A lot goes into the creation of a web-series, but what exactly turns an idea inside the minds of the creators into images on your screen? This is the process that Dionne van den Berg and I dove into head first as the creators of the new Dutch American show, Amsterdam Ave. The 6 episode dramedy series follows Kyran, an Indian American aspiring DJ in NYC, and Maya, a Dutch Surinamese aspiring actress in Amsterdam. The two girls defy societal expectations placed upon them by their cultures and communities by taking a leap of faith and trading places to follow their dreams abroad.
Production can be quite daunting, and this one in particular took place in two countries. We had two separate casts & crews in New York City and The Netherlands which meant we really had to get organized. Dionne and I wrote, produced and starred in the show, and we were able to bring it to life with a team of talented (and mostly female!) filmmakers in both countries. For those interested in a behind the scenes look at the production process, we’ve broken down the creation of episode one!
Step 1 – Writing the Script
As the first impression of our series, we wanted episode one to give viewers insight into the minds of Maya & Kyran. We came up with the idea to show both characters’ nightmares because it gives the audience access to their worst fears before we get to know them as people, coloring our view of what happens in the coming episodes. It’s a fun way to learn about their personalities, goals, fears, and how they feel about the state of affairs in their lives. Dream sequences provide ample opportunity for creativity, as anything can work within the logic of dream world. We loved adding in some comedic elements with the Dutch soccer fans acting as a Greek chorus in Maya’s wedding nightmare, and the angelic Raavi who interrupts Kyran’s office nightmare. After many, many revisions, we settled on our script for episode one, but we kept making tweaks until the last moment.
Step 2 – Pre-Production
After finalizing our script, we launched into pre-production which includes casting the actors, finding props, securing locations, scheduling the shoot, and hiring crew. While searching for locations, we learned that it’s surprisingly difficult to find a cubicle space willing to allow film shoots, especially on a low budget. After emailing over 100 non profits in the NYC area, we managed to find a space. The theater in Maya’s nightmare is in the town of Dordrecht in Holland and was perfect for the concept. To cast our actors we reached out to agents & managers in Holland, and held extensive auditions through Actor’s Access in NYC. Maya and Kyran’s nightmares had to be shot within one day each, so we had a very tight schedule for our assistant directors to manage. The scene of the two girls falling asleep and waking up also had to be perfectly placed so we could implement the split screen effect in post, and this placement required extra time as well.
Step 3 – Production
We shot Maya’s apartment scene and dream sequence during our 8 day shoot in The Netherlands. Our cinematographer Eveline Haverlag used a black magic filter on the camera to give both Maya & Kyran’s dreams a nightmarish quality. Because we were shooting in two countries, we weren’t able to rehearse the blocking in advance. Maya’s dream sequence involves many characters including her family members, fiancé, and the traditionally Dutch soccer hooligans. We had to complete the scene within a day which was quite challenging with all the moving parts.
Maya’s wedding dress is actually Dionne’s mother’s wedding dress which had been in a box for 30 years, since her parents’ wedding day. It was an emotional moment for everyone seeing Dionne walk down the stairs in her mother’s actual wedding dress, especially her father who we hadn't warned in advance! During the shoot, I had moments of awe seeing the stage set up with all our characters, the smoke machine effects, and costumes. It turned out exactly how we had hoped, down to the rose petal effect at the end of the scene.
We shot Kyran’s nightmare on our first day of production in NYC starting bright and early at 4 am to ensure we could leave the facility by afternoon. We used wigs and special effects aging makeup to make Kyran, her coworker, and her boss appear to be in their 80’s. To make Raavi’s pop in and pop out effect work, everyone had to freeze while he switched places between each of the points where he enters or leaves.
The “Congrats, you’re old” cake that Jane & Lydia give to Kyran was inspired by the cake Hagrid gives Harry Potter for his 11th birthday, and the cake shop who made it for us was thoroughly entertained by the task!
Step 4 – Post Production
Dionne was the editor of all 6 episodes of the show, and episode one was particularly challenging since there were many options directionally. After she had put the episode together on her own, we worked closely with our director Amanda. We had a lot of fun with sound effects in this episode, adding in a gong when the officiator appears at Maya’s wedding, and popping and twinkling sounds in Kyran’s dream when Raavi appears. We spent a lot of time trying every possible option for Kyran’s shift from young to old until we ultimately decided on a clean and immediate transition. Amanda added special effects at the end of both nightmares just as they’re wrapping up. Dionne chose the songs in our opening titles and closing credits which came from our music directors Coco & Breezy and Moodswing Music. And finally, after weeks of hard work, episode one was ready to share with the world!
Step 5 – Launch
Last fall, Dionne and I went on a worldwide screening tour where we showed episodes 1 and 2 to audiences everywhere from the LinkedIn HQ and Dutch Embassy in San Francisco to the Scholastic HQ in New York, to Soho House in Chicago and the Amstel Hotel in Amsterdam.
We set up the tour ourselves by reaching out cold or calling upon people we knew to help us organize screenings for their communities. Because of the tour, we were able to see audience reactions for episode one around the world which was a deeply gratifying experience. Audiences of all ages were able to relate to our characters, and we found that many of the comedic elements of the episode were registering well. It was a nerve wracking moment for us when we sent out the email newsletter and uploaded episode one to our YouTube channel!
It’s a vulnerable experience to create something from scratch and put it into the world, but we were very excited to see that it was positively received.
Words by Pooja Tripathi.
Images by Fountain Avenue.