Sunday 6 November 2011

Interview with Anne Flournoy

For those who don’t know, Anne is the writer/ director/producer/editor of The Louise Log, a 44 episode series of internet shorts detailing the life of a New York City wife and mother.

I asked Anne the following questions in the hope of gaining some insight into what makes for a successful webseries.

* Where did you grow up?
  I grew up in rural New Jersey, far from New York City. 

* Where did you go to school?
  Though I 'went to school', nothing much stuck 'til I was out of college and could finally do what I wanted towhich was to learn to draw like Leonardo da Vinci.  Having studied Art History, I did what I'd read everyone in the 19th century had done, and went to Paris. I attended L'Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Little did I know that this had degenerated into a place for Japanese businessmen-painters to gather and ask the nude models to pose with their legs spread. After a few months, an acquaintance tipped me off that I could audit at the Beaux-Arts and be surrounded by art students like me.
  After a few years I came back to the States and applied to graduate schools to get an MFA. Mercifully I didn't get into Yale. I say mercifully because at Yale, the sculptors were off in one building, completely isolated from the other visual artists. At Rutgers, where I was offered a spot, the sculptors, photographers, painters, ceramists, conceptual and performance artists were all crowded into one building.
"I don’t even have the nerve to wiggle."
  I arrived making large wooden, axe-hewn sculptures, some of which had a problem staying upright. Two of the very sophisticated, second-year students came to me, barely concealing the fact that they were snickering: "You're still making free-standing monoliths??" 
  More than a little insulted, I proceeded to do almost no work for the entire first year except to try and figure out how these conceptual artists could dismiss my work.
  Some of the professors, notably Leon Golub and Geoff Hendricks (a member of Fluxus) made the sheer cliff of my learning curve possible with their encouragement and integrity. By the end of the first year I did a performance which was an organizational nightmare involving all kinds of audio and visual equipment and performers on stage moving (silent film era) cardboard waves, with one or more of them wearing cardboard cutouts of rowboats as 'skirts'. And then all we had to show for the effort was a lousy video taken from the back of the auditorium. It landed me in a darkened room getting migraines and thinking that film looked like the easier, softer way.

* When did you first decide you wanted to write?
  I didn't originally want to write. I hadn't done particularly well at school and didn't think I could 'write'. The need for fake subtitles for my first short was my first foray into it and then in wanting to make a feature, I just figured: 'Gotta do it. No one's going to send me a script.'
"Rejection enhances my self-esteem."
  A poet friend recommended a life-changing book which gave me a way to write without a lot of hemming and hawing or even using sentences. Writing the Natural Way by Gabrielle Rico.
* Your character, Louise, exhibits Woody Allen-type insecurities. Is that a New York thing, a conscious choice of style, or just you?
  Hmm. I don't know if insecurities are a New York thing. I'm not the most confident person I've ever met but would like to think that whatever issues Louise has are like mine on steroids.

* Ten favourite movies?
  In no special order:
    Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel
    Vivre Sa Vie, Godard
    Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch 
    Why Not, Arakawa
    The Piano, Campion 
    Mulholland Drive, Lynch
    All About My Mother, Almodovar   
    Pulp Fiction, Tarantino 
    Galaxy Quest, Parisot 
    Love Serenade, Barrett

"All I need is a knife... and a bag of onions."
* V.O. was the backbone of the ‘noir’ films of the 40s and 50s, and has been used in movies as diverse as Bridget Jones's Diary, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Quiet American. Most modern “experts” decry the use of V.O., but I love the way you use it for Louise’s interior monologue.  Have you had many comments about that?
  So happy to hear that you like it. It arose as a last minute attempt to salvage the first episode which, with just the picture and the music, didn't seem to be working. A wonderful writer, Lucile Bruce, with whom I worked on an early version of my 'second feature' told me that Emir Kusturica had taught a class at Columbia University's graduate film school. He'd made a point about 'the third thing'. If a scene isn't working with a man and a woman, add a dog. Or a clap of thunder. Etc. I was about five months beyond my self-imposed deadline to make a viral video and it was the end of December. All I could think was that if I didn't finish and upload this Louise Log before January 1st (it was supposed to be a single video) that I could be trying to improve it for monthsor yearsto come. So I whispered into the macbook and that was that.
  In answer to your question, people seem to love it or hate it.

