The Sixth Wall Interviews Award-Winning Clutch Filmmaker Jonathan Robbins
By Ariel Nishli
It’s an overcast afternoon in Toronto. I see the grey peer through the window of filmmaker Jonathan Robbins’ home office from the interface of our Skype call. Even in Los Angeles, where it’s always 72 degrees and sunny, my Seasonal Affective Disorder starts to kick in.
It’s no bother to Robbins though, and that’s no surprise. His noir femme fatale drama series Clutch, available exclusively on KoldCast TV, just swept through the Internet TV awards season with eight wins at the LA Web Fest, an honor from the Webbys, and an official selection by Indie Intertube. This type of recognition is the Holy Grail of the online content world, and Robbins is downright giddy.
The clouds could also mean less to Robbins because he’s skipping town first thing in the morning for the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. Clutch is featured in a Meet the Cast panel, a directing workshop, and a screening of season one in the main theatre. All this will take place twenty feet from the entire original cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It promises to be a fun weekend to say the least, shared with 45,000 fans.
The Sixth Wall managed to squeeze in this interview with Robbins between his showers of accolades and publicity junkets. He may not be American, but what we found was a cowboy, taming the wild west of online television one show at a time.
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THE SIXTH WALL (T6W): How did your career as a filmmaker start, and how did you decide to move into new media and web content?
JONATHAN ROBBINS: Going back to the very beginning, I went to high school for science. I was in a gifted science program. All of my friends went on to be engineers and that’s where I was headed until the very last minute. I said, you know what, I want to try drama. I never thought it would become a career. I just wanted to see where it went. Those first couple of years I did work as an actor, where I had very small but meaningful experiences, the first one of which was being a featured extra in Good Will Hunting.
T6W: Not a bad place to start.
JONATHAN: It was incredible. It was Robin Williams’ first day on set – I mean Robin Williams was my idol – all my life I’ve loved him from day one. Getting to act with him, and have him and Gus Van Sant chatting in the same room… They were both so nice and ended up giving me a line on set. It was ultimately cut though. The scene was way overshot.
T6W: What was the scene?
JONATHAN: It was the first scene in his classroom where Robin Williams is introduced. I’m one of the twelve people in his class and Stellan Skarsgard comes in. Everyone was asking, did you meet Matt and Ben? I remember them there, in writer mode with their caps on and I remember visually who they were but they weren’t Matt and Ben yet. To be there in the beginning of something and have watched their careers grow so much from it, I think that’s what made me realize, ok, so this can be a career. You can do this.
T6W: And what did you do next?
JONATHAN: So I stuck with it. I had some success with acting, mostly in commercials, but I was feeling a lack of control in that career and I teamed up with someone whose student film I had been in when he graduated. He was working at a grocery store, not finding any directing work – same problem as me. So we decided to make a film together. I wrote it and he directed it. Then he moved to the west coast and we didn’t have the Internet capabilities that we do now to keep in touch, so I taught myself how to edit. In that process I discovered a love for the other side of the camera as well.
T6W: So this first film you made, the short –
JONATHAN: Will never be seen by anybody! It was a side project, an independent film. It wasn’t bad for what it was at the time. But this was even before digital video. Nothing I’d want to release at any time now. What I consider my first film was a few years later. It was the first year of Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street and I had a short film called Laundry. It was a film that I wrote, directed, and acted in. That ended up placing in the top 50 of the Trigger Street Film Festival, out of something like 1700 entries. And that was really at the beginning of digital video, the Sony VX1000, Final Cut Pro 1.0, actually I think it was called Premiere 3 at the time. That’s what I consider my first film because it was the first time I had full control of the project and it was the first time I felt sort of proud of the results.
T6W: An important realization, because with every film you make, you get better at it.
JONATHAN: Indeed, and to top that, Laundry actually got bought by a Satellite TV Network called Movieola. That was the first year they were buying short films.
T6W: You’re certainly well versed in the short-form content space today. Are there any unique challenges, or conversely, opportunities from working in that format?
