We hate getting to the end of a book we like. Either we don’t want it to end, or we don’t want to be reminded that it was all only in our heads. Good stories and good characters are like french fries; we always want more than will fit in the bag. Some folks actually do something about this terrible situation. These book junkies extend the stories and characters in a variety of ways, and it’s actually the most natural thing in the world: as we know, work that is truly great transcends its original form. The Get Lit Off the Page series explores ways people extend literature into other forms.
My favorite thing about having a party is getting my different circles of friends together just to see what happens. Can you imagine doing that with a gaggle of your favorite authors? This is exactly what Shipwrecked Comedy did in their web series Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party (full title: Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Invite-Only Casual Dinner Party/Gala for Friends Potluck). Edgar and (dead) Lenore plan a fun evening for writers you’d normally only see gathered for a Norton anthology: Hemingway, Wilde, Dickinson, and Mary Shelley – to name a few. Their goofy murder mystery game is interrupted by a plague of gruesome deaths. It’s basically what happens at most of my parties, but with canonical writers.
The basic idea is the same as Neil Simon’s classic Murder by Death, but since the story comes out of the specific mix of characters, like a cocktail, it’s something unique. Check out the series (it’s about 11 episodes). After that, read our spoiler-filled interview with two of the founders of Shipwrecked Comedy, siblings Sinead and Sean Persaud.
Eric Larkin – What’s the origin story of Shipwrecked? What brought you guys together?
Sinead Persaud – When I was in film school at NYU I had it in my head that I wanted to do sketch comedy. I wrote tons of sketches, including one involving Edgar Allan Poe buying girl scout cookies.
Sean Persaud – Sinead and I grew up near and worked in Salem, MA, so we were always really into the macabre and history and classic literature. She wrote “Edgar Allan Poe Buys Girl Scout Cookies,” which we originally wanted to film back home, but it wasn’t until she moved to LA that we finally got to do it. And since the sketch is so short, we decided to use the rest of our shoot day to make a mostly improvised vlog series around it. (Literary based vlog series were pretty big at the time, with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern vlog style adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, wrapping up its year long run.) We had created this awkward, insecure version of Edgar Allan Poe and his ghost roommate, a very sassy and modern Lenore, and they became pretty popular with a section of the internet that was really into these weird, new interpretations of classic literature.
Sinead Persaud – We ended up turning the sketch into a vlog style series featuring Edgar exasperatingly writing “The Raven” while basically being heckled by his ghost roommate Lenore. For our second series “Kissing in the Rain”, we hired Mary Kate Wiles to star alongside Sean and hired my dear friend Sarah Grace Hart as the costumer. We four are now Shipwrecked! Sean and I write, we all produce and act and we ladies handle most of the costuming.
EL – You could do comedy and/or a web series on anything you want, right? You could even use popular IPs like Harry Potter or Star Wars; if you did satire or fan-fiction, you could probably get away with it. So why pick the classics of literature?
Sean Persaud – Yes, we can really do anything we want, which on one hand, is the nice thing about the internet and YouTube – the world is your oyster. But on the other hand, that’s also really overwhelming and you can get lost in all the noise. I’ve done a lot of other stuff, and it’s fallen through the cracks. So I think focusing in on something specific that speaks to you will help you find an audience that responds to that in the same way. I can only speak for myself, but using literature and history as inspiration has been the most interesting thing I’ve done out here – the possibilities are pretty endless, and they have a built in familiarity and appeal and (and I think this is key) timelessness that gets people’s attention. I love Harry Potter and Star Wars and lots of other IP as much as the next person, but for me, that stuff is still very new, very current, and very much owned by the people who came up with it or the people running those brands now. I know Sinead has a long history with fanfic – I don’t really. For me, approaching older stories and time periods seems like a way to say something new or try something new in a playground that people are familiar with but one that feels like we all own. Also copyright protection makes taking on stuff like HP or Star Wars hard, if not impossible. Especially when trying to make a living doing this sort of thing.
Sinead Persaud – It’s not that I don’t LOVE Star Wars and Harry Potter, I do! And heck, Lord of the Rings is the reason I went to film school in the first place. But I’ve always been a huge bookworm, especially keen on all things macabre and gothic. Naturally, people like Poe, Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne are right up my alley. Marrying the dark and eerie with comedy felt like home to me. Plus, no one else is really doing exactly what we do which is pretty cool. The downside is that we are far more niche than I ever could have imagined. Our audience is out there…but it is small (mighty though!) I am actually also in a Harry Potter web series that imagines Hermione’s life at age 25 so I haven’t escaped the big property web series scene!
EL – Did you discover anything new about the authors who populate Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner during the process of making it? What’s the ratio of accurate portrayal versus meh, it’s funny, who cares?
Sinead Persaud – I learned a lot! I learned a whole bunch about the drama of the Bronte family, about HG Well’s womanizing ways, the fact that Oscar Wilde lost his Irish accent later in life and so much more! That ratio is something we talked about A LOT.
