Someone in SPACE’s scheduling department must have known it would be Embrace Your Geekness Day today when they planned the premiere of Fanboy Confessional. The Canadian channel kicks off its documentary series about sci-fi, fantasy and horror fandom at 10 pm tonight, timing the premiere perfectly to coincide with a day on which we are urged to celebrate our love of the fantastic.
While the media often give a negative impression of fans of so-called cult entertainment, those fans rightly know that ‘geekness’ is something to be proud of. Moreover, as the hype around this summer’s big movies shows beyond a doubt: the fantasy genre has mainstream appeal and makes media companies piles of money. So don’t mock it.
Fanboy Confessional celebrates fandom, showing that the dedication of many followers of genre entertainment is measured by the extent of their creativity and community spirit. These were important qualities to bring out in the series both for its backers at SPACE and for writer and director Michael McNamara. McNamara produced the six-part series through his independent production company Markham Street Films. He recently sat down to chat with us about the how the show came about and what we can look forward to in its first six-episode season.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to this project.
I grew up in the United States and Canada and the U.K. but I’ve spent most of my adulthood living in Toronto working as a filmmaker, editor, director and writer. About 10 years ago my partner, Judy Holm, and I started our own company to do documentary and drama. We’ve mostly done one-off documentaries and we also did a couple of series … Right now we’re developing some feature dramas and we’re doing the kind of stuff that I really love the best, which is documentary filmmaking. Fanboy [Confessional] is kind of a way to mix my own proud geekdom with documentary. We wanted to basically find a way to talk to both dyed-in-the-wool fans and people who were curious or really didn’t know anything about it or thought they knew everything there was to know about fandom. Hopefully this will take them beyond their preconceived ideas to something deeper and richer.
Where did the idea for Fanboy Confessional come from?
I’m a fanboy of a number of different kinds of things. I’m more of a dabbler fanboy. I have a respectable comic book collection but I am also a very, very dedicated rock-and-roll and scratchy 45 rpm vinyl collector and pop culture [and] rock and soul aficionado. So I understand the impulse. Or at least I thought I did because for a record collector it’s all about the hunting down and hording aspect of collecting. It seems now, though, in the fandoms that we covered, that it’s about more than just amassing things. It’s more about collecting experiences and collecting friends and getting immersed in a community and learning new skills and kind of celebrating one’s inner eight-year old. It’s a much more immersive and more constructive kind of pursuit than I suspected as I was going in. I learned a lot actually in making the series.
What do you think it is about the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres that brings out the ‘fanboy’
That’s a good question. These are genres that are really readily accessible to kind of adolescents. The willingness to suspend disbelief, to immerse yourself in a fantastical world, is something that appeals naturally to an eight-year-old who yearns to break out of the backyard; out of the confines that have been set up there by their parents. So I think there’s a kind of a quick and direct connection to that kind of fantasy. You look at the success of Harry Potter and those stories and how much they speak not only to the adolescents that they were written for—or at least everybody thought they were written for—and how much they connected with people of all ages. I think it’s become much more accessible for an adult to sit on a streetcar or subway with a graphic novel than it might have been 10 years ago.
And [there is] the kind of great stuff that we’re seeing on television these days that’s being done by Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams. These are the master storytellers of our time now. In as much as people like Orson Welles were doing 50 years ago with high drama and taking chances and doing really interesting things, this is who is doing the risk taking now and the really wonderful and immersive work on television, in the movie theaters and on comic book shelves. Science fiction has kind of ebbed and flowed in terms of popularity over the past century from the days of Jules Verne to H.G. Wells and so on to today, but people like Bradbury and Heinlein, who at the time were probably seen as pulp fiction writers, quickly revealed themselves to be worthy of deeper study and took their place alongside other great literary figures in the same period of time.
I think there are other things that are in play as well [such as] the ability of people to share their interests and their ideas in a way that they never could before on the Internet. Somebody you know or like says you’ve got to read this or see this. Word of mouth plays a huge part in this kind of stuff now. It’s no longer just a mass thing; these things are made and broken very quickly through word of mouth.
What kind of backing did SPACE provide for the series?
We pushed them with this idea probably a little more than two years ago and they really liked the idea. They also wanted to make sure that we were going to treat these people with the kind of respect that their fans and their viewers deserve and they didn’t want us making fun. That’s the thing: In most cases when you’ve see this kind of stuff on television in the past it’s been all about finding the cheap laugh by pointing a finger at the geeks and the nerds. That’s just not what the SPACE Channel is all about. In fact their viewers are educated, they’re into it, they know their stuff, they’re curious about one another’s fandom, they make it their business to learn about this stuff. So [SPACE] wanted to make sure that we were going to treat that audience with respect and challenge them. In any event they gave us some development money so that we went out and did some test shooting and went looking for some interesting characters and followed them around. On the basis of the development that they did with us they gave us a license that was healthy enough to raise the balance of the money so that we could do six half-hours for this first season and hopefully we’ll be doing more.
