Fighting the robots with the stars of "Squaresville"
Two fingers forming the shape of an L isn't something most fans would appreciate. But to fans of the popular Web series Squaresville, which just premiered its second season Feb. 1, nothing says loyalty like being told to "stay square."
Written by Matt Enlow, the show stars Mary Kate Wiles (Zelda) and Kylie Sparks (Esther) as two small-town misfits searching to hang on to their dreams and their friendship. Equal parts poignant comedy and sharp teen angst, the series just nabbed three International Academy of Web Television awards for Best Comedy Writing, Ensemble, and Series.
Enlow successfully Kickstarted the project—originally titled "Squaresville: A Series About Growing Up & Burning Brightly"—in late 2011 by raising just $12,000 from a mere 200 backers. From there, the show quickly drew recognition through its savvy writing and well-acted portrayals of bored teens living all-too-recognizable lives.
Squaresville's loyal fanbase has dubbed it "L7," the geek-speak way to indicate forming a square with your hands. At the end of each episode, Wiles and Sparks urge fans to "fight the robots" by liking and sharing the show, and remind them to "stay square."
While other shows can't quite make the show behind the show feel interesting, Squaresville has scored big with "Q&Heys," in which they urge fans to videotape questions and submit them via Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr. It's a cross-platform promotion that keeps paying off, as fans are equally in love with both the actresses and their parts.
Photo via squaresvilleconfessions/Tumblr
With season 1's cliffhanger of a finale, in which Zelda and Esther fight and an important secret goes unrevealed, the series lapsed into a long silence. Despite the show’s popularity, fans were left wondering if a second season would be forthcoming. Season 2 was finally announced last month, and a new episode appeared last Friday. To mark the occasion, we rounded up Enlow, Sparks, and Wiles, and asked them to dish the dirt on all the ins and outs of staying square.
DD: How hard was it to keep the lid on season 2 when you were filming it, before the big reveal?
Mary Kate Wiles: So hard! Normally on set we're tweeting and instagramming up a storm and we weren't able to do that and it was kind of a bummer.
Kylie Sparks: It was so hard because season 1 we weren’t on social media lockdown. I’m really active on social media, so when radio silence began to occur, a lot of eyebrows were raised in my direction. I just kept instagramming clouds and nature/cool things where you couldn’t see what we were doing to throw a fireball in the opposite direction so people wouldn’t get suspicious.
MKW: But it was fun to see people so surprised when we actually did announce, "Hey, there's going to be a second season and we actually shot it all already!"
KS: I’ve stockpiled photos and things to use for when the season premieres, but I really wanted people to see what we were doing, so it was really difficult.
DD: Matt, how much of Squaresville comes from your own life, and how much of it comes from ideas and inspirations from other crew and cast members?
Matt Enlow: I try to bring in as much as I can from other sources. I think Percy is the most literally true to me, but Esther and Zelda both represent specific parts of my personality. The plots come from little seeds of memories or something that's going on with me, and then I extrapolate. I feel for my characters in very real ways, so it's hard to put them through so much trauma, but such is the drama of growing up.
DD: John Green has said that everyone who writes about the lives of teenagers is in some way indebted to J.D. Salinger. In Squaresville's case, I'd also throw in Ghost World and Veronica Mars, at least. Are there any specific influences or inspirations that show up?
ME: I owe Dan Clowes a major debt. Ghost World was a big influence on me, as well as Ice Haven. I would also throw Freaks and Geeks into the mix. Basically, I was looking to make a show that I would have loved when I was that age.
DD: When Squaresville was nominated for the IAWTV award for Best Comedy (which it eventually won), a lot of fans were upset because they felt that being placed in that category was a trivialization of the show. Do you agree?
ME: The line is so blurry for our show, it wasn't a huge deal to me. I think of it as a comedy, but I also write some pretty heavy drama. That's the fun of web series, and this format in general.
MKW: There are lots of dramatic moments in Squaresville, but that's how life is. It doesn't really fit into one category or another... Obviously the comedy is a lot quieter and more subtle than a lot of shows, so I kind of like that that sort of humor was recognized.
KS: The show is humorous in nature and the tone is a lot lighter than the nominations in the drama categories...
Just because something is deemed a comedy doesn’t mean it can’t have emotional moments. The fact we were even nominated is incredible because the other shows we were nominated with are all fantastic, so I thought it was an honor, not a trivialization.