JONATHAN: It’s interesting. You know, I never wanted to tackle a feature. As a writer, I think shorter. When I write something, it tends to float around 20 minutes. Part of that is a lack of experience as a writer. I’ve never really tried to sell myself as a writer. It was always more like, well, who else is going to write this for me?
T6W: Constraint often produces the best creativity.
JONATHAN: It does, and no one else can truly capture your own ideas. I’ve read a lot of scripts that other people have written but I’m not impassioned to direct them. It’s not that one special idea that’s been floating in my head. So short-form content has, I think, enabled me to have the confidence to tackle a project. When you make a short, it’s easier to get people to work five days for free to make the film. There’s not a huge monetary investment so if it’s a lousy film, move on. That was always my mentality.
T6W: Was Clutch your next project?
JONATHAN: Well, Clutch actually came about from a short film I did, which did very well, called Your Ex-Lover Is Dead. It was a half hour short about a femme fatale pickpocket and while it did well, I never felt that the story was fully realized or that the characters had a chance to develop. And as making a web series became something that was acceptable to do and a reasonable delivery format for material, I realized that I could tell that same story in a more character driven format, create a full ensemble – do all the things you can do in a TV series that you just can’t do with a short.
T6W: Exactly. KoldCast believes in the format as a powerful storytelling tool.
JONATHAN: Internet TV, to me, is the link between the feature film format and the TV series. It takes the best of both.
T6W: Right. It essentially creates a new medium by not being bound to the half hour or hour format of television, while allowing for a variety of web-specific add-ons. Ancillary content, whether it’s text or interactive media, can really help you create a more dynamic world where your featured story lives. Trans-media formats are popping up. Today, the rules that say the feature has to be two hours long and played in a large dark room, are bending.
JONATHAN: Absolutely. Each part of that story can be different lengths. You can have one episode that’s five minutes, and the next could be fifteen. They don’t have to fit this identical format the way they do on network television. And as for what you said about the different forms, we’re working on a graphic novel and motion comic that will link season one and two of Clutch. You couldn’t do that so easily with a film. You certainly couldn’t do that with short films. I think the idea of building a world and continuing to explore that world from different angles, finding different types of fans for the different pieces of that world, it’s so enriching.
T6W: Without giving away any spoilers, what’s the idea behind the Clutch graphic novel? How will it link the first two seasons?
JONATHAN: At last year’s fan expo in Toronto we released the first four pages of it. We were just so far away from finishing it, but it’ll be done by next Fall. It starts concurrently between episodes three and four in season one, and tells that same story from the perspective of another character, a rookie cop who has just been brought into the homicide force. We couldn’t afford to shoot the interior of a police station, but we wanted to tell her story, so that was the idea of the graphic novel – a way to tell a part of the story that we couldn’t otherwise tell. That’s now expanded, so that some pretty epic events at the end of season one will lead us to dark times ahead in season two, and again, would be pretty difficult to film on any reasonable budget.
T6W: So you took a page out of the Rashomon and Pulp Fiction playbooks on mini-plot narratives, turning the camera on another character living through the same events from their own perspective.
JONATHAN: We did, and basically the end of the graphic novel should match up with the first couple of episodes of season two. It’s not necessary to read the graphic novel to appreciate season two in any way, but it certainly adds another perspective.
T6W: Where did the concept for Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, later to be developed into Clutch, come about? Did you have to dig pretty deep to find this dark, criminal side of yourself to come up with this, noir, femme fatale story?
JONATHAN: It is very noir, but I don’t think of it as a dark side of my personality. I loved Robert Rodriguez’s films, Machete, and TV like 24… Alias in season one. I think it was right after watching Alias that I said I want to write spy stuff! And it just started without any intention of making it, when I wrote Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, it was really for the fun of the genre and characters. Then I went back and scaled it down to a producible level and realized, you know what, I can make this. Why not do it? There was so much in that genre. The fun that Rodriguez brings to femme fatale, mixed with the dramatic weight that Keifer Sutherland brings to 24… give it the girl power that Alias had, and we’re set.
