AFK is a web series that follows gamers who have woken up in the game as their MMO characters. With their MMO characters different from their real selves, they have to be used to their new bodies as well as face the real dangers of the world they’re in.
In this interview with writer and director Peter Haynes, we gain a deeper insight into the characters he’s created, the production itself, and why you should be excited for Season 2.
The internet has grown a lot over the past decade, which has offered several different formats for a lot of creative people to take advantage. And what made you decide that AFK was best suited for the Internet opposed to television?
Well, a good deal of the reason behind the decision to go online was the fact that the show we wanted to make simply wouldn’t have been viable on our local TV networks. We felt that the concept we had would have a good chance of developing a following online, that would hopefully lead to having a large enough audience to be self sustainable at some point.
That continues to be our hope, and to that end we are developing relationships with other web series and online channels such as Zombie Orpheus and Viva La Dirt League for cross-promotional purposes.
Throughout the first season I loved learning about each character, what they’re like in real life as opposed to their MMO characters. By the end I didn’t feel like I was watching heroes or villains, but everyday flawed human beings. What was the writing process like for these characters?
It’s always been my intention that there isn’t really a ‘hero’ character in AFK as such. What I’ve been aiming for as a writer is an acknowledgement that these are people well out of their comfort zones and pushed beyond their limits, and as such they are not always going to react in the most appropriate or mature way to every situation.
Every character has the capacity to be unreasonable, stubborn, obnoxious or just downright unlikeable, which I think is realistic given their circumstances. On the flip side, they also have the capacity to be heroic and selfless, to be able to change and grow, and I think we see this the most with Steven and Jack. They both start out pretty self centred and selfish and by the end of the show are deeply affected by their experiences.
I think that the flawed nature of these characters is reflected in the audiences reactions to them. For every person who likes and admires Q for example, there’s someone else who finds her an overbearing bitch. For every Amy fan, there’s someone who finds her insufferably irritating. I’m totally cool with this, I’d rather a viewer have some sort of emotional reaction to a character, even a negative one, than nothing at all. And I think that our cast is big enough that everyone will have at least one person they can relate to.
Did you come up with their life characters first or vice versa?
The characters themselves are based on both my own experiences in online gaming and some of the people I met online, from Jack the Powergamer to Steven the Casual and Q who is somewhere in-between. Steven of course is also useful as the audience substitute, as he’s constantly needing to have things explained to him, which acts as an in for viewers who may not be overly familiar with the gaming world.
The performances from cast were fantastic. Did any of the actors influence the way you wrote the characters?
The actors always bring something of themselves to the role, which is exactly the way I like it as a writer and director. Some parts were written with specific actors in mind, including the amazing Mia Pistorius who was always going to be playing Q, Dallas Barnett who is perfect as V’rugga and Hweiling Ow who brought her particular brand of manic energy to Amy. I hadn’t actually worked with Calum Gittins (Jack) beforehand, so I was very pleased that he actually did play World of Warcraft, was pretty much a power gamer and therefore understood his character perfectly. In fact, Calum has often acted as somewhat of an unofficial ‘gaming advisor’ to make sure our show rings true with the gamer audience.
We had an interesting challenge for Season 2 in that we had to replace two actors for the characters of Steven and Serena. Milly, Serena’s original actress, became pregnant and was unable to join us for the shoot, so we had to locate a new Serena at very short notice. Cue Te Puawaitanga Winterburn, who immersed herself in the world incredibly quickly and became an invaluable member of the team.
JJ Fong, our original Steven, was unable to return, so rather than trying to gloss over it, we actually wrote her appearance change into the script, making it an integral part of the story. Amanda Tito, our new Steven, took up the considerable challenge of taking over a fan favourite, being close enough to JJ Fong’s performance to not be jarring but without doing and impersonation, while also putting her own stamp on the role. In this, she has succeeded completely.
