Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures officially opens for business on September 15. TenEighty speaks exclusively to Sophie Newton, Louis Grant and Jamie Swarbrick, more commonly known as ‘Team KickThePJ’, about the highs and lows they faced creating their fantastical world.
While PJ Liguori has long been considered one of the UK YouTube community’s most creative and ambitious stars, his online world wouldn’t be as wild and fruitful without the talented team behind him. Jamie Swarbrick, Louis Grant and Sophie Newton have been PJ’s creative accomplices since they all first met at university, and together have crafted the world that fans have come to know and love.
“We are all insane and can laugh at absolutely nothing, for hours,” says Sophie on the team’s ability to work together.
“We’ve spent so much time together that we have a shorthand of weirdness, stories, in‐jokes, whatever,” says Louis. “It helps to be able to bounce ideas around like that and then collectively filter them into our work.”
This was a trait that came in particularly handy when creating Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures. The six-episode series was the culmination of years of hard work from the group, who collaborated in writing and producing Oscar’s Hotel, starting with the short film of the same name commissioned as part of New Form Digital’s original Incubator series.
After premiering the film at Canada’s Buffer Festival, Oscar’s Hotel piqued the interest of Vimeo On Demand, who then picked it up for a six-episode series for their platform.
“Watching it grow from what it was, to what it is now is a beautiful thing to behold,” says Jamie.
Louis agrees, commenting how the series has allowed them to “delve a little deeper”, but not as deep as he believes it could go. “I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface,” he says. “With a place as mad and eclectic as Oscar’s Hotel, there’s always more that can be explored.”
Despite this, Louis admits that expanding the show from the pilot was tough at first. “There were so many options for where to take the story, and we had to be harsh with ourselves and learn to let a lot of those ideas go if we couldn’t make them fit,” he explains.
Unfortunately, that meant some characters had to hit the cutting room floor. “At one stage we had a group of characters called the Herbs who were lily pads that lost their minds,” adds Sophie. “Man, I miss those guys!”
Sadly, this also included – for the most part – the eponymous Oscar who (like in the short) leaves the hotel in Oliver’s care. “In some of our earliest drafts Oscar himself had more screen time,” reveals Louis. “Eventually we decided that for this season, making the show about Oliver and the situation his uncle leaves him in was the right way to go.”
“I think if we see more of Oscar’s Hotel, I’d love to see more of Oscar,” reflects Louis.
Shooting started in May, spanning a period of 11 days on set in Los Angeles. For the team, this meant growing beyond their tight-knit group in order to ensure their dream world became a reality. “It was both an incredible and damn right challenging experience,” admits Sophie.
“It took a few days into the shoot for the whole big team dynamic to fit, and really get going, but after that we could have just kept shooting forever,” says Jamie. “it was actually a really nice format to work with in the end.”
“We’re used to working with three or four of our friends, so this time it was just like we had 50 more very skilled, passionate and creative friends along for the ride,” says Louis.
Among those ‘skilled, passionate and creative friends’ were the the Jim Henson Creature Shop, whom all three hold in high regard. Coming onto the project as producers, they were responsible for the creation of six groups of creatures that made it into the final show.
“It was as amazing as it sounds!” exclaims Sophie. “Throughout the creature builds they kindly allowed us to work alongside their incredible team. Watching them work and seeing how ridiculously talented they all are made it feel such a privilege to be there. When we found out we were officially collaborating with [them] and they loved the project, I couldn’t believe it.”
“The speed those guys can work at is insane!” adds Louis. “Within half a day of us being there they already had several full‐scale creature mockups built. Watching the characters go from sketches on a page to walking around the workshop floor in the space of a few hours was unreal.
“Working with the Jim Henson Creature Shop team as they took those concept sketches of the Hermit and made them reality, and then seeing Grace Helbig bring life to the character felt like the culmination of a lot of work from many people,” he continues. “Being a part of that was incredibly fulfilling.”
“Picking a favourite character is hard, but I do have a soft spot for the Hermit.” admits Louis “We spent a long time developing her character.”
“I bloody love Octo Chef,” says Sophie. “Mamrie [Hart]’s performance absolutely nailed her character’s attitude especially being in such a hot costume on set of an actual kitchen.”
Sophie also mentions the casting of professional actors such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina and Elliott Gould which, for her, is “still a dream [she] can’t quite believe” yet.
“The Repo Fish are just too good, they’re actually real!… I wonder what they taste like?” asks Jamie.
The scale of the project is a far cry from Sophie’s parents’ basement (where the gang crafted many of PJ’s classics) and the YouTube channel that started it all. (It’s so big, they’ve even got advertisements for it in New York’s Grand Central Station!) So how did they go about ensuring their well-known aesthetic wasn’t affected by their growth in budget?
“By insisting we only ever use cardboard!” laughs Jamie. “I guess we just explained our methodology to everyone who was on the crew and they adapted it how they seemed fit.”
“Everyone respected what we had created in the past and wanted the feel and atmosphere to be similar to that of the pilot and such, which in turn meant carrying over the legacy,” he explains, “but also developing it further to more exciting avenues.”
Together with PJ they’ve created something truly special; something they can all be proud of. And now ‘Team KickThePJ’ are receiving the recognition they deserve. “The scale of this project meant that everyone knew of PJ and his YouTube channel,” admits Sophie. “We had to push harder to make awareness of our hard work as a group who have created, written and produced the show from day one up until the very end.”
So, is this the last we’ll see of Oscar’s Hotel? If the creative team has their way, this is only the beginning. “I’m hoping for Series Two,” says Jamie. “Two, Three, Four, Five, and the final Series Six… and then the movie!”
“Then a Broadway musical,” adds Louis. “And a gritty reboot seven years later.”
“We never had time for Disneyland whilst we were in LA,” says Sophie. “So for that reason alone, I need a Season Two.”
Photos by Embry Lopez and Mark Williams courtesy of New Form Digital.
Oscar’s Hotel is available for streaming via Vimeo On Demand. Click here for more information.
- Filmmaking Q+A at Summer in the City 2015 ft. PJ, Louis, Jamie and Sophie
- 10 Things You Need To Know About Oscars Hotel
- PJ Liguori’s Guide to Getting Creative
For updates follow @TenEightyUK on Twitter or like TenEighty UK on Facebook.