Writer and director James Moran tells TenEighty about Mina Murray’s Journal, a unique adaptation of Dracula in vlog format. The first episode is set for release on 29 September.
Acclaimed screenwriter James Moran is the writer of the horror movies Severance, Cockneys vs. Zombies, and Tower Block, as well as episodes of Doctor Who and Torchwood. No stranger to experimenting with new formats, his online work includes the 2009 web series Girl Number 9, which was nominated for five Streamy awards. This year, he returns to the web series format with Mina Murray’s Journal, an original adaptation of Dracula told via a series of YouTube vlogs. In advance of the launch of the series, James spoke to us about the origins of the project, his influences, and some of his favourite YouTubers…
James first had the idea for the project back in 2013, but didn’t develop it further due to concerns that there wasn’t an audience. “Even though [Pride and Prejudice adaptation] The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was already a huge success I still didn’t think anyone would go for this,” he reflects. But after attending GeekyCon the following year, he changed his mind. “I was so inspired by the amazing attendees, I realised that I’d found the audience – they’d understand it, they’d appreciate it. They gave me the courage to write it and think that it might actually work. I scripted the entire first season, wrote up a pitch document, approached Alexandra Edwards (the trans-media guru from Lizzie Bennett and Emma Approved), and started building a team.”
“I realised that I’d found the audience – they’d understand it, they’d appreciate it…”
The title character is played by stand-up comedian and YouTuber Rosie Holt. “I’d seen some of Rosie’s comedy online, which had a real, honest, heartfelt feel,” James recalls, “and felt she was perfect for Mina.” James also approached Liam Dryden and Matt Hargreaves to play Jonathan Harker and John Seward respectively.
What makes Mina Murray’s Journal unique is that the characters all have Twitter accounts, which adds a level of interactivity to the story. The audience can react and converse with the characters as the story progresses, and they respond in character, so when a viewer talks to the characters on Twitter they almost become part of the story themselves:
Ahhhh! Laptop won't record anything anymore! I knew it would stop working! Should have gone to bed and left it as @JackSeward93 had it set 😡
— Mina Murray (@TheMinaMurray) September 20, 2016
— Jack Seward (@JackSeward93) September 21, 2016
“We’ve been building a ‘life’ for the characters online for a month or so already,” explains James, “so that by the time people find them, they’ll have a back-history and won’t just have appeared that day.” The actors aren’t directly involved in this process, but they do play a part: “Occasionally we’ll ask the actors to take a relevant photo if they happen to be near something (a party, a train station, etc), but we don’t ask them to tweet in character.”
Crucially, James explains that the Twitter dialogue isn’t written in advance, “to keep it spontaneous and able to react in the moment”. The only issue with this is that unsuspecting members of the public could find themselves in the middle of a horror story without realising that it’s fiction, but James assures us “the intention is definitely not to trick people. Obviously it’s flattering if anyone thinks the characters are real! But I don’t want to hoax or upset anyone, so we’ll probably link to the show site from the main Twitter account or something similar to make it clear that it’s fiction. The cool thing is that even though people know it’s not real, they play along and talk to the characters already.”
“Where the vlog format really helps is with character and emotion – we can really dig into their thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears…”
There are challenges in adapting a novel to vlog format, although in this case, the source material does come with an advantage. “Dracula is an epistolary novel,” James points out. “It’s already in diary format, so we kind of have a head start. At the same time, narrating something in a novel is one thing, and on video is quite another – we can’t have everything happen off-screen. The first part of the novel lends itself to more of a buildup, and we have some in-camera scares coming. When we go to Series Two, things will get more complicated, as we’ll have a lot more stuff we’ll need to show.
“Where the vlog format really helps is with character and emotion,” he continues. “We can really dig into their thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears, without having to contrive a conversation to get the information out, because they’re talking directly to us.”
The story did require some changes to make it work, as James explains: “In the first season it’s mostly told from Mina’s POV, with guest appearances from Lucy and John. Lucy has a few of her own vlogs, as does Jack, and they’ll air between regular episodes. Keeping it to four main characters for the first season kept it manageable, and will hopefully avoid overloading a new audience… It’s a simplified, faster version, to keep up with the vlog format. And I’ve changed a few other things too, so if you’re expecting certain things to happen to certain people, you might be in for a surprise or three. And it’s pretty clear early on that there’s a whole new relationship dynamic, which will also have room to grow.”
No stranger to vlogging himself, James uploads writing tips and interviews on his own channel, which gave him some insight when writing the series. “It showed me that you really, really need proper lighting and sound. Honestly. You think because it’s just you talking into a camera, that you can use any mic and light, but when your face looks like a blue cheese and your voice is seemingly coming from the inside of a tin can, you realise that’s not the case. It also helped to see what felt natural and what felt staged, how to do the jump cuts without making it jarring, and what makes for a believable ‘homemade’ effect.”
“You think you can use any mic and light, but when your face looks like a blue cheese and your voice is seemingly coming from the inside of a tin can, you realise that’s not the case…”
James’s aforementioned Girl Number 9 – a dark psychological thriller with a suitably shocking ending – was released in 2009. He feels the UK web series scene has evolved since then. “There have been lots of web series, comedy sketches, experimental stuff, and obviously tons of really talented YouTubers,” he says. “They’ve all had to do it from scratch, without funding (at the start, at least), and they’ve built the UK online scene into a huge, exciting world.”
Discussing his influences for the new series, James mentions lonelygirl15 and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, as well as some of the UK YouTubers he turned to for inspiration: “I chatted with Hazel Hayes who was really encouraging and helpful, and steered me away from a few pitfalls and towards a few shows that would give me a grounding in who was doing what. Her stuff is great, and has developed from vlogs to sketches to short films to documenting her life month by month – the web keeps changing and you clearly have to constantly adapt, which she does brilliantly. I really like Jack Howard’s stuff: his comedy is hilarious but he’s also a really smart vlogger. TomSka’s sketches are so funny and surreal, but he also talks a lot about his life and how he deals with the less fun moments. Hannah Hart is glorious, but you all know that.”
Mina Murray’s Journal launches on 29 September, but so far, one key character has been conspicuously absent from the casting announcements. And James isn’t telling: “As for Dracula, you’ll have to wait and see…”