DD: Kylie, how early in the series did you know that Esther was questioning her sexuality, and are there any other secrets about her that we'll be learning in season 2?
KS: I think it will be interesting that the audience will know Esther is gay but that the rest of her world won’t. Viewers will be on the inside track when it comes to what happens to Esther this season, which is exciting that the audience gets to go on this ride with Esther on figuring out who she is.
As for when I knew Esther was gay, I found out about a month after I was cast in 2010, and I wasn’t going to say anything so it wouldn’t spoil the surprise, and honestly keeping that secret for a year really helped in my character development and research for her. Matt told Mary Kate about a year after, but I don’t believe anyone outside of Matt, Mary Kate, Christine (Matt’s wife, who plays Sarah on the show), and I knew that Esther knew she was gay until we shot the season 1 finale.
DD: Was the arc of Zelda and Esther's friendship over the season planned out completely from the beginning, or did it develop as you got to know the characters and their actresses better?
ME: The actors have definitely influenced the energy of the show, but the story was laid down very early. The show is more fun to write now, as I know the strengths of my cast, and I know when they'll nail a joke or an emotional beat. We have more Shelly and Percy than I'd originally planned, really because it's fun to have Austin and Tiffany on set.
DD: Hollywood often tends to glamorize childhood and high school friendships as lasting forever, but we all know that's not always true. Would a "BFFs" conclusion to Zelda and Esther's story damage the realism of the show?
KS: I don’t think it would damage the realism. There are people in my life who I have known since I was 7 or 8 years old that I am still very close friends with, even if there was a period of time where we didn’t communicate as much.
MKW: I don't know how close we are to the final conclusion of the show. But I'm still BFFs with my best friends from high school, even though we've all split up and gone different directions, so I'm all in favor of that kind of ending.
KS: One of the beautiful things about the show is the idea [of] trying to figure out how to stay friends even in the face of adversity and growing up, and Matt has done a wonderful job crafting a show about coming-of-age and what that means to people, including how to maintain friendships that we as kids thought would last forever but maybe are drifting apart.
ME: You know, I don't know where Zelda and Esther will end up. I wanted to make a show about two people beginning to grow apart, because that's something so universal for people that age. Whether they end up roommates in college, or just Facebook friends 10 years from now, we'll all just have to see.
DD: Are there any epic female friendships, real or fictional, that you're drawing on in the show?
MKW: For me Z&E really remind me of myself and my high school friends. I definitely draw on that.
KS: I draw from my own life experiences with some of my friends as well as reading memoirs and watching documentaries to help create not just Esther’s world, but any character I get to play with... [I]f I can see other lives in action on how they deal and react in situations, that’s heaven for me in terms of character development.
DD: How much does your relationship in real life mirror Zelda and Esther's on the show?
KS: Mary Kate and I knew each other at USC before we were cast in Squaresville, and while we knew each other in passing and were friends before, this has really brought us closer.
MKW: We don't spend every day together like Z&E do, but we've known each other for a long time and that really helped bring a level of familiarity that I don't think we would have had had we just met each other upon getting cast. We are very supportive of each other and the show has definitely helped us develop a bond
KS: We’ve been doing this for two and a half years now, so our chemistry is just there—we just lock it in and do it and have a great time.
DD: Between the end-of-episode shoutouts and your Q&Heys, do you ever feel like you're blurring the lines between yourselves and your characters?
MKW: Yes, to an extent, but I think that will happen with any show or project that you're a part of. Audiences like to associate you with the character you play in some way. I like the Q&Hey aspect because it lets the audience get to know us as actors through the lens of the show. It makes us very accessible while still showing that we aren't Zelda and Esther, we're MK and Kylie.
KS: I think as actors, we naturally have part of our characters’ personalities (i.e., I’m very loud and sarcastic) but for the Q&Heys and the end slates, I make sure that I’m very “Kylie” in my makeup, hair, clothing, personality, etc. Besides being sarcastic and loud, I’m very bubbly, I like interacting with people and I love fashion, so while sometimes I feel like Esther’s personality does bleed over because they’re traits of my personality, I make sure that I’m me when we do the Q&Heys and end slates.
DD: "Fight the robots" has become something of an accidental sendup of YouTube culture. In the wake of all of the recent scandal over inflated views and monopolistic networks, can you talk about what "fight the robots" means in terms of keeping YouTube culture honest?
