As Unsure/Positive Heads Into Season 2, Lead Actor Christian Kiley Looks Back and Ahead
In season one of Unsure/Positive_, we met Kieran McCullay, who is struggling to come to terms with his HIV diagnosis. And here at TheBody.com, we also met Christian Kiley, the creator and star of the web series, whose real-life experiences as a person living with HIV inspired him to create the program._
With the Kickstarter campaign to fund season two of Unsure/Positive in full swing, Christian took a moment to answer a few questions about what he's learned and what lies ahead -- including the addition of Danny Pintauro to the cast.
Why did you decide to use this medium for communicating about HIV?
I was enjoying dinner with some of my closest friends when my bestie, Jacqui, and I got to talking about what I planned to do for my MFA thesis project. I was studying media art and film at Emerson College at the time. I mentioned how much I loved Tig Notaro's recently popularized set where she talked about the death of her mother and her cancer diagnosis -- it was Louis C.K. who took to the internet about it; his voice that drew attention to it -- and we also talked about how much we loved the wonderful mix of realism and absurd comedy that his show accomplished in its early seasons. It was her suggestion that I, like Louis C.K. or Tig, take my own story about the isolation I felt when I was first diagnosed and turn it into a relatable narrative by making it my thesis project. And I had always been keen on the idea of creating a serialized story about an HIV-positive protagonist -- it was something that hadn't been done at that point. By the time my pilot episode was shot, I discovered that Charles Sanchez was working on Merce -- which also features a poz protagonist, but isn't anything like my show -- and I think there's a Jungian quality to the subject these days as I've discovered two other new web series in the past few months that also feature HIV-positive protagonists. I think the most important aspect of creating a series about someone living with HIV is that it bucks the trend in mainstream media of introducing us to people infected with HIV and then killing them off or implying they won't make it. I wanted to create something more positive -- pun intended.
Now that the first season is over, what were some of the highlights of your experience making it?
As you know, the show was based on my own experiences, so I think shooting the hyper-realistic meth use and subsequent orgy scene was, for obvious reasons, one of the most difficult parts of shooting the pilot. We spent a lot of time casting that scene; finding actors who were comfortable portraying that situation was a bit of a challenge, but Eddie Shields, Gio Castellano and Alex Pires are all very talented actors, and they were easy to work with. At the time, I remember my husband worrying that re-enacting that kind of situation might be some sort of trigger for me -- a legitimate concern to be sure. It's wonderful that, instead, I found that directing and performing in that scene gave me a newfound sense of power over my history with meth abuse. Putting myself through those paces proved cathartic, and I think the scene granted all involved a closer look at something that is generally avoided because of all the stigma surrounding it.
Also, I have to say that Amy DePaola and I had the most fun ever when we shot the scene on the playground where Kieran and Allie have it out. I still love watching every moment of that particular scene; I think Amy's performance was really spot-on.
The one reaction I got that was unexpected, but especially important to me, was from my mentor in junior school. He congratulated me on the overall quality of my work and told me that he hadn't had a clue about crystal meth abuse in the gay community. He said he was grateful that I could teach him about that and then added that he was truly sad I had to go through it. I was truly touched by that piece of feedback, and he went on to officiate my wedding to my husband, Michael.
What does it take to pull off a web-based series? What kind of work, and how much of it, goes into each episode?
Web series are no different from short films or feature films in terms of what you need to make them. You need a crew and cast with experience and talent; you need material that they're willing to work on for what is generally reduced pay (and in many cases, no pay at all); you need to secure locations, pay for insurance, provide transportation, send out call sheets and plan, plan, plan; and you need to feed everyone. I should have mentioned that first; it's the most important rule on any set: Feed everyone. There's a lot of hurry up and wait on any film set, so the last thing you need is legitimately grumpy producers, sound recordists, gaffers, talent; everyone needs to eat! And I think in terms of web series in particular, there's a certain expectation that you're going to produce something on a shoestring budget -- which is accurate -- but, really, a shoestring budget is a lot more than most people think. Our pilot episode was funded with a successful $10,000 Kickstarter, but the in-kind value of the equipment provided by Emerson College, for example, would have cost us around $40,000 if we had to rent it all.
