Miles Beckett is in a very special place in the entertainment industry; he is positioned in everything from traditional novels to comics to the latest tech advancements. With co-creator Mesh Flinders and business partner Greg Goodfried, Beckett unleashed the break-out YouTube phenomenon, Lonelygirl15. Since then, Beckett and Goodfried have gone on to create EQAL, a company that specializes in interactive entertainment. We had a chance to interview Miles Beckett at Comic-Con International: San Diego and get his take on a number of issues in the realm of storytelling. Walter Benjamin stated that technology determines how artists tell a story. And so here is Miles Beckett, a trail blazer in storytelling. Here, we talked to Beckett about what he's accomplished so far and what he's currently up to in collaboration with Anthony Zuiker, creator of the TV franchise behemoth, CSI.
Screenshot from LonelyGirl15Newsarama: How would you describe Lonelygirl15? How did it come about in the very beginning?
Miles Beckett: Our backgrounds are very unusual for the entertainment business. I’m a doctor. I went to medical school. I was a neuroscience major in college. My co-founder, Greg, was an entertainment lawyer. And we are people who love entertainment. I was a writer for a humor magazine in college and made a couple of short films during medical school. So anyway, I quit; moved back to L.A.; left medicine. And this was right around the time when YouTube was starting to get popular – and so, really, LonelyGirl came about because I was watching all these videos on YouTube and saw that, for some reason– I don’t know why – people really liked watching these video blogs of kids or young adults or just people talking directly to camera about their life. And there is something really compelling about a person literally, kind of bearing their soul directly to you over the computer. And so, I was just thinking about that idea and thought it would be interesting if one of those video bloggers is actually the main character in a story. And so that was kind of the original inception behind LonelyGirl.
And I realized that because of the fact that anybody could upload a video to YouTube, you wouldn’t even know if this person was an actor or wasn’t or if it was real or if it was produced and you could sort of play with that a little bit and so at the time, Greg and I had become friends through some previous comedy things that I had been doing online – videos I was producing – and then I met Mesh (Flinders)with whom I co-wrote and co-directed LonelyGirl, who is another friend, and just kind of went from there. And really the idea was, let’s create a series on YouTube where the main star is a video blogger and she’s hiding a secret and the secret, it turns out, is that her family is part of this cult and she’s been prepared for this weird ceremony and then all these dark things emerge from there.
NRAMA: This was always a creative endeavor and not some experiment. You already had a story in mind when the curtain was unveiled and you guys were outed, so to speak?
BECKETT: It was 100% a creative endeavor and for me personally - and it’s harder for me to speak for Mesh – but I mean we had all these conversations together on the creative side of things that like – we actually thought that in the first week that people would say, oh, this is obviously produced because we debated a lot about the fact that, you know, most of the video blogs on YouTube – they didn’t look that good, right? The lighting wasn’t very good or the camera was kind of crappy or whatever. But we wanted ours to kind of look authentic but not be crummy, you know? So, we used a web cam but we made it look good. We played around with the lighting for forty-five minutes. I spent hours editing it. We spent hours writing scripts and there was a clear story, classic storytelling, of this cute girl who’s kind of nerdy and this dorky guy and he likes her but she doesn’t like him and so, in our minds, we were like, there is no way that anyone is going to think this is real so we were actually really surprised that it went so long and frankly, from a storytelling standpoint, it was a relief when we were finally able to reveal that we were producing it because it allowed us to start filming outdoors, you know, and going places that people might recognize and do things like that.
NRAMA: The public's confusion with LonelyGirl is like what happened when people tuned in on the radio to listen to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds.
BECKETT: Yeah, 100%. And actually, Mesh is like a huge Orson Welles fan and for me, when I first had the idea, I literally was like, oh, this is like War of the Worlds. And it’s really the same thing which is, at the time that Orson Welles produced the radio drama, no one had really used radio in that way before. You know, there were some radio dramas but it wasn’t necessarily a vehicle for mass entertainment. It was still sort of bordering on news and things like that and he realized that he could kind of blur that reality. And for us with LonelyGirl, it was the same type of thing where no one, you know, was professionally creating stuff on YouTube – they were really just a lot of bloggers – and so it was kind of this unique moment in time where that blurriness could happen and now, I mean, it would be impossible, I think, for that to happen now because everyone knows, well, oh, this is probably a webisode – its like it’s probably not real that this person is talking about a cult or whatever it would have been.
