Matt Yang King (Numb3rs, 24, David E. Kelley’s Monday Mornings, and winner of theCAPE/Hollywood Foreign Press Young Screenwriters Award), is the producer, writer and director of the new steampunk web series The World of Steam. It recently broke records as the highest funded pilot for a web series during its Kickstarter campaign. I had a chance to sit down with Mr. King recently to discuss The World of Steam when he attended Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in Long Beach.
For those who have never heard of World of Steam describe it to them.
The World of Steam is a set of Twilight Zone-like episodes set in a steampunk universe. We’re creating an anthology series harkening back to Amazing Stories, Twilight Zone, Tales from the Dark Side, framing it within a fictional steampunk universe that exists somewhere between 1850 & 1910.
When did you decide to green light World of Steam? When did you say to yourself – I can do this.
I wasn’t seeing what I wanted on the screen. I was seeing hints of it and some of it was wonderful and some of it was terrible. Like Wild Wild West or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Both had aspects that are wonderful, but were generally terrible. But what really drove me was I kept seeing these stories in my head; stories that were windows into a whole universe. And I kept waiting for someone to answer the call to create great Steampunk stories, to scratch the itch that I was feeling. But it never came. So I realized the only way to really fulfill that need was to embrace the visions that were in my head instead of waiting for someone else to present it.
When were you first introduced to steampunk?
In the “common” terms of steampunk now? Probably 2009. But in the terms of Jules Verne, HG Wells… I was already aware of steampunk when I was 9yrs old. I’ve been ingesting this stuff, from “Voyage to the Moon” and the other films of Georges Méliès to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraft, for a long time. I mean I’ve read Jane Austen back to back 6 times. But in terms of the mélange of Victorian ideas that everyone has been coming together to create this new Steampunk aesthetic, than it’s probably been about 2009.
Do you have to stop your colleagues a lot and explain to them what steampunk is?
The interesting thing about Steampunk to me is that it hasn’t been defined. It’s funny, when I sat down with Scott Folsom – formerly of The League of Steam, now our head designer, and also the lead in our first episode The Clockwork Heart – I asked him how he would define it. And he’s a guy who’s an old hat at this. He’s one of the first guys to sort of create the way the Steampunk cosplay was done. And he launched in to this long-winded explanation of Steampunk. And I was thinking of how to essentialize what he had said. And then out of the blue I blurted, “It’s fantasy and science fiction against the background of a Victorian Aesthetic.” And he went, “Oh yeah! That’s exactly what it is!” And I think the remarkable thing about that is that if you can name a thing than you gain the ability to actually work with it. If you can essentialize the Star Wars universe as “science fiction space opera within a used future” then you can begin to really understand how to tell a Star Wars story. And that’s why I think when you look at Star Wars episodes 1,2,3 – it’s not a used future anymore and the opera is off key, so it generates a feeling of betrayal. I really feel that we have a good handle on the world, the pacing, and the style, and I’m excited to bring some dynamic Steampunk stories to life.
Can you tell us a little about the characters we are going to see or is that going to be giving too much away?
Well… It kind of does give a bit too much away. It’s an anthology series so each episode is a stand alone. We’re going to see demons with identity crises, duelists with legacy issues and women with a serious chip on their shoulder… you know, the whole 9 yards. The first episode The Clockwork Heart is basically about a man whose wife dies so he creates a clockwork version of her. Then he very quickly realizes he’s made a terrible mistake.
Is it like Pygmalion?
Pygmalion? No. It’s more Pinocchio meets Frankenstein – with a dash of LoveCraft. We’re basically able to create these small windows into the universe, where I can expand a little of the world that’s in my head. There are so many ideas that encompass Steampunk, because in actuality it’s drawing on over 100 years of human history, that I think it does it a disservice to say, “It’s right here. It’s this one person. We can explore this whole genre with only one viewpoint” If I were to do this as a non- Anthology it would require that I have one person be “our” vision in this world. Like Crichton in FarScape who is always walking in to a situation and going “I don’t know what’s going on – What’s going on?” And then everyone is forced to do exposition every week. The “fish out of water” thing only goes so far. Doing The World of Steam as an anthology allows me to side step that. ‘Punkers understand their world. And, y’know that is one of the things I love about Steampunkers in general. They’re really smart. I mean, they are a really sharp group. So I can expect that they get this. I don’t have to pander, or to say “This is what’s going on. Get it?” If I put a bustle dress on a woman, people will understand that there are societal conventions that she has to obey. So I can take a shortcut. The most amazing thing about this genre is you don’t have to say, “A woman wouldn’t behave like that in this situation, or why are the class rules so important here?” It’s built in to the time period and to our cultural consciousness of the time period. If you approach this a different way do any other genre you already know there’s going to have to be a “exposition moment” and that’s useless to driving the story forward other than getting us all on the same page. To me, every word or image has to drive the story , expand the characters or expand the world.
Is World of Steam intended to be a web series or is it your ambition for it to become a TV series if possible?
I would love for this to be a TV series, but if I made this on TV – and with the crew that we have we could easily put it there – but if I, as a green showrunner, take this to an NBC, CBS or even a larger cable network, they would take it away from me very quickly. And that is not what I want. I want to tell these stories. It’s not about the money, it’s about doing it right. I’m worried that if I go to network, The World of Steam could turn into a show like “The Event”. “The Event” was wonderful – created by a fan of the genre – but he got partnered with a showrunner who had experience, but didn’t agree on how to tell the story of the show. And so the show disappeared. I don’t want that to happen.
