An Interview with Writer/Director Victoria Cocks and Producer Kirsty Stark

Know that there is a thing called WASTELANDER PANDA, and it is awesome. In a post-apocalyptic world, a giant anthropomorphic Panda lives amongst a tribe of humans until he accidentally kills a young girl. Exiled until he can replace her, Isaac walks the vast wasteland wielding a sword and searching for his ticket back into the safety of his home. Even better, you can watch the entire web series right now, on wastelanderpanda.com, along with exploring the vast world created by Writer/Director Victoria Cocks and watch stand alone short films from the world in the archive. It is an unbelievable undertaking, and with the web series, WASTELANDER PANDA: EXILE, she and Producer Kirsty Stark have only scratched the surface of the story they want to tell. I had a chance to sit down with Cocks and Stark at Fantastic Fest, where the series world premiered, cut together as a 60-minute featurette, and like the project itself, our conversation meandered through an endless world of creativity and conflict.

“I play a lot of video games and all the video games I play are mostly open world,” says Cocks “and I spend hours longer exploring than I do doing the story.” The inspiration for WASTELANDER PANDA came from wanting to create her own world, set her own rules, and develop her own cultures. With a thick Australian accent, Panda actually rhymes with Wastelander, so they become the heroes of choice, but as the project unfolded, Cocks saw how perfect a choice the animals were for the story she wanted to tell. What is available on line, the story of Isaac essentially kidnapping a human child, Rose, and attempting to bring her back to his home, where she can be a breeder, basically, is not even the primary story of Cocks’ wasteland. “The overall story that we started out wanting to make was the story of Arcayus hunting down Isaac’s killer, 15 years in the future,” the director tells me. It would start with Rose, now a 20-something-year-old woman, bringing back Isaac’s body to Arcayus and telling him that Isaac wanted to be buried at home. He then would accompany Rose to help her track down Isaac’s killer and he reluctantly agrees. “Because that story is pretty much the most precious story that we have in the whole series, and it’s a lot bigger than we could do,” Cocks says, “we don’t want to touch that without the right people, money, or time.”

 

In fact the production team has been circling this central story for a couple of years, slowly revealing the Wasteland, its inhabitants, its customs and enormous depth with a series of carefully planned film. “We’ve done three releases of WASTELANDER PANDA so far, explains producer Kirsty Stark, “the first one was a three minute prologue, which was more just to get across on-screen the tone and the characters and make people realize that it was live-action and not a comedy.” After logging over 100,000 views in a day, they knew there was a market for their world. You know what, just watch it.

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The goal for the idea has always been a long-form television series, and they realized, according to Stark, “we had to give people a scope of the entire story.” They went back to their timeline, which basically covers when the panda’s parents first meet to past the end of the story they wanted to tell, and “we sort of sat down and looked at all the important moments, and we chose three of those and made three separate short films from different points in the timeline.” There is one when Isaac and Rose first meet, “more about the storyline, aspects to show where it comes from, and where we have gone,” says Stark. The second one covers Rose convincing Arcayus “to go on the journey with her to avenge Isaac’s death… a longer one to prove Vic’s capabilities as a drama director, telling a full narrative with the film, so that’s about 16 minutes in length.” The third film, made just a month after that one, finds Isaac in a fight pit, facing off against another animal. “When him and Rose had been split up,” Cocks explains, “he realizes the world is worse than he thought it was.” Each moment on the timeline was specifically selected to illustrate something about the project as a whole. “The third one was more of the action style, it had a lot of fighting,” says Stark. Cocks jumps in: “because that’s a lot of what the series is about, there’s a lot of conflict, and we wanted to show that there were other animals in the wasteland, other people. It’s not like a dead zone.” The films are all great stand alone shorts that expand on the prologue and really show off the capabilities of the production team, and the feasibility of a non-cg Panda (i.e. a guy in post-apocalyptic panda suit) walking around the desert fighting people and pondering the state of the decayed land. “They were just three tastes of the world,” says Cocks, “extremely low-budget, no time, nothing like that, so this is the first time that we kind of got paid and we could hire the amount of people that we needed, barely.”

