Kyle On: DeVanity
DeVanity, the smash-hit web soap opera, now in it’s fourth season, is the brainchild of creator, writer and cast member, Michael Caruso. Because of his love of the soap genre and passion for storytelling, he has created a sudsy, thrilling, all-too-exciting to watch series where debauchery, revenge, and betrayal run rampant. Kyle sat down with Michael and Katie Apicella, who plays Dr. Portia Muller on the show, to talk about acting, writing, the show’s success, and why they would never betray each other in real life. [Disclaimer: they’re a lot nicer than their characters.]
Michael, what’s your background?
MC – I have a BFA in Drama from Syracuse and moved to NYC where I did a lot of off-Broadway, but not a lot of writing. I moved to L.A. 8 years ago and I did what the normal 20-something does; did a horror movie, a few indies, and then the writer’s strike happened and as soon as that ended, the economy went to shit. And my phone stopped ringing for the 1st time in my career and it was really odd. And it was happening to everybody. The whole social dynamic of L.A. changed, in what felt like, a week. I found myself around a lot of angry actors because they weren’t working. And reality TV didn’t help matters. And it got to the point where movie actors were taking guest star roles in television series’, and TV stars were taking smaller parts in series’, so where does the little guy fit in?
There wasn’t room for your up and coming actor anymore. DeVanity was born out of my desire to not want to wait by the phone and be that bitter actor. I wanted to take control of my career.
So then you decided to do everything yourself?
MC – I have no technical experience – I don’t know how a camera works, but the nice thing about living in L.A. is that I happened to be friends with a cinematographer, who was married to someone who wanted to direct, and I have a pool of actors who weren’t working for the same reasons I wasn’t. I had all the ingredients, I just had to put them together in a kitchen and make a cake out of it. That’s how DeVanity was born.
Do you write all the episodes?
MC – All of them. All by myself. In my experience, I found that writing partnerships never really end on a good note – someone’s taking credit for something else or someone always ends up being pissed and the other because they end up doing more. If I write it and I screw up, it’s all on me. I take full responsibility for every production decision on DeVanity.
Was the soap genre something you always wanted but hadn’t tried yet?
MC – Always. I had never been on a soap. It seemed like a good start because it wasn’t like sci-fi or horror where I had to assemble things I didn’t have access to. And I think it’s a fun genre you can do a lot of stuff with. I wanted to modernize it.
How did you guys come together?
KA – we have a mutual best friend. I had ALWAYS heard about Michael!
MC – [her friend, Lana and I] had gone to college together.
KA – and I heard the stories from the first season of DeVanity, and I was like, ‘this is genius, you’ve gotta get me on this’. Tell him I’ll PA!
MC – and I was like, isn’t she in NY??
KA – it was just so original and sounded like such a fun project. And I had been thinking about moving to LA.
MC – I loved Katie’s demo reel. Katie brought something really exciting to the table. She’s kind of a simmer, simmer, POP kind of girl and I kind of like that because she conveys character very subtlety. And when she explodes it’s a relatable kind of rage. It’s not cartoony and that’s what I love about her. With soaps, people want to go over the top, but if you let the dialogue do the work and say it the way a real person would – like Katie is really great at taking the material and putting an honest spin on it, which I’ve always appreciated.
Did you create Portia for Katie?
MC – I created a character, but hadn’t thought about casting it yet. All of our series regulars are everyday actors and then our guest stars are always celebrities. I think really it’s important to give normal actors opportunities to do good stuff.
Was the web aspect of creating a project daunting?
MC – It wasn’t daunting. I was reluctant to start it because I thought “what’s the point?” I think we in L.A. are psychologically trained to do everything we do for a big reason and I think it’s interesting because in N.Y. we make choices for artistic reasons. After a while I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do it because it gave me something gratifying that you wouldn’t be able to put a price tag on.
What’s not daunting is that I don’t have people over my head about demographics and focus groups and telling what I can and can’t do. I get to succeed or fail on my own terms. I’ve made a lot of mistakes on DeVanity, but I’ve learned from them and that’s the beauty of serialized storytelling.
What have you learned?
MC – From a production standpoint – invest in your own equipment when possible. I also think one of the big things is being very clear about expectations with your friends. Sometimes the biggest problems I have on set are with people I’ve known for a bazillion years, which you think it would be the opposite, but familiarity breeds contempt at times. I’ve learned to be direct and forward about what I want. There aren’t any surprises on DeVanity.
When anyone can rent a camera for a day nowadays, what makes a show like yours stand out?
MC – You have to take your own vanity out of the project…
MC – (laughs) exactly! A lot of people have vanity projects in L.A., but it’s a balancing act. You add one too many eggs and that cake tastes weird. I’m a character on the show, but when I write DeVanity, it’s as much about Portia as it is about Jason. We’re all equals. Some actor and writers get a camera and make something about their struggle in Hollywood or dating. But you have to edit yourself and come up with a concept where everyone who is attached succeeds.
