When we heard that a group of comedians who rose up through the ranks of New York’s hallowed UCB Theater were starring together in a new web series, we thought we knew what to expect. After all, when you combine Rob Michael Hugel with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (from cult favorite comedy web series I Hate Being Single and Broad City, respectively), you assume you’ll see stories about naive Brooklynites committing social faux pas and lamenting on the state of their love lives.
Writer/director duo Matt Cook and Katharine Henner turned our expectations on their heads, though, when they unveiled their sweeping new genre web series, Nights in UltraViolet. While it stars these dependable comedy talents—as well as Cafe Bloodbath‘s Carlo Johnson and College Humor’s Katie Schorr—the series is less hilarious and more high-concept.
The 10-episode series follows Doug (Johnson), the best-selling writer of legal thrillers, who has been treading water and avoiding working on a new book since a break-up with his girlfriend Violet (Schorr). Enter: Virgil (Hugel), Doug’s spacey and unpredictable friend, who is oblivious to the mysterious strangers and spooky signals Doug starts seeing everywhere he goes.
Catch up on the series’ first three episodes here before watching the premiere of episode four above, and scroll down to see how the series came about, in our interview with Matt and Katharine.
Can you tell me a little about the inception of the series? Where did the idea come from? What inspired you, narratively and stylistically?
Katharine: Matt brought the concept to me. I am a big fan of his animated series, Cafe Bloodbath. He told me to watch After Hours (Martin Scorsese’s 1985 black comedy film) and get back to him. Immediately, I was hooked. We wrote Nights in UltraViolet together in one month.
Matt: I initially saw it as a sort of Ghostbusters monster-of-the-week type of show, but it ended up feeling a little more Twin Peaks soap-opera vibe by the time we finished writing it. Twin Peaks was a huge influence for both of us on this project because of the way that show handled its mysteries and its setting. Brooklyn can be a strange place filled with strange people. And living here, sometimes you get so used to that strangeness that it circles back around on itself and ends up feeling normal. That idea was at the center of our writing.
Katharine: Matt came from a point of not everything happens for a reason; our egos just impose self-importance onto these events. I approached the story from an opposing angle: the reasons shall eventually manifest. When we write together, it’s very push-pull that way.
Matt: We wanted to do something that was funny and at the same time, suspenseful and a little creepy. Plus, I always wanted to do something that used (and at times over-used) the ominous drones and swooshing sound effects that lurk in the background of most modern TV dramas.
Other than Twin Peaks, what were your reference points?
Katharine: I grew up watching Nick at Nite and Monty Python. I am fascinated by gritty teen dramas like BBC’s Skins and 90s sketch comedy like Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show. Absolutely Fabulous is my favorite television show of all time. The vivid storytelling of writer-directors like Lars Von Trier, James Cameron Mitchell, and Harmony Korine inspire me to dig deeper and push limits.
Matt: Ah, geez. Love those Coen Brothers. They’re brilliant at showing wonderfully stupid things in amazingly smart ways. Brendon Small is great at that too, and I’d be a liar if I said he wasn’t an influence on me. I’m a sucker for campy horror/thriller movies like An American Werewolf in London, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, and everything John Carpenter did before 1996. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a big fan of the WB classics, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.
Katharine: We both love the television show Cheers, the writing of Neil Gaiman, and cheesy/self-aware action films like Demolition Man.
How did the two of you begin working together?
Katharine: I met Matt in my living room. He was brought in for a film that my creative collective, Goddamn Cobras, and I were making at the time. This was about two years ago.
Matt: Katie and I worked on the script for a short western film with the Goddamn Cobras and we worked well together. Shortly after that I pitched her the idea I’d had for what would eventually become Nights in UltraViolet.
What was the process of writing this series together like?
Katharine: With NiUV, we came in with this character Doug. We thought about all of the things in the world that he would be frightened of and took it from there.
Matt: We worked together to come up with a treatment for the arc of the show, and then broke that up into ten episodes. Katie took five and I took five. We exchanged drafts, made notes, and then went back to work. After we had completed all ten scripts, we did a final pass on the whole thing, and there you have it. Nothing too fancy.
Katharine: Writing together was fun and productive because we both are self-motivated writers and take criticism well. With each new draft we would turn in, it became less about ego and more about what we both thought was best for the story. And more about trying to impress the hell out of the other person. It’s an awesome feeling to hear Matt laugh after reading a page of mine.
Nights in UltraViolet stars some really strong New York comedy actors and improvisors, but the content of the series is a lot more tense and dramatic than we’ve seen a lot of them working with before. Firstly, how did you go about casting the series? And secondly, how easily did the cast adapt to the material?
Katharine: Matt and I jotted down a list of our dream team – actors and crew. Some we had worked with before, but others we only saw on screen or at live performances. The majority are UCB alums. They have great timing and throw their guts into everything.
Matt: We were extremely lucky. I work with Carlo Johnson all the time (Cafe Bloodbath, Carlo’s Quest), so he was going to play Doug from the start. We wrote the role for him. A lot of the casting credit belongs to Rob Michael Hugel, who played a crucial role in connecting us with UCB talent. We sent out a lot of emails, bought a few drinks, and in the end, it all came together.
Katharine: Nights In UltraViolet feels like a strange world, but you hold on tightly to these characters. You worry about them. Since we filmed by location due to budget constraints, many of the scenes were shot out of order. I’m impressed by how the actors were able to achieve different levels of emotional range. They’d have a raging fight with a character one day and meet them for the first time three months later.