Mining the world for a web series, Cocks found herself working in a format that she had never envisioned. “Every short film is extremely hard to write,” the director says, “let alone six short films that have to have their own arc as well as an arc for all characters over all six eps.” She found the process arduous as she learned the format. “You write something and you realize the whole scene has gone for half your whole webisode,” she explains; “it was a lot of writing things how I wanted and then stripping them back and back and back.” In addition to having to try to tell a cohesive story and still cramming in as much character depth as possible, they had to find a cliffhanger moment every 10 minutes. Another difficult choice (or rather, not difficult at all) for Cocks was what story she wanted to tell. “When we were told ‘you could make this web series,’ the only story that I could even fathom making was how Isaac came to know Rose,” she says, “any attempt making a web series out of the Arcayus and Rose story I think would’ve left people even more confused, because we would’ve tried to pack too much in a far shorter time.” So she decided to focus the webseries on what in the grand scheme of her vision is the pre-story, involving only a few characters and few tribes. Stark supported this idea completely. “The strength of the idea, when Vic came to me in the first place,” she says, “it was very much about the world and there was so much detail in her head – all these different tribes in the wasteland, and different kinds of plants that can be used for different purposes, and from each location different people act in different ways, there’s lots of different cultures in the wasteland, depending on where you’re from and how your location or circumstances affect you. It just wouldn’t do that world justice to try to tell the story in a short space of time.” Cocks always has had her eye on the final realization of the story material. “It would’ve been over and done with quick and kind of left with nothing else,” she says of avoiding the Arcayus and Rose story, “I’d rather make something we can do within the budget, set in the same world than trying to do a crapper version of the big story, and then it’s done and we don’t have anything else to come from it.”

Of course, there were some in her writer’s room that tried to convince her otherwise. According to Cocks, many of them told her “that a lot of people say ‘I’ll save that for next season,’ and the next season never happens,” but she kept to her decision, and in the end, delivers a tight story that really exploits the possibilities of a web series, yet still leave a lot open for further development. “You know if we never made any more,” she says proudly, “people would never see the web series as the second choice, they would just be like ‘this is what you obviously wanted to make.’” Of course, that would be a true tragedy considering how much there is to this world that we haven’t seen. “We kind of got three options of where we can go from here,” Stark says, “we can either keep going with the web series, or we can do a feature film, which would make sense to be the Isaac and Rose story, but the dream is to make a full-length TV series.” This series would follow Arcayus and Rose as they hunt down Isaac’s killer. “Arcayus has always been the WASTELANDER PANDA of the title,” the producer says, “you would see in flashback what happened to Isaac and Rose in the intervening 15 years.” Cocks explains: “people respond well to his voice more than anyone else’s, and he’s also the one who has the biggest amount to learn about selflessness and dealing with this world but not using violence.” Arcayus’s voice is actually what got Stark excited about the project in the first place, having only read the first half page of the prologue script before knowing this was something she had to help get made. Arcayus “speaks about things like he is understanding them for the first time,” Cocks says, “especially if there was a television series and we show you the world, he’d be speaking to you like you were both seeing it for the first time.”

Of course, if there is a TV show, I’ve now just ruined it for everyone by letting the cat out of the bag that Isaac, basically the hero of the web series, dies. Then again, that information is already on the web site in the short films in the archive. “I think that if you watch the new [web series]and you learn that he dies in the end,” the director says, “it doesn’t change anything other than make you want to know how and why.” Plus they still haven’t shown (or told anyone) what happened and why he was killed, because, according to Cocks, “there’s a bit of twist in that.” All the material, archived, web series, and future plans, all come together through Rose. “It’s a lot to do with brotherhood and family,” says Stark, “Rose is the link that connects them.”

