There’s been a lot of talk about how the web is the new frontier for filmmakers. It could be not only the future of distribution, but also, a great way for developing talent to be noticed. Many aspiring talents have attempted this to varying degrees success, but likely many aspiring actors and filmmakers would envy comedy group “Chad, Matt & Rob.”
Performers Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and Rob Polonsky have been making comedy shorts together since 2007, but really made their mark on the web in a big way in March 2008 with their viral hit “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad.” To date, the video has gotten a stunning 21 million views on YouTube. It was featured on Attack of the Show and was a selection at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival.
Many of their other videos have view counts in the high hundreds of thousands, giving their entire portfolio over 44 million views on YouTube, with over 100,000 dedicated subscribers
Recent projects have seen the trio joined by co-director Tyler Gillett (Bettinelli-Olpin is the other co-director) and Justin Martinez, who serves as camera operator and the visual effects wizard.
On the eve of the release of their latest Interactive Adventure “The Treasure Hunt,” Chad, Matt, Rob and Tyler sat down with the Bitter Script Reader about their origins, their writing and production process, and how you could follow in their footsteps.
TBSR: So let’s dive right in – how did you three guys get together and decide you were gonna make stuff for the internet?
Rob: I met Chad at Groundings and Chad knew Matt from their acting class—
Matt: A place called “Actor’s Play Pen.”
Rob: And then there was the matter of saying “Hey, let’s do something and not talk about [doing] something so we did it.
TBSR: And that was “Good Roommates?”
Chad: We started with one before that called “A Terrible Place” that was---
Rob: Awful. It was a terrible video.
Chad: It was a terrible video!
Matt: We released it. It was actually on the front page of Funny or Die for a while.
Chad: Yeah, had about 4000 views on Funny or Die and were like [excited scream].
Tyler: Was it like a 13% or something?
Matt: It was kind of exciting for, like, a minute because that was three and a half years ago, so everything wasn’t a million views off the bat for anybody so it was like “4000 views?! That’s awesome! And then after a week we were like that [short] just sucks!”
Chad: “Let’s take it down.”
Tyler: I still haven’t seen this. I’ve requested to see this multiple times.
Rob: It’s the wrong aspect ratio—
Matt: I think it’s just bad. Has nothing to do with the aspect ratio.
Rob: If anything it was a good learning experience.
Matt: Then we made “Good Roommates” right after that.
TBSR: And was that one scripted or was that one you kind of had just the concept down and ran with it in front of the camera?
Matt: That was probably the most scripted [of our shorts] until “The Teleporter.”
(Laughs all around… for those not in the know, “The Teleporter” was the most recently shot – but not the most recently-released – project.)
TBSR: Do you prefer working that way? Starting with the broad idea and letting the dialogue come out of improvisation, letting the characters develop from your natural interaction?
Tyler: I would say that that has probably changed. “The Birthday Party” was a different story because the scenes weren’t that narratively complex. We could get away with that improvised style a little more. With “The Treasure Hunt” there’s much more of a high-concept story being told and much more of an arc and the edit has kinda been challenging. Because of the lack of scripting that we did, the edit has been more of a challenge. We actually had to take a step back and look at what the footage was telling us and not what we wanted the story to be. And it’s great that the “homegrown” feel is in the footage, but I’d never work like this again. This has been more of a lesson in editing than anything else. We could edit any project after cutting “The Treasure Hunt.”
TBSR: But before that, was the concept solid when you start, or do you often come to set and are still changing it around?
Matt: Like now?
TBSR: Like in the early days. Let’s go back to the time of “Good Roommates.”
Rob: Lots of emails, because we all had day jobs. So it’d be a constant email chain and from there we’d beat out an outline of what we saw doing
Matt: It’s funny, because actually I think “Good Roommates” was scripted, and then the next one that had a script was “Prison Break” because Tyler [Tuione, who plays a prison inmate] wanted one. So basically when we have an [outside] actor in it, it’s like “Where’s the script?” and we write a script for them.
Chad: Yeah, just for that part.
Matt: Up until “Treasure Hunt.” We wrote a script for Alfonso [Arau, who plays the villain] ---
Tyler: Which was super-essential. That’s why he got involved.
Matt: And we only scripted his scenes. And [the rest] was little slugs [that told the rest of the story.] Then as soon as we got to editing, we were like “Fucking A, we’re scripting everything from now on.” So for “The Teleporter,” we wrote the entire script. It was so much easier to shoot and to edit.
TBSR: And it only took three years to get there!
Rob: We learned!
TBSR: Did not having a script help you guys develop the characters on the early ones, because you weren’t locked into something and were able to discover the characters in the moment?
Tyler: I think that’s actually a great take on that.
Rob: And action! Instead of [the characters] just talking, we’re a big believer in doing, like starting with action.
Tyler: It activates things in a new way when it’s not just a staged, blocked situation. I think there’s an natural interpretation of how to move. It also shoots fast. It shoots - with the two cameras we’ve been using since “The Birthday Party” – really quick. We know right away when we’ve covered everything comedically. The edits are harder, but we shoot pretty fast.
TBSR: Because you guys must come in with a lot of footage.
Tyler: Tons and tons of footage.
Matt: And as far as the characters go, in terms of long-term not having scripts and stuff, if you watch our stuff from way back, you’ll see our characters forming. Like it wasn’t always the “Rob” character, the “Chad” character, the “Matt” character.
