TV Insights, Observations and Obsessions from the NYTVF
Check out our Q&A series with Fest Founder Terence Gray (and others), designed to provide submitting artists and TV fans with insight to the current development landscape. If you're thinking about submitting to the NYTVF, this is for you.
Jim Kozyra and Chris Petlak discuss the journey of The Jamz.
When Jim Kozyra and Chris Petlak submitted their web series, The Jamz, at the eleventh hour to the 2014 Independent Pilot Competition, the two Chicago-based writer/performers had no expectation that their project would be selected as the winner of The Orchard Go Project, or that they'd be expanding the project to a limited series within a year.
Fresh off of principal photography on the project, we sat down with Jim and Chris to talk production, Chicago comedy, and how a last-minute decision to submit to the NYTVF changed everything...
For the uninitiated, tell us a little about your project (The Jamz)? What's the series about?
JK: (In Bane voice) The Jamz can be confusing for the uninitiated… but we are initiated, aren't we, Bruce!? I refuse to believe that this question was not influenced by The Dark Knight Rises. That said, the series is about Jay-Jay and Fitzy, two overnight FM radio DJ's who are competing for the newly-opened morning show slot, but are constantly thwarted by their own ineptitude. They would be ideal candidates if they weren't constantly getting lost on tangents, for example, being unable to let Batman bits go unnoticed.
CP: Jay-Jay and Fitzy are best friends. One of them knows a lot about radio and is following his lifelong dream, the other is Fitzy. That being said, without Fitzy, Jay-Jay would never be where he is. For these two, mornings start at Midnight, but hopefully one day their mornings will start in the morning, like proper humans.
Where did the original idea for the show come from?
CP: Jim and I met doing an improv show – a parody of Twilight. After that experience, we really wanted to do something else together, something original. We kicked around a lot of ideas while eating a lot of burritos. I work in radio and would share stories with Jim about my days at work. We found a lot of humor in that and started to brainstorm specific ideas for a web series. Characters were created, scripts were written, and we shot a season of 3-4 minute episodes of The Jamz.
JK: In terms of the plot, the influence is all Chris's real life. In terms of the characters and the timing of the project, I was in a frustrating place in my acting career where big breaks kept almost happening. Chris and I had talked about doing a web series for a long time, and we finally had access to a unique location. Those two things – frustration meets opportunity – really provided the spark. The show, at its core, is about two guys who are better than their situation reflects, and who dedicate their energy to the impossible task of convincing the world to listen to them.
You conceived the project as a short-form web series, which is also how it was submitted to the Festival. One part of developing with NYTVF Productions was translating that concept into 23-minute episodes. What was that process like?
JK: The web series took place entirely within the radio booth, and with the exception of occasional disembodied callers, we were the only two characters to ever appear on screen. Building out the world was exciting, but also nerve-wracking. You don't want your characters to be too over-the-top, but you also don't want them to be too bland. Every single person has to want something, and there's no roadmap. The freedom was stifling at times. We ended up sitting down with a marker and going through who we knew would be there. There ended up being 9 main characters, up from the original two. That's a 75% increase in voices.
CP: Expanding the world was a lot of fun, but also nerve-racking. We'd talked often about different characters that could exist and how they'd interact with Jay-Jay and Fitzy. Certain characters were almost instantly created, like a Morning Show Host, Program Director, Traffic & Weather Person, Sales Account Executive, and more. Once we had the other characters fleshed out, we were able to create a world for all of them to live in. When we started, we laid out the journey that we wanted Jay-Jay and Fitzy to take over the course of the episodes. Once we had that, it was clear how the other characters would flow in and out of those stories and impact the plot.
So much of the series hinges on the chemistry between the two of you. With a lot of your camaraderie and banter on the web series being improvised, how did you make sure that translated in a written script?
CP: We kept a lot of things loose. During the writing process, there were countless phone calls between the two of us where one would say, "I think Fitzy needs to say this…" or "What if Jay-Jay sees Kasey doing this…" and then we'd riff for 5 or 10 minutes, hang up the phone, and write. That style of writing helped influence all of the scripts.
