Wed Sep 28, 2022

Shining a light on subcultures and communities / interview with Andrew Shanks and Nicholas Cleary, creators of Love, Guns and Level-Ups

The series was nominated at die Seriale 2021 for Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design and Best Actress and won the awards for Best Costume Design, Best Sound Design and Best Editing. At the time of this Interview (August 2021), Love, Guns and Level Ups was leading in the Web Series World Cup 2021 with 175 points.

die Seriale: You were nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design and Best Actress and won the awards Best Costume Design, Best Sound Design and Best Editing at die Seriale 2021. Congratulations! How big was your team, and how did you accomplish such a high-level production?

Andrew Shanks: It was a pretty big team we had. The VFX were done by Nick and our other collaborator Dan, so that was a big job, just two people doing all those VFX. We had a pretty big crew, this was definitely the biggest production we’ve done up to this point, we got a little bit of funding, so we were able to pay people and get some really good crew out, so when it came to the shoot, we did have all of our bases covered, especially with things like production design, we had four, five people most days running around, setting stuff up. We had a few different people focussed on different areas, for example, we had one of our production designers, Jess, she was focussed on the Western setting for episode 2 and that was her big job, and then Sam did little bits and pieces, he helped out a lot with the zombie world, but then also as a team, everybody pitched in here and there. There was a lot of people working on a lot of different areas to create that look that we had. It was pretty ambitious, every episode has different settings, so it was a big job.

Team Love, Guns and Level Ups @ Morris Abraham

Nicholas Cleary: Well that’s one thing about our project: the production design, we were always choosing sets and locations, that we knew we had access to, so we’re writing for sets and stuff that meant that it wasn’t a big dressing job, like the forest was as is, the desert environment was as is, the biggest production design challenge was what we were calling the battle world, the sort of Fornite, colorful, expressive world, and that was when we found that location at a laser tag area, it dictated a lot of how we would dress, what we would do, but the world became more street-y on that location, it became grungy and dirtier, which was really fun. The whole project was basing itself around a simple solution from the beginning.

Andrew Shanks: That’s always been our style, and it was no different on this project. It’s that classic thing which you learn in film school about writing a list of everything you have access to, all the locations, and writing the script to that, we pretty much do that still to this day, we know we are able to achieve quiet big looking stuff, because we know how to use locations very well, because they’re locations we have used before many times.

die Seriale: Most of the series takes place in Australia. Would you say there is something specifically Australian about it?

Nicholas Cleary: We never actually said „Elliot is in Australia, let’s sell Australia“, it’s always his world, his bedroom …

Andrew Shanks: I mean, obviously it comes up a little bit that he’s in Australia, that’s part of the story, the long distance relationship, but at no point did we ever say „It’s Australia, we need shots of beaches, to make it look Australian“. One thing we did want to do, and it’s not something we made a big point of, but Elliot is from Adelaide, Australia, which is our hometown, where Nick and I are both from, where we grew up, so it was very important for us to set it there. We could have made it in Sidney or Melbourne, an internationally more known city. But that was part of why we wanted to make Elliot from there, to give some love to our hometown. One of the other challenges was, obviously we didn’t shoot in England, and she was an Australian actress, playing a British character, so there was a bit of discussion early on about a shot out the window and then we see Big Ben or something. And all we did was, at the beginning of the show, and it’s so subtle, but when Bree is standing there, it’s in the sound effects, you hear the sound of that London-style bus and it’s not something anyone is really going to notice but it was something we consciously did.

die Seriale: Were there specific games (or other pop culture references) you wanted to incorporate into your series?

