Sunday, November 18, 2012

Up and away: Mongolia’s first sitcom and its origins

Published November 19th in the UB Post 

Mongolia’s first sitcom is coming faster than winter. The sitcom, Batbileg’s Family, will be a single camera styled television show based heavily on tried and true sitcom format America has been broadcasting since the 1950s. It will be an interesting mix of movie cinematography and mockumentary styled interviews. In last week’s installment, I spoke of the finer details involved with creating the sitcom (i.e. chicken suits) and promised to keep everyone updated regarding the sitcom’s progress. This installment will do just that, as well as dig deeper into how the sitcom came about.
Oliver Claycamp, the sitcom’s head writer, originally developed the idea earlier this year. Growing tired of Mongolian television and its lack of comedy, as well as it import of Korean shows and bad overdubbing of western shows, Oliver proposed a question: Why doesn’t Mongolia have its own sitcom? Mongolians watch plenty of television and are highly influenced by Western programming, from music to cinema. So, why not write the first Mongolian sitcom? Why not create a wholesome family show and film it in a style that has rarely been seen on television here?
Oliver first proposed to me the idea of the sitcom through a series of text messages. By this point in our friendship, we’d proposed so many strange writing ideas to each other I was sure he was playing a joke on me. Regardless, I readily agreed for two reasons. One, I have a problem saying no to people especially involving creative endeavors. No sense in missing an opportunity to try something new. Two, I was intrigued. Was it possible? Could two American writers pull it off? Who would produce it? Could we find an American to act in it? When would we actually start filming it?
The answers came over the following months. Yes, it was possible. Yes, two Americans could pull it off with the help of a clever Mongolian woman, Zola, Oliver’s wife, our translator and go-to-guru for culturally relevant jokes.  Mongol Grand Media, a new production company setting a new standard for Mongolian media productions would produce it. Strangely, I would end up acting in it playing the American character, Rick, which wasn’t the original plan but since feels like it has been the whole time. And for the final answer, December will be the month it starts filming.
This week MGM studios have seen many things: from countless sponsor meetings to heated discussions regarding a three minute episode to better advertise the show. Originally, Joon Wook Kim, our Korean director, wanted something Simpsonsesque, an opener involving an extended action shot that details the shows youngest character, a 10 year old boy named Batta, moving through the family’s home and weaving in and out of everyone’s business. Oliver wanted to film an actual scene from the show, to show the interview style as well as the settings and theme. After a long discussion involving Oliver, myself, the executives producers, Joon Wook Kim, and phone calls to Dan Peters, our lead cameraman/go to guy for anything and everything technical in the show, a decision was reached: the three minute episode would be a quick storyline in which the family is attempting to take a portrait at a local photo studio. The shoot is planned for the following weekend.
Saturday also saw the first official video shoot for the sitcom. In the scene, Rick, the American character in the show, sits in an abandoned playground as the snow falls round him. He comments on the coldness of the weather and how he is feeling lonely. His phone rings and he suddenly grows excited that someone is calling him. He takes the call only to tell the person on the phone that he is busy and that he can’t be bothered. The short can be found via Youtube: Lonely Rick.
On Sunday we shot our first commercial featuring members of the sitcom. The commercial, for the Niislel gym near Zaisan, features a long shot of the gym, the people working out there, and a quick cameo by Rick who’s running on a treadmill when he becomes distracted by the pretty girl running next to him. The commercial also features Mongolian top model Temka, pumping iron and looking fierce.
Progress can come in different spurts. It can be fast, nearly blinding, and seem to appear out of nowhere and it can be slow, molasses slow, with no end in sight. Batbileg’s Family falls into the former category. Since first hooking up with MGM in September, the show has barreled towards it filming date. With the official filming date taking place this next week, the cast nearly solidified, and all the pieces falling into place, it’s starting to feel as real as the first mockumentary of a fictional Mongolian family can possibly feel. Excitement is in the air, and history is soon to be made. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

A French designer, chicken suits, and Mongolia’s first sitcom

                “We need chicken suits,” Oliver says to Jesse, the French designer for Mongol Grand Media’s new Mongolian sitcom.

                “Chicken costumes?” Jesse asks. He looks at us suspiciously, as if we are putting him on. We had just requested a deel made out of camouflage material. He has reason to be suspicious.

                “Yea. Two. We need two.”

                So goes a normal conversation at MGM’s newly founded studio in the heart of Ulaanbaatar. Over the course of the year, Oliver Claycamp and I have been working on a sitcom, but not just any sitcom, we have been tediously scripting out Mongolia’s very first sitcom. The sitcom will be filmed in a single camera mockumentary style, and if all goes according to plan, filming should start at the beginning of December. Until that time, I will be documenting for my blog and the UB Post the more interesting happenings at the office, ranging from issues of translations to discussions on theme music for the show. It’s a truly international effort, and something that has a good chance of spreading further than Mongolia’s landlocked borders.

