In Conversation With: Alex Dobrenko

Emily (Ashley Spillers, left) and Sam (Alex Dobrenko). Photo courtesy Odessa Mama.

Alex Dobrenko is the creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Distance, a digital comedy series.

Distance tells the story of Sam (Dobrenko) and Emily (Ashley Spillers), a long-distance couple held together by Skype sessions and late-night phone calls. The series, which had its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, offers a groundbreaking choose-your-own-adventure viewing experience, with Sam’s and Emily’s perspectives rendered in alternating episodes by different directors: Sam-focused episodes are directed by Jack Lawrence Mayer (HBO’s Single Long), while Emily-focused episodes are directed by Carlyn Hudson (The Big Spoon).

Following its online premiere, Dobrenko spoke with Sean L. Malin (who also consulted on the series) about his early life in the crumbling U.S.S.R., making television on a microbudget, and using his real-life relationship for dramatic fodder. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

All 11 episodes of Distance are available to watch in any order you want for free right now.

Sean Malin: When I had just moved to Austin, there was a movie called Arlo & Julie coming out. That was the first movie where it started to lock in for me that there was a community of Austin Actors. That is how I came to think of you when I first saw that, and I imagine there are a lot of people that think of you that way still.

Alex Dobrenko: It’s definitely true, particularly in Austin and in the communities that have formed there – and all of the various ways that those communities expand out into the ether – that they think of me first as an actor. That’s what I started as in Austin, so it makes a lot of sense. But now I’m excited to kind of…

SM: Move forward.

AD: Become a little bit more than an actor. The funny thing about it for me is that a lot of people who may have seen me around while we were in college or maybe even younger, to them, this other Alex makes a lot more sense. Nobody was saying, “You’ve got to be a fucking actor – you’re so amazing! Get in front of the camera!” Actually, I studied screenwriting in college.

SM: Where?

AD: At Brown University.

SM: Are you from that area or are your folks from New York, like in the show?

AD: No! I am…

SM: First generation Ukrainian? Or Russian, like Sam?

AD: *Laughs* Well, that’s a good, tricky question because it’s a little bit of both. When I was born there, it was the USSR. And when that split up, it was Ukraine.

Ukraine is kind of split into two halves: one half is very Russian, and they speak Russian; the other half is very Ukrainian, and they speak Ukrainian. They’re two totally different languages, like Spanish and Portuguese. I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and then moved to America when I was seven, and I just found out recently, under refugee status. That blew my fucking face up.

Sam’s Vision Board. Odessa Mama

SM: You weren’t aware of that as a young person?

AD: No, no, no, no, no, not even close. It didn’t feel like we were refugees in the way that I think that word is understood by many. But we came through a refugee relocation program because we were Jewish, and anybody who was Jewish living in Russia [at the time] was persecuted. I can’t remember which administration, but it may have been Reagan’s that created a program that said that Jews could apply and come to America. So my parents did that in 1994.

What’s been really blowing my mind recently is that my dad was 29 when he came to America, and I just turned 30 in November. He, at my age, moved to a country where he didn’t know the language with a wife and a 7-year-old child, and figured it out. That has been a trip because while in many ways I know what I’m doing, in many ways I don’t.

SM: Are you an only child?

AD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SM: My dad is also an only child of Jewish immigrants. Now, I didn’t have Holocaust guilt in my blood growing up – that Woody Allen nebbish thing. I do wear glasses, though, so people are always taken aback to learn that I’m not walking around with neurotic stomach aches. Yours, however, is a classically Jewish story of displacement. I wonder if you internalized the Jewish illnesses of anxiety and neurosis that come with saying, ‘I am a refugee from my nation.’

AD: You are 100% right. Anxiety was everywhere, but at that age, you’re not thinking about it, especially if you are not given a language around it. When I was learning the English language at school, nobody was like, “And THIS is the word for ‘anxiety’!” which is what you’re feeling all the time. Growing up, there was a mild to severe need at all times to fit in, to be normal, and to be liked – to be American – and I still have that.

