Turn on the TV or surf Boing Boing, and you’ll find that lifelike baby dolls called reborns are in the news. When people invest in these eerily lifelike and extremely expensive dolls, they treat them as if they are real babies. This creepy phenomenon inspired filmmakers Jennifer Maisel, Laura Brennan, and Rachel Leventhal to tackle the subject matter in Faux Baby, their quirky, hilarious series for Strike.TV.
Soon to be on your TiVo, Faux Baby was also the first Strike.TV series to be put on Hulu. With the positive reaction from their audience and some great reviews, the creators feel they have accomplished many of the things they set out to achieve. The final product looks great and has led to a partnership that will be sure to give birth to more projects.
Tubefilter asked the moms behind Faux Baby about the conception of their “baby”, the delivery room, and what will be in their nursery next.
Tubefilter: How did the three of you originally meet?
Jennifer: Rachel and I go back to Cornell together, where we met in an improv group called Whistling Shrimp and mutually bonded over our shared fear of getting on stage and having to be brilliantly funny in front of people. (Just a sidebar – Bob Clendenin, star of Strike.TV’s Daryl from OnCar was also in Whistling Shrimp and was – and still is – brilliantly funny.) Rachel and I also lived together in New York in the requisite overpriced apartment on a crack corner after we graduated. Laura and I met in a class out here in L.A. and instantly bonded. She’s one of those people who I felt like I had known forever even when we barely knew each other. So – although they had met on the phone in our “virtual writers room” Rachel and Laura actually didn’t physically meet until the day we started shooting – or was it the day before?
Rachel: Laura and I finally met the day before the shoot… when I flew in from NYC. Actually, we’ve only spent about an hour and a half in the same room to this day… and I still marvel that such a seamless and pleasant collaboration could take place entirely by internet and phone.
Tubefilter: When did you first talk about creating a web series?
Jennifer: Rachel and I had been talking about doing a project together forever but one of us was always swamped and we live on opposite sides of the country, which made it seem tough. Laura and I had been talking about doing a project together forever and had pitched and written some other projects together. After the first Strike TV meeting I was talking to Laura about how maybe this was something we should do together – and in that weird way the world sometimes works I get a call from Rachel the next day saying you know, life has freed up, let’s do our project now. Kismet or synchronicity or something…
Tubefilter: How did you get involved with Strike.TV?
Rachel: Jennifer was also the link to Strike.TV for us. She went to the first Strike.TV meeting then got me and Laura together to discuss doing a project. It was such a great opportunity for writers, filmmakers and actors to do something really positive during the writers strike – and long after, as it turned out. It was literally the chance we’d each been waiting for to call the shots as creators, so we just jumped in with both feet. We also had the most fantastic cast and crew, willing to participate because of the good will behind Strike TV. The set buzzed with unbelievably infectious creative energy.
Laura: The thing, too, about the cast and crew – and editing, directing, music – is that we got to work with people we already liked. We called up friends and friends of friends – that’s how the business works. Everyone wants to work with people they like and trust, and in a way it was the modern equivalent of “Hey, kids, we’ve got a barn – let’s put on a show.”
Rachel: Our friends were incredibly generous with their respective talents. For example, my friend Mike Rubin of Murmur Music (and of Blues Clues renown) banged out our unbelievably catchy theme song and scored our episodes. Jen’s editor friend Nancy Morrison (editor of Desperate Housewives) went above and beyond putting it all together. The list goes on and on.
Tubefilter: Where did the idea for telling a story about reborns come from?
Laura: Jennifer and I were brainstorming ideas. We both had children around the same time, and had been, shall we say, overwhelmed by the glories of motherhood. Also, we wanted to play to our strengths. Nobody writes relationships better than Jennifer. Me, I do horror. Fake babies seemed the perfect middle ground.
Rachel: I have a long, tortured history of making art projects, sculpture and interactive installations out of dolls and mannequins, so I felt very comfortable with the idea from the start.
Tubefilter: Stories about reborns dolls and the people who take care of them as if they are real babies pop up in the news over and over. Why do think that people are so fascinated by this bizarre phenomenon?
Laura: Fascinated, horrified, they kind of go together. Human beings love a train wreck, and the reports on these dolls are usually both creepy and harmless at the same time. And identifiable on a visceral level. I mean, some people have real babies because they’re desperate for someone to love them unconditionally – why is that not weirder than getting a doll to lavish unconditional love upon?
