My first taste of Steven Tsapelas’ work was when I discovered We Need Girlfriends over 10 years ago. I was hooked - it was genuinely funny and very well written. I still remember the excitement of seeing a new episode appear in my YouTube subscription box.
In the intervening years I’ve done my best to keep up with all of his work for one simple reason - it’s all genuinely great.
Recently I was lucky enough to interview Steven about his latest creative pursuit - a sitcom pilot called Hot n Nerdy.
For those who don’t know, what is Hot ‘N’ Nerdy?
HOT ‘N’ NERDY is an independently produced presentation pilot. It’s a nostalgic comedy, set in the year 2000, about two nerds whose lives are forever changed when they are befriended by the first girl they’ve ever seen at a comic book convention. This was a time before comic book conventions were “mainstream.”
Where did the idea come from?
This is a story that I’d call “semi-autobiographical.”
I was the same age as our protagonist in the year 2000. I grew up in a “football town” on Long Island and always felt a little out of place. Because I was obsessed with comic books, superheroes and Wizard Magazine, I was often ridiculed and mocked. When I was in middle school, my friends and I would attend these low-rent comic book conventions that were held in hotel suites, rec centers, I even went to one that was in the backroom of a Discovery Zone. But, as cheesy as they were, they were my absolute favorite place to go. I felt safe to be myself. I never, in a million years, thought that they would be anything but a fringe interest.
Flash forward to 2013. My wife and I attended New York Comic Con … and I couldn’t believe my eyes. This giant convention center was packed with people of all ages, dressed up as characters from comic books that I used to be mocked regularly for reading. There was also an even mix of men and women, all of whom seemed knee-deep in the culture. This “niche interest” had now become mainstream.
I started to think about who I was then versus who I am now and the steps that I took along the way to gain more confidence, amidst the backdrop of my nerdy interests slowly becoming mainstream and I thought, “This could be sort of my version of The Wonder Years.”
Why did you decide to make this now?
I spent a good portion of my twenties working on independent projects. I made a few films and web shows that I was very proud of and I got to collaborate with some of my closest friends with our company Ragtag Productions. But, when I hit thirty, I made a conscious effort to put more focus on career and family and put the indie stuff aside. My wife and I moved to the suburbs and had two children, and I’ve been working as a Promo Writer and Producer for daytime talk shows. But, after nearly a decade away from producing my own scripts, I started to miss it.
More than anything, I want my children to know me for something other than my day job. I want to be able to write and produce my own material and have them think, “Hey, Dad’s kinda cool.” Both of my kids are really smart and creative and I hope that this experience will one day inspire them to pursue their own creative interests.
I also was really encouraged by my wife, Ana. She was kind of a silent partner on this, reading multiple drafts of the script, helping me every step of the way and finding enough room in our finances to put money into this. She knew this was a dream project for me and her unwavering support gave me so much confidence.
How did you get the project in motion?
Once I decided that I wanted to move forward with the Hot ‘N’ Nerdy IndieGoGo campaign, it came together thanks to two very specific people.
First was my Supervising Producer Becca Valente. I needed a real producing partner on this and Becca turned out to be the yin to my yang. She was dedicated to this project, brought her creative and organizational skills, as well as a relentless work ethic. This truly would not have happened without her.
Second was my Director Robert Vornkahl. Rob and I go way back. I met him at Hofstra University when he was a freshman and I was a senior. He was the Production Assistant on my senior thesis film and we worked on countless projects together. He later directed two feature films which I absolutely loved --- Completely Normal and Nowhere Michigan. I have long admired Rob’s talents and he was the first person I thought of to direct this. He brought with him his team from those films --- namely our Cinematographer, Brian Harnick, and our Production Designer, Danielle Vornkahl.
Before we launched the IndieGoGo video, I wanted to get a few of the principal cast members in place. I had seen an actress named Galya Loeb in a webseries titled Single… and Bad At It, and I thought she could be right for the part of “Becky.” I reached out to that show’s creator, Quinn Hatch, and I was sad to learn that the series was Chicago-based. However, he recommended that I reach out to Galya and I am so happy I did. She submitted an audition tape and within seconds I knew that she had to be in the show. She was the only person who read for the role. Becca recommended an actor named Keland Alaka’i Sarno, who she had gone to college with, for the role of Phil. I immediately liked his tape. He brought a certain odd charm to the character that wasn’t necessarily on the page.
