Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One]

FrankensteinMD

On the one hand, Frankenstein M.D. is very familiar: the third full series from Pemberley Digital following the Emmy-winning The Lizzie Bennett Diaries and followup Emma Approved, the series is a webseries adaptation of a classic novel featuring a female protagonist (in this case reimagining Victor Frankenstein as Victoria). Fans of their previous series will find both a similar sense of humor and a similar sense of purpose when the series debuts its first three episodes tomorrow, with the series settling into a familiar Tuesday-Friday pattern until its finale on Halloween.

On the other hand, though, Frankenstein M.D. is a departure in two keys ways. The first is that, by departing from Austen and arriving at Mary Shelley, Pemberley is heading into new generic territory, balancing its direct address vlog style with the well-known results of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments. However, the second—and I would argue more substantial—difference is that they’re working with a traditional “network,” partnering with PBS Digital Studios in launching the series. In the first part of this wide-ranging interview with executive producer Bernie Su, star Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein), and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham, they discuss the development of a series that one might classify as an experiment for all parties. Part Two of the interview explores the industrial side of the series’ debut in greater detail.

Cultural Learnings: From a PBS Digital Studios perspective, this is the first time you’ve developed a fictional webseries of this kind—what drew you to Pemberley Digital as a partner for this milestone?

PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham: What was great was that they had this amazing track record, and the qualities of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Approved that we really look for: audience engagement, smart content that’s innovative and totally different from anything else you see out there, etc. It’s unique, and it appeals to the kind of person that is drawn to PBS, and a big push behind Digital Studios is reaching those 13-34 year-olds that are on YouTube and consuming lots of content. And Bernie’s a great guy. [Laughter]

From your perspective, Bernie, were your discussions with PBS always centered on Frankenstein? Were there other projects considered for this partnership?

Executive Producer Bernie Su: It was “How about Frankenstein? Let’s do that!” It was literally that. It never got past it. I don’t think we even mentioned a second project. It was like “That’s great. What would be your take on that?” And then it was the idea of the modern medical student and how we can touch upon modern science and how we’re actually close scientifically to doing stuff—bringing people back to life, what is life, all that stuff—that Frankenstein does in the novel. So it made a lot of sense given that our audience has been wanting us to push toward STEM, so this was just a great opportunity that seemed like a really good match right out of the gate and it was really easy.

So had Frankenstein come up before those talks at all, or was it a product of those conversations?

Su: Internally we had identified what we would do outside of Austen, because we had been known for that exclusively up until this project, so we knew that as a production entity we couldn’t just rely on Austen because she only has six books. So we had to look for other ways to adapt other novels, and something like this was ideal because it’s shorter, a completely different genre, and it can really stretch what we do. We can show that what we do isn’t just enclosed to the Austen universe, it can work for mass audiences, STEM audiences, etc.

Speaking of STEM audiences, what was the motivation behind engaging with STEM in adapting this novel?

Graham: One of the reasons why we got into content for YouTube is because there’s so many incredible STEM-focused creators out there doing great content. So this is a place we need to be, we need to figure this out. And the trick is always how you do that in an entertaining, fresh way, so that’s one of the reasons Frankenstein was an “A-ha” moment. We didn’t have drawn out conversations about the idea, because there’s so much STEM there, and there’s so much interesting science happening there currently, so there are a lot of opportunities to incorporate it and they’re doing a brilliant job incorporating it in the script. And then outside of the show, what other creators can contribute to this sort of ecosystem of content around this science behind the series is really exciting.

From a production perspective, “education” hasn’t necessarily been a primary goal of the Austen webseries from Pemberley Digital; were there any challenges adapting the format to incorporate the science?

Su: The challenge was making sure we were correct on our science, but we had an advisor [It’s Okay To Be Smart’s Joe Hanson] for that. Lizzie and Emma are both educational in the sense that they inspire reading, and I’m sure this will do that in a similar way. I think it’s already inspired the fans anticipating the series, who are already picking up the books and reading it. With this we hope to add to that: because we’re putting real science into this as if they’re science personalities online just like many that work with PBS today (except ours are fictional and doing crazier things), it should also inspire education in that sense. Like, we’re talking about synthetic blood, and what’s it is today and what it can be in the future. We’re talking about cloning, we’re talking about 3-D printing, we’re talking about replacement organs and stuff like that. These are things that are part of what we’ve identified as “If you were going to build the Frankenstein monster today, these are actual things you would do.” This is the actual science you would put in, so we can just highlight them in an educational way as well as a narrative way.

