The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: An Interview with Mary Kate Wiles, Maxwell Glick, Margaret Dunlap & Kate Rorick

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Attending this month’s MCM London Comic Con for their first ever UK appearance were four members of the team behind the hugely popular web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. A modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the show retells the story of Elizabeth Bennet in the form of a YouTube vlog. Since first airing in 2012, it has won multiple awards and met with huge critical acclaim, as well as building up an enormous online fanbase.

Following on from a public panel and press conference at the convention, writers Margaret Dunlap and Kate Rorick and actors Maxwell Glick (Mr Collins) and Mary Kate Wiles (Lydia Bennet) spoke to MCM Buzz about how the show came to be and what it had been like to work on it.

 

DSC00892Could you tell me a bit about how each of you first got involved in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?

MD: I came in very early on. I’d already met socially a couple of times with Bernie Su, one of our co-creators, and he asked me to meet him for coffee. During the meeting that followed, he told me that he was working with this guy Hank [Green, vlogger and Lizzie Bennet Diaries producer], who had come up with the idea of taking literature that’s in the public domain and telling it vlog-style. I immediately said, “Oh, so you’ll be doing Pride and Prejudice on YouTube,” and he said, “Actually, that’s exactly what we’re doing,” and he offered me the job on the spot.

Kate and I had previously worked together on a television show and I knew that she was a huge Pride and Prejudice fan, so it was in that initial meeting when I first asked him whether he had spoken to her yet. At the time, he told me not to talk myself out of a job! But eventually, we got her hired on.

KR: Margaret knew that I’m a big Jane Austen fan, and also that I write historical romance novels, so I’m very very familiar with the story and the period. A few months into the project, they were doing well enough that they were able to expand the writing team a little bit, so I met with Bernie over coffee and he hired me pretty much on the spot, too.

MKW: I submitted an audition online, but I had actually met Bernie before as well, which I think helped only because there are thousands and thousands of people that submit online to these things and if I hadn’t known him, I would have been just another face in the crowd. It certainly wasn’t why I got cast, but I think it did help. I originally read for both Lizzie and Lydia, and they called me back for Lydia. I think I first auditioned in December, and then we had callbacks in January or February. I wasn’t really expecting to get the part by that point because usually you hear about these things fairly quickly.

MD: You [Mary Kate] were actually one of the first casting decisions we made. I think we had two Lydias, four Lizzies and three Janes, and we read them in every single combination. The first one we did was you and Ashley, and even on the first round, everyone was like, “Well, Mary Kate’s gonna be Lydia, right?” She just really popped in that role and it was one of the easiest casting decisions that we’ve ever made.

MG: Whereas I found out very quickly after I auditioned.

MD: We were in production at that point, we didn’t have time to mess around!

MG: My character was in the VidCon episode, which was set to shoot the next weekend, right after I auditioned.

So you had quite a good idea of what you were getting yourself into when you started out?

MG: Yeah. I had watched the show. I also knew Bernie previously, though we had never worked together.

Sounds like everyone knows Bernie!

MG: Yeah, you just do! So I auditioned – I got to audition with Ashley [Clements, who plays Lizzie], and I did the scene that was my first episode, basically. And it was crazy: I got it and then I was shooting a couple of days after.

DSC00903You [Margaret and Kate] mentioned that you previously worked on a TV show together. Can I ask what that was?

MD: Yeah, it was a show called Day One and it never saw the light of day.

KR: Basically, they hired the writing staff and we wrote the entire season. We had outlines for about nine episodes and it was going to be on NBC. They had already purchased it, but then they decided that they didn’t want it any more and so they shut it down. The best thing that came out of that show was that we all got to meet and hang out together, so I met Margaret and a bunch of other people.

MD: Including your future husband!

KR: I did meet my future husband there, that’s true!

MD: The relationships there were excellent and it was exactly like making a TV show except that we didn’t actually wind up making a TV show.

Is that maybe part of what attracted you to the idea of making a web series – so you could avoid those kind of frustrations?

KR: Sort of. It was a very different process, but we both work in traditional television and were doing so at the time as well. For me personally, this was just my chance to tell Pride and Prejudice, and that was definitely the main reason I got involved.

