Q&A: Felicia Day, from ‘The Guild’ to ‘Dragon Age’
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This week in Felicia Day news: Tuesday saw the premiere of ‘Dragon Age: Redemption,’ a Web series the actress-writer created as an extension of the video game Dragon Age II, and Wednesday that of the downloadable Dragon Age II adventure Mark of the Assassin; both feature Day in the role of Tallis, an elf with killer skills -- a skilled killer elf. On Thursday, the fifth-season finale of Day’s ‘The Guild,’ the online comedy about online gaming that made her name, goes wide on the Web. (It has been an ambitious year for the series, with myriad celebrity cameos, a fully staged fan convention and a flying ‘dirigible boatmobile.’) I spoke to Day, who is also known for her work on ‘Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,’ Joss Whedon’s Web musical ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ and the Syfy TV series ‘Eureka,’ for a Times profile last month. Here is a Q&A cut of some of the rest of our conversation.
We began by talking about women and the Web.
Felicia Day: There was a really good blog the other day about the huge decrease in the number of women on staff and women show runners in TV. When I go to a Web video meeting and look around, at least half the show runners are women. And a lot are actors-cum-writers, who are frustrated with the situation of being a woman actor in Hollywood and have decided to create their own show. There’s definitely a higher proportion of women in Web series because, I guess the money’s not there. [Laughs.] I think it’s an outlet for people looking to create without waiting for someone to give them a permission slip.
You first wrote ‘The Guild’ as a TV pilot.
FD: I did. I showed it around and got some compliments on my dialogue and my characters. People said, ‘You should write a spec script for whatever sitcom -- you could get on staff.’ I know a lot of writers and I knew that being a staff writer wasn’t really what I wanted to do. But [future ‘Guild’ co-producer] Kim Evey, who was actually my first writing teacher -- my only writing teacher, I did a sketch-writing class with her -- had done a lot of Web video. She had a show called ‘Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show’ that took off a little bit that she sold to Sony for distribution. And after she read ‘The Guild,’ she said, ‘We should make this for the Web, because that’s where the people who you’re talking to are, not TV.’
You never felt that it was the lesser path? FD: No, because it was so experimental at the time it was just like a challenge, like, ‘Let’s mount a play! Let’s make something!’ We had all just been sitting around Hollywood waiting for someone to give us what we thought we wanted. I think that’s kind of inherent in this town; no matter where you are you always have this other higher goal you want to get to. It’s sort of an underlying dissatisfaction with life, and it creates a lot of bitter people. The idea of just taking the reins and doing something on our own was terrifying, but the decision to do it, with just what we had in our houses, was so exciting that it became a great creative focus. We were going to make it happen no matter what.
No matter what we needed we had to do it ourselves because we had no money to hire anyone. So I was the one who drove out to Sylmar because somebody on Freecycle wrote they had working electronics on their curb and I was, like, ‘Well, that would look cool in the background of this character.’ And for the background of another character I was, like, ‘Well, I need a painting that’s iconic for her,’ so I took a piece of wrapping paper and I used a Sharpie and I painted this vaguely graphic shape and hung it on the wall. Every single scene that first season was all found objects.
Were you worried about not making it too ‘insidery’? Of making it for a wider audience than just gamers?
FD: I made it for myself, basically. I never wondered ‘Is this too insidery?’ Season One is probably the highest bar to entry as far as the gaming terminology. I think it started with hard-core people, and then people who knew the hard-core people told their other geeky friends, and then it broadened out to all Internet users. We released one episode a month, which is counterintuitive, but in fact was a huge advantage for the show because we built an audience between episodes. We started so far inside that it gave me the time to think about where my audience was.
Did you have any sort of public profile at the time?
FD: I’d been on ‘Buffy’ -- that is an amazing community, the Joss Whedon fans. So that was a little bit of a leg up. And then being able to target gaming blogs, and inevitably a couple featured it. And with Episode Three, I think, YouTube saw the traffic and featured us on their front page. After that we had a lot of offers from studios -- there were some big studios jumping into the space in 2007 and 2008, but their traditional model is to own the show’s IP, and I looked at what they were doing with other Web properties, and was like, ‘Well,what exactly are you going to do that’s better than what I’m doing?’ I kept turning down deals, even partial ownership deals with really impressive people, though I got close several times, because in my mind I was doing things slowly but surely, and I didn’t see that they were going to help me out either logistically or financially enough to justify giving up my show. And the week before we started shooting Season Two, Microsoft called and said: ‘We’re interested in doing this with you. It works with our demographic. We want to do original content, we don’t need to own the IP, and we have Sprint on board to do overall sponsorship.’ It was absolutely a dream deal -- they introduced us to millions of new people. That was the big lesson, in that with every platform you’re on you’ll find a new audience. We experienced another huge leap when we got on Netflix, which I didn’t expect; and continue to find new audience there as well as on Xbox Live. We just did a distribution deal with Hulu, and again, tons more people just discovered the show.
Do your actors work under union contracts?
Since our first season we’ve been AFTRA. SAG and AFTRA have been pretty aggressive in trying to sign Web series. I guess the challenging part for them is how do you treat a Web series people are making in their house differently from a big company doing a quote-unquote Web series that’s really a direct-to-DVD movie they just want to pay everybody less for. I’ve done a couple of pilots for real networks that have been made under a Web agreement and made, like, $100, yet they’re presenting it to a network to consider for pickup: That’s the company trying to get over the unions. I think more and more the unions are savvy to those plays.
Codex, your character in ‘The Guild,’ is a bit of a shy flower. For ‘Dragon Age: Redemption’ you’ve written yourself as an elf assassin.