And, similarly, if we had paid each and every person on set a fair day's rate, I think the budget for season one [would have] shot up to roughly $100,000. I think it's fair to say that the bulk of the effort is in building relationships with talented artists who value work like Unsure/Positive, which is entertaining and also eye-opening. Without them, the show simply doesn't happen. I'm an introvert with people-pleasing tendencies, so I sometimes have trouble maintaining those relationships as I should. So, I have to give most of the credit to my returning cast and crewmembers, who work very hard to bring the show to life. They aren't doing it to pay the rent; that's for sure!
Has your impression of HIV or the HIV community changed since you started planning the show?
I will say that we had a major screening at one of Boston's big [AIDS service organizations], and the Q&A that followed was very interesting. All of the questions were about whether we'd be representing various minorities and differing walks of life in our second season; of course, we are doing that -- any serialized story pretty much has a mandate to do that -- but it was a bit strange to get questions like, "I'm a heterosexual Latina living with HIV, and I'm a single mother; why not tell a story like that?" or "I'm a black gay man who was infected with HIV at the age of 63, and now I'm 67; why not tell a story like that?" In hindsight, I think the reason we got that sort of feedback from an audience with many HIV-positive people is plain: Everyone who is diagnosed positive has their story of how they dealt with that trauma, and everyone who has dealt with that wears a sort of badge of pride. I completely understand this; I have my own badge, after all.
I've connected more deeply with so many other HIV-positive people since I began being open about my status, and that's something I will continue to do. I've been lucky to meet some internet-famous HIV advocates, even to collaborate with some of them, and I think it's a strong community of resilient people, whether they watch my series or not. My show is, after all, just a show at the end of the day. It's the best work I've managed to create at this point in my career, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to like it. One very visible advocate told a friend of mine early on that he started watching the show and he turned it off because he didn't "like" the main character, Kieran. That's his call, of course, but there's been a lot of very excellent programming featuring protagonists who aren't entirely likeable at all times. My current favorite examples would be Nurse Jackie and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
How was it received? Were there any reactions you hadn't expected?
I'd say quite well, so far. From my perspective, we're really just at the beginning of this story. Our first "season" was originally shot as a 47-minute TV pilot. We were told (later) that, without any names attached -- either well-known actors or directors -- the chances of getting optioned by a Netflix or a Hulu were near nonexistent. That's when we decided to re-edit the show into a web series to make it easier to access, and that has worked fairly well. We have a few thousand viewers on Vimeo and another thousand or so on REVRY. Our new distributor, which is sort of like the gay Netflix, I guess -- they're a super cool bunch, in any case, as they're major proponents of our making a second season. We haven't quite reached that point where the show is being seen by 100,000 people -- which I think is something of a tipping point in the industry -- although I will say that our plans for season two will definitely increase the chances of getting noticed by a larger audience!
Give us a teaser for the second season! What are some topics that will be covered?
OK, I can do this without spoilers; I think I can. OK, maybe some minor spoilers. The intricacies of recovering from crystal meth addiction are definitely going to be explored. We're introducing a new character who is a long-term survivor. Dating while positive, workplace discrimination ... there's other stuff that will likely creep into the writer's room as we come closer to production. And some of it comes, as in the first season, from my own experiences, once again -- I think "Resolutions and New Beginnings" is a decent teaser about the workplace discrimination bit, for instance.
Plus, we've got some great new talent joining the team this season (you can see them on our Instagram account) including Danny Pintauro, who has been very involved in the process of getting season two started, and whose character is really going to make a splash! I haven't yet made the obvious joke about being his boss (because really it's a collaboration), but I sure hope he has a sense of humor when I inevitably go there, as I am wont to do.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.