Review Fix chats with Filmmakers and comedians Mike Handelman, Isaiah Mueller, and Hunter West, who discuss their fun new short form web series featuring puppetry, animation, and retro-style visual effects, Mystery Mansion.
Six Episode Season airing October 15; October 19; October 22; October 26; October 29; October 31.
Review Fix: What inspired you to create this project?
MIKE: The biggest inspiration for me was doing comedy with my co-creators. We met working as entertainers in an interactive restaurant, and from there started producing a comedy show and doing improv together. It was really during the comedy shows that I realized how funny these guys were, and what great chemistry we had as a unit. From there, it was Isaiah who initially approached us with the idea and came up with the title and concept. The summer prior, I had co-wrote, produced and starred in an Off Off Broadway play, and after years of executing other people’s ideas and developing my skill set, I was ready to launch my own projects. What came out of that was our shared love for comedy, fantasy, and everything weird and cool.
ISAIAH: Honestly, I’ve always really loved genre films! Ever since I got involved in this crazy business I had wanted to create a series that could blend together all of the cinematic elements that I loved growing up. Horror, fantasy & sci-fi! Hunter, Mike and I had talked about making a web-series for a while. We had a lot of conversations over Modelo beers and dollar slices of pizza about what type of show we would want to make. I thought about the movies I loved to watch growing up – Evil Dead, Dark Crystal & Reanimator to name a few. So I started writing out lore and a backstory to a series that (if we could pull off) would incorporate puppetry, gore & special FX. I pitched the initial concept/ premise to the guys and we all got really excited about making something unique and ambitious!
HUNTER: The inspiration behind Mystery Mansion was to create something weird with my friends. We all bring something different to the table and Mystery Mansion is the result of that.
Review Fix: What was the process – creative and commercial?
MIKE: Creatively, we adapted characters we’d created as part of our comedy skits, talked about the backstory and wrote a couple of scripts, before deciding to shoot what would become episode one “Like A Cat Out Of Hell”. While writing the pilot, we also conceived of the scripts that would ultimately become episodes 2 and 3, and wrote a few more scripts that didn’t end up fitting the story we decided to tell, so we developed an arc around the character of Doctor Ghoul and his Eye Ball, and took it from there. I also have to give a shout out to all our amazingly talented collaborators. Our producer, Nelson Moses Lassiter, found director of photography Jimmy Xie, sound recordist and designer Samuel Durand, and 1st ADs Luis Pena and Ellen Halpin, who each brought their knowledge of production techniques, passion and creativity to the project. Filling out the team is Rocco George on puppetry and art direction, another friend of our’s from the comedy scene, and special effects artist Dylan Mars Greenberg who I met through my contacts in the music world, both of whom gave their own unique sensibility to make something truly special. Commercially… we’re still figuring that part out! For me personally, this is my first time producing a project on film or for the web, so I wasn’t expecting a return on investment. We went to LA and had some meetings, but ultimately decided self distribution for us was the way to go, especially with content production being disrupted by the pandemic, we just wanted to get the show out there and hope it puts a smile on people’s faces.
ISAIAH: The process creatively was totally inspiring. We reached out to a lot of friends we’d made throughout our years of working on films, tv shows and in the NYC comedy scene. This was a total grass roots effort when it came to the production. It was great, it reminded me of when I was a middle-school kid wrangling my friends from the neighborhood together to shoot a movie on the weekend, just with awesome cameras and a super experienced & talented crew! Working as an actor in NYC, auditioning regularly, expierencing rejections – sometimes you can get bogged down in the business of it all and you can forget why you left your home town and headed to the city. Working on this reminded me of why I did just that, it was pure creative joy honestly. Not to mention it was also a really freeing experience being able to write with two friends that I knew for a long time. Over the years we have done improv together & co-hosted comedy shows around the city. So it was a really organic creative process. Commercially it has been a welcoming experience we won best tv Pilot at Hoboken International film festival and we’re accepted into numerous festivals.
HUNTER: From writing to editing, finishing this project was a total team effort. As soon as we had something that we felt proud about we wanted to show our friends and all the people who were involved. We all have a love to create something for people to enjoy and you can get that sense while viewing MM. Creating a social media presence is still something we are building and we continue to post content and weird memes for our followers to enjoy.
Review Fix: What makes this different or special?
MIKE: For me, what stands out is Mystery Mansion, in spite of the horror trappings and occasional moments of gore, is a story with a lot of heart, that at its core is about friendship and the special almost brotherly bond between these three knuckle heads. There’s so much cynicism and laughing/punching down at characters in modern day comedy, and even though our core trio is a bunch of idiots, and they can be pretty nasty to each other, they also care about each other deeply, and that care is what saves the day. Another thing, is the combination of 80s throwback production values, hand made puppets, rotoscoped effects, etc, with our specific and modern comedic sensibility, which for me personally were heavily influenced by a childhood spent watching the Simpsons, teenage years on Adult Swim, and as an adult being influenced by creators like Tina Fey, Dan Harmon and Judd Apatow.