Matt: Being funny is hard. I’d like to think that it was more about doing something different than it was about doing something very difficult for our cast. Also, I’m not convinced that the line between comedy and drama—especially TV-style drama—is that far removed. I’ve always thought that tense, overly emotional, or uncomfortable moments are sort of funny in their own way.
Nights in UltraViolet arrived at a time when web series were moving beyond just being short, one-off ideas into more cohesive, fleshed out stories. How have you observed the trend’s evolution? Where do you think NiUV sits amongst its peers?
Katharine: I don’t own a TV. No, I’m not an asshole…I just don’t need one. I watch everything online at random, nonspecific times of the day. I’m very glad the Web put its writing pants on and started penning series that focused on a continuing story. There’s so much charismatic writing out here.
Matt: It’s interesting to see how web video content is becoming more serial in that way. Now we have this idea of a “season” in web series, which means that you have a premiere and a ﬁnale and a bunch of related stuff happening in between. I think it’s the natural progression and I hope things continue that way. Those are the kinds of stories and characters I want to think about.
Katharine: Me too. It will be interesting to see where NiUV falls. I am enjoying whenever I hear someone repeat a NiUVism. I think I’ve heard Dan Harrows’ line, “Some girl just gave me her cupcakes,” about 37 times. Thank you guys.
What are some other series you’ve taken notice of lately?
Katharine: Here’s my shortlist: Acting Reel Master Database by Dan Opsal, Broad City by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, I Hate Being Single by Rob Michael Hugel, and It Gets Betterish by Eliot Glazer and Brett Sullivan.
Matt: Same here. Maybe I’m slightly biased, but Rob Michael Hugel’s series I Hate Being Single is definitely killing it right now. Broad City is also way up there on my list and I’m looking forward to seeing what those two gals drum up with FX. I admire The Untitled Web Series That Morgan Evans Is Doing for pushing the envelope on people’s expectation of what a web series “is” and for making episodes that cover a wide range of tones and styles. Teen Wheels is hilarious and gross and I wish there were a million more episodes of it.
Do you feel like web series like the ones you mentioned validate the medium more and more? That they help to enforce that it’s not just “videos online” anymore, but rather mini TV series blurring the lines of what a series can be.
Katharine: Definitely. The way people watch TV has changed. It feels more accessible now. Perhaps the greatest part about the web is that there are less boundaries, which means we get to take more risks with regards to content and style.
Matt: Um, wow. I guess, yes. I think it was Ghandi who said, “Be the TV you want to watch in the world.” Something like that. Production values are going up, stories and characters are stronger and more developed, networks and ad agencies are even starting to pay attention to web content. In those ways, yes, web series resemble TV series more and more. Of course, there will always be videos of cats spazzing out in shoeboxes and people getting smacked in the balls. No one on Earth has the power to make people want to stop watching that.
You spent more than seven months making the series with more than 100 cast members. What were the highlights of the shoot? The toughest parts?
Katharine: I could stand and work on a movie shoot forever, but the last day of shooting NiUV was especially incredible. We were filming at the pizza place Grandma Rose’s in Greenpoint. It was July and the actors were wearing their winter coats. At the end of the shoot, we sat in the garden to rest and, as a surprise, the owner pulled out a bottle of Asti to congratulate us on finishing our project. What a great, sweaty day.
Matt: Yes! Grandma Rose’s rules. Everyone should eat there at least once a day. Incredible human beings, and even better pizza. Without giving too much away, there was one shoot involving Rich Awn’s character Dan Harrows which was basically a field trip. That was a lot of fun. The portrait photo shoot was pretty great too, because we had the main cast all under one roof at the same time, which hadn’t happened before then.
Katharine: The next story we write should be set on a beach. When we shot last winter, many of our locations were outdoors. That was rough. At the wrap of one particularly bitter evening, our AD/Producer, Sarah K. Hallacher, drew a hot bath for the crew and we all put our toes inside. Since then, I have purchased warmer boots.
Matt: Making something like this, especially without a budget, is always tough. It was cold a lot of the time, there were some very long days and very long nights, and usually we were drinking coffee to stay alive. Just organizing the insane schedule for this many people and this many places was a feat all on its own. But our cast and crew stuck with us and they pulled it off. They’re a bunch of badasses. Even when they’re all sitting around a bath tub, soaking their little badass toes.
What has the public response been like to NiUV?
Katharine: We’re still in the beginning stages of bringing it to people’s attention, but the response has been positive. When we first pitched the idea to friends, they had no idea what our shared vision would look like. Now they’re tuning in bi-weekly and sharing it with other friends. We’re grateful for that and excited to share it with the rest of the world.
Matt: Ditto. I love when people tell me about something strange that happened to them in the city and they describe it as feeling “very Nights in UltraViolet.” Most people we’ve heard from seem to genuinely enjoy it so far. No one has gone out of their way yet to tell us they really hated it, so I suppose we still have some work to do, Internets.
Where are we going to see Doug and his motley band of followers go in the upcoming series? What should we expect/prepare for?
Katharine: In Episode Three, we see Doug starting to piece these mysterious clues together in an attempt to figure out who or what is terrorizing him. It’s the entrance to the rabbit hole.
Matt: We’ll see the relationship between Doug and Virgil build and change. We’ll meet some other authors in Doug’s world. There is also some violence on the way, some sexy times, a nightmare monster, and a pug. It’s basically Game of Thrones over here is what I’m saying.
Katharine: We have some great featured actors in the episodes to come. More characters will be introduced. Some are hilarious and some are frankly terrifying.