Last time on Fan Film Friday: We met Ensign Williams, the youngest security red shirt on the starship Enterprise…and perhaps the only sane person in the entire crew. Ensign Williams is the protagonist of the brilliant and hilarious fan parody series The Red Shirt Diaries, which adapts all the classic episodes of TOS in order from the point of view of someone who has absolutely nothing important to do…or does she?
The Red Shirt Diaries is the brainchild of Los Angeles-based Ashley Victoria Johnson and Jason Inman. Like William Shatner and James Doohan before her, Ashley hails from the great white north of Canada. And like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Superman before him, Jason is from the sunflower state of Kansas.
And now we’ve got an awesome interview to finish…
Jonathan: What is the process you and your writers go through to create your scripts? Do you work independently of each other or is there some writers’ brainstorming room where you lock yourselves inside and hash out ideas?
Ashley: It’s a lot like our first season. We all watched the episodes, and people pitched ideas for the episodes they wanted to write. Jason was our show runner and approved or nixed different ideas, and then people were sent away to write drafts.
Jason and I wound up doing a final pass on all the episodes to make sure that there weren’t any significant tonal shifts. The writers’ room was some of the most fun we had working on The Red Shirt Diaries because it was a lot of really amazing creative people really excited to tackle writing these iconic episodes.
Jonathan: I’ve read in other interviews with you guys that you filmed all ten episodes of your first season in just two days. I realize that filming a three-minute vignette might not sound like much work to the layperson, but I’m guessing that wasn’t at all the case. So first of all, why squeeze everything into just two days? Second, how did you manage to get it all done (including featuring various guest stars in different episodes) in such a short amount of time?
Jason: For season one, we shot ten episodes in about 40 hours. For season two, we shot 18 episodes in 48 hours and then two other episodes on location (“This Side of Paradise” and “Arena”).
Ashley: The way you squeeze that many episodes into those short hours is by being really, really prepared. We averaged between 2 and 2.5 hours of shooting per episode depending on how complicated the shoot was. I learned all of my lines about two weeks before we shot, and Jason and I rehearsed together. He laid down basic camera moves, we wrote shot outlines, and on the second season we had all of the guest stars in to rehearse so that we could save time laying down the blocking.
The real reason anything gets done on The Red Shirt Diaries is because Jason is most awesome and the best director (read as: leader) that we could ask for.
Jonathan: Were there any unforeseen problems that popped up while you were shooting?
Ashley: On the first season, our production assistant bailed 10 hours before we were supposed to start shooting, but we replaced him with Jordan Keeble who became our First AD and wrote “Court Martial” for the second season, so that worked out well in the end. I also damaged the lighting set up during “Charlie X,” and Jason had to spend way too much time fixing it.
The second season flowed a little more smoothly, although we did have a light explode our second day on set, and Jason and Alex Swickard (our Director of Photography), had to spend some time replacing that. A lot of the stress came from making the initial shooting schedule.
Jonathan: With your second season being twice as long as your first season (20 episodes versus 10), did you schedule yourself more production time with season two? If so, how much?
Ashley: We were forced to shoot more hours just based on the amount of coverage we needed to shoot. It turns out we didn’t realize how much more work there was going to be in the post-production world, and the editing/sound FX/visual FX have taken more time that we imagined. We’ve been able to be a lot more creatively and do bigger, better things, but it’s taken a lot more time from Jason, as he is the one primarily in charge of that.
There is no way to plan, on any project, the amount of time it’s going to take. And there’s always a point where you just have to keep going until you’re done or else it won’t happen.
Jonathan: Speaking of season two, you decided in late 2014 to hold a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to generate a little extra working capital before doing more episodes. How did that work out? Did you learn anything about running a crowd-funding campaign that you didn’t know going in?
Jason: Ashley had never done any crowd-funding, so she probably learned the most. It was important to us to set a barebones goal and not ask for more than we needed. We blew past the $2,800 goal that we asked for in three days and almost doubled our goal by the full 30 days, which was really lovely. It allowed us to do one extra episode, which will be “Amok Time,” the first episode of TOS’s second season.