T6W: The ingredients for a strong, female protagonist played by Elitsa Bako. Tell us more about her character.
Elitsa Bako as Kylie
JONATHAN: Elitsa Bako plays Kylie, a pickpocket. We knew from the conception of this character that we needed someone who would own the screen. I saw Elitsa’s headshot and was very interested. When she walked into the room I knew she was the one. She didn’t even have to open her mouth. When she did, it helped, but I already knew. And the instinct was right in retrospect, after I found out about her background – what she’d been through. She grew up in Bulgaria, drinking liquor and shooting guns at twelve years old. When she was sixteen she left that life for Canada, with nothing but a backpack full of cassette tapes, the only possession she cared about.
T6W: What kind of music was on the tapes?
JONATHAN: Mostly American Pop music, the stuff that kept her going throughout her life. She never really understood the concept of possessions because didn’t have any. And with a big f*ck you attitude to the world, she came out west to make it. And that’s exactly what Kylie had gone through. She wasn’t the popular kid in class. There’s this one guy, Matt, who fell in love with her in high school and promised her big things, so she fell for that, and she became stuck. It never went anywhere and she had to resort to pickpocketing to survive. She doesn’t do it because she thinks people deserve it, it’s just her alternative to being a prostitute. That character essence is really put to the test at the end of episode one when what she has to do to survive is increased exponentially.
T6W: That’s what makes her so sympathetic, a classic example of the antihero. We know she’s hands down doing the wrong thing, but that she’s not a bad person. Ultimately her intentions are pure.
JONATHAN: And that allows her to evolve into this Robin Hood type character, where she can use these skills to help people. In episode three, when she picks the non-paying john to give the hooker next door her due, she begins to think, ok there might actually be some purpose to this skill, to my life.
T6W: Bad guys do make good pickpocket victims too. Tell me about your development process. How did the story evolve throughout the writing, given the jump from short film to a short-form series?
JONATHAN: For Clutch season one; I started writing it all on my own. The first three episodes were written and I had a rough story outline for the rest of the season. I was having trouble with episode four, which is where we really enter the world of pickpocketing. I didn’t know how to approach that. I wasn’t quite sure what to do so I brought in some skilled writers to do that for me. I worked with them on story and then Dave Migicovsky wrote the script. It’s one of my favorite episodes because it has a different flare to it and a different taste but it’s still very much my story. So, I decided with season two to change that process completely and we now have a writing team. Five people on that team brainstorming, fighting, and pulling teeth. Doing all the things you have to do to finally agree on something. Everyone’s bringing something different to the table.
Episode 1 of CLUTCH, “Your Ex-Lover is Dead”
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T6W: Filmmaking is collaboration, American filmmaking especially, the auteur movement aside. Were these writers passion players or did you have to shell out a development budget?
JONATHAN: See, season one cost me a fortune. I spent a lot of money I had made acting off of commercial residuals. Some of the business decisions were not the smartest in retrospect. I would say, well, if that’s what we need, then we need to get it.
T6W: It sounds like season one was, in part, an AMEX or MasterCard, or VISA production.
JONATHAN: Oh it most definitely was. I did what I felt had to be done to get it done right. But because of that, everyone is now so committed and hooked into it. We’ve had so many people writing in about how much they want to be involved, that we’ve actually been able to put a full season two team together. We’ll be making it for drastically less money because these people are willing to call in their favors, pitch in their resources, and anything they can offer without cost – starting with Los Angeles.
T6W: So the upfront personal investment ended up paying off, in terms of getting talented people to work below quote.
JONATHAN: I think it did. And especially when we started making this, there weren’t as many high production value web series out there. Now, there are. It’s great. I don’t think production value is what separates us in any way, but I think initially people were impressed. Everyone that was auditioned was thinking, oh, I’m going in for a web series, whatever. Then they show up on set and there are grip flags and sound gear – and they’re like, wow, this is like a real film! So that initial effect had them hooked.
