As artists in the film and television industry who also happen to be deaf, Shoshannah Stern and Joshua Feldman know first-hand how hard it can be to see themselves reflected on-screen. So they created their own series, “This Close,” which returns for its second season on Sept. 12. But in taking the reins of a Hollywood production, they knew it wasn’t enough to merely tell stories about the deaf experience but also to empower other such individuals in the business behind the scenes, as well.
“We had 18 deaf people working with us behind and in front of the camera and this season we’re challenging ourselves to beat that,” Stern tells Variety.
Among the deaf production staffers are a casting assistant, an editor, an artist (who draws all of Feldman’s character Michael’s pictures, which are key props in the show), two directors of artistic sign language (who watch every frame shot to ensure all of the sign language can be seen and “is being represented accurately,” Stern explains) and a production assistant.
The latter hire was Chase Chambers, who flew to himself to the 38th Annual College Television Awards when he heard Stern and Feldman would be presenting there. “He’s from Oklahoma and he said, ‘I heard trying to find a job is hard if I don’t live there,'” Stern recalls. “He was asking if he could shadow on set because it’s really, really difficult for deaf people to gain experience on set because you have the added layer of communication.”
But instead of offering him a chance to merely observe and learn with a bit of distance, Stern wanted to offer him an actual job. The caveat, of course, was that he had to move to Los Angeles, where “This Close” shoots. But he did that, and they were true to their word.
“Sometimes when I go onto set and I’m the only deaf person there I’m trying to figure out, do they know how to communicate with me? Do they know how to communicate with my interpreter? I try to be very cognizant of that and make sure everyone who comes on my set feels very welcomed,” Stern says. “To make a show like this you really have to have communication and patience, and I think that is a really unique experience for a lot of them on our set.”
The second season of “This Close” also cast a deaf dog to play Kate’s (Stern) childhood dog. Originally Stern’s real-life dog was supposed to play the role, but unfortunately he passed away a few weeks before production began. The dog they found was “retired from show biz because he went deaf but came out of retirement to play Puck,” Stern says.
Feldman shares that in working with most of the same crew for two seasons (he and Stern estimate 98% of the Season 1 team returned), many of the hearing members of the crew have been learning sign language. They have also been inspired by social media messages they get from viewers that say they are learning, as well.
Stern considers the first season of the show “an introduction” and way to ease the audience into “a world they had never seen before.”
“People may never have seen signing on a screen before [but] now that we’ve introduced that, we want to push that to a further level,” she explains.
So, in the second season, the show will “get more specific with the storylines and experiences that tie into the deaf community.” This includes seeing characters struggle to communicate properly when they need medical attention because they don’t have an interpreter with them, as well as exploring complicated relationships with hearing members of their immediate families.
“The first season felt intimate. Season 2, we really do want to take Kate and Michael and put them in a bigger world,” Feldman says.
Not only will the show expand the world of the storytelling but also play with structure, time, and perspective of who is telling the story in a given episode. “We definitely wanted to surprise our audience by challenging their expectations, and one of the ways we’ll do that is by changing the form of the episodes so each episode is very different in form and genre,” Feldman continues.
This will include standalone episodes for Michael and Kate, as well as an episode designed like a horror movie. But even as the scope of the show grows around them, the relationship between Kate and Michael will continue to be at the core of the story — just as the relationship between co-creators and co-stars Stern and Feldman is the driving engine overall.
“In the writers’ room we tried really hard to make sure Kate and Michael were together. We actually kept a mathematical formula for how many times Kate and Michael would be seeing each other every episode. We realized there’s a magical number where they have to see each other: three is the minimum — three scenes for Kate and Michael,” says Stern.