Notes On A Disaster: Interview with Writers/Directors/Stars Simon McKeon and Dylan Mangan

El Diablo’s new project Notes On A Disaster has been covered extensively on this blog. If you are unfamiliar, here are posts for a sneak peek, character and episode titles reveal, introducing Conor Dwane’s character and the trailer dropping. With its premiere upcoming (October 21st in a special screening), I had a chance to chat with the writers/directors/stars of the 8-part mini-series Simon McKeon (Peter) and Dylan Mangan (Trevor Thomas) to get their thoughts on this experience.

Kind of an overused question to start off as ye can imagine, but just for the purposes of people unawares give us your elevator pitch for Notes on a Disaster, and where/how the idea emerged.

Simon: Every time we get asked this question, it’s always a tough one to answer. We usually get the other one to answer it! I suppose in a nutshell, it’s about two guys in a PLC film course (not the most liked by their peers) who have an idea for a film called “Notes On A Disaster”, a story about a time traveling writer. It’s not very good and nobody really likes it, but they decide to bite the bullet and make it themselves, independent of their college peers. However, it largely focuses on their personal lives to and we explore a lot of different themes. I’d nearly say that their personal lives is the main plot with them trying to get their film made being the subplot. My character Peter has a real chip on his shoulder, so it was very interesting to explore just why he is the way he is. That’s a pretty long elevator pitch, but ya get me!

Dylan: In the spirit of our usual response of getting the other person to answer, Simon has done a good job here! And without wanting the elevator to have to burst through the ceiling ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, what I’d add is that in the show we do try and touch on a variety of different themes, some of which can be quite heavy. That’s not to say the series is an ‘issue-based’ one, but we’ve attempted to make something that is both entertaining and serious at the same time. For want of a better word, Notes On A Disaster is a ‘dramedy’.

Where/How did the idea merge?

Simon: A friend of ours, Colm Connolly had a film called “Our Friend Trevor”, which I really liked. We discussed making it into a mini-series and put together a very rough draft. I had created a character in a previous script called Peter Ryan and we decided to introduce him to Trevor in this series. The plot was very, very different from what it is now. If I remember correctly, Trevor and Peter were rival filmmakers, not friends. Colm moved to Dublin to study and we tried writing the scripts back and forth but it just didn’t work. On the set of my previous film, “The Milk Run”, which Dylan was the 1st AD on, I told Dylan about the project and he started to share a few ideas with me. With Colm’s blessing, myself and Dylan re-wrote the pilot. Only keeping the name Trevor Thomas, we turned it from a three one hour series, into an eight half hour series. And came up with a completely different plot. I guess, the rest is history!

Dylan: I actually had a very small role in Colm’s original short film, which is great and I’d highly recommend it! The main connection between our show and Colm’s short, other than the name character’s name, is that the original Trevor Thomas is deluded in the importance of his quest to make a beautiful short film, while our main characters Peter and Trevor are also delusional in relation to their own filmmaking abilities. They deal with pretty much every situation they’re faced with in the wrong way.

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Working on a miniseries can be difficult, especially as you wouldn’t be afforded the budget that larger scale online/television productions could be allotted. How did ye make do?

Simon: Not beating around the bush, it’s a very, very ambitious project! There’s been many times during production that we’ve turned to each other and said “What’s wrong with us?! We are mad!”. It’s eight half hour episodes, that’s 4 hours, which is basically two feature length films! From the get-go, we’ve had to approach it very seriously. We haven’t been really calling it a web series – we’ve been looking at it as an actual series. It has the scope and length of one. It just happens to be hitting the web is all. With zero budget, it has been very hard to pull off. First off, you have to work around people’s schedules and we are extremely grateful to everyone who has given us their time for free. I can’t speak highly enough of our crew – they’ve been absolutely fantastic and really helped take some pressure off of us as, basically, showrunners. Our DP/co-producer Myles is an absolute work horse. I really do think if we had someone else doing his job, we wouldn’t be where we are now. He really is a massive driving force behind the project and when it gets a bit overwhelming, he always spurs us on! The people of Cork have been great to us too. They really opened the door of their businesses to allow us to shoot there – UCC, The Bridge Bar, St Johns, Crawford and Sons, the list is endless and we are so grateful to them because of this. We really couldn’t have done it without them and the help we have been receiving has blown us away. I also can’t thank the Cork Film Centre enough for their help. Whenever we need equipment, they’ve been there for us!