TBSR: At the time you started doing these shorts, it seemed like you were doing them ever two months or so---
Matt: About one every month and a half.
TBSR: And what was your goal then? Just to get something out on the internet? What was your game plan?
Matt & Rob: No idea! (all laugh)
Chad: The way we approach it – that’s why my character’s a little different from everyone – is that I wanted to use [the shorts] in a demo reel instead of having an actor’s demo reel… which I’ve never done! (all laugh)
Tyler: You guys were releasing that stuff before YouTube was even monotized. So I don’t think anybody but the people who worked at YouTube had any sense of what the future of that [medium] was gonna be. You guys were creating viral content before anyone was considering signing a web creator to a TV or movie deal. This was years before those dialogues.
TBSR: So this was not your bid to “We’re gonna put this out here, this is gonna get us discovered and this is gonna get us meetings?”
Matt: And I think part of it was we were at the point – I know Chad and I were – of “this could be our reel,” which is naïve in hindsight, but quickly that fell off. I’ve never made a reel.
TBSR: And at what point was it clear that this was getting you a solid following outside your circle of friends?
Rob: The Alien video [“Chad Hates Aliens” aka “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad.”]
Matt: For me it was “Good Roommates.” It got featured on MySpace, got like 10,000 views…
Rob: “Yeah! This is the best day ever! I’m famous!”
Chad: The first three or four videos were just on MySpace [at the time.]
Rob: We didn’t put anything on YouTube until after the Alien video got its first million hits on Break.com.
TBSR: And I do want to talk about “Chad Hates Aliens.” How long did that take you guys to shoot?
Matt: Two hours.
TBSR: And how long to come up with the idea?
Matt: Two days.
Rob: And it changed. It was originally something really stupid, like we were going to wake Chad up, “Hey Chad, we’re going to DisneyLand,” and then he gets out of bed and we hit him.
Matt: I don’t even remember that. But it was really quick. We didn’t really know what it was when we were shooting it. [We called our friend Jon Peele at the last moment] to hold the camera.
Chad: And Jessica did the blood make-up and held the spotlight out the window [to simulate the alien ship.]
Rob: And Jake held the alien.
Matt: That is… if it isn’t real.
Tyler: The cat’s out of the bag!
TBSR: So you put this up on Break.com and it took off extremely quickly.
Rob: It was featured on the front page and it got like a million views in one day.
TBSR: How does something end up on the front page of Break? Is there like a metric of how many views you get…?
Matt: No idea.
Rob: I think someone who works at Break monitors incoming videos and they saw “oh this is good,” and then they put it up on the front page.
Tyler: And that was a lot easier for people to do back then. There was less content to filter. Now they have departments focused on finding the next viral thing.
Rob: Now there’s what, 60 hours every minute being uploaded?
TBSR: And Break is where you picked up the bulk of your audience. And I remember it “Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad” being covered on Attack of the Show within a few days of it being posted. What kind of reaction were you getting from it?
Rob: [Mostly] “Is that alien real?” emails. We’d get like 30 a day and still do.
Matt: Yeah, we still get ten [of those] a day.
TBSR: Is that the appeal of this one, that it looks like it could be real, and everyone passes it along because of that?
Tyler: I think that’s absolutely it. It’s the blend of comedy and horror too.
TBSR: And it’s very short. It’s like two and a half minutes.
Matt: It fits the internet window and the two emails we get more than anything ever are: “Oh, that’s so funny when they hit him in the head with the ironing board” and “Oh my god, is that real?” So it’s exactly that, people who think it’s funny that Chad gets hit in the face, or that it’s scary.
Tyler: It’s also so self-contained that the narrative doesn’t need to exist outside of what is shown. It’s so digestible, it’s like this little nugget of fun. That’s what viral videos were – these little self-contained pieces of entertainment that were between three and four minutes long.
Matt: As far as that video changing anything, I don’t think it did---
Chad: It did a little bit. Because we did get the one meeting with UTA, who suggested we come up with a webseries.
Matt: I think what changed for us then was we were like, “Let’s stop doing sketchy stuff and let’s start doing stories.” For us, once we did “Cops and Robbers” and “Danger Zone” they felt more like little stories, not so much like sketch comedy stuff. Which is where we’ve evolved. From “Birthday Party” and “Treasure Hunt” we’ve been like, push the story, push the story, push the story.”
Rob: That’s what we want to do. We want to tell a good story. We want to develop these awesome characters. We don’t want to do sketch comedy.
Tyler: And part of what sketch comedy is, is people playing different characters and what’s become great about this brand is that you guys are the characters and we now follow “Chad,” “Matt,” and “Rob” the characters through all these different adventures. So it feels like a series of stories.
TBSR: Like kind of a modern day Three Stooges in a way.
TBSR: Because one week the Stooges might be cops, another week they might be orderlies, but the characterizations would be consistent.
Matt: And that’s one thing we’ve started sticking with now.
Tyler: And how those characters specifically service the story. Who Matt is and what Matt does is absolutely essential for the scene going in this direction.
Matt: And that might be going against Rob’s character [who has a different agenda.]
Tyler: Rob is the instigator who starts shit. Rob is the plot.
TBSR: He always seems to be the catalyst. Have you broken it down into ID, EGO and SUPEREGO? because Rob is definitely ID.
Part II - The Interactive Adventures
Part III - Producing web shorts