Alex Dobrenko with director Jack Lawrence Mayer (right). Odessa Mama

SM: I’m sure that was humiliating.

AD: I just didn’t look like the other kids. I didn’t eat like the other kids. I wore matching outfits. There is so much social, nonverbal language happening at all times – how the parents are interacting with each other, how they’re interacting with their kids, how the kids are interacting with each other. And I had to be clocking all of this, right? It was pretty constant.

SM: So, you become more intelligent, maybe, but you also internalize the desire to be appreciated – though not appreciated too much, which is why I think it must be strange for you when people like me tell you they first saw you as an actor. That gives you a little shock because you’ve been thinking that you were just living in the woodwork, alone, doing your own thing. It’s easier to forget that your face was once on giant screens where I also saw George Clooney’s face and Gerard Depardieu’s, too. It’s probably somewhere deep in your personality that you doubt that any of this is happening.

AD: “Doubt” is the key word. In particular, I’ve been exploring this thing that I have which is a kind of OCD where you can’t stop ruminating on one certain thing. The way it works is that you just obsess over that which you don’t know: the unknown; the things that you CAN doubt. Doubt is at the root of a lot. This is a very Soviet, Slavic thing, too: to be a skeptic Russian. Your government is lying to you at all times; nothing is real.

That is something I definitely inherited from my parents. My dad used to think – and maybe still does – that all sports were rigged, the entire thing was set up from the jump, and everybody already knows who’s going to win. It is a very Soviet belief that people are conning us at all times.

SM: It seems obvious to say, but I guess that nothing that’s happening in America right now means anything to your parents – it’s all just a big laugh to them because they already know that this is what the world looks like.

AD: I mean, it’s pretty fucking scary, particularly for my grandparents and parents. It is scary for me, too, in two ways. There is a playbook for this, and it’s something that Russia does super well. Lies on top of lies until you just don’t know the difference anymore. That seems like it’s happening more and more with Trump.

The other reason I’m petrified – which is also somewhat Soviet in nature – is that I read today about how Georgia, the state, had its voter registration records looked at by a cyber-security expert just to see if he could hack into them. And he basically said that it was a wide-open door. You don’t even need to be hacking. You could just get into those records and change them.

The craziest part is that the state of Georgia said, “No, that didn’t happen. Don’t even look into this. The President said it didn’t happen.” Which is terrifying! My parents are both programmers, and I work with developers a lot. I’ve learned that we vastly underestimate just how easy it is to really fuck with people and systems.

Courtesy Odessa Mama

SM: For somebody that has the obsessions that you do, you seem to be highly informed and productive. It’s one thing to take ten days off to shoot a feature, then edit it at nights. But to shoot 11 episodes in three different cities while being a working adult? Clearly, you have certain things under control.

AD: I am stupidly driven. I don’t know if that’s discipline, but it feels like the only thing I’m able to control is how hard and well I work. That is the only lever I have, you know? I don’t have money and I don’t have famous parents, so that’s all I can do now and that is all I could do growing up.

SM: Were you guys on the East Coast during that time?

AD: No, I grew up south of Boston in a town called Sharon. We had a second uncle who lived there, and he said that we should come there because they have a really good public school system.

SM: Did you act as a young person in Sharon?

AD: No, not at all.

SM: What about writing? Did you write little scripts or one-act plays?

AD: Not really. You always hear people say that, but I didn’t. I was really obsessed with creating little characters with my friends. It was always about who betrayed who and who was allied with who. Just living in these little fantasies. Like I had this fake brother that we talked about a lot. I just made him up. His name was Glivey. The house that I grew up in had an empty bedroom next to mine, and he lived there. Everybody would always ask about him. It wasn’t exactly sketch comedy, but it was like weird alt comedy that I was doing before I knew what that was.

