The murder mystery webseries from Radar Studios, #WhoKilledHeather, dropped it’s first four suspense filled episodes today and I had the chance to chat with one of the creators Neal E. Fischer about the series that you definitely need to be watching.
How would you describe #WhoKilleHeather ?
“It’s a murder mystery told primarily from one angle. Kevin Kirchman, fellow creator, and I were really interested in exploring webseries that were told primarily from one angle and we hadn’t really seen any in the mystery genre that took sort of a darker turn. More like a serialized crime show that you might see on TV. We thought it might be kind of cool to do something like that for the web and we had been inspired by Carmilla and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. When we saw those we thought we have the space, we should build a set, see what we can do with this. We sort of have a similar taste in darker things, like David Fincher, darker films, Breaking Bad, things like that. I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan. It’s a murder mystery with a light film noir vibe with some comedic elements along the way.”
Where did the idea for the series come from?
“Kevin and I were working on a short film and he has a drone. We were doing some drone photography and getting some B roll for the film and while we were doing that we didn’t have access to a monitor. It was flying like a hundred feet away and we were filming some wind turbines at a wind farm in Indiana. We were just talking to each other going I wonder what would happen if we got this footage back, we’re in the middle of nowhere, and we saw something on the footage what would that be like, what would we do? We started a dialogue and went wow what if there was like a dead body. Would we turn the footage in? Would we try and figure out who the dead body was? Would we go get it? Would we call the police? That sort of spanned the initial idea and since we’re both filmmakers that’s why we decided to make our lead character Andrew a filmmaker. We knew right away a filmmaker would be curious, he’d want to cover it, and he’d have the technological means to do this case with the right amount of equipment that the audience would believe it. He’s not just streaming a live vlog and people wouldn’t believe that he’d call the cops right away. He’s actually doing it as a project, this investigation.”
“Kevin had actually done a pretty long running webseries before, with some mutual friends of ours, called Three Guys, One Room and he had a lot of experience going into the project which really helped. Dan Eden, our writer on the project, it was me, Dan, and Kevin, had worked on Three Guys, One Room and he’s a brilliant writer. He’s does sketch comedy and features. He’s actually working on a really cool feature right now that I think releases next year called Villian. It was great to work with people I was familiar with, but I knew could understand the genre. It was really nice to work with all of them.”
Since you did mention drone footage, had you always planned to include the computer monitor element in the series where it flips between what we see and what the character sees?
“No, so it’s a little bit of both and it’s very interesting, it’s something that came up during production. Originally our goal was to try and film the series with as little cuts as possible. When we wrote it we wanted to actually film it where the actors went through an entire episode. There were no cuts and they reacted to the screen, maybe we threw stuff up on the screen, but it was never an initial idea to do that. What was nice about it was right before production we had done very little rehearsal, I want to say we might have done half a day, we had a short schedule. Right away we went you know what you guys are doing these two page monologues, you’re learning all these lines, why don’t we use the computer monitor as a safety net. We’ll try and get the takes to be as long as we can, but if need to cut it to help the scene move along, the pace move along, we’ll have Andrew go to his computer screen, we’ll make a note, hey we cut to the computer screen for the editor, then we can move the scene along. Actually going to the computer a lot, that small monitor, is actually a testament to both of our editors, Mark P. Smith and Mallory Ryan, they kind of came up with that. They said this will be really fun for the series and it’ll save us some time and headache and really give the viewer more of an in-depth role in Andrew’s investigation too.”
That’s one of my favorite elements in the webseries because it is so different, was it always intended for the audience to see the body before Andrew?