The thing we probably learned most was how much support we actually had out there in the Internet land, and then we also learned that you can never calculate enough for shipping costs.
Jonathan: What did the funds you raised allow you to do in season two that you weren’t able to accomplish in season one?
Ashley: Most importantly, it allowed us to pay people who helped contribute to The Red Shirt Diaries. Season one was entirely a labour of love, and we wanted to make sure that we were paying the people whose talents we harnessed to make this show happen.
For example, Studio229 reached out to help us with the visual effects shots (you’ll see their rendering of the Enterprise all over season two of The Red Shirt Diaries). We purchased music and various effects elements that ate a lot of the cost as well.
Jason: The funds also went a lot toward building our set (three Hollywood flats). It was very important to me; I really wanted a corner instead of a flat wall. If you look, you can see it there. We couldn’t stand up in season one at all. What you saw of the set in season one, that was it. No turning the camera left. No turning the camera right. This season, there’s a couple episodes where everyone is standing up the entire time.
Ashley: The funds also helped us get a standardized uniform for everyone. In season one, we used what we already had, which included JJ Trek uniform shirts, which bothered a lot of fans. But we couldn’t afford anything else until season two.
And finally, we were invited to shoot on Starbase Studios, and the funds helped get Jason and me from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, where their TOS bridge set stands. A lot of people think the money also helped us shoot at Vasquez Rocks for “Arena,” but we live really close to Vasquez Rocks.
Jonathan: After doing so many episodes in front of the same wall, how did it feel to “stretch your legs” on the TOS bridge set in Oklahoma City and on location at one of Trek’s most iconic natural rock formations?
Ashley: Fun fact—we shot on the Starbase Studios bridge some five months before we began shooting season two of The Red Shirt Diaries. It was a tough shooting day that took longer than our normal shooting days because it wasn’t preset by us.
Vasquez is kind of the same thing because there was very little we could control outside.
Both places were great fun to shoot, but very, very hard. It’s a lot easier to shoot on our set.
Jonathan: I also noticed that between seasons one and two that you released a webcomic written by the two of you and illustrated by Jeremy Owen. How did that come about?
Jason: Scott Lobdell (DC Comics writer), actually suggested the idea to us a week before we launched the first season, and we had worked with Jeremy Owen and loved his art. So we were able to bring it together really quickly. The webcomic bridges seasons one and two; it takes place right after the final episode. It leads sort of into season two.
Jonathan: What kind of feedback have you received from fans?
Ashley: It’s been really positive. Initially we were worried that the hardcore fans wouldn’t like the parody concept and think we were making fun of Star Trek, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We love Trek! But no one ever complained about that. During the first season, we mostly got complaints about using JJ Trek costumes…and the lack of Gertrude.
Jonathan: I have to say that plant has quite a hilarious personality! And I believe that was your hand inside it, Jason?
Jason: Yes it was…and my voice.
Jonathan: Were there any other complaints?
Ashley: The stuff we got flack on was, in my opinion, really silly stuff. Someone complained that we didn’t use a fencing foil for Sulu in “The Naked Time.” We had a katana and couldn’t afford a fencing foil. Someone else on a forum said, “You lack overarching narrative!” And I was like, “THYE’RE THREE-MINUTES LONG! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”
Jason: But y’know what? We addressed that in season two. There is an overarching narrative in this season. We’re not telling anyone what it is until the very end. It won’t make sense until you get to the second-to-last episode, and then you’ll be like, “OH! Now I see it!” Right now, it’s very tiny things that most people probably haven’t noticed yet.
Jonathan: Moving to guest stars—you’ve had so many, I could spend an entire blog just listing them all!—want to highlight any of them?