MD: I think one of the reasons that Bernie initially reached out to me when he was gathering the writing staff for the show was that I had been working on Eureka, which had just finished its run, so he knew that I had some time. He was probably thinking, “Margaret has TV experience and is currently unemployed, so I bet she will work cheap at the end of the year!” I remember talking to my manager and him asking me if I was sure I really wanted to do a web series. I said that I thought that the show was definitely going to get made, and once we got moving, the process was very quick. It’s like what we talked about in the panel – when you do a film, you shoot it, and then three years later people get to see it, whereas we would shoot episodes and it would be airing the next week sometimes, with Mr Collins especially.

KR: It’s not so much about the medium for me, really – or for any of us – it’s more about the story. That’s definitely why we all took to it so well and I think that’s really why the fans took to it too.

In terms of scripting, how much did you have done before you started shooting?

MD: We had a little bit of lead time when we first started shooting. We shot it eight episodes at a time, so we were shooting, say, the month of June in April. So we were about two months ahead in general.

KR: Yeah, especially once we knew that we were going to run for 12 months and we knew what the end date was. Then we could look at what was coming up and we’d break the episodes that were shooting immediately and write those scripts, and then we’d have an idea of what the next month would look like, so we’d have the rough outline and then we’d go in and flesh out those stories more precisely. So when we first started we wrote the initial three months as a piece, because initially we weren’t sure whether we were going to have more than three months, but after that it evolved into more like, you shoot for a week, you have a week off, and then you have to come in and break the next month.

DSC00869How heavily scripted was it? Did the actors have room to do much improvisation?

MKW: A little bit. It was mostly scripted – I would say about 90-95%. There were certainly little things that we improvised in the moment, like little one-liners and things.

MG: My speeches especially were scripted very carefully. All my long winded monologues were word-for-word. My character was just so precise with all his word choices.

MKW: But especially towards the end, we did have a lot of input into our characters. So in rehearsals we might say, “Bernie, I would never say this!” We all got very protective of our characters, I think. When you’ve got so many people working on a show, you have to make sure that they’re all on one page, and sometimes that can be difficult, so it was really lovely that they let us speak up and listened to our opinions. I know Ashley particularly would had a lot of input into the scripts. She would get them before the rest of the actors and talk about them with Bernie. It was lovely because that’s not something that you often have the opportunity to do as an actor and we really appreciated it.

MD: As a writer, you always start out with your idea of who you think the characters are, and then you cast them, and of course you cast for your idea, but your idea then evolves depending on what the actors bring to the table. Actors aren’t just little machines that say your lines!

MKW: Thanks, Margaret…

So, speaking of the long-winded monologues, do you have a particular favourite Mr Collins speech?

MD: [laughing] Which one was the shortest?

MG: Winnipeg, Manitoba! Hmmm…favourite speech….goodness gracious! Um, probably the proposal. Well, both of them! Yeah, those are definitely my favourites. When he busted out each little envelope in increasing size – I just thought the way that they adapted it was really, really creative. That was just fantastic stuff!

You mentioned earlier that there were different people running the social media accounts, so did you get to interact and discuss characterisation with them much?

MKW: Not a lot.

MG: No, not really.

So you were just reading what they were saying as the tweets went out?

MKW: By the end, Rachel Kiley [writer/producer] was doing some of the tweets and she would run some of that by me, but only for Lydia’s tweets specifically, and I think that was a special scenario because we were both very possessive of the character. I don’t know if it was the same for anyone else.

KR: Most of the tweets were actually done by Jay Bushman, our transmedia editor, and by Alexandra Edwards. They were part of the writing process, especially Jay, so they were present in the writers’ room, and they were building the story out on these different platforms as well.

MD: The idea wasn’t so much like in traditional television where you have the show and there’s this added web stuff that you’re doing. For us it was very much a case of telling a story where the core is the videos on Lizzie’s channel, but everything else is part of the same piece and part of the same world.

DSC00878The initial idea for the show came from Bernie Su and Hank Green. As you moved along, how involved was Hank in the process?

MD: Well, initially he was our post-production. He did the editing on that first couple of months. And just as a practical matter, if somebody reading this is planning on making a web series, I do not recommend having your post-production mailing a hard drive with all of your footage on it to Montana, because that can be very, very nerve-wracking! I feel like we should send a testimonial to whatever company that hard drive was being transported by: it never got lost, it was never damaged. I don’t know why nothing ever went horribly wrong. But thankfully, we did eventually progress to relocating our editors to Los Angeles.

