“I think finding something that’s universal [is important], and finding things that tap into people’s emotions.” NICOLE FEENSTRA
Teetering between all-too-real and hilariously absurd, Broken Hearts Division is an online series that follows hell-bent Los Angeles cop Officer Mack Merriweather [Nicole Feenstra] as she tackles issues in romance that range from age-old to modern (see episodes 3 and 4: Failure to Commit and Online Dating Fraud, just to name a few.) Feenstra, who also created and wrote the series, is a Texas-born actress and writer who broke into the industry as a writer for Cartoon Network and for the weekly Improv Olympic show, Big News, just after graduating from USC. We chatted with Feenstra on the phone about her process of bringing the show’s memorable characters to life, the creative control of producing a series for the web, and what she would say to someone who is looking to create their own work online. Listen in…
Cailin: I have to tell you, we watched the whole series together this morning at Starbucks. One earbud in my ear, one in Hannah’s. We loved it!
Nicole: Aww, thank you! That’s sweet.
Hannah: When I first read the description for the series, I didn’t know what to expect, but it really is unique and funny. You wrote it, star in it – where did the idea for the series come from?
Nicole: Broken hearts. You know, I’ve always sort of fancied myself a couchside therapist. Plus I love Law & Order, so… that happy medium I think was sort of the original kernel of the idea.
Cailin: Was there anyone that you knew who inspired the humor and the attitude of Officer Mack?
Nicole: Hmm… you know, she’s probably a version of me! [laughs] I think she’s a bull in a china shop. I think that, ultimately, she’s sort of a creation of a lot of people I know, who… who am I kidding – it’s totally me! [all laugh] I don’t tackle water bottles, but people will say that I will go after things. There’s a little of her in me and me in her. I think it’s probably a modification. I’ve never tackled anybody! It’s definitely inspired by Inspector Clouseau [The Pink Panther]. He’s sort of a bumbling detective. I’ve always liked people, and especially characters, who are very convinced of things and sort of charge ahead without a lot of knowledge. There’s an adage that’s called “Ready, Fire, Aim”. Sometimes you just sort of go for it, and I think this character is somebody who believes passionately in righting wrongs that she sees perpetrated on people.
Cailin: She’s that part of all of us who wishes we were bold enough to act on how we are feeling and what we want to do.
Nicole: Absolutely! The wonderful thing about getting to write is, I don’t know if you have ever been in this situation where you are like Oh, god! I wanted to tell that person this thing!
Hannah: Yeah, of course!
Nicole: And the great thing about writing is that you get to write those things down!
Hannah: Cailin and I were joking – we all probably want this division to exist, but then we’d all be in jail, right?
Nicole: You know, it’s funny because I was like, Why couldn’t this department exist? You know, when I was pitching the show to a couple of people, my friend said, you know, this is an absurd show. I said, well, why would you say that? They said, “Because you can’t call the Los Angeles Police Department and actually get the Broken Hearts Division!” I’m like, “Well, it should be a real division!” He’s like, “Well, it’s not.” And that went back and forth for about a minute. And then I realized, Oh! This is a bit absurd. I’ve been compared to absurd shows like Baskets, which is Zach Galifianakis’ show, which I think is lovely. I’m like, yeah! I’m on board with being absurd.
Cailin: One of the benefits of living in the digital age, I think, for filmmakers and actors is that you can use the internet to gain an audience for your own work, while you are also out there doing TV and film the “old-fashioned” way. What would you say to someone who is looking to create their own content online…
Hannah: …and doesn’t know where to start?
Nicole: I think writing a good story that people can get behind – I mean, for me, one of the things with Broken Hearts is that everybody’s had one. Somebody asked me the question, “How many broken hearts do you think there are in the world?”, and I guess the answer would be every human has had a broken heart! So I think finding something that’s universal [is important], and finding things that tap into people’s emotions. I think comedy tends to be better for online, if you’re going to do something digital. Unless it’s like a thriller and it sucks you in. But I think people are used to seeing ridiculous videos on YouTube, so crafting a narrative around things that are funny is good, and following a character that we can get behind. And keeping the location small – you know, when we were shooting, in the original script I had a very specific location that I had written. It was downstairs in the LAPD, in the basement next to the boiler room, the door to the men’s bathroom hits her desk every time the guys leave… I was like, I think this is going to be a really hard location to find. And potentially very expensive. And we found, literally, a janitor’s closet at our production offices, and I was like, it’s perfect. It’s narrow, it’s cramped, it’s awkward, it’s the worst possible place you can have an office. It’s perfect. So I think finding locations that are easy to come by. You know, I think writing to a budget is a really important thing. Not trying to craft massive car chases unless you’re planning on doing them in a ridiculous way, on a green screen. I think writing to the medium is important, something that’s doable. There’s so many stories to be told.
Cailin: I’m just assuming you served as head casting for the show, too. Did you?
Nicole: You know, it’s interesting – I have a casting director friend who helped me cast the pilot. And then she helped with a character or two in the season. But we did cast a lot from people we knew, or people we tangentially knew, just because when you get on set, you do want to kind of have a familiarity with people. But yeah, I did. [laughs] I will always hire a casting person from here on out. It was a lot of hats to wear.
