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How to Make An Action Series On An Indie Film Budget

Indiewire By Ryan Lewis | Indiewire December 10, 2013 at 10:51AM

Ryan Lewis, the producer and co-creator of the Crackle original thriller series "Chosen" starring Milo Ventimiglia, explains how they made a lean action drama for a digital world more used to comedy and short form.
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Crackle 'Chosen'

Ryan Lewis is one of the co-creators and producers of "Chosen," an original series starring Milo Ventimiglia that airs exclusively in the U.S. on the streaming site Crackle. The show, which is written and directed by Ben Ketai, is a rarity in the digital space outside of Netflix, where comedy and short form still rule the day. "Chosen" is an action series made up of six half-hour episodes that take place at a breakneck pace, with Ventimiglia's character plunged into a mysterious kill-or-be-killed game. Its ambitious leanness recalls the world of indie film more than it does traditional television, which makes sense -- Ketai wrote the screenplay for "Red White & Blue" director Simon Rumley's upcoming feature "The Last Word," and Lewis was a producer on "High School" and "Fat Kid Rules the World." With "Chosen" back for a second six-episode season on December 12th with Chad Michael Murray joining the cast, Lewis explains how their team approached making a dramatic thriller for the web. You can watch the series at Crackle.com.

The best thing ever to air in the digital space. That was our goal in making "Chosen" with Crackle. 

Before we sold the show, most of what had been dominating the world of digital series was quick hits of laughs or scares that people could watch in three-to-five minutes. We wanted to do something different, and we knew the digital world looked like the Wild West where anyone could stake their claim. Crackle provided the opportunity in adapting its own model to the longer format. So when the door opened and we sold a thriller, proving it could thrive in that same world became the challenge.

Part of the reason we chose to approach the show in a digital format is happenstance, but we also loved the speed and maneuverability of the new arena. We wanted to push the envelope. To try something new. To show that cinema-quality content could be made fast, inexpensively and still hold to a higher standard. And we had to do it at a fraction of the cost of a show like "House Of Cards."

At its heart, "Chosen" is and always has been about impossible choices. Conceptually, we started with the idea of a box showing up on the doorstep with a picture of a stranger that had to be killed and a gun, and the game that came out of that was one nobody would ever want to find himself forced to play. Put our characters at the bottom of a crusher and bring down the ceiling until they push back or crumble.

We wanted everyone watching to question at what point they would go through with it. But we didn’t want to make it easy on them either. We had to compel them to watch, to become the Watchers that control the game in watching the game itself unfold, and to feel that desperation of being on the precipice of losing everything.

Season one was all about capitalizing on the early trend in binge-viewing and infusing so much tension that viewers sit down only to realize two hours later that they were supposed to breathe. It always started with Ian Mitchell (Milo Ventimiglia) receiving that ill-fated box and immediately being shot at by an unknown assailant. Beyond that, we set out to keep ourselves guessing what would follow and, more importantly, drive Ian through a logical progression of decision-making. Rather quickly we realized a game like ours would constantly take away all forward momentum from its players. For us, structure came easily, but we wanted to test ourselves in creating subtly compelling cliffhangers that simultaneously elevated the tension and made one thing clear: the Watchers are always one step ahead.

Our biggest challenges in our first season actually provided some of our strongest pieces in the entire show. Because of the restrictions we faced in terms of budget, time and format, we developed a scrappy and adaptable mindset that allowed us to rethink tension and even action in a simple, highly personal sense. So big sequences became long, intense character interactions and action pieces transformed into "When will it happen?" beats of extended tension. 

One of our most intense face-offs in the first season came from our two killers sitting across from each other in a diner booth, knowing that one was supposed to expire the other in the next 48 hours. Ian and his target Daniel Easton (Diedrich Bader), two supposed foes inches away from each other making small talk, became a cornerstone of what makes the show work -- regular people with no reason to ever meet or know each other come face-to-face in the most undesirable fashions.

We couldn't tear our eyes away, so we let it breathe and then had them part as if all would end fine. Then we capped it with a high intensity moment after they go their separate ways with a kid following Ian out with a gun, and suddenly any sense of safety was erased. False security proved a perfect preamble to cliffhangers.

More satisfying than anything was observing reactions online and building a significant audience of people asking when there’d be more to see. We had learned a lot about our characters and the world in season one and were eager to build on it, since we shot an open-ended finale. Thankfully Crackle agreed and gave us the chance to produce more episodes. Where season one gave us one character to follow through his intro into the world, season two allowed us to the freedom to accept the world as it is and delve further into our characters and the roller coaster of how they play, rather than the machinations of the now-established game. And we had a cast of phenomenal actors who worked tirelessly to make our storylines devastating to watch, exhaustively putting their bodies on the line and riding emotional avalanches.

We still approached it in a lean and mean fashion. Actually, we shot the second season in one day less than the first. It’s a challenge that excites us and forces us to make those choices in writing and structuring that have continuously made us hold ourselves to a higher standard. If it doesn’t excite us, you won’t see it. People who watched the first season told us that once they started watching the first episode they just had to watch the next.

So now we knew it worked and that viewers would be expecting even better drama to match the thrills we threw at them the first time. They looked forward to it and we gave it to them, but played with their expectations in the process. This time we upped the ante with a story that’s even faster, with the added anxiety of not knowing if you can trust anything you thought you knew after last season.

Good story is tantamount whatever the format. Digital formatting has made it deeply satisfying and challenging at the same time, which has lead us to create our best work yet. No matter what obstacles have stood in our way, we’ve maintained the goal of making the best content in the digital space. As long as people keep watching, we’ll keep that mindset.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, First Person, Ryan Lewis, Chosen, Crackle, Milo Ventimiglia