JK: The traditional thinking in filmmaking is one page of dialogue usually equates to one minute of film. There were a number of 5-page scenes that could have easily been edited down to 3-page scenes, but we knew would only take us 2 minutes to perform. Short of providing audio recordings to accompany the pauses, the "uhs", and the rapid-fire-stammer-speak, it's not always pretty on paper. But we knew our rhythms, and to the credit of NYTVF Prods, we were given the benefit of the doubt more often than not.
CP: I trust Jim a lot; we've worked together for a long time. When you have that trust, you're not afraid to throw out an idea that's not fully formed and work together to polish it. We would improv scenes back and forth as different characters and send each other script notes with alt lines to help keep the process fresh. Our Director, Ted Tremper, also helped keep things fresh on set. The three of us really clicked from the beginning, and we trusted him to guide the cast and the production on set.
With The Jamz, you're the leads of the series, but you're also co-creators, writers, and producers. What was it like being on both sides of the camera?
JK: It's the best best best best thing. It's also the road to a slow descent into madness. With great power comes great responsibility, so there's an unavoidable amount of reflection and questioning and doubt surrounding EVERYTHING. (Is this the right joke? Would this character say this? Which battles are worth dying in and which are worth letting go? This is funny now, but is it going to sell the universe short, etc) There were literal sleepless nights over whether or not a specific punchline should be modified. Eventually, you just have to trust the thing that made you laugh hardest the first time you heard it and move on. But yes. In general, I recommend it.
CP: In the first couple of weeks, I think I went through every emotion that one could possibly experience. I remember thinking "how are we going to do ALL of this?", but Terence Gray, Ian Thake, and everyone at the NYTVF really helped guide us through. Thankfully, we had creative control over the show and the freedom to write the show we wanted to write. That was true at every step of the process. We were involved with or consulted on every decision from day one. Being that involved really put me at ease. We knew that the show was in safe hands and that there was a mutual respect between NYTVF, The Orchard, and us regarding the project. There were certain meetings or phone calls where we'd have to switch "hats" throughout the conversation, but, now that we've wrapped filming, I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Once The Orchard and NYTVF Productions entered in, the development of this series was relatively short (six months), with the announcement in late October 2014 and production starting in May. Still, even over the course of a short development time, a show can change quite a bit. Did you have to work to keep the core concept intact? What did you make sure to keep on the page?
JK: The early work with NYTVF Productions really helped shape a lot of the ancillary characters and set us up for success. They helped us build the theme park, then we got to ride on the rides. All of the notes we've gotten from the NYTVF and The Orchard have been incredibly helpful. As far as the "core concept" goes, there are anywhere from one to three "Jamz Classic" scenes in each episode, where it's just Chris and I in the booth being glorious idiots. But the entire show is the core concept. It's about Jay-Jay and Fitzy saying ridiculous things and sabotaging their lives, and we get to see that with multiple characters and multiple environments. I'm very happy with the way the show developed.
CP: The heart of the show is the Jay-Jay and Fitzy relationship. Whatever happens during the day, they end up together in a sound proof room for five hours. We always knew that the scenes of Jay-Jay and Fitzy in the studio were going to be very important to our series. Over the six months, there were an insane amount of emails and calls between us about the scripts, but everything came back to the core – Jay-Jay and Fitzy vying for the Morning Show. Reacting to the notes we received from the NYTVF and The Orchard was an important piece to the project as well. You have to leave your ego at the door and remember that everyone is working for the best possible outcome. So, that one joke that you wrote that you thought was hilarious might get cut and you'll write a new joke that's way better and further progresses the story, and that's extremely okay.
What was something you weren't expecting in the development process? What surprised you?
CP: I was pleasantly surprised at how involved we were with every decision. You never know how things are going to go and I've read so many Hollywood horror stories where scripts were taken, twisted, and turned into things that never existed in the first place. That was never the case with this project. It was a complete pleasure to receive emails asking for our input or to check-in on how things were moving along.
