Most popular mainstream card games – like Yugioh and Pokemon – have some form of produced entertainment associated with it as well, like a cartoon tv show or movie. Yet despite the fact that over 20 Million people actively play Magic: The Gathering, it has no form of entertainment to represent it outside of the actual game. That is until the YouTube series Mana Screwed was created.
The team behind the YouTube channel Snow Stories created a series surrounding the card game that not only appeals to Magic: The Gathering players but explains it, and the people who love it, to mainstream society. The Nerd Stash was lucky enough to get an interview with three of the creators – and actors – of Mana Screwed, who talked about producing the show, the film industry, expectations, and many more insightful tidbits surround the show.
What is your Filming Schedule like for Mana Screwed? How does it fit into your day to day routine?
Austin Herring: We are all lucky enough/cursed enough to be in the film industry, so scheduling it is even more difficult because we are all in the film industry. We have months where it happens to be that I am free from this date to this date, is anyone else free? Ok cool, Brett is free, what about Conner? Oh no, he’s going to be up in Seattle shooting.
It took a few months of back and forth till we all happened to have a week open and we rushed to shoot together while we could. A big part of it is that we are all kind of on call. So knowing that we can all devote a certain time period, with nothing coming up during it, is weird for us.
Conner Marx: It was a pretty hectic filming schedule for Mana Screwed, all things considered. We shot about 10 episodes, 80 pages of material, in about a week or so. Also, there is the fact that Brett lives in Atlanta, so we flew him out here and planned pre production so that we could film everything that he was in, blasting through it in a mad dash while he was still here. Then a couple of months later we shot the rest of the season that did not include Brett.
Austin Herring: There was one scene where we were running out of time. We had just shot Brett’s shots and then came back about a month later to shoot the other half of the scene. It was with Brad and Casey, around episode 4. They are on one side of the table and Conner and Brett are on the other side, but those were shot at two different times.
You said you are all in the film industry. Do you have specific jobs?
Austin Herring: I own a commercial production company, so the majority of what I do is commercials. As a result, I have some flexibility filming wise. Occasionally I’ll be on a project that seems like everything is going smooth, then all of a sudden it will demand a lot more of my time, which messes with the scheduling for Mana Screwed.
Brett Gentile: I’ve been on The Walking Dead for the last three seasons and they tend to shoot principal in May and wrap up somewhere in November. Most Televisions shows these days are tight under wraps, so there are none disclosures. As a result, your schedules come out very close to the actual shooting schedules, so you could get a call on Thursday that you’re shooting on Saturday. It’s just all up in the air, with only a few days notice that you’ll be in the next episode.
It’s all a very quick turn around and you have to be ready to go whenever they call. That’s not a singular kind of occurrence, as Conner could tell you, in the film. Everyone just operates with a quick turn around in mind these days. With the invention of social media, there are a lot of people that’ll post a lot of knucklehead stuff, giving away spoilers, so they’re not giving out information until last minute.
That’s been the bane of my existence for the last three years. Trying to figure out when and where they’ll need me. As Austin said we have to try and find a 10-day gap around that and everything, filming wise had to be locked down. That episode we got rained out, I was flying out the next day to come back and shoot.
Being on these episodic films, you’re constantly still auditioning for the next role as well. That obviously factors into things too.
How long did you plan Mana Screwed? Did you expect it to take off the way it has?
Austin Herring: About a year. Not all of that time was spent planning it though. It was more along the lines of coming up with this cool idea, then not doing anything with it for a bit, and eventually, we started writing it. It ended up being probably closer to a year and a half before we actually released it.
Conner Marx: I remember you guys pitched me the idea around November and we ended up shooting around February.
Austin Herring: We did plan a lot. Mana Screwed went through several iterations. Initially, it was going to be a much raunchier show. We had this one really wild masturbation joke that had a whole episode devoted to one of the characters walking in on the other. It was one of the first jokes we came up with and I still think that it’s really good, it just doesn’t belong in the show.
As we continued to develop the show we realized we needed to scale it back, not G rated, but a little more family friendly and that fit the characters and the game a lot more anyway. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out exactly how we were going to shoot this and in what order.
