Alicia J. Rose has directed music videos for such bands as Cake, First Aid Kit, and Bob Mould. Now she has made the leap to episodic storytelling with her premiere web series, The Benefits of Gusbandry. The series explores the relationship between Jackie and River, a straight woman and her Gusband (gay-husband). They aren’t married, but they’re so close they might as well be.
To kick things off, you said you were editing Episode Two when I called. How’s that going?
Editing Episode Two has been going really well. It’s such a sculpting process, the making of an episode. We wind up getting things we wouldn’t expect, and the things that you got that you thought you knew work or didn’t work. But in the end, you make it the most clean and mean machine you can, and you really work with the comedy that’s there and make it as funny as humanly possible. That’s where we’re at.
How many edits have we done now? This is our third or fourth. Our third time on Episode Two. There will probably be another three–something like that. We just got the phase where it doesn’t have music yet, but it’s going to start going to people for music, for sound, for ideas and notes as we tighten up the edit, but that’s part of the process.
When you’re editing an episode and you put together the initial cut before it gets cut down–I know the intended episode length is around eight to 12 minutes–do you find that they’re longer? Do you have to make a lot of cuts to keep it short?
I think Episode One started at 13 or 14 minutes and we got it down to eight. Episode Two started at 13 minutes, and we’re also going to get it down to eight. I think when you write, you write like you talk. But when you actually edit things together–or when it’s performed live and you’re filming it–it gets put through the filter of the human brain. When you’re actually cutting it, you just try to cut out the “ums” and the “ahs” and the messy stuff. Big things come out–things we thought we would need, things we thought were crucial to the episode. Turns out they weren’t, and then other things that are crucial get amped up. It’s really pretty fascinating. I love it.
The show is inspired by your relationship with your own gay friends, or “gusbands” as they’re called–
What made you decide to tell this story?
I think the question really is: How did I figure out what my story was? This is my story, and it took me a while as a filmmaker to figure out what story I wanted to tell from a deeply personal, feminist point of view. It took some soul-searching–including going to Thailand and Cambodia with my number one gusband, Lago, earlier this year–and realizing that he is such an important, primary part of my life. Our relationship really is the most consistent relationship I’ve had with a man in a long time. He just happens to be there when the heartbreak happens, or I’ve lost a job, or whatever. He’s been there to really help me pick up the pieces and move forward. I’ve had other gusbands before him who’ve treated me similarly, and these relationships are the life’s blood of my existence. Really, they’re at the base for my sanity. Truly.
Figuring out that that was my story was the tricky part. I just live it–it’s my life. As a filmmaker I’ve made tons of music videos and lots of short-form work. I’ve been really jonesing for a chance to get to tell a longer story but still utilize the short-form storytelling method as a way to do it–because I’m good at that. I’ve been work at that for past five to seven years. Once I clicked into gusbandry as the core of where I was coming from, it was like unlocking Pandora’s box. I have had so many ideas, and I have so many more ideas that haven’t even played out yet, which is the fun part.
That’s fantastic. What are some of the specific experiences that you’ve drawn from to tell this story?
Oh, my god. All of them. Do you want examples from Episode One?
In Episode One, that 40th birthday party was pretty much my 40th birthday party. Down to the coke on the boobs and the Wonder Woman stripper cake dance, all of that–except it was a little less condensed in real life. At my 40th birthday, I was like, “Let’s live it like we’re 20! Let’s just throw down and do it like we want to do it!”
I don’t have kids; I’ve chosen a different kind of lifestyle. I think a lot of my friends are in the same space. As women, you don’t necessarily have to lean into the dream or the dream that’s been presented to us by the women before us. I think we can lean into whatever dream we want, and for me that hasn’t been about being domestic. It’s been about being very undomestic–being really creative and having that be where my creativity is expressed, through the things that I make versus the children I procreate.
This process has been about meeting new friends and cresting through new challenges.
A lot of it’s drawn from my real life and inspired by my life and my relationships with my gusbands. Especially my primary, Lago. There’s something from my life in every episode. When I’m thinking about these ideas, I’m thinking about things that have happened and how that’s going to play out and how to really bring River and Jackie, our two main characters, into that circumstance and see what happens with them. It’s not a situational comedy per se; this is a narrative comedy. I’m giving them experiences to endure that are totally pulled from my life. But they’re not just my life. It’s also a lot of the women that I know, a lot of the men that I know. People are always telling me gusbandry stories and I’m like, “We’re out of room!” We need a really serious show to cover all of these.
