It’s not often that I get the opportunity to attend a screening of a web series and find myself greeted with fresh-baked cookies and Earl Grey tea. It’s even less common when the series I’m about to screen is a raunchy Western comedy where more than half the characters are played by plastic toys. But this is exactly what happened when I traveled to Laser Pacific Laboratories in Hollywood to get a sneak peak at The Ballad of Mary and Ernie.
Written, produced, and directed by Robert Stadd, The Ballad of Mary and Ernie is the story of a big sheriff in a small town. And that is meant literally…Ernie is about 50 feet taller than almost everyone, including his fiancee, Nan, who will do just about anything to keep her giant cowboy to herself. But then Mary Venezuala comes to town and saves Ernie from an evil gunslinger. Oh, and she’s big too, sending Ernie into confusion about his origins and who he’s given his heart to.
Stadd’s background is in visual effects, having been inspired to do the project by working on a set with a fully-built miniature town that was about to be torn down. “It just came to me”, explained Stadd. “Western. Big sheriff, little town. So I did some tests and thought, ooh, this is going to be good … and then it all started to gel: the webisodes thing, the fact that cameras are getting better. I was working on Public Enemies, I was the visual effects supervisor, and the whole time I’m thinking about this … it was just percolating in my mind. So as soon as I finished last summer, I went, okay, I’ve gotta do it. I basically just sat down last July and wrote the scripts.”
For his title roles, Stadd cast James Lane as Marshall Ernie and Vanessa Celso as Mary Venezuala. Both are seasoned actors with Lane appearing in such shows as 24, NCIS, Everyone Hates Chris, The Unit, and Celso appearing in the original web series Road to the Altar.
I talked to Lane about the particular challenges of working with a predominately plastic crew. “A lot of the time I was just acting to nothing”, said Lane. “I would look down at the ground and there would be nothing there but an X. I got used to it. It actually helped a lot when I could hold the doll and try to give them some kind of a character. And we’d have the script supervisor, she would read their lines for me and that helped. She started getting into it and that helped me. I also co-produced this with Robert so I’ve been around for most of the ride, watching all the post. Just the magic that he made with this. Before I’m just acting with my bare hand and then he blue screens things and paints things out.”
The Ballad of Mary and Ernie is now available on its own website. Episode 2 will be released on February 10th with an additional three episodes airing every 10 days. Stadd has plans for additional seasons of the series. “I definitely want to do more of these … I hate to leave them because the characters have so much they still wanna do.”
Photos courtesy of The Ballad of Mary and Ernie