Time went into who would fit each character best as well. A lot of time was spent figuring out where best to put Andrew Bowser. I’ve worked on a number of things with him and originally I wanted to use him as the main villain that is introduced in episode 8, Dack. It wasn’t until later that he ended up playing Crispin in the first episode.
Fine tuning the casting, figuring out the scripts, and release schedule were important points. We knew we wanted the Mana Screwed release to be a few months prior to GP Vegas so that we could use that to help promote Mana Screwed. Figuring out the timing and stuff like that all went into the planning.
As far as success, I don’t think we expected this much success, though we certainly hoped for it. We tried to do our damnedest to make something unique. Specifically one of the things we talked a lot about in preparing for this was there was kind of a void for this. While there is tons of Magic: The Gathering content out there, most of it is instructional. It’s nonfiction.
There are some really great shows out there, but not nearly as many as what you see for most IPs. I looked it up last night and as of 2014, there are 22 Million Magic players in the world. Compare that to World of Warcraft, which peaked at 12 Million, yet look at all the stuff there is for WOW. There are tons of web series about it and tons of pop culture references in TV shows and the like, but there really isn’t the same amount of stuff for Magic: The Gathering, which is played by more people.
Every IP that is under the has a million web series or TV shows about it, but Magic really doesn’t have that much. We figured there’s a void and we are going to fill it. We crossed our fingers that it would be received well. I guess we aren’t taken by surprise by the success, but we aren’t walking around with our chests puffed out as if we made the biggest web series of all time.
Brett Gentile: I was actually walking with my chest puffed out. That’s actually just a spinal condition though.
Conner Marx: Expectation in this industry is a very tricky. I have been involved with a lot of web series in the past, a lot of nerdy web series. And many of them just didn’t make it. They didn’t, for one reason or another, find their audience. So we all tried to work without too much expectation. We asked ourselves what is material that we think will resonate with fans and what is a solid narrative with characters we care about? We wanted to create something that we’d be excited to watch and, hopefully, others would be excited to watch too.
We’ve all been really humbled and pleased from the reaction we’ve received so far. At the same time, we are also a show that is still very much in its nascency. We’re in the process of building an audience. The fans so far have proved to be vocal and just fucking awesome! They’re a powerful group that we hope to continues to grow.”
Some fans want more Magic: The Gathering oriented stuff, while others enjoy the fact that you display people who play the game but are normal people with other things happening in their life as well. Is there a specific goal in mind regarding how your content is focused?
Brett Gentile: Some of my favorite television shows (Slings and Arrows) and films (Waiting for Guffman) of all time revolve around the world of theater. Those never got the attention they deserve because they were so niche. I think the danger of finding a subject and just focusing in on that, appealing to just those people, is that you’re not inviting other people not involved in that world into it, you’re actually pushing them away.
My personal take on it is that I really don’t know anything about Magic: The Gathering. I have started to actually learn and place recently so I know what’s happening in the Mana Screwed episodes, but for me, Garret is a character that can introduce those type of people who know nothing about that world.
I know a lot of my family and friends have been watching religiously. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’m in it, but a lot of it is that they find great interest in the subject matter. What does it do? What are the rules? [Laughs] At that point I have to change the subject.
Throughout it, though you walk a razor’s edge. You do want to honor the Magic players because it is a series for them, about them, but you want to do it carefully and constructively that invites people into a world that they know nothing about. All the while doing so in a way that is more human and focus on elements that connect us all, instead of ones that separate us.
If it was all inside Magic jokes and playing nonstop, I think our current audience would still really enjoy the series, but nobody else would really want to be apart of it.
Conner Marx: We talked a lot in production, as we were identifying goals for this series, that we wanted to walk that tightrope. We wanted to make a show that honors the fanbase because let’s be real the show would not exist without that hardcore group, so we throw in those inside jokes, easter eggs, and references for them to pick up on. It feels great when shows are playing around with your language and your world.
We didn’t want to limit ourselves to that. We wanted to do half and half. As much as Brett was saying that it’s about not wanting to limit people, I think for the four of us it was also about the kind of show we were excited for? What did we want to make it about?