Sean Persaud – Yeah, we did a lot of research for Poe Party and we learned a lot, and there were definitely times when we leaned away from historical accuracy in favor of something that made us laugh. George Eliot is a big example. In Poe Party, she dresses like a man with a fake mustache and tries to convince everyone she’s a man, completely failing (except with the most manly person around, Ernest Hemingway). Obviously, that is not what really happened. She never pretended to be a man. But we went into this wanting to make a very heightened and stylized story with silly, almost cartoonish versions of these characters, so we would research for inspiration and then run with it. I mean, these authors were not all alive at the same time, so at a certain point, we assumed people would know we were not making a documentary. HG Wells is another example. In researching him we found out he was very progressive – quite a ladies man. For our purposes, we leaned away from that. So yeah, we definitely took some liberties.
Sinead Persaud – While we were shaping the characters we tried to pick out two or three main characteristics of the author that we would expand and caricature. Accuracy was clearly not a huge factor in the story as hardly any of the authors were alive at the same time. Fun fact: we got a LOT of criticism for the way we dressed some of the characters, especially Charlotte Bronte. We found a beautiful regency dress we wanted her to wear when in reality she would have dressed in Victorian clothing. I thought it was funny that people would pick on that in a show that also includes a ghost and police officers from the 1940’s.
EL – If you did a sequel, who would you add to the mix?
Sean Persaud – We’ve thrown around ideas for follow ups, but it’s hard when so many of the characters are dead. We originally had Thoreau involved in this, so we’d probably bring him into the fold. We also wanted to bring in Alexander Dumas.
Sinead Persaud – Definitely Alexandre Dumas, perhaps J.R.R Tolkien, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath, oh gosh now I’m just naming all authors.
Sean Persaud – Also, we did a series of sketches leading up to the show with other authors: Twain, Tolstoy, Emerson, and JM Barrie, and they were all really fun to write and play off of. But we wouldn’t want it to get too male heavy, so maybe Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Gaskell. I think Dorothy Parker would be fun too. These characters were so fun to write and our cast is stupidly talented and it would be a blast to do something else with them, but it’s also nice to try out something new.
EL – What is the most subtle or obscure reference in the series that you think most people will miss?
Sinead Persaud – Oh my gosh, it’s been so long I know there’s something. A subtle but not subtle reference is Constable’s Agatha Christie storyline. Christie went missing for a week or so in 1926 and no one knows what happened. Also, every episode title is title of one of Poe’s works. Each title corresponds to what happens in the episode…at least I tried to make it that way!
Sean Persaud – Poe having Eddie play the orangutan character in the initial game is a nod to “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Annabel finding a vial of poison in the hall and Poe scoffing that no one would leave evidence out in the open is a nod to “The Purloined Letter”. The authors are killed in ways inspired by their work, and some of that is very obvious, but some of it is more subtle. SPOILER ALERT I guess – HG dies by poisoned smoke, a nod to the black smoke in War of the Worlds. Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days, which motivates our bumbling constables to come looking for her. Hemingway mentioning cats was improvised by Joey Richter on set but Hemingway really did love cats. The intrigue with the Bronte’s brother Branwell is real, as is the conspiracy about Edward de Vere and Shakespeare. There’s a lot of references to the movie Clue as well. I’m forgetting a ton but those are some that I haven’t seen people talk about too much.
EL – Don’t forget Murder By Death, which even has the real-life Truman Capote. Can you talk about your noir series, The Case of the Gilded Lily? (Which is a hilarious title, btw.)
Sean Persaud – Thanks! So The Case of the Gilded Lily is not actually a series, it’s a short film (although at just over 38 minutes, we use the word “short” very loosely). It kind of acts as a pilot for something else, we’ll see. Whereas Sinead and I were really inspired by Clue and Poe for Poe Party, here we were inspired by our undying love of the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as classics by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It was very different from Poe Party in lot of ways – we had a much smaller budget, smaller cast, and a more compressed shooting schedule. Rather than everyone basically being in the same scenes at once, which was really fun in Poe Party, this one has more one on one interactions as it follows a detective exploring leads and following a twisty trail involving blackmail in 1939 Hollywood. We tried to keep our tradition of history-inspired storytelling alive with a version of Buster Keaton that is definitely following the career path of the real Buster Keaton but is probably nothing like the real Buster Keaton. Visually it was really fun and a step up from Poe Party and it was also a challenge to write – we wrote Poe Party in a year and a half (mostly cuz we never thought we’d be able to do it, so we dragged our feet a little), and we wrote this one in about a month. We tried to nail down the pacing and tropes of those old movies, including how byzantine and incomprehensible their plots can be (I watched The Big Sleep 3 times while writing it and still have no idea what happens in it). It was refreshing but also terrifying to step out of our comfort zone and explore something outside Poe and Lenore, but the initial reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, so we’re pretty happy with that.
EL – What’s next?
Sean Persaud – We’ll be releasing The Case of the Gilded Lily to most of our Kickstarter backers very soon, and then to everyone else at some point in the future. Aside from that, we’ve got some projects we’re excited about and we are in the process of figuring out how to make them, who to make them with, and other things it’s probably too early to talk about. But we are keeping very very busy!
Sinead Persaud – As Sean said, we are releasing the Gilded Lily soon and we will eagerly await its reception! We have several other projects in various stages of development and I’m SO excited about them. It finally feels like I’m doing what I always wanted to do! I hope people like what’s coming. YAY!
So, what’s to stop you from sending your fave authors or (public domain) characters on a crazy adventure? Nothing.
Go make something.
There’s more Get Lit Off the Page to come. Check out the first post (on the many uses of LARP) right here.