How to Make a TV Show Backwards with ‘Nirvanna the Band’
Nirvanna the Band, Viceland’s first scripted TV series, is a high-energy sitcom about a Toronto musical duo who concoct elaborate schemes to book a show. Creators Matt Johnson, Jay McCarrol, and Jared Raab stretch their small budget by sneaking shots at unauthorized locations, incorporating bystanders as bit players, and stretching fair use to borrow soundtracks from Jurassic Park and Star Wars. The result is a caper that invades real life without becoming a prank show.
The show started as a web series, created by co-stars Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol and producer Jared Raab. I interviewed Matt and Jay for Splitsider around the launch of Matt’s first feature film, The Dirties, a dark comedy about a school shooting. Since then Matt has also released Operation Avalanche, a thriller about faking the moon landing.
Like all of Matt’s projects, NtBtS uses a loose production style, where the guiding rule is “production is development.” The team rewrites stories during production and even after editing, sometimes re-shooting whole episodes. They keep production barebones, often shooting in the wild with just a producer, Jared on camera, and Matt and Jay.
As the plot grows increasingly ambitious, the team grabs promising footage and builds new storylines around it. When NOW Magazine ran a cover story about the show, Matt and Jay shot an episode about infiltrating NOW to plant a fake concert listing. When Matt premiered Operation Avalanche at Sundance, they shot an episode about sneaking a film into the projection booth.
This approach turns the show into metafiction; the character Matt’s film is a parody of the real Matt’s first movie. The characters constantly build on jokes from past projects, in subtle ways that won’t trip up new viewers.
I interviewed Matt and Jay, plus producers Jared Raab and Matt Miller, about translating NtBtS to TV.
Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol on keeping a show crazy
How would you describe the new series?
Matt: We try not to say very much. The show is masquerading as this stupid sitcom about nothing. It’s pretending to be something extremely innocuous. Explaining that it’s really this crazy show where there are no rules, and that we’re trying to have our characters do things that you can’t ever do on TV — that’s very difficult, to describe a show that way to somebody and have them take you seriously.
There’s a lot of recognizable music in the show, like the Jurassic Park and Star Wars soundtracks.
Matt: Making the feature films that we did, we learned an amazing amount about fair use and what you legally can use without permission.
Is it the same with the Ben Folds excerpt?
Matt: That we’re paying for. And believe it or not, Ben Folds stars in a major episode in season two, where he replaces Jay in the band.
You’re already shooting season two?
Matt: We’ve already shot season two and some of season three. We’re basically ten friends in Toronto that are all working out of the same house. It’s not like we need to get permission or do even too much planning to go and shoot something.
Yesterday for example, we said, “Oh, we should really do an episode about the stock market based on the movie Hook.” I’ll play Robin Williams from the first act of Hook, and Jay will play Jack, my son. We’re talking about shooting that episode at the end of the month.
On the web series, you did a lot of re-shoots and re-edits. You would re-upload new versions months later.
Matt: It’s worse than before! Now that’s a part of our creative process. We aren’t even into the hardcore writing of an episode until we’ve already shot the entire episode.
We just did a first pass screening of an episode where we steal a kid from the sick kids hospital and steal his “Make a Wish”, and we take him to an amusement park. We shot that in the summer, edited up until now, re-shot a bunch of stuff two weeks ago, and completely and totally changed the story twice. Just this week did we say “Wow, okay. Yeah, we’ve got something here.”
Jay: It helps that our whole team are friends. We can be very honest when something’s not coming together. Everybody’s bleeding for the show. There’s no one pumping the brakes saying, “Well, you know, this is good enough, and I want to be home for dinner tonight.”
Matt: I can give you a perfect example from the pilot. We knew that we needed to be smoking cigarettes so that we could light a banner on fire. What we had written was, we ask people on the street about cigarettes. We got footage of people telling us, “Cigarettes will relax you.” Then when we edited it together, there was nothing fun about it.
So Rob Hyland, one of our editors, said, “Well, in the montage, you guys watch Jurassic Park for fun.” It was just a little throw-away moment. And we worked backwards and made Jurassic Park the central idea of the episode. It’s way funnier.
It seems like you’re also making a lot of practical choices so that it’s affordable and possible to go re-shoot.
Matt: Yeah. I think advice for any young creators doing anything is, own your [production process]. You need to be the person who the budget is going through. One thing for sure is that everywhere you go when you try to make a TV show, they’re going to try and oversee it every step of the way. Which is smart! It just goes against everything about how we make this show.
[For the web series] Jay and I owned our cameras, we owned the microphones. We didn’t really think about it, but it was huge in terms of our model, because then we could go shoot whenever we wanted to. We never needed to think about production versus non-production. You have to meld all these things together. Then all of a sudden, you get rid of all that bad voodoo. “Oh shit, we’re spending money. We’re running out of daylight. We gotta go now, we’ve got 10 people on set.”
The show has a much bigger budget than the web series did, but in terms of how we shoot, it’s the exact same model. We submitted scripts or outlines for ten episodes. Then we started delivering the episodes, and Vice was like, this is nothing close to what you told us it was going to be. Luckily they liked it, but it was definitely a learning experience for them.
