I love when I do a review of a show and I wind up a fan! Meet “Versus Valerie”, the new … oh let’s call it a “spin off” from established YouTube character Valerie Lapomme AKA “Sexy Nerd Girl.” On the “Sexy Nerd Girl” channel we got to see actor Hannah Spear as Valerie — a nerdy/cool vlogger who dished about her day. Now, on “Versus Valerie” we actually get to see Valerie’s day! Whoot whoot!
Usually, when reviewing web series, I have to fake enthusiasm so the producers will send me swag, but “Versus Valerie’s” first episode (above) made me laugh more than the couple of polite cursory laughs I reserve for those other shows. So that is a good sign of things to come.
Also a good sign of things to come, my interview with the series creators, Simon Fraser, Stephanie Kaliner and Mike Fly went really well (I even threw in a kind-of dick question to see what they would do, and they handled it beautifully). So mix smart producers with the foxy, talented gem that is Hannah Spear and throw in a level of writing that makes my own seem flawed and amateurish, and, well, shit. I’d say we’ve got a pretty damn good thing brewing.
Pardon my swears, good interviews make me into a wild man.
How did the idea for the original series come about?
Mike: I’ll leave it up to Simon and Steph to elaborate on the concept behind SNG, but I will say that the thing that made the whole project attractive to me was that we were creating something positive out of a perceived stereotype for Geek Girls. Val is a complicated, intelligent and rational character that always sees the lighter side of the equation. She has very healthy attitudes about sex and challenges what the mainstream idea of “sexy” is by focusing on people’s passions and confidence instead of physical beauty. You don’t see that in the mainstream media very often.
Simon: I wanted to make a show with a female lead who lives an average life but does so heroically. I sold Steph on it. Steph and I sold Mike and Hannah on it. And away we went.
Steph: Simon had the idea for the series, and to build it around a main character who embodies the fundamental rule of improv: “yes and”. Simon wanted to create a female protagonist who was resoundingly positive and confident. After seeing me improvise in a show, and reading my writing samples, he asked me to come aboard as head writer and together we created the main characters and their back stories.
You started a web franchise where fans could interact with a personality as if they were a real person. Was there any confusion for viewers as to that line between reality and fiction?
Mike: We never tried to hide the fact that Val was fictional (even against the advice of some trusted web producers) because we knew this would be an opportunity to tell a different kind of story – one that we could develop with the audience. There was and will always be confusion though, that’s the difficulty with first person storytelling – you can either beat the viewers over the head by reminding them it is fictional (and making it harder and harder for them to escape into the story), or you can make that information available and trust the community to inform itself. In the comments of almost every vlog, someone “reveals” to the viewers that the show is “FAKE” – but there are always fans that respond to them and remind them that it is still awesome – usually we win those fans over.
Simon: Definitely. It’s happened a few times despite the fact that viewers are never more than a mouse-click away from discovering the nature of the show. Some Internet users just don’t read descriptions or click on links. We’ve always checked in with those recently ‘awakened’ viewers to find out what we could be doing differently to clarify to our viewers that they are essentially playing an ARG. And for the most part they’ve been very helpful. It’s a bit of a balancing act between ensuring viewer integrity and keeping the fourth wall intact.
Steph: Definitely. A lot of fans took the show at face value and thought that Val was a vlogger just like many others on YouTube. Another portion of the fans did some investigating and went to our website where they read that Val was fictional and played by Hannah – but there was even confusion amongst these people because some of them thought that Hannah was writing the vlogs and editing them, and that “Val” was just her alias. It seemed that most people didn’t fully understand the mechanics behind the show.
Does “Valerie” get any bizarre messages from creepy fans?
Mike: We decided to stop making Val available to direct message on her social media platforms, partly because we didn’t have the resources to reply to everyone (it takes a lot of time for our volunteer staff to reply to several comments a day on many Social Media platforms in Val’s voice) and partly because there were people that would really invest in the character (most who knew she wasn’t real) and they would reveal intimate details about their lives that we were uncomfortable offering opinions on. There were several really touching moments though, where we could really feel that we helped change someone’s life for the better – some people just needed someone to talk to, and I’m super glad we were there to do that.
Simon: “Show your feet” is about as bizarre as it’s gotten. But foot fetishes are hardly bizarre. Right? Where my fetishists at?
