Interview: Susan Lee
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Circadian by David Cook
Susan Lee is a busy, creative person wears a lot of hats. (That's probably why we get along.) As a playwright, a filmmaker, a screenwriter, a teacher, and a painter, Susan has made her mark in many different fields. I know she's made her mark on me as a director and as a friend.
I first crossed paths with Susan in 2009: I was acting in a musical, and she was the stage manager for the show. Since then, I'd had the good fortune to work with Susan on multiple productions, including a Moises Kaufman play, a short film (more about that shortly), and some amazing new works.
If you like heroes, villains, and intrepid girl reporters, then you've got to check out Susan's project Mastermind. What would you do if you couldn't recall your past - then discovered you had been the evilest of them all? The tag line itself is awesome:
What he doesn't know could kill you...
The masked villain, Mastermind, has not been seen for a year, except for a pre-recorded tape announcing that he has secreted a bomb somewhere in the city that will detonate soon... unless he stops it.
An amnesiac man, J.D., who has been trying to build a new life for himself with his girlfriend, Liz, finds himself thinking he may have been Mastermind before he lost his memory. Liz, a reporter, has covered Mastermind extensively and he tries to enlist her to attempt to recover his memories before the bomb goes off in order to save the city. But Liz struggles with the choice to help him because she wants to save their relationship.
Mastermind has evolved from a play to a short film (as seen at Comic-Con!) to a webseries - and now, a graphic novel. How has the story changed along the way, and what's coming next? Let's find out.
Tell us the history of Mastermind and how you came to work on the project.
Mastermind was submitted to Eclectic Company Theatre as part of Hurricane Season, their yearly one-act writing competition/festival. I read the first paragraph, which is Mastermind talking about blowing up the city, and I was hooked. Michael Patrick Sullivan's writing has a very Joss Whedon flair, which I love. And the characters of Mastermind, J.D., and Liz are all so well-written and complex, especially Liz. I apparently was so passionate about the project that the rest of the directors in the company were afraid to even suggest they were interested in it after I planted my flag in it.
What do you think the different formats have to say about the piece?
Each format has its own challenges and its own rewards. Doing the play will always be my sentimental favorite because we were able to play and find so many levels because we had six weeks of rehearsal, a luxury you don't often get in any other format. And the play is where Brad C. Wilcox, the brilliant actor behind the character of Mastermind, created the whole idea behind who Mastermind is and build this brilliant, unique character. Working with him and Beth Ricketson, who plays Liz, was such a pleasure, getting to explore their relationship and playing with the levels and depth of characters. I don't think the film would be as deep as it is without having done the play first.
The web series was challenging as we shot it for under $300 and with whatever we could cobble together for locations, etc. Luckily, I had a great group of people who stepped up and offered us locations for cheap or for free as well as just enough people filling in as crew. I found a great cinematographer who helped build the entire look and who read my mind, which is very important. I knew I wanted to get the short into Comic-Con because I knew it was perfect for it and so I made sure the whole film had a comic book look to it, like a low budget "Sin City" in parts. Hopefully, that comes across. But the great thing about the script is that the characters are so rich, you can cheat on the stuff around the characters
but you become invested in them. And with the comic book style, it allowed me to create a very unique look without needing a whole lot of equipment.
The web series is basically a re-cut of the short film. Michael originally conceived the film version of Mastermind as a web series but agreed that it would make a killer short film for Comic-Con. I always intended to go back to Michael's original vision and put the web series out so I'm glad that I'm able to do that now.
The graphic novel is challenging because I have to take a story that I've had tons of time to explore on stage and screen and try to fit it on a page in a way that's captivating immediately. There's no time to invite the audience in. I've got to grab them immediately and make them want to turn the page to see what's going to happen next. So I'm currently going through the script to adjust it to the graphic novel format. I'm thinking it may end up a series of graphic novels in order to tell the story as completely as I would like.
Click here for a sneak peek of Mastermind artwork!
Why do you think the story lends itself so easily to so many different formats?
The story translates across formats because it is an intriguing story with complex characters. None of them are black and white. They're all a little grey, with good and bad. So it doesn't matter whether you're watching actors on stage or on screen or on your laptop because the characters engage you first, with writing that's sharp and clever and intelligent. The setting doesn't matter.
When can we expect to see the full graphic novel?
I'm looking to release the graphic novel(s) in phases, first online then as a publish on demand initially. I do have interest already from two major comic bookstores in LA to do a signing and to help promote the web series and the graphic novel. My plan right now is to
have at least the first two pages online by February 1st, which is when I plan to launch Episode 2 of Mastermind.
Are you currently seeking a publisher and/or an agent?
What I could use in a publisher, an agent, a publicist, anyone who can help us spread the word of "Mastermind". Or help us get the feature film made, based on all the things that are out there already.
You are an artist in many forms. What motivates you to tackle a new project?
Every project is special. I know it's kind of cheesy to say that but it is. As a director, I've done everything from a play about Oscar Wilde and his imprisonment to a play about a woman being held captive so she will have the baby she was trying to abort to a play about a Korean/American reporter trying to do the right thing with the information he gathers. I've also done my own story about surviving abuse and made films about my sister and I. As an artist, I paint everything from Impressionists to Frank Miller to Vargas.
What motivates me is when a piece speaks to me. As a director, it's always the language first. If something isn't well-written, I won't do it. I've done that in the past, thinking I can help it or save it but if it's not on the page, it's not on the stage. I can't make a bad script good. So I always want something that's smart and intelligent. Something that has characters who are complicated and rich. Characters you want to spend not just two hours with but want to take them home and make them dinner and dig even deeper into them. It has to make me want to explore why the characters are the way they are.
