Given the sheer proliferation of web-based content in the past few of years, it’s slightly surprising that the majority of offerings still adhere to a similar narrative and aesthetic rubric. Where straightforward, punch-line driven, comedic vignettes remain king, a handful of outliers are looking to stretch the internet audiences’ comfort zones, namely Doron Max Hagay and Lily Marotta’s Monica. Inspired by Monica Lewinsky’s 2001 decamp to the Big Apple, Monica is by turns thoughtful and biting in its sideways glance at our nation’s most unjustly derided intern. With as many hard facts as gleeful re-imaginings, Monica offers the kind of high-concept rewrite to a former media mishandling that the internet can’t seem to get enough of. With the second season of Monica now online, I spoke to writer-director-producer Hagay and lead actress-producer-writer Marotta about the second season, period pieces on a budget, and whether people should pay for web series.
The first season of Monica took a handful of cues from a 2001 New York Magazine profile of Ms. Lewinsky from back in 2001, but you’ve taken more creative license with this second season. What kind of research, if any, goes into your writing process? Lily, how did you prepare for the role?
Doron: These episodes pick up where the first season left off—that is right before Monica takes the stage to do the documentary Monica in Black and White. In these new episodes, we go back in time to the day Monica was apprehended by the FBI, which she was legally not allowed to talk about as part of her immunity agreement. She talks about this in the documentary, which is partially the subject of the show, but also a huge part of the research for the show. It’s devastating because had she been treated properly and legally her life wouldn’t have been hijacked the way it was. I read a really great essay about this by Renata Adler called “Decoding the Starr Report” that will scandalize the hell out of anyone who reads it.
Lily: Preparing for the role of Monica in these new episodes I revisited Monica in Black and White; her biography, Monica’s Story, by Andrew Morton; and the Linda Tripp phone calls. I wanted to remind myself of her vulnerability and the naivete that was used against her by the media as well as players in the scandal. Watching her Tom Green episode, filmed around 2001, was a nice reminder that she is silly, playful and wants to be included in the joke. Costume shopping was a huge aspect of getting into character as well. At times while I was shopping I truly felt as though I was her! I would find a cute cropped blazer and it felt like a win for Mon and I wanted to treat myself to a cupcake after!
The show features its fair share of comedians and has a particular brand of humor but I wouldn’t describe it as an out and out comedy. What are some of your tonal influences in skirting the line between satire and drama?
Doron: For me it all goes back to Todd Haynes’s Superstar. Dealing with Monica Lewinsky as a subject is tricky because people have denied her the complexity that all human beings are owed. I think the same probably could’ve been said for Karen Carpenter at the time that Todd Haynes made his film. It was always my goal to create something that surprised people with its sincere treatment of a person who has never been given enough credit. The humor comes from a place of darkness and sadness and confusion and absurdity, like all the stuff I love and watch.
Lily: I am definitely of the Joan Rivers mindset—to get through darkness you need comedy. In hindsight nothing is funnier to me then the embarrassingly low moments in life, like when I had to loudly beg my BFF inside a Panera to pay off my Kohl’s credit card so I could go buy more costumes. From what I’ve read, Monica appreciates camp and wanted humor to surround her life post-scandal—going to to drag bingo and being best friends with fabulous Alan Cumming! So this was important to keep in mind.
Most people are probably well aware that it’s hard to make a period piece on a budget. What were some of your work-arounds for portraying the early aughts?
Doron: We had a lot of fun playing with older phones and computers. That said the best we could do with no budget was try not to be careless and have fun with cheap details. Lily did a great job with wardrobe.
Lily: In the early aughts, flares and wide legs were all the rage with hardly a skinny jean in sight! I basically bought the most 2001-02 outfits I could find at return policy-friendly department stores, with a few vintage pieces—like Doron’s gorgeous Real Monica Inc. handbag—and custom items thrown in. Pieces like cropped blazers, charm necklaces, layered tanks, ponchos, and faux Burberry were key items that we stocked up on.
We’ve spoken about the challenges of releasing a web series that doesn’t consist of “standalone” episodes, and instead relies more on the audience’s desire to follow a narrative arc (like real TV). Was there a particular reason you decided to take this approach to the story in lieu of a more sketch-friendly option?
Doron: I have no idea why I continued to write a narrative that demands commitment instead of sketch, which is highly consumable and can be enjoyed in a state of REM. I hope that people are able to extract certain strains of nuance that would otherwise be lost if this were less story-driven and more vignette-y.
So far you’ve released three episodes of the second season, and six from the first. Are there more on the horizon?
Doron: The second season functions as a short second act. It would be great to see it through to the third act, which would probably consist of three more episodes.
Lily: I love all the characters that live inside her world, it would be amazing to close it out… ahem financiers.
Finally, should people pay for web series?
Doron: I’m so used to giving everything I make away for free. I think had Lily and I invested a lot of money in the show we would ask people to pay, but because the show was made for no budget it feels all right to give it away for free. We’re still actively finding our audience and I think part of that means not creating barriers like paywalls or charging.
Lily: I would be too afraid of losing any possible fans!!