I few months back, I recorded a satellite episode of the screenwriting podcast I work on called On the Page with Pilar Alessandra on the patio of my workplace with my coworker Brian Ross. The audio was super muffled due to wind and sirens here and there, so we scrapped the listenable version. But, Brian had a lot of awesome stuff to say, so I listened to our chat and transcribed it for you to read below. Enjoy Brian’s take on writing southern characters, the perils of filmmaking in New York, and preparing original songs for a dramatic web series. Good chat!
Brian Ross: Something that’s interesting is, just this morning, the web series features a lot of original country music, you know? And one of the people that we brought on to provide music for the series and also to be in the background as a performer, she wrote a song for the series and I helped her write it with notes and what the first line was and stuff. And that song, I was writing at Starbucks this morning, and that song was being played over the speaker. It just popped on. It was so crazy. It’s crazy that that long after everything happened, you would hear this song you worked on really closely playing at Starbucks. It was cool. Today’s an exciting day.
Budds: I’m talking to Brian A. Ross, he’s an award winning writer, TV producer, and web series creator. Thanks for taking some time to talk with me, Brian.
Brian Ross: Thank you Ryan!
Budds: And now a little background on Brian Ross. Brian is home grown out of the hills of eastern Kentucky and in 2004, he left the Blue Grass State to pursue his dreams of screenwriting. He attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where he wrote, directed, and produced a number of short films including Red White and Blue Grass, Left on Sunset, and Science Fair, the last of which was awarded first prize for writing and editing at NYU’s annual First Run Film Festival. Brian has written for TV programs on NBC, USA, MTV, TLC, and VH1. In 2010, Brian created an original web series inspired by the country music and people who shaped his upbringing entitled Big Country Blues. That series garnered numerous accolades including Best Drama at both the ITV Fest and IFQ and New Media Festivals. Complex Magazine said it’s one of the 25 best web series right now. Tell me a little bit about Big Country Blues, Bri.
Brian Ross: So, Big Country Blues was a web series I wrote and directed. I wrote it in 2011. Shot it in NY, in Brooklyn, in Nashville, and Kentucky. We had two legs of the shoot. It starred Jeremy Mccomb, who’s an actual country singer in Nashville, and a couple of NY actors, Sarah E. Jacobs and Shane Allen. And yeah, it was just a story I wanted to tell in a format that I wanted to play with. You know, even now, a lot of the southern stories you see, especially in the mainstream, are characters that are poorly drawn. And I wanted to create something that was very close to me, and I’m from Kentucky, so telling a story about southern people and the southern music that I came up with was important. I came up with country music and not so much the country pop that you hear today.
Budds: Not the country hits stuff.
Brian Ross: No, more the Walon and the Willie. We write music a lot where I’m from, so I wanted to write some of the music for it. Originally, it was going to be my friend and a way to showcase his talents on a major scale, but that kind of fell through. We reshaped things and released it in 2012, and it’s done well for me.
Budds: Around the time that this idea came to you, was that before or after that show Nashville had come out?
Brian Ross: When I decided on my release date, I had completed the editing and everything, post production was done in March of 2012. I was deciding on a release date and I then saw a billboard for Nashville which I had never even heard of. So when I looked it up, I was like, man, this is gonna hurt. I think it’s both hurt and helped, I actually like the show a lot. The music’s fantastic. T Bone Burnett’s involved. It’s pretty legit and I’m at least happy to be compared to it. I’ve also had people tell me it could have affected my chances of it being made as like a series, which may or may not be true. But I guess it’s probably helped, not hurt.
Budds: Do you feel like that has at least exposed the idea of southern stories that people are not hearing so much about, just as a genre, you know, like The South?
Brian Ross: I definitely think so. I mean, it seems more and more you’re hearing different kinds of stories being told, it’s not so much the same detective stories anymore. In entertainment in general you’re getting very specific stories from very specific niches. You can say you’ve heard and seen a lot of south in shows like Friday Night Lights, you’ve got a lot of the culture there. Nashville’s more specific. I think that southern protagonists and main characters are very interesting, especially those that come from poor means, and are often motivated by means of necessity rather than opportunity. They do things because they need to do them, maybe they don’t have the resources that someone else would. It’s often out of a need, not a want, which I find interesting.
Budds: I notice that a lot of the titles of your projects seem home-based in some way. Is home the biggest theme of your writing in general?