Steph: Never anything creepy, but she did get asked out on a lot of dates. She let everyone down gently, and those people got personal email replies from one of the creators that explained more about the project.
Was “Versus Valerie” the original intent of the show and now it is possible with more money, or is this a new idea that emerged from out of the series?
Mike: Sexy Nerd Girl was always the beginning of something bigger. However, “Versus Valerie” evolved after we had immersed ourselves in web culture and web series. We really tried to capitalize on all the things we love about the internet (collaboration, the pacing, the fact that we are in total control of the story we are telling) and create a show that spoke to us. After all, we are nerds, so we are sort of our own target audience I think though, that the show definitely evolved beyond the original ideas we had – Val’s character emerged through the interaction we had from our audience.
Simon: A web series like VsV has been the intent all along. SNG was the tool we created to develop the character, to show that we could consistently generate high-quality content, and to build a backstory for VsV. And it doesn’t hurt that we’ve managed to grow a modest audience with which to begin VsV.
Steph: “Versus Valerie” was always the plan, even though originally the series was just going to be called Sexy Nerd Girl, until Mike had the brilliant idea to rebrand as VsV. But from the beginning we were always aiming to make a high budget, third person web series – we just had to earn the financing first.
Would you consider the way you created an “air of reality” around the Valerie character, what with use of other social media platforms, a potentially huge development for the medium at large?
Mike: I believe we took full advantage of what social media could bring to the table when it came to the story and character we were trying to create. Given more resources, we could have expanded our efforts, but I think that we learned a lot about how to tell a story across multiple platforms and what it takes to build a team that can do that. The tight-knit group of people that put Sexy Nerd Girl together are really something special – it takes a lot of time to make SNG as good as it is and it takes a lot of talent to make sure Val is consistent across so many platforms.
We all use social media every day, and we wanted to make sure Val was using SM the way we do on a regular basis. I definitely think that is a big part of keeping her grounded and feeling “real”. But big kudos has to go to Hannah Spear – she has definitely embodied this character is a way that makes her totally natural – without her talent, this project would never have become the success that it has.
Blending reality with fiction however, was something we tried to do to ground the character. We set the show in Toronto, and we use regular Toronto landmarks to keep the series feeling real.
Val’s relationship with Jay Hooft (of 3 Killa Bytes) became an incredible collaboration and really helped create a “realness” to Val that I don’t think would have happened without the guys at 3KB. Val’s comic con coverage was also something that brought the character into the real world, where she interacted with celebrities and real con-goers and I think that brought a real sense of authenticity to the character. I think we definitely broke some new ground when it came to that kind of expanded storytelling.
Simon: I think it shows that there are many kinds of tools you can use to tell a story. We’ve used our SM properties for foreshadowing events, for providing character exposition, for telling jokes that only nerds and geeks would appreciate, and for managing audience expectations, to name but a few uses.
Steph: I think so. It feels like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc are making the world feel much more accessible and there are less barriers between the audience and the creators. I think that people are becoming used to being able to interact on some level with their entertainment, it’s almost an expectation now to be at arm’s reach with the audience. With Sexy Nerd Girl, fans got to interact with the character, ask her for advice, make suggestions, send her jokes, and basically have a voice on the show. People responded really well to that, they became immersed in the character’s world, and I think that’s what made her feel so real, and it’s why the audience could relate to her and grow attached to her.
I notice that there has been a declining viewership in Sexy Nerd Girl from the start of the series until now. Was “Versus Valerie” seen as an injection of “fresh life” into the show or what?
Mike: Sexy Nerd girl was never really “the show” – we have always thought of SNG as the beginning of something bigger and we sort of saved up for “Versus Valerie”. SNG was never really promoted much, our growth was basically organic – we didn’t really put an emphasis on growing the audience, just on maintaining a consistent product that people could enjoy while we were busy in our secret laboratories concocting “Versus Valerie”. I think it is natural for any audience to take a break or move on after they have had their fill of something – we all did it with SNL and the Simpsons…
VsV is definitely an injection into SNG and I’m hoping we see a dramatic increase in audience – we worked really hard on this show and we tried to make it one of the best online – I want everyone to see it! We took what resources we had and really stretched them as far as we could. Now, it’s out there and we will have to see how people respond. I’m really excited – we made this show because it celebrates so many different things that we love and we hope it resonates with all the geeks and nerds out there that don’t really see their lives represented in The Big Bang Theory.
