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Catching up with 2011 Subway Fresh Artists winner R.J. Daniel Hanna


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With a title like “Jeff and Ravi Fail History,” it’s easy to assume that cowriter and director R.J. Daniel Hanna made a web-friendly version of “Harold & Kumar,” some serialized tome in which two slackers muscle through borderline failure powered by hipster wit and a succession of fast food entrees. But Subway Restaurants made a shrewd decision in choosing Hanna as one of last year’s Fresh Artists™, since the young filmmaker created a clever series of webisodes in which an overachiever and her doofus roommate find themselves lost in time – this time appropriately powered by fast food entrees.

IFC caught up with Hanna for a discussion about his experiences as an entrant in the SUBWAY Fresh Artists™ Filmmaker Series; in addition to discussing the challenges of coming up with an idea that was fun, clever, and appealing to judges, Hanna talked about the opportunities the contest afforded him, and explained how the experience influenced him as he moves on to his first feature, a low-budget comedy.

Find out about this year’s SUBWAY Fresh Artists™ Filmmaker Series by clicking here.

IFC: Just to get started, talk about how you got involved, how you became aware of it and how you sort of initially came up with an idea for the contest.

HANNA: There was going to be a competition to do a web series for Subway Restaurants. Coke used to do those student short films that they’d play at AMC theaters, so I’d done one of those the year before and I knew it’s a good opportunity to get money from a company and associate yourself with a brand and do something that you don’t have to fund yourself, that you can do on a bigger level. And it seemed really cool – three episodes of a web series, and maybe they would continue the web series down the line or something like that. So it just seemed like a really good opportunity; $40,000 for three episodes was more money than I’d ever worked with before.

So we just kind of got together with Brian Scofield and Ian Ward, and Brian and I kind of kicked around some ideas and what we wanted was something where we could use the money, which was $40,000, so we wanted to do something that could have some production value or do something we hadn’t done before. So we kind of kicked around some ideas and then kind of thought, well, there’s been a lot of time travel stuff, but not really on the web that we were aware of. Initially, we wanted to do it a little bit more handheld style, like a little more fluid in that sense, and do some more [improvisation] and that kind of thing. We thought that hadn’t really been done with time travel, and we knew that if we did get to do different episodes, we can go to a different place in each episode and this kind of opened up a lot of opportunities, we thought, to cover some of our favorite genres and stuff like that.

IFC: Once you came up with the idea, how much of it was developed by the time you entered it in the contest?

HANNA: But, initially, we had two episodes take place in the past – how we pitched it was they would arrive in the past and then you’d have basically one episode of them kind of arguing in the past and they meet a caveman at the end of the second episode. Then, after we pitched it and were selected based on that outline, we started thinking, why don’t we make a whole episode that is in the future and we’ll just really push ourselves to try and stretch every dollar and make that happen? So that was where that kind of came about.

It seems like kind of funny now, but at the time $40,000 was like so much money, especially in kind of school terms, where you can get a camera from school and get a bunch of resources from school, so it’s really $40,000 you can put up on the screen. So we just really wanted to try and make each one different, have like a different look and be in a different environment and explore a different genre, like sci-fi or the post-apocalyptic kind of movie.

IFC: Do you remember how you reacted when you found out you were chosen as a winner?

HANNA: Oh, yeah, I mean, I was extremely excited. When we were making it, like we knew it was kind of exactly what we wanted, because we got to make it during the summer, so we didn’t have class or anything like that. We were just focusing on making the movie. And I knew when we found that it was going to be an opportunity to really do something on a much more kind of real level and be able to hire people. Like we had a production designer from AFI who was great and being able to hire good people and really make something where we didn’t have to like cut every corner, and that was really exciting to think, okay, well, we’re actually going to make something that there’s no way we could have made this without their support. That was really exciting.

IFC: How reflective are the shorts that you came up with of the kind of content you want to create going forward? Do you want to go continue to do comedy, or was this sort of a fun platform to get to move on to sci-fi, action, drama, et cetera?

HANNA: I’m interested in comedy. But it’s funny – I have a definitive separation between what is more like commercial work, something for a brand, and then something that I really want to do. Like I’m probably more interested in like a Coen brothers kind of [comedy], more like Fargo or like Barton Fink, which has comedic elements but is primarily a dramatic storyline, and that’s kind of more where I would want to do personally, professionally.

But I’d actually really like to get into commercials and would really be interested in doing more web series and things like that that are comedies. So [the web series] is not, ultimately, what I’d want to do, but it’s something I would really like to do more of, because it is a lot of fun. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had on set, just because the actors really brought a lot and we just tried to keep it fun and keep it open to improvisation and that kind of thing. And it’s just kind of neat to be able to feel like we could try anything. In comedy, you can be a little bit absurd and kind of push things in that direction, which is a fun thing to explore.

IFC: Obviously, you’d had training beforehand via school and everything else, but were there different things that you learned from the competition or just the process of making the shorts themselves?

HANNA: Yeah, definitely. The experience of having to just sort of make the scene work and figure out a lot of the blocking stuff right there in the moment and kind of working with the actors while everyone else is setting up and coming in and just trying to work on the spot instead of being able to plan every little thing out. Because we didn’t have the sets built until like right before we were shooting and we couldn’t really get all the locations much before we were shooting. It all happened very quickly, so in films where you’re kind often used to being able to focus and find out every little detail before it happens, it wasn’t really like that. We had to figure a lot of it out on the spot and adapt a lot more on the spot. And it really taught me how to delegate, I think, because then you’d let the crew do their thing and trust that they were going to get it right. Then you’re trying to do what’s really important, I think, which is getting the actors ready and making sure that it’s not just people standing there the whole time not doing anything.

IFC: How do you feel like this contest sort of laid the groundwork for what you’re doing going forward, be it in terms of opportunities or creatively shaping the direction that you might go in?

HANNA: Well, obviously, it was a good opportunity to do a fun project with a good budget and stuff, so it’s a really good reel piece. I think it definitely helped to have worked for Subway Restaurants or Coke or brands like that, because it’s something people recognize and kind of legitimizes me a little bit. It’s like here’s something I did for a major brand and they trusted me with it and paid me money and this is the result – people were all happy with it.

IFC: What sort of opportunities has winning created since then, and what are you doing now?

HANNA: Well, actually, I am going to edit like this indie feature, like a $1.2 million feature. A friend of mine recommended me, it’s a comedy, and then they really liked the web series and that’s why I got hired, ultimately, so that seems like a pretty direct correlation. But in terms of really direct things, that’s probably the most direct like job.

IFC: What has this experience sort of meant for you personally, much less professionally?

HANNA: I mean, it’s always really validating to pitch an idea that you think is good for somebody and having it be accepted and fun to just have people support it and like it enough to try and associate with South by Southwest and play it at IFC and stuff, because those are really critically respected brands. South by Southwest and IFC is really something that’s really important to filmmakers starting out, to not just be associated with big corporations but also organizations that support art, even if it’s not like the most artistically groundbreaking thing.

So that was really important and a really good feeling that helps think, okay, well, I’m not crazy, people maybe do have good ideas and we can kind of push the boundaries in terms of what we could do with the money and the time and stuff and actually get this thing done. Because there were definitely a lot of, not doubts, but they were kind of like, great, I hope you guys can do this. It’s really ambitious, so I hope you pull it off. That was kind of the – I don’t want to say attitude, because that’s how I’m thinking of it, because they were very positive the whole time, but kind of the feeling. And we were very proud that we felt like we kind of obtained the level that we wanted.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.