Have you watched Hulu’s new series Complete Works yet? You absolutely should as we said when we reviewed the series earlier this week. In just five episodes, the creators take us on a unique and personal journey following Hal, who attempts to win the American Shakespeare Competition finals in Italy. Along the way, Hal not only learns a lot about what Shakespeare means in his life, but how his journey can make him a better person.
It’s funny, even though there is a lot of tension built among the characters. The main character goes through a riveting journey, which is impressive considering it’s only five half-hour episodes. And, perhaps best of all, the ending leaves you smiling and laughing about everything that the protagonist has learned and gone through.
This week, we got to talk to Joe Sofranko who plays Hal and is also the executive producer, writer, and director of Complete Works. Lili Fuller, who plays Pauline, is also an executive producer on the series. Check out what they had to say about competition in the arts, the toughest part to cast, and what they love most about their main character.
Playmaker Magazine: We personally love the Shakespeare ties for this show because we have lots of Playmaker contributors that are big fans of The Bard. But it feels like a big risk. As relatable as all of Shakespeare’s work is, not everyone is open to it. Why do you think that is?
Joe Sofranko: One of the things that scares people away from Shakespeare is that people don’t understand it. For me and for my teachers, the primary thing has always been about making it make sense. Once you figure that out, it comes off the page naturally. When you see Shakespeare plays, it’s either really really good or really really bad. It’s not really in the middle. I have a hard time understanding Shakespeare when it’s done poorly.
If the actors and directors aren’t doing it to make it relatable, then it can be painful and unbearable. But if you go to a place like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching an old play. It’s easier than reading because, ultimately they’re meant to be performed. And when it’s done well, it makes more sense than in any other context.
PM: What’s your favorite line from Shakespeare?
JS: I have two. One is from the end of Othello:
The other is from MacBeth:
Lili Fuller: My favorite line comes from Romeo and Juliet, which is actually in the balcony scene that Regan (Lizzie Fabie) and Oliver (Chase Williamson) do in the show.
PM: My favorite line is from Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
But I also love Juliet’s line from the balcony scene after she and Romeo kiss. She just says, “You kiss by th’ book.” And there’s something that’s so timeless about that line. You could picture high schoolers and college kids saying that.
LF: Every few years, his plays are remade. We like to say that Shakespeare’s been trending since 1564. He’s the most performed playwright of all time and his plays will be performed forever, until the end of time.
JS: Part of it is the language. Part of it is also the characters. He crafted his stories in perfect ways. We’re attracted to it because of his storytelling. If his language was pretty, but the story didn’t back it up, it might be forgotten. The high emotions are why we gravitate towards him.
PM: The competition portrayed in the show is similar to artistic competitions that kids participate in all the time. You must have experience with that to have centered a show around one.
JS: I competed in the National Shakespeare Competition myself in 2004. It’s a real thing. The finalists have to do a cold reading, which we did in the show. I actually won, but I didn’t get thousands of dollars or a car or anything. But I got to go study in London and actually met the associate dean that recruited me to go to USC.
PM: If you could win a car, you know what you should’ve won? A Pontiac Tempest!
LF: *Laughs* I didn’t know there was a car called that.
PM: Oh yeah, it’s real. So when did you first start to come up with making a show?
JS: In 2010, we were actors that had just graduated from USC. We were looking for stuff to do. When you’re an actor in general, you’re always waiting; waiting for an audition, waiting for an agent to call you about an audition, waiting for a casting director to call you back about an audition, waiting for a director to talk to you about your audition and maybe cast you for a job.
Even when you booked a job, it wasn’t great. Like for a commercial: you’re there for six hours and you don’t know what’s going on because you’re not part of the creative process. We were uninspired. We weren’t doing anything creatively.
LF: We’d been doing live theatre. But it’s LA and it’s not like it’s a big theatre town, not like it should be. Everyone’s there to do film and TV. So we were ready to make a series.
JS: And really we wanted to become SAG. [Join the Screen Actors Guild]
LF: A lot of people were making a web series because you can “Taft-Hartley” in a SAG new media project. And we thought, since we were the producers, can cast ourselves and get into SAG!
(Note: “Taft-Hartley” is a federal labor law term used in the entertainment industry meaning that an actor can join SAG just by being cast in a SAG project even though you normally have to already be in the union to even be considered for the role. Confusing right? It’s best if you stop thinking about it while you can.)
JS: What’s funny is that we joined SAG six months later in totally different ways. So we thought if we’re gonna do a web series, we want to do something that has production value and is different than what the other guys are doing. You know, “Three guys live in an apartment and they’re all trying to be actors and they keep finding themselves in crazy situations…”
LF: We didn’t want to do sketch comedy because we felt like so many online shows are sketch comedy. We wanted to stand out and do something that had a narrative.