Ashley: You’re right, there’s so many great people we’ve worked with on Red Shirt Diaries. Fortunately, Los Angeles has no shortage of talent! A lot of them are friends of ours and people we know from other podcasts. We have some people from Screen Junkies, where Jason works. Hal Rudnick, who hosts the show, played our Trelane. And we have Nick Mundi—who is also on Screen Junkies—and he appears on Conan a lot (he was in their George R.R. Martin sketch from ComicCon)—he plays Scotty’s number two guy who keeps taking stuff from my quarters. We had Larry Nemecek coming in for two episodes to play Dr. McCoy [a role he also played on the first two episodes of Star Trek Continues -JL].
Jason: My co-host Tiffany Smith from DC All-Access makes an appearance this season in our “City on the Edge of Forever” episode. Then we have Rob Bedall, who’s an actor that we’ve worked with before. He is our Scotty, and he’s from the U.K. So it’s nice to have someone from that side of the pond play a Scotsman. We’ve got a lot of people from YouTube series and podcasts.
Jonathan: A big standout guest star in season two was Cat Roberts, who played Yeoman Rand. She had already been on Star Trek Continues, playing Lt. Palmer, but then you snagged her for Red Shirt Diaries. How did that come about?
Jason: I think I saw her IMDb profile, and I was like, “If we do season two, I wonder if she would play Yeoman Rand?” She looks like her.
Ashley: I had her e-mail at that point, so I e-mailed her and was like, “So do you want to be on our show?” I assumed she lived close in Los Angeles. She doesn’t. But she agreed to shoot with us, and now we’re real-life friends.
Jason: I remember we were nervous to ask her…
Ashley: We were so nervous…
Jason: …because she was doing Star Trek Continues. We were worried that she’d look at us and think we’re a joke. But she was one of the best people we had on the set and so much fun. We shot all of her episodes on the first day of production…the first five episodes we shot.
Funny story—in “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” in the giant group scene where they’re all watching TV, her husband John is the guy who leans in and shouts, “Hey, guys, we’re gonna slingshot around the sun.” He was also the voice of Captain Christopher yelling at us. And her son is the red shirt in the left hand corner, and her daughter is the red shirt in the right hand corner. They were all there at the set that day, and I said, “Get in the shot, we’ve gotta fill the frame.”
Ashley: And her daughter Emma made that amazing Yeoman Rand wig and cared for it—deeply!—on set.
Jason: Another funny story—we filmed these episodes back in April, and one of our crew took a picture of Cat in her Rand wig and put it on Instagram, and she shared it. And apparently, the Star Trek: New Voyages guys saw that were, like, “You should play OUR Rand.” And so Cat went from Continues to Red Shirt Diaries to New Voyages…all because of us.
Jonathan: And finally, what can you tell us about season three of The Red Shirt Diaries?
Jason: Season three is not going to happen immediately. We did season one, and then we immediately launched into the Indiegogo. And as soon as the Indiegogo was finished, we launched into season two. By the time this season finishes, we will have been working on this series for two years and one month non-stop. So I’m fairly certain we’re going to take a little bit of a Red Shirts break and work on something else.
Ashley: The thing about doing a fan series is you have this built-in audience, which is really great, but there’s a certain point where we don’t own the IP [intellectual property, or trademark –JL] on it, so we can only take it so far. So Jason and I want to try to do some original stuff in the meantime and come back to Red Shirt Diaries after that eventually.
Now, if everyone reading this suddenly starts viewing our episodes and sharing them and getting all their friends to watch, then we’d be stupid not to come back sooner. When we do, it’ll be cool because we’ll be into season two of TOS. Season one and three have some really great episodes like “Corbomite Maneuver,” but season two is where I think the most “gold” lies.
Jonathan: Okay, folks, you’ve got your orders from Ensign Williams: watch The Red Shirt Diaries and tell all your friends to watch it, too. The faster we can get them thousands of more views, the sooner we’ll get the third season of this incredible fan film series!
Thank you for a great interview, Ashley and Jason…and best of luck in all your future endeavors.