NRAMA: You really don't think that there's any way there could be another Lonelygirl today?
BECKETT: I think that element of it – I think it would be impossible because, I mean, I’ve been on YouTube and there are things like it. There are people who are blurring those boundaries or trying. I think it would be very hard.
NRAMA: And the production value has gotten so much better.
BECKETT: Yeah. Although, you know, it’s funny – I mean for us, we still produce things – at least for the things we produce – Anthony (Zuiker) has kind of a different vibe for his thing – but we still, like, we personally like the hand-held kind of aesthetic but the production value has come up a bit.
NRAMA: You had the viewership for LonelyGirl before it became news that it was not a real person. And then after it became news. Your viewership, it must have changed considerably.
BECKETT: It definitely changed. Yeah. When we first were doing it, it was – I would say it was the blogger community on YouTube, and at the time, you know, YouTube was a lot smaller and there were just a lot of people who were just video bloggers and so, all of those people were watching LonelyGirl and then there were sort of people who were, you know, lurkers that weren’t actually making videos but were kind of part of the video blogging community effectively on YouTube. As it became more and more obvious that it was a story being produced, and then of course when we came out with all the news about it, some of that audience stayed; some of them were kind of weren’t interested in it and went away; a small number of people were upset and left but pretty small. And then what really happened was we got a big audience of people who were into shows like Buffy or shows like Angel or like, you know, Firefly, or Serenity, and stuff like that. And so, we definitely got that Joss Whedon comic book type audience because the story line became very, you know, this secret society called the Order and this fictionally religion called the Hymn of One and all this stuff that we were doing and so it did change a bit.
NRAMA: Was that already locked in place from the get-go?
BECKETT: Some of it was – not all of it. I mean, from basically when we first produced it from the very beginning, we had a treatment that we wrote that told the story of a girl on YouTube who’s – you know, who was going to be the most popular video blogger on YouTube and her family is kind of weird and religious and then we learn that they are in a cult and she’s being prepared for some ceremony where she probably is going to be killed or something like that and then she runs away from home with this boy who loves her and they are going to go on the road. And that was going to be the ending and then we actually were going to shoot a feature – an independent feature – and that was going to be the story of a group of fans from YouTube going to find this girl. So that was kind of the original idea. Then about a month into it, we saw that we were getting this big audience around the show and we realized, you know, we actually could turn this into a more ongoing series online and you know, Greg and I, in particular – which is why we started EQAL and why we are doing stuff like Level 26 – we love the multi-platform, digital, interactive stuff and so that’s what we wanted to do. So at that point, I basically went back and effectively did like you know, retroactive continuity rewriting, looking at everything that we had done and then sort of reimagining this cult as a much bigger secret society. So, about a month into it, from that point forward, a lot of the mythology was worked out for LonelyGirl 15.
LonelyGirl15 on the cover of Wired MagazineNRAMA: So you could say that the pressure was on to up your story?
BECKETT: Yes, and I’ll tell you that as a writer and in particular as a person who at the time had not done any professional writing – I mean, I had done a lot of writing in college and my dad is an English Professor so I grew up around all of that – but like, not professionally. And, like, I was writing every week for LonelyGirl 15, and then having to go back and – like, we had all this – it’s like Lost, actually – literally, we had stuff like, you know, these injections she was getting and I’m like, like aw, f***, what the hell were these injections now? I have to figure out what that was about. It was hard. But, you know, it worked out and now we have this core mythology of these girls with these blood traits that let them live longer and then this evil secret society that’s trying to find these girls all around the world to lengthen their own lifespan for these twelve elders at the top; and it’s kind of like a reimagined, updated vampire type mythology; and it’s cool and, you know, we’re still doing Lonelygirl15 internationally and things like that.
