Every so often, we’ll be spotlighting alumni and what they are up to these days. These Q&A sessions will give you a bit of insight into where the world has taken them since graduation.
This week, the spotlight is on Ben York Jones (BFA/FP ’06) and Michael Mohan (BFA/FTP ‘02) who join the growing list of Chapman alumni selling shows to Netflix with the launch of their series Everything Sucks! in February. Set in 1996 Oregon, the show is a coming-of-age dramedy centered on the nerds in the AV Club and their histrionic rivals in the drama club.
DODGE: Share your career path with us – how did you get where you are now?
MIKE: We both kind of came-up through the Sundance Film Festival with various shorts and indie features (Jones: Breathe In, Like Crazy; Mohan: Ex-Sex, Pink Grapefruit, Save the Date, One Too Many Mornings). Having our respective works play the festival over the years really provided us with some initial momentum career-wise. We were both able to get representation, which is an important piece of the puzzle, and meet people we’d eventually collaborate with, including each other. Even though we both went to Chapman, we attended at different times, so the first time we met was at Sundance in 2010, when we were both there with ultra-low budget features. The one thing we’ve learned is that there really isn’t any one path, and while ours have been similar in a macro-sense, when it comes to the micro, we’ve had very different experiences. Lots of fulfilling, but typically slow-going lateral movement that’s happily proven to shape and prepare us for the present.
DODGE: How did you land with Netflix? What was the process like?
MIKE: We first collaborated on a show we sold to Starz a few years back. And even though that didn’t end up going forward, we asked ourselves “what’s next?” and agreed it would be a coming-of-age story. We worked on it in a vacuum for the better part of a year, in between other jobs, and once we had the basic concept and story and characters fleshed out, we began pitching to various producing entities in hope of finding some partners with television pedigree. We found those partners in Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg of Midnight Radio, and with their support and creative input we began going around to networks. We probably pitched at about 10 places over the course of two weeks, and at the end of the day, much to our elation, three networks wanted the show. We went with Netflix for a host of reasons, but first and foremost was their enthusiasm for us, and ours for them. There was a meeting-of-the-minds we felt with those who would become our executives.
DODGE: What classes or programs at Chapman did you find most useful in your professional career?
BEN: For me it was film history classes. Understanding film language in a structured and analytical group setting, with a resourceful professor leading the way is huge. Potentially more important for a screenwriter than are actual screenwriting classes. Also, the directing classes I took with Jeff McCracken. He’s a passionate teacher and artist who I felt believed in me. I think it’s super rare, even at a great school.
MIKE: The editing classes I took with Harry Cheney were formative. He would show us scenes from Kieslowski’s RED, and then break them down into each discreet creative decision, going frame by frame over each edit. Why was the camera placed where it was? What motivated each cut? Things like that. I learned far more about directing from him than any other teacher.
DODGE: Is there any advice you received that you applied and worked in your career?
BEN: The greatest professional advice I ever received was from the magician Lance Burton. When I was a kid I loved magic, and I would do magic shows at birthday parties, so I asked him how much I should charge. He told me to do it for free, and if I still loved it, and people kept asking me to do it, eventually they would start paying me and I wouldn’t even have to ask. Not only was he right, but it turned out to be a real test of my passion for what I was doing. The lesson was: You better love what you’re going after enough that you’ll do it for free. If you can do that, you might have a chance to one day make a living at it.
MIKE: Back when I worked at the Sundance Screenwriting Labs, Stuart Stern once led a discussion where he said that filmmaking is a real gift. It’s a gift to be able to tell stories for a living, and it’s a gift for the audience as well. So you have to make absolutely certain you have something to say.
DODGE: Where did you get your ideas for the themes and emotions in “Everything Sucks!”?
MIKE: So much of our writing process consists of us just sitting in a room talking for hours, and seeing what we both spark to. For this project, we would constantly look through our old yearbooks, and be reminded of some ridiculous and poignant memories of our adolescence. Little by little, each character emerged, all of whom are a mosaic of several different aspects of several different people we once knew. And the themes and emotions grew out from us discovering what each of these characters’ deepest insecurities might be.
DODGE: Anything else you’d like to share about the show?
MIKE: The soundtrack is killer. If you’re a fan of 90’s music, the show is jam-packed with some of the very best (and very worst) songs of that era.
Thank you, Mike and Ben, and congratulations on the new show!