Through the good graces of Vents Magazine, ye olde intrepid interviewer recently had the chance to sit down and talk with Will Gong the creator and writer of the comedic sitcom Bunkheads (currently streaming on Amazon Prime – Check it out!), a just off-center sitcom that happens to inhabit some of the same hallowed ground as George Romero’s and Danny Boyle’s zombie efforts. I had a lot of fun picking Will’s brain (AHEM – insert lame pun here) about the genesis of the project along with getting the scoop on what might lay ahead for the cult favorite show.
Vents: The zombie genre in horror seems to always be something of an analogy to the human element and how we interact with one another in crisis situations: Lord of the Flies Meets Night of the Living Dead. Where are your thoughts on that particular equation?
Will Gong: I think that’s what makes it interesting: I think that’s what makes the zombie genre in general captivating and so haunting is that so much of it is about the people and how they live together. But you also want some horror payoffs from time to time, too.
When we did Bunkheads there was always that give and take about adding more horror. What we really wanted to do was establish characters before we really delved further into what the world was like outside. We could have found more ways to incorporate horror if we wanted to; I mean we would have had to change things based on budget and shooting schedule and whatnot, but it felt like not having that real kind of gore in season one left us with places to go if we make a season two.
Vents: What is the secret origin of Bunkheads? What led you to write that particular story?
WG: Honestly, in a lot of ways it came out of how serious The Walking Dead was. I read a lot of the comics and I watched season one of The Walking Dead and while I thought it was really, really well made I couldn’t help but think, ‘Wow, is there no room for anybody to laugh?’ To be really specific, I always felt kind of like the character of Shane was on a different show from everybody else because he was so arch. I watched this thinking that there could be a funny sitcom that takes place in the Zombie Apocalypse and I wondered what that would be like, I wondered how you could find a way to get that to happen. I’ve been writing for a long time now and I started to really think about the idea for a sitcom set in a world overrun by zombies. I kind of imagined that the only way that could work was if they had a place to hide out and stay safe for a little bit. I was living in this split-level house and I was kind of in the basement and my friends and I kind of joked around and called it my bunker. The idea of that, plus like this idea to affectionately take the piss out of The Walking Dead, the idea of the self-seriousness of it, led to the initial kernel idea for Bunkheads. I wanted to take the tropes that you find in sitcoms, but really exaggerate them. Everything is just so much more heightened when there are zombie hordes above ground; you can’t leave and you don’t feel safe so anytime you’re like, ‘I need to take a break,’ it turns into a much bigger deal than in an everyday situation when you decide to just take a walk. The presence of zombies elevated things. So the opportunity to get to play around with zombie tropes inside of a sitcom was another exciting thing.
Vents: How did you settle on the one girl/three guy dynamic for the four principals of Bunkheads? I think it works like gangbusters, but I’m curious to see what your take on it is.
WG: Specifically for that it basically came down to balancing out and figuring out what everyone’s conflict was going to be, what was going to be the thing that drove them, that really kind of gave the character an identity? For Dani it was just being the sole female. I had a lot of discussion with friends and as a woman you’re always feeling kind of objectified. The idea that you would be by yourself kind of trapped down there that just seemed like there was a lot of places to go with comedy and for conflict for her and ways that she could push back against that. I found that to be really interesting and I found ways to play off of that angle when talking about, ‘Oh, if they were the last four people how would this go?’ The other thing was that we hinted at attractions and whatnot in the show and when we see some of their dreams in episode five, so we know at least how Cash feels. Having two girls and two boys made it seem too easy to pare them off and that wasn’t something that I was interested in doing. It would have been way too contrived. That in its own way, Cash was going to be kind of diverse, but Dani was also going to be diverse in the sense that she was the only woman: That makes each of her relationships more interesting with each of the men because they’re vastly different how she is with them.
Vents: You have a background that is rich in the industry as a well-known and respected editor. Was it a difficult transition to go from editing a film to actually creating and writing the universe of Bunkheads?
WG: I came out to L.A. at a time when they were transitioning between tape based editing and digital editing, so there were tons of jobs in post-production. Luckily, I was also able to produce; I produced behind the scenes documentaries and DVDs and Blu-Ray content. I would say that not only that but also being an editor on a project, you’re doing a lot of scripting. You’re doing a lot of putting pieces together, figuring things out. You’re creating a world with the material that was shot with. So in that sense I feel like it all kind of naturally led me to being a better storyteller because I went to film school with an emphasis on screenwriting. I’ve been telling stories since I was a little kid; I’ve been doing my own version of creating worlds. Everyone out here, we all have fifteen scripts that we wrote and loved and nobody ever saw because it didn’t get quite the buzz or it didn’t get put in the right hands. It’s always been kind of my end-game to be a writer and I’ve just been lucky to be in the right place at the right time to expand in my skill set as an editor.