NRAMA: It’s evolved into the Polish version, the Italian version –
BECKETT: Japanese is going to be coming soon.
NRAMA: Each one has its own different slant with its own cultural references and such?
NRAMA: And you have different teams of writers?
BECKETT: Yes we do.
NRAMA: There's a whole Lonelygirl15 universe.
BECKETT: Yes, you’re exactly right. So, there is the LG15 universe, kind of like a Star Wars or Star Trek where there is this mythology, like I said, of this blood trait – trait positive – they are positive for this trait, unnamed, that lets them live longer, and if you take the blood out of their body and put it into your body, you can live like an extra fifty years. So around the turn of the century, Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist, made this discovery. He discovered ancient Egyptian documents that some Pharaoh had discovered before him. He figured out a way to test for this blood trait and so he set up this secret society called the Order to scour the planet for these girls because they realized that if they could keep finding these rare girls, drain their blood, and put it into themselves every fifty years, they could live forever. And they created a fictional religion called the Hymn of One which is like a front for the Order. They don’t really know what they are doing but they are kind of operating on behalf of the Order. And so, within that framework, all of the shows that we do internationally have their own storylines; their own characters tuned to that local audience. In the case of Poland, we literally just licensed the brand. You know, we read treatments and talked to their producers and gave approvals, but, you know, they wrote everything; they produced the whole show. With Japan, it’s going to be the same thing where they are writing and producing everything. Same with Italy and we actually have some people right now that are going to a bunch of different countries to do more international licensing and branding.
NRAMA: Where does KateModern fit within the Lonelygirl15 universe?
BECKETT: So, KateModern is part of the universe – it’s part of LG15 – it’s a little different than these other international versions in that we actually were part of the production. It was the first one we ever did beyond LonelyGirl. I moved to London for like three months and trained – hired a team; trained this guy named Luke Hyams who was our head writer and then when I left, he took over as the show runner – the executive producer of the show. And it was the same idea, it was like, you know, the same mythology but with a British slant following the story of this girl, Kate. Typically all these girls who are trait positive, you know, discovered by the Order in a hospital when they are born because they are tapped in to all the blood banks and testing facilities and so they snatch the kid and they put it in the home of one of their true believers in the Hymn of One – "Oh, here’s a new baby for you to adopt" – and they don’t know why they are really raising this kid. It's to be sacrificed. So, Kate was someone who escaped that process and she grew up as a normal girl but then, you know, in her teens, she went to get a blood test and came up trait positive; the Order found out about it and then it kind of went from there.
NRAMA: Tell us more about how you and EQAL play with content in various media. You guys offer a whole package of options.
BECKETT: That’s what’s so exciting about LonelyGirl and with that whole universe, it’s internet, website plus videos, text, photos, a social network community built around it and totally interactive, tied to a lot of real world events. We would do real world meet ups where you watch a video and the characters say, you know, "Meet me in Times Square at noon on Tuesday," and then, if you go, the characters are there and you can be part of the storyline. With something like Level 26, or like Harper's Globe, that we did for CBS, now we are really expanding into traditional media and all the things that we are doing right now are either book plus internet; or TV show plus internet; where we are trying to interface with other creatives and helping them to build out the digital experience component of what they are doing.
NRAMA: As we lead into Level 26, tell us about your experience with Harper's Globe.