Dylan:  It’s certainly been tough, but also immensely rewarding when we get a chance to take a step back and look at what we’ve managed to achieve so far. I can only echo Simon’s word in thanking everyone who’s been a part of the production. It sounds cliché but we wouldn’t have even shot a single scene without their help. Working without a budget is of course challenging, but with the help of everyone involved it’s been a much smoother process than I think we could have hoped for. A budget would speed things up certainly, as at the moment we all have to juggle our creative output with working or being in college as well – often doing 15-hour days to get where we are today.

This is a distinctive project for Cork city, an 8-part web series. What was the reaction communally, both in the film scene around the county and from those you had help to make this all happen?

Simon: We’ve had a great reaction! There’s a lot of hype around the series so people have been very excited to be part of it. I remember when I approached an actor to be part of the series, I said “Hey, working on a project, would you be interested in reading the script?”, we had been in production a couple of months at this stage and the reply I got was; “Sure, would love to. Can’t wait to see Notes On A Disaster by the way, hope it’s going well”. So people know about it, and have been excited to be a part of it. It’s great!

Dylan: The reaction, even to the idea of the show at the start while we were writing, has been a huge part in keeping us motivated to actually make the series. The most common question we get asked is “When can we see it?” and thankfully with the screening of the first episode now announced we get to give a concrete answer! Having so many people involved and interested in what we are doing can only be a good thing.

Not only did ye both write and direct this together, but you’re also the lead actors. What kind of challenges emerged, both having to juggle the acting and directing on a day-to-day as well as your collaborative process?

Simon: Well, while it does sounds logistically complicated, we have a good system going so thankfully, it’s been surprisingly easy. Dylan has a degree in Film And Screen Media, while I am currently studying Drama And Theatre Studies at the Cork School of Music. So what we did was split the duties. Dylan directed the crew, while I directed the cast. Obviously, when I am in scenes Dylan would jump into directing the cast. Our system has been working quite well, so thankfully, no real challenges have emerged.

Dylan: Like Simon said, we have a system and it’s been working well! I suppose I would have a more of an understanding of the technical side of film, while Simon has more experience with directing on a large scale and working with actors. It’s been a great learning curve for me personally and having Simon by my side has made it work very well. We’re both different personalities and have different opinions so we’re able to challenge each other and help each other see things from a different point of view as well.

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Outside of one or two actors you’ve worked on other projects with, the cast is almost entirely new actors (including yourselves!). What was it like to work with emerging talent? Does it bring a different energy in comparison to working with more experienced actors?

Simon: I really wanted this to have a completely different feel from our previous films, “Christmas At Dracula’s” and “The Milk Run”, so having a mostly new cast really helped with that. Also, the cast is primarily made up of young characters, with our previous films made up of more older characters, a new cast was something that we had to go for. And it’s been great to work with a fresh pool of talent. Each actor has brought something new to the table. We’ve said from the get-go that our scripts aren’t gospel and have encouraged improv whenever we could. It’s been great to see the variety of talent that’s been brought to the show and it really has brought the production to a whole new level that our scripts couldn’t possibly have reached.

Dylan: One of the main reasons we’re so excited for the series to be released is the enthusiasm that our cast have shown. I can’t speak highly enough of every one of them, from those with main roles right down to our bit-part characters, some of whom light up an episode in a single scene! Our cast have been brilliant to work with and incredibly patient when we’ve been scheduling shoots. There are some characters that have ended up being completely different to how we wrote them, purely down to the imagination of the cast and the freedom we’ve tried to give them when shooting – it’s been great!

Dylan’s character Trevor Thomas is based very, very loosely on a preexisting character. What was it like to discover his voice and transform him into who he is now for Notes?

