Did you know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month? Considering millions of people around the world suffer from mental illness or disorders, it’s a topic that touches all of us in one way or another.
To shed light on this subject, British husband-and-wife creators Matt Thomas and Susan Allen have launched their new dramatic web series “Katie & Shaun.” The six-minute episodes follow two people looking for connection while dealing with the realities of living with anxiety and depression.
With the series premiering today, Susan Allen found some time for an interview:
Explain the premise behind “Katie & Shaun.”
Katie & Shaun chronicles two people looking for connection while dealing with the realities of living with anxiety and depression. The story follows Katie (Meghan Maguire) and Shaun (Ricky Goldman) in sessions with their psychologists and beyond. Each must deal with the tolls that their conditions take on their lives, the strategies they employ, and the lies they tell themselves to cope. When Katie and Shaun start up a relationship, they are forced to come to terms with their relative disorders, and contemplate the personal growth required to be happy.
Why did you want to create a series about anxiety and depression?
Matt wrote the piece last year, after reflecting on his own experience with anxiety and depression, and what it means to be mentally well. Most representations of mental disorders out there didn’t really ring true for him, so he wanted to explore how parts of his own experience might play out onscreen.
When I read the script, I was drawn to the writing – not just because Matt’s my husband, ha. But because it felt so real, and now seemed like a good time to join the growing conversation around mental health. We both have personal experience struggling with mental health, and we’ve supported family and friends over the years, so it’s a story close to our hearts.
First and foremost, we hope people will find the show entertaining. And if someone feels less alone, or more like they can handle their own problems because of it, that would be amazing. By illuminating the characters’ struggles with anxiety and depression – which are often confusing or debilitating, sometimes downright frustrating, and yet just one part of who they are – we hope to foster a deeper and broader understanding of mental health, and its role in the human experience.
Any tough moment’s on-set, personally or otherwise?
Just a few! We definitely had our fair share of logistical snafus, ranging from frantic on-the-day purchases of replacement SSD cards, to coaxing a kid to sit still for the camera. One of the toughest moments was trying to get the cat to do anything close to what we wanted. His owner sadly bore the brunt of his defiance when he scrambled out of her arms, leaving a pretty impressive scratch. In the end, we let the cat lead his own scenes! (Insert obligatory children and animal joke here.)
Other challenges came from the power of the material, and that blurry line between acting and plain just going through it. Filming Katie’s panic attack was hard. Meghan only had a limited number of takes in her, and we were trying to do some technically challenging camerawork. Turns out, imitating hyperventilating makes you breathless for real, and quite dizzy.
In the therapy scenes, especially the last scene with Shaun where things get pretty heavy, some of the acting felt so real that it actually felt uncomfortable to be around. I remember that Matt had to leave the room a couple times because he suddenly felt like he was intruding!
Tell us about your collaborative working style.
It’s all about clearly defined roles from the start. As long as Matt doesn’t generally interfere with the directing, and I stay clear of the script, we’re good! Knowing who’s on the hook for what from the start provides that initial structure. From there, the process evolves organically. It also helps that we know each other really well. We’ve been together for ten years, so when one of us is down a rabbit hole with something, the other knows how to best put things into perspective.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not an uncomfortable conversation when you’re being critical of someone’s creative choice – there were definitely tense moments! But it’s been good for us to sit through that discomfort for the sake of the best end product. When we butt heads, we take a moment and ask, what’s going to make this a better experience for viewers?
Biggest piece of advice you wish you would have followed?
Room tone is not a luxury. Get it for every scene – trust me, your post production sound mixer will thank you for it. Also, for the sake of your editor’s sanity, who was Matt in the case of our skeleton crew, slate every scene, and only press record on the camera when you’re really ready to shoot.
Next time, I would also love someone who’s sole job is continuity. We mostly ended up sharing this on top of our other roles, so things slipped through the net that we had to, ahem, “fix in post”. It’s not a fun conversation to have with your VFX editor to ask her to add in a tracking mask to hide the lav mic that’s clearly in shot, but no one noticed at the time. These are all simple things, but when you’re on a shoestring budget with limited crew members, things can fall by the wayside.
Best advice you actually followed?
Get a director of photography. While I’m a visual person, and comfortable sketching storyboards, the technical side of photography and lighting is not my strong suit, so a critical moment was hiring Mark, our DP. Initially, my friend was in line to do it, but she sat me down early on and said, “you’re going to hate me, but I shouldn’t do this. You need to get someone on board with more experience.” While I was disappointed, deep down I’d seen that conversation coming (I just didn’t want to hear it), and it was ultimately the right call.
Did you ever think about giving up on the project and what stopped you?
When we started hunting for a DP, but couldn’t find anyone with Shoot 1 just 2 weeks out. That’s when I considered giving up. The problem just seemed insurmountable at the time. But the doubt was short-lived. We’d put a system in place whereby quitting wasn’t really an option, one where we had enough momentum to stop us seriously thinking about it. Our tactic? Cast the thing as early as possible. With 20 people committed, who were giving up their time to do this, the idea of letting them all down was too mortifying.
Lastly…where do you go from here?
To sleep. Then maybe some festivals. We just want as many people as possible to see Katie & Shaun, and generate interest in us as filmmakers. I’m excited to see what happens by putting something out into the world that we’re so passionate about. I’m intrigued by who it might inspire, or what opportunities for future collaboration it might attract. Oh, and we’d really like to try making something with a budget that wasn’t our current account. That’s definitely on the list.