Q&A du C-U: Paul Karpenko

“Wins and Needles”
An interview with Paul Karpenko on the Web series RE-ELECTION

by Jason Pankoke

Every now and then, a past participant in the Champaign-Urbana film culture reconnects with our fair twin cities in the present, often for the sake of sharing their work or knowledge accumulated in the world at large with our friends and neighbors. We at C-U Blogfidential get a kick out of witnessing these individuals cross paths, today’s keepers of the cinema flame interacting with relative strangers who stood in their shoes and on our soil 10, 15, 20 years prior. As an example, the Illini Film & Video student organization at the University of Illinois occasionally mingles with club alumni from whom they can learn about the various and valid directions young people can take in production, encouraging those who are serious about pursuing it outside the classroom.

Paul Karpenko, a 2005 UIUC graduate who earned his B.S. in Mathematics/Computer Science with a Minor in Cinema Studies, has been regularly updating his IFV successors about a current project called RE-ELECTION. The pilot episode, originally produced in mid-2013, concentrates on barely-awake intern Jamie (Amber Rivera) as she crunches numbers during a losing Election Day fated to repeat a la GROUNDHOG DAY. At the conclusion of one cycle, Jamie notices an incoming vote count from one district slightly different than before. It is implied she could potentially “move the needle” and break the repetition, but to what end? Can she convince her campaign team to turn their lethargy into victory for incumbent Mayor Sandy Reynolds (Shawna Pardo) or will they hit road blocks at every potential turn for the better?

Thanks to a successful crowdfunding drive engineered by co-writer Evan McNamara, co-producer Paris Tanaka, and co-everything Karpenko, five new Webisodes were filmed in summer 2014 and will appear at the RE-ELECTION YouTube channel with the second due to go live next week. Completely produced in Los Angeles, RE-ELECTION is the first SoCal movie endeavor for the series creator since he and set photographer Jennifer Wiley relocated from Chicago in 2011. Previously, the duo made a science-fiction short entitled WHITE ELEPHANT featuring Bryan Gleason as “Nate,” a man in a war-torn metropolis who reluctantly harnesses great power with the amulet around his neck; Wiley appears as his shock-haired adversary, “Zee,” and Windy City locales provide the appropriate texture.

Karpenko’s “dream has always been to make films” apart from his professional trade as a Web developer, per his portfolio Web site, and certainly this notion held true during his UIUC education. Born in Minsk, Republic of Belarus, and raised in the Boston, Massachusetts area, he immersed himself in IFV activity once living in the C-U and stood out from the underclass masses due to his lanky frame, dark dress, quick staccato delivery, and ever-present drag on a cigarette. Karpenko made two dark comedies with fellow student Rory Cleveland, ONE DAY’S HELL and ANOTHER DAY’S HELL, as well as the “assassination game” action parody ASSASSINS. [See our previous post about that “H2Opus.” – ed.] He also played the semi-heroic lead “Casey” in the campus monster mash, THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY, and a small but pivotal role as Daily Illini reporter “Miles” in the stylish paranormal tale, TRIAD. We’re sure there’s more out there with his imprint.

The ever-busy Karpenko agreed to chat with CUBlog about his recent life and times, specifically the process and near-pitfalls in producing the low-budget RE-ELECTION in a region relatively new to him.

Read on, MacDuff…

C-U Blogfidential: We’re happy you found some time to talk with us about your continuing adventures in film, Paul! How has life been treating you since migrating from Chicagoland to California?

Paul Karpenko: First of all, thanks for taking the time to interview me! I’m really excited to be connecting back with my Champaign-Urbana roots. Is the Blind Pig still around?

CUBlog: Yes, it is! In fact, we now have two. The second is a brewpub.

PK: I often wish I was at the Blind Pig…

California is pretty great! It’s a fantastical wonderland where the sun shines bright and you’re free to leave the house during winter. The traffic makes you wish for death a lot of the time, unfortunately, but I’m lucky enough to work from home.

CUBlog: What kind of work are you doing in a professional capacity?

PK: I’m continuing to work as a Web developer to pay the bills and developing my filmmaking projects on the side. This is not an entirely uncommon arrangement around here.