“That’s kind of a funny story. What happened was we were on our first day and one thing that I think is really interesting is that we originally wanted to film the whole show in sequence. We wanted to film episode 1 all the way to 36 back to back to back. We thought this is basically a play and many of these actors are theater actors, they’ll be able to memorize the whole script and that’ll make everything easier. But everyone’s schedules were all over the place so we actually filmed the first five episodes in a row, after that though it was all over the place. Like we’d be filming episode 8, then Andrew would have to dirty his hair up and the room up and film episode 19. I’m sure the actors were going crazy because we were changing it up on them so much. Luckily we had a script supervisor who was really good and she kept notes of everything and was very diligent about things like Andrew had garbage in this corner, or he’s upset, but crazed, and we need to dirty his room. Basically we started filming and the owner at Radar Studios, Don Hoeg came in, he’s a director and he’s been doing commercials for many years. He came in and he saw the set and said this is really cool, let me watch a rehearsal. We rehearsed it and he goes, you know what might be kind of interesting if Andrew didn’t see the body right away. We said that’s interesting, what was written in the script was, he immediately sees the body and says “What the f*ck?” and the screen immediately goes to black. When Don saw this rehearsal he said one of my favorite things that happens in TV shows, and since this is your premiere episode, why don’t you tease the audience and let them know something before Andrew does. Give them that moment to be like turn around you idiot there’s something on your computer screen. That’s kind of where that was born and we kind of embraced it. Then added in the cornhole bro playing in the hallway and then the Jimmy John’s delivery and then the third time finally he sees it, which we thought was a really good moment right before he takes a bite of his sandwich.”
When I watched the first four episodes, when I saw the body I was literally yelling at my laptop “He’s missing it, he’s missing it!”
“We were worried people would see it and it wouldn’t have as big as an impact as you had, but we wanted to people to think he’s an idiot, because that really is one of the best parts in movies. Especially for me and Kevin when we were talking about developing the series you want to have those moments that are memorable. The biggest thing we wanted to accomplish was write the series in a very cinematic way and try to translate that onto the web. Because we love a lot of the webseries that are on the web, but I feel like the ones that we were watching we saw where the filmmakers said let’s write it this way because it’s a smaller format, there’s shorter episodes, we don’t want to bore people. We said if this is the only webseries we ever work on that’s fine, but let’s just swing for the fences and make it cinematic, like this show could be a movie.”
What was the process like for you working on the series?
“It was really cool. I have a background in theater. I started acting in high school, doing theater and musicals and sort of segued into directing theater and doing sketch comedy and doing improv. I always have an affinity for theater, you’ve seen in the first four episode that it’s very much like a play and that basically doesn’t change for the most part. The actors are sort of getting along in this environment because we wanted to keep you in that environment as much as possible and that’s why the only time you see anything in the outside world is when Andrew pulls it up on his computer. We made it that way because I love theater and Kevin loves theater. As far as the experience it was really great. I’m used to doing a lot of shorter form things now with being the director for a commercial company. I was able to sort of go back into the longer form past that I’ve had. I’ve done a lot of short films, but I’ve also done feature films and documentaries. Being able to stretch out a story, that is basically a movie, it’s a 166 page script, like a really long movie. There was a running joke in the company that if anything went wrong during post production they’d be like well we’ve got to work on Neal’s 3 hour movie now.”
You had mentioned you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, so are you a fan of murder mysteries or are you more of a true crime guy?
“I actually love both. Since I was a little kid I never really had a filter through my mom as far as movies and what not so I watched a lot of adult movies early on. My mom is really into old Hollywood gossip and movies in general so when I was a kid instead of reading me kids’ books she’d read me books about Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Old Hollywood. So I became obsessed with Hollywood and movies at a young age. I always knew I wanted to be a director ever since I was like five. My mom had done a lot of makeup and hair, she was a cosmetologist, so I’d watch these movies, horror movies and true crime movies specifically. She’d say that’s makeup and they do it this way. Swearing’s bad, don’t repeat it in public, but you can watch it with us. I was always like that, so I always liked the darker side of things. I got into Sherlock Holmes just through all the iterations that came out. I think as American audiences we’re so used mystery in an episode type shows like Elementary and CSI that our brain is hardwired into going through the motions of I’m going to find out someone is dead, the people that we love are going to try and figure it out, there’s going to be some kind of weird misdirect, but in the end the bad guy will get caught, which I think is kind of comforting. I think with Sherlock Holmes you know he’s always going to get whoever did what he did, but the journey is always more exciting and impressive than the ending. I just always loved mysteries, I loved old radio shows like The Shadow and old Sherlock Holmes things. I direct comedy for Radar Studios mostly, that’s kind of my forte here, but I love whodunnits. I think whodunnits are one of my favorite genres and I think that’s what led me to be so excited about #WhoKilledHeather. There’s nothing more satisfying than being with a group of people, or a cast, or show, and being like oh I was right, or oh I was way off.”
