Dorian, a student-produced six-episode webseries based on the Oscar Wilde novel A Picture of Dorian Gray, will wrap up filming this summer after three years of development. I talked to co-directors and writers Tara Snelling and Elli Siora, both at Regent’s Park, about the difficulties of sustaining a project for this long, adapting Wilde for 2018, and the politics of gender-swapping.
How did this project come about? Was it always intended to be a six-part webseries?
Tara: I fell in love with Wilde during my A-Levels, and I remember being very frustrated by the lack of decent adaptations. In first year I stumbled onto adaptations on YouTube made on shoestring budgets – like Nothing Much To Do and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries – which translate themes to the modern day seamlessly and showed me converting a big literary story was, theoretically, possible. This opened the gateway into making a series, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.
I talked to a friend from home, Alice Cattley, about it quite hypothetically and intermittently for a while, but we started getting more serious about it in our second years! We started off with 60 episodes – I know, what were we thinking – following the book point-for-point. The first thing our brilliant co-director Una [O’Sullivan] said before she even agreed to work on this was “just do six”, and I agreed immediately. Each episode is set on a character’s birthday, which both fits the theme of ageing and is basically the only time you can get most of your friends in the same room at university, which made things infinitely more manageable. We talked it over for about a year and half, and then it really started coming to life with Elli and Una. Their writing is beautiful and has made me tear up more than once; I’m constantly in awe of them both, and really couldn’t be luckier to be creating this with them.
Oscar Wilde’s novel is rooted in the social world in which it was written. What do you think A Picture of Dorian Gray has to say about the student experience at Oxford University in 2018? What drew you to this source material?
T: The Victorians had the same obsession with social appearance as we do – it’s just shifted from oil portraits on the wall to the most-liked photo on your Instagram. It shouldn’t matter with friendship, but appearance, social and physical, is something that changes how the world treats us and how we treat the world. Nothing matches up perfectly, of course, but that’s the fun of adapting. There’s not quite the same concern about ageing as a student, or the possibility of a subtly ageless person in a society where by-the-minute documentation is possible – one of the main reasons we cut the novel’s time jump. That’s also why we chose not to have a supernatural element – what people can get away with in real life because of good looks, the right connections or an Oxbridge education is far scarier.
Elli: When Tara came to me again with the project last summer (she had mentioned it to me in first year), I knew two years at Oxford had equipped me with enough material to draw from in writing a web series about the University. I think, cliché as it is, that art acts as a mirror; I think A Picture of Dorian Gray is incredibly suited to both making an external comment on the student experience and speaking about itself. In terms of what it has to say we’ve zoomed out of the story quite a lot but have tried to stay true to the theme of ‘aesthetisizing’ yourself until you become disembodied from your own emotions and interactions with others. I think this is not only rampant in today’s techy, post-capitalist culture, but particularly at this university, where many people aim to be so hyper-productive they run on their own ‘time’.
…generally, I think there can be something very interesting and ‘cinematic’ about characters who are verbose on screen…
The characters in the novel are frequently verbose and engage in long periods of witty philosophising. This doesn’t strike me as particularly cinematic nor very relatable to present-day students. How have you handled their many monologues and dialogues? How have you updated the story?
T: I think Wilde’s trademark turn-of-phrase and general wit aren’t always as funny on screen as they are on stage. The main way we’ve translated that is by writing out these as late-night conversations where everyone is pretending they’re very deep and clever, but more for the fun of pretending rather than anything else. But generally, I think there can be something very interesting and ‘cinematic’ about characters who are verbose on screen – think Mr Collins! I think what’s relatable about the long periods of philosophising is that lots of people here talk just to talk, in that very Humanities-student way, and are constantly waiting to say the next clever thing rather than responding to the moment. I love Dorian and Henry’s relationship – it’s maybe my favourite to write for. At first they’re mostly scoping each other out, a first term fresher and a second year, and share the uneasiness of navigating a deep conversation with someone you’ve just met. Our screenplay is often less about what they say than how they say it, which is a joy to both write and direct. Chatting shit is ultimately self-protection – as Oscar Wilde knew, saying outrageous things stops anyone knowing what you really think.
E: I won’t give away too much of the story but let’s just stay it’s based on relatable characters toeing the line between self-expression and selfishness. You’re right that their verbose monologues aren’t translatable either to film nor to modern forms of communication. However, these philosophical monologues actually present a lack of substance, an impression of speaking just for the sake of it – and quips and puns in dialogue do the very same thing. Wilde often uses masses of speech to present the essence of his character – their paradoxes, their flaws, their lack of self-awareness– and I’d say that there isn’t any medium better than the camera to capture these things, so nothing’s lost when cutting out the verbosity.
Three years is a long gestation period for any project, let alone one running alongside your studies. What have been some of the challenges of maintaining Dorian for this long? How have you overcome them?
