How One Filmmaker Pivoted from Movies to TV
Why you should never limit yourself to a single medium.
Amidst pre-production for his new television project Beatrix Holland, which starts shooting next month in Milwaukee, Austin filmmaker Bob Byington shares insights about the series and working across mediums.
The show is being funded by an investor group headed up by Stuart Bohart, who’s worked with Byington on 5 of his 6 films. The writer-director won at the Locarno Film Festival for Somebody Up There Likes Me, and this will be his first foray into television. Beatrix Holland traces a group of addicts through their various stages of sobriety.
No Film School: You seem to almost insist on selecting topics that donʼt seem funny.
Bob Byington: Yes, this is kind of a comedy show about addiction, in the vein of some of these Intervention-type shows, which seem to have unwittingly wandered into COPS territory. The show is a spin-off of a movie we had at SXSW last year (Frances Ferguson). It's about navigating a new life once you say goodbye to drugs & alcohol, but thereʼs so much funny about it that weʼll focus more on that.
NFS: What drew you to long-form (TV) for this project over the feature film format?
Byington: We've sort of been backed into a corner by the marketplace for indie films—even my friends who claim to like Frances Ferguson confess they can only tolerate it ten minutes at a time. And we're teaming with an executive producer who has worked with us on some of the films and has a ton of TV experience. [Chris McKenna, who was a writer and executive producer on Community before his current iteration as a writer on Marvel and Sony movies].
NFS: There is often a life in the characters that progresses between episodes regardless of the audience. Are those gaps something youʼre thinking about?
Byington: I see that as a good kind of challenge, but isnʼt everyone bingeing?
NFS: True. Iʼm interested in this production apparatus too, which feels different from anything you can do in film. Youʼre aiming to have a space, a camera, characters that you can live in, shoot with, and actually inhabit that space as a cast and crew.
Byington: Yes. I am drawn to this lived-in feel. Thatʼs definitely one of the benefits of shooting in Milwaukee. Thereʼs not a lot of content thatʼs been made there, and everythingʼs a bit worn down in a cozy way.
NFS: Whatʼs drawing you there?
Byington: Milwaukee is a breeding ground for some of the showʼs issues with its drinking culture, but those idiosyncrasies are more or less embraced as part of the fabric of the city. Perfect for this, all respect.
NFS: Do you have a definitive endpoint for Beatrix Holland?
Byington: We would meet a character in Season One and see her again in Season Two, if that's what you're asking. Iʼm interested in relapse, but that might be too “inside” as an issue/theme. We often think our friends may need to quit drinking, weʼre always less certain about ourselves. Iʼd say the show may explore that tension. One thing that's always great about the Intervention shows is the "where are they now?" (dead) epilogues. But, again, whatʼs most important is bringing the funny: People you meet in Group Therapy.
NFS: The portion of the script you sent me played with the idea of the rehabilitation being its own addiction. Will that remain the theme?
Byington: Yes, thatʼs a good observation. It was something we were taking a look at in Frances Ferguson, and we left a lot on the table there, due to the lack of writing and directing talent.
NFS: Will the world remain pretty insular? How far will it ever extend away from the Beatrix Holland core?
Byington: Pretty insular I think. Incestuous even.
NFS: How has this world been portrayed before?
Byington: So many movies seem to start with the main characters in AA asking themselves and the audience, “how did I get here?” I just think we can capture a tone I havenʼt quite seen, which is probably where the idea of doing the show comes from. The recovery community is incredibly funny in a way I havenʼt seen nailed yet. Itʼs mostly about how people talk to one another. There’s a camaraderie amidst people who kind of canʼt stand one another.
NFS: Does comedy always sort of lead the way?
Byington: I may need to get serious. Or take myself slightly more seriously? Comedy can reduce the stakes for the viewer in a way we may not want? We took some of these kinds of jokes out of Frances Ferguson, and that was probably a mistake.