Nicholas Cleary: But never specific games. It was more of a broad feeling of Red Dead Redemption or Fortnite. We always tried to do our own take on it, which means we can be creative and do our own thing with it. I think the biggest jump for the world, because we hadn’t played in it, was the adventure world with the mummies and the Indiana Jones-y vibe, we hadn’t played a lot of games in that area, we watched a lot of movies in that realm. So in that way, we were kind of creating our own thing and having fun with it, because people could still see, and that’s what the web series is: We love games, we also love movies, we are entering all the genres. The zombie-episode has a big Horror film taste to it, the Western-theme feels like a western game or movie, even in the cinematography, all these things were always influencing how we would create a world. That’s what’s really fun about Love Guns and Level-Ups, it’s not just a rom-com, it is many genres.

Andrew Shanks: Yeah, 100% Nick. When we were first writing it, I am sure there were other games, that we toyed with including. So the series ended up being six episodes, but when we first planned it out, it was actually eight. What was it Nick, like a pirate sequence?

Nicholas Cleary: Yeah, there was a dock, it was loading a pirate ship up from the beach.

Andrew Shanks: Yeah, so something that we tried to do was that the video games somewhat mirror where they are at in their relationship and it is quite vague and subtle at times. Episode four with the zombies is probably the most obvious one, where the zombies are a metaphor for the relationship. The pirate idea was similar, we had this whole idea where they were going to spend more time together in the longer version of it, and they would travel around Australia a bit, Elliot would go with Bree to the different conventions across Australia, and we were going to have a whole sequence at the start where they were getting ready to go on this whole voyage and it was going to be a pirate ship in this old school setting, getting the ship ready to go.
We also had a whole scene, not necessarily specifically one game but it’s a scene I love. Bree and Elliot are playing a game together and Bree is creating a character and it was a lot of gags about how sexist it is with the boobs scale for the female characters, so there was a whole scene about that, but we had to cut that, but I loved that, that scene was really fun.

Lisa Fanto @ Love, Guns and Level Ups

Nicholas Cleary: Yeah, only for time we had to cut that, because I was thinking about that scene the other day and it was a really great detail for Bree as a character to have that scene, it discussed some things about her personality, who she was.

Andrew Shanks: It would have been nice to spend more time with Bree and Elliot just hanging out. Other than that nothing really specific. We crammed a lot in there as is, it would have been hard to get much more in there.

die Seriale: Would you consider yourselves gamers?

Andrew Shanks: Yeah, 100%. I still try to play games as much as I can, but – and I think Nick will agree – life gets in the way. The older you get, you’ve got to pay the bills, make silly films. We don’t have as much time to play games as we used to, but I’ll always be a gamer. Even if I’m not playing games for months, I’m still reading news or watching videos, my mind is still there, I’m aware of what’s coming out but it’s hard to find time. How about you Nick?

Nicholas Cleary: I find that – as you’re getting older – you’ve always got less time. I still play games, but I pick the good ones, and I make sure I play them properly. The last game I played was The Last of Us 2. That was a huge game, a big hobby project. I’m currently waiting for the next game. I avoid the online stuff that doesn’t end, because that will suck me up. There’s no end in sight, so it’s about choosing games.

Andrew Shanks: That’s the same for me, I’m very picky with what I play now. I’m playing Ghosts of Tsushima at the moment on PS4 and certainly loving it. It’s a game I’ve been wanting to play for a long time, and it’s the first game I’ve really sunk my teeth into in like a year. And I’m loving it and I’m almost at the end. And then once i get to the end I’ll probably have a little break and then pick something else up. I still haven’t played the Last of Us games, not even the first one, so I’m thinking of going back and playing that. Occasionally I play games on the Nintendo Switch, and what I like about it is, they are more kind of quick-fix-games. With games like Ghosts of Tsushima, The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, you really need to sit down and commit for a few hours to really appreciate it, and that’s what’s really hard to find these days, and those games need that. I do enjoy the Switch, every now and then when I’ve got half an hour to spare, I just do a couple of levels in Mario or Sonic or whatever and that’s my little gaming itch ticked for a week.

Andrew Shanks: Yeah, I play some FIFA with a friend of mine overseas. We catch up, play a couple of rounds of FIFA.