KA – web has gotten a bad rep because the quality is bad. But the web has come so far in 2 years.
MC – good storytelling is good and bad storytelling is bad. I’ve watched a lot of shows with great production value but bad plot. It’s a creation about human beings and we’ve got content for days as long as you do it organically.
Do you write a bunch of drafts before your final shooting script?
MC – I think about things constantly and then sit down and write. I’ll write a season of DeVanity in typically three days. It’s all mental pre-production. Writing in season 1 was so different than season 4 because there weren’t any expectations. Now we’ve got fans.
For someone who wanted to start a web series, what advice would you give?
MC – You’ve got to get your own team excited before anyone else is. Create a world that people want to invest in. Write it first, but be realistic about what you have access to. Take stock in what are your natural resources and then what you can bring in (borrow or renting, for example). Be very realistic about what you’re going to bring to the table.
We paid a sound guy for a day to teach us how to do everything so we know how to do it because it isn’t in our budget. It’s the art of pooling your resources.
Katie, how was coming back to set?
MC – Katie’s first day back was yesterday and it was amazing to see how much she built on Portia.
KA – I was so happy to be back on set and it was because I felt really confident and secure with where we are right now. I was so eager to dive into her. This is my home and my family out here. I’m miserable when I’m not working. I’m in my skin when I’m doing this. I’m thrilled about this season.
How did you go about the marketing aspect? Was that something you worked hard at?
MC – I was incredibly naïve about all that stuff when I started. When we started DeVanity, All My Children and One Life To Live had just been cancelled and there were some web soaps that were successful and a lot of publicity was covering them. And it was a very good lesson I learned that just because you make something doesn’t mean people are going to drop down and love you automatically. It’s like a relationship; you have to work at it and invest in it. As far as marketing was concerned, we did press releases and started to go after journalists to get to know them. But now people are coming to me. Every interview that we do, is a really big honor because its someone who cares about how I make my show.
MC – It’s a wix website.
How did that come about?
MC – That came from a lot of research on how to build a website. What I didn’t like was the concept of paying someone to do it for me and then never being able to change it. Wix is a wonderful site, very user friendly, I love it. I pay a monthly fee which gives us our domain. But it was really frustrating at first, like figuring out how to change from Flash to html – but with any kind of industry stuff, it’s the power of willpower. I don’t know how to do it, but I’m gonna learn if it kills me.
Do you get any kind of funding?
MC – We do an annual Indiegogo campaign. Last year we had a sponsor, but it’s basically Its Indiegogo and us. We don’t go on trips. We make a lot of sacrifices. You save your money…
KA – and it speaks volumes because this is a passion. I’m always in awe of that because you could throw in the towel at any time. I’m always brought back to the fact that it’s out of love of craft and genre. Not for any higher plane…
MC – and I’d love to be on a network, but there’s that little voice that I hear that says, ‘if DeVanity was stripped of everything that made it wonderful would it still be special?’ And all the things that make it wonderful are my friends. I can think of nothing more miserable than picking up the phone to call Katie Apicella to tell her that a network picked up the series but they want to recast everyone. I have a big problem with that. People don’t realize that you’re eradicating two dozen people that have made sacrifices and worked a million hours and put in the time and dedication, and they’d be the first people to go. Everyone would be punished for that. I couldn’t live with myself if I became successful and betrayed the people I made promises to. Does it suck that I can’t go to Hawaii whenever I want to? Sure. But am I proud as hell of this thing I’ve created? Absolutely.
Have you directed any episodes?
MC – No. Kelly Portier directs all of them. I think it’s important to have as many women as possible working in TV and media. I think it’s a male dominated industry and given that a huge chunk of our demographic is female, it’s important to have a female voice.
What is it like having someone else directing your project?
MC – You have to be able to let your child go off to college and find out who they are. And I think that’s a really important lesson for all writers to learn. It’s silly to assemble a team of talented individuals and micromanage them because I’m not willing to look at what I’ve written a different way. I think some of the best moments that have come out of DeVanity have been when it’s been shown differently than how I intended it. If you’re writing correctly, everyone’s building their own world, that’s what good writing is. You’ve got to let go.
Katie, what is it like working with someone who has that passion?
KA – He trusts and it creates such a good environment. What doesn’t work out, always weans itself out.
MC – yeah! Isn’t that weird. Some people aren’t capable of seeing what’s right in front of them and what opportunities they have.
KA – but you’ve created such a strong core, such a great foundation, the riffraff can’t fight its way in.
MC – one of my favorite lines of all time is from The Money Pit and they say, “yeah this was a tough one, but the foundation was good. And if the foundation is good then everything else can be fixed.” And I love that line because it’s so true about everything that you do. It’s the nicest group of people about the bitchiest group of people ever.