Last weekend, the indie fantasy series Ren: The Girl with the Mark launched a Kickstarter to fund new episodes. With over eight million YouTube views and 14 international awards, not to mention discovering Outlander’s Sophie Skelton, the first season has made quite impact. We talked to director and co-creator Kate Madison to find out how Ren came to life.
Ren tells the story of a young woman whose life changes forever after being ‘marked’ by an ancient spirit. Now an outcast, and possessing strange and uncontrolled powers, she escapes from her village after a dramatic showdown with the Kah’Nath army.
Kate, your previous project was Born of Hope, a Lord of the Rings fan film with over 57 million YouTube views to date. Did that film’s success open any doors for you, and what was the journey from there that led you to want to make a web series?
Although it didn’t result in Hollywood coming calling, it created a bit of a buzz and it became known in the industry. Myself and Christopher Dane [the lead actor] did start work on a fantasy feature film script called The Last Beacon and spent what felt like a number of years just not going anywhere. We concluded that the crowdfunding thing which worked for Born of Hope is online, so we need to go back to that.
Many people will ask, “Why fantasy when there are so many cheaper and easier genres?” How do you respond to that?
For me, film and TV is about escapism, so I enjoy action-adventures and comedies and historical stuff. Fantasy is a huge genre. To me it’s a way to have the freedom to do whatever you want. I can take things I like – historical things, costumes, set design – and the joy of fantasy over period is, you can go, “I’m going to use this Viking purse with this medieval-looking helmet!” I like the freedom of fantasy.
There was an incredible sense of community, of shared ownership and very high morale throughout the production of Ren. Was it important to you to foster those things?
When people are volunteering, it feels like [the project] is everybody’s, and it is. People would come in and help and maybe end up designing a dress. The joy of filmmaking for me is the collaborative nature of it. There’s always someone behind you with an idea. You don’t feel like you’re ever on your own completely. If you’re at a loss, then someone else – whether it’s the DoP or the runner – [can suggest things].
How did you manage to source enough extras for the village?
Populating the village was always going to be challenging. Suzanne [Emerson] who also played the role of Ida got heavily involved in helping to find extras. She’s involved in a lot of the amateur dramatics in Cambridge. It was probably horrible [for Suzanne and Michelle] but an amazing miracle for us that we’d finish shooting one day and go, “You know we’re actually going to shoot that tomorrow and we need some people,” and then the next morning you’d turn up and people would show up to do it. We had varying numbers, but there was never a day when no-one showed up.
I’ve heard you say more than once, “If it’s not right, it’s not worth doing.” How important is quality to you, and how do you balance that with the budgetary and scheduling pressures of such a huge project?
I’m not very good at compromising. If we’re going to spend months and months working on something that none of us are going to be happy with or proud of then it’s a waste of time and we might as well stop now.
I knew that most of the things are achievable. You know, to put together a costume that’s weathered well and looks really interesting is not hard to do, it just takes more time to do than buying it off the shelf and sticking it on, but the quality difference is so extreme. People will be much happier with you in the end if you’ve worked them hard for an amazing outcome than if you’ve worked them hard and it looks rubbish.
The audience seems very happy with the outcome too! Tell us how people have responded to the series.
The response to Season One has been a bit mind-blowing really. I decided to enter it into a few competitions just to see how it went, and suddenly it got bounced around different competitions through winning things, and we now have 14 awards on our shelf!
The YouTube channel has been growing over the years, and just hit 100,000 subscribers the other week. My grand ambition was for 500,000 views on each episode because I thought that was really high for a web series. We’ve hit four million or more on the first episode, so beyond my wildest dreams!
What can we look forward to in the new episodes?
We’re hoping to start with a bit of a bang, because we’re hoping to keep the action going from the first season. We left everyone with a bit of a pause on an action sequence, so we thought we should continue that. We’ll follow Ren and Hunter, this very unlikely pair, as they’ve been thrown together. She’s lost her potential mentor, [and] her brother, and is seeking answers.
The new episodes are being crowdfunded again. What’s the thinking behind that?
People keep asking for more episodes, and this is the way we need to make them! There aren’t other funding methods in the UK for this sort of short-form series, and especially an ambitious fantasy-adventure series. So the best thing is to actually talk to our audience. If our audience want to see more, then they can help by backing and supporting and sharing the show around, and through this Kickstarter we can make more episodes. The money goes straight from the fans to the creators, and the series goes straight from the creators back to the fans.
You can join Ren’s loyal community of supporters right now by backing new episodes on Kickstarter. There is a range of exciting rewards on offer, including a Directing Experience, exclusive video blogs from set, and replicas of props from the show.