The other thing is that you don’t have to! 18-35 year olds aren’t watching TV through NBC or CBS anymore. They’re accessing their information over the web, through consoles and other social media platforms. We could easily find a way to swim that stream. Interestingly – Listening to J. Michael Straczynski is one of the main reasons I’m trying to do this as an independent.
I would go to his panel every single time I went to (San Diego) Comic Con just to sort of hear what’s going on in his life, but also to get that his real “insiders view” of Hollywood. Hearing his view of the state of the business and of the trials and tribulations of creating a show were really informative in how I will go forward.
I think if you want to create interesting and different IP in this day and age of regurgitating the latest 1980s TV show, or adding another prequel to any number of sagas that are finished, you have to go to a different venue. We’re in the old west here on the internet creation space, so why not embrace that? We may fail, but I would rather fail with something that is a beautiful piece of art.
Are the episodes set to be longer or – web series usually are about 10 min long.
Our first episode – because I funded it – is 14 min long. It was basically all out-of-pocket for me and I’m surprised that we got as far as we did before we ran out of money and had to go to Kickstarter to fund the rest of it. I’d like to extend it to 24 minutes, as the rest of the episodes in the first season are going to be 24 minutes.
Which congratulations by the way on the Kickstarter. I was watching it as it happened.
Yes. Highest funded pilot for a web series. Amazing! What that will allow us to do is finish the first episode CG, etc., get Bear’s score done, and start the first season. Bear donated his services for the first episode just like so many of the rest of my friends did, but you can only do that once and then you have to pay people so that they can pay their mortgages and feed their children. This is what they do, after all, and it’s unfair for me to ask them repeatedly to do it for free. We were lucky in the production team we had. We had the shooting team from “Grey’s Anatomy” and the grip team from “24″ – so this was a real crack team that came together to make this. One of the major things that I think garnered us so much attention is that is that Steampunk hasn’t been handled on a completely professional level as of yet. I feel that the work that I have seen has had some incredibly interesting ideas that have been handled really deftly considering these are folks doing this in their spare time. But I think there’s a difference between that and having a professional team with all of the resources they bring to the table.
And to continue that thread – our first episode The Clockwork Heart… when I look at it – whether or not you like the content – we ground you in a world. And it’s a full production…I mean I was doing a list down of our production value and it’s insane. It’s insane what we brought to the screen. We had to cut a ton of corners and what I wouldn’t do for another 3 days of shooting and a crane, but I’m really proud of what we did with our limited resources.
The behind the scenes pictures that you’ve been releasing to your Facebook and to your Tumblr are simply amazing to watch. The creativity and the realism.
And that’s what we’re trying to do. To not just show you amazing costumes, but to surround you with this world. To fill up the background with things that you are ignoring, but which deepen the story. Every step that this takes HAS to expand the world.
I’ve been writing the second episode of The World of Steam… The Duelist. We have Kevin McKidd from “Grey’s Anatomy” to star in it as Lord Grey. The Duelist expands one of the cities in our Steampunk world. It explores not only the history and character of Lord Grey, but explores the background of duelists and how they fit in this imaginary class structure we’ve created. First blood duels, second blood, and third – you’ll learn what that means when you see the episode – all against the backdrop of one young man’s desire for revenge.
Actually one of our overweening goals is to have these Airship Papers – these passports to The World of Steam – that are going out to our backers via the Kickstarter be the first generation of The World of Steam as an immersive world that breaks the fourth wall with its created environment. My goal is eventually for this to be cross-platform. Show, game, etc… but that’s a long way away. We’re dropping a pebble in a lake here. I’m really interested to see where the ripples spread.
This crew that you brought together – amazing crew, amazing cast – can you tell me a bit about how you met each of them or how they all were drawn in to this?
It’s literally 15 years of being in the business. I met the crew of “24″ while doing a pilot called Washington Field for Ed Bernero. I’ve known Lisa Lassek for years, she’s actually a co-host on my podcast GeeksOn. One of the things I’ve always said about Los Angeles is that you either get lost or you dig. And I dug down in Los Angeles. And I found this group of friends who are some of the most amazingly talented warm individuals that I’ve ever met, and fortunately they are nice enough that they all said, “Sure Matt. You’re doing this crazy thing I’ll help you out.”
Do you think you are coming in on the cusp of Steampunk’s popularity is it still on the rise?
Well it hasn’t been super saturated yet. I think we’re actually in prime position to create the first real Steampunk webseries that people can embrace and take home. So hopefully they’ll like what we bring to the table. What we’re trying to do is to bring amazing characters and situations to the screen that send you to another world for a half hour. Just like the Twilight Zones of old. A great character standing at the heart of a great question. To me good sci-fi has always been like being at the center of a good party conversation. Like – “Alright here we are… there’s a spaceship that is about to hit the planet. It’ll destroy the planet if it does. You and only you have the ability to blow up that spaceship. BUT there are a thousand children on that ship.” Do you blow it up? What if your kid is on there too? Sci Fi allows us to put great characters in extreme circumstances and see how they dance. And it allows us to take a moral questions much deeper because of those circumstances. I felt like that was one of the best things about Battlestar Galactica. It wasn’t just about spaceships blowing things up, it was the moral decisions we make in extreme circumstance. That’s also a wonderful thing about writing in the Steampunk genre. There’s technology and there’s magic and both of them can coexist in the same space. There is old world mysticism and you’re at the cusp with the industrial revolution where the technological IS magical. The stories that can be told with that backdrop are infinite.
Do you have anything you’d like to say to anyone?
We’re going to take this as far as we can. This is for the fans. I’m a geek myself so this is about bringing things that were inside me out to the public. This is the perfect time for geek culture.
Keep up to date with the production of The World of Steam via their official webpage and various social media: