Matriculating assassins into gentrified Brooklyn life with Jamie Effros

I met Jamie about a hundred years ago in 2004 ish, when he emerged from the Bat acting company at The Flea Theater. That crew of Bats were insanely talented– as are most Bats, because Jim Simpson isn’t messing around when he auditions those kids– and we at Sticky succeeded in getting many of them to come work on our show. With Sticky, Jamie performed, directed, and produced, so when I heard he was spearheading a new webseries, I was super excited to check it out.




As soon as I watched the episode I wanted to talk to Jamie about it, so that’s what I did.

(You don’t have to watch the episode first, but it’s not even long, less than 8 minutes, and there’s no nudey bits so you can watch it at work real quick.)

Why assassins?

One of my favorite movies as a teenager was Grosse Pointe Blank. The shocking, guilty humor that came out of the contrast of a contract killer at a high school reunion was delicious.  It plopped something fantastical into something totally mundane and forced characters and audience alike to normalize it.  I thought that kind of setup was perfect for a webseries, where the challenge is to sustain a compelling story in sub-10-minute episodes, but not keep it so serialized that any internet visitor can’t just jump right in.  I wanted to play in a very naturalistic, film-like style; and the device of our being assassins allows us to play the contrast between a hidden, harsh reality, and the reality of gentrified Brooklyn, which can seem obsessed with the mundane at times.

Watching The Messengers I immediately thought of Grosse Pointe Blank, which is one of my favorite movies as well. In the film, I love that contrast of like trying to ask a girl out while making sure you kill the right guy. It’s like the means of life meet the meaning of life. There’s one thing that, as I’ve continued to watch the movie, I’ve come to find troubling: the complete disregard for human life, or as you say, normalizing killing. Cusack’s character has that epiphany in the oil field, but he’s still able to keep killing– up to a point(e). Do you think James and Liza will encounter a crisis, be it emotional, circumstantial, or intellectual, that makes them question their own devaluing of human existence? Or are they somehow just cool with disposing of people? I guess this is a question about morality.

We have struggled with this a bit.  The devaluing of human life is so common in popular film and TV (especially through gun-violence), that we do find ourselves in a moral quandary about adding to the pile. One way I attacked this was by creating quite involved origin stories for James and Liza that will slowly unfold through the series involving a covert, extra-military unit.  None of this excuses the murders that take place, but at least sets up within the first few episodes a context that we are at least watching the “good guys”. As we go on, this notion is complicated by questions of where the jobs are coming from, and just how much they can trust their superiors- so morality remains a teetering question for them, especially the more matriculated into conventional culture they become.

Will the web series be episodic or continuous? How are you structuring the story?

The story is structured in a 10-episode seasonal arc, with serial components building a super-narrative.  But virtually each episode is written to stand on it’s own:  every episode has the essential contrast of James and Liza needing to accomplish a mundane task in Brooklyn (grocery shopping, brunch, yoga, etc.), with doing their job, which usually involves offing somebody.

It’s amazing to me how so many of the building blocks of what used to be alternative lifestyles have become mundane– organic food shopping, yoga, bottomless brunches, and even lots of nightlife things. It’s a weird thing to stay who you are and be forced into the little rows at the super market to pick out free trade pomegranates. Are James and Liza actively facing this extreme contrast? Like do they ask themselves “how is this our life?” Is that something you do?

“How is this our life?” is exactly the question they continually ask themselves.  I think what we’re poking fun at here is that “alternative lifestyles” have become so commodified and hyper-aware that they end up completely exotifying the mundane:  it’s not just grocery shopping or exercise or a meal any more- we’re talking about complex, involved systems around health, style, cultural currency, and social responsibility.  James and Liza are realizing that in this new place: no small aspect of living is unexamined. So in essence- nothing is mundane anymore, and they react to that in different ways: Liza usually out-and-out rejects that way of life, while James is more taken in by it.  This dynamic defines a large part of their relationship in the series.

Do you feel that crowd sourcing gives you more freedom for the project that the traditional nfp granting structure?

Crowd-sourcing for a project like this has the dual-purpose of retaining creative freedom while simultaneously taking the first stab at audience-building.  The process has actually been terrific for me creatively as well. Not only has the massive personal response has been inspiring, but people have volunteered some great ideas- a few of which will absolutely make their way into episodes.  Part of my impetus in creating The Messengers was to have a platform on which to work with some of the amazingly talented performers I’ve met over the passed 11 years in New York.  Crowd-funding these first few episodes served as an unintended casting call, which was wonderful. The process created a large-scale collaboration out of something that would have otherwise lived in a few lonely minds.

The depth of talent in this City is unbelievable. I love that the project is becoming a tool for community building, and a means to hire people you love working with, people you want to see on screen. That’s a thing I always loved about Sticky, it’s like “you’re terrific, come do a project!” If you see enough work in this town, there’s never a reason to hold auditions. With Galapagos and so many other fleeing the City, do you think it still has a draw for young artists? Is it the draw of legacy or of potential?

I think the city is absolutely still a draw for young artists, I just think the nature of the art is shifting. As the indelible center of the theater world, I believe that young performers will always come here to create and experiment.  But the financial burden of creating not-for-profit theater is so huge now, that those generations are certainly shorter and more scattered than ever before.  At the same time, film-production costs have dropped and opportunities risen, allowing young artists larger audiences, and more importantly, the ability to own a piece of work after it’s creation.  NY has the distinct advantage of still attracting better trained, more rounded performing artists than LA, and our filmed output consistently proves that.  I believe that there is great potential for artists to use filmed content fuel the creative (and monetary) engine of multidisciplinary work here in NY.  Lord knows it is not easy, and it will take some savvy minds, but I’d say that the draw is one of both legacy and potential.

Check out The Messengers, and if you have a few extra bucks, throw ’em in. They have less than $3K to go! Also (spoiler alert, go watch before reading this sentence) I’m super worried about that tupperware sitting in the brunch house near those screaming children, so we need to fund the series so I can stop being anxious about them having shot themselves over the remains of mimosas and organic quinoa mullet muffins on the renewable hardwood artisanal upcycled table in the breakfast nook.

messengers brownies

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