December 15, 2015

Using Character to Create an Award-Winning Web Series with 'Shugs and Fats'

Funny slapstick and nuanced social commentary — in under three minutes. How? The foundation is character, according to the Award-winning creators of Shugs and Fats, the 2015 Gotham Best Breakthrough Series in Short Form.

With an episode around two and a half minutes, every second counts. No Film School spoke with show creators Nadia Parvez Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, as well as director Alex Mallis on how starting with well-thought out characters succeeded in creating their hilarious short series about two Hijabis on a quest to reconcile their long held cultural beliefs with “liberated” Brooklyn.

NFS: Nadia and Radhika, how did the two of you meet and what lead you to collaborate on Shugs and Fats?

Radhika Vaz: We met at Improvolution which is an improv school in Manhattan. Nadia did this Indian character in a show that was, for a change, not one-note (AKA all about the accent!) — I thought she was hilarious. Then we became friends and now we are in a very complicated yet rewarding marriage!

Nadia Parvez Manzoor: I saw rads on stage in an Improv show. I hadn’t taken any improv classes yet, and she was one of the old-schoolers, and was killing it on stage. I was totally taken in by her, thought she was so cool, and so funny. I think she had a lot to do with why I even started Improv in the first place — I think being an Indian chica on stage doing comedy made her more relatable to me. We started working together. We became full ‘accountability partners’ for the development in our separate one-woman shows, and during that stage, we started brainstorming character ideas for sketch. Rads had done a character in hijab in the past, and it’s a huge theme in my one-woman show, so with that behind us, it only made sense to create Shugs and Fats.

We became full ‘accountability partners’ for the development in our separate one-woman shows, and during that stage, we started brainstorming character ideas for sketch.

Credit: Shugs and Fats

NFS: When did Alex Mallis, your director, get involved in the project? What do you look for in a director when you are the show creators?

Nad: Alex started working with us about 5 months into the project. He came in as a DP initially, and we improvised the entire first season. He was interested in directing for the next season, so he could be more involved in setting up the scene. I think as Rads said, since this is really our baby, it was so important that Alex understood what it meant to us, and that we had an existing vision for the characters. On set, there is flow, and we all listen to each other. It can be challenging when there are 3 people who are so closely attached to the project, especially since Rads and I produced all the seasons to date, but frankly I think we’ve done an amazing job at respecting each other's views, and making the right choices for the show. Alex is great to work with. Very receptive, and intuitive, and really gets the chemistry between Shugs and Fats, which I think is essential.

Alex Mallis: I love working with them. And we have a really collaborative set. I have total trust in Nadia and Radhika to write a funny and effective script and then perform with passion. We, including Producer Tara Elliott, read through and rehearsed everything as much as possible to find a common vision. On set, it’s really just about helping them achieve that end. It’s pretty straightforward directing in terms of working with the actors to bring out the best performances, blocking the scenes and camera, and tweaking things as we go along. In general, I find the biggest challenge is turning a comedic script or idea into a successful on-screen joke when you have to not only conceptualize the mechanics of a joke, but also beat it into the ground through multiple angles and takes. You risk losing sight of what makes something funny in the first place. Luckily, Nadia and Radhika always come with a natural rapport and energy that keeps us all laughing and having fun even throughout the most challenging set-ups.

In general, I find the biggest challenge is turning a comedic script or idea into a successful on-screen joke when you have to not only conceptualize the mechanics of a joke, but also beat it into the ground through multiple angles and takes.

Nadia and Radhika working through an episode with Alex.Credit: Shugs and Fats

NFS: How does your background in improv and performance influence how you create each episode?

Rad: The first season was completely improvised, the second season completely written, and the third season was where we used a lot of improv to find the script. As far as performing goes, I have done some scene study, but improv is my training so even if it’s scripted I try and mentally keep my improv brain turned on so I am listening for real and responding as spontaneously as I can. I think Alex and Nad will agree that if we saw a moment that wasn’t planned but that worked on camera, we would happily use that cut.

Nad: Improv is the training in my creativity. Improvolution is a character based school, so that is always front and center for Rads and I. If the characters are solid, and their relationship is clear, then you can literally drop them in any situation and the comedy and dynamic between them will come through. We have put a lot of time really thinking about who these people are. In truth, they are very exaggerated versions of ourselves. I often wish I could be more like Shugs in real life!

Like Rads said, we script things for lines and structure, but the gems that can come out through improvised play cannot be pre-written, so we add them in.

If the characters are solid, and their relationship is clear, then you can literally drop them in any situation and the comedy and dynamic between them will come through.

NFS: When an episode is extremely short — a few minutes — what kind of structural format do you follow? How do you decide what needs to fit into an episode?

Nad: Before we wrote Season 2, I looked at the basic structure of sketch: there needs to be a beginning middle and an end. The issue/set up needs to be established right at the beginning, and then there needs to be some kind of obstacle, and then resolution or a twist. I think because Season 1 was improvised, and we are improvisers, using a framework to work in was extremely helpful for us.

And yes, since we have been developing more and more episodes, throughlines are now beginning to become more important. Initially, it was sort of like, just get out whatever funny episode we can get out. Now that we are thinking about Season 4, we are thinking about following a narrative arc throughout the entire season.

The issue/set up needs to be established right at the beginning, and then there needs to be some kind of obstacle, and then resolution or a twist.

NFS: Blending slapstick with cultural commentary is rare -- and obviously very difficult! How do you strike that balance?

Nad: I think it’s all because of the characters. But also because Rad and I both are constantly exploring cultural issues in our work. The slapstick element is amazing because get to be real and funny, and give them life in ways you don’t usually see. That’s really one of the reasons I think I love the show so much, is that I get to do both of my passions in one project. Investigate cultural issues I really care about, and I get to be a goof ball all at the same time.

Being a perfectionist gets you nowhere fast.

NFS: You’ve just won the Gotham Award for Best Short Series. Congratulations! What advice do you have for filmmakers who want to make their own short series?

Alex: Start. Now. Go. It’s far too easy to build barriers for yourself instead of taking the plunge. All you need is a camera and half an idea. Don’t sweat the details. Just get started and the rest will work itself out.

Rad: Agree completely with Alex. Nad was the pushy one on this project. She didn’t care about anything other that ‘when are we shooting’? Once that was set, we started work on the script! Being a perfectionist gets you nowhere fast.

Nad: If you have an idea, and it makes you laugh, and you love it, that is all you need. Like Rads and Alex said, everything else is figuring out the details. If you have an idea, brainstorm ideas with your friends and people you want to work with. Collaboration is key. Watch different short series’ that you like and think about the format you want to create. Look up everything you need to online. It’s to date the best human resource, and reach out to other filmmakers, and get advice. The biggest thing I would say though, is if you have an idea, and YOU like it, then trust yourself and give it everything you’ve got.

NFS: What do you have in store for Season 3?

Alex: Lighting things on fire that I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to be lighting on fire.

Rad: Haha! Yes - we are all going to jail.  We also talk menstruation, same-sex marriage, and prostitutes, the show Girls...wow, we have a lot of stuff.

Nad: It’s outrageous! This is the first season where I think our scripting, and the improv and the characters really land. we tackle some very provocative topics! Cannot wait to see how people like it!

***

Thank you Nadia, Radhika, and Alex!

Season 3 of Shugs and Fats comes out on January 11, so feel free to subscribe to their YouTube channel and catch up on the goodness of Season 1 & 2 in the meantime!

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