Speaking of River and Jackie, Kurt [Conroyd] and Brooke [Totman] have an instant chemistry once they’re in a scene together. When you were auditioning actors, how quickly did you find those two, and when did you realize that they were the ones?
It’s funny–Brooke, I knew from other shows I had seen her in, and I just thought she was great. She had this wonderful, down-to-earth quality, just a sweet, lovely lady. She came on right after I thought of the idea. I thought of the idea, I pitched my co-writer, Courtenay Hameister, on it; she loved it. She came on board. I pitched Lara Cuddy, my producer, on it; she loved it. She came on board. Courtenay and I were talking about who to cast as Jackie, and the first person that I suggested was Brooke, and Courtenay was like, “Yeah!” We were both on board immediately. We approached Brooke, and she was like, “Hell yeah!” So she was in from the beginning.
Finding River was really difficult, actually. Brooke is really 41; she’s really the age. That was an important thing for me–to find someone who felt like they could be that person somewhat. And then I really wanted a gay man to play a gay man. Not to be weird or anything, but I just thought that would make it so much richer and allow for something special to happen. We auditioned 15 to 20 people, all Portland actors. We had a couple of contenders, but once we got Brooke and Kurt in the room together, there was no denying it. They were immediately best friends, and it happened in three minutes. It was crazy. Kurt’s a little younger than what we were hoping for–we were hoping for someone around 40–but we basically retooled the whole story to match him. It was undeniable what they had together. I’m just a recognizer for energy and chemistry, and I’m a total Yente. I was like, “Let’s just move things around and Kurt’s got the job.” He’s so good, and they come to life around each other. It’s really something.
That’s a good question. I am obsessed with episodic TV, personally, and I’m a huge movie buff. Getting to make something that has the potential to allow characters to evolve is really exciting. To not have to have said it all in five minutes and never get to add to that conversation has been a really frustrating part of living within the world of music videos. You come up with an idea, and then you play it out, and then you’re out, that’s it, buh-bye! After a while it’s like having a bunch of Tinder dates and no real long-term relationships–you need more! This is my movie version or my series version of long-term dating. We get to know these characters. We get to write for these characters. We get to see who they’re going to be, we get to develop them–I’ve been wanting to do that for forever. I want to make movies; I want to make other long-form versions of TV, but I don’t have people throwing piles of money at me–well, some small piles but not the level of pile I’ll need to do the next step. So I figured making a webseries would be a way to bridge that gap. It’s such a new format, and it’s so ripe for possibility for where it can wind up. I’m so inspired by the sort of no-holds-barred, uncensored idea factories coming from Amy Schumer or Amy Poehler or the Broad City gals or Tina Fey or Bridget Everett. You know, who wants to be censored anymore?! I mean, forget it! I get sitcoms–I watch them, I love them, some of them are really clever–but I want to be a little rough around the edges, like real life. All my 40 years, and I cuss like seriously swarthy sailors. Why dumb it down?
Along the lines of television and filmmaking–when you look at your own influences, is there a project you wish you had made first or that you had written?
It’s so hard to say because there definitely are. When Broad City came out or Inside Amy Schumer? I mean, come on! I don’t think I would be capable of writing their stuff, but I wish I could’ve been in the writer’s room. It’s not like I wish I had written it because nobody but them could have written it–they’re incredible. But boy, do I wish I was in the writer’s room for Broad City or Amy Schumer. How about being a part of Twelve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer? Hello! Yes! If I could have been involved with that and sitting next to Tig Notaro, I would have died on the spot, so I wouldn’t be here talking to you… or made Gusbands, so it’s probably a good thing.
The biggest part of showrunning–the most important part– is choosing brilliant people to collaborate with.
What’s your writing process like?
