Crowdfunder’s Forum is a new regular feature on /bent (and a sibling to our Filmmaker’s Forum features) that allows LGBT media makers to offer first person accounts of the projects they are currently pitching to potential funders through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Our inaugural edition is written by Charlie Reeves, creator of the webseries “Peacekeepers” — who is currently in the midst of crowd funding the show’s second and third episodes.
I’m a writer, not an actor, so instead of waiting tables to make rent I’m filing paychecks and stamping invoices at HBO’s new show The Leftovers.
It’s the third in a string of TV accounting jobs. Previously, I worked on the final two seasons of Law and Order: Original Flavor and the only two seasons of Smash. For HBO’s sake I’m hoping that I don’t tank The Leftovers with whatever bad juju’s apparently following me from gig to gig.
It’s a good dayjob for an aspiring TV writer in New York—accountants work on a salary, and a decent one, so we don’t have to worry quite as much about making rent—but it’s not where I want to be in ten years.
In early September 2012, Maria Makenna and I went out for drinks and fries at Artbar. Adam Goldman was blowing up with the cult hit web series The Outs, and we thought it was incredible and groundbreaking and scrappy in all the right ways. We hadn’t seen any sci-fi web series that we’d felt were on the same level, and given our mutual obsession with Doctor Who we decided it was time we made one.
By the end of the evening a scene had emerged: On a crowded subway train hurtling underground, a woman’s cell phone rings when nobody else has a signal. Commuters are peeved and intrigued. She answers; a voice tells her that a man is going to die in Union Square in ten minutes unless she can keep him from accidentally walking into traffic. Nonplussed, she confirms her destination, and a text message alerts her to some obscene amount of money being deposited into her account. Peacekeepers began there.
But we weren’t ready to shoot it. I was still working on Smash and Maria was working at the Tenement Museum on the lower east side. We had evenings to spare and little else, no camera, no crew, and certainly no money to pay anybody.
I wrote the scripts anyway. I bought a can of special paint that turns a wall into a whiteboard and mapped out the arc of the first season over the course of the next several months, sometimes stumbling out of bed at 3 am to scribble new plot points. At one point I actually halted sex—actually pulled out—to grab a pen and capture a thought before it was gone. I was obsessed.
Simultaneously, Smash was showing signs of implosion—too many cooks in the kitchen got Theresa Rebeck (who I think is the perfect artist: headstrong, uncompromising, valiant, a powerhouse of talent) and her entire writing staff fired, and in came Josh Safran of Gossip Girl fame. I had no TV bona fides with which to lasso Safran, and I longed for the moment when I could sit him down and pick his brain. That never happened, so I marathoned all of Gossip Girl at breakneck speed in order to reverse engineer the man.
He, at 38, had been showrunner twice (first Gossip Girl and then Smash). I wanted that, I wanted to be head of a writing staff and to have creative control and to pull off mustard yellow trousers in winter. Here was a man with the ears of a billion people—what could be said? What could be accomplished with that sort of audience?
In a few short months Smash was dead, and I was back on unemployment, but somehow still working: A producer friend needed a short sci-fi film to shoot, so I wrote her one. The aforementioned Adam Goldman invited me onto his new web series Whatever This Is, and I co-wrote the second episode with him and served as story editor, a grown-up title I chose so industry members would understand my contributions to the story arc.
Before I knew it I was surrounded by people with indie film experience, a brilliant DP who owned a Red Epic, two producers who believed in me and my writing, and a cavalcade of impossibly talented and egregiously underpaid artisans I had watched craft somethings from nothings. Suddenly I had a crew.
Netflix got fourteen Emmy nominations, and the web series became a much easier sell—an investor would fund the first episode, we’d Kickstart for two more, and start our empire there.
My team and I shot the first episode of Peacekeepers in August in five days (though prepping for it took the better part of two months, and post production the better part of five). In one sense, shooting in New York City is the easiest thing—the city wants television here, NYC sells itself to the world with the culture it builds through Sex & The City and Law & Order and Damages and Girls— but actually acquiring permits and juggling shooting schedules can be real tricky.
In the original script, a man dies in Times Square. My producers convinced me this was nearly impossible to pull off given our budget and manpower, so I set the scene in Columbus Circle instead. This presented a different set of problems: Central Park owns the center of the Columbus Circle roundabout and the Time Warner Center forbade us from shooting on their property or focusing on the building itself, eliminating our scouted street corners days before the shoot.
Our brilliant producer found a literal loophole, and we shot on a narrow sliver of pavement south of the park, east of the roundabout, owned by no one but the city, which allowed us a subway exit from which the star could rush, and a glimpse of our chosen iconic backdrop that, my legal counsel assured me, could be argued as incidental (read: fee free). We won that battle.
We won every battle, actually. Shooting on the High Line Park in Chelsea involved a tricky sort of musical chairs since we could only have ten or so people present at a time, given the park’s rules. Shooting on a roof facing south over Central Park and the Natural History Museum wasn’t expressly prohibited or permitted, and we managed to get all the takes we needed before building security removed us from the premises with extreme prejudice.
After the shoot we all went back to our dayjobs, I found an editor and an animator and a composer, and in early February we screened the first episode for a tiny crowd sardine-packed into a Manhattan dive bar. Since it was the 4th of the month and we had all just paid rent, we didn’t have the money to get a real screen: Peacekeepers was projected onto a king size bedsheet.
We released the episode online that night, and now we’re a little over 10% of the way to our Kickstarter goal. Io9.com, the sci-fi blog that’s been my bible for years, called the pilot “fun” and “witty” and got us tens of thousands of page views. One of the directors of Homeland threw some cash our way and gave incredible notes and said she was excited to see more. Cecil Baldwin of Welcome To Night Vale fame signed on to do the second episode. We’re getting there.
It’s still a shockingly long road. Maria and I have a calling card now. We’ve shown that we can walk the walk, but it’s too soon to know if we’ll be able to make more episodes.
We had this weird little baby together, this sci-fi black comedy that’s about religion and responsibility and overcoming child abuse and domestic violence and homophobia. And we did it for less than $27,000, less than what HBO or NBC might spend on a single actor’s walk-on role.
Getting the piece out into the world is a slow process, but at some point Damon Lindelof’s bound to stop in front of my office and be like, oh hey, you’re that web series guy. And hopefully that’ll be the start of something new.
Watch the first episode of Peacekeepers below, and check out its Kickstarter campaign page here.