Interview: Young Couple's Brianna Baker, Michael Malarkey, & Brandon Ogborn

Young Couple is a new webseries from the TomKat Project's Brandon Ogborn and Brianna Baker and Chicago-based filmmaker and composer Michael Malarkey. It's beautifully shot and well acted, chasing after small character moments rather than the quick-hit laughs that are customary with most indie web shorts you see around these parts.

The show follows the recently-but-not-too-recently married Chris (Ogborn) and Nic (Baker) as they settle into their relationship, facing the same sort of little problems most young folks encounter as they embrace adulthood, with the added wrinkle that this is the second marriage for both parties involved. Whispered kitchen disagreements and awkward post-dinner singalongs run rampant in this first episode, which you can (and should!) watch below.

I spoke over email with all three of the show's co-creators/co-writers/etc. about the project; new episodes will be posted every Monday, so be sure to keep an eye out!

The Steamroller: How did you three come to work on this project together? 

Brianna Baker: Brandon and I worked together on the Tomkat Project, and we knew we wanted to do something else together, and that we wanted it to be an on-camera project. After months of kicking around ideas that related to our respective experiences, we knew that we wanted it to be a based around the ins and outs of a marriage. 

Brandon Ogborn: We realized we needed a director, a very good one. I’d happened to see Mike Malarkey’s work with Kill All Comedy and Superhuman, so by the time Brianna introduced us at Upstairs Gallery, I’d been a major fan of his work – both as a composer and a director. We had a champagne brunch at my house and, as happens in those situations, a lot of fanciful plans get made. We just had enough wherewithal to actually execute them when the bubbles wore off.

Mike Malarkey: I was really psyched to work with them, I'd seen TomKat a few weeks before I met Brandon and really loved how fun and weird and strangely emotional it was. 

Brianna: At that meeting we basically took a two-dimensional project and made it three-dimensional. Mike, who we had envisioned as the Director, became a co-creator, as well as a character in it the project.

TS: It's an interesting concept, especially when compared to most other media featuring people in their twenties. Your main characters are married and seem to have their lives together, but not in a false, romantic comedy type way. Where'd you come up with the concept for the series? Was at all a reaction to the sorts of characters around your age depicted in films/TV shows/webseries?

Brandon: We definitely wanted to do a series where it’s not, “Beers, gay jokes, Craigslist roommates.” We also wanted to have that space of a couple that’s lived in, be it sitting on a couch in a pause or laugh, or something deeper, sadder moments of jealously and rejection in a marriage. Brianna and I talked about writing something for a couple dating, and dealing with the minutiae of that - sexual awkwardness, poop smells in the bathroom, that sort of thing – not laugh-out-loud funny, just real. 

Mike: We all felt that it's not uncommon for people in their twenties to be married but we didn't think there was much of that represented in things we saw. Most of us have had tricky relationships at some point in our lives and chased that. Since Chris and Nic are married the stakes a little higher to get it right and the fact that it's a second marriage for both of them raises the stakes a little more.

Brianna: This project is very close to me, as I’ve been married before, and am now divorced, and good friends with my ex. I know that it can seem a bit strange to people, and maybe it is a bit strange.  While Nic and Mike’s marriage wasn’t like mine, and we don’t currently play music together or anything like that, it was something I could relate to. But they say to write what you know, right? Ahhhh!

So, my experience combined with Brandon’s being married for a long time, we knew we wanted to explore the minutiae of a domestic relationship of two people who are giving marriage another go, and at a relatively young age.

Mike: While we were writing, we saw the movies Drinking Buddies and Afternoon Delight which really influenced what we were going after. They both have this "real life" vibe to them where everything is really emotionally driven and they have complex relationships. Drinking Buddies took place in Chicago and didn't have a shot of the skyline or Navy Pier, it felt like where we lived.

Brandon: Brianna proposed the idea of a couple being a few years into a marriage, when the honeymoon fades and the perfunctory, administrative phase takes hold. This last year in film really inspired that tone for us, and using our voice for it.

We were in the writing process when we saw Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight – which, if you haven’t seen, get your life right. That, Lena Dunham, Apatow, Louie, Manhattan of course, and the long-form series High Maintenance. Brianna was particularly taken by Frances Ha.

Brianna: I couldn’t handle how much I loved everything about it. The natural dialogue, the characters, the world Greta Gerwig built. That movie is what lit a fire in me to really want to make this something I would want to see.

TS: The dialogue is so naturalistic, and all three of you are credited as writers on the series, how much of it was pre-scripted?

