Clutch was an LA Web Fest grand prize winner in 2012. I was lucky enough to meet creator Jonathan Robbins (Canada) at Marseille Web Fest in October 2012, where we chatted about what makes Clutch unique. As Jonathan put it, the show is “unapologetic” in its use of violence and nudity, and it stands out for its R-rated content. I know many creators struggle with how far they can push their own shows, so I was especially excited to hear what Jonathan had to say about his writing process. This interview is an instructive read for all writers, but especially for anyone contemplating a dark and edgy genre piece.
Show Creator:Jonathan Robbins
Genre: Femme Fatale/action
URL to show page: http://clutchtheseries.com
Screened at LA Web Fest: 2013
Synopsis: Sex. Strength. Survival. It's going to take all three.
Clutch is an alt-femme fatale series about Kylie, a pickpocket who is offered up to the mob when her boyfriend won't pay his debts. With the help of a fellow thief, who she meets while picking his pocket, she plots to steal from her would be oppressor, the ruthless mob boss Marcel, by posing as his dominatrix. There is, however, aftermath, and Kylie’s friends must rise up and fight.
Described by reviewers as "hard-hitting", "unapologetic", and "brave", Clutch is for mature viewing, with many episodes containing nudity and graphic violence. Equivalent film ratings would be NC-17 (USA) and R (Canada).
Date of release: Nov 2011 - current
Number of seasons: 2
Number of episodes: 19
Average episode length: 7 min
Currently in production? No (however, we are in development on a feature film continuation).
Writer(s): Jonathan Robbins, Matthew Carvery, Charles Barangan, Lea Lawrynowicz, Alex Gheorghe
Director: Jonathan Robbins (plus guest directors: Jason Leaver and Alex Gheorghe)
Editor: Jonathan Robbins
- 2013 Canadian Cinema Editors Award nominee
- 2013 Streamy Awards Nominee – Best Action or Sci Fi Series
- 2013 IFQ Festival Best International Series
- 2012 Webby Awards Honoree – Drama
- 2012 Snobby Robot Awards – Best Director
- 2012 LA Web Fest Grand Prize Winner + 8 awards
- 2012 W3 Awards – Writing and Drama
- 2012 Indie Fest – Outstanding Drama
- 2012 Best Shorts – Outstanding Performance by a Leading Female, Drama
- 2012 Communicator Awards – Excellence in Online Video
Why did you create your show? What were your goals?
When I first told a form of this story, it was as a short film. My hope was to have some success at festivals and gain interest in a TV series. That success came, but without the leads on further development. It was when I was introduced to the web series world that I went back to the story and reworked it completely. The episodic structure allowed me to open it up and explore the characters, which excited me. The goal of a TV series became irrelevant, as the web series format proved fitting and I fell in love with the community.
How do you run your show? (Do you have a showrunner? Do you work as a team? Who makes the final story decisions?)
Yes, we use the traditional writing format where I am the showrunner. However, I offer as much creative freedom as I can to the writers of individual episodes, which is why you see tonal shifts from different contributors. I’m against streamlining the show so much that it loses the individuality that unique voices bring to it the way some television does. At the same time, I have to keep each episode true to the greater story and to the world these characters live in, so I’ve had to veto some ideas.
Season One was written almost entirely by me. With Season Two, I wanted to open it up. We assembled a writing team and bounced ideas back and forth for a few months until we had a synopsis. We then broke it into episodes, and then assigned those episodes to individual writers.
How is your show structured?
Clutch is serialized. Season One follows the perspective of one character, Kylie, as she stumbles into the story. Each episode has a mini-3 act structure, but it’s all building to the climax of one story ultimately. Season Two explores the ensemble, as we step into different perspectives and witness the effects of the mafia on their lives. There is one overall story arc, but we discover it from multiple angles and play with the relationships between them as we go. Season Two will also amount to almost double the length of Season 1 when all episodes are complete.
How far ahead do you plan?
Season 1 was written in 2 stages. The first 2 episodes (really 1 episode) were done first, and then the rest of the season was written shortly after. It was shot over the course of 8 months, and some changes were made during that time.
Season 2 was completely written before preproduction began. The writing process totaled about 6 months, and then we shot for 3 weeks, with a few pickups in the months to follow. There was one major change to the script, and it happened two nights before shooting the ending of the Season 2 finale. That scene was written for and shot in Los Angeles, unlike the rest of the series, which is shot in Toronto. We ended up scrapping the final scene and completely rewriting it on the plane! It was a revelation moment, and the new scene makes for a much stronger ending than the original.
Do you break stories? Outline? Explain your process.
The writing process changed completely from Season One to Season Two, and as such, I believe the writing greatly improved. The first season had a rough story in place, as it came from the short film. I knew who Kylie was, and I let her character dictate much of the details of the story. Every other character that was introduced was all about “how do they serve Kylie.” This character-based approach gave Kylie a clear perspective and a solid arc. However, we lost some of the depth in other characters, and the story strayed a bit as I was serving her needs more than the story’s. One of the strongest episodes as far as writing goes, in both my opinion and from audience feedback, is episode 107: It Always Catches Up To You. In this episode, I strayed from the Kylie-based perspective and explored the relationship between Marcel and his henchman. I realized that understanding that relationship made all the difference to one little moment in the plot, and that encouraged me to open up Season 2 and make it about all of the characters and how they’ve been affected by everything. I was making the mistake of insisting on finding the story through the character, so I decided to create the story first.
