If you had just a $2,000 budget to make a mockumentary Web series, what would you spend it on?
A plane ride at the Ankeny Regional Airport is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind, but that’s what the members of Iowa Filmmakers did. The trio of actors and filmmakers — Scott Siepker, 29, Paul David Benedict, 26, and Brendan Dunphy, 28 — commissioned a four-seat airplane as a prop for the first episode of “Marooned,” a mockumentary-style show they’ll release online.
The scene depicts the arrival of Liam (Siepker), an actor eager to start his career in Iowa after relocating from the coast. Liam is played by Siepker, a real-life Iowa actor. Though he doesn’t want to spoil the opening (or reveal how much of the $2,000 budget went toward the plane), Siepker says the scene is the perfect way to transport his character to Iowa — clever and quirky, just like “Marooned.”
Siepker is the “Iowa Nice” guy, the one who dropped some knowledge about Iowa just before the Iowa caucuses in a Web video that has eclipsed 1 million YouTube views.
Now Siepker, Benedict and Dunphy have started Iowa Filmmakers to build a community of local actors and film industry workers with low-budget, Web-based projects like “Marooned.”
“Marooned” tells the story of two actors — Flynn Fitzpatrick (played by Dunphy) and Liam Weeks (played by Siepker) — who come to Iowa to pursue their film careers, only to get stuck after a scandal shuts down the state’s film office.
Sound familiar? The plot recalls the Iowa Film Office scandal, when the state’s incentive-laden film program was suspended in 2009 after officials discovered several filmmakers exploited its liberal rules and lax oversight to qualify for millions in tax credits. Seven people have thus far been convicted in connection with the abuse of the progam, which exploded in popularity in 2008 and 2009.
“ ‘Marooned’ has this odd relationship with reality where it’s not necessarily autobiographical, but a lot of the things that we’ve been encountering are a lot of the things you see work their way into the story line,” Benedict says. “So Scott and Brendan are not Flynn and Liam, but there are ways that their lives intersect. It’s kind of like there’s a dialogue between the show and real life.”
“Marooned” is shot in a mockumentary style (think “The Office” and “Modern Family,” two of Siepker’s favorite TV shows). An online teaser clip establishes the characters as relatable — especially if you live in Iowa or have come to Iowa from somewhere else. But the series’ charm is that it appeals to anyone (even non-Iowans) who have ever had to improvise or find their place in a new town.
“Our show is called ‘Marooned,’ and that’s how they feel — they get stuck here,” Siepker says. “And then, through the course of the show, they’ll realize that this is really about as good of a place as they could ever come to, and that if you band together, you can be happy — not only personally, but also professionally. This is really a great place to find that happiness.”
The program is currently in post-production, meaning they’ve shot the scenes and started the editing. Siepker isn’t sure when or how it will be released, but the trio is hoping to produce a commercial for “Marooned” soon. And with sites like Netflix and Hulu suddenly hungry for original content, he says this is a good time to be an independent filmmaker.
About Iowa Filmmakers
The trio met in 2008. Dunphy and Siepker auditioned for a student film Benedict was directing. In 2010, Benedict contacted them again for another project — this one a more ambitious Web series. The new project was “Valentine Road,” the tale of two hit men down to their last bullet in Prohibition-era Iowa. The project is a period piece — every part has to appear like it was made before 1931, including props, hair and makeup. Benedict, Siepker and Dunphy have finished the prologue, a 15-minute introduction to “Valentine Road.” When they find the money and resources, they plan to produce more episodes.
While they were shooting “Valentine Road,” they worked on other, shorter projects. Projects with budgets of “$0 to $15,” Siepker says. They’re aiming to release one per month, and have ambitions of creating a Western, a Civil War piece, a car-chase scene, motorcycle short, music video and more. They just finished an action short called “Quiet Forest,” a project along the lines of the Jason Bourne series.
But it was a short “educational” video, less than two minutes long, about the state of Iowa and its people that became, by far, Iowa Filmmakers’ most famous project to date.
“Iowa Nice” was “one of those happy accidents,” says Benedict, who wrote the script for the snarky Web video that’s been viewed more than 1.2 million times on YouTube. They shot half of the video on New Year’s Eve, the other half the next day. They posted the video that night.
“The next day we were famous — we really had no idea where that came from,” Benedict says. Siepker acted, Benedict filmed, and the combo created viral video magic. The video was featured on MSNBC, Huffington Post, GQ and even The Atlantic’s blog (a fun twist, since the controversial, Iowa-bashing Stephen Bloom essay also appeared on The Atlantic). “Iowa Nice” even inspired a Raygun shirt.
Siepker and Benedict shot the short film “guerilla style,” with only two guys, a camera and a plan. For “Marooned,” they launched a Kickstarter campaign asking for $2,000. They wanted to prove it doesn’t take a fancy studio and a big budget to produce a show worth watching.
They raised the money within three days. Siepker attributes the success to “Iowa Nice.” They ended up with 93 backers, and know only 20 personally.
“It gives you the sense of responsibility,” Benedict says. “For a while, we were just batting around ideas and it was just whatever we want to do, but now that we’ve got people in our corner, it feels like we really have a responsibility to do well and to take these resources that we’ve been given and make something good out of it.”
The Iowa Filmmakers team is heads-down now, working on “Marooned” (with a team of 10 extras, six or seven principal actors and 10 crew members). They want to prove three guys from the Midwest can make a great entertainment show.
In a perfect world, “Marooned” would become a regular series with eight episodes per season. They’d use “Marooned” and “Valentine Road” and their short films to build jobs for the Iowa film community.
“In this state, even though the scandal happened, there’s still a mystique about filmmaking,” Siepker says.
“That does not die. It’s hard to kill that mystique, and it’s hard to prop it up and live up to those expectations — but I think we are. I think that’s why people rally around us and we just rally around them. It’s this symbiotic relationship, and something great is gonna come out of this. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but something is.”