KS: I’m new to the whole world of YouTube and its cultural impact... I think that the idea of letting viewers decide what they like by ‘fighting the robots’ by clicking the subscribe button and ‘liking’ a video helps all parties involved—the viewer, the content creators, and YouTube in general.
ME: At the root of its meaning, "fight the robots" really just means "help the things you like". Viewers have so much power in recommendation systems, and making sure that our viewers realize that is just another way of empowering them.
Everyone is trying to find their audience—and Squaresville has always been about empowering our community, so it makes sense that this has become a battle cry.
DD: How complicated does it get when you have two fanbases for two shows running at the same time in which you play two comparable characters? [Mary Kate Wiles also plays the role of Lydia in the popular webseries Lizzie Bennet Diaries.]
MKW: It can definitely be weird, like this week, as I'm writing this, the things that are going on in the two shows are both really important and charged and so on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Sometimes I feel like I'm throwing a lot of stuff at people, but they always respond positively. I am really lucky that I'm getting to play two wonderful, very different characters, in two very good webshows at the same time. It's fun to hear people be like, "Wow, I love you as Lydia, and then I watched Squaresville, and you're like, a completely different person!" and I'm like, cool, I guess I'm doing okay then. :)
DD: In Hollywood, shows and films are often specifically designed not to pass the Bechdel Test, but a number of successful webseries (Squaresville, Lizzie Bennet, The Guild, Wigs, Awkward Black Girl, I could go on) seem to be all about actively telling girls' stories. Why do you think that's happening online?
KS: I think online content creators are getting tired of seeing the same thing happen over and over again in the entertainment industry. To be fair, I won’t lie, some of my favorite shows immediately fail the Bechdel Test (Sex and the City, Girls, etc) and it doesn’t bother me—because women do discuss a lot of things, including men. However, the truth is that we live in a patriarchal society where even in 2013, the cultural message is still “ladies, you better find a man to take care of you because you can’t do it yourself,” especially with the War on Women still at play.
With the Internet being such an open forum, people are standing up and creating content that has plotlines that would pass the Bechdel Test. I hope that with Squaresville, not only are we telling the story of two girls trying to grow up and figure out who they are, but also that we’re not alienating our audience by not being realistic in what we discuss in our storylines, including boys.
ME: I think if you're going to be making things for an online audience, you should be offering your audience something they can't find elsewhere. Whether that's a show about gamers, pride and prejudice or suburban teenagers, it has to have an eye towards something fun and new.
DD: Why did Squaresville need to be about Zelda and Esther, as opposed to Andrew or Wayne or two other dudes?
ME: Everyone is a little bonkers at 16, but I recall being a total maniac. I think that filtered my perspective on young guys that age. I was playing with fireworks, and skateboarding and throwing garbage cans off of roofs (when I wasn't being a mopey lump). I needed the girls to be introspective, smart, focused people so that the weirdos that they encounter in life bounce off them a bit more. If it were the Wayne and Percy show they'd just be lighting matches and spray painting stuff for no good reason. The girls have their blind spots—that's where the drama stems from—but ultimately they're much cooler headed, reasonable people than I was at that age.
DD: Tiffany Ariany's turn as Shelly is hilarious. Will we be seeing more of her in season 2?
ME: Tiffany had the role the second she auditioned. We all turned to each other and said, "that's our Shelly.” She brought real life to a character that was really just intended to last a few episodes. So yes, we see more Shelly this season, and I think she really finds some great closure with Esther.
DD: Will we get more Star Cross’t Action News in season 2?
ME: Ha! Unfortunately, not this season. I have plans for Dirk and Jane, but they haven't panned out just yet. I think of the supporting cast as a way of rounding out the world, and fleshing out the interior lives of the girls all at once, so I'm always compelled to add new people to the mix. We had days this season that were at least twice as big, if not three times as big as our biggest days in season 1. We did manage to weave a few people we saw tiny glimpses of from season 1 into full on characters in season 2.
DD: Mary Kate, you've said that Squaresville season 1 "knocked you off your feet" as an actor in certain episodes. Will season 2 knock us off ours as viewers?
MKW: Absolutely. I think there are going to be things that you'd never expect and are going to love so much. Season 2 really goes in some fun new directions, and I'm pretty excited about it.
DD: You've promised that season 2 will have 90 to 95 percent more angst. Is that estimating low?
ME: Way low. Don't forget the smooching, though; there's more of that, too.
Photo via squaresvilleseries/Tumblr