Arthur Glover: So what were your earlier experiences like when you first were making projects and hustling the entertainment world?
David C. Barry: In a word: “unpaid”. Which is maddeningly customary out here, or at least was. I came to LA to study film as a graduate student at USC in their Critical Studies Department, so when I wasn’t on campus as a T.A. I was usually on set as a P.A. It was standard beginner stuff and, as I said, mostly unpaid, so in that respect I was more the one who got hustled than the one doing the hustling. That said, I was a horrible PA, so they got their money’s worth.
Arthur: What made you want to make show like “Tinsel’s Town”, and in the vlog format?
David: The idea for “Tinsel’s Town” was actually mined from an entirely different project – a backdoor TV pilot I wrote called “The Lullaby League”. That project (and sorry for what’s going to sound like a pitch here, but I promise there’s a payoff) is about a group of veteran Hollywood actresses whose lives are sort of turned upside down when a fame-obsessed reality TV star is sentenced to perform community service in the “home’ they share. It’s sort of a “if Kim Kardashian were forced to live with the Golden Girls” scenario. And the payoff is that Tinsel is that reality TV star. She’s gone on to a vast success. So my job in writing the character of Tinsel and the story of “Tinsel’s Town” was to reverse engineer, to rewind the clock and figure out who Tinsel was before becoming the reality star sensation we meet in “The Lullaby League”. It turns out that she was a wannabe YouTube star, a vlogger.
As to “why a vlog?” The decision to film it that way really just boiled down to story and, like most other things, budget. It was kind of a double act. On the story side, a vlog seemed like the perfect device to reflect both the character’s present emotional life as well as the one she’ll go on to have in “The Lullaby League”. For Tinsel at least, there’s craving not just for attention and admiration, but for deeper needs as well: to be heard; to feel relevant; to matter in some way. I could imagine those qualities as plausible motivations for her becoming a reality TV star later in life and the vlog was a perfect way in. Also, vlogging is fascinating to me – you have this person trying to make a connection with the world from the solitary confinement of a locked bedroom. There’s an intimacy there, but also a dissonance, which I find interesting. The risk was always that the success of the show – like the success of any real vlog – would depend on the vlogger, on whatever empathetic connection Tinsel could make with the audience. So we were beyond lucky to have found Aimee-Lynn, who connected in the most miraculously real and visceral way with the viewers. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. She nailed it. As for budget, shooting in the vlog format with just that one set allowed us to shoot 125 pages of script. Otherwise, it would have been far too expensive for me to fund personally, which is what I did. So in filming more austerely and with less, I got to tell a lot more story.
In the end, though, we dispense with the vlog format altogether. Once Tinsel loses her followers, the need to directly address them disappears as well, and that’s when we shift to a more traditional shot/reverse-shot mode of storytelling. It’s filmed like any other TV show, which was meant to be both a narrative and a stylistic segue into “The Lullaby League.”
Arthur: Are your characters based on people you actually know?
David: I don’t think so. But I do live in LA, which is sort of ground zero for narcissism and exhibitionism and lots of other “isms’, so you tend to see people here that just don’t exist anywhere else in the world – and that tends to stick in the mind. I mean, I was a restaurant the other day and a woman ordered an organic kale salad for her dog.
But mostly, I think I just start out with an idea or a question and eventually the characters will wander out from the shadows of that idea or question and volunteer to tell its story. As for the characters themselves, for me it might start with finding the source of their loneliness. I don’t know. I try not to pay too close attention to that sort of thing. It’s jinxy.
Arthur: What is your series trying to say? What are some of the key metaphors that underlie your material here?
David: What I intended to do is explore some of YouTube’s vlogging culture – not just those “isms” – the narcissism and exhibitionism at the core of any cult of personality – but also the voyeurism that’s required for that sort of effort to be successful or rewarding.
Someone has to watch the performance and we seem to be easily hypnotized. We also seem to be living in the Age of The Guru, and hypnotics are the coin of that realm. There are lifestyle gurus, food gurus, tech gurus, makeup gurus, political gurus. There’s a guru for everything, even pancakes (me). And for the most part it’s all personality-based. So, I suppose Tinsel is a stand-in for a culture that places a premium on personality over things like intellect or talent, on shine over substance. Which seems like a slightly daft way to choose a guru. Plus, LA is home to gluten-free soap, which is just hilarious and for that alone deserves a good skewering.
Arthur: What are some shows and films that have inspired you to do what you do?
David: I came to writing through music, so storytelling musicians like Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone played a large role in shaping my imagination. Generally, I think I’m drawn to writing that’s funny but also poignant, where there’s a current of melancholy humming beneath the humor.
As for specific shows and writers, no shortage there: Treva Silverman from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; Linda Bloodworth-Thompson from “Designing Women”, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and “Fleabag”. Right now my TV has been completely hijacked by Sally Wainwright, so I’ve watched and re-watched “Happy Valley”, finished “Gentleman Jack” and I’m now on “Scott and Bailey”. But there’s a show called “The Detectorists” written by McKenzie Crook, which is absolutely, achingly beautiful. It’s a favorite.
Arthur: What have you learned from peers and other writer/directors that you utilize in your work today?
David: That most creative undertakings require lots of endurance, so I try to take a deeper breath than I think I’ll need because the dive will probably be deeper thank I think. It’s about commitment. Mostly though, I remember something that our director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, told me while filming “Tinsel”. There was a point when a few things started to unravel – we lost sound for some reason, and then that triggered a tiny avalanche of other issues. It all worked out in the end, and better than we’d thought it would, but before we could draw solace from that and while we were still in the midst of all the chaos, Michael turned to me and calmly said: “Have you figured out yet that nothing goes as planned?” And that’s a thought I take everywhere because it’s been my experience with nearly everything: very few things work out the way I expect them to, even when they work out the way I want them to. Uncertainty has a way of finding a crack and finding a way in. And I’m learning to just go with it.
Arthur: Thanks so much David for the interview!
More info is on the show available here: https://www.tinselstown.com/