Since this has been a co-writing project, Courtenay comes over every Monday around five and we just have a writing sesh. We’ve been doing this since April, and it’s yielded the whole season. It’s been great–usually there’s snacks involved, there’s usually an hour of gossiping and catching up, and then there’s a whole bunch of work. It’s been interesting collaborating with a co-writer because I come to the table with the stories and the characters and the arcs of where everything’s going and then she sits down–she’s a worker, I mean she just tears apart–and together we put it back together. Courtenay’s a pro and I am not a pro like she is. She’s a badass, and she has tons of experience as a writer, I have tons of experience as a filmmaker. I write, but I’m not an old-school screenplay writer; I’m not. She isn’t either, but she’s absolutely closer to that than I am. But in the future, I hope we continue to do more seasons of this show, and I hope that we get to add a gay male writer to the fold. That hasn’t happened; I don’t really know any. They’ve got to write comedy in Portland the way I want it written. I’ll find somebody eventually, but we did this so fast that Courtenay and I became the writing team and it’s been working out great. But looking at shows like Amy Schumer–where the writing staff expands as the show goes on–it just gets more and more badass because more brilliant motherfuckers are at the helm.
Are you two still writing Season One, are you wrapping up a few episodes, or is the production wrapped as a whole?
We’ve shot half the season, so we’ve shot the first four [and] we have scripted the last [episodes]. Courtenay and I, tonight we’re working on rewrites, tightening everything up. Now that we’ve shot the first half, I want to bring everybody back. Now that we’ve made all these characters that are kind of interesting, as soon they’ve populated you’re like, “Oh, shit! You can’t just leave them by the side of the road. You have to bring them back.” That’s a really fun thing–in reference to your earlier question about episodic work and making something longer–it’s really cool to correct in the course as you realize that somebody becomes important to the story as it evolves. You’re shooting it and making it, as opposed to writing it; it’s like it’s a separation in process. We have time in between, at least in this situation. Since it’s a new idea, and it’s evolving as it goes, and Brooke and Kurt are bringing so much to it, we’re having fun developing the second half of the season to match the first half. It had been written a little more broadly, and we knew that was going to happen after we shot the first half. So now we’re tightening it and bringing people back and just killing the humor of it. We’re giving the all side players a chance to shine–it’s not too much, we’re still focused on Jackie and River–but we’re utilizing people for what they’re good at, and everybody’s going to kill the fuck out of it.
As a showrunner, what’s your trick to finding a balance between production and post-production and pre-production all happening simultaneously?
[Laughs] It’s not really weed. I’m a sucker for the whole process, so being a showrunner is honestly the perfect job for me. It’s one that I had to sort of create for myself by creating a series. I’m a multitasker; I’ve always been interested in every part of the process. I’m a true director in the sense that I direct every part of the process. Showrunning is a mix between being a producer and a director and overseeing every part of the process, but I will say this: I’m also an excellent delegator. So the people that I trust with things–like my producer Lara Cuddy and my editor Laura Roe–so many people in the process, they do a really good job. They make me good at what I do. The biggest part of showrunning–the most important part– is choosing brilliant people to collaborate with, because that makes the running of the show a hell of a lot easier.
I’m sitting here with my editor, and at the very beginning I’m sitting in preproduction with my producer, and it never ends, being a showrunner. From inception to birth, you’re on board and that’s okay with me. That’s what I wanted, that’s what I love. I’m honestly sad with the plop and drop of music videos. There’s this excitement when something comes out and there’s all this flurry and all this press, and it’s great, but it’s so much more fun to get to grow something and build it.
Do you have an ideal workspace?
It’s all in my house. Everything. I have a cute little house in Portland and everybody just comes here! I love having a home office. It’s wonderful. We were working on the dining room table today, I’ll be on the couch in a minute with Courtenay and then my office later working on stuff myself. My whole house gets used!
My house is so wonderful, and I have to tell you I thought for a while that I wasn’t really productive when I worked from home. But when I had this idea and it started coming together, I was so happy I had a home office. Everything’s just been so personal. Even when we did auditions, we did them in my house. This process has been about meeting new friends and cresting through new challenges, liking what we’re doing and creating media that we want to see. This is media that I want to see; my friends want to see it. We’re a new breed. We don’t want to be pandered to. Women want to be fucking challenged.
Let me tell you something. Directing, amongst the field of men–it is a challenge, and I fucking love it. It’s just who I am. It’s been a joy to get to create and develop and get to work on a project that is from my own voice. I get to have the final say, and that’s an empowering, awesome thing. I get to make something that I can share with everybody, which is my total nerd-ism. I love to share.
You can watch new episodes of The Benefits of Gusbandry by visiting their site:
Follow Alicia on twitter @AliciaJRose
-Interview conducted and illustrated by Kevin Cole