During your recent Reddit AMA, you noted that you found a female Dr. Frankenstein was “far more interesting and intriguing than a male one.” What drew you to this conclusion?

Su: When we were developing internally, the first development slate was Victor as Victor. And I had talked to Lon [Harris] and Brent [Register] who are the other creatives on the team, and I’m like “I bet, we’re going to be asked [by PBS] if it can be Victoria. Like, I know it’s coming. Is that okay with you guys?” And they said “Yeah, it sounds great.” Then, after I thought about it, I was like “That is like way better. Every version of that is better!” And then, sure enough, PBS brought it up. And I was like “I was right!” [Laughter]

And that was an easy switch, and we just did it. In the AMA I said that regardless of the PBS side or the Pemberley Digital side, a Victoria version of Frankenstein is infinitely more interesting in today’s context than a Victor is because we’re seen him so many times, it’s been done so many ways—modern, young, the Karloff movie, etc. All these have just been the straight way of doing it, and to bend the gender was very intriguing.

Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein): It’s like Lon said—it’s the simplest of innovations, just changing a gender, but it creates this whole fresh look that no one’s done before.

Su: And it speaks to the history of women being taken seriously in STEM—we know it’s better than it was years ago, but to just be able to touch on that I think is a really cool thing.

Lore: What I love about Frankenstein as a gender-bending character is that Mary Shelley wrote it on a dare to a bunch of dudes that she could write a better horror novel than they could. And so I think it’s a perfect choice to do that.

As for choices, what made Anna the right choice for this role?

Su: Well, she just showed how she’s so connected to it. What Anna brings to the character is a level of maturity to the role of a young Frankenstein, because we’re kind of aged down the role, and just the way she carries herself—as we’ve heard—is just disturbingly charismatic. Was that the phrase? [Laughter] Right?

Lore: Love that. It’s going on my resume.

Su: But it’s very, very fitting for what you’d look for in a modern Frankenstein, and in a modern YouTube personality. It was a very easy choice to go with her: we saw a lot of very capable young actresses, and we all gravitated toward her performance.

Anna, from your perspective coming in, how familiar were you with the Pemberley Digital brand, or the idea of being a “YouTube science host?”

Lore: I would say that I came in fairly ignorant of it: I obviously had heard of Lizzie Bennet, and I knew of Pemberley Digital, and before I sign onto anything I do my research, so I looked it up a bunch. And I really like the way they do things, and I think it’s a fun platform that you usually don’t get to experience as an actor.

As for science vlogs, I’ve definitely watched more than I was watching before, and I don’t know why I wasn’t watching them before because I discovered Joe’s and I was like “This is great!” It’s an amazing platform to play with, and it’s a character that I didn’t think that I would get to play for a long time, if ever. Like, it’s Doctor Frankenstein—it’s cool, it’s a great opportunity.

Su: You mean, when you were growing up as a little girl, you didn’t dream of playing Doctor Frankenstein?! [Laughter]

Obviously, this is a very different series in terms of tone from the Austen, but you’re still using the vlog format and engaging with humor; how familiar will this series be in terms of tone for those who are fans of the existing literary adaptations?

Su: Tonally, because of the subject matter, it’s a little bit of a shift. But what I think you’ll see, especially in the beginning before she resurrects the monster, is that kind of familiar, quirky, educational science in the show, but with the story and narrative that’s driving toward something, and then blending in our kind of Pemberley light-hearted comedy. All of our shows have done this, even Lizzie has done this—when you see the show, you’ll understand what I mean. That light-heartedness is still there—it’s a darker style of humor, with a bit more of a macabre feeling due to the subject matter.

Lore: It’s a feel-good film!

Su: Coming of age!

Lore: A hint of Rom-com!