JK: Casting. Knowing our voices as well as we do, nothing we wrote for ourselves would really "surprise" us on the day of filming. However, the rest of the cast, who was without exception amazing, all brought something unique to the script. The scripts were written before we had any idea of who would be playing these characters. Seeing them come to life and find the tiny nuances that, apparently, were in the script by some happy miraculous accident, was a constant surprise and joy.
What was your favorite thing about development? What are you still looking forward to?
JK: Watching it all come together was the coolest experience of my life. The original shoots were all done with a total of 5 people on set, so we all just sort of figured it out as we went along. On the first day of filming the new The Jamz, there's a bit where my character tosses a drink over his shoulder at a bar. There were two members of the art department wearing garbage bags getting ready to catch a full glass with a blanket, as another set a bottle of mocked up logo-free whiskey in the background. A girl from costumes was Tide-sticking the soda from rehearsal out of my shirt, as 4 dudes on ladders set the lights. It was the first time I could really stand back and take it all in. Many hands make light work, so it was very cool to see many hands at work. As far as what I'm still looking forward to, if I don't see a rough edit in the next 10 days I may rob a bank.
CP: My favorite thing was being able to create absolutely anything we wanted. The worst thing that would ever happen was we'd get a note back that said "this isn't working". Then, we'd get to change it or re-work it, but it was always us. Once we got on set, I had the most fun I've ever had in my life. The cast is amazing, our Director is amazing, the Production Team is amazing. Every single person, in every single role on set, wanted to create the best possible product. Jim and I would show up early for our call times just to be on set with everyone. I didn't want to miss out on a single experience. I'm looking forward to doing it all again, and again, and again. To be honest with you, two days after we wrapped filming, I started getting restless. We just spent six intense months creating a world and suddenly we were done filming. Now, we wait, but hopefully not too long.
What advice do you have for people submitting to the NYTVF?
JK: Do it. I submitted with 72 hours to go before the final deadline, on a whim, and almost didn't because it required a $25 dollar overnight stamp from the post-office. Every artist talks about doing some project so that they can make some deadline for some festival, and more often than not, they decide it's too much work for too little reward. Shut up. Do it. Finish your thing. Your finished thing is 1000 times better than the other guy's unfinished thing.
CP: Looking back, I think it helped us that we hadn't fully formed the world of The Jamz. We had two characters going into the NYTVF, we laid out a lot of options for other characters and for where our story could go, but nothing was written in stone. The possibilities were, quite literally, endless. Going into a pitch meeting where the answer was almost always "yes" was probably our greatest asset. In the end, the freedom offered during the pitch meeting ended up giving us the freedom we wanted during the development process. Also, just submit your project. Do it.
Want more The Jamz?
Check out previous downloads here:
Alumni Q&A (Richard Keith and Erin Cardillo) - 5/29/15 | Alumni Q&A (Damian Lanigan) - 5/29/15 | Chicago Comedy Panel - 5/18/15 | Big Laughs at Just For Laughs - 5/5/15 | Alumni Q&A (Whatever Linda) - 3/27/15 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/27/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/19/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/6/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 7/30/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 7/24/14 | Rory Covey of My Damn Channel's Honchos - 4/10/14 | Drama advice from Siobhan Byrne O'Connor - 4/3/14 | NYTVF Alum Danny Abrahms - 3/21/14 | Drama Advice - 3/13/14 | Advice from Chicago - 3/10/14 | Unscripted LA Panel - 2/25/14 | Drama Development - 2/20/14 | MSN Development - 2/12/14 | Casting - 2/5/14 | The Network Development Process - 1/29/14 | History Development - 1/15/14 | Comedy Formats - 3/18/13 | A&E Pipeline - 4/3/13| Fox Script Contest - 4/10/13 | From Film to TV - 5/17/13 | Lifetime Unscripted - 9/4/13