T: Yes, oh wow, it’s definitely been a while! Honestly, the hardest thing is deciding what to cut, or what shortcuts we will have to take. There’s usually no right answer for how to do something, so it comes down to trusting your own opinion. If I’m lucky I’ll have a gut instinct, but sometimes you don’t and you have to make a hard choice quickly. I wish I could sit the world’s leading filmmakers down and ask them what they chose not to do. I don’t think people usually talk about it because it’s embarrassing and doesn’t reflect the final product –I can understand why the four writers of Birdman only tentatively shared their first idea of the ending involving Captain Jack Sparrow(!).
The main challenge, however, is the obvious one of just getting bored. I’ve done other things in these three years, and taken massive breaks from it. Dorian has changed radically over the years – mainly as more people have joined and had better ideas –so now it’s barely recognisable. For example, after a year, Alice and I realised we wanted to cut the supernatural elements – for budgetary and plot reasons – and eliminate the portrait, which we originally toyed with reimagining as a profile picture – oh dear. I’ve been lucky to work with people who aren’t afraid to challenge terrible ideas!
One of the main challenges is just constant self-doubt at being able to execute something like this. There are times where it goes wrong; it’s scary that it won’t be perfect, especially given how intimidatingly brimming with talent the Oxford theatre and film scenes are but I’m so glad I made the leap rather than just keeping it on the backburner as an addictive, impossible idea.
The series is shot on location around Oxford. Has this posed any particular difficulties?
T: We’ve shot in about 8 locations I think, ranging from student bedrooms to Cellar. All four of our producers are just wonderful, so I give credit for all locations entirely to them. Stephanie and Olivia have mostly dealt with locations so far – Stephanie Forrest sent over forty emails trying to find a theatre we could film in after a last minute location change, and Olivia Webster is similarly unbelievably on top of it (and also a stand-in dab hand at audio now!). The hardest thing is when you write specifically for a location, or are emailing back and forth with somewhere, but it ultimately doesn’t work out. Limitations force you to be creative though, so it’s sometimes a positive thing- although it doesn’t feel like that at the time!
E: There’s been some limitations because some buildings are precious. Mostly, it’s been great. The material is written for Oxford, so shooting on location really brings the stuff alive. I also feel it’s easier for the actors to understand where the characters are at – and the complexity of their relationship to the place because they probably have one themselves.
…we were all quite adamant that the Basil-Dorian relationship would be same-sex and romantic…
One of the more noticeable changes made in your adaptation is the changing of Dorian and Basil Hallward from male to female. What motivated that creative decision?
T: Casting, honestly. From what I remember about the start of auditions and the writing process, we hypothesised about which gender-swaps would be interesting and batted some ideas around. But we went into the casting processe extremely open and really looking at the combinations of people we could write to, rather than trying to ram actors into particular roles. We kept our first few scripts purposefully rough to help with this, knowing we could change characters radically. A female Dorian always interested me, and Bea Udale-Smith (Dorian) and Rowan Wilson (Basil) were both magic – Rowan made me tear up in her first audition. It just felt right.
E: I think the clearest thing about these two characters – what joins them at first and then tears them apart at the end – is their sensitivity, independent of gender. The discussion first came about because Dorian’s role is largely about hedonism and we thought it would be interesting to explore the ‘good person gone bad’ transition without all the sexist ‘good girl gone bad’ connotations –casting a girl in a ‘originally’ male role was an effort in doing so. We didn’t change any of our intentions for the characters: we treated them exactly the same and watched how it took shape, and it was great!
T: I think we were all quite adamant that the Basil-Dorian relationship would be same-sex and romantic, and it’s very clear in the novel that Dorian and Basil, and probably Henry, aren’t heterosexual at all. Even if it wasn’t, we still would be looking to reflect the experiences of our friends and people we know, which aren’t the exclusively straight narratives you still see in the media. In early stages, I toyed with the idea of all-female cast – I had the image of all of them outside a club for a white-tie theme in these top hats, drunkenly complaining about Oxford as an impenetrable private school boys-club. I’ll be interested to see the ambiguously described “female-led” Dorian Gray film in the works directed by St Vincent, and who she chooses to genderswap.
E: I mean, it doesn’t need to be said, but the University is a very patriarchal institution, although there’s a lot of great things going on to change that. Wanting to offer more complex female roles in an OUFF production is something we considered important, but it also works artistically. I even feel that the intensity to which both Dorian and Basil feel their emotions and the importance they place on their relationships with each other – even if it’s sometimes in a self-interested manner, ‘cause, you know, nobody’s perfect – is pretty indicative of the unconscious ways you react as a woman when finding yourself in an institution that is in so many ways not built to accommodate you.
T: As we were auditioning, I was very keen to cast originally female characters as men – how often do we hear about flips from female to male? The actress figure in our version has changed from Sibyl to Aidan, and Victoria (Henry’s wife) is now David, his boyfriend. Most of the time though, gender choices were because a certain person walked into the room – we’re exceptionally lucky to such a talented cast.
When can we expect the full series to be available online?
E: We’re hoping to release each episode week by week in either Michaelmas 2018 or Hilary 2019.