By his own definition, Jay Ferguson is crazy to be doing what he’s doing, but it’s a good kind of crazy. A content creator who seems constantly in motion, he’s the kind of guy you can tell is thinking very logically about five or six things at the same time without getting any of it mixed up. When talking about his latest and possibly most ambitious project yet, he’s very in depth, but also incredibly relaxed while lounging on a couch just off to the side of his Toronto office.
Ferguson is the director, co-writer, producer, and sometimes cinematographer of the webseries Guidestones, which kicks off its second season this Tuesday as part of CTV’s online counterpart for web content CTV Extend (it’s also available on the CTV Go app). The second season – subtitled Sunflower Noir after this cycle’s MacGuffin , a long thought mythical painting from Vincent Van Gogh – picks up almost immediately where the International Digital Emmy and Canadian Screen Award winning first season left off.
Former Toronto journalism student Sandi Ray (Supinder Wraich) is on the run from a shadow conspiracy organization that wants her found at all costs following her perceived betrayal of a half brother she never knew she had and the death of both of her parents. It all started with an investigation of the famed, creepy, and mysterious Georgia Guidestones, and it has now led to a connection in the art world that deals in sending encrypted messages in original or forged paintings. She teams up with an art forger and former spy (French actor Arnaud Binard) to help unravel the mystery further and escape her family’s sordid past.
This year marks a major step up for the series despite still only having the miniscule budget. Instead of having a whopping 50 episodes that clocked in at approximately three minutes each for the first season, season two is comprised of 18 ten minute episodes (all of which will be available to watch this week). In addition to the new format, the show also includes considerably more globetrotting adventure that allowed the show to shoot in England, Greece, France, and Russia. It was ambitious and they had to move incredibly fast to get everything they needed, but Ferguson relished every moment of it with the help of his reliable cast and crew.
We chatted with Ferguson about working on a tenth of the budget of a regular television series, the show’s fascination with artwork, and how to tell a tightly packed story in only ten minute bursts.
Dork Shelf: Last night we were at a screening for the first 12 episodes of the series, and you said before the screening that you were working roughly with one tenth of the budget per episode that a normal television show would get, and this is a show that looks a lot better than most web series. It’s a really ambitious show that does some impressive things with such a low budget. You have this globetrotting story that requires a lot of location shoots. You have a lot of action. You have a lot of things that are almost impossible to do on 10% of a television budget to make a good looking web series, so what’s it like trying to get creative with that kind of money on hand?
Jay Ferguson: Well, first of all, thank you for what you said. And second, we’re nuts. We’re crazy in many ways. My sense has always been that I want to push things further and further no matter what we’ve got. What was it like? Well, there are so many different angles because that budget informs the project so much.
The fact is that it’s hard to put together a large budget for anything, anywhere. I’ve been working in this business now for probably just over 20 years. I started as a cinematographer shooting all of these low budget films, and I had to learn how to make this look better with so little. I had to understand the tools and what works and what doesn’t work, and what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s been a long, long learning process, and I always try to apply that.
On this I work with an extremely talented group of people, but it’s a very small team. The thing is that I work on it from the very beginning to the very end, from working on writing it with Jeremy Diamond through to directing and shooting it with Rob Barnett and on through to the editing process. The fact is that when we’re creating it as a script, I know how to play to our strengths and our weaknesses. We don’t have a lot of money so we’ll use our style and strengths. I will write stuff for locations, know what I mean? I will write something knowing that we can get a certain location to shoot at.
To be honest, season two wasn’t really much like that. A lot of that stuff we went out and found afterwards. Season one was really about writing for places I knew we could shoot in. Season two, we were allowed to spend a little more, but still being able to know what it’s going to look like in the end as you’re writing it is really helpful in terms of keeping the cost down.
The other thing we do is we keep our crew really lean, and we move really fast.
DS: You do some of the cinematography, as well, right?
JF: Yeah! I do! I mean, that’s my background, and Rob and I have shot both of these seasons together. He’s such an amazing asset. I’m always the guy who keeps pushing forward and wants to shoot as fast as possible, and he’ll be the guy going around setting up lights and looking for angles. (laughs) I like to shoot fast, but between the two of us we strike a really great balance.
We don’t use huge amounts of lighting; only when we need it. That’s one of the things about having a small unit and moving very quickly. We can walk into a location with a minimal crew and a small amount of equipment, shoot the thing smart, and then get out of there with ten pages of the screenplay done. If you have a giant crew with all the stuff a normal show has, those same pages would take you two or three days to get through all that. We’re really able to move fast.