We launched the campaign without at actor in place to play Alan, who is more or less the protagonist of this story. It was incredibly difficult to find the right person. We ended up seeing about fifty actors -- more than we saw for any role. But I kept going back to an actor named Justin Chesney, who recently graduated from Hofstra University. In talking to him, I learned that he, like me, was a die-hard Green Lantern fan and I started to get the sense that he would really understand this character. He turned out to be the perfect choice.
So, day by day, piece by piece, we got closer and closer to putting this thing together.
What made you choose Indiegogo, rather than the zero-budget style of something like We Need Girlfriends?
To give you a little bit of backstory --- In 2006, I co-produced an independent webseries titled We Need Girlfriends (along with my friends Angel Acevedo and Brian Amyot). This was produced out of our apartment in Astoria, New York for about $150 bucks per episode. The series went on to gain a following on MySpace (remember that?) and YouTube. It was eventually seen by producer Darren Star who, along with Sony Pictures, developed it as a pilot at CBS from 2007 through 2008.
But the reason why we made We Need Girlfriends for $150 bucks an episode is because it was literally all we could afford. There were no crowd-sourcing sites yet. We were all working entry level television jobs with very low pay and could barely pay our rent. You can often see pizza boxes and filmmaking equipment stashed around the apartment because we were shooting and editing it in the same place. It looked homemade because it was homemade.
With Hot ‘N’ Nerdy, I realized that times had changed. At this point, independently produced shows often look as good as cable television shows. The landscape is also much more crowded now. In order for this to succeed, it needed to look like a professional production... and that costs money.
Were you confident you would secure the funds needed to make the pilot?
I was never confident that I would be able to secure the funds that I needed to make this pilot. Ever. In fact, I felt a sense of panic and dread during the entire IndieGoGo process. I had avoided raising money through crowdsourcing for years because I was convinced that no one would care and, at the end of the process, I would feel a little embarrassed. Like I said, I hadn’t produced one of my own scripts in nearly a decade so I felt like it was too late for me.
But, I needed to put those doubts aside and to take a leap of faith.
What steps did you take to help ensure the required budget was raised?
Rob had been through the crowd sourcing process before with his two feature films and he gave me many good pointers. I also received advice from my former professor David Franklin and my former Hofstra classmate David Storch, who had raised money for their projects through crowdsourcing platforms.
The first step was to write and produce a video which would succinctly sum up this pilot, while also demonstrating some of the creative flair we would give it. So, one Saturday morning, I drove to Long Island with our Cinematographer Brian Harnick and we filmed this video, which was edited by my co-worker John Perno.
Once I published the video, I really had to make promoting it a “part-time job.” I posted about it almost every day on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We actually hit our goal much faster than I thought we would. It really was an emotional journey, full of ups and downs, but in the end it turned out to be incredibly rewarding.
How has the production differed from other projects you’ve worked on?
The actual production presented many challenges, as all productions do. We filmed it in Connecticut and on Long Island and had to film 15 pages in two very long days, in the middle of a very hot summer. But we had an incredible group of actors, a very professional crew and a great deal of support.
As far as what made this project feel different --- I think because I originated this project, wrote it, and was the Executive Producer, that I got to make this project as personal to me as it could be. We filmed in locations that I used to hang out in when I was a kid, like United Skates of America in Seaford, New York. Many of the extras were friends of mine from elementary school and high school --- friends who I used to attend these early comic book conventions with. A great deal of the music is from the Long Island SKA band Step Lively, which featured my high school friend Mike Rubenstein. I wanted to put as much of myself into this as I could.
But, really, what stands out to me here is the great number of the backers were friends and family members who put their hard-earned money into this because they believed in this project. Because of that, I felt as though it was my duty to make this project as good as we could possibly make it. Their confidence in this truly inspired me, day in and day out, to make this the best it could be.
Going into this, I was reflecting on a lot of bad memories from high school and my sense of alienation. It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you look back. But, when I started reconnecting with old classmates, we talked about some of our positive experiences. By shifting my perspective a bit, I was able to remember that there were many happy times and I had a lot of great friends who are still really great people. It ended up being very therapeutic.
What do you want from the episode?
My goal with this episode is to give people a sense of what a Hot ‘N’ Nerdy ongoing series would look like. I want people to see this and say, “I can see this going on for a hundred more episodes.” My ultimate goal would be to sell this to a streaming company and to try to retain as much of the cast and crew as possible. I really loved worked with this group and I would like for it to continue.
My thanks to Steven for agreeing to the interview, and for providing the imagery. You can keep up-to-date with what Steven is up to via Twitter.