Wednesday 6 July 2016

Interview with Yuri Baranovsky

One of the interesting things about social media is the way in which unlikely people link to one another. I stumbled across a wise and witty post by Yuri Baranovsky about three months ago (and ran a version of it on this blog). That was the first I'd heard of him, but it seems I was at the back of the queue. Not only had lots of people heard of him, they suddenly saw me in a new light when I mentioned him. Something to do with reflected glory...
    Then Yuri himself popped up in the Comments box and made some gracious points. So I asked him for an interview.

 *  You were born in Ukraine. Your family moved to the USA in 1988, when you were five. Where did you go to school, and where did you grow up?

In 1989, actually, but yes. We left as Jewish refugees—it was all very dramatic, we had an old soviet boat and we paddled across the ocean to get to San Francisco.
    I went to some kind of kindergarten in Kiev. I specifically remember stealing my brother’s toys and giving them to pretty girls in my class there. I knew, even at that age, that women judged me on the strength of my toy cars. That, and sitting with my arms crossed in front of me like a little child robot, is all I remember of my Russian education.
     I grew up mostly in San Francisco.

When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

It’s hard to say. I think Jews, as a culture, love telling stories—especially funny ones. Everyone in my family tells stories and I always loved listening.
    My mom put on full puppet productions for me and my brother, she also made up whole fairy tales that we would act out, saving princesses whilst riding on the back of our faithful steed: the large cover of a soviet-era sewing machine.
    My dad just tells stories constantly. We’ve heard them all, but still listen when he retells them, because he’s a great storyteller.
And finally, my brother—probably thanks to my parents—started writing when he was very young. He’d write little stories for me, I think about animals living on a farm (it was Orwellian, for sure), and as I got older, I’d try to mimic him. I was terrible at it.
    One of my strongest memories in regard to storytelling, though, is feeling a strong sense of loss when I realized I was too old to play with my toys. I could watch a movie with my parents, or read a book, and then, through my action figures, I could play in all of these different worlds. When I got older, I remember feeling kind of, like... well... what will replace that? How will I travel to these other places? How will I get to be an X-Man?
    Thankfully, I discovered acting and it went from there. Though, I still haven’t been a super hero...

What was your first paying job?

I was an accountant’s assistant for a small interior design company. I got that job because my mom was the accountant and, well, needed an assistant. It wasn’t bad, aside from the fact that some of the people working there were literally caricatures of fairytale villains. I learned a surprising amount of useful, adult-like skills for the future.

What was your first job in filmmaking?

I think all filmmakers make a lot of things before they can ever really call it a job.
    I would say my first paying job was, amazingly, as a head writer for a series called The Circuit on MOJO HD. It was for a small HD network, mostly known for a show called Three Sheets. The series was basically The Daily Show for tech news and it’s still on Hulu.

This wasn't part of the original deal, but here's the pilot of The Circuit, complete with the sleep-deprived monkeys.

I was already shooting Break a Leg (but not getting paid for it), and had acted in a feature film (without being paid for it), as well as shot my own (and lost money with it), but hadn’t actually officially been paid to do anything with film. Not yet.
    One of the producers happened to catch a featured, satirical article I wrote for Gizmodo—who I used to write for a little bit—and loved it. He offered me the job, and I said yes, before they could take it back.
    It was a really awesome experience; it taught me a whole lot about writing, running a team (albeit a small one) and just filmmaking in general.

What training or mentoring did you receive in your early days?

If I could use a metaphor to describe my career, thus far, I would say it’s less of a race with a specific target in sight, and more of me walking through different rooms at random and somehow constantly ending up in the right one.
    Does that make sense? I’ve had a lot of coffee and it has condensed milk in it. I’m a little shaky.
    What I’m saying is, my mentors came and went, and a lot of times were in the form of books or just... experience.
    I started as an actor, and so, I was taught by my drama teachers. I was incredibly lucky to have good ones throughout my life. In middle school, my drama teacher practically begged me to audition for Aladdin—and I did, and as a result got bitten by the acting bug.
    In high school, my drama teacher, aside from just being a great drama teacher in general, noticed that I really liked wordplay. Specifically, I fell in love with David Ives—I love his banter, I love how he uses words like music. His dialogue has a rhythm, a beat that enhances the humor, the drama, everything. It blew me away when I first did one of his plays.
    I ended up directing one of his shows (my first directing job!) in our high school one-act showcase, and at the end of it, my teacher gave me his book of plays as a gift.
    I read that thing a thousand times. And then I read Neil Simon. And then I read Tom Stoppard. And then I watched Monty Python. And then I read every playwright who juggled words the way those guys do and started trying to do the same.