               Translation. Translation and finding those who can do it quickly has become somewhat of the lifeblood of our office. The show’s director will be a Korean man who speaks Mongolian, the actors will all be Mongolian, the foreign actors (including myself—more on this later) will speak Mongolian in the show, the producers speak Mongolian, English and Korean, Oliver speaks Mongolian, I’m studying Mongolian, the Frenchman speaks English, and thus any discussion is usually translated at least once depending on who’s in the room. The script is also translated multiple times, from English to Mongolian then finally to Korean for the director, who while fluent in Mongolian, has trouble reading Cyrillic. We also plan to translate the script into Chinese at a later time.

                A normal day for me: I greet Joon Wook Kim, the Korean director, who tells me something in Korean-accented Mongolian, which I invariably don’t understand, which he then tells to Oliver or Key for translation(the executive producer), who then relay the message to me, after which I reply, and the translation loop continues until the conversation is over. As frustrating as this sounds, it’s actually quite smooth and there has yet to be any real translation problems. Everyone knows the immensity of our task, and the goal of quality and good programming seem to trump any issues of interpretation.

                That brings me to another thing: jokes that are lost in translation. Luckily, Oliver’s wife Zola has become somewhat of our guru on jokes.  Not only does she translate the scripts, she also enhances our jokes and gives us a truly local spin on the various dilemmas we cook up. I’ve even left out good portions of scenes for the pieces I write just to get her take on it. Her script translations and influence are vital to our finished product.

 American humor can be sarcastic, it can be slapstick and it can be based entirely on wordplay. It runs the smorgasbord of English communication and has huge regional variations. For writer’s writing to a foreign audience, some of these types of jokes don’t work and have to be changed to make sense. While it’s always sad seeing a joke go, the bigger picture is what’s really important here, and it’s the bigger picture that continues to propel this project further.

There’s always something happening at the studio, at least after the auditions start. From a rapping Mongolian child to a gorgeous model singing a popular English song, people have poured into the studio to audition for roles. Some characters have been cast, including the characters Ariunzul, a twenty-something woman dating a foreigner, Batbileg, her father, and Javzmaa, her stepmother, and Tumor, the obligatory crazy uncle.  The search continues for Monkhzul, the sixteen year old daughter obsessed with Korean culture, and Batta, the youngest actor in the show who plays a clever child always on the cusp of getting himself or someone else into trouble.

Then there’s Rick. In the show, Rick is an American man dating a Mongolian woman (Ariunzul). Originally, Rick was supposed to be played by another foreigner. Then, a month or so ago, I got a call from Oliver.

“The guy playing Rick is out,” he said. He was at the studio and our producers were probably huddled around him, or at least in my mind they were.

“Maybe we can get my friend Dan,” I suggested.

“They’re saying maybe you can do it,” Oliver said.



“No way, I’ll talk to Dan.”

“Ok, think about it.”

It’s hard to describe how strange it is to write dialogue for a character for a few months then get the offer to play that character. It definitely makes you question future ideas involving that character, especially now that you have the choice whether to be the actor or not. But I thought about it, and decided to take the role. After all, time was running out and the show was nearing production. Plus, I had a general sense of what was going on at all times due to my role as the show’s co-writer. A month ago I became Rick and a month from now I will play Rick on television. Still strange to write and even stranger to say.

Dan, the friend I mentioned earlier, will also have a role in the show. He will play Steve, Rick’s friend whom he occasionally calls. So picture this: Rick is having some dilemma and to get advice he calls Steve, who is always doing something wacky (which is very easy to do in a city as diverse as UB). They will speak only Mongolian to one another, bad Mongolian I might add, and the subtitles will be in English. The sense of irony is powerful here:  two Americans speaking Mongolian to one another while they could be speaking English. Dan, an Afghanistan war veteran and documentary filmmaker, will also help with filming, post production, and everything in between. The staff diversity of the show continues to expand as we near production.

The coming week will see many things, including the recording of a theme song, which I wrote and someone else will perform, and more auditions to find our final two main characters. A ten minute mini-episode will be written and should be filmed soon and an advertisement campaign will move into its final stages of preparation. Mongolian’s first sitcom, which has yet to be named but will likely be Batbileg’s Family, is on its way to television history. As the snow settles and the temperature plummets, the cast, crew, and producers at MGM are going into overdrive in preparation for our winter debut.

Halloween time!

Halloween in Mongolia is always interesting.