Jennifer: Yeah – but they don’t respond, they don’t grow up, so in some ways I can’t figure out if it’s more selfish than parents who have a kid for the attention or not. Part of it to me is that those reborns do look unbelievably real. So you get that biological-oh-isn’t-she-adorable-tug-on-the-heartstrings feeling and then you realize it’s a doll. There’s something twisted – to me at least – about the fact the “babies” are never going to be more than babies.
Tubefilter: So you have real kids in real life?
Rachel: We’re all moms, one kid each. That’s why we call our production company Mama Makes Movies. I think it’s fair to say that having children significantly impacted what we wrote about for Faux Baby. Many scenes were inspired one way or another by things that we really experienced in parks or restaurants with our kids as infants, or silly things that we did ourselves as moms. So we felt completely justified in poking fun at new parents. But let me clarify, Faux Baby is a work of fiction and no– none of us has ever left our real baby at home to bond with our new faux baby!
Laura: Although my dad wouldn’t mind some faux grandchildren if they let him finish his newspaper in peace.
Tubefilter: Why did you feel that Faux Baby was the right material for a web series?
Laura: It lent itself to the short format. Not everything can be told in three- to five-minute segments, but when you have a kid, life happens in bursts. You’re giving them a bath and they start to pee like a fountain. You’re playing on the floor and they take a first step. The good stuff happens in an instant. And even if it doesn’t, you’re so sleep-deprived that you only remember it in spurts anyway.
Jennifer: The topic just resonated with all three of us really strongly. And we got to include so much stuff that frustrated or amused us about parenting.
Laura: Plus, we could see the story as an ongoing arc. We could knit the moments together to tell a story about this woman and this man and their life together, not just make a joke about playing with dolls.
Tubefilter: Talk about process of developing and writing the scripts. Had any of you worked on any other web series?
Jennifer: We basically did “virtual writers room” – we did everything over email and conference calls that had be coordinated between east coast and west coast school pick-up and drop off times. In a lot of ways the series developed naturally and I think that that’s because we’ve each got different strengths as writers. And two could overrule or out-vote one at any time. We all tried to stay unattached which helped…
Rachel: People are sometimes wary of having three writers, but for us it really worked, because of our complementary strengths. Jennifer is so great at character and dialog while Laura has an amazing ability to give excellent structure to the overarching plot and each of the episodes. My strength as a writer is that I like to see big things happening throughout the story. So I’m always shouting out the craziest set pieces I can think of like spraying breast milk at the other moms, or play tug of war with the baby till the leg pops off. We each got a chance to do what we do best, and let the diapers and hair conditioner fall where it might. But probably because we’re all moms, we used good manners, let each writer have a say, and instinctively knew when to give in to another’s sensibilities.
Laura: It was a democracy with moments of overriding, passionate tyranny. Whoever cared most got to win.
Rachel: What she said.
Laura: Also, to answer your question about developing the scripts, we had some ideas for set pieces, as Rachel said – moments or events that had happened to us, or that we’d fantasized doing, and we lined them up and figured out stories around them. For instance, I had jury duty when my son was six months old. The first day I left him with my husband, when I came back, my husband just looked at me, exhausted, and blurted out, “How do you get anything done in a day?” That was the basis for “Superbdad.” I mean, there are days with a baby when you forget to eat. We wanted to capture that.
Jennifer: And that day that mom sprayed me with breast milk…oh wait, that didn’t happen. Some things were very much pure imagination on our parts – or wish fulfillment.
Tubefilter: How did you choose your director Charlie Stratton?
Jennifer: Charlie and I had been in a theatre company together called The Wilton Project – I’m a playwright – and I knew he was also directing television and film now. To me, getting to work with someone who I had worked with before, who I already had an artistic relationship with, who had Charlie’s expertise was really exciting and thankfully Laura and Rachel were on board with it. I think for the three of us if one of us had a relationship with someone to cast or be part of the production team we would go with that trust. And it really worked out.
Tubefilter: Tell us about the casting process. How did you find your leads Missy Yager and Lucas Bryant? And where did you find the eclectic group of supporting players?
Jennifer: Charlie brought us Missy and Leslie Hope actually brought us Lucas – she had just directed him in a movie for Lifetime. A bunch of the actors came from my theatre connections – several from The Wilton Project – Leslie and Charlie were the artistic directors of the company, Patty Cornell and Jennifer Leigh Warren were in Wilton, and a lot of other people involved were also from my connections in theatre. Lauri Hendler, Carolyn Almos and Susan Rudick – our breastfeeding Queen Bees – are actresses I knew personally and professionally. My husband is an extra in the coffee house scene. As is my agent Ryan Saul.