BECKETT: Harpers Island was a TV show that just wrapped on CBS. It was a thirteen episode run. We created an entire online experience for it called Harper's Globe. The TV show did okay. It was on Thursday nights; it got moved to Saturdays; it had a really passionate audience and part of that was because of the online community. So, basically what we did was from Day One, we were meeting with their executive producers and writers on the TV show and when we got involved, they had the pilot script but they ended up rewriting it. So we pitched them this idea of a girl who – so the concept of Harper's Island was that a group of people went to an island off the coast of Washington state, for a wedding, and then over the course of thirteen episodes, people are dying one by one. And it was kind of like an Agatha Christie/Ten Little Indians type murder mystery. So our idea was that there’s going to be a girl who goes to the Island to work for the Island newspaper, the Harper's Globe, to digitize old articles and build an online community. So we actually launched the Harper's Globe website four weeks before – ah, six weeks before the TV show and built up an online audience and built out like a bunch of micro-sites – not really an alternate reality game but kind of in that vein – getting people involved and prepared for the TV show launch. And then actually the first murder that happened on the TV show was a character that we introduced online in the webisode right before the TV show, which was cool. And then on an ongoing basis, throughout the TV series, there was a back and forth between the TV show and the online experience and the community and it was really cool.
NRAMA: So, a marriage of traditional media, television, and the internet. Now, your latest project finds you working with even more traditional media, the novel.
BECKETT: Yeah (laughs).
NRAMA: Can you tell us about your collaboration with Anthony Zuiker?
BECKETT: Actually, I met Anthony through our relationship with CBS. We first announced a partnership with CBS over a year ago at the upfronts last year and they wanted us to meet with all their producers and try to decide what show we wanted to work on. So we started to talk to Anthony, initially in the context of, well, maybe we’ll do something with CSI. That didn’t work out for the CSI brand for a lot of reasons and also we were super excited about Harper's. But we just hit it off with Anthony, so Greg and I became personal friends with Anthony and, like, he’s one of these guys who – he’s been in the traditional arena for years, right? He’s obviously created – I think it’s the biggest franchise in TV history?
NRAMA: I would think so.
BECKETT: Yeah, I think it is the biggest franchise in TV history which is amazing. But he is off the charts creatively, incredibly talented and – I think this is very unusual for somebody who has been in the traditional space so long – he is thinking multi-platform. Like, he’s always thinking about interactive components and non-linear story-telling and getting the community involved before he met us. He did a thing with Second Life where they had a killer in a CSI episode and then they went into Second Life and people could log on to the website and do this virtual reality thing and so he’s always sort of been into this sort of thing, so, we just kept in contact with him when he would every once and a while just talk shop, and he told us about this book he had coming out, Level 26, and said that he was looking for a company to work with to build out the entire online experience. Now, in this case, he produced all of the cyber-bridges, digital video content that is part of the book so we didn’t actually do any video production but we effectively produced the interactive experience. And he asked us if we were interested and we said, hell, yeah, we would love to work with you; that sounds great – and just kind of went from there.
NRAMA: Can you talk to us about Anthony Zuiker as it relates to him being an innovator with the digi-novel?
Level 26 SqweegelBECKETT: There has been a lot of interactive, multi-media book type of things or CD-ROMs stuff – but I don’t think there has been anything quite like this before – like, I don’t like over-hyping things but I don’t think there has. I think it is the first time there has been a book where it truly is intimately connected to video content that’s, you know, throughout the book and then also tied to an online social network, so, I mean, basically, he would describe a digi-novel as, you read a few chapters – you can just read the book if you want – but you read a few chapters and there will be a call to action and in this case, you know, it’s like a serial killer crime novel, so the killer sits down in the basement to watch a snuff film and he pops a video tape in the VCR, clicks play and it counts down, five, four, three, two, one – "Go to Level26.com to watch this snuff film" – so you can, like, go to the website, log in, pop up the video, and you can actually watch this cinematic video that he's shot that's the snuff film or some other action sequence.
NRAMA: It was just a matter of time before this happened - ever since there have been hyperlinks, it was just a matter of time before we developed into things like the digi-novel.
BECKETT: Yeah, and I think that – and Anthony would agree – we’re right on the cusp now where I think the technology is developed enough that people will be able to experience this the way it is meant to be experienced. So, you know, they can buy the book and I know for myself, personally, I pretty much always have my laptop by me, like, when I’m watching TV, my laptop is in my lap or sitting next to me. And if I’m reading a book, I’m either – well, I have a Kindle, so I’m either reading it on the Kindle or even if I am, I’ll oftentimes just have my laptop there to just Google stuff or whatever. So you know, you can read the book with your laptop and kind of log into the community, watch the videos. You can read a few chapters, then go to the website and watch a few of the bridges and follow along. You can buy the I-phone app and it’s all together like text, video, text, video. You can by the Kindle and, again, log on and watch it. And so I think there are enough ways to consume it, that people can truly really experience the full shebang.