The first two episodes will feature cosplay and steampunk fandom. What else can we look forward this season?
Well, we did an episode on horror that was looking at people who have immersed themselves in that culture in one way or another. We followed a guy named Garry Pullin who is the art director at Rue Morgue magazine, which is one of the premiere horror culture magazines in the world. It is published in Toronto and he has been doing their covers and all the art direction. We followed him as he was having a new addition to his horror sleeve, a tattooed sleeve of great Hollywood horror monsters. He was having a new addition so we filmed that, which was a nine-hour tattoo process that was absolutely fascinating, and showed him at work. The Rue Morgue magazine offices are in a former funeral home, [which is] the perfect environment [laughs]. And we follow a young woman and her fiancée who have been, for the last seven years, putting on the Toronto zombie walk. They started it about seven or eight years ago. The first one attracted 10 people and last year 6,000 people showed up wandering the streets of Toronto as the undead; people of all ages, which was cool.
Then we did real-life superheroes. We followed a real life superhero based in Vancouver who calls himself Thanatos and he dresses up in sort of a death mask and all in black and a skull-and-crossbones motif. Thanatos is the Greek god of death. [This guy] doesn’t have any specific superpowers but what he does do is he goes out in the community at the dead of night and brings food and water and blankets and things to the homeless in the Downtown Eastside. In some cases [he’s in] some pretty dangerous neighborhoods, desperate neighborhoods for sure, and he does it all anonymously. And his inspiration for this is comic books and comic book heroes. There’s a whole community of real-life superheroes around the world—in the United States and Canada and Europe and South America—so we kind of showed how he was connected to that community. And we followed another character in Washington D.C. who calls himself D.C.’s Guardian and does a lot of charity work and is involved in a whole organization of real-life superheroes in the States.
[We also] did furries, people who are interested in anthropomorphic comic book characters and cartoons and so on and who either trade art work or write some fiction or dress up in furry costumes. That’s a very misunderstood and marginalized form of fandom which was a real challenge for us to get access to because they’ve been misrepresented and maligned in the last few years. There’s an episode of C.S.I. called ‘Fur and Loathing’ that portrayed the fandom as mostly about sexual deviancy, people dressing up in costumes and ‘yiffing,’ which is term for having sex while in the costume. It probably represents about two percent of fandom but it’s the one obviously that the press always gleefully jumps. So they were worried that’s all we were there for. It took us some time to gain their confidence and their trust.
Finally [there’s] an episode on LARPing, which is live action role-play. [It] is kind of like dungeons and dragons only you take it off the table top and out into the woods and dress up in costume and speak as a character that you’ve created. There’s a plot team that gives you the overall plot to the weekend and then basically you have to improvise it and act it out and stay in character from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave. It’s creative and fun and some people have been involved in these LARPs for five or six years running, playing the same characters and adding to them.
What can you tell us about other sci-fi and fantasy projects you are working on?
Heaven is Small is one I’m quite excited about. I’m actually writing the treatment for that. It’s based on a Canadian novel by Emily Schultz and is sort of an afterlife story meets Office Space. It’s sort of a fantasy story. [Also] there’s a woman who works with us named Stephanie Chappelle who came to us from the Canadian Film Centre as a writer and producer and she has a great sci-fi background. We’re actually developing a project with her right now. Our main one is called Splitsville and its going to be a network television series that is basically an SF-based series that I’m pretty excited about. We’ve been talking to a couple of networks about it, kind of hoping something will happen with that.
This is the kind of stuff that I would have loved to have pitched 10 years ago and I don’t think anybody would have looked at seriously. But now, with the success of shows like Lost and Galactica, Firefly and Teen Wolf even, science fiction and fantasy is the most interesting and exciting stuff on television today. It certainly costs more and takes a lot more effort and energy and resources than an episode of The Real Housewives of Las Vegas [laughs] but I think it’s going to have a lot more of a shelf life and a lot more value and I think the people who are involved in making it will feel a lot better about themselves when they go home [laughs]. There is certainly a great Canadian tradition of this kind of stuff going back to Cronenberg and we seem to be really good at this kind of stuff.
Fanboy Confessional premieres on SPACE tonight at 10 pm with a double-header featuring an episode called ‘The Cosplay Edition’ followed by ‘The Steampunk Edition.’