The cast have a lot on their hands, not only are these physical roles but they’re also playing dual roles, the MMO character and the real life character. How do you help them prepare? Do they know ahead of time the revelations about their characters or do you surprise them?
There has certainly been some mental gymnastics on the part of our actors, deciding how to react to situations for which there are no real world analogues, and it’s been a challenge to direct as well. One of my very early decisions with Mia was to ask her to decide in her own head whether Q is actually male or female, and play that accordingly.
The second thing I asked her to do was never tell anyone her decision, including myself. The reason for the this is that, despite her appearance, Q has always been the ‘human’ of the story, and I want people to judge her actions through many different lenses, not just ‘white female’. That includes myself. If I knew for example, that Q was actually male, would that affect the way I wrote scenes for her? I don’t know if it would, but I decided not to take the risk.
Are there any twists you currently haven’t told them yet?
Regarding twists, I actually like to keep the actors in the loop as much as possible regarding story developments, as I value their input regarding their characters. There are a few things I might hold back until a read through, just because I want to gauge their reactions, but overall the story lining is quite a collaborative process.
When it comes to the action, did you have them go through a boot camp or any kind of course to prepare?
The actors do prepare physically, especially if a highlighted fight scene is written into the script. Mia and Vanya, for example, have done many hours of practice together to fine tune their battles. We were incredibly lucky this season to have the services of Alexander James Holloway from the NZ stage combat school, who brought his fighting team on board for some of our climatic scenes. They provided us with some invaluable experience, and I think the results show on screen.
There’s quite a lot expectations for diverse cast and characters nowadays, that a lot of writers and producers seem to feel the need tick boxes or be ‘politically correct’. When it came to your cast and characters, it all felt perfectly natural. What advice would you give writers for creating characters and choosing actors, diverse or not without feeling such obligations or offending anyone?
I think that, for AFK in particular, we were quite lucky in that our diversity is kind of ‘baked in’. We have a setting where people already come from all over the world. Because of this, it doesn’t seem unusual for example to have an Asian Gnome, a Maori elf and an African American sharing a medieval setting together. I think it really helps to sell the global setting, and that it would be even more unusual, not to mention narratively limiting, to have everyone of the same race.
It can be tricky though. Diversity and representation is important, but it has to be done right, otherwise it can seem ‘tacked on’ or even something of a box ticking exercise. I think my opinion, in the genre of fantasy and sci-fi at least, is that we’ve had the classic noble heroes, the wide eyed farm boy who goes on to save the galaxy, the outcast king who returns to save the kingdom.
I love those stories, they’ve influenced who I am and how I create, and they’re not going anywhere. They will always be there for us to enjoy. But moving forward, there’s no harm, and probably a lot of benefit, in mixing up the formula.
What was Season 2 like to film compared to Season 1?
1 and 2 were very different kinds of races. Season one was more of a drawn out Marathon, where shoot days were limited to the number of weekends cast and crew were free (Fun fact: Out of a roughly 26 day shoot, the core cast of 6 were only together for 2 days). Scheduling was a bit of a nightmare, and there was never anything resembling an overall schedule.
Season 2 was a might tighter race, with a definite finish line in place from the start. That doesn’t mean there weren’t still scheduling issues (For example, Mis and Vanya being cast in another production at the same time as our shoot), but it was generally better organised. The biggest difference of course, with us receiving finding from both TVNZ and NZ on Air, is that we were actually able to pay people this time. Sill nothing approaching what they were actually worth, but it was still nice to be able to give something back for all the hard work they had invested into season one.
The scale was also different, with us having an entire village setting to play in this time. We were certainly pushing our luck with an almost 70% external shoot in Auckland, where the weather is notoriously unpredictable, but I think the final footage shows some of the amazing conditions we were blessed with.
For those who loved Season 1, what can you say they are going to love about Season 2?
More intrigue, new characters and much bigger battles!
Jack was speaking to Peter Haynes about the gaming web series AFK.