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Home Film Writer/director Mario Miscione on Dark/Web, Circle and more – Exclusive Interview

Writer/director Mario Miscione on Dark/Web, Circle and more – Exclusive Interview

by Conor O'Brien

Mario Miscione is an experienced writer/director who has helped produce several memorable projects. With Aaron Hann, Mario co-created The Vault, a web series centred on contestants of a futuristic game show. The series aired for sixteen episodes between 2011 and 2014.

Following this, Mario and Aaron Hann co-wrote/co-directed the Netflix psychological horror-thriller film Circle, which was released in 2015. The film stars a large ensemble cast including Julie Benz, Carter Jenkins and Michael Nardelli and has since become a simulator on Brantsteele.

Currently, Mario is an Executive Producer of Dark/Web, a horror-thriller television series airing on Amazon and starring Michael Nardelli, Brian Elerding, Sibongile Mlambo and Noemi Gonzalez, among others.

Thank you Mario for taking the time to chat with Courageous Nerd.

Circle – Netflix (2015)

You co-created The Vault, a 16-episode web series on YouTube. The show aired between 2011 and 2014. What was the initial inspiration for that idea?

Mario Miscione (MM): I moved to Los Angeles after college to pursue filmmaking, and I am a firm believer that it’s much easier to get noticed in this industry if you actually make a film yourself, vs writing a script and hoping someone high up decides to greenlight it. A mutual friend put me in touch with Aaron Hann, who was also looking to create something, and we took stock of what would be feasible for two guys with no budget.

We knew we absolutely had to have a simple set and a small number of cast on set at any given time. We also knew that in order for us to make it feel professionally made, we had to keep it manageable in terms of locations, camera movements, etc. So really THE VAULT was born out of those parameters. We developed a concept that would meet all our low budget requirements, and once we had that we began building out the world. It was a challenge for us to come up with creative solutions to having no money, but I think those sort of challenges end up growing your creativity, anyway. We took on all of the crew roles ourselves. We built the sets, rigged the lighting, manned the camera, edited, designed sound and effects…  everything. It was a massive learning curve but hugely beneficial for future projects.

Very few characters in The Vault are given a name or a different one from their portrayer. How did you find the more prominent cast members for the series?

MM: We thought it would be simpler remembering characters based on their rooms vs their names. Characters that spend more time in the spotlight almost always eventually reveal their names and become more fully fleshed out characters, but in terms of an audience keeping track, it felt better to just use the room names like “trash guy,” etc. You also have characters like “the King,” where we felt it made more sense for him to just stick with his title, since it was such a large part of his persona. 

Most of the main cast was found via friends and friends of friends and in the first few eps were mostly done as favors to us or people willing to work just to build out their reels. We also filled a few roles on Craig’s List (back in the day!). Luckily we were able to get a budget pretty quickly and pay everyone, at which time it became more of a widely cast “casting” net, where we’d post looking for people, or have names recommended to us.

Mark Cuban was an Executive Producer of The Vault. To what extent did his backing benefit the show?

MM: Mark’s backing was a huge benefit. Aaron reached out to him with our pilot and production strategy early on in the process, as we were figuring out how we could possibly continue with the show, and he was gracious enough to invest in us. His backing allowed us to move the set out of my living room (where it had been for months) and into a small warehouse. It also allowed us to expand the scope of the show, compensate actors, and finish all 16+ episodes the way we wanted to. 

There are not many flashbacks to the characters’ lives before the show. Did you put any thought into this or just decide to focus on their present circumstances?

MM: In the Vault, all the characters are chosen because they’ve displayed something that the producers felt would benefit the game (and in turn, the show they were airing on their network). We wanted those characteristics to reveal themselves as you learn about the characters within the context of the game. Things like the “mail room” helped fill in further, but we always wanted to keep the story in the vault with no flashbacks to outside (save for the finale episodes). This was also a budgetary concern; keeping the show contained made it more manageable for our two person crew.

So our solution was to keep flashbacks for very important moments in the “mythology” of the Vault… Mainly Henry’s qualifying round and a conversation between the producers as the show is running. That helped make them feel more important, I think.

As a writer, did you map out the whole storyline at the beginning? Or were you and Aaron Hann surprised by the direction that it ended up going in?

MM: We had the broad beats of the storyline mapped out from the beginning. I actually have a document we created when we were just starting to develop the storyline of the show and the finale always centered around escaping the vault and discovering the twist about the world outside. To us that was more interesting than making the finale about winning a prize, and I think it leaves our characters in a more interesting position than “it was all fake!” would have. What did the vault teach them that can be applied to this new world? What does it say about entertainment that this craven cash grab may have been the only thing that saved these kids lives?

More specific beats definitely evolved over time, characters were added and cut, moments were changed, etc. I think you have to be flexible and adaptable when you’re creating something like this, for sure, and open to changes for sure, but definitely the big picture stuff was always there and always in our mind as we broke out the plot.

In your film CIRCLE on Netflix, there are 50 characters from the beginning. How did you determine which ones would be important and who would be killed early?

MM: Circle at its core is a film is about people, and as such we developed it around the characters first and the setting second. We had a massive list of characters of all types and walks of life and we slowly narrowed that list down to our final 50. Then, we looked at the perspectives and issues these people would bring to our circle, and began mapping out how these conversations would go and how we would flow from one to another. It starts to become a web, where character A would feel strongly about Issue 1, but differently on Issue 2, etc, so that was kind of fun to play out and see where people might fall and how alliances might form.