Brian Ross: I would say that it was, especially early on, I wanted to tell country stories and I had so many of them coming out to LA.
Budds: And the famous quote, “write what you know” right?
Brian Ross: Yeah, but then I also don’t want to be pigeon holed, so recently I’ve tried to do less of that. And the short film I’m going to do in March that I’m in preproduction with now, that’s more based on New York and the New York experience that I had. But yeah, I would definitely say that the majority of my work is motivated by my upbringing.
Budds: The idea of injecting country music into a project that you’re working on, do you feel like you really have to be a fan of country music in order to write it?
Brian Ross: Yeah. I do–I don’t know how you would do it otherwise. For me, I really appreciate country music, the simplicity of it. It’s just blues, but sung by a different type of people and a different kind of accent. I think country music is super interesting, the history of it is fascinating to me. The fact that so many people judge it without knowing it or judge it based on one or two cliche artists, I dunno. People say it’s all about dead dogs, drinking, and tractors, and there is certainly that, but you can’t write off the entire genre just because of that, the same way you can’t write off hip hop because some songs are about booty shaking, guns, and whatnot. It’s easy to write off but there’s a lot of richness in country music, a lot of great stories there. That’s a big thing, telling stories within a song. It’s very close for me, so it’s fun to incorporate country music and fun to write the music for the series.
Budds: How would that work?
Brian Ross: Well the series is about a country singer and it features his songs, so I would write the early drafts of the song and pass them over to the actor singer Jeremy Mccomb, and he would put his take on it. And he’s a working professional in Nashville, so having my version and then hearing how he would transform it to something that would or could be on the radio, that was incredible. So fun.
Budds: Tell me a little bit about your version of the song. Are you a musician in any way?
Brian Ross: It’s a stretch to call me a musician. I play guitar and sing. I play guitar at a mediocre level and sing at a novice level.
Budds: I feel like if I had to write a similar style screenplay, I don’t know if I could write a song or even the outline of a song, because I’ve never written a song.
Brian Ross: You know the structure though.
Budds: Yeah, I guess. It feels very daunting though! How did you get started? Have you been playing guitar, even at what you call lower levels, for a long time?
Brian Ross: Yeah, actually where I come from in Northeastern Kentucky in Ashland, my group of friends all kind of play guitar. I think one guy got really good at it and saw that girls really like that and it was cool so we were all like, “We should play guitar!”
Budds: I did the same thing as a standup comedian. It did not work out.
Brian Ross: You saw your friend getting girls, doing standup?
Budds: Yeah, not so much the case. I found one early on and married her, but no one wants to stand around the guy telling jokes at the party. The guy with the acoustic guitar always wins.
Brian Ross: Does he?
Budds: I think so.
Brian Ross: I think it depends. I think guys would say that he does not win, but girls would say he does.
Budds: There ya go.
Brian Ross: So yeah, a half dozen to a dozen of my friends play guitar. And because this was the case, we would hold like a concert in my neighborhood once a year. My last name is Ross, we’d do it in my backyard, we’d call it Ross Star. Everyone would play a song based on the theme of that year and you’d also play an original song. So I was writing one song a year anyway. As were my friends.
Budds: That’s a unique event. And a very cool thing to pull from when writing something like this, I imagine.
Brian Ross: Yeah. And usually if you’re playing for your friends it helps if you’re playing songs about things that they know. So you can tailor it to home there, and Kentucky lifestyle, etc. I’ve had a decent amount of experience writing music. Essentially, what I was sending to Jeremy was a rough draft anyway and he would basically take the hook of that and rewrite it and make it flashy and nice.
Budds: You filmed a lot of this in New York, right? How hard was it to make this look authentic and southern?
Brian Ross: It was a nightmare, man. Initially I wanted to shoot it in KY, but flying out a crew would have been expensive and wouldn’t have made sense. So I scouted a lot in New Jersey, I had a lot of friends there and we weren’t going to get a southern looking house in Brooklyn. So we drove around Jersey and looked at different locations and the hardest location was the main character’s house which needed to look country, but also like impoverished country. They’re pretty hard-off. And most people have nice houses, especially in NJ. So we were driving around New Jersey and found this really old abandoned house that had a for sale sign and we thought maybe we could shoot the outside scenes there. And the people that were selling it were like, “why don’t you check out the inside?” And that was perfect. And then in the backyard there was a field and we used that for some field EXT scenes we needed. We ended up getting 3-5 locations out of one old place. We just called the real estate sign, they were thrilled to do it.