Carla Zilbersmith
My biggest, non-family-related mentor was my college drama teacher, Carla Zilbersmith. I was still playing with the idea of being a writer, tentatively writing sketches and putting them up at my school (College of Marin). One of them, Eleven Variations on Friar John’s Failure, a Shakespeare-satire (always popular with the kids) got published and started being performed all over... the world, actually.
     At that time, Carla was really the first person to recognize me as a writer. She beat it into me, gave me scripts to read, things to look up, notes, notes, notes on everything I did. She was a hard-ass. She and I had a very tumultuous relationship in college, but if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I’d get near to where I am now. And not just in writing, in producing, directing, everything—Carla was a huge influence. A very important mentor.
     Unfortunately, because no writer’s life would be complete without a good, tragic story about a brilliant mentor—Carla died a couple of years ago of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Which, as she liked to say, sucked, because she always hated baseball.
     There’s a documentary about her fight with it, and it’s pretty damn amazing. She was hilarious, her comedy was so dark that you couldn’t help but laugh, even in the face—especially in the face
of tragedy. She was inspiring without meaning to be. She tattooed ‘Out Of Order’ on her feet, after ALS stopped them from working, and she had us shoot her post-mortem funeral video while she was still alive. She was brilliant and hilarious, and taught me a whole lot about writing, life, art, and on, and on.
     Sorry, the negative side of liking to tell stories is that I like to tell stories.
     Back to your original question—after Carla, my mentors were my own projects and the people who I worked with on those projects. I’ve never taken a writing class—and I’m not bragging, it’s something I really would like to do—but I’ve consumed books, screenplays, and films, and shows, to learn and better myself. And I’m definitely still learning and learning and learning.
     Man, I talk a lot.

That's okay.  You filmed the pilot of Break A Leg in 2006, a year before Italian Spiderman came out, which makes you a true pioneer of the web series business. To what extent did that experience shape your outlook and open up a career path for you?

From the pilot of Break a Leg (2006)
Break a Leg literally made my entire career. It was completely by accident that we released it when we did. We did it for a contest, lost the contest, gained a fanbase and thought, "Huh, let’s just make a few episodes for the hell of it and see what happens." And then it got popular and more popular and—it’s another room I accidentally stumbled into. We pioneered without meaning to. It’s like if Louis and Clark said, "Oh, I don’t know, let’s go West and see what happens...?"
    We worked our asses off on that show. We released content every week while filming thirty minute episodes on literally no budget at all. Nothing. No money. We bought food for the cast and begged them to not leave us. Our crew was our close friends who are now a major part of our production company and who loved the project as much as we did. We were ridiculously lucky to be surrounded by amazing, loyal and talented people.
    Break a Leg became a calling card. Somehow, it hit a nerve. People still recognize us for it, and that’s crazy, since it’s been six years now. All the projects after Break a Leg were a direct result of what we had accomplished with that show. It has a very special place in my heart. One day, we’ll make a second season. One day.

The early episodes of Break A Leg ran for about 30 minutes, which many people considered too long. These days there seems to be a tendency toward developing web series with longer episodes. How do you view this trend?

Once, a girl told me she didn’t watch anything “over 180 seconds.” Because, apparently, at that time, saying "minutes"’ was totally uncool. We got a lot of flak for it, but we fought it with tooth and nail. I’ve always fought it. I’ve blogged about it.
    I hate the seven minute time restriction. It’s silly. It’s a holdover from 2006 when videos were tiny, connections were slow and quality was awful.
    We’re watching HD shows on our computers with weird time restrictions on scripted series. That's completely useless. If it works at seven minutes, great. If it should be thirty minutes, make it thirty minutes, dammit.
    I hope the trend continues. In fact, we’re doing our best to continue it—Leap Year, Season 2, is significantly longer than the first season and, in my opinion, much stronger.
    In the end, though, it comes down to money. The bigger the budgets get, the more opportunity we have to make longer content. I’ll continue my web-show-length crusade until I get to make my own, seven-hour, Yuri Baranovsky Biopic web series. 

