Wednesday marks Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Some might be celebrating by reading their favorite play. Others, by swooning over actor Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet. A group of USC alumni, however, is celebrating in a big way — by premiering their web series all about the Bard on Hulu.
Complete Works centers around Hal, a Midwestern Shakespeare-phile who lands himself a last-minute spot in the finals of a cutthroat Shakespeare acting competition. Inspired by iconic comedies such as Mean Girls and Waiting for Gufman, Hal must struggle both to find his own in the competition and to interact with his fellow contestants, a group of characters as crazy as those in Shakespeare’s plays.
Producers Lili Fuller, Adam North and Joe Sofranko both graduated from USC’s School of Theatre (now the School of Dramatic Arts) in 2010. Soon afterward, the two felt the need to create a project where they had full creative control.
“We wanted to make something to keep us going,” Fuller said.
The idea to focus their project around a Shakespeare competition came from their own experiences — Sofranko won the National Shakespeare Competition while in high school, and Fuller and Sofranko first met through the YoungArts program.
Sofranko wrote a first draft of the pilot, and they soon passed it on to friend and fellow USC grad Adam North. The two wrote the series over the course of a year, originally in 14 short episodes. When they planned the show, it was first organized like a feature.
“We plotted the whole thing, had flashcards, had everything play by play, then we broke that into episodes,” Fuller said.
Then came time to start production. The team used every channel they could to raise the money, including an Indiegogo campaign, private donations, sending letters to friends and family members and maxing out all the credit cards they could get their hands on.
The trio spent 24 stressful days in the summer of 2012 filming Complete Works. They all had limited film production experience and, as a result, felt overwhelmed.
“We had never done something with [just] the three of us,” Fuller said. “Or something on this scale of epic-ness.”
The production experience was nothing short of intense.
“It was amazing but insane,” Fuller said. “None of us went to school for film production, so we were learning how to make a movie as we were doing it.”
Fuller explained that each day of filming was like producing a staged theater production — they had to get the props, put up the lights, rehearse the actors, shoot the actors, put it all away and then do it all again the next day.
“Looking back I still say, ‘How did we do that?” Fuller said. “Energy that it takes to do something like that for no money for people with little experience, it was nuts.”
Luckily Fuller, Sofranko and North were able to assemble a skilled team of friends and acquaintances. Fellow USC classmates, USC professors, current USC students and other creative people all came together to create Complete Works.
“We were able to gather all these brilliant creative people who were like us, who wanted to make projects, who wanted to make things that were great,” said Fuller.
Fuller credits the script as being the hook that brought most people on board. The high-quality writing was able to speak for itself when the team searched for crew members and actors. At the end of the day, Fuller was glad they were able to find people who “were as passionate about telling the story as we were.”
Throughout production and post-production, ending up on Hulu was always in the back of Fuller’s head.
“That was our dream platform.” Fuller said. “Alex [Skinner, who plays Leo on the show] made a mockup of the Hulu website with our logo on it like a year ago, and I kept it as the background as my phone until it was a reality. It’s pretty amazing.”
To make that happen, they first sent Hulu the trailer. Intrigued, Hulu employees requested to view the entire series. Initially, the Complete Works team sent them the 14-episode version. Soon, however, they took a step back to consider the format of most shows on Hulu. Realizing they were missing something, they re-edited the show into five 30-minute episodes to better fit typical Hulu programming. Luckily, Hulu approved of the new formatting and agreed to pick up the show.
Fuller is thrilled that the show is finally premiering.
“We’re super excited because we didn’t make the show to watch it ourselves,” she said. “I’ve been watching it over and over during the last year, and I know every line, every performance, every shot. But we made it for an audience, and I’m so excited to share the work finally, this little thing we’ve been watching in a dark room for so many months.”
The team hopes the show will appeal not just to people who love theater, but people in the arts, especially students. The show is about Shakespeare and the arts, but above all, it’s about college-age students trying to find their place.
Fuller hopes her show inspires other USC students to create their own projects.
“People wouldn’t be afraid to jump in and make something,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how much we’ve learned throughout this process. I encourage everyone to do as much as you can, and put the time in, because you’ll be happier in the end.”
The show premiered on Hulu today and is available for free. For more information, view the show’s website, completeworks.tv.