FD: I saw all these superhero movies and I knew I would never be that; I could be the waitress that gets killed in one of those superhero movies. And so when the opportunity came to create a character for a world where I could wield daggers, I couldn’t pass it up.
How did it feel?
FD: It felt great. It was a monumental opportunity, but it was definitely taking ‘The Guild’ and raising it ten-thousandfold. I mean, I wrote a $10-million movie on the page, and they were, like, ‘Well, you should not write a fight sequence for 14 people on a Web series budget, when you have no trailers.’ I called in every favor from every person I could to make it more than what I had resource-wise.
You were approached to make the series?
FD: I had been approached by a lot of people to do another Web series; it was almost intimidating how many people wanted me to do a project with them, and so I kind of put them all off. Because to me it’s all about, ‘Does it feel right?’ Whenever I get out of my own way and make decisions based on my gut feeling I always do well. And when Electric Arts [makers of Dragon Age] called, that was the first call in years that was really like, ‘Oh!’ They asked, ‘What would you like to do?’ and I said, ‘What properties do you have?’ And when Dragon Age came up I was, like, ‘Yes!’ Because when am I ever going to be able to be in a medieval world as an actor? Probably never. So I’ll help create it myself.
This will be the first time that a video game property is a Web series; and the elf is an actual playable character. So my character will be a DLC [downloadable content] piece; if people own Dragon Age II, they’ll be able to purchase an extension pack and play with my character. It’s full motion capture with me, full facial capture, full vocal acting. It’s pretty much the coolest thing I could ever imagine: Not only am I in a game, but it’s as a character I created.
Have you noticed narrative ideas from video games working their way into movies and TV shows?
FD: I would almost say the opposite: The storytelling in video games has gotten so much more sophisticated and well-thought-out -- I mean, if you play Uncharted, it’s like you’re living an Indiana Jones movie. And [Dragon Age developer] BioWare games specifically have a depth of storytelling where you feel like you’re living a season of a really good hour drama. You’re able to form relationships with other characters, your dialogue choices influence the story. Just the number of lines that I had to record to satisfy all the player decisions in [‘Dragon Age: Redemption’] is kind of staggering. So it’s a three-dimensional kind of storytelling that to me is almost more attractive than passively watching a narrative. I think that’ it’s going to be very interesting to see the long term of it -- it’s almost like video games have an advantage over movies in being able to go beyond the traditional barriers of media.
Do you see Web series remaining entrepreneurial as more money flows to the Web?
FD: When someone asks me to help them with their Web series, I’m like, ‘Do you really want to do a Web series, or do you just want to to a short film? Because if you want to do a short film, make one.’ Sustaining an audience with a Web series is an impossible task. You’re starting a company and the video is just one piece of your offering. You have to have a start-up mind, you have to think about the Web design, the trailers, your social networking sites; you need to make sure that you’re consistent, you need to have marketing materials at all times. The three-dimensional way that you have to build a Web series is unique. Some people upload a video and expect to get reviews overnight. ‘The Guild’ didn’t have that. Maybe a couple of stars will have that kind of penetration, but big stars have done Web series that have gotten zero people to watch them. There’s no magic bullet; it’s just persistence and making content over and over again and knowing that you love doing it even if you might not get a million people to watch.
You have to hit harder in order to be able to be spread on the Internet, because you’re not going to hit 2 million people at once like you’re on television. You’re going to hit ... whoever you can get access to. Distribution networks like YouTube and Twitter and Facebook, that’s your network. I tweet -- I don’t think 100% of my Twitter followers see every tweet I do. It’s a scattered, I like to say, ‘info-collander’: You pour in the information and it’s going to catch just between the holes. So it’s all about consistence and consistency. It’s challenging for the traditional sort of marketing approach; we invent whatever we can to get our audience.
Do you watch other Web series?
FD: I do. I mean, I try. The last six months have been really challenging to me. But one of my best friends I found online because I admired their work. There was that steampunk series ‘Riese’ and there was a sci-fi series, ‘The Mercury Men,’ my friend did and then sold to Syfy for distribution. There’s a really sweet comedy called ‘Awkward Embraces.’ Especially on the comedy side, there are some really good Web series, and they get more and more polished because the equipment gets cheaper and cheaper and people get savvier and savvier. The storytelling and production values are improving. Certainly Episode One of Season One of ‘The Guild’ is completely different from Episode One of Season Five. We’ve improved exponentially. You’ve got to compete with that Hulu thumbnail of a professional TV show; so you’d better make your Web series pretty good, or who’s going to click on it?
Do you imagine creating series that you don’t star in?
FD: ‘Dragon Age’ was the first step. I could go off into the wilderness and write fantasy novels for the rest of my life and probably be happy; but I always want to challenge myself. So my producing partner Kim and I have several projects in development; a couple of them might have me as an actor, or personality, and others have other people. My goal is to do a whole slate of programs, start small and then end up at those bigger-budget things I really want to do. I also know that as a woman [actor], my face has a shelf life, in a sense, I’m very aware of that. So I just have to be long term about it, and think, you know, that was the time for that and maybe in the future it’s more writing and producing. I tend to not to think too far ahead.
This will all be online?
FD: Yes. I’m always interested in digital distribution -- that’s where it’s all going to end up anyway. I never felt more fulfilled than when I uploaded that first ‘Guild’ video and I saw comments starting to appear; and they were good and they were bad but they were there, and I saw that feedback and I saw people that started using our icons on their page because they liked the show. It’s that interactivity that keeps me interested in doing it; it’s intoxicating in a way. And I always wanted to be part of that community, and the community I’ve formed I’m loyal to. So I want to tell stories to them.