Simon: As I’ve mentioned already, it’s really only the name Trevor Thomas that we brought to this project from Colm’s original short film. When writing we built the character of Trevor from the ground up. We’ve kept the name as more of an homage to Colm’s short. One of the things that as writers we loved exploring was the dynamic/relationship between my character Peter and Dylan’s character Trevor. Trevor is essentially an anxious person, while Peter is quite arrogant. Because of Peter’s influence, Trevor has become slightly arrogant too, something which his peers don’t like. That’s basically how we find the two in the pilot and it was very interesting for us to explore this as the episodes went on – why is Peter the way he is? What would Trevor be like without the influence of Peter?

Dylan: Like Simon has said, the Trevor Thomas character is more of an homage to Colm’s existing character than anything else, but the spirit of the original has found its way into the show in other ways, such as through Peter’s arrogance. Trevor acts as the pivot upon which a lot of the rest of the series has been built, who is then influenced by Peter’s more bullish personality. The pilot is a good introduction into their dynamic, which is important for the rest of the episodes then as well.

(To Simon) A lot of the elements for the series appear to be based on your own life, in particular the D-I-Y film right out of school. How much of it has been influenced by your own experience (keeping it spoiler-free, of course!)?

Simon: Funnily enough, while you can draw comparisons between their film and “Christmas At Dracula’s”, there’s really nothing in that sense. However, events that have happened to us in our personal lives, happen to Trevor and Peter in the show. But it’s not exactly the stuff that’s happened to me, happens to Peter. Some of the situations that Trevor finds himself in were real-life situations that I found myself in. And likewise with Dylan and Peter. It’s up to the audience to decide what happened to who in real life!

(To Dylan) This is one of your first big undertakings as a creator, and it’s pretty ambitious being a full 8-part series. What challenges did that bring up and what has this experience taught you?

Dylan: We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure. My main experience as a creator previous to this was through college, which is a completely different experience, with more guidance from lecturers and the like. The main difference is that you have to be your own motivator for the most part which can be challenging at times, as the only deadlines we’ve had are ones we’ve created for ourselves. Overall the whole experience has taught me to take a lot more responsibility and has made me more confident in my own abilities be it as a writer, director, or actor.

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What are you most proud of working on this endeavour? What will you take away the most from it?

Simon: I think I’m just very proud that we’ve done it! Something to this scale on zero budget is no easy task!

Dylan: We can be proud of our commitment over a long time to develop a set of characters and stories from scratch, and then actually take the risk in devoting our time to making something we can watch and be happy with as an end product. I think that we can take away the knowledge that we’re capable of pulling a group of people together to work on a project – we’re lucky in that sense.

Any plans for future projects in the works? Will ye collaborate together again? It’s a bit too early to nudge for a second season…

Simon: Of course we are going to collaborate again! We have been throwing around ideas for a play actually! But we haven’t started writing anything solid yet for it. What we have been doing actually is developing two different projects independently of each other, which once they’re both done – I’ll help Dylan rewrite his and he’ll help me rewrite mine. It’s a very interesting challenge for us and once that we are really looking forward to doing. Both projects revolve around the same theme – identity. Right now, they’re in the very early stages of development. Mine is actually a biopic so I’ve spent the last few months researching the subject and will spent the coming few months doing the same. I don’t want to give much away, but all I will say is that “The Pink Panther” is a great film! Also, you mentioned a “second season”, once you see the last scene for what we have, mention that to us again…..

Dylan: We’ll definitely collaborate again! We’re always bouncing ideas off each other and we work well together because we have quite different tastes in style. Combining the two has been productive so far and hopefully will continue to be so!

Just to round it up, anything you’d like to add you think will coax people into watching your show? Where will they be able to view it?

Simon: We’ve actually been holding A LOT back from people. There’s one theme/arc in particular that the series deals with that we haven’t mentioned to anyone. Only the cast and crew really know what it is. So it’s going to be very interesting to see what people think! We are having a screening next Monday (21st) at The Bridge Bar on Bridge St, where we will be showing the pilot. Once we fully wrap, people will be able to see the full series on Youtube. Make sure to keep an eye on our Facebook page for updates!

Dylan: There will be a free gin reception at the screening.

For more information on Notes On A Disaster, be sure to follow the series’ Facebook page for updates, you can also find out more about El Diablo on their YouTube page.

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