Brandon: We scripted the entire season, but, like Apatow or Adam McKay, Mike would give us a run out after we nailed the text. For the most part, though, everything was written because we were on a very tight deadline.

Brianna: There was only one episode that is entirely improvised, and that is a coffee shop scene between my character (Nic) and a girlfriend of hers (played by Jo Scott). We made a point of this being a written series. I think as improvisers, there is a tendency to just say you’ll figure it out when you get to the set and find the details of story in post when you get to the editing room. 

We are all drawn to naturalistic dialogue, and acting that doesn’t seem like acting. We wanted to write a show that didn’t feel like it was written, or at least over-written.  We wanted to be able to stand by our work and say "this is what we wrote and intended to make." Take it or leave it, we planned for all of this.

Mike: We actually started email accounts as the characters for fun and emailed each other while we were writing. It was just for fun but I think it really helped show how these characters would interact with each other.

Nic encouraged Mike to share some funny Youtube clips with Chris and Chris would so politely dismiss Mike's friendship. There was this uncomfortable inevitability that Mike was coming into Chris's life whether he liked it or not and that ended up really getting played up in the show.

TS: The series looks absolutely beautiful, what sort of stylistic touchstones did you have in mind when envisioning its look?

Mike: We all envisioned it in black and white from the beginning, Brandon and I had one brief moment where we wanted to reconsider and do it in color but Brianna and John Klein, our cinematographer, put us in our place pretty quickly. John Klein gets all the credit for making it look so beautiful and cinematic.

Brianna: After watching Frances Ha right before this project became a reality, I realized that watching something in black and white made me feel differently when watching a movie. It felt like the choice to shoot in black in white was like adding another character in the movie.  

Mike: This is going to sound really really snobby but I love black and white photography because color has intrinsic emotional information in it. I obviously don't dislike color photography I love it but it's just an interesting perspective to see things. If you see a photo of a boy holding a red balloon and you changed the color of the balloon to yellow it'd feel very different. In black and white you just see a boy holding a balloon.

For Young Couple we just wanted to focus on these people, their emotions, and their relationships as opposed to the world they're living in. I hope this doesn't sound like I'm bashing things in color.

Brandon: I had been unsure and even fought it because you can lose so much audience that way. But we wanted Young Couple to be about the performances and the story more than the laughs or views on Vimeo. John Klein is/was our very gifted cinematographer and he helped create the voice of the show with his eye.

When I said no to black and white, he was the one that turned the car back around. He and Mike created the template for the visuals. I can't say exactly their inspiration but I get a lot of Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins. 

Mike: In terms of visual choices, the biggest decisions were mostly around framing and whether we'd be shooting hand held or in locked down and composed shots. John, the master that he is, really wanted to go for visually stunning and very composed shots. He did such a beautiful job with that.

We talked a lot about shows like Girls which has really great composed shots versus something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which is full of very hand held shots.

TS: While the series is episodic in nature, it certainly has a cinematic feel, and if you do the math, (13 episodes, each generally 7-12 minutes long), you've essentially shot a feature-length production. Was that the goal when setting out? To produce something that could theoretically be cut together as a feature film, but to ultimately release it in readily-accessible chunks as a weekly webseries?

Brandon: We wrote it strictly as a series. I expected most episodes to be 3-5 minutes, traditional for a series. But as we found the story, episodes just kind of filled out to pass the 10 minute mark.

Mike: Once I'd edited everything, we talked about trying to edit a version that's a feature but I don't think it'd serve the story that well. The episodes are paced and have a lot of long scenes and montages of characters doing things alone which tell smaller stories. I'm sure there's a way to do it but we were pretty passionate about Young Couple living its life as a series as opposed to one long story.

Brianna: With High Maintenance, the episodes are longer than a typical webseries, we realized that because the story and characters were interesting and three-dimensional, the episodes were sustainable beyond a 2-minute bit. We watched those longer videos, and didn’t lose our minds. So we decided it was OK to make the episodes longer if we backed it up with good writing and uncompromising performances.

TS: What does the future hold for you three?

Brianna: I plan to move to LA in the very near future to pursue acting and writing.

Mike: We don't have immediate plans but I'm sure we'll work together again. We had a lot of fun and I think we all worked really well creatively. We all have LA aspirations so we won't be far from each other for long.

Brandon: I’d love to work with Mike Malarkey and Brianna Baker until I die. If we find an audience with this series and somehow get a chance to make another season I will smile very wide. Maybe Chris and Nic move to LA and Mike tags along for his “music career”? Who knows.

I find myself thinking about these characters constantly. We are all working on different pilots and scripts right now so I think the general pact is we'll keep throwing each other bones, whoever gets a job first.