* The Louise Log starts out as a small Woody Allen-esque show, then it gives a bit of Dr Who skip as Phineas morphs into another body, then it expands into a Seinfeld or 30 Rock type of story, with a single person struggling to maintain a grip on reality while others around them seek to distort it. Is that the future for Louise? A Jerry Seinfeld or Liz Lemon anchor role?
  That's an interesting analysis! As you can see, the first two seasons have been more about putting one foot in front of the other than about executing a grand plan. The guiding principle has been to give Louise 'obstacles', to have fun and (since the 4th episode) to find a balance of the internal monologue and the exterior life. I feel that 2-3 character scenes and a very simple story arc work best with my sensibility and the under five minute format I love. If you want to compare recent episodes of The Louise Log to two of the most popular shows on television, please be my guest. 

"What did we go over in June with your therapist?"
* For years, budding screenwriters in Australia have been pushed toward writing (and making) short films. With the success of Italian Spider-Man, that push has been redirected toward making webisodes. Do you have any advice or warnings for inexperienced wannabe filmmakers?
  Hmm. Okay. From my experience I'd say two things are really important.
  Figure out a way to tell your story as cheaply as possible. It usually takes time to find your audience and if you blow all the money you have on the first five or ten episodes, you may not be able to hang in there as long as you need to. 
  The second thing is about length: ask yourself 'How long should this video be?' If someone had asked me this, I would have thought that they were 1) a picky accountant-style person, or 2) just not that bright. Only four years of hits and misses has convinced me that this is a very important question. And there are two factors to consider: the filmmaker's particular gift and the story (not the script... the story). 
  Some people have epic imaginations and gifts and are straining at the bit to be able to upload thirty minute videos to YouTube. Others, and I put myself in this category, are miniaturists and do best with very short pieces. I'm sure there's a third category of people who can do both but... haven't done an exhaustive survey on this.
  The second sub-factor of 'the story' has to do with the arc. Some of The Louise Log episodes are much less successful than I think they could be because I slavishly tried to cram what we'd written as 'an episode' into one episode. (I think Episode 23 should have actually been three really really good episodes instead of one that's sub-par.)

"Ever thought of a web series? ... It’s cheaper than therapy."
* What do you think are the essential elements of a good web series?
   I was recently given some excellent advice by Eric Mortensen the Director of Network Programming at "Scripted' content is (with rare exceptions like The Guild and Anyone But Me) having a hard time getting masses of viewers. The more you can give the viewer a sense of great immediacylike that of a newscastthe better." He didn't use the example of LonelyGirl, but the blurring of the lines between fiction and non-fiction, which that show accomplished at first, is what I took from his suggestion. 
  Humor is supposedly hotter than straight drama. And getting to the point in the first ten seconds, OR LESS, matters. No fancy title sequences, no meandering BOOM. Grab the viewer's interest and let them know what you're up to. You've got only a few seconds before they'll be getting skyped or messaged by a real life friend. Which brings me to the last suggestion: develop characters which can compete with their own real world friends, who your viewers will care enough about that they'll put their life on hold to watch your show.
  This is so much easier said than done. I've put some resources which have sustained me through the tough times on the website at

"Now we’re gonna need the raw milk..."
* Can you tell us any interesting facts or trivia about your show? Any funny stories?
  The Louise Log (season 1) was supposed to be my second feature. I rewrote the script for years and finally 'put it on the shelf' when Delta Airlines lost all the carefully gathered notes I'd collected from smart people for the 'last rewrite'. I only started the first episode in an attempt to make a thigh-slapping viral video to get the attention of Hollywood executives. It was humbling to discover how hard it is to make a thigh-slapper. Only after four episodes did I realize that I was going to have to gut my script of its juiciest moments to tell the only story I wanted to tell.
  As far as the funny stuff, it's so painful I can't bear to recall it right now. There's one video of bloopers that gives an idea of the level of problems we've faced:  (There are two videos here—you have to scroll down. It's called 4 Tips From the Masters.)

* What’s next for Anne Flournoy? More webisodes, a feature, the great American novel, or something more interesting?
  There's so much of Season 2 shot and waiting to be edited... What I had thought was going to be Episode 24 has become 24-27 and maybe even 28. So it's really unclear when we'll finish editing and uploading Season 2. I'd love to shoot at least one more season of The Louise Log but that's as far ahead as I've thought.

This interview was followed a year later by One year on..., which deals with Hurricane Sandy and Anne's plans for the future.


Anne Flournoy said...

Thank you Henry! This looks GORGEOUS.

Kathy said...

I have read this interview twice and will be reading it again. Anne is an inspiring artist not just for the work she has produced to date but also for her wry take on it and the way she generously shares advice for others.

Anne Flournoy said...

Kathy. Thank you so much! Totally makes my day if you got something from what I said.