THE MISSELTHWAITE ARCHIVES Exclusive: Showrunner Aileen Sheedy chats about the series, the fans and more!

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Calling all Misselthwaite fans!

Are you already missing Mary, Callie and the Sowers since the series ended its run last week?

Don’t despair, because showrunner Aileen Sheedy was kind enough to talk to us about such thrilling tales as what it was like shooting at the mercy of the elements in Oregon, how the Cat Cam came to fruition, Mary and Declan’s future and the fans’ reactions, representation, and the experience of women filmmakers in a male-dominated field.

Inspired by other internet sensations like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Classic Alice, Aileen Sheedy and her team set out to adapt The Secret Garden with a modern twist — not just by updating the story, but by ambitiously diversifying filming styles in the series to expand the Misselthwaite universe beyond the “vlog” tradition.

It turned out to be innovative in more ways than one. Not only did the glade become a character of its own, thanks to the stunning cinematic episodes, but the story choice reflected Sheedy’s own desire to feature women in starring roles in front of and behind the cameras.

“[It’s an issue] that I feel I have to address consciously because otherwise I’d only be contributing to the problem,” she says of her creative philosophy driving Misselthwaite, and it shows. Frustrated by the old boys’ club culture of traditional film sets, the director made a deliberate decision here to develop a story by women, for women, predominantly featuring women, which she plans to continue in her future endeavors. (Fighting patriarchy and turning the tide in show business, one series at a time!)  Given how we here at TYLL are especially dedicated to highlighting female-centric stories, we’re thrilled to celebrate productions like Misselthwaite for that reason.

The result is a unique take on a childhood classic, which isn’t at all short on production values or compelling drama. Click below to read the full interview and learn what it was like to build the show from the ground up — almost literally — and what influenced the production’s storytelling.

Your cast seemed to gel so nicely, and they instantly owned their roles. What was the casting process like for The Misselthwaite Archives?

We were very lucky to find our cast! They knew their characters so well that I rarely had to do much directing on set, and they were great at improv-ing on days when we realized the script wasn’t working. In fact, Sophie [Giberson, who played Mary] came up with most of my favorite Mary lines!

Kelsey Tucker as Medlock and Sophie Giberson as Mary Lennox. (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Kelsey Tucker as Sarah Medlock and Sophie Giberson as Mary Lennox. (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

For casting, we held an open call and posted our announcement on various casting websites and local [Portland] filmmaking Facebook groups. The response was unexpectedly large — we got over 70 submissions for our six roles! After we saw as many people as possible, we held callbacks and had the actors read in pairs to see who had the best chemistry. I also had them improv and cold read several scenes, to see how well they could stay in-character and make acting decisions quickly, since I knew we were going to be on a tight production schedule that might not leave a lot of time for rehearsals before shoots.

Fun fact: we didn’t decide to make Callie a girl until casting. She was originally written as Colin [as in the novel], and we had quite a few boys audition for the role, but we saw so many talented girls read for Mary, including Ella [DeVito] that I started wondering if there was any way we could create another female role just so we could cast one of them. So the development team had an emergency meeting and Callie was born!

The scenery in your series is so beautiful; how challenging was it to shoot while exposed to the elements like that? 

Very challenging! Shooting outside requires a lot more luck and patience than shooting indoors — you basically have no control over your surroundings, including the lighting and the sound, so you either have to wait for any issues to resolve themselves or find a way to compromise. Since our exterior locations were relatively remote, those shoots also required more money, as we had to bring everything we might need (water, shelter, electricity, toilets) with us each time.

Cast shooting in the glade (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Cast shooting in the glade (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

We had our fair share of weather issues with filming (flooding, too much rain, too much sun — if you can believe that), but our main problems were sound-related. We constantly had to wait for cars and planes to pass by (especially once we got into summer) and the neighbors in both places had a tendency to use such loud devices as guns, tractors, chainsaws, gravel spreaders, you name it. Our glade location also had a lot of animals on the property, including goats, dogs, and a particularly excitable rooster.

But I think we were mostly able to work around our issues and tell the story we wanted to tell without having to make too many concessions for the setting — it just took longer than we would have liked.

From the beginning, your production seemed to pride itself on varying its format, moving away from the usual confessional style pretty quickly. Did you always plan to mix it up like that? Or was that something that evolved once your season took shape? 

Sophie Giberson as Mary Lennox (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Sophie Giberson as Mary Lennox (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Dr. Burnett [Mary’s therapist] was originally a much larger part of the show, and a lot of the episodes started off formatted as Mary’s videos to her, but I knew going into the show that I also wanted to play with different kinds of found footage for the episodes. We actually brainstormed many other types of videos that ultimately didn’t make it into the story. (Several of the other characters had vlogs, for example, and we played with having security cameras in the house/glade.)

But as we started writing episodes, it became clear that sticking to the found footage style was too limiting, so we cut out some of the unnecessary formats and replaced them with the cinematic-style episodes, which made a lot more sense for the story and kept everything much simpler. We also came up with the cat POV idea relatively late — many of those episodes were originally cinematic, but we had so much trouble shooting with our cat actor that we had to find a more creative way to keep him in the story!

Obviously, you had to diverge from the original Secret Garden in order to modernize your version. How much pressure did you feel to follow the source text? 

Since The Secret Garden is a children’s book, it doesn’t have a ton of conflict, or even a climax, really, so I knew from the beginning that we were going to have to make a lot of changes, especially in terms of character arcs and story structure. I wanted to focus more on following the spirit of the book, rather than the plot, though we actually did start with an outline that was very close to the original.