On screen, Rose draws the audience into the world. At first view, the Pandas and their Mad-Maxian world is hard to take in, but when Isaac finds Rose, and her very human struggles (all she wants is to find her brother), the audience is hooked. The version shown at Fantastic Fest, which will probably never be shown again, flowed surprisingly well for being a series of six episodes recut together. “Because we spent so long on the story,” Cook explains, “when it came to cutting it, everything we needed was there. Stictching the episodes together only really required lengthening a few end shots and extending the music cues. However, “it’s definitely not got the structure of a feature,” she admits, “there are too many ups and downs.” What really works though, is giving the audience just a glimpse of the wider world. One that hopefully audiences will demand to see more of. “We’ve been pretty lucky,” Cocks says, “we did the trailer, and then the next year we were making three shorts, and the next year we were making this web series, so it hasn’t kind of died yet. Someone each time new has seen it and helped us get to the next step.” Stark adds: “and we’ve gone a level up each time in terms of budget. We’re getting closer.”

There are so many parts of the world Cocks and Stark are anxious for the audience to see. “There’s a sheriff in a town called Raven that’s on the map where Isaac and Rose spend a lot of their time,” Cocks explains; “it’s a good town, and the sheriff is like a giant lizard called Hudson. He’s one of the most respected people in the whole wasteland.” Hudson is set to play a big part in the TV series because he knows both brothers, Isaac before he died and Arcayus in the present. Cocks lights up talking about some of the tribes of the world we haven’t seen – and you can explore the giant wasteland map on the website and see some of what is in store for the characters. “The Serpants of Sunderland live in this kind of purpley rocky canyon protected by a giant white snake called Bronson,” she tells me; “they are these people who worship snakes and they smoke this rock that’s worth a fortune but it’s all around their canyon so they’re kind of high all the time, and they cut themselves to look like snakes.” Another tribe is the Sun Tribe called the Numi, cut off from the rest of the wasteland by an enormous desert, a natural peaceful tribe that doesn’t want anything to do with the rest of the world. This depth goes back to Cocks’ original inspiration, the world of video games. “If you played Fallout 3 and only did the storyline,” she says, “like what a waste to not know what else is out there, and the millions of other characters who ask you to help them on missions where you find other parts of the world, beautiful parts of the world that you never would’ve seen. It’s kind of like that.” The world of WASTELANDER PANDA contains countless stories as the characters come in contact with new civilizations, kind of like the Star Trek television series, but with an overall arc. “Every group or culture has their own belief or understanding of what happened,” says Stark, “they have different reasons for why the wasteland became the way it was and it’s all been passed down through history.” Cook says they know what happened, but they will never reveal it definitively. “I will never tell you if there is a God or not, because some tribes worship gods and others don’t,” she offers as an example, “and if I told you God doesn’t exist you would always look at that tribe like they were wrong no matter what. You know the same world where we live in today? No one has factual proof of anything like that.” The goal is to show the world through the perceptions of the characters.

Want more? Share these FREE episodes with the world, and get the word out there. Personally, I think this could be a fantastic series for SHOWCASE in Canada, that brings us the fasinating and well-developed worlds of Continuun, Haven and Lost Girl (and were all subsequently picked up by SyFy in the US) Again… Showcase. Hopefully this story will pop up in their google analytics. “The thing about WASTELANDER PANDA is that it’s not cheap,” says Cocks, “everyone that doesn’t like it, has never said I don’t like it because the story’s weak, or the characters are weak, they just go: ‘I don’t get the Panda thing’ which I guess in a way is a compliment.” From the response at the Fantastic Fest screening, I think there are a lot of people out there who would ‘get the Panda thing.’

Look for a graphic novel version of the Isaac and Rose story later this year and you can always keep up with developments on their website. But for now, if you didn’t stop already halfway through reading this story to watch a free 60 minutes of Pandas in the post-apocalypse, get to it. WastelanderPanda.com

Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi.  Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days.  The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after.  His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012.  His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011.  Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.

Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.

Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.

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