Second in a 3-part series about Internet mini-series sensation, The Booth at the End. Part 2 will focus on how it started as an idea, Christopher "CK" Kubasic who conceived and wrote the series eventually selling it to Michael Eisner, and a conversation with Xander Berkeley who portrays the baffling "The Man."
(Booth can be seen for free, only on Hulu.com)
Writer Christopher "CK" Kubasik is the brains behind this annoying, transfixing, maddening, riveting and often ugly portrait of human motivation. The Booth at the End (Booth) is his creation, his baby.
Born in Greenwich Village but an LA guy for years now, CK is a whirling dervish of conversation, talking a blue streak unless interrupted (which I had to do frequently to keep up with him).
I asked CK how in the world he created this atypical and bizarre plot. Was it by strict design or 'aha moments?' "No, it was a mix of some small writing successes and happy accidents," he began, "I'd been a big fan of long-form content like Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under, when I got a call from a guy who told me he was working on an Internet series. It was a very interesting video combination of a game and a story."
After acing the interview, CK found himself head writer for the programs. This series was called Stranger Adventures and received three Emmy nominations for Broadband Entertainment.
"Then around 2009," CK continued, "I started working on something called Weirdness.com and sold that to Stage 9, an ABC company ... however they never 'green-lighted' it for production."
In just five, short 23-minute episodes of Booth, CK has accomplished something writers such as Charles Dickens (who originated the 'soap opera' motif of releasing chapters incrementally) took decades to establish. Other strong influencers of CK's writing are Stephen King and Nathaniel Hawthorne, accounting for the stark, emotionally-draining and underlying dark and shocking storyline of Booth.
Kubasik also borrows profoundly from innovative old shows like Rod Serling's dark and ominous sci-fi TV show, Twilight Zone and "kitchen sink realism" writer Paddy Chayefsky, who is the only person to have won three solo Oscars for Best Screenplay (Marty, The Hospital and Network). Serling was known as "the angry young man of Hollywood." Together, these two real pieces of work have inspired some of the best and most unique writing innovation we enjoy today.
A key part of Booth's rampant success is the story's stiff positioning of the central-character, "The Man" as what will seemingly become an iconic character in web-only, new, Digital Online Media.
Using social media like Facebook and particularly the comments section of many sites where CK himself can often be found engaging fans, Booth has spread far and wide on Facebook and will spread further.
The pivotal -- absolutely crucial -- role of "The Man" is played by Xander Berkeley, a man whose face may be immediately recognizable to you as a character actor seen virtually everywhere. He has been all over film and TV appearing in more than 193 productions: in such movies as Terminator 2, Air Force One, Gattaca, Superman, Heat, Taken, Kick-Ass and in TV shows like Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, Bones, Law & Order, Boston Legal, The West Wing, CSI, ER, and 24.
Berkeley exudes ambiguity out of every pore. He is currently shooting the TV show, Nikita but took time out to talk to me about Booth and The Man.
I asked him how he felt about the role that seems tailor-made for him, The Man. "It's funny," he said, "it feels like a role I've spent my entire life preparing for and I've finally found. Booth is such a rare piece; I want to do anything I can to get it out into the world." It certainly sounded to me as if Berkeley was taking this part to heart and holding it dearer than any old role.
Berkeley, who told me his first name Xander literally means "the man" in Greek, seemed destined to play this role. Does he see some elements of fate and destiny in his playing this all-encompassing role? "Definitely," he added intensely.
"They didn't have a big budget and I'm not exactly a big name," Berkeley chuckled. "I had heard CK was looking for 'a Xander-type' actor for the lead role and then coincidentally, Booth director, Jessica Landaw and I met at a dinner party."
Later when Jessica heard the "Xander-type" comment mentioned in a production meeting, she exclaimed "I know Xander." After an excited message left by Landaw on Berkeley's answering machine, the rest, as they say, is history.
"CK's script was as close to pitch-perfect as anything I've ever read," Berkeley gushed, "the part of The Man read to have this feeling of mystical energy and a magical quality."
"I spent my life pursuing different ideas, world religions and mysticism," Berkeley deliberated, "that's why playing The Man with his magical element of authority feels like I've found what I've been looking for ... he's Faustian. CK says, 'The Man could be a fallen angel with a book.'"
Berkeley doesn't want to yield the floor and I like it. "He is like a naive and innocent with fascination, not a diabolical character ... almost like a teacher holding up a mirror to them, showing them their true nature. There's never been a part for me that I felt more that I had to play and, weirdly, that nobody else could play."
Does the character feel like a villain, a 'bad guy' to Berkeley? "I didn't see him as a 'bad guy' even though he makes a proposal so awful (when the father whose son has cancer is tasked with killing another child to make his well) in the first episode opening, that as a father myself, I almost walked off the set." I felt that way as a father too, but couldn't look away; it reeled me in deeper.
As I said before, Berkeley's face is very recognizable for mostly smaller roles. I ask him if he always knew he would make it -- though incrementally. "By dodging celebrity or fame," he said contemplatively, "some people will call this 'career suicide' but I was always moving my career forward ... precariously in balance."
Berkeley and I turn the conversation to the most convincing element of his character: "The Man's" extreme focus on his 'clients.' "The Man is completely and totally focused on the person sitting across the table from him. He's a constant in their call for attention," he finished.
Now we jump back to CK, Booth's writer/super-salesman, talking about the writing genesis. "The moment I was specifically thinking about was the wonderful series Twin Peaks," he said to describe his first ruminations of Booth. "That was a long-form night-time drama that started building an audience into the first season."
CK was laying out the framework of his thinking as he watched other programs in new formats.
"At the time, as the (Twin Peaks) word spread, there was no way for people to go back and catch up on the show. They could watch current episodes and then wait for summer re-runs ... if they remembered to watch them, and that was it. At the time, no one was even thinking of putting TV shows on VHS because they were just for movies."
"Then, years later, someone said, 'You've got to watch The Shield.' And I did. I went and rented the first two seasons of the show on DVD and then rolled into watching the third season as it was starting to air. And I realized what a unique and new experience this was compared to what happened with Twin Peaks. Here was this amazing series told as one long story -- and I could catch up with it as I wanted to because the technology and distribution model had changed so much from the days of network television in the 1980s."
"My own projection is that this trend would continue," he said smartly.
"People would come to expect to get their content when they wanted it and when they heard about it. Thus, the model of 'opening weekends' for a film and 'Thursday night' on a network would be viable models for some content, but new models would work as well. Shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men have proven me right. In my view, I'm working toward building content that you watch not because it's 'new' but because it's so compelling when your friend says, 'You have to watch this,' and it's right there for you to watch."
"In this case, 'new' isn't what just came out but what you haven't seen yet."
"You can find people online right now posting about watching Twin Peaks for the first time -- right now! Or the whole run of Six Feet Under or The Wire. If we marry what I'm writing about with the long-tail model, it isn't just an aggregator that wins with the long tail but anyone who strives to make content so f*&%ing compelling that it's worth talking about long after it was initially released. Now, I have no idea if Booth is such a show. But certainly that was the bar I set for myself."
"I would offer this model is accelerating. If you can build material that can scale economically for production (which Booth was designed to do) and get it out into the world in channels that can keep it available for people to watch over time, I think a whole new model of production, distribution and revenue opens up. That's a big "Ah-ha," for me."
A big "Ah-ha" indeed.
With that, we conclude Part Two of our three-part series. Stay tuned as Part Three covers the back-breaking efforts by the writer, CK to sell the script; the eventual purchase by Michael Eisner's company; its production and growth into a major global Internet video product.