From the pilot of The Temp Life (2006)
In 2009/2010 you were a writer on the series The Temp Life, which was not something you originated or produced. Did you enjoy the relatively uncomplicated life of a writer compared to your usual burdens as an actor/writer/director/producer?

Yes! So, as I said, The Circuit was actually my first job in that vein. But, you know what? I absolutely love just being a writer, or just being an actor, or just being a director. Not to say I don’t love being a multi-hyphenate on my own projects. I’m a control freak, and when it’s my baby, I want to raise it.
    But, I love taking a break from our own projects and doing other people’s stuff. Just being an actor, for example, is amazing. I’m like... all I have to do is know my lines, put in a good performance, and I get free food and literally hours of downtime where I can read, or write, or work…? Really? It’s the best job in the world! I don’t even have to move a light!

In 2010 you produced Road Trip Rally, a ‘branded’ web series for the 7-Eleven store chain, involving a car race across America by two teams. What did you learn from that experience?

I learned that sinus infections are God’s personal punch in the face.
    No!  I learned that most of Middle America really doesn’t care for anyone who isn’t white.
    No, wait, better. I learned that in most clothing stores in Middle America, I am a children’s extra small.
    You know how some terrible parents teach their children to swim by throwing them into a pool and saying, Listen, I’m going to teach you an essential skill with the threat of death? The 7-11 Road Trip Rally was that for us.
    We learned an insane amount on Break a Leg, but at the end of the day, if we failed to release an episode on a Monday (we never did), or if a video was a bit off, or whatever, there was no real... we had no boss. We were our own bosses. And while we were tough on ourselves, there was no real stakes. No money to lose. No one relying on us, but us.

From the 7-Eleven Road Trip Rally (2010)
The 7-11 Road Trip Rally was a whole new beast for us. We knew we could do it, we knew it in our gut, but we had never really done anything like it. There were hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. It was hard. Really hard. We had to shoot and release an episode daily. And that’s one episode for two teams, traveling cross-country. That meant our two editors would put together two different episodes a day, and then the West Coast editor would send it to our East Coast editor, and he’d make those two episodes into one, and we’d release that. While driving in an RV. For hours.
    Rinse and repeat for three weeks. 
    It didn’t help that during that trip, not only did my girlfriend (of seven years) and I break up, but Carla died. It was intense. It was trying to learn to swim, not just because you were drowning, but because someone kept trying to beat you with a stick while you struggled.
    But we did it. And we survived. And we did a damn good job. My team is, frankly, amazing. Our producer manager (Hillary Bergmannhire her, seriously) made that thing work, because she’s a genius. Justin Morrison (co-partner and DP) made that show look phenomenal. And Dashiell Reinhardt (co-partner and head editor) probably took off a few years of his life to make sure we released an episode daily. The amazing Daniela DiIorio and Dustin Toshiyuki have been part of our main crew/cast since we started and are key, key pieces to our production company. I like giving credit where credit is due, and they're due a lot. Then there's my brother, Vlad Baranovsky (another co-partner and co-writer, and musician). He would write us music literally as the episodes were being edited. “We need a country song in 30 minutes.” “Done.”
    The whole thing made us go from a little scrappy group, who wanted to be filmmakers, into a real production company. After that job, we felt like there was literally nothing we couldn’t pull off. 
    We still feel that way.

The cast of Leap Year
In 2011 you started another series called Leap Year, which deals with five friends co-founding a startup and competing for $500,000 in funding. The show is “presented” by Hiscox Small Business Insurance, which (I assume) means they have funded it to some degree. Did you first approach them with the idea, or the other way round? What benefits do they gain from the arrangement?

It’s entirely funded by them, yes. We were approached by Wilson Cleveland—who had hired me for Temp Life and his Suite 7 series—to ask if Vlad and I wanted to write the show. We said yes, and offered to shoot it as well. Hiscox liked our work (namely, our Lovemakers pitch) and agreed to let us shoot it.
    They gave us a very basic outline of what they wanted, and then Vlad and I made it into our baby.
    For Hiscox, they wanted a really well-written, engaging show that people wanted to watch. The idea is that the audience who watches Leap Year is the same audience who needs small business insurance, which is what Hiscox provides. If you notice, there are no actual mentions of Hiscox in the series. The branding comes around the videos, be it in Hulu ads that play during the show, or banners on the main site. As long as we’re engaging with their demographic, everybody wins.
    They’re a great brand to work with in general. They’ve given us almost complete freedom with the show and we’ve really been able to create something that we’re very, very proud of.