With Season Two, while the story itself is a continuation, the tone, the characters and even the writing style is a reboot. Focusing on story first, we found the ending first and then figured out how to get there. We went back to where we left off from Season One and brainstormed what would happen next. We had an overall story, and then wrote individual stories and connected them. We had synopsis for 8 episodes, but wrote them out of order, with episodes 6 and 7 being completed last. By that time we knew where we ended up and how we began, but we needed to pull it all together to get there.
We decided to call the first episode of Season Two “episode zero.” It’s a transition episode between the two seasons. Because in many ways we were starting over with Season Two, we wanted to acknowledge that.
How do you gather feedback during the writing process?
Sometimes it happened as head-butting, beer drinking sessions with the whole writing group. At others, it was through emails. I had each writer send their notes to me, and then I compiled them and sent them to the episode writer. And sometimes, it was as simple as “Hey hon – what do you think of this?” This is a good time to point out that my partner is instrumental in ensuring the show stays true to its female-empowerment theme.
What is your rewriting process like?
During the initial story-building phase, we scrapped many ideas and started over a lot. Once we started drafting individual episode scripts, our first drafts usually were pretty good maps, and then it was a matter of tightening dialogue, addressing plot issues, and adapting for locations we had available. A few episodes went back to the drawing board and look nothing at all like their first draft.
Of the following storytelling elements which three are most crucial to your show and why?
Action is integral to the story. Right on the homepage is an image of a main character with a machine gun – we know that this is a story about a fight, so the action must deliver. It also, however, must be earned. This is a dramatic action series, so we were careful not to overuse or add for the sake of being cool.
Genre is similarly important. This is femme fatale. Clutch is about women who take matters into their own hands. The characters are not only women but shunned women—prostitutes, fetish workers, and pickpockets. The story begins with women in crisis and oppressed by men, but we didn’t want to fall into the trap where they weren’t in charge of the fight. Femme fatales can go to male characters to get something they need, but if they require a male character to save them, that’s not honouring the genre. Of course, we didn’t want the men to be weak, so we found interesting and heroic arcs for them too, and we kept constantly checking the balance between the male and female characters.
Finally, the series would not be half as interesting without its unique characters. Kylie is not just a dominatrix, she’s a surrogate mother to a group of fetish workers who need her – and she lets them down. In Season Two, we explored the ensemble of characters and then threw them together where they don’t belong.
How did you navigate production limitations (e.g. budget, cast, locations, shooting schedule)? How did these concerns influence the storytelling?
We mostly wrote without worrying about limitations and then went back and rewrote what wasn’t going to be achievable. Writing freely allowed us to figure out how to do some things we thought we couldn’t do, such as putting a light bulb in a character’s mouth. If we had filtered ourselves, that idea would have been scrapped immediately. But we wrote it and loved it, so then we were forced to find an f/x artist who could pull it off.
We did have to write around certain cast members with limited availability. We knew this early on, so we could plan it in to the story. This was actually a plus as it pushed us to take the story in directions we might not have otherwise thought of.
How did non-writing team members contribute to the direction the writing took, even if inadvertently? (Actors, DP, Costume/Set Designer, etc…)
Some of our cast are very witty and contributed rewrites of dialogue either in advance or on the spot, much of which made the final cut.
Locations dictated some changes. In a few cases, we had to re-examine a scene in the editing room and find a new perspective, which led to a tighter story in the end.
At what point in the process did consideration of your target audience come into play?
Only rarely. There were times when we would pull an idea back for fear of alienating viewers, but we’re not really known for playing it safe, so that was rare. We write for the show and let the audience come to it.
Have you integrated any fan feedback or other interactive components into the storytelling?
To some extent. Fans said they wanted to see more of Raven, the dominatrix in Season One, so she becomes a major character in the second season. Also, we had feedback that one character had no redeeming qualities, so that forced us to find them some.
From a writing perspective, which episode is your favorite and why?
Besides episode 107: It Always Catches Up To You that I mentioned earlier, I’m fond of episode 204: Catsup. The episode focuses on a character relationship, and we found a wonderful balance of comedy and drama that really bonds these two unlikely friends.
Which episode was the hardest to write and why?
Episode 208: Unlikely Allies. This episode brings together a lot of individual character stories in a way that justifies where they ended up. It’s very plot heavy and as we wrote, it felt bloated or too complex. It was completely re-written three times before we got a draft we felt we could build on.
What was the biggest or most surprising storytelling lesson you learned?
That there’s great value to “writing what you don’t know.” You can always get someone who does know to help you with accuracy later.
Can you give us some tips for writing short form content?
Respect your audience’s time. They’re seeking something short because they don’t have a lot of it, so make sure you’re not being self-indulgent. Every scene needs to pay off in some way later.
What’s next for you/your show?
We are developing the continuation of the story as a VOD feature. It will play as a Season 3, but it’s also a standalone story. Someone discovering the movie could go back and watch the web series as a prequel. It's a transmedia extension of the series, not a replacement of it. Many of our team are also working on a new web series called Asset, about an everyman who is recruited by the CIA so their target won’t see him coming. Asset goes into production this fall.
Anything you’d like to add?
Clutch began as a show that was unapologetic in its use of violence and nudity. I’m glad we did that, as it was very freeing as a storyteller to allow ourselves to take the kinds of risks ratings boards normally shut down. However, I’m also proud of the fact that we refrained from using nudity when it wasn’t needed in the second season. At first, I felt like we were letting our audience down by doing this – I didn’t want to be seen as PG’ing it up as we went along. The truth is that we're still unafraid to go there, we just haven’t needed to. That means we’re letting the story dictate the rating, and not the other way around.