Nicholas Cleary: Which is one of the origin points for the series, the online gaming community. Originally Love, Guns and Level-Ups was going to be about two dudes playing games together on different sides of Australia or the world and how their relationship was tested over time and how they kept their relationship alive through games, which was totally based on true stories, Shanks and I both have those friends far away, and that was the initial concept.

Andrew Shanks: I still think that idea has legs.

Nicholas Cleary: As the writing process became more involved we were like „Hang on – if these guys are lovers, everything is heavier, it can be more thematic, and then we’ll be making a romance web-series which we have not done before“.

Andrew Shanks: We thought that would be really cool, the idea of doing a rom-com in this crazy video-game setting really appealed to us.

Set @ Love, Guns and Level Ups

die Seriale: You already talked about the relationships that inspired the series but besides that, how did you come up with the idea?

Andrew Shanks: So there’s a funding body in Australia called Screen Australia and they have a funding initiative called Skip Ahead which is focussed on giving funding to Australian Youtubers and giving them the chance to make something bigger. And we have a Youtube channel, Fury Fingers, which we’ve done a lot of stuff on in the past that has been relatively successful with a few videos, so we were given the opportunity to apply for that funding, and that’s where we started: „We got this opportunity to make something bigger, what do we do?“ That’s where it started and then it evolved from there, like Nick said, we took inspiration from our own lives, because Nick’s got a good friend who lives in the States and I’ve got a friend who lives overseas and for many years now, the way we’ve kept contact is by playing games together and I always thought it was funny how you would be playing a game together, and you’re in the middle of a really intense session, but while you’re doing that, you’re just talking about simple everyday stuff, you’re talking about „How is life in London?“, „How is school?“, „How is your mom?“ So we just thought there was a nice contrast between having characters in crazy settings but having really honest, human, even in some cases dull conversations in very heightened environments. Also me and Nick were both single men at the time and we dated, so we were drawing on our own experiences, our own successes and failures on the dating scene, so it was very relevant, some of the stuff, i’m not going to say specifically, but there’s some stuff in there that’s very real and quite raw.

Nicholas Cleary: I remember when Bree has her big monologue at the end, when she’s breaking up with Elliot, she says some stuff that definitely never got said to us and I remember saying to Lisa Fanto: „it’s actually validating to hear you say them, it’s sort of like this therapy session we never got or something“.

Andrew Shanks: I think when we were writing it, we were both kind of exorcising some demons, which i think is what you do, that’s what artists do with their art, right? Exorcise demons with their art and we definitely did that, I’m not afraid to admit that, and it feels really good.

Nicholas Cleary: Some of my favourite feedback was male friends or male strangers saying „Dude, I cried at the end.“ I was like „Really?“ „Yeah, that guy got me there, that Ed Geyl guy? when he started welling up, I was in tears.“

Still @ Love, Guns and Level Ups

die Seriale: The series tells a love story. Two people, from different parts of the world, find each other and don’t even know each other’s appearance at first. However, the story does not stop when they meet each other, it continues and also tells of difficulties that emerge when reality comes along. How does communication take place in the series?

Andrew Shanks: Especially with Elliot, he’s someone who, in the video game world portrays very confidently and even in the initial meetings when they start to play games together and they’re video-chatting together, he’s very confident, and there’s a persona that he presents online. It’s the same with Bree, even more so, she sort of lives this double-life. When we get to episode three and they meet in real life, we wanted that awkwardness and the walls coming down and there being no social media and no video game avatar to hide behind. So we wanted that awkwardness that would always come, no matter how long you’ve been chatting to someone online, that first meeting is always a little awkward at first. In terms of communication, there’s so much that happens in this series in terms of the different ways that we all keep in contact these days. And it was really important to us to portray that through video games and through all the text messages or all the social media sites that we could communicate through.

die Seriale: You took some liberties with gameplay to place character moments inside the games, was that always the plan?

Andrew Shanks: We were always going to do those really emotional moments inside video games.