Leap Year is now entering a second series. How does this one differ from the first?

Oh, God, let me count the ways.
    It’s much longer—episodes are now around 15-20 minutes, as opposed to 7-9 like they were the first season. The show is much darker this time around. The length really lets us play with moments, emotions, pauses, silence, it really changes the show.
    Even the music is hipper, darker, grittier this season. We’re going to be releasing a soundtrack, as Vlad’s music is one of the biggest hits this time around.
    Finally, the celebrity guests! Oh, the celebrity guests! Eliza Dushku, Steven Weber, Craig Bierko, Josh Malina, Emma Caulfield, Julie Warner—it’s like a wild celebrity orgy of talent.

*  What are three things you wish someone had told you about film when you were starting out?

How many Jews there are in Hollywood. It’s weird. Did you know that Mila Kunis practically has the same background as me? We’re both refugees. Milachka, why aren’t we friends, yet?
    Seriously, this is really strong coffee. 

Mila Kunis, in Friends With Benefits. Born on August 14, 1983, in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

You know, I don’t think any amount of telling can really prepare you for the experience of filmmaking. I think the two biggest things (I couldn’t think of a third one), are:

1. Don’t really listen to anybody. You can listen, you can learn, but don’t take anyone’s word as gospel. People will tell you that you can’t do this, you can’t do that, there’s only this way to do something, or that way, or no one is doing this anymore, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It’s all wrong. The coolest thing about this world is that there are a million ways to succeed in it. Everyone should try and take their own road.

2. Keep working. Even when you’re failing, even when it seems like you’re at a dead end, keep throwing ideas at the wall, keep putting things together, never stop, something will happen, something will stick. It’s really a war of attrition, when your competitors die out and you’re still working, someone will notice. It’s also... and I feel like I should be saying this in front of a campfire while wearing a loose-fitting shirt and a feathered headband, but... when you’re working hard and putting yourself out there, the universe opens up and gives you opportunities. Man, I swear, it really works.

*  You have a book due for publication shortly. Tell us a little about that.

It’s a pop-up book about dinosaurs. Remember those? I loved them as a kid. I think it’s because, in Kiev, we didn’t have pop-up books. Or dinosaurs.
    It’s a college textbook that’s specifically for writing for new media. It’ll hopefully be out in a few months (due out January 2013). It’s written by Vlad Baranovsky, myself, and Marie Drennan, an indescribably awesome English teacher at San Francisco State University.
    The pop-up dinosaurs are in the “structure” chapter.

*  If you could recommend just one filmmaking advice book to a newcomer in Adelaide (apart from your own), what would that book be

I’m a writer first, so my favorite is Making a Good Script Great, by Linda Seger. Simple to read and understand, and really drives structure home. It’s great.

*  What are your ten favourite movies of all time?

Oh, no. I’m terrible at this. Can I preface this by saying I’m not like... Tarantino... in that I’ve watched every movie ever made. I’ve watched very few classic movies (I came to this country in ’89, for the love of God—and I had to learn how to speak English!), so my list is probably going to offend every real auteur ever.

But, here’s my best try:

1. Big Mama’s House (2000)
2. Austin Powers 3 (2002)—because the same joke, told over and over again, is always funny.
3. Pootie Tang (2001)
4. That terrible animated movie where the aliens destroy Earth because our people have a must-destroy-now-technology that, apparently, is to create another Earth. Oh, Titan A.E. (2000). God, that was dumb.
5. Anything that M. Night Shyamalan has a bit role in. My favorite one is Signs (2002), where he’s like, “I’m going to the lake. There’s water there. People say the aliens hate water. Have I said water enough? Because water.”

... Okay, some real ones off the top of my head—it’s hard to say they’re my favorite of all time, but, they are beloved:
God, this is really hard. I love so many movies.
Okay. Okay, I’m tapped out for now.

Break A Leg
David Penn just got his sitcom picked up. Unfortunately, David Penn's life is about to get canceled.
Here's Episode 1.

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________________________________________________________________________ Leap Year.
After being laid-off from their corporate day jobs, five newbie entrepreneurs compete to get their businesses off the ground when a mystery benefactor promises to invest $500,000 in one of their startups.
Here's Episode 1.

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First posted: 14 September 2012

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