Rachel: And I made a somewhat embarrassing cameo as the “woman in green” at the baby shower.
Laura: I knew Bob Chapin, who plays Elliot, through sword fighting. He’s a professional sword-master with a web series of series of his own (The Hunted) about vampires. And Eileen Grubba is an amazing, accomplished actress who just wanted to come play with us for a day. That’s the great thing about friends: they’re willing to be brilliant in small parts on short notice.
Tubefilter: How many days did it take to shoot Faux Baby? What was your experience in production? Did any dolls get harmed in the filming of Faux Baby?
Jennifer: We shot in 4 days and I may have blocked a lot of that out. It was crazy and sleepless and crazy. We shot a lot in my apartment and I was desperately trying to balance the good writer/producer and good mom hats and all I will say is that my daughter had some late nights hanging with the crew…
Rachel: For me, it was a frenzy of activity with no sleep, doing everything from contracts to catering breakfast, operating the baby puke turkey baster, doing hair for our child actress, being an extra, and keeping an eye on what was happening on camera the best I could. It was very exhausting! But like childbirth, we’ve mostly forgotten the pain.
Jennifer: The moment that lingers in my mind was when we were shooting putting the severed baby limbs on the cookie sheet into the oven. That just about broke me.
Rachel: As for the dolls, real reborn dolls are so expensive, we weren’t able to go that route for this production. We rented some realistic dolls from prop houses in L.A., but Laura got us a drug store baby doll that we called the Stunt Baby, it’s his arms, leg and head that were detached for all the baby stunts, but we put him back together. No dolls were harmed during the filming of Faux Baby!
Laura: Stunt Baby is a much-loved member of our family – loved by my six-year-old, that is, not me. Really.
Jennifer: We believe you. Really.
Tubefilter: What did you do as producers to get the word out about your new ‘baby’?
Laura: I subscribed to the Hollywood Creative Directory online for one month and gathered hundreds of names and e-mail addresses and even snail-mail addresses for producers and distributors. We sent out announcements for everything we could think of: our launch, our great reviews, our picture in the LA Times… We also relied on word of mouth and enlisted friends and family. We’ve had people e-mail us from Israel, France, Scotland – pretty much around the world, telling us they love the show. At one point, I think we were the number one YouTube video in the Ukraine. Crazy stuff, but fun.
Jennifer: Facebook. MySpace. Email. Reaching out to some mom bloggers. Trying to get out the viral word. And besides being on Strike.TV and YouTube, we’re the first web series picked to air on Hulu from the Strike.TV canon. And we’ll be on Tivo sometime in the near future. [via KoldCast TV]
Rachel: We’re also competing for a Webby Award and for the Streamys! Vote for Faux Baby!
Tubefilter: What projects do you have coming up? Has Faux Baby given birth to a long term partnership?
Rachel: Mama Makes Movies is just getting started. We’re actively working on developing a slate of new webisode series, and are completely open to outside projects.
Laura: And Faux Baby may yet live in another realm. For one thing, it may be coming soon to a phone near you – we’re in talks about that now. Also, someone’s asked us to pitch Faux Baby as a movie-of-the-week, and someone else as a reality game show. Outside of Faux Baby, I’m very interested in developing a web series that has a strong interactive component – a real web presence, a place where people can not just post responses, but actually have input on the action, on what happens next.
Tubefilter: Did you have a doll growing up?
Rachel: Whenever I had a doll, I always ended up hacking it to pieces for one art project or another. So actually Faux Baby is a continuation of a great tradition for me!
Jennifer: I didn’t have a Barbie but I did have a “love” doll. I think she was a hand-me-down from my sister, she was really groovy, bell-bottoms, beads, I think she burned her bra, did acid and slept around too.
Tubefilter: Have you seen someone out with a reborn in real life?
Laura: Not that I know of, but reborns are so darn realistic-looking, I might have and just not been able to tell.
Jennifer: A mom at my daughter’s school came running up to me to tell me she had been at a restaurant where a family had a reborn in a high chair and wouldn’t disturb it so she could get to her seat. I so wish I had been there!
Rachel: I haven’t, but several people have asked me where they can get one!