T6W: As a filmmaker specializing in Internet television, you’re still fighting an uphill battle. You and filmmakers taking on similar projects are pioneers in the sense that you’re working against a misunderstood stigma of all “web” series as low-rent, low quality productions. Today, nothing can be further from the truth. These programs are showing financial sense in attracting workable budgets and real talent.
JONATHAN: It’s true, and there certainly are a lot of other people doing it. I’ve met a lot of them lately. They’re all wonderful and very helpful. I think we are taking off towards a new world with web series – I want that name changed in the near future. I was thinking E-series would be cool, just like E-books. Just need to get rid of the “web” part of it.
T6W: I think the hope is that one day, referring to online content as “web series” will be like calling a movie a “moving picture”. The term will be obsolete, and the format will become just another means of consuming entertainment.
JONATHAN: Totally. Thomas from the online show Mind’s Eye told me that when he started manning his show’s booth at Comic-Con, people would walk by and ask “what are you?” When he said web series, they would just keep walking. Then he started calling it a fantasy series, and everyone would get engaged and start talking to him about it. It’s linguistics.
T6W: Is there a common thread you’ve found among online content producers in terms of attitude or temperament? The industry is still in the Wild West and must attract some strong personalities.
JONATHAN: I think the number one thing is that we all realize we need each other right now. The success of one equals the success of the other. I originally went about Clutch thinking we were looking for a femme fatale fan base, but quickly realized there’s a fan base for online content. They’ll watch the teen coming out drama Out With Dad as much as they’ll watch the femme fatale Rated-R show Clutch. It’s not as genre specific at this point. All the series creators have a love for what they’re doing and want to see everyone around them succeed, knowing that’s going to help their own success.
Left to right, Characters Hatch and Marcel
T6W: It’s so important. That sense of community is in many ways what’s going to drive these shows. Just this past week you got “the call” from the center of the online content community, the LA Web Fest and the Webby Awards. Clutch took home awards for Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Performance by a Female, Directing, Writing, Editing, Cinematography, and Visual Effects. Not to mention placement as a Webby Honoree.
JONATHAN: I was totally blown away. The first thing that happened to us was the Indie Intertube nominations. We got two nominations: for Best Action Series and Best Looking Show, which is a form of Best Cinematography. Those meant the world to me because they seek you out – you don’t submit. They just find what they think is the best out there and name it. To have people doing that and not get anything out of it – it’s not for profit – that’s really special. We lost to Mortal Kombat in the Best Action Series, and I’m happy to lose to them. They’re fantastic.
T6W: Mortal Kombat is a huge brand too. It’s been around for over twenty years.
JONATHAN: Exactly, to even be compared to that… In the announcement they said, Mortal Kombat is the winner, but Clutch is goooood. To get that kind of unsolicited support just meant the world to me. That was the beginning of our string of successes. At LA Web Fest, I thought we might win one or two, and then to sweep like that with eight, which is I think more than any other show did, that just blows me away. And then two days later the Webby Honorees were announced. There was an email saying congratulations, and I thought that’s awesome, I wonder how many honorees there are. Ten. Mortal Kombat was one of them. Again, I was blown away that an independent creator can get the same kind of recognition as something produced by Warner Bros.
T6W: Has it been a game changer for you? The Webbys, for example, have been running for sixteen years. These awards aren’t being held in someone’s garage with a few foldup chairs. It’s becoming a real institution. Has it opened up any doors?
JONATHAN: Yes. The most exciting development is that we’ve just partnered with Miss Behave, another great KoldCast show. And we’ll be producing an episode or two of Clutch in Los Angeles and try to make it a worldwide show – not just a Canadian presence. So that’s extremely exciting and a dream come true, for a Canadian to come down to shoot in Los Angeles. I can’t talk too much about the details, but it’s going to be awesome.
Jonathan Robbins receiving awards at the LA Web Festival
Clutch is eight-part Internet TV series where Kylie, a streetwise pickpocket who survives on looks, charm and sneaky fingers, is on a quest for her place in the world. But her life changes drastically when she suddenly finds herself in the big leagues of organized crime.
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this blog.