We initially translated each chapter into an episode, then rearranged/cut/added to make the story fit a more typical three-act structure. At that point, it became obvious that we were going to have to make quite a few changes to keep the story interesting for a modern audience, and, in the end, we decided it was more important to tell a good, cohesive story than to follow the source text closely.

Ella DeVito getting ready for her closeup (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Ella DeVito getting ready for her closeup (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

I think our most drastic character changes came from making Mary, Declan (Bryce Earhart), and Callie teenagers, since the way they think, act, and relate to other people is vastly different than it would have been if they were ten years old. We tried very hard to keep most of the characters’ core personalities and relationships intact, though. Again, however, we prioritized creating relatable, well-rounded characters, and staying true to their desires, over following the book.

I know you’ve said that you’ve resisted the urge to pair Mary and Declan romantically, to leave it up to the fans to choose their own ending, so to speak. How controversial a topic is that in the writers’ room? 

The Mary/Declan relationship is interesting because it’s unclear even in the original book, in part because the characters are so young. When we started developing the series, we weren’t really sure where the relationship would go either, but I did know I didn’t want them to end up dating or making out or anything like that. (We definitely had some team members lobbying for forehead kisses, though, and there was an awkward ~feelings hug that got cut from Episode 32.)

Bryce Earhart as Declan Sower and Sophie Giberson as Mary Lennox setting up a scene (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Bryce Earhart as Declan Sower and Sophie Giberson as Mary Lennox setting up a scene (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

As we got further into the series, I started agonizing over which direction to go in, platonic or romantic, because I felt like it was cheating to leave it somewhere in the middle, but I eventually decided that vague was the best option (and hopefully the fans are okay with that).

Personally, I don’t think Mary and Declan have entirely figured out their relationship either — they know they care about each other very deeply, but may not be entirely sure what that means yet.

In the same vein, do fans’ opinions and desires affect your story choices?

I grew up in fandom and I credit fan fiction with most of my current interest in storytelling and adaptations, so I’ve always put a lot of weight behind fans’ opinions and desires. Once you release your work to the public, you don’t control it anymore. People are going to be affected by your stories, and those people matter. Your influence on them matters, and I think part of respecting that relationship is allowing them to influence you back.

For the most part, though, I’ve felt like our fans have been on the same page as us — their ideas have generally been very close to what we had already planned for the series. It was especially great to see people predicting and speculating on things we had already written or shot, but hadn’t released yet. Many of them were spot-on!

Setting up Callie's basement (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

Speaking of fandoms… Setting up Callie’s basement (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

And, honestly, our fans are so intelligent and creative that I wish we had more ways for them to interact with our story — we [did] take fan submissions to our multimedia content, but we [didn’t] have as many opportunities for character interaction [due to our filming schedule and format] as the series that run live Twitter accounts or do Q&A videos. We do have some ambitious ideas for interactivity with our next production, though!

Transmedia seems to be such a great space for normalizing representations of the LGBTQ community. Was Phoebe’s  sexuality always something you planned to explore? Or did that evolve as you fleshed out the season? 

Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions

Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions

We decided very early on that Phoebe (Jack Wells) was bisexual, [it was] just a question of when and how would be the best time to mention it. Many of us on the development team are part of the LGBTQ community, so it was important to us to represent that viewpoint, but we didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because Phoebe is so much more than her sexuality. Besides, it’s not exactly relevant to her relationship with Mary, which is mostly the context in which we see her. (To be honest, the way we brought it up in Episode 7 still feels a little forced to me.) So I was glad when we came up with the idea to do the Sower family newsletter video because it gave us a chance to explore Phoebe’s other relationships a little more naturally.

It seems like literary-based web series like Misselthwaite often feature strong, multifaceted females as main characters. (Not to mention the fact that women are predominant behind-the-scenes as well.) Did that influence your choice of story at all? Is it an issue you’re consciously addressing? 

Yes! When I was looking at books to adapt, I specifically focused on stories either with female main characters or male characters that would be interesting to genderbend. I knew that our viewers would appreciate a strong leading lady, but on a personal level, I also find female characters much more interesting, so I knew it would be more fulfilling for me to tell a young woman’s story — especially knowing that the literary-based web series community would be my audience.

Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions

Ella DeVito preparing for a scene (Courtesy Pencil Ink Productions)

This community is unique in that it’s one of the very few places in the filmmaking world where women outnumber men, and I’ve been incredibly grateful for the supportive team and audience I’ve found here. I love that such a community exists that values female stories and encourages women (particularly young women) to get into filmmaking in a way where they can feel comfortable learning and experimenting with the medium. I think women are often conditioned to feel like they need to meet other people’s expectations, which can limit the creativity and diversity of the stories they might want to tell if they’re constantly surrounded by male voices, so it’s extremely important to have this safe space where so many people are supportive, engaged, accepting, and open-minded.

What’s next for Pencil Ink Productions now that The Misselthwaite Archives has wrapped?

PencilInk-bannerWe have plans for another literary-inspired web series! We’ll be officially announcing it in the next couple months, but until then, feel free to look for the clues we’ve dropped in some of our recent Misselthwaite multimedia!


If you haven’t seen The Misselthwaite Archives yet, catch up now on their website. (Lucky you, you don’t have to wait for the ending!)

Any ideas on what the next series will be? Leave a comment with your guess!

Huge thanks to Aileen Shady and everyone else at Pencil Ink Productions.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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