JS: Something serialized, that required you to watch the shows in order.
PM: And where did you come up with the story?
LF: The inspiration for the story came from Joe. I met Joe at another competition in Miami where they bring in 20 high schoolers to compete in several different disciplines.
JS: We were there for a week and we’d take classes and compete. But, like in the show, there was sort of a gray area where judges would be around during the classes so we didn’t know if we were being graded during parts of the trip that weren’t supposed to be competitive. We’d never really seen that in narrative fiction. I mean, Glee sorta does it.
LF: But this isn’t a team competition. This is individuals in the arts.
JS: It’s an interesting dynamic. There is that feeling where you’re like, “Yay this is so fun. It’s like camp!” But there’s also an unspoken tension where one of us is going to come out in the end as the winner. Literally, some people win $10,000 and some win $500. Is it possible to be truly, genuinely artistic in a competitive environment without sacrificing your artistic integrity?
Plus, it’s a funny and interesting dynamic to have characters that don’t know each other and have them all be such insecure people.
LF: Especially actors! *Laughs*
PM: As I said in my review, one of my favorite parts about the show is the depth of the characters. Is that something you worked on a lot when you were writing the show?
LF: We didn’t want anyone to be a stereotype. You can fall into that trap, especially with theatre people. It’s interesting because you have Pauline the Diva, but she tries to help Hal and make him a better person. Ian’s character (played by Ben Sidell) could be the token neurotic, super-dramatic theatre guy, but there’s more to him than that. Hal is really finding himself and figuring out what character he’d like to play and the kind of person he wants to be.
JS: I think it’s about writing specific dialogue and casting really good actors. We wanted the characters to be real people in the theatre.
LF: We know those people!
JS: I was in a young artists competition in 2011 and I took that opportunity to take notes and do some spy work. It’s interesting watching how different personality types deal with insecurities. Ian latches on to someone else and is elitist. With Reagan, she deals by rambling.
PM: And making out with people. I like Regan.
LF: *Laughs* She’s really emotive. She’s still finding herself as a woman and an actress.
JS: [Co-creator] Adam [North] and I talked a lot about how some people were saying that there were opportunities to show our characters doing their Shakespeare in weird ways. But we wanted all six to be good. We didn’t want anyone to be clearly terrible. Seeing bad acting as a joke is funny for…
LF: A minute.
JS: Less than a minute. 20 seconds. By making them good actors, they have to be real.
PM: One of my favorite scenes was when the competitors go through an exercise where they lie down and imagine themselves on a beach. You can really see what’s in their heads and it reveals a lot about their motivations and the kind of people they are.
JS: That happens in every acting class!
LF: But shooting on the beach was the hardest part.
JS: It was really hard for me. I had to get wet. And as soon as you’re wet and covered in sand, then everything you touch gets wet and covered in sand. We shot at Thousand Steps Beach and we had to carry all the equipment to the beach because there’s no road that goes right up to the water. It’s easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. Those 20 days of shooting… we don’t even know how we did it.
PM: You shot this whole series in just 20 days?
JS: We had to force ourselves to get sleep. If we were just directing/producing/writing, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get sleep. If you’re acting, you can’t look tired. Your eyes are drooping and your face is falling off. It was very stressful. The key was planning as much in advance as we could. Lili and I were able to sleep at the location, so that bought us an extra hour or two.
If I were to do this in the future, I would schedule another week of shooting. It was so ambitious. We were never able to get all the shots we wanted for each scene. It was always about prioritizing in the moment. Everyone’s working for little money or for free. We demanded a lot of hours from them. We wanted to not go way over schedule every day.
LF: It’s amazing to think how focused we were for 20 days. I think back and wonder, “How did we do that?” I don’t even know how we got through it. We were so excited, ready, and happy to be shooting this thing that we’d been working on for a year and a half. When we were there, it was go-time. For 20 days, we lived, breathed, slept, and dreamt about everything.
JS: Normally directors will look at dailies. I didn’t even have time. I never looked back, except when I was going to bed.
PM: What was your favorite part of shooting?
JS: It was nice when I didn’t have to multi-task. One of the hardest things was directing myself, so my favorite scene to direct was from the first episode. It’s in the first flashback when we see Hal growing. Hal is reading MacBeth with a girl in an English classroom. There was something magical about it. The kids were really talented. We were on schedule, but most importantly, it felt like I was looking at a young version of myself; the moment when I fell in love with Shakespeare.