Simon: VsV has been our goal all along. Our first few months of views on SNG were an anomaly of sorts, a reaction to the novelty of this fresh new voice we’d created. Once we developed an efficient rhythm to the show’s production, our core audience emerged. And that’s really who we’re playing to. SNG is an indie production, so it’s going to pull indie numbers. I have much higher expectations for “Versus Valerie”.
Steph: I think our old videos have gathered more views just because they’ve been up longer. Overall, our viewership has stayed mostly the same with the exception of a few helpful boosts from other YouTubers like Philip DeFranco, xXSlyFoxHoundXx and 3killabytes. But it’s super cool to be doing something new with Sexy Nerd Girl – “Versus Valerie” does feel really exciting and I hope it attracts new viewers to the SNG channel.
How did you attract some of the other YouTube creators to the project?
Mike: Unlike traditional media, YouTubers understand the value of collaboration and they celebrate it. We sent emails to many creators and some were too busy to respond, some couldn’t make their schedules work and some were super excited to come and play. It’s really fun to bring other creators into your project, they inject their own flavour to the mix and it makes things really exciting. Plus our show is scripted narrative, so not every YouTube Creator gets the chance to try that out, and who doesn’t want to come visit Toronto!
Simon: We wrote good juicy parts for them, gave them fun things to say and do, and then we paid them for their time and effort.
Steph: Mike sent out some really nice emails.
How challenging has it been to keep Hannah et al involved with the project over the years?
Mike: We had all worked for about 18 months on the show when we found out that the Independent Production Fund had awarded us funding for “Versus Valerie” – and that day was so exciting for our team. We’ve been riding on that high throughout shooting, right up to launch. We’ve all worked so hard and put so much of ourselves into this – we are all very invested in “Versus Valerie”.
Hannah is an actress, and a role like Val only comes around once in awhile – she’s been super excited to finally bring life to Val outside of the vlogs. And, let me tell you, she MURDERS this role. She’s so amazing. I think after people see her in season one, it’s going to be difficult to find time in her schedule for season 2 because she is going to be so busy…
Simon: Not really challenging at all. Both Hannah and Adam are partners in our production company. There have been times when they have been out of town for extended periods. It’s just problem solving, figuring out what we need to do and when we need to do it by in order to keep releasing a video every week. For instance, the last 6 months of our 2012 vlogs were actually shot over 4 days in June so that our team could explore other creative opportunities, go on tour, take a vacation, etcetera.
Steph: It’s been a little challenging to keep everyone feeling as excited as we all were at the very beginning of the project – especially since we’ve been going for over two years! But when we’re all hanging out and shooting, it’s still really fun to be together. (and it doesn’t hurt that we can FINALLY afford to compensate people a little for their hard work).
Will “Sexy Nerd Girl” continue as a separate entity from “Versus Valerie” or will this effectively end the original web series?
Mike: Val is a vlogger – and so far, the plan is for SNG to continue until we decide to wrap up the project as a whole. Unless of course, something in Val’s life prevents that – our writers like to think outside the box, so anything is possible. If Val stops vlogging – it’ll be because it makes sense in the story.
Simon: The SNG vlogs are now a secondary content stream to “Versus Valerie”, just as our SM properties have always been a secondary content stream to the vlogs. We’re simply adding another layer of narrative on top of what we’ve already got going. And the vlogs link in with VsV, so often the vlog that follows an episode will refer to something that happened in that episode and give it a deeper context from Val’s perspective.
Steph: SNG will continue as an “in-world” part of the web series, meaning that Val is a vlogger and will keep vlogging. The SNG vlogs will serve as a companion piece to the series, and a way for Val to express her thoughts to the audience (so they get a peek into what she’s thinking).
What is some outrageous tidbit you can tell NMR as an “exclusive”?
Mike: We’ve shot a bunch of footage that you won’t get to see in the web series – we have other plans for it that we will be revealing in the summer…
Simon: The Gamer Girl Manifesto video that we released in December 2011 that so many young male gamers trolled because it had feminist overtones was written and directed by 2 male gamers who love nothing more than to whore attention while they make sandwiches in the kitchen.
Steph: There’s a scene in the last episode of “Versus Valerie” (season one) that made me cry like a baby on set when they were shooting it.
Hell yeah! Make sure you all like this article and then go watch the series! Make these people all rich so they send me some swag! Hehehe.