During the aforementioned AMA, you mentioned that Frankenstein M.D. might or might not exist in the same universe as your previous series, but this show obviously has to delve into science fiction in a way that could make this difficult. Is there a line in terms of going “too sci-fi” in order to be grounded enough for crossovers (or to serve the goals of PBS, for instance)?

Su: The directive that we got from PBS when we asked “How Sci-fi?” [PBS] was “We want it to feel as real as possible knowing that science fiction eventually comes.” And that’s what we did. And so connecting universes, which we’ve done in the past – sure, we’re open to it. But we’re working on this show on its own—they don’t need to connect. Right now, we’re trying to make a good Frankenstein.

One of the challenges with the vlog format is developing supporting characters—what are some of the options you’re exploring for expanding this world beyond Victoria?

Su: I think we’re going to grow organically. With the cast, it’s a short series so we don’t have this long runway like Lizzie did where we know “Oh, that character’s this now, and then in 12 months we have to do this with that character.” So we don’t have to build that out. And in this case too, not all characters are going to be in good places at the end of this thing, so we’re going to find opportunities to make it entertaining for the audience, is what I’ll say. I don’t even know how to describe it without spoilers.

What was behind the decision to launch the first three episodes at once? Is this something that came from PBS or Pemberley Digital specifically, or was it just so you can do the finale on Halloween? [Laughter]

Graham: It is pretty cool. We want people to have enough there. We’ve talked about this a bunch, and Bernie’s the lead on this—when people show up to discover it, we wan to make it so they can get into it a bit. They’re relatively short episodes, and you want people to get a feel for “Okay, this is what I can expect twice a week,” and have that ready for them from the get-go. It seemed like a pretty sensible place to start.

Su: We’re totally lined up on launching with three—one of the things we’ve learned from the properties is that we’ve always launched with one. And it doesn’t matter how much fanfare we have going into one, you’re going to lose people going into the second one because they’re going to have to come back. And you’re inherently being judged on the one, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on a single episode of a long series. This will have 24 at a minimum, and Emma is going to have 72, and Lizzie had 100—you’re going to judge a book based on one-half of a chapter? So we’re trying to combat that a little bit. It’s nothing new: the Netflix model is that, right? But we grew up in a world where all the marketing drove to the launch of the series, the one pilot, but there’s a season, so does that marketing still work for the rest?

[Editor’s note: There’s also a passage in the recently released The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet that features Lizzie extolling the virtues of launching with more than one episode, reinforcing Su’s position on this issue.]

Lore: I think no matter how amazing the first ten minutes is, there’s a time constraint on it. You kind of need a little bit extra to really get across “These are our characters, this is the story we’re going to tell.” I think you just always need a little more time.

From your perspective, Anna, do you know where your character’s journey is heading (beyond the obvious) as you head into this process?

Lore: I am sometimes in step as they know—I wouldn’t say I’m completely privy to it. I’m following the book a lot, and fingers crossed we’re going to be true to the book because… [Laughter]

Su: Are you gonna resurrect a monster?

Lore: Yes. [Laughter]

Su: Yes, I think we can do that. As you know, we haven’t shot it all, and we haven’t written it all. And that’s by design so we can react to the audience. The good thing’s that when we get to the October content, when we start writing it we’ll have episodes out, and we can tweak and adjust and say “Let’s do that!” So we don’t necessarily know exactly what she’s going to end up with. We know the big stuff—we know how we’re going to end it. But we’re flexible.

There has always been some intense expectations for followups to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: do you see this as a clean break from the company’s work adapting Austen, or do you see this as a natural extension of Pemberley Digital’s existing goals?

Su: It’s kind of in between that. What you’re seeing is that we’re not just banking on the Pemberley audience—it’s the PBS audience, it’s this giant STEM audience. So to say that this series is going to maintain Pemberley’s 90% female demo and only that, that’s ridiculous. No one’s thinking that. So we’re going to see a shift in the audience; how that plays out, we’re open minded to it. We’re storytellers, and we want people to come to our shows because they’re good series and they enjoy them. And if it’s not for them, that’s okay.

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2 responses to “Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part One]

  1. Pingback: Cultural Interview: PBS Digital Studios’ Frankenstein M.D. [Part Two] | Cultural Learnings

  2. Pingback: Geek Gender Reader, August 2014 | The Lobster Dance

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