Budds: That’s amazing.
Brian Ross: Yeah, I don’t like shooting in New York. You feel like you’re in the way. In Los Angeles, they understand that it’s part of the culture and they welcome it. But in NY they don’t need you. It’s so crowded. You’re blocking the street, it’s a pain in the ass. KY was super happy to have you but NY was really hard. We did one of the bars there, it was really expensive. It required a lot of production design. We had a really good production designer named Tonya that helped a lot. But it’s super important. If it looked like a New Jersey home it wouldn’t work. That’s one thing I think my web series has, a specific but authentic feel.
Budds: And this is a dramatic web series which are few and far between.
Brian Ross: And even less so in 2012. I mean the web series, just the evolution of it, is really interesting. And I had the idea to do it really early on when there were just a few comedy ones. But since then the genre’s taken off and it’s so great. There are a lot of really legit series and people doing interesting things. Big names have them, Bryan Singer has a dramatic one. But I think early on we got a lot of attention because there weren’t a lot of series like ours. Specifically dramatic. But there still aren’t a lot of series with original music, or about musicians.
Budds: Your trailer’s great, I can’t wait to watch all of it. Saving it for the wife.
Brian Ross: Yeah!
Budds: Your bio says you’re working on season 2. Is that something you’re going to shoot in LA?
Brian Ross: We are hoping to. I funded the first season through Kickstarter, we got $15,000 through a campaign. And it was before everyone had one. I was asking for money before it was cool to ask for money! But I don’t want to do it again, it’s hard to ask your friends and family for money like that. So for season 2 to happen we’re going to need to get funded or commissioned. So that’s a big question mark. It has been written, I love the idea of where it would go.
Budds: Did you guys stay within that $15,000 raised for the first season?
Brian Ross: Eh, a little more than that. I had some extra money into it. It ended up being about $25k.
Budds: Do you think that second season could be done for around that same amount?
Brian Ross: Yes, I think it could. The trickiest thing is a lot of post production sound because that’s so important. And the locations are really difficult. If we did season 2 it would be all Nashville instead of two legs of a shoot like before.
Budds: In your bio you mention that you “feverishly writing” in LA. What are some other things you’re trying to dive into other than “home?”
Brian Ross: The next project I’m going to produce is a short film that I want to shoot in NY based on my experience there. It’s called “Not a Suicide Letter,” it’s a dark comedy about a guy living there who’s down on his luck and lost someone close to him and is considering suicide but then meets someone who kind of changes his mind. It’s different than Big Country Blues, but the lead will be Shane Allen who played Walt in BCB, so I’m still working with a lot of the same people. I think it will deal with a lot of my own unresolved feelings about NY. I also write pilots and such in hopes to be sold.
Brian Ross: I know you because we both work on a show on MTV called Ridiculousness. I’m an Associate Producer on that show and you’re a Producer. How do you think working on an MTV clip show helps or hinders your goals of working on a dream job?
Brian Ross: That’s a good question. I think that something you learn here is that essentially everything you do in entertainment is story telling. A story is a story. Whether it’s a book or a movie, it’s a story. And even the clips we use on the show, those clips are stories.
Budds: Right? Guy walks in a room. A friend pulls his pants down. Then another friend dumps a bucket of water on his head.
Brian Ross: Yes! Good act twist! Act 3, didn’t see it coming.
Budds: That’s a good way of thinking about it.
Brian Ross: You have to.
Budds: Otherwise we’re just calling maniacs everyday on the phone, begging to use their clips.
Brian Ross: I think you learn a lot about story structure and telling jokes about what’s funny. When you talk about Ridiculousness, it’s so fast. All our clips are so fast. I think that speaks to the attention span of how fast you need to be when you’re producing, especially web content. The web series, there’s no set way to make it. There’s no way to know what the perfect amount of time is. My show is 10 mins, 5 episodes, 10 mins each. That could be too long. If we try and do something to grab you in the first 10 seconds, that might be too long. It’s interesting to see these clips and how quick they are and how much they have to grab your attention online.
Budds: Thanks for the interview Bri. Great to get to know more about your and your career.
Brian Ross: Ryan, thanks so much man, I appreciate it.
You can watch the entire first season of Big Country Blues right here, and be sure to follow Ross on Twitter.