The other key part that doesn’t get enough credit is having actors who can move at that same kind of pace. To be able to just say, “We’re here, let’s go,” and then to watch them just hammer it out is something special and necessary. Some of the actors I had worked with before, some had been on the show before, and some had never worked in our style. Those who hadn’t worked in this kind of way before were just shocked at how we were able to just plow through content, but they really liked it because they know when they get to the set they will be acting and always in the moment instead of waiting around all day inside of a trailer.
It’s working for us now. We’re kind of a combination of people who have tons of experience in the business and people who don’t have that kind of experience. The people who have a ton of experience bring a real level of expertise to what we do. They are the kinds of people in the industry who can understand what we’re about and know that we don’t need huge load ins and trailers to make it happen. But the people who don’t have much experience are also amazing because they have the energy to spare, and they’re caught up in the way that things are supposed to be done. They’re the people who are willing to go for anything, and they work as a great sort of check and balance to what we do, too.
It’s a very unique production model, for sure, and I wouldn’t mind having a bigger budget to take the weight off the shoulders of this core group of people who are gracious enough to keep coming back, but you have to be careful to not get too big or comfortable. This can actually be a lot of fun!
Both seasons we shot in the dead of winter, and we’re quite literally shooting on the shortest days of the year. Our timing was ridiculous. If we were shooting today in the middle of July we could have this seventeen hour day if we wanted it. But we were shooting with a maximum of eight hours of daylight, so that was our window. We have all these pages to do and we just say, “go.” Our days were never long and arduous. We had normal eight hour work days! (laughs) We could all go home and have dinner with our families. But those eight hours were intense while we were there.
It was quite a big shooting schedule, though. We shot about 42 or 43 days, which is pretty unusual for a low budget project. If we had a full crew, not only would we not be able to afford it for more than a couple weeks, but even on good days in the middle of summer the shoot would have taken over 100 days just in Canada, not even counting the stuff we did overseas. When we go on the road, our crew shrinks even more. There’s a core group of five of us and a fixer in whatever country we happen to be in, and we’ll literally shoot with local talent mixed with our talent. We’ll only bring what we need, film, and then it’s off to the next country. It’s intense, but you can do it.
And when it comes to our action sequences, again it’s about playing to your strengths and weaknesses. We have an amazing stunt coordinator who can simple use the things he has to make a scene work. We never went for “clean” action beats. We went for realistic and messy, down and dirty kind of fighting and things like that. There are the occasional perfect hits, but they come only when we can actually have a fist fight in a locked off location. We would just use what was around us and make it organic within the space we had. You’ll see in episode five, there’s a fight in an alleyway and they’re using pizza boxes and the painting they have on them to defend themselves. We’re not going for guys falling off of buildings. We’re going for those small, intimate kinds of fights that are often the most dangerous. It’s all stripped down, simple, and we’re not trying to conquer the world. We have to keep it human.
DS: And it’s such a prolific show, too. Outside of an animated series or a nightly news or talk show, I can’t think of many shows to amass over 60 episodes in just a couple of years.
JF: Yeah! That’s true, and I honestly never even really thought of that. As you saw, the second season has fewer episodes, but those episodes are extended to ten minutes each instead of the first season which has episodes of about three minutes. I think the total running time of all of (this season) is 181 or 182 minutes. We pack a lot into that. We essentially made two 90 minute features. I’m always amazed that we can do that, but we’ve really worked this thing down.
That actually extends to the post-production, too. In the first season, it took us a full year to do post on the first season because of all the interactive stuff and things like that. This one we were able to do in half the time. We had some new resources this time and some extra help, but we also knew what we were doing this time so we could execute it all faster. We’re just getting better and better at this.
DS: In terms of the creation of the story for each episode, I’ve noticed that there’s not a ton of exposition on the show. Everything that you need to know about these characters is explained well, but it’s also done on the fly. In what I saw, there’s only one scene where someone actually has to sit down to explain something and it doesn’t come until just after a third of the way through the season. It seems like from how you guys shoot and the resources that you have available, too much exposition can be almost as deathly to the pace of the show.
JF: That’s a very astute observation because that’s very much a conscious decision that went into both seasons.
For example, I really hate shooting people driving around in cars. Shooting in cars SUCKS. (laughs) Especially when you’re doing it low budget. I hate doing it and I loathe whenever someone’s carrying on a conversation in a car, BUT I never want the characters here to just be sitting and talking. To me when they aren’t actively doing something, there always has to be motion, which is really one of the main reasons why people are talking in cars in the show. (laughs) We have to stick them in that car because even if they’re in there, it shows a progression. They are moving from one place to another and we don’t have to have a scene of lengthy exposition where everything stops before a jarring cut to wherever they ended up. It keeps everything going. That’s why we’re often also shooting in busy places where there’s a lot of stuff going on. That’s very deliberate to keep it all moving.
