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James Franco vs. the Fact Checkers Unit

James Franco vs. the Fact Checkers Unit

Articles - Directing

Director Dan Beers’ moviemaking success story began with his short film FCU: Fact Checkers Unit, which premiered at Sundance in 2008.

The film, about two magazine fact checkers tasked with confirming Bill Murray’s love of drinking milk, generated a healthy dose of buzz (in part because Bill Murray appeared in the nine-minute film). For most buzzed-about shorts, a brief blitz of online attention would be the end of it; the director might use the short as a calling card to get started on more shorts or even a feature, but the original film itself will likely end up discarded by the wayside, forgotten in the wake of upcoming projects.

Not so with Fact Checkers Unit. Executive producer Thomas Bannister, whose attention was captured when he saw the short at Sundance, optioned the film and went about pitching it as a Web series, eventually getting big-name players NBC and Samsung onboard as distributor and sponsor, respectively. In its first two seasons the series featured the two main characters, played by Brian Sacca and Peter Karinen (who co-wrote the original script with Beers), checking the facts on guest stars Luke Perry (Does he think his house is haunted?), Donald Faison (Is he afraid of flying?), Moby (Are his bones unbreakable?) and more. With today’s launch of season two of “FCU: Fact Checkers Unit”‘s final episode, Dictum‘s resident fact-checkers are out to confirm something about a very familiar face: James Franco (Is he pregnant?)

Beers and Bannister took the time to chat with MovieMaker about the road from short film to Web series and how, exactly, one goes about getting an A-list actor to agree to be chased across an L.A. rooftop on Easter Sunday for a six-minute Webisode. (To see the possibly-pregnant James Franco in action in “James Franco is Preggers,” check out the episode itself, embedded below for your viewing pleasure.)

Rebecca Pahle (MM): What about the original Fact Checkers Unit short made made you want to transfer its concept into a Web series? What was the road from acclaimed short to NBC.com Web series?

Thomas Bannister (TB): Pete, Brian and Dan created the original short, and it played at Sundance in 2008. I saw it there [and] loved it and watched it a number of times further after it premiered on the Web. Eventually I contacted them, optioned it and then start pitching it to brands. It made sense to me as ideal short-form entertainment. It’s episodic and spoofs the procedural while mirroring many of the qualities of the procedural, so I thought episodes would work on their own or as a series. The humor is funny and quirky, but there is nothing risqué or untoward about it (which is rare for Web humor), so I had a feeling it would be ideal branded entertainment. Finally, at heart it’s a feel-good story about two overlooked and underappreciated geeks who overcome the odds and find personal empowerment in their jobs, and I found that inspiring. The road to getting it greenlit was persuading Samsung to sponsor it, which involved a trip to Korea, and then working out a distribution deal with NBC.

Dan Beers (DB): [Creating a Web series] was actually not our original intention. Pete, Brian and myself had simply wanted to make a short film and hopefully get some attention in the process—but Tom (our producer) approached us after the short film premiered at Sundance with the idea of marrying it with a brand (Samsung) and a distributor (NBC.com). This was something he had done [successfully] in the past with other filmmakers, brands and Web portals… Now, having completed our second season, we can hopefully be considered a success as well.

MM: With the capability to create a Web series at so many peoples’ fingertips now, there’s a lot of competition out there. Personally, do you view that as a positive or a negative? What advice would you give to moviemakers on how to get their Web series or digital short noticed?

DB: I think it’s fantastic. I liken it to the 1990s, when the independent film scene was bursting with new filmmakers. The film festivals were a breeding ground for young talent, much as the Internet is today for people like myself and my partners, Pete and Brian. The one thing we have in our favor is that our work can reach a wide audience with a great sense of immediacy—which is thrilling.

TB: The spirit of creation [that] resonates through the Web isn’t just about video creation/production. It’s about photography, journalism, writing, blogs, lives, music, etc. etc. etc.. The early bloggers who wrote about our series were the reason they ultimtely attracted the attention of national press, which in turn attracted sponsors. I think the fact that anybody in the world can make a video and post it for the world to see is still revolutionary in a way. It’s changed many of my media habits, including the way I get news and listen to music. The Web has provided many oppportunities for people who want to be creative professionals to exercise their craft, which I think is awesome. In terms of advice, I would say find new and creative ways to tell interesting stories that are going to resonate with people.

MM: What was the process for getting James Franco involved in this episode?

DB: We have been very lucky to work with the guest stars we’ve had so far, from Bill Murray to Alex Trebek to Moby, and in this latest we had a handful of people we were interested in going to, with the top of the list being James Franco. The producers had a relationship with James’ manager and, fortunately, they were interested in working with us. The tricky part was James’ schedule, because as you know he’s a pretty busy guy. We actually ended up shooting on Easter Sunday in order to get it done, but what better way to celebrate the holiday than chasing James Franco on a deserted roof in downtown Los Angeles?

TB: Larry Laboe from [“Fact Checkers Unit” production company] SXM contacted [Franco’s] manager Miles Levy and told him all about the project. James is renowned for being very experiemental with the projects he choses to do, including working on daytime soaps [and] Funny or Die videos, so we were lucky that when his manager forwarded him some previous episodes of FCU he liked them and decided to do one!

To view past episodes of “FCU: Fact Checkers Unit,” visit www.hulu.com/fcu-fact-checkers-unit.

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