When we showed them even the earliest roughs, they went over really well. Spike Jonze, an executive producer and president of Viceland, responded really well to it. I think it’s because of Spike that we even have the deal that we have. It’s rare to have somebody with as much creative experience, so respected in the industry, as the head of programming. Who’s going to argue with him at the network?
He talks to us about how they would do things with Jackass. His producer Derek Freda is also giving us practical advice on the day-to-day. Those two have so much experience in this space, that anything they tell us to do, we take very seriously.
Since you guys are doing everything so fast and loose, has anything really gone wrong in a shoot?
Jay: I almost got beat up at Sundance. I was trying to get into a party, in character. I’m showing these fake credentials, and I’ve got this attitude, and the bouncer’s just having none of it. Finally he kind of snaps on me, saying, “You know what? I’m not letting you in here buddy. I’m about to throw you over the edge.” When we went up to him afterwards, and told him, “Hey, it was just for a shoot,” he’s like, “I don’t give a damn. I’ll throw you over the banister.”
What’s the plan after this?
Matt: We plan to work on this show for the next year and a half. Afterwards, we’re going to go make a movie. Right now it’s about Albert Einstein building a time machine to send an assassin back in time to kill Hitler, but everything goes wrong.
I want to do the work that I love, and right now that is making Nirvanna the Band the Show all the time, and not thinking about anything else.
Jared Raab and Matt Miller on collaborative filmmaking
Can you tell me more about the “production is development” process?
Matthew: Writing is the cheapest part of our process. Even production is pretty cheap. Where we spent all of our money is on the ability to re-shoot, and restructure and re-shoot again, and re-cut.
Jared: We came out of a film school experience that was extremely collaborative. I would say the way that we do things is not about having no rules, it’s just a completely different set of rules.
What are some of those rules?
Matthew: The producer’s job on every other production is always saying no. It’s very easy to say no. It also doesn’t lead to the best results. My number one rule is to not say no. That involves things like leaving time and money for re-shoots. It’s integral to us that we have that flexibility later in the game.
Another rule is that you can’t just not like something, whether it’s a story idea or at the concept stage, or something in an edit. You can pitch a solution or an idea. Literally we could have an intern give a note on a cut, because that’s a safe space. And it’s hard to get to that.
Jared: Another is, you must constantly check your ego. It’s a show where no one is really going to be able to detect who did what and how it came together, and I think everyone is getting very comfortable with that idea.
Matthew: Yeah, we’re used to having Matt take credit for all of our genius.
How does this process hold up on some of the bigger shoots?
Matthew: On the last episode of our first season, we had over a hundred people on set. Suddenly it’s like, “Okay, we only have this location for a certain amount of time.” You’re faced with all the challenges of a regular production. Keeping the flow, and keeping what is special about this process, is about tuning everything else out. It’s on those days that the role definition is the most important.
I would argue that we have just as much fluidity even then. Curt Lobb, the lead editor, has been on set maybe three days the entire production. But his voice is stronger on the show than anybody’s.
How did the show end up with Vice? What’s it like working with them?
Matthew: Matt met with [the FX network] and they really liked what we had done. They committed to giving us a little bit of money to shoot a test reel. That was not Nirvanna the Band, it was a completely different property.
We had tried to do stuff with Vice prior to when we did the show, and it just never ended up working out. So when Viceland came knocking it seemed like, okay we could go and make a season of Nirvanna the Band, and keep [the Operation Avalanche team], and they would have jobs. Or we could go and do this pilot and maybe get nothing at the end of it. That seemed like a no-brainer to us.
You’re working with a lot of the same people as you did in the movies. How has that team grown?
Jared: Pretty much everyone on the team is either somebody who was there from before the features, or a collaborator of a collaborator. And there’s people from the Toronto film scene. It’s a very tight knit group.
Matthew: Our three editors were all students at a place called Humber College here in Toronto. When we needed help on The Dirties, we had no money, so I went to these students who were clearly top of their class and really sharp. They came and worked for free, happy to be in assistant editor positions and stuff like that. When we got money to make Avalanche they all elevated up the ladder
Who are some of your influences?
Matthew: I grew up obsessed with American Zoetrope and the independent film movement of the 70s in the US: George Lucas with Frances Coppola, and Brian De Palma, and Walter Murch, and all these guys living together and working together. When I came to film school that was my dream.
At the beginning of 2000s, David Gordon Green was making those first couple movies, George Washington and All the Real Girls. He was working with the same crew and roster of actors over and over, and [working with] Jody Hill.
What’s your advice for new filmmakers?
Matthew: Just make stuff. When I was finishing film school, were still shooting on film, and we needed to get grants and equipment. All of those barriers have disappeared.
It used to be like, “Oh this person made a great short film, let’s give them $500,000 to make a first feature.” Now you have to come to the table with that first feature. Matt was like, “Oh I’m just going to go make a web show.” It happened to be a fantastic web show.
Jared: After we made that web show, we thought, “Man, now people will come knocking, we’ll get to make a real TV show.” It took ten years for that real TV show to come.
Matthew: Ten years and two movies!
It’s also important to finish stuff. See it through to the end and screen it for people. If you saw the first cut of either of [our] movies or any of these episodes you would think it was just garbage, the worst thing you’ve ever seen. You’ve got to finish it, you can’t just give up halfway through.