Nicholas Cleary: Yeah. And we do take a lot of liberties. And stuff happens in our game scenes that can’t happen in games, and a part of me says „Yeah, but we can excuse that because we’re in a fantasy web series“ and another part of me says „It felt real for the characters, so it happens“.

Andrew Shanks: That’s sort of the whole concept of the series. That’s what it feels like, when you’re playing with your mate who’s in another country but a couple of hours into a deep session it does feel like they’re just on the couch next to you. In saying that we want to have all these heavy, emotional moments in the game, in episode 5, we have one of the heaviest moments of the series happen in the real world and that was always a part of the series as well, having that contrast between the relationship in the games and then maintaining that in the real world where all the walls are down and you can’t hide behind an avatar. So yeah, episode 5 does have some heavy stuff in it but the idea was always about heavy life conversations in video game settings.

die Seriale: The story gets pretty much resolved in the last episode, but there is a small cliffhanger. Have you considered a second season or are there any other projects that we can look forward to?

Andrew Shanks: We put that in there because we wanted to end happily and I always think it’s nice for movies to end on a question. It’s just more interesting. It’s nice to tie up all loose ends with nice bow and let everybody walk away knowing exactly how it ended but I think it’s always better to leave a couple of questions with an ending. It’s not really a happy ending i guess.

Nicholas Cleary: It’s like, it’s another beginning of sorts and that’s a nice way to finish, with a new start, and that could mean they just end up as friends. They’ve been through a lot together, it could mean lots of things. But if the funding came, we’d know exactly what to do and we’ve mapped out a good arc for season two and probably season three if it happened.

Andrew Shanks: It’s not something we’re actively pursuing right now but we’re definitely open to the idea of doing more and that’s why we left the door open, we didn’t want to give it a definitive ending. I’ve also always had a really grand idea of turning it into a bigger series, adapting it into a full-on TV-show. That might be a big pipe dream at this point but still, I think there’s potential there. It probably wouldn’t just be the story of Elliot and Bree anymore, I’m talking more like taking the idea and concept of „I wanna make friends but in video games“. I want to make more of an ensemble piece, for example the best friend characters of Steph and Sean, give them more to do, rather than being supporting characters, give them a complete arc. There’s so much you can do with those two characters, we’ve talked about it a lot. What I love about the series and one thing that was always important to us in all the work we’ve done is – We’re big nerds and we’re really proud of it, and as filmmakers we really like showcasing that stuff. So that’s why doing something about cosplay was one of the big ideas when we were first talking about this. Cosplay hasn’t really been represented that well, or at all in film and television. If there is a character who is a cosplayer, they’re a joke, and they’re a loser and they are ridiculed. It’s the same with the convention community. These are all things that we love, but they’re things that don’t get respect. That’s what we wanted to do with this as well, give a respectful, honest take on these worlds and subcultures. And we’ve had a lot of great feedback in regards to that, in particular with the cosplay community. So many relate to Bree and her experiences, the sexism that they experience and all the shit they have to deal with online, the double identity. We have a lot of friends who are cosplayers and so when we wrote the character of Bree, we were drawing on our friends and talking to them about their experiences. It’s been very well received in that regard.

I want to do more of that, shining a light on subcultures and communities that don’t get the respect that they deserve. Another one is wrestling, I’m a big wrestling fan and we’ve always worked with a lot of wrestlers, there’s a lot of wrestlers in Love, Guns and Level-Ups. There’s all sorts of geeky subcultures, that I really want to represent and make cool content about.

die Seriale: Thank you very much for the interview!

Interview by Benjamin Jochum

Love, Guns and Level-Ups (2020)

Country: Australia
Genre: Action
Runtime: 6 x 10 min
Director: Nicholas Cleary, Andrew Shanks
Writer: Nicholas Cleary, Andrew Shanks, Daniel Vink
Producers: Jodie Kirkbride
Cast: Lisa Fanto, Eduard Geyl, Walter Buckley, Shabana Azeez