I am excited about these characters and where they are going. I think we have some interesting narrative arcs that are setting up, so I am invested in Garrett, Jason and the others more than just as Magic players. I am interested in them as people who play it. In building the show we wanted to give room to tell all of those stories. The stories when they are sitting around playing Magic: The Gathering. The stories when they are just living their lives.
Brett Gentile: I’ve seen a couple of tournaments and the company seems more important than the event whenever I have watched Magic. The people that are playing each other, the community that they have, the banter that they have back and forth about their daily lives. To me, Magic is the fulcrum that brings these people together.
In Mana Screwed, Magic: The Gathering isn’t so much as a character as it is a world and the people in it. It’s the experiences of all these people in the Magic world. To me, that’s the most interesting thing about it.
Mana Screwed has very strong cinematography. How much goes into your camera placement, edits, lighting, and sound for each scene?
Brett Gentile: Is Pierce here?
Conner Marx: No, he is at Comic Con.
Brett Gentile: Ok, great. It’s got nothing to do with it whatsoever! It’s all Conner and I. We shot it on a Potato!
Conner Marx: [Jokingly] He is not joking. A literal Potato.
Austin Herring: So Pierce [Cook] is our DP [Director of Photography] and directed episodes 6 and 7 of Mana Screwed. He is very very good at what he does. I have been working with him for a very long time. The four of us all did a feature together – it’s also how we met Conner – called Pink. Brett and Conner act in it, Pierce is the DP, and I was the director.
I’ve known Pierce longer than any of the rest of the guys and have been working with him longer than anyone but Brett. He works with a lot of other productions. Everything for Loot Crate. The Deadpool Beauty and the Beast. A Super Bowl commercial as well.
So sadly, I think not very much time and effort as people think. Pierce is just that good. Most times he would have maybe one person to help him on set, with most shots in the tiny apartment with as few people we could manage to convince to do it for free. Most times he’d just say, “Oh yeah, put that light here, put that one there. Cool. I’ll be ready to go in 10 minutes.
So not much more time than you would see on a normal indie web series where the gear is from Best Buy. We shot it on Red and Pierce just knows what he is doing, really really well.
Brett Gentile: He is literally the Rain Man of cinematography. In a lot of ways, his personality too. Can’t let him around hot tubs. He’s on the spectrum.
Austin Herring: [Laughs] That is not entirely accurate.
Conner Marx: Pop a box of match sticks in his direction and see what happens!
Austin Herring: As far as camera placements and editing goes, a lot of it just kind of edits itself. Again we all do this all the time. A lot of it is instinctual. It was written purposely to be as minimal and as simple set up as possible, so we could focus on the acting and cinematography. Making stuff really sing because, for the most part, it’s just a bunch of people around a table, there aren’t that many ways to shoot it.
We will have one or two special shots once in awhile but for the most part, it’s just guys sitting at a table. Whatever shots necessitate making the joke work or necessitate making that emotional moment work.
Conner Marx: We wanted to shoot within our means. We don’t have the people or the money to make Mana Screwed a big, blockbuster extravaganza, so we didn’t want to let that get in the way of telling the story. What’s the simplest and most effective way of telling the story that focuses on Magic? Then Pierce and Austin did the rest.
Austin Herring: Just wait until you see the giant, one shot, Birdman style single shot episode that we did for 10, with the epic fight scene, with 10,000 extras!
Brett Gentile: Hey I wasn’t here for that!
Austin Herring: Yeah, that was done on purpose.
Brett Gentile: Oh really? Is that what we are going to do now? I just wanted to comment a little bit on how you said these things edit themselves. That might explain all my best footage getting cut out?
Conner Marx: [Laughs] You open up some Adobe program and click auto edit and it just cuts the episode together?
Austin Herring: It’s not far from that. It has a scanner that recognizes when Brett is ad-libbing.
Is it easier or harder to shoot Mana Screwed in Los Angeles?
Austin Herring: The fact that everyone is a filmmaker in L.A has its advantages and its disadvantages. Overall it is probably easier to shoot outside of L.A.