But it is nice and necessary to settle down, and that scene that you mentioned is one that I really love.
DS: And it comes at a good point in the show for what you’re doing since the whole show will be available online. Most people will just start watching it and hopefully they keep watching, and then they can hit that point where there’s a moment to breathe.
JF: Exactly! Because after that things will ramp up even more. It does have some nice pacing, but there’s very little sitting around and chatting. These people are always doing something.
DS: Between this season and the previous one, there’s something that’s definitely artistically minded, especially this season which literally revolves around a piece of art. What’s fascinating to you about fine art and how people can sometimes read conspiracies into what they’re seeing?
JF: I’ve always been a huge art fan, and that world in general has always fascinated me. That has fascinated me, and there’s also a journalistic quality to the mystery because that fascinates me just as much. Those things are so interesting, but I’ve never really consciously thought if there’s a parallel there between those two things.
For me, the art world is this kind of mysterious place where people go on these journeys to create something grand, and the idea that there’s always something behind the art other than what you see adds a mystery to it. The idea that something like that could be used secretly just makes a world that’s already mysterious even more mysterious to me. I think that’s such a great thing to think about. What if the artist mysteriously died after putting something mythical together?
Just the idea that a work of art can be sold for millions and millions and millions of dollars blows my mind. I know it’s a simple idea, but why DO we put so much worth on that. What does the buyer know or think they know about what they’re buying? Is it always a case of prestige or is there something bigger going on there that only people with money can afford to know? Why is canvas and paint worth so much money. The idea of combining that mystery of the backstory with questioning why people pay so much for these works was something I always thought was cool.
DS: And in terms of a painter to choose to build your story around, you can’t get much more mysterious than Van Gogh in terms of how he died and what his career built towards.
JF: For sure, and that was great. You look at people like him or someone like Jackson Pollack or Tom Thomson. These are guys with valued paintings who had really mysterious kinds of deaths that people could read into somehow and possibly craft a conspiracy out of it. I don’t think anyone could really fathom what their actual lives were like, and they were definitely special artists. They have influenced a lot of people.
DS: And there’s something interesting about how an artist can wittingly or unwittingly forward a conspiracy or an ideology. What was it about that idea that made you want to take on that theme in this season?
JF: That’s a good question. I can’t remember the exact beginning, but you can see what they uncover, and for that they needed a vessel for that. I always loved the idea of subliminal messages and secret forms of communication, so I thought this would be a great way to follow along.
DS: As a writer, director, and cinematographer on a show that only takes place in ten minute bursts, is there anything you have learned about economical as a storyteller as you’ve gone on? It forces you to learn how to cut anything and everything that’s unessential, which usually means cutting the things other filmmakers and writers would argue and fight to keep in.
JF: It is actually really interesting, especially in season one where there were so many more episodes and all of them were so much shorter. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you have to keep it to the story. Story, story, story, and just keep moving that story forward. Within that you develop these characters and arcs, but in ten minutes you need to make something start and resolve in only that amount of time. Then you have to do it again for another ten minutes. It’s so interesting to me, and this isn’t always true, but often when I’m watching a feature movie I’ll find that it often goes in ten minute increments, as well.
DS: It’s the same philosophy that Joel Silver had as a producer of action films. There had to be an action beat every 15 minutes.
JF: Yeah, exactly like that kind of thing. It’s not always true, but I do notice it now. There is something nice about having a ten minute running time because there’s something pretty true about the human attention span even if you spend ten minutes reading a book or playing a sport it’s hard to always keep it up at the highest level beyond that. But in the end, doing all these episodes and having to follow all these mini-arcs and have them all build up to a bigger arc is a huge learning experience for me. It does make you economical, exactly what you were saying. In the first season, I had three minutes; three pages where I had to get from point A to point B and keep a larger story in mind. And it has to be watchable. You’re doing that every day and in every episode. It’s about what you need to get and not necessarily being selfish in terms of what might be nice to get.
I’m so happy with this season. I feel it’s very strong and that people will really enjoy watching it, and I feel like there’s no extraneous stuff in there. We never put in anything that we felt was superfluous. Every time there was a line of dialogue someone thought we didn’t need, we would cut it. That’s good. It has just a bare minimum and it keeps going