I also like pieces that explore challenging issues - free speech, women's rights, abuse, religion. The more I think something's going to piss someone off, I'm kinda right on the bandwagon. I want the audience to be discussing what they see when they leave and I want them to find me and ask me questions. That means I made them think. And that's what I want.
Same with my artwork, although that is much more personal. It's more about exploring what's inside of me, instead of bringing in something from outside. Some of my most popular pieces have been pieces created out of heartbreak or fear or exploring the crazy clowns that live in my head. And I love exploring beauty. Lately that seems to be a lot of nudes of women. I love the female form, especially the way that someone like Alberto Vargas or Adam Hughes draws them. We as women are so often ashamed of our bodies, no matter what they look like, and we're not allowed to admire the curves and the beauty of another woman without our sexuality being questioned. It's not about sexuality, it's about beauty. And I am moved by what is beautiful, whether it's a bunch of gears or a beautiful woman.
What else have you worked on lately?
I took a little time off over the fall and winter after having done my one-woman show, and tackling a full slate of classes in college so I'm just getting things going again.
As a director, I just participated in the Living Room Series at Noah Wyle's Blank Theatre Company, directing a staged reading of a new play, "The Boy Who Lived Forever" by Ian McDonald. It was such a great experience to work with a company like the Blank, where they're so focused on the work and not the go.
It was an amazing experience. I was so grateful to be a part of it. I didn't want it to end! But I know you went right into the next project - I know you have fifteen other things coming up.
I am in the process of working on two new plays. One is about this generation of us who are finding ourselves becoming the caretakers of our elderly parents. The other is about women's reproductive rights.
I am also working on a screenplay called "Almost" that is a unique love story. Not a romantic comedy but not a drama. Something somewhere in the middle. It's about the loves that we almost find but don't quite. And what happens when one comes along that might be more than an almost. It's going to have a very cool surreal sense to it. We'll see how that one turns out.
As a painter, I'm working on a series of pin-up girls inspired by Alberto Vargas.
And I have some ideas for a new abstract series that I'm still working out.
I also have several screenplays out and am waiting to hear about whether I'll be producing a new show at Eclectic Company Theatre in 2012/2013.
I am crossing my fingers for you on all fronts. What are you working on right now?
All Mastermind all the time right now!
You are also an art teacher who works with kids and teens. If I walked into your classroom, what would we see and hear?
The main thing you'd see in my studio is my kids enjoying their artwork. Too often art becomes work and we don't want the kids to approach their work that way. It's about learning and growing but also about finding what you love about your efforts. Mission Renaissance, the company I teach for, is all about celebrating the wins and successes you have, especially when you've struggled with something and worked through it. We have a lot of fun but the kids also work very hard and learn a lot of amazing techniques that they can then take and apply to anything - anime, graphic design, classical art. Whatever they want.
What do you love most about working with kids?
What I love about working with kids is how open and vulnerable they are. They're not afraid to tell you what they think. And when they grab on to something, they hold on for dear life. My favorite part is when they have a breakthrough and they achieve something they never thought they could. And to have them step back from their drawing or their painting and have them gasp in wonder at what they've created, there is not enough money in the world to compete with that. They astound me with their ability to create and with their openness and access to their emotions. They make very single day at work a pleasure and so very worthwhile.
Which classic artists inspire you?
I teach Impressionists so, of course, most of my inspirations are Impressionists. Edward Degas especially. He had such a gift for creating the sense of movement in his drawings and paintings, not just the dancers but the women bathing or men on horses. Rodin's sculputures as
well because they ripple with movement and life blood. Van Gogh's raw passion, especially his paintings while he was in the asylum, are visceral and eccentric and alive. And yet, I love Edward Hopper's stark, clean, pure style. Americana at its best and worst. And my newest love is for Tamara de Lempicka and her incredible Art Deco style. So bold, so sensual, so vibrant and alive.
Which comic book artists inspire you?
I'm still discovering comic books so I'm, of course, inspired by the classics - Alex Ross, Adam Hughes, Joe Steranko, Frank Miller, Dave Stephens and Frank Frazetta. But I love the beauty of Jai Lee. And I've become a huge fan of Dave "the Reverend" Johnson from hanging out with him and the boys at Drink and Draw. He has a great almost propoganda style that I wish I could emulate. Dan Panosian, who definitely walks in Frazetta's footsteps but has his own very unique, beautiful style. Jeff Johnson for his classic style and continued support of my burgeoning career. I've just discovered Sean Phillips and his amazing noir style.
Tell me about some of your favorite graphic novels and comics.
I'm still getting my feet wet in actually reading comics. I have admired the artwork for so many years without delving into the story. I'm just beginning to explore Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips "Incognito" and "Criminal" series. Of course, "Sin City" is one of my faves, along with "The Killing Joke". I've gotten into "Lady Mechanika" because I love steampunk style. My favorite above all currently is the Marvel Noir series, especially the noir take on Wolverine. Both the story and the artwork dovetail together into a great, gritty noir fable. I'm still learning so I'm open to suggestions!
If you have comic book (or film, or play, or music) recommendations for Susan, leave them in the comments below.
If you work in the publishing industry or the entertainment business and are interested in Mastermind, please contact Susan directly.
Life On Its Side Productions
Webseries on YouTube
Diary of a Mid-Life Crisis