Conner Marx: I 100 Percent agree with that. They are tired of filmmakers over here.
Brett Gentile: It’s getting difficult to shoot everywhere though. Atlanta is listed as number one film and television production in the U.S. It’s crazy, everywhere you go, someone is shooting somewhere. The funny thing about it is unless it is friends or family, you try to tell someone you are shooting somewhere or something, they immediately see dollar signs. They are going to try and get as much money out of you as possible.
There is also the whole issue of permits that are needed now. It’s getting harder and harder just to walk about and shoot stuff. Take into account all the variables like traffic. Anything you usually see in a TV show or film or commercial is controlled. Everything. Very rarely do you see passers by staring down the lead, all of those people are controlled.
If you are shooting something outside and you don’t have traffic locked down – which you need permits for – you are going to get cars stopping by asking what you are shooting. Well, we were shooting a scene until you pulled up in your RV there, keep moving. It’s just hard to shoot in environments that aren’t entirely controlled.
Film and TV are getting bigger and bigger. More people have more access to shooting their own stuff.
Austin Herring: To be fair, I feel like Atlanta is another Hollywood of shorts. There is a difference between shooting in Atlanta and Boise, Idaho. Some of the differences that I have noticed, since being here, is that crew and cast are so much easier to find because everyone around you is in the film industry.
It’s so easy to call up your friends and ask them if they want to be in a production. Yes, the do is the answer. They don’t have 9-5 jobs. They are trying to make it in the film industry. So it’s easier to find people and to find talented people. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper to find gear. There’s so much shooting happening here that competition drives down the prices. So you can rent for about a quarter of the price in L.A than what you could on the east coast.
I was shooting in New York last year around Christmas and went to go rent some stuff, things that are fairly normal around here, and couldn’t find it. That’s a big place like New York too. It’s not like some small town in the middle of nowhere. Stuff like that is harder to find.
We have about 25 top tier prop rental places or set deck rentals, where I can rent a couch or an old looking book or scroll. Outside of L.A you just have to scrounge, looking in antique stores. That said though, L.A is horrifically restricted when it comes to any type of location or anything like that. People do have their hand out, looking to get paid. On the east coast though you ask and people go, “Yes! Please! Oh my gosh that’s awesome!”
When we ask them here at the game store, the game store we play at and know the owner by first name basis, to shoot, he already had a rate sheet drawn up, ready to go for any film production. It was not cheap.
(At this point Brett gets a call from his agent and has to leave. Possibly to get eaten by a zombie or something.)
Locations are tough. In some ways, while it’s easier to find people who are excited and gung-ho about doing it, a lot of time they are working. They are also busy. Some aren’t willing to work for cheaper because they’ve got six big projects that are paying really good money and aren’t willing to stop those to help out on a web series. It’s a trade off. Overall I think it is easier outside of L.A, but it definitely has its benefits.
What would your recommendations be for other small time filmmakers?
Austin Herring: The majority of filmmakers that I know fall into two categories. On one side you have people that want to do it perfect. Friends of mine are crippled with the desire to make it perfect. Overplanning and meticulously getting things ready. Saying things like, “I don’t want to do this project until everything is lined up. Until all of the money is there or until I am able to cast this star that is perfect for the role.” They end up not making anything in the end. They wait around for the perfect project and keep overcorrecting, but not making anything.
On the other side of that, I know a lot of filmmakers that jump into anything and everything, all the time, with two feet. No planning. No prep. Nothing. As a result, it’s just a nightmare to be on their sets and the end product is terrible. Nobody wants to be apart of something that is not fun to be a part of and the end product is terrible. But at least they are making stuff.
The best advice I can give off the top of my head is don’t be either of those guys. Be the guy who prepares, plans, and has a focus, but isn’t so overplanned that they don’t end up making something. Get it done. Do what needs to be done to get it done, but don’t be lazy in addition to brazen.
Conner Marx: I echo everything that Austin said. To his point, I will just add, finish the project. There are so many beginning, and quite experienced, filmmakers who don’t finish projects. Who do all the work of planning, developing, shooting, and even post-production and then for whatever reason, momentum just stalls. Unless you realize that you’ve made some horribly racist, sexist piece, finish it and put it out there.