LF: The first few days of shooting we did a lot of Hal’s backstory. I’m not in any of that, so that was great for me. I had my producer hat on and my pants with a ton of pockets. I was moving and sweating.
PM: A few years ago at SXSW, we saw Chase Williamson kill it in John Dies at the End, so we were excited to see him in Complete Works.
JS: We read a bunch of guys for the role of Oliver because it was one of the harder roles to cast. We wrote Regan and Ian specifically for Lizzie and Ben. The two toughest were Oliver and Leo (Alex Skinner). We saw a bunch of guys for Oliver and Chase got the sensibility and the sense of humor.
LF: We were laughing out loud at his audition. There’s a fine line with that character. He can’t just be cocky and a douche. He is, but you can play that and make it funny. Chase made Oliver so funny, which was really awesome.
PM: All you guys went to USC. I met a lot of you when I would visit my sister and she was doing shows with you. So I really enjoyed seeing Will Ajax Harris play MacDuff in the final episode.
JS: Will and I have a long history together. It was a situation where there just wasn’t a good, big part for Will. So MacDuff was the perfect part for Will to play. It was really good for me too because I’ve always liked acting with Will. It put me at ease on set when I was talking to him. We’ve always had good chemistry. We did clown shows together at USC. I would juggle torches and he would blow fire.
PM: Wait wait wait… How did you not find a place for you guys to juggle torches and spit fire in Complete Works!?
JS: *Laughs* There wasn’t a good place for it. In the first episode, there was a fantasy moment. It was an issue of repeating Will, though. We didn’t want to show him twice as two different characters. Plus, it wasn’t really right for Hal to be juggling torches.
SPOILER ALERT! WARNING! THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE END OF COMPLETE WORKS!
PM: I love the ending. It reminded me of Rocky, in that by the end of the show, you realize that for Hal, winning or losing doesn’t matter as much as the growth that he’s gone through.
JS: That’s the most important part of the movie: maintaining that arc. What’s the story that we want to tell? We don’t want to tell a story about someone who wins because they’re lucky or manipulative. They worked hard and got down to business. It wouldn’t be right for Hal to win based on how many times he messed up. The real victory is about rediscovering his love for Shakespeare and learning how to be a competitor in the “real world” while being true to his artistic gifts. The real victory for Hal is that he’s finally connecting back to what drove him in the first place: his love for this stuff.
PM: Where did you come up with that climactic scene, where he mentally goes through preparing for his cold read against a ticking clock?
LF: That was a scary scene. When we wrote it, we didn’t know if it would work. We were writing our climax to be an analysis of a piece of paper in a room with one person, which could be really boring and academic. We were conscious of making it entertaining and staying true to what it would really be like to do that work with those time constraints.
In the script it looks crazy. We were shooting three witch hats with fog machines and we were like, “How is this gonna work?” We put Ben in a kilt and shot his legs and he was like, “What are we doing this for?” And we just said, “Trust us, it’ll make sense later.”
What does it mean to really break down a piece of text in a short time at an intense level? It’s imaginative. Big shout out to the editor. I screamed when I saw the first few seconds. The composer did such an incredible job on the music too. The colorist… all of those elements made it so intense.
PM: And what really makes it work is that Hal’s journey makes the ending so satisfying.
LF: You love how Hal is himself. That moment at the end where he walks around in those pants so confident… I wish I could live my life like that. I aspire to be more like Hal. Through this competition, you realize that it’s ok to be yourself and trust your own voice. It’s funny and charming, but so powerful at the same time.
JS: That’s the journey of Complete Works: Hal finding himself. He starts somewhere close to what he is. He’s confused, manipulated, makes bad decisions…
The scene that Hal does with Leo is from Henry IV and it’s of the king (Leo) telling Prince Hal, literally the character’s name is Hal, that you’ve been doing all these things like being irresponsible. And Hal’s line after that scene:
This kingdom isn’t to be taken lightly.
We tried to do Shakespeare in the show that would drive the story. We tried not to do it too much, but for Shakespeare fans, we put in little Easter eggs for them. When Oliver and Hal are sword fighting in episode 4, they’re doing a scene from Henry IV. And we intentionally have Hal playing Hotspur and Oliver playing Prince Hal. The symbolism being that Hotspur is really cocky and not a good heir. And that’s who Hal is choosing to play in that moment.
PM: Well thank you guys so much for talking to me. I feel like just through this interview, I’ve learned more about Shakespeare than just watching the show. And I’ll have to go back and try to catch the things you’ve pointed out here. Good luck with promoting the series and we hope more people check it out and enjoy it.
LF & JS: Thanks!
Photos courtesy Kingdom for a Horse Productions