RV: You assembled an incredible ensemble of actors for Bunkheads. How difficult was it to cast this show?
WG: Our producer on the project, Gabriel Reiter, he wanted us to do this the right way so he reached out to someone he uses quite frequently for casting, Sherrie Henderson. Sherrie ran it like any show she’s doing. So we saw hundreds of tapes that they did at the studio before we then narrowed it down to about forty actors per character and then we brought everybody in and watched them read a scene or two together with all four of them together so we could actually see how they would fit. Lauren Klixbull, the director, said, ‘We’re not going to have the time to really learn these characters while we’re shooting it, so we need to make sure they have chemistry.’ I thought that was a great idea on her part. So what we did was we read full scenes with four people and then we were able to basically mix and match and balance it out in a way that just felt right. For me as the writer, the roles are great and all, but in the wrong hands your writing can be the worst thing ever. And in the best hands it turns into something wildly amazing; it’s so much better than you could have imagined when the best person is reading it. We were lucky that we found four great actors – five, if you include Alexandra Corin Johnston who played Blair – five great actors who just lived and breathed those characters and they bounced off of one another in just the right way. The extraordinary craft for them on set – they ran extremely long takes. A lot of the times we just did full scenes with multiple cameras filming and the craft on display to hold the characters, to be in the moment and be present was extraordinary and it was really great to see. Your film just lives or dies on the perfect casting; if one of them didn’t work, you’re done.
Vents: Here’s a Sophie’s Choice sort of question for you: Is there a favorite episode and/or moment that you have from Bunkheads?
WG: That’s tricky because I think episode two as just a stand-alone episode is fantastic. It just works on its own. You never have to see anything else from the series to get it. So in that sort of sense, I just love it and it feels like television in the best way. But episodes four and five, by that point everyone’s personalities are locked in and the audience is kind of used to them so then you get to kind of experiment. I think the place where everything clicks for us on the show is probably episode five because that’s the one where you really just kind of get to play in the world of Bunkheads. With future episodes we would probably explore that style more. It’s just a great balance between humor and emotions and heart, you know? To discover that Matt had a family is just devastating. That episode was so much fun to do and to make and to put together. It just hits you.
Vents: As episode six winds down, it seems as if everything is sort of set up for the future of Bunkheads. Can fans expect a season two for the show?
WG: Well, we are giving our all to make a second season happen. We’ve had some conversations and we’ve been trying to figure it out. It’s a process and a lot of it’s going to come down to figuring out a way to get funding for it.
Vents: Do you see the story of Bunkheads as being married to the episodic television format, or do you see a movie as a possible way to continue your story?
WG: Bunkheads itself, because it’s so based in the format of a sitcom is easy enough to do as a sitcom. But it also takes place inside the world of the Zombie Apocalypse. It’s pretty transferable to something bigger. It’s going to take a lot of love and investment and getting the right people to see it to want to do more with it.
Vents: Requisite question for you here: What’s next on your plate going forward with different projects and such?
WG: What we’re doing right now, Lauren the director and Gabe the producer, we are trying to leverage Bunkheads with all of the positive word of mouth and great write-ups to get meetings. We’ve been pretty successful with that. Along with season two of Bunkheads we’re pitching a bunch of new ideas that range from features to television. We’re looking for development partners to move these projects forward. That’s what this year looks like. After this year then we may have to get back to doing some ground floor independent work again. The independent world is incredibly collaborative; it’s a really good community out on L.A. There’s a lot of creative filmmakers working together on a small scale to help each other and push each other’s work. But it is a grind and it is a full-time grind. We shot Bunkheads in eight days. Then it took us nine months to post it because everybody was working full-time and then we took another three months to build up our marketing before we launched it last December. This year we’re with Bunkheads: We’re putting it in festivals. We’re getting it out there. We’re doing all of the things we can to get people to see it and potentially get them interested in a season two. After that, we’ll see how it goes. I’m writing and whatever I do the tone and the feeling of Bunkheads will live on.
Vents: Alright, a fun question to close out our talk today, Will: What movies have inspired you as a filmmaker? Any desert island choices that may come to mind?
WG: Alright, I’m going to lay this out there: Let’s go with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Evil Dead 2 and The Matrix. Let’s go with those three. I love movies and I love all kinds of stuff, but those three really had an impact in my younger days. Those three I just love on a pure level.
Vents: Will Gong, on behalf of Vents Magazine I want to thank you for your time today.