(Interviewer’s Note: Then because I have a minor Sherlock Holmes obsession I took us on a bit of tangent. We also chatted British television shows because if I have the chance I will jump on it. This did lead to the reveal that you should try and read the whiteboard on Andrew’s door in #WhoKilledHeather in each episode, it might not be an easy task though curious viewers.)
Are there fans of other shows, webseries, podcasts, etc. that you think would be drawn to #WhoKilledHeather?
“We aren’t too similar to Twin Peaks, there are some references there even though they weren’t on purpose. The mascot of Andrew’s school is an owl and I know that’s something in Twin Peaks. I think just the nature of the killer, The Waverly Butcher, people who like that. While we are much different from Carmilla, I think people who appreciate the vlog format will like it. It’s not the same as far as the love story is concerned, but I hope that the character work that we did will draw them in. We really spent a lot of time on Andrew and him defiantly being the narrator for better or worse, whatever happens to him, his effectiveness, whether his relationships are strained, you’ll want to watch him, and Carmilla did that really well. Fans of Holmes and Watson, anyone who’s like a movie buff. I love the podcast How Did This Get Made? I just love hearing about movies that a lot of people don’t know about. I’m a huge movie nerd so I’ve probably seen a lot of the ones they’ve talked about. Anyone who just likes cinematic stories. Who do you think would like it?”
When I started I immediately thought of the podcast Serial.
“I did listen to Serial and so did Kevin when we were writing it and that did have a big influence on us. With the vlog format you can’t do cutaways like a movie can where you show evidence here, picture here, and go to witnesses. So there is a lot of information that Max and Andrew are just throwing at you that you have to listen to and pay attention. It actually sort of mirrors a podcast in that way where you have to listen quite a bit to get all the info that’s in the script because we aren’t relying on normal film techniques.”
You have a few sponsors for the show (Jimmy John’s, Soylent, Metropolis, Jerky XP, and How Did This Get Made? Podcast), so how did those relationships happen?
“We basically just reached out with what we wanted to do with the series and the characters, it was like a presentation. We said this is what we’d like to do with the show, this is how we’d like to release it, and this is how we’d like to incorporate your products organically into the series where the characters are using them, but we aren’t technically doing commercials for them. We reached out to a lot of companies, but Jimmy John’s was very supportive in the whole process, they were really great. We got to film in a store for a pretty long sequence that’s coming up. It’s pretty much the only episode where Andrew leaves his dorm room and you see him interviewing people who knew Heather personally. It’s designed in a way to have the audience be the judge as to whether she was a good person or not. Metropolis said we’re pretty busy right now, but we can supply your cast and crew with coffee for the whole shoot and they gave us some posters and stuff to use in our dorm room set. I’m always of the opinion that you’re never going to get anything if you don’t ask and there’s no harm in asking so we made a list of anyone we would want to ask for help. I made sure to only ask companies that we liked and we thought would be a good fit. Then reaching out in an honest way, not a stock email, like this is why you would be great for the show, college students eat Jimmy John’s, they drink a lot of coffee to study, for Soylent, it’s a meal replacement, it was kids are drinking Soylent to get to class. We tried to tailor make our supporters in that way and I think it worked out really well because everyone was really great and it was a huge help, especially with Radar.”
(Interviewer’s Note: I then asked a number of questions about Soylent because I wanted to know what it was like. If you’ve seen the movie Soylent Green you’ll understand why I was wary of a meal replacement with that name. I’m not sponsored by Soylent, but I will admit it does sound like something I should try.)
What are some of the other projects you’re working on?
“For Radar we’re just doing our normal commercial projects here and there. I just started a podcast, The Best of the Best, with our head editor at work, Radar Studios. He’s one of the editors who edits most of my stuff and he was also one of the editors on #WhoKilledHeather, we have a really great relationship. At lunch for the past year, or two years, we’ve been nerding out about movies and talking about all these different references, actors and actresses, and action movies, and our executive producer, Graham Gangi, said you’re always talking about movies you should be recording this or doing a podcast and he kind of made it as a joke. Mark P. Smith and I took it as a challenge decided to start it and just see how this goes. We started last week and we have about 8 episodes in the bank right now and it’s super, super fun. We have the same sort of sensibility toward movies and I just love geeking out. A short film that I did, that Mark edited for Radar, called, The Artist, has been touring the festival route. We’ve submitted to nine festivals and I think we have three left to see if we’ll get accepted, and it’s been a good run. It’s a really short two minute piece. I had seen a video for a Spanish cinematography school that was the most pretentious thing I had ever seen. The cinematographer was the narrator and he said, I’m like God I bring light to the world, and one of my friends who is a Director of Photography Taylor Russ, I showed it to him and he thought it was funny and said we should parody this. I came up with the idea like on Friday and then on Sunday I talked with the crew. It was just me, Taylor, our sound guy Ed Bornstein, and our lead actor Cooper Johnson. I found an airstream trailer on AirBnb on Monday, which was the coldest day in Illinois last year, it was -25 with the wind chill. We all had the day off and we said what the hell let’s go film this short. And we did, it was so much fun, it was super, super cold, but it was such a good memory and it was nice to sustain the memory in a little two minute piece that has been doing really well in the festivals. Taylor just got nominated for Best Cinematography at the Portland Comedy Festival and we got nominated for Best Micro Short and Funniest Moment, which I’m really proud of.