CUBlog: Most recently, you introduced the time-bending series RE-ELECTION through an 11-minute pilot, now deemed Episode 1, which can be watched on-line. How did you come up with the concept?

PK: I came up with the idea for RE-ELECTION by cross-referencing ideas I’m interested in and actively trying not to do something that’s a take-off or parody of any currently popular tropes [such as] vampires, Steampunk, wacky roommates…

So, I wrote down stuff I like thinking about, for example, “acquisition of experience,” “consensus-building,” “creative blockage,” et cetera. From that, it seemed like I wanted to make a story about small “p” politics and learning from your mistakes, so the mayoral campaign time-loop angle kind of sprang naturally from my list.

Once I had a solid concept down, I linked up with Evan McNamara, a writer whom I’d met at a networking event. Evan was really interested and ultimately became my co-writer for the project. I’d also met Paris Tanaka, who became our producer. And thus, the core team was born!

CUBlog: Is the personnel of RE-ELECTION all based in California?

PK: Yes. We’re a real, albeit tiny, Hollywood production! I hired a DP [director of photography] – the terrific Justin Aguirre – who brought in his own crew including a gaffer, grip, and assistant camera operator. We have an assistant director for scheduling and cracking the whip on set, a make-up artist, me as the director, Paris as producer, Evan as co-writer, et cetera. It’s pretty exciting, really. I had to keep myself from freaking out the first two days we were shooting the pilot because all I could think was, “This is my fantasy camp!”

CUBlog: You survived Kickstarter to help foot the bill for several additional episodes of RE-ELECTION. What was the approach managing your campaign this time versus for the pilot, and ultimately how well did you do?

PK: I’d shot zero-budge before and I knew the limitations that came with that. So, for this project, I wanted to make it look as close to a real show or film as we could. And for that, we’d need some semi-serious cash.

We financed the pilot completely out of pocket. Most of the money came from me along with some generous contributions from Evan and Paris, [the latter] who was also kind enough to take on craft services and feed everyone during the pilot shoot. We knew it’d be tough to run a Kickstarter no matter what, especially without a built-in fan base or any kind of recognizable name attached [to the project], so we definitely wanted the pilot episode to show people [our capabilities].

I expected running the campaign to be difficult, and it was more difficult than I expected. It was a second full-time job for both me and my girlfriend, Jennifer [Wiley], who helped out immeasurably. It’s easy to think that, once launched, a campaign will just run itself; you need only ask anybody who’s ever done a public radio fund drive to learn how wrong that is. Your “idle” state for 30 days is asking anyone and everyone for contributions and that’s when you don’t have something else to do like Photoshop banners, Facebook content, reward media, tweeting/posting/e-mailing about the campaign, and so on. There is at least eight hours of work to do every day!

Our goal was $25,000. In the end, we surpassed that by about $1,600 and couldn’t be happier about the outcome as well as the fact that it was over.

CUBlog: RE-ELECTION the series wrapped a couple of months ago. Did all your principal cast and crew return?

PK: Thankfully, yes, the entire cast and core members of the crew were able to return! We had a bit of a scare because our lead actress, Amber Rivera, moved to Puerto Rico after filming the pilot. We very nearly had a pretty big wrench in the machine to deal with. Luckily, she was happy to come back for the shoot and it all worked out.

CUBlog: How many episodes were produced?

PK: We’d calculated that $25,000 would let us make four more with a total of five, including the pilot. When I went through the scripts, though, I decided that I really wanted to get Episode 6 in there. It has a pretty satisfying cliffhanger that could serve as a season finale. I kicked in a little bit more money, we tightened up some of the scripts, and ultimately we made it happen!

We filmed five new episodes [and] I feel like we have a solid season. The story and characters are developed, stuff happens, and you’re left wanting more in the end. I’ll also say that pretty much everything is better about the new episodes versus the pilot. The pacing is tighter, the look is more polished, the camera work is more dynamic, and so on. We really tried to improve on every aspect.

CUBlog: When and where will the new episodes be available for viewing?

PK: We’re in post-production right now – editing, writing music, et cetera – and we’ll be premiering the first new episode on Tuesday, November 4Election Day! We’ll then follow up with another episode every two weeks.

CUBlog: Previous to RE-ELECTION, you produced a post-apocalyptic short called WHITE ELEPHANT involving a man and a powerful amulet. It looks like it might have been your swan song project while still in Chicago. How did this film come about?

PK: WHITE ELEPHANT was a lot of fun and came about because Jennifer, who plays “Zee,” bought the jacket she wears in the short. I saw the jacket and joked, “Now, you just need a giant sci-fi gun to go with it!” So, I built her one. I don’t know whether it’s unusual for a wardrobe-and-props choice to catalyze a project, but that’s what happened.

Once I decided that I wanted to make a short film around these things, I thought it would work to piggyback off a very quick-and-dirty video I made a year prior called THE AMULET that was essentially just an alley chase. I ended up holding auditions for the cannibal thug roles, which prepared me somewhat for the far more extensive audition process on RE-ELECTION, and shooting in two really cool Chicago area locations.

The abandoned train track chase was shot on the Bloomingdale Trail, a closed-off, miles-long stretch of elevated tracks that crosses the city. I think it’s going to be developed into a public space like The High Line in New York City, so it was cool to use it while it was still in its dilapidated state. The second half of the film was shot in the abandoned Wyman-Gordon Power Plant in Dixmoor, Illinois. That location is not going anywhere any time soon.

While my friend Bryan Gleason, who also played the male lead “Nate,” wrote the music, I edited the film and did all the effects in about a six-month period. WHITE ELEPHANT was very much a swan song for us as we finalized our move to Los Angeles.

CUBlog: Where has WHITE ELEPHANT played?

PK: I’d submitted it to a few festivals and it screened at the Los Angeles International Underground Film Festival. I was living in L.A. by then so I attended and did a Q&A [question-and-answer session]. It was an awesome way to kick off my L.A. experience!

CUBlog: Can you describe briefly the similarities and differences in the independent films you produce today versus your student and just-out-of-college films? In what ways have you changed as a writer and filmmaker?

PK: Well, I’d say the quality has certainly improved! At the same time, though, I’m currently not able to devote the kind of time to filmmaking that I feel is necessary to really excel creatively and professionally. Like any other endeavor, “success” is a product of talent, dedication, and time, not to mention connecting with the right people to help in your development. It takes a really long time and a lot of films/videos/shorts to even get to the point where you’re executing anything resembling a true “vision.”

As a cohesive work, WHITE ELEPHANT was better than anything I made in college and RE-ELECTION is better than WHITE ELEPHANT. But, I’m still quite far from the kind of confidence and directorial insight that come from hitting one’s creative stride. It helps to work with talented people, however, and I’m happy to say that I’m constantly blown away by the level of talent we have on RE-ELECTION. All our actors, as well as Justin and the crew, are so incredibly professional. Working with people like that is really conducive for making the kinds of leaps in my experience that I know I need to make.

Adam Savage, the MythBuster, said a wonderful thing during one of his presentations, that he constantly engages in tasks outside his area of expertise and works on them at least long enough to understand what it would take to become an expert in that field. I feel like that very much reflects my view of filmmaking. I want to keep doing it and get better at least long enough to understand what it would take for me to become truly good. At that point, I’d probably reevaluate and see if I want to keep at it.

CUBlog: And, finally, we’ve been dying to ask you this pertinent question going back to earlier days at the University of Illinois and with Illini Film & Video – did anyone win the game of ASSASSINS?

PK: Why you, the audience, of course! I can see my next Kickstarter campaign now, ASSASSINS: H2O2

Did you know ASSASSINS is available on YouTube? It’s true! Watch it drunk with your friends!


Interview conducted April 4 and September 10, 2014, via e-mail.

CUBlog EXTRA! Interview No.11 © 2014 Jason Pankoke

RE-ELECTION photos: Jennifer Wiley Photography/
courtesy Paul Karpenko

WHITE ELEPHANT photos: courtesy Paul Karpenko

Back to the fore, MacDuff…

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