NRAMA: Are you familiar with DC Vertigo’s The Unwritten?
NRAMA: It seems like it’s bursting at the seams with its use of meta-text. You'll have text from the internet referring to print text that is somehow connected to something else. The main character himself may end up being a fictional construct.
BECKETT: Oh, cool. What's it called?
NRAMA: The Unwritten.
BECKETT: I’ll have to check it out.
NRAMA: Do you see comics playing a role in what you guys do?
BECKETT: Absolutely. I’m a huge comic and sci-fi geek. I read Watchmen in high school. The Dark Knight. Spider-Man. I’m a big comic geek. So, as a writer and having written – like been the writer and the guy behind LonelyGirl, I think that the comic book sensibility from a writing standpoint really works and in fact when we’ve hired writers to work on our shows, we’ve actively sought out people who have either been comic book writers or are comic book geeks. And I think that a couple of the reasons are, number one, comics are are a visual medium, so people who write comic books are almost like filmmakers in the way they think because they’re not only thinking about narrative and character but they’re also thinking about the way the panels are going to look and they can convey that through space. It’s similar for the stuff we do. We’re writing for a video so you need to have a visual mind.
Second, good comics are really character-driven and they have the opportunity for sophisticated exploration of character and an online series allows you that because you have the time to really build out a story, to really show, you know, side stories and also it’s very intimate
And then finally, comics are non-linear. There’s an inherent, sort of, non-linear thinking to the way comic books work in general. A head writer like Luke, who was a head writer on KateModern – big comic geek, like, you know, loves Batman, and he and I would talk about it for hours - and it's why KateModern turned out so well. Our head writer on LG15: The Resistance, which was like a spin off of LonelyGirl we did in the U.S. in the fall last year. Our head writer on that was a guy named Joshua Fialkov who wrote Elks Run, and has written a bunch of other Indie comics. He’s great. So, I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to continue to work with comic writers but also, we’re doing a lot more in the technology side of things and really enabling comic books writers and creators in their own right to use our technology and distribution infrastructure to tell their own stories in sort of a visual or textual layout model.
NRAMA: As the release of Level 26 draws near, let us in on what we should be on the lookout for.
BECKETT: People can go to Level26.com. They can sign up for profile pages. They can start talking about the book. The trailer is already up there and Anthony is going to have a presence on the site. So he’s literally writing text blogs. He’s going to have a profile; you can send messages to him. It’s pretty awesome. And the stories that he has from behind the scenes of CSI and stuff are crazy and he’s going to be writing a lot of that on the website. And then also, there is opportunities for people to contribute to the books that are coming out afterwards because he has a three book deal. So for Book 2 and Book 3, people can actually go and, while they are reading Book 1, submit their ideas for characters and story lines.
NRAMA: That's cool. So, for somebody just walking in, how would you describe Level 26?
BECKETT: Level 26 is set in the world of people who hunt down criminals. There are 25 levels of serial killers that describe the degrees of how screwed up these people are, how much of a sociopath, and this guy, Sqweegel, is a new level – Level 26. So, the degree of twistedness in the book and in the videos - (laughing) - I’ll just say, it’s pretty crazy. So that’s going to be pretty awesome and it’s effectively like, I would say, Silence of the Lambs meets CSI. The website itself is going to really flesh out that greater universe: we have a whole true crime section where we are going to be tracking actual criminal cases going on or murders or serial killers; historical serial killers stuff and mystery stuff and so really for anyone who is a CSI fan or a mystery or crime fan, we want Level 26, beyond just this book, to be a destination website for our fans.
Head to The Level 26 Website and check it out for yourself!