By Will Ferrer
The first thing you’ll notice about “At Bay,” a web-series from student filmmakers Jay Moon ’17 and Katie Adams ’17, is that it doesn’t feel like a Stanford production. There is, of course, the occasional and expected appearance of Stanford landmarks (Hoover Tower, Toyon Hall, that outdoor patio at Arrillaga that I’m fairly certain is only used by graduate students), but the series ultimately looks a great deal more professional than the average student effort. And, in a sense, it is. Lensed by Moon, a programmer and graphic designer by trade, and with sound designed by Adams, an aspiring writer, “At Bay” doesn’t need “student” as a qualifier; it’s a dazzling artistic feat, period. And Adams and Moon make it look easy. In reality, however, nothing is.
When I sit down with Adams to talk about the series, it is in the apartment she shares with two fellow Stanford students in Toluca Lake. Christened “The Oakwood,” her complex is a mecca for those looking to get a foothold in entertainment, as Adams and her roommates are. An empty bottle of pinot noir –- with the mug of Titus Andromedon on the label –- sits on the table, as Adams, who could easily be the hip older sister to Barb from “Stranger Things,” tries to recollect the origin of her web-series, a Fincherian portrait of a start-up (dubbed Curate) railroaded by the loss of its CEO.
“I feel like it’s complicated because this is something we’ve thought about a lot, but every time I tell someone how ‘At Bay’ came to be it’s a different story.” I interrupt to ask about the beginning of the project’s development and Adams pauses to think. “We started on it freshman year. I think probably winter quarter. So it’s hard to remember the exact timeline.”
Later, when I talk with Moon, his account of the show’s beginning is similar. “We met in the same dorm freshman year. And our roommates were best friends. But, for some reason, for an entire quarter, we hadn’t actually interacted with each other.” Eventually, however, Moon and Adams discovered they shared a passion for film and television. “We were really interested in working on a project together. And, at the same time, we were watching a bunch of TV shows together. We were watching ‘Sherlock,’ we were watching ‘Breaking Bad,’ and so the notion of a web-series came to mind.”
“The idea is that we both wanted to do a noir set at Stanford,” says Adams, “and so that’s sort of the idea from which everything else came.”
With the general thrust of the series established, the pair then launched head-first into the laborious process of actually writing the damn thing. According to Adams, the project that would eventually become “At Bay” all began with a violent end: “We knew we wanted there to be a death in following with film noir. Then it was a discussion of ‘OK, there’s this death that sort of happens under suspicious circumstances and where [does it go] from there.’”
Over the course of the next few months, Moon and Adams spent hours getting ideas on paper. Working from a board saturated with Post-it notes, listing every plot beat of every episode, Moon and Adams dedicated the summer between their freshman and sophomore years to writing six filmable episodes. It was, to say the least, difficult.
“We were pretty psyched when we got to what happened in every episode. And it turned out, in retrospect, to be ridiculously bare bones,” says Adams. “[It was] misguided to think that was enough to make every episode go.”
At the end of the summer, however, the pair emerged victorious. Six scripts in hand they entered into production, the phase of artistic realization, which derails most intrepid filmmakers, especially on a campus like Stanford’s. Though the scripts were only drafts (“The process of pretty much continuous re-writes continued until spring quarter this year,” laughs Adams), it was time to begin casting and, with any luck, shooting the series.
Funding was one of the first challenges. “We looked into grants, but all the grants were like, ‘You can’t use this to pay people so, like, you can’t pay actors. You can’t spend it on equipment. You can’t spend it on food. You can’t spend it on transportation. You can’t spend it on lodging.”
“What could you have spent [the grants] on then?” I ask.
Adams’ response is cheeky: “We literally don’t know.”
“People have this bias against giving you money for filmmaking,” she elaborates, “as in, ‘Oh, you’ll take this grant and you’ll buy equipment for personal use, but you’ll never finish the project you work on.’”
Moon and Adams also looked into acquiring the equipment through Lathrop, but found themselves hobbled by the library’s limitations on continuous usage. In the end, Moon purchased a camera and Adams hoped that adequate microphones would appear under the Christmas tree. As luck would have it, they did. Adams, however, worries that a lot of student filmmakers aren’t so fortunate.
“It’s kind of annoying because people talk about the democratization of filmmaking,” Adams reflects, “but it’s still an exorbitant amount of money for your average college student to be able to buy that kind of equipment.”
On set, things weren’t much easier for the undaunted auteurs and when I ask Moon to characterize the production in a single word, he takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “I think stressful would be an accurate word.” On top of the requisite artistic direction, Moon and Adams were also tasked with working with some of California’s most elusive occupants: college students.
“Scheduling was an absolute pain,” reflects Moon. “We wrote an obscene amount of group scenes that [had], like, three or four people. And, like, that was just so aggravating as we came to set. Just getting three Stanford students in the same room was an absolute nightmare,” he reveals, “especially when you have certain people who — .”
Moon cuts himself short to search for a delicate way to phrase what he hopes to say next. A series of grunts ensue before Moon, the chipper-voiced, laid-back soul that he is, decides to take the high road, laying the charm on thick. “We enjoyed working with most of our actors.” He pauses. “But there are certain actors who were just — it’s something I really can’t get into. It was, like 80 percent an enjoyable experience on set.”
I press for details about the on-set atmosphere –- many student productions are plagued by a never-ending list of calamites -– and Moon assures me that “At Bay” was no different. “It became a common joke between me and Katie that whenever it seemed like something was going well … we’d be like, ‘What’s going to go wrong on set?’ And it would be like, ‘Oh, [we broke] Elias’ glasses’ or ‘Oh, we accidentally drenched someone’s Bible with water.’”
With regard to this anecdote I admit some curiosity and Moon assures me that they also managed to spill water on a Bluetooth speaker and some vaguely important legal documents. “It was like, ‘This could not have gone worse.’”
As the conversation between Moon and me unfolds, I ask for more war stories from the trenches and he shares an anecdote regarding the just-released third episode (long delayed by post-production woes). Filmed at Pescadero Beach –- an hour-long redwood-lined drive from campus, the episode required daunting amounts of ADR, or automated dialogue replacement.
“We thought that we would be able to shoot what we needed on a single day, but that ended up being spread out over four days. So that was kind of miserable. Given how the weather at Pescadero frequently was.”
And the audio took a hit. Some of it was usable, Moon remarks, while, some of it “was just like this horrible, horrible, grating wind sound.” But Moon and Adams bounced back. They rallied their actors to re-record their lines and took advantage of a seemingly poor situation; freed from the nuisance that recording equipment can so often be, Moon decided to take some liberties with the shot composition.
It’s here that a theme emerges from our dialogues.
Like most artistic narratives on this campus, Adams and Moon’s is one of making do. Making do when grants don’t pan out, when actors bail, when locations are loud or cold or inaccessible, when water makes the words of the Holy Bible drip and run. Despite a production process that might have made a lesser person lose their hair, Adams and Moon accomplished something altogether unique: the completion of a cohesive and shockingly good web-series.
Listening to the filmmakers talk about their experiences, I’m reminded of a scene in Chapter Two of “At Bay” in which, disturbed by a recent turn of events, the student founders of Curate struggle to determine what to say to investors. They sit with their knees to their chests and their heads down, making it apparent, for the first time in the series, that these are college kids, not professionals. They have classes, worries, dramas and imperfections. And, in this respect, Adams and Moon feel a bit like real-life counterparts to the men and women in the series they created. Their web-series didn’t just emerge from the aether; it was a labor, an extended exercise in keeping catastrophe “At Bay.”
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.