Christmas story is probably the grimmest…
Robin: Or The Attic. But then you get the kind of surreal imagery…
Rhys: Well I laughed a couple of times through that one, but that could’ve been because it was so grim that it was a nervous reaction.
Robin: I like things that people can react to in different ways. So we don’t worry about whether people laugh or if people are terrified too much.
A lot of the stories do tend to end on a bleak note or things will be resolved ‘for now’ and there’s something still brewing…
Rhys: Yeah, life’s always going to get worse.
Robin: That’s something that I’ve been worried about quite a bit, actually. On Twitter I had a big thing about it, saying is this screenplay okay because it’s just full of negative ideas – it’s got no kind of positivity or positive message at all. I was thinking, what’s the point in it? Is it just saying that life is shit? Is that saying anything new? I started to worry about that a bit.
Rhys: There’s some hope towards the end of my zombie story.
Robin: But I think we’ve found a balance.
Rhys: I think that was always the idea of Twisted Showcase, to tell kind of dark, depressing stories.
Well life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. And I wouldn’t say that the stories are all just bleak but that they actually have a lot of social commentary and satire about them.
Robin: With Series 3, we did try to put more of a message in there. We did worry about that. We tried to make things have more of a point in Series 3.
Rhys: We wanted to say something in Series 3.
What type of things tend to get your creative juices flowing then at the moment?
Robin: I’m trying to think of stuff of mine at the moment, of what’s the kind of good thing in there. I think we write about illness quite a bit, mental illness and depression and those kind of things. A negativity vibe. We write about negativity quite a lot. One idea for Series 4, we sat down, me and Rhys were just talking about stuff and then said, “Fucking hell, why are we always worrying about age all the time?” So we started writing a story about worrying about aging and where would that take you. So that was one of the first Series 4 stories we started writing.
So where are things with Series 4 at the moment? And do you tend to try and get the whole series’ worth of episodes planned before shooting them or do you do them all on an individual episode basis?
Robin: Usually we try and write the series, then start shooting it. Then after we start shooting it, we’ll tend to get bored of some of the ideas and so try and write something new. So it’s often something new will come along out of making a series.
Rhys: With Series 3’s Empty Sofa, that came about while we were still making Series 3 – at one point it was only four episodes.
Robin: Series 4, I think we’ve got four episodes written. We just did something about two weeks ago, we got Debbie Moon, who writes Wolfblood, to come in and write an episode. That’s going to be amazing – a Bafta-winning writer on Twisted Showcase! So we might have a couple of new writers on board, and we’ve had people kind of script editing as well. We’ve got four scripts ready to shoot now. We’re just looking for who’s going to direct them, which will hopefully come in the new year, I guess.
And how long does it generally take to shoot one of the episodes?
Robin: Every episode will be shot in a day, pretty much.
You touched on it before, but have you seriously thought about any other mediums, such as an audio book?
Robin: We are at the moment pitching to BBC Radio about a radio anthology. If that doesn’t get picked up then I think we might try and do it ourselves as an audio book. We’ve got one or two, even three or four-minute, audio plays that we might try and test the water with to see if we can make an audio story. They’re quite difficult to get right as the atmosphere has to be right about it to pull it off. Probably next year we’ll look to do some audio ones, then maybe try and do a whole series of them.
And when can we expect Series 4 of the web series to arrive then?
Robin: It depends what big names we get, really, and how much they cost, how much we need to raise for the series. We’ve got some big names in mind in terms of who we want to get, but if we get them then we need to think about how we’re going to fund them. If the book does really well then we’ll have no problem. Thinking in terms of reality, we’ve got to think about how we can fund it next year. Hopefully we can get a little bit of it with the funding, so it might be the end of next year at the earliest.
Will Gareth David-Lloyd be back?
Robin: Yes, but maybe not in front of the camera. We’re not sure, but we’re still talking to him about other things that he might do.
Torchwood's Gareth David-Lloyd in Twisted Showcase's "Peter & Paul"
With the eBook, what devices is it available on?
Robin: Yeah, through Amazon and Kindle. There’s a downloadable app on Amazon as well. It’s quite a quick read. We were kind of worried about how to price it because £5 for 50 pages sounds like quite a lot. We were thinking of releasing them separately and charging £1 but that was ridiculous. Then it was kind of about raising funds for Series 4.
Have you thought about going down crowd-funding again for the show?
Robin: We did it to make Series 3. It was successful and really good, but we felt it’s a bit asking for something for nothing in a way - you don’t get anything at the end of it. It was great how people chipped in and helped out to make the series. Before that, we’d made two series for nothing. I think we’re going to try and look at different routes first before crowd-funding.
So what would be the ideal endgame for the property in your eyes?
Robin: I don’t know. Twisted Showcase is just so malleable to anything, like anthology films, series from it.
Rhys: There’s still a lot for us to explore with it.
Robin: I guess with Twisted Showcase, I think we started off as just wanting it to showcase our writing as we both see ourselves as writers. As long as we’re writing and it leads to other chances for us to get our own shows on TV or in film then we’d be quite happy.
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