When it comes to telling complex, human stories television is truly the place to be.
That power is what inspired Randi Kleiner and Kaily Smith Westbrook to start SeriesFest in Denver five years ago. Running from June 21 through 28, the theme of this year’s event, “Year of Innovation,” allowed game changers in episodic storytelling like Netflix and the Shondaland production company, as well as the next generation of creatives in various mediums and genres, to come together for the good of story.
“We want to be a place to incubate, educate and illuminate independent talents,” Smith Westbrook said on the festival’s opening night. “We’ve also been going to schools to work with young storytellers.”
One of the most exciting parts of SeriesFest is attending the Block events (which focus on genres or mediums, like comedy, drama or digital) to see what new and exciting voices are rising. That’s where you’ll come across gems like Par Parekh’s “The Happy,” a comedy about an Indian-American in Los Angeles who gets constantly mistaken as a New Age guru.
Which might be the most important aspect of the whole event.
“By the end of this weekend, we will have screened over 270 independent series, held 4t special events with premieres from two dozen different networks, hosted by 52 panels,” said Kleiner. “We also created more connections, job opportunities and success stories than we can keep count of.”
Here are some of the best things I saw as part of the 2019 SeriesFest:
Screening of STARZ’s new supernatural thriller, ‘The Rook’
We live in paranoid times, with very real fears about over-surveillance, privacy loss and bad faith governments flexing their muscles worldwide. Which, according to Stephen Garrett, executive producer of STARZ’s new series “The Rook,” is what makes a spy story such a good reflection for our times.
“We hope this kind of story says something about our time,” Garrett said. “The show takes place in London, which is the most surveilled city on Earth. And people are drawn to spies, because they lie professionally and then go home and lie to their loved ones.”
Based on the book by Daniel O’Malley, the show follows Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell,) an employee at Checquy, Britain’s last truly secret service for people with paranormal abilities. When she wakes up in the rain beside London’s Millennium Bridge with no memory of who she is, she has to follow a trail of clues and figure out who wiped her memory. Olivia Munn and Joely Richardson also star as agents that might be Myfanwy’s best hope or enemy in disguise.
Following the premiere of the first episode on June 21, Garrett was joined by executive producers and show runners Karyn Usher and Lisa Zwerling as well as Greenwell, Munn and Richardson to talk about the process of getting the show made, filming in London and grounding a super-human show in reality.
“London is the kind of place you can’t replicate unless you’re there,” Munn said. “We’d all talk about it during make-up and how being in London gives up all a little extra help.”
While there’s a significant supernatural aspect to the show, keeping it grounded in science and physics was important for the showrunners, as was developing real relationships.
“We looked for abilities inspired by science instead the way the powers are approached in the book,” Zwerling said.
“So many shows are addressing political paranoia in different ways, but what sets ours apart is the way we develop these real relationships between human beings,” Usher added.
Find out more about “The Rook,” which premieres on June 30, at www.starz.com/series/therook/featured.
Shondaland 2.0 Panel
There’s almost no way to be a fan of television in 2019 and not have reckoned with the enormous talent and influence of Shonda Rhimes’ work. She has created genuine cultural moments in shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With a Murder.” Through her production company, Shondaland, Rhimes has used all her clout to offer storytelling opportunities to more diverse voices.
Alison Eakle, Anna Deavere Smith, Katie Lowes and Akua Murphy gathered for the Shondaland 2.0 Panel on June 23, moderated by Buzzfeed’s Ashley Ford, to discuss the power of women storytellers and how the production company is highlighting these stories.
“Shonda always pushes you to do the scary things,” said Lowes, who played Quinn in “Scandal” and now hosts the “Katie’s Crib” podcast for Shondaland. “But she’s also a big boundary person. She’s been working this for so long that she knows you need to live a full life. You can work hard and be a full human being.”
One of the best things about Shondaland, the panelists explained, is the company’s willingness to fully develop not only projects but creatives and staff. Everyone had stage had started with Rhimes in one facet and grown into others as time progressed.
“That’s really baked into the process for us,” said Eakle, head of fiction and non-fiction at Shondaland. “We especially believe it’s worth spending the time now to get our interns thoughts on the books, movies and shows they’re watching.”
Murphy, director of Shondaland’s short form content, discussed using the Shondaland website and podcasts to reach new audiences and share others stories, like Lowes’ podcast, which tackles motherhood issues that some may not discuss, like postpartum depression.
Deavere Smith, who has been working in the entertainment world and as an activist for years, is currently adapting Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns,” and spoke about the power of story to unite in a divided time.
“There are so many stories to be told, and so many people who want to tell them,” she said. “Right now, we’re walking on a mountain with this woman in a moment in history – anything can happen.”
Power, Influence, and Hip-Hop: The Remarkable Rise of So So Def Screening
“If you look in the history books, you don’t see enough me.”
If that sounds like a line from a rap song, you’re not too far off. The line came at a panel with Jermaine Dupri on June 23, following the premiere of “Power, Influence, and Hip-Hop: The Remarkable Rise of So So Def,” a documentary about the rise of Dupri’s record label.
Dupri’s not wrong in his aforementioned assertion, especially given the fact he was really responsible for bringing the Atlanta sound to the culture, when hip-hop was dominated by New York and Los Angeles. He’s responsible for hits like Kris Kross’ “Jump,” and Mariah Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” and Usher’s “Confessions” albums.
“I base my music on what I think fans want to hear, and I’m always trying to outdo what I’ve done before,” Dupri said in response to a question from moderator, Sylvia Obell. “I’m like a tailor for my artists, where I tailor the music for them.”
The music and industry has changed in innumerable ways since Durpi first hit the scene, but he’s stayed in the game for 25 years. Along with Jay-Z and Missy Elliot, he’s been inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. And after all that, he’s still in search of his masterpiece.
“We just keep moving forward, and I keep thinking about what my system wants and what my system needs,” Dupri said. “Quincy Jones produced ‘Thriller” when he was 50 years old, so I’ve got five years.”
Clarke Reader’s column on culture appears on a weekly basis. He can be reached at Clarke.Reader@hotmail.com.
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