I first started to have that weird, driven thing in college. I worked in a liquor store on campus with one of my best friends in college, Quinn. It was, like, the greatest job because: 1) we did nothing; and 2) every body on campus would come through, buy booze, and hang out, and then we would know where people were going to be hanging afterwards. I always thought that that would be a great setting for a show.

Much in the same way as with Distance, Quinn and I got the people around us to do it: we made this sweet 30-minute pilot. People on campus really dug it, and we created a class for ourselves so we could learn how to write a season with this writing team we put together. As all that was happening, I was studying screenwriting; and more and more, I couldn’t stop writing ideas down.

SM: How did you wind up in Austin after Providence?

AD: I had a screenwriting degree and really didn’t know what to do, so I just started looking for jobs. There was an e-learning emerging leaders program at this start-up in Austin in the Fall of 2010, and they were looking for screenwriters. They really liked me because I had worked at an SAT prep start-up in college, too, so they hired me and flew me there. That was cool, they were cool, but it was not what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to meet other people to write with, and somebody told me, “The way you should do that is to go audition for stuff.” I didn’t really care because there was nothing at stake for me, so I said, “All right”. I got three auditions for UT grad school shorts, and I ended up getting the parts in all three of those shorts.

Courtesy Odessa Mama

SM: That must have felt crazy.

AD: I just think I had no idea what I was doing and may have done some interesting things through that because people were like, “Oh, he does not care.” I did those three movies with Andy Irvine, Britta [Lundin], and Simon [Quiroz]. Andy and I did Sex, Crime, & Punishment, which was this little bookstore robbery thing with two bumbling robbers trying to rob a bookstore, and I was one of them. After that, we became thick as thieves, schemin’, goofin’, walkin’ around Austin trying to figure life out. He also auditioned Ashley Spillers for that movie. He didn’t cast her, but he did e-mail her saying, “I really, really, really want to work with you.”

SM: One of the reasons I moved to Texas is that in 2013, I went to Sundance for the first time as a film critic, and I met people like PJ Raval, Yen Tan, David Lowery. I interviewed all of them within like a month, and each of them said some variation of, “You’ve gotta come to Austin. We’ll buy you breakfast! We’ll put you up! We’ll introduce you to other actors and producers and creatives out here!”

So, when I got into UT for grad school, I started bingeing on Austin-made productions to familiarize myself with the cinema of that area. Now, put yourself in my position at that time, Alex, and tell me: who do I start to see in every movie?

AD: Doubek.

SM: Chris Doubek is #1.

AD: The number one stunner in Austin, Mr. Chris Doubek. Jonny Mars. [Heather] Kafka. Paul Gordon, probably.

SM: Some Paul Gordon, some Byron Brown, some Sam Eidson.

AD: Gabe Luna was in a lot of movies.

SM: Yes, and Ashley Rae Spillers amongst all of them. Seeing that, you start to realize pretty fast that the local community is actually a very tight contingent. It was just a couple months after that that I started seeing you and came to realize that you were also very entrenched in that world. You have to understand: for me to go to Austin for the first time and to realize that all these people know one another and appear in each other’s movies, and work with one another…you know about this term, the “Austin Mafia”?

AD: I think you said it to me first, actually. I don’t think I had heard it before you.

SM: That is funny because I heard it a lot when I first moved to Austin. There were 50 or 60 filmmakers that fell under that banner back then. It wasn’t just Mike Judge, Rodriguez, Malick, and Linklater.

AD: Those guys were more of the grandparents, or something even greater. They felt sort of otherworldly to me. The people that I mainly rolled with were improv people. I started out doing improv in Austin, and I got really into that scene. I don’t know how well you know that world, but in Austin, improv is like a super-cult. I liked it all, but I could never put both feet in the improv-cult. There was just more to what I wanted to do. I was really trying to look at acting and figure out how improv and acting were alike. But because I was doing shows at The Hideout [Theatre], that became my routine.