Cailin: As the writer, did you have somebody in mind for each character before they were chosen? And I know you said you cast from people you knew…or was it the other way around where the characterization was inspired by the personalities of the people you already knew you wanted to work with?
Nicole: Ooh, that’s a good question. I had a visual for each of the people. Like, when I wrote it I had a visual, like this person is sort of thin…you know, I had sort of an energy vibe for each of the characters. But what was interesting was because we were working so quickly, we really cast off of tape, so I really have to hand it to my cast, because… we had shot the pilot a year before, and then I was using that to crowdfund, ‘cause we crowdfunded for the budget. And so we shot the pilot about a year and change before we shot the season, so the people we brought into the season for episode 2-6 were able to see what we had shot for the pilot. So they were able to get a sense of tone, but watching it and then knowing the dynamics of a working set… I really have to hand it to them, because they all jumped in with such gusto. And trying to figure out that tone, because it is sort of absurd energy-wise, it was an interesting thing as a creator to learn how to describe tone for a piece. Because people don’t know what’s in your brain unless you communicate it! We had worked, for the most part, with the same crew: same director, same DP, same producer, from the pilot to the season, so we had kind of a working look marked at the pilot. You know, my director had done a pass at the script right before we went into production, and I feel like even that kind of crafted it a little bit. And, you know, directors often want to have their stamp on it. Scott Rodgers, the director, had that – I feel like he was able to put a bit of a stamp on the tone for the piece. And even our editors brought something to it that was so magical. So it’s an interesting thing to see how each of the players along the path view what you write with their energy and creativity, and their voice. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything serialized, or bigger than a short.
Hannah: Do you already have more episodes written?
Nicole: I have the bones of probably ten more cases, and at least four seasons.
Hannah: Oh, wow!
Nicole: Yeah! As far as themes that I want to cover. So this season’s theme is a little but of hiding your true identity. Right? It’s like, not quite being upfront with who you are, and representing yourself inappropriately, or erroneously. You know, you guys know some of the cases. They’re not really being honest with who they are. They’re hiding their identity. There’s other themes like power dynamics, how people play in power dynamics in relationships.
Hannah: That would be interesting. You left us hanging, we want to see more of Mack and Brad as partners!
Nicole: Good! Did you feel like you guys saw a case that rung the most true for you? I’m always curious which ones ring truest for people.
Cailin: I feel like the first one, with the text. It’s crazy how people send such important messages via text. You can’t even call! Just showing no regard whatsoever for the relationship, by just ending it with a text like that.
Hannah: The show reminds me of something I’d see on Inside Amy Schumer, or SNL. Is bringing the show to TV the goal, or do you prefer the creative control of doing it as a web series?
Nicole: Ask me that once I’ve been greenlit at a studio, or a network! I mean, obviously it would be nice to have a proper budget that you would get at a studio or a network like Comedy Central, of IFC, Adult Swim, Netflix, Amazon, Starz… those are all places where I would see it landing. Adult Swim, specifically, has a lot of really absurd content, which is great. They’re sort of a natural progression to take it from these shorter time frames to make it something that’s more like a 22 minute. And I’ve definitely crafted what the world would look like expanded into more of a half hour. I think originally when I created the idea is was very procedural. Very much like Law & Order. You have a cold open, we come upon the problem, we address the perp, and then we name the case. So in every procedural, it will take you from point A to, say, point C. It won’t take you from A to Z. So it won’t take you from, here’s the crime happening, to here they are in jail, after jail, whatever. So whether it’s Law & Order or any of the NCISs, sometimes it’ll take you from finding the crime scene to a guilty verdict, not even in a court, just finding the perpetrator. Sometimes it’ll take you from the perpetrator is already in custody, all the way through the legal system, through the courts. So this sort of just takes us from here’s the problem, and here’s the case as we see it. Right? ‘Cause nobody’s heard of these love crimes. So that’s how I had originally seen it, as procedural in nature, because I love cases. And I feel like there are, much like Law & Order, unlimited love crime cases.
Hannah: Oh yeah, definitely.
Nicole: Unlimited! But people like to follow characters, so expanding a little more of the character development of the players that we have: Officer Mack, Brad Honeycutt the internal affairs officer, Jerry the Janitor, Officer Carla… expanding some of their backstories, and how they fit into this world of the brokenhearted. How were they broken, how did they try and fix things. And we really like playing with this idea of black and white: in the legal system, there’s a right and wrong way to do things. In the affairs of the heart, there’s a lot of grey, and that’s probably why I’ve never been able to prosecute these things! [laughs] But there is this wonderful confluence between the grey of the heart and all of the machinations that happen within love, and on your way to love, and being brokenhearted, and mending and fixing. And then also these cops! That was the world that I’ve been excited to play in, is bumping these two things up. My director said, you know, “How do you lasso the river?” Right? The river moves the way it moves. How are you going to lock it down?
You can keep up with Nicole Fenestra on Instagram, and follow the latest on Broken Hearts Division on www.brokenheartsdivision.com.