MG: It’s amazing that that happened!

KR: Hank was very instrumental in getting the train moving, but once it got going he was happy to let us conduct it.

Since the series ended, we’ve had the odd few updates from Lizzie and Darcy. Are we likely to see any more of Mr Collins or Lydia?

MKW: Well, Lydia does have her own book coming out.

MD: Yeah, the second book is going to be The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet, so we will get a little bit of closure on that story.

MKW: Which I am very happy about! As for videos, I don’t know about that.

MD: We could see more of Mr Collins, you don’t know. He may even show up in the book!

MKW: You never know! I have learned to never say never with this show, because it has surprised me in so many ways.

It would be nice to see a bit more behind the scenes at Collins and Collins!

MD: Well, Mr Collins did have the “Better Living” videos.

MG: Yeah, we had “Better Living with Collins and Collins”, which was part of the Kickstarter campaign we ran, and we made a few more videos with that, which was awesome – it was so much fun!

KR: The best one was the tea one, in my opinion.

MKW: Oh, I don’t know if I saw that one!

MG: No? It was good!

KR: It was about how to vaporise dihydrogen monoxide.

MG: Margaret wrote those and they were just fantastic. I would love to do more of them! I would always welcome Mr Collins in my life at any point.

MD: I would love it if one day we could produce Game of Gourds. I’m still dying to find out what that show actually is.

I think maybe a lot of fans were expecting some of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries characters to show up at Boxx in Emma Approved.

MKW: Yeah, I know a lot of people were hoping for that.

KR: Well, Caroline was there!

You two [Margaret and Kate] did work on Emma Approved as well, didn’t you?

MD: Briefly, yeah.

DSC00921How did that experience compare to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?

KR: Well, it was very different, partly because we had a larger budget, so we could do a bit more with it – meaning that we had more than one camera set up. But also partly in terms of the storytelling: Emma is the only Austen novel that never really leaves one location, so we were always in the office. We didn’t have to go to Pemberley or VidCon or anything like that, and that really shifted the way that we told the story.

Updating Emma was also a little bit different to updating Lizzie because Emma is a character that Jane Austen herself described as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, so you’re starting off with a character who is not necessarily likeable and developing her from there.

MD: For me it was nice to be able to write a couple of episodes of Emma Approved because we had originally auditioned Joanna Sotomura (who plays Emma) for Welcome to Sanditon. The part wasn’t quite the right fit for her, but she was so good and I remember telling Bernie that he had to audition her for Emma. So when he did actually cast her it was exciting to get to write something for her because that had been a really fun audition.

Currently, Pemberley Digital is working on Frankenstein M.D., which is being supported by PBS as well. Are there any plans for future projects?

MG: I don’t know.

MD: [looking mysterious] I think there may be other projects in development but I believe that is all any of us are cleared to say…

For the actors – how are things going with Muzzled the Musical?

MKW: Oh! Well, we don’t really know! We got successfully funded which is lovely.

You haven’t started shooting yet, then?

MKW: No, not yet, but we will be soon! We were supposed to be shooting next month, but that got pushed back a bit. But it’s good. It will all happen. It’s all on the up and up!

MG: I think we’re going to shoot in January – that’s the latest we’ve heard.

MKW: So, yeah, sorry for the long wait, but hopefully it will be worth it! We’re all very excited about it. It’ll be fun to have some of the old team back on set together.

Finally, do any of you have any messages for UK fans who didn’t get to come and see you at comic con?

[At this, there’s a collective “Awwwww” that would melt your heart. Seriously.]

MKW: It’s really sad to miss them! We’re so happy to be here. It’s been a long time coming, I think.

MG: We were so excited to be able to come!

MKW: And hopefully it won’t be the last time either!

MG: Maybe we’ll come back and you can see us again.

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Let’s hope so!

If you weren’t able to join us at the convention this weekend, you can read our Lizzie Bennet Diaries panel coverage here, or check out our footage from the press conference below. Or, if you happen to be one of those people who has yet to discover the show (you know who you are), you can find out what all the fuss is about here.

Photos by Caitlin Jenkins. Video by Josh McCullough.

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