ISAIAH: Since it’s inception our goal was to make a series that would stand miles apart from the topics & genres a lot of our peers and other creators aim for when making narrative web content. Mystery Mansion isn’t yet another tale about young adults struggling to make it in the real world, or having Tinder misadventures ( although we love those stories! ) But our show is a world of its own, and we like it that way. It wears its genre horror and fantasy roots on its sleeve. It’s a very ambitious web-series that is looking to invoke a specific style and tone. We wanted to set this story in an intriguing setting that felt tactile and handmade. I always wanted to work with my friend Rocco George the talented artist & puppeteer who created all of the creatures seen on screen himself, by hand. We got coffee one day and talked about our shared love of Jim Henson & practical creature effects, we spoke about “folk art” and how cool it would be to build an entire show around that concept. Handmade creature effects and tactile aesthetics really inspired us. All of this lends to the story immensely, hopefully allowing the audience to find the charm in its dark & offbeat comedic tone. In my ophinion there’s a lot to love about this show. It’s filled with interesting bits of lore, it features interesting creatures & locations and it embraces all the camp & gory intrigue of the classic cult films that inspired it. We wanted to make something that was bold, vibrant & Mysterious and I think we did just that.
HUNTER: The special thing about Mystery Mansion is how much passion was put into making it. It started as an idea and now it’s a real thing.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourselves through this process?
MIKE: I learned how much I’m capable of as an artist if I put my mind to it. I’d never written a film or tv before Mystery Mansion, much less self produced one. So I learned a lot about the process that goes into making a show, from editing it myself, to coordinating post production and making sure the sound, color, visual effects and animation all served the story and matched the quality of our amazing looking footage and hilarious performances. I’m also very proud that throughout the post production process, we left no stone unturned. Wherever there was something that could be improved, with the visuals, editing, sound, etc, we found how to make it as good as they could be and never settled for less.
ISAIAH: What I learned about myself mainly was that even if an idea or concept I have in my head seems overly ambitious or undoable, it may not be. Low budget DIY filmmaking can lead to a lot of innovative ideas and new approaches to executing complicated scenes. So for me I had to trust that I don’t have to immediately abandon ideas just because they seem a bit difficult to pull off on a shoe-string budget. A dollar can go a long way if you know how to stretch it.
HUNTER: I learned that any goal is achievable if you are willing to put in the work and have like minded people around you.
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this production and for the future?
MIKE: My immediate goal for Mystery Mansion is for it to find an audience online and bring some joy to people in what’s otherwise been a very dark time. It’s not practical at the moment for us to get together and shoot more live action content, but we’ve recently been producing a series of motion animated comics that’s been a really fun way to collaborate, learning a new medium in the process, growing as an artist and keeping Mystery Mansion alive. Another advantage of this comic/animation hybrid, is we’re not limited by budgets or locations in what we can create. We’d love for Mystery Mansion to become a viral hit and get picked up by Adult Swim or Comedy Central, like other web series success stories like Broad City and High Maintenance, but all you can do is create the best work possible, put it out there and hope it finds an audience.
ISAIAH: Ultimately we would love to cultivate an audience that connects with the series and who would like to see more. Also, being people who work on things with other people outside of our group we’ll use this show as a calling card that could eventually lead to other projects and collaborations. My hope for the show is that it finds its audience and group of people who are intirgued & invested in the world. Perhaps that could lead us to an eventual season 2? After all “Mystery Mansion” season 1 takes place in a small corner of a very large world that could branch off into numerous directions. Including motion comics, audio drama’s, further seasons and so much more!
HUNTER: My goal is to get as many people to see MM and to keep making it.
Review Fix: What’s next?
MIKE: I’ve written a feature film I’d love to produce next year about social media. I’m also writing a sort of spin off/spiritual successor to Mystery Mansion, imagining what if one of the demon characters existed in the real world. I imagine for myself continuing down the path of creator, writer, producer and actor, in whatever shape that makes sense in whatever happens to the show business ecosystem. I’m also a musician, I play guitar semi professionally, so I’d love to continue finding ways to make that part of my creative process, combining it with all of the above.
ISAIAH: Well, I have an ongoing audio drama that I co-star in called “The Harlem Queen” which is now gaining popularity on iTunes and Spotify so I’m excited to continue working on that. In the mean time there are some ideas we are kicking around that would be a kind of spinoff with two of the main puppet creatures from the original show. I also have some other unrelated Mystery Mansion content I’m writing at the moment that has been keeping me busy and mostly sane through the quarantine.