As far as other projects I’m always developing stuff. I did a lot of screen writing since like 2007. Developing a couple of comedy series that could maybe be another webseries, trying to decide if I want to do another webseries. This was all a very new experiment for Radar Studios and since I came here they have primarily done commercial work. They were very interested in the prospect of doing something for the web because it was something new and exciting and it would give me a way to express myself in an area that they hadn’t done much work in before. They wanted to see if it would work and what we are hoping to see is that #WhoKilledHeather will be successful, meaning we want people to watch it and connect with the material and just know that the web is a viable source for new content. Then I would love to do another series. My heart is in feature films, I ultimately want to end up doing that, but I also want to do TV as well. Even though people say TV schedule is crazy and there are very long days, I think the quick nature of shooting television is right up my alley. I love shooting on short schedules and sort of planning as much as possible, but doing a lot of improv on set and creating ideas organically and I think TV kind of allows that. Whatever we do I hope it gives me a nice even split between commercials, webseries, or films, something like that.
Someone once told me a story where they were driving a limo as a side job and they were a screenwriter. They picked up this big Hollywood producer and he said sir before I let you out of the car I have a screenplay I’d really love for you to read and the guy said well, what’s it about? He told him, I’ve already have a movie like that, what else are you working on? and he said, well that’s all I’ve been working on. He said that there’s one thing you should know about show business is that you should always have four or five projects going at once because just one will never be enough. Someone will always want to know what the next thing you’re doing is. That’s sort of been my mantra so if someone said Hey Neal do you have a comedy series I could say yep, got one right here. Someone asks if I have another serial killer series I can say I think I’ve got a strong enough idea for that. Just always have something going or developing in your head because once you stop creating or imagining, or trying to develop something that’s when the creativity stops and I always want to be creative and have the next thing to shoot, or write, or make. For some people it’s tiring, but for me it’s the fuel that keeps me going.”
One last sort of random final question, were those serial killer cards actual serial killer cards?
“Yes, they were actual serial killer cards. We found them on Amazon funnily enough and we were going to use them on camera. We were going to find ways for Max to show them to camera so you could see John Wayne Gacy, Robert Rodriguez, anyone you could think of who was a serial killer, I was actually surprised there were 52 of them who were well known enough. We were going to use them, but we thought just in the random chance that they’re owned by some huge company that would get really angry that we used them without permission we decided let’s have them use them, but we won’t have them show you.”
I was so curious, I just kept thinking about the scene in the one Addams Family movie where they trade serial killer cards and I just thought, is this really a thing.
“It’s surprisingly a thing, we thought it was really weird, and when we saw them on Amazon we thought these are perfect for Max. He’s obsessed with true crime and serial killers and I think it would be a good character trait for him. Both David Raymond, who plays Andrew, and Chris McClellan, Max, give awesome performances. And Charlotte Mae Ellison who plays Q is so good. We really wanted that relationship between Andrew and Q to be as realistic as they could make it, but they do such a good job. They had chemistry instantly when they met on set and it was almost like we didn’t have to tell them to be boyfriend and girlfriend. The whole cast is phenomenal and we had a really great crew. It was a small crew, but they worked their asses off. We couldn’t have asked for a better team to make this and I think everyone was fully behind it knowing that it was something different that we were putting on the web and we wanted to try something different and if it didn’t work, at least we had fun doing it and we hope people enjoy it.”
New episodes every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 pm CST on the #WhoKilledHeather YouTube channel.