In terms of the deaths, some characters existed because we wanted to explore a particular issue, and other characters existed because we wanted to explore a particular plot issue about the world the characters find themselves in. Often those people’s biggest narrative purpose was to die. Like the woman who steps out of her circle at the opening of the film or the man with the plan who gets killed just when he’s about to step up to be a leader. We wanted to show the rules of the game and reinforce that no one was safe. Some characters had opportunities for great backstories and died too soon, which we felt was reflective of how real life is. So many people don’t get to tell their stories or make their cases for themselves in real life. Sometimes they’re judged based on very little, like superficial characteristics or our own personal biases. 

We knew that we would have key characters make it very far and others we could interchange death orders for without adversely affecting the story we wanted to tell. In fact, we had one actor who had to leave the shoot a few days early to care for a sick friend, which was a problem because we were filming in chronological order. So we sat down and adjusted the kill order and a bit of dialogue so that her character died sooner and another character took her place. It ended up working well, luckily.

CIRCLE combines recognisable faces, such as Julie Benz and Carter Jenkins, with lesser-known actors. In the case of the more familiar actors did you reach out with the script or did they audition?

MM: Every film does this differently but in our case, we had connections with these actors who we loved and we reached out to with the script, met with them and discussed our vision for the film and the characters we hoped they’d play and asked them to come on board. We were incredibly lucky that they agreed to join our cast and believed in the strange little movie we were making.

In the film, there is a twist involving Michael Nardelli’s character. As he is also a producer, did Michael choose that role for himself or was that decision written in after he came onboard?

MM: We always considered the possibility of Michael playing a role in the circle but we didn’t actually decide which character that might be until well into the casting process. The decision was made by us; our producer team was always great about letting us make our own creative decisions and make the film we wanted to make. Again, we were pretty fortunate on that front because a lot of first time directors are overruled by their producers on all sorts of decisions. That was never the case with us, luckily.

In your newer show DARK/WEB, actors from THE VAULT and CIRCLE make appearances. How beneficial has it been to have somewhat of a repertory cast to appear in each of your projects?

MM: It’s great. I think whenever you start a new project with a new cast, there’s always going to be a period of acclimation and getting to know each other and how you work. When you bring back people you’ve already worked with, there’s an immediate shorthand that is nice. If you’re lucky, many shoots (despite the stress and long hours) end up feeling like a very intense summer camp with good friends and when it’s over you miss the people you’ve spent the last few weeks working tirelessly with.

It’s great when you have the opportunity to get some of those old friends back together again. Plus, the presence of people you know can make an intimidating new shoot slightly less so. I also believe strongly in highlighting talented indie actors, so I’m happy to give roles to actors who have proven they know their craft and are good collaborators. You want to surround yourself with people who believe in what you’re doing as much as you do.

Unlike THE VAULT and CIRCLE, Aaron Hann is not involved with DARK/WEB. After having a writing partner for so long, how was the process of doing something independently?

MM: While I was working on VAULT and CIRCLE with Aaron, I was always writing solo things, I was just never really in a position to produce them. Collaborating on a project can be a lot of fun, I also collaborated on certain scripts for DARK/WEB with Michael Nardelli (co-creator of DARK/WEB and producer on CIRCLE) and that was great. It can also be motivating, because you don’t want to let your partner down. For me, it was definitely always my goal to branch out and tell my own stories, and so that’s my focus now. Solo writing, like collaborations, has its pros and cons. On the one hand, I can write literally whatever I want, without having to pitch someone else on it. On the other, you are beholden to no one else, which can often lead to procrastination and questioning the quality of your own writing. For DARK/WEB, I was solo writer for the anthology episode TRANSPLANT (in Ep 4) and in some ways that was the best of both worlds: I was motivated because I was collaborating with the producers on DARK/WEB for my segment, but I was the solo writer so I was able to also just focus on writing and delivering something that worked for me.

How would you pitch DARK/WEB to someone who hasn’t watched it?

MM: In the near future, the evolution of the internet has given way to a world where everyone is connected but no one is safe. Cyber analyst Molly Solis understood these dangers better than anyone and was determined to make a difference… until she disappeared. Now, friends and foes from her past are in a race against time to decipher cryptic messages she’s left behind; tales that paint a grim picture of technology run amok. As the mystery deepens, they’ll discover the stories, and Molly herself, may be concealing information that could change the world… or destroy it.

One of my favorite aspects of DARK/WEB is its structure: It utilizes a unique story within a story format, with each episode telling a standalone “dark web-centric” tale, strung together by a serialized, season-long narrative surrounding the origin of the mysterious stories. Each anthology segment tackles a different danger of the tech age, inspired by real life dark web occurrences and the modern-day dangers of an “always connected” world. Behind the scenes, I’m also proud to say it’s one of the first independently produced seasons of television in history and highlights the voices and contributions of a wide variety of indie filmmakers, writers, and fan-favorite genre actors.

Aside from DARK/WEB, are there any other projects that you have in the works or want to promote?

MM: I was fortunate enough to co-write a horror feature set in a 1970’s migrant farming community that was sold and is in production right now (after COVID delays). It’s being produced by some pretty well known companies, but I can’t really get ahead of that announcement so that’s all I can say currently. Hoping we’ll see that release in 2021 on streaming platforms.

I’m also shopping around a TV series I developed with Roxy Shih, one of our DARK/WEB directors and I’m in development on a few different ideas including a feature, another series and a narrative podcast I hope to begin recording this fall. One thing I’ve learned is that when you’re an indie filmmaker, it can be hard to predict what project may get the go ahead next, so I’m trying to use this time to develop several ideas across several platforms and hope one or more of them can find a home soon!

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