This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured a first look at a forthcoming series from interactive-video company Eko called “Damage Control” — in which you, the viewer, decide how the story unfolds — presented in partnership with Variety.
The comedy’s co-directors and co-creators Alon Benari and Johnny Milord and cast members Emily Pendergast and Rekha Shankar participated in a discussion on Sunday (Jan. 26) about the production of the workplace comedy. They talked about how they tried to create an entertainment experience that brings the audience into the story in a deeper way, rather than using interactivity merely as a gimmick.
Eko, which has been developing interactive-video tech and content since it was founded in 2010, is calling the content it is producing for the platform “choice-driven entertainment,” to distinguish it from other kinds of interactive video.
“The word ‘interactive’ has been used across a lot of different types of experiences — you know, a video with a Twitter feed on it,” said Benari, who is head of Eko’s creative team. “The focus in what we’re trying to do… is we want the interactivity to be about meaningful choices that the viewers make… where the viewers feel emotionally engaged.”
Watch video of the “Damage Control” panel discussion at this link.
“Damage Control” is set in a marketing agency called Mantis Media, where you make decisions for Emily (Pendergast), who is the assistant to overbearing company CEO Blake (played by Ben Schwartz of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”). Shankar plays Ruby, a Mantis assistant and Emily’s BFF. The series also features guest stars Billy Zane as himself (with whom Black is weirdly obsessed) and Busy Philipps.
The plot — and the viewer’s steering of the characters — boils down to Emily trying to decide what to do after her boss has struck a huge deal with a vape company that is targeting kids with its products, a move that threatens Emily’s pet nonprofit initiative. It’s set to premiere in March on Eko’s platform.
The average run time for the entire six-episode series is one hour, with more than six different discrete endings. All of that meant shooting multiple scenes, which increased the complexity of the production.
“There were so many whiteboards,” Benari deadpanned. Added Milord, “It kind of blows your mind at first, because it’s like you need an engineering degree just for the diagrams for all the choices… It scares you at first.”
The point is not about the “kooky, crazy different outcomes that you can get,” Benari said. “This is about giving you an amazing narrative experience… and you feel what these characters feel in this situation, and you are conflicted with them.” Eko’s projects see a high level of engagement because they engage viewers with an emotional payoff, he added.
The directors, Pendergast and Shankar gave credit to the “Damage Control” writing team of Laura Wilcox, Jamie Loftus and Scarlett Bermingham for delivering a script that was funny and kept a consistent through-line across all the different possible outcomes.
Emily Pendergast (l.) and Rekha Shankar in “Damage Control”
For the actors, working on the series was challenging not only because they shot upwards of 20 pages (or more) of script per day but also because they had to keep track of where their characters were in the different branches of the story.
The directors had to prompt the actors about the status of their relationship during any given scene. “They would remind us… ‘Just as a reminder, you guys hate each other,'” Pendergast said. She had asked her husband to run lines, but “after a while, he was like, ‘Absolutely not, I don’t have any idea what’s happening.'”
“This is a machine with, like, a million gears turning,” added Shankar, who was formerly head writer at CollegeHumor and appeared in “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” starring Zach Galifianakis. She specifically praised the show’s three female writers, and said Loftus was on-set rewriting jokes. Roles for women often “are not written to be funny,” she said. The three comedy writers “wrote us to be funny — and that was nice to see a script where you’re not just like, ‘Michael!'”
Pendergast, a current member of the Groundlings Main Company who most recently was seen in the final season of HBO’s “Veep,” said the project was challenging but rewarding. “The script, when I looked at it, I was like, ‘I need to do this, because I need to figure it out,'” she said.
The show joins Eko’s slate of originals, which include EffinFunny’s “Wizard School Dropout”; “Timeline,” about a high school girl whose phone can magically see future social-media posts; college-set comedy “Epic Night” from FBE; and reality-show/murder-mystery spoof “The Coop” from Funny Or Die.
“Damage Control” was developed under Eko’s content-development pact with Walmart, which has invested $250 million in the company to show what’s possible with the platform. “Technology has kind of caught up with storytelling,” Benari said. “Because of how TV and film have been distributed in the 20th century, we got used to leaning back. Technology now allows us to lean in and interact and engage, and these are kind of the first steps.”
Interactive projects from others like Netflix’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” have given credence to the concept. “It’s exiting that the biggest players in this space are stepping into this as well,” said Benari. He added, “Kids expect things to be interactive, and then they kind of get programmed by society that video is not that thing.”
Watch the trailer for “Damage Control” at this link.
Pictured above (l. to r.): Johnny Milord, Rekha Shankar, Emily Pendergast and Alon Benari