SM: How did you go from that to being cast in Arlo & Julie? For someone who did not know their way around that world at that point, I can’t imagine what that would have been like.

AD: Steve made a documentary, Incendiary, and it became one of the first movies on the Tugg platform. I was at Tugg from the beginning, which meant that I was working pretty closely with Steve. I think we actually met up in person to talk through things.

A few years later, Steve saw me do improv, and through that Tugg relationship, he found my e-mail and said, “I’d love to meet up.” Then he got this commission from Canon, and he wrote a little short called The One-Off with me in mind where I played me and a Russian clone version of myself. It was really strange, really fun. After that, he said he’d love to write a movie with me, but I don’t remember if he already knew Ashley or if I suggested her.

SM: You already knew her at that point?

AD: We had had a very intense experience working together on Andy Irvine’s short, Hearts of Napalm. We worked hard to get this really raw, awkward sex scene to work, and through that rehearsal period, I think, the three of us developed a language around talking about love and sex and emotions and relationships.

SM: The characters that you and Ashley played together in Arlo & Julie were clearly impacted by that closeness. Did that bleed over into her performance in Distance all these years later?

AD: There is some core nugget to who Ashley is that’s happy, upbeat, earthy, but really goofy and strange with a lot going on in there. Whatever that whole thing is, it shows itself in her spontaneous, in-the-moment, go-with-the-flow, ‘not really thinking about past or future’ free spirit. There’s also this distrust and being repelled by technology in all its forms. For Ashley, the Earth and nature are always better than anything you could ever show [her].

Courtesy Odessa Mama

SM: Emily, the character she plays in Distance, isn’t far off from that. Did you have her in mind when you wrote the character?

AD: Yeah, I did. I remember coming up with the idea to make something about living with a long-distance relationship while I was making Here We Are. Pretty immediately, I realized I wanted it to be Ashley if she was game.

SM: When you collaborate with someone for as long as you and she have, you develop so much intimacy. That dynamic is really – for me, at least, as someone who has been in several profound long-distance relationships – the anchor of your series. There are certain truths about love relationships that you and Ashley, in your performances, access which are previously unshown on television.

Small things like how people in these kinds of relationships talk while they’re sitting on the toilet, or what they are thinking at times where they just do not want to respond to their partner’s texts. Knowing that you were able to access those things and get that from your real-life relationship…well, Lauren Wilde, the producer of Distance, is your girlfriend in real life.

AD: Yeah, she ended up kind of becoming our day-to-day badass producer in the trenches, without whom none of this would be possible. She did EVERYTHING. She’s a make-up artist by trade, but she became an on-set genius from working on all these sets.

SM: I’m looking at her IMDB page now, and it’s got insane stuff, like some of the greatest stuff ever. JASH stuff with Tim & Eric, Dave Made a Maze had incredible make-up on Stephanie Allynne. So, she must have known her way around a set.

AD: Yeah. From a single little camera in the woods kind of thing to a giant FX show, and she brought it all to Distance. I think because of that, everybody felt really taken care of and heard. We had people come up to us after saying, “That was one of my favorite set experiences ever. Thank you for that.”

SM: Does hearing that inspire you to go deeper into the well of your life for stories?

AD: I’m actually developing the next couple of projects now. Fake News is the furthest in development because we got [the pilot] into the IFP Labs and now we are going to IFP Film Week. That one is in a nice place where I’m not thinking about it all that much. Another one, though, is super, super personal. Right now, it’s called Sasha, which is my name is Russian.

SM: Do you feel that the show was a success in the way you wanted it to be?

AD: There was a part of me after the release that was a little sad that our numbers weren’t through the roof. I had developed some expectation without knowing it. But in terms of show-running and producing, I’m so proud of what we did and that it worked. It clearly connected with a lot of people, strangers. What I can say is that, as a project, it was an insane success.

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