I think it is far better to have an imperfect first work out, than no work at all. It’s the right thing to do too if you have a lot of people that are working on the project that are passionate, as opposed to the paycheck. They deserve to see it seen to completion. I can’t say enough about the value of respecting people’s time, energy, contribution, and talents. It’s easy to do. It matters so much, in terms of not only reputation but the quality of set you have.
I remember doing this project called &@. It was a web series made by these three dudes who play this alternate reality version of themselves and they built all their sets out of cardboard. The three of them act, shoot, and edit. When they asked me to be a part of it and I showed up on set I saw how open they were being about things.
Essentially their mindset was, “Hey we don’t have money, we aren’t able to pay you, we would love to if we could. If you are willing to work with us, we will be so respectful of your time, will be as respectful as humanly possible, despite our resources, despite our budget. We are going to make sure you feel valued being here.”
I think that really goes a long way into building positive relationships with people, especially in regards to the type of behavior that should exist on micro budget film. People want to work with you and I honestly think it makes the project better because it inspires a commitment to the project.
I don’t buy into the idea of struggling through a painful experience simply for the art itself. If this is what we are doing without lives, if this is what we are spending our time telling these stories, then you might as well be kind to each other while you’re doing it.
Austin Herring: I like what he said and I’d like to add that I have some friends that have difficulty with that concept, despite being nice guys. I have likened it to help your buddy move. If I need help moving and my friends don’t mind helping, it may suck, but they are good friends and at the end, I’m going to give them beer and pizza.
If they show up though and the door is locked and I am still asleep, not having packed a single box, they are going to be pissed. Now they are wasting their whole day on stuff that I should have prepared in advance. Whereas if they get to my house and everything is boxed up, I’ve loaded all of the light stuff, and all I need help with is the specific heavy stuff I can’t move on my own. When I do that then they come and help with stuff that is a streamlined process because I was courteous enough to prep it in advance, as a result we aren’t wasting time.
I don’t mind working hard for something that I care about. I don’t mind really busting my ass. I will happily, maybe not happily, put in a 20 hr day and not feel bad about it. That is if we are all busting our ass and working to get things done. But if I am on set for 3 hrs and I feel like my time is wasted for two of those hours, I’m going to be pissed.
It’s like Conner said, it is very simple to respect people, treat them curiously, and treat them how you would want to be treated on set. That does go a really long way. People don’t mind working hard, but they do want to be respected.
Do you have anything you’d like to promote while I have you?
Austin Herring: I mentioned it a bit earlier but we have an upcoming feature we’ve been working on called Pink. It’s actually probably what lead to the creation of Mana Screwed. It’s almost finished, but there is very little Magic: The Gathering in it.
Conner Marx: Honestly we really want to keep making and growing Mana Screwed right now too though. We didn’t learn till recently about YouTube algorithms and math how important subscription to the channel really do help. If people like Mana Screwed the thing I would shout out is, Thank you for watching, we are so thrilled you are digging what we are doing. Please, if you do like it, share it with your friends, show it to your buddies when you’re around a table playing Magic.
Your subscriptions allow us to do a ton. They allow us to keep making Mana Screwed since we have an audience that helps us make the show. You guys are the fucking best and you are why we are here.
Austin Herring: That is one thing I will also say. You asked if we expected the exposure we’ve gotten earlier. I wanted to add that we did not expect that almost every subtle joke I’ve wanted to put in there, someone has commented on it. Every little reference to this like, “Yes I love Surf Ninjas!”
I have been completely taken by surprise with how gracious the fans of Mana Screwed are and how closely they are watching the show and how much they are scrutinizing every frame. When we did the giveaway, telling them to pick a card in the episode, we had not one, but two people pick an extremely obscure card that you can only see the corner of in one single shot. Not just one, two!
People care a lot more about Jason and Garrett than I ever thought they would. I thought they would hopefully watch it, think it was funny and enjoy it, but I didn’t think that people would care as much as they have. It’s been really awesome!