Etai Shuchatowitz is a Yeshiva University graduate who works in computers and is passionate about movies, TV, and theater. This month he released the first episode of Untold Genius, a web series he is co-producing. The Observer sat down with Etai to learn about the show and the process its production entailed.
Miriam Pearl Klahr: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Etai Shuchatowitz: I grew up in Boston Massachusetts (and actually Boston–none of this “I’m from Boston but actually I’m from Newton or Sharon or Brookline or somewhere else that isn’t really Boston”) and went to Maimonides School for elementary through high school. From there I made my way to YU and studied math and philosophy before graduating last May. And now I work in the exciting and sexy field of software engineering where I work for a subsidiary of Disney on their forthcoming video streaming platform. I really cannot emphasize how exciting and sexy sitting at a computer and programming for eight and a half hours a day is.
MPK: When did you become interested in writing and producing a TV show?
ES:While looking at my educational background might not reveal that I’ve always wanted to be a screenwriter and/or comedy writer, that’s really my secret-not-so-secret passion. I’ve been writing movies and TV since I was ten, making sketch comedy for a really long time and back in high school I also made a pilot for a show that was terrible and nobody will ever see. So, I guess Untold Genius is just the natural extension for somebody who’s wanted to do this for his entire life finally getting out of school and having an income and a little bit of time.
MPK: What is Untold Genius about?
ES: Untold Genius is a ten episode mockumentary wherein each week documentarian Art Fisher tells stories of fallen stars; people really prolific in their field who fell from grace for some reason. However, throughout the course of the ten episodes things devolve and we slowly pull the curtain back to learn more about Art and the people behind the “dockumentary,” revealing more nefarious and disturbing goings on than might appear from the outset. But, I swear it’s a really silly comedy.
MPK: What led to the idea for this show?
ES: The idea for Untold Genius came from a few places. Firstly, I had just watched a show called Review (which everybody should watch) which did something similar, playing in the sandbox of sketch comedy before revealing its more pathos driven narrative, a comedic technique I had never seen before. Secondly, doing documentary felt feasible. Unlike a lot of other ambitious projects I have written, this one actually felt like something I–somebody with limited experience– could pull off. Finally, I like playing in the world of genre or sensationalism. I like poking fun at the various tropes and themes of very self-serious work. I thought it might be really funny and/or interesting to have a documentarian who is always on the wrong side of every issue, but uses the very modern weapon of editing to make it seem like he’s in the right. These are very modern tactics and the line between sincerity and irony is an incredibly thin one (and in fact, while we are poking at Ken Burns style, I personally love Ken Burns), but that was kind of the world I wanted to explore.
For some reason I think arrogant stupid people–people who couldn’t be more assured and convinced in their ways while saying inane and silly things–are really funny. So, to build a show off of that was exciting.
MPK: Did your YU experience and/or career influence your writing at all?
ES: I had three incredible experiences at YU that I will forever be grateful for. The first was that in my sophomore year a play I had written called I’ll Be Right Here was produced by YCDS. That was the first time ever that a full thing I had written was taken, produced and received by an audience, which is insane. To have people take your work seriously when you’re a silly twenty-one year old kid convinced he knows more than he does, is gratifying and really helps the old self-confidence. I wrote that play when I was sixteen and to watch it come to life five years later was one of those oh, this is worth it kind of moments. Also through that I met my current creative partner, Moshe Lobel,who has been just a force of nature on that project and this one.
The second was that in my sophomore year I was also the Editor-in-Chief of The Quipster, a satirical paper for the YU student body. Now, we were not well received. People didn’t read what we put out, and those who read it hated it (which was an interesting experience on its own, but that’s for a different conversation). But, we were just given total freedom. We could do whatever we wanted. We published recaps of the TV show Lost written ten years after the show had aired, written from the perspective of a guy going through a really bitter divorce. Our investigative journalist was an 80 year old woman named Bertha showing signs of early dementia. We devoted an entire week to President Joel’s retirement, claiming that he was retiring because “President Joel might be a bird”. It was bizarre and alienating and I loved doing it because of the total creative freedom we had.
The third was that my senior thesis was a play about math and philosophy. It was tremendous to be mentored by the awesome Professor Will Lee, who read every draft, commented on every line and gave me invaluable feedback and literature to explore. I wish I had more to say about this other than that it was awesome and anybody even slightly thinking about writing a thesis should do it. Really, I cannot stress this enough.
MPK: Your YCDS play was a drama. Untold Genius is a comedy. Along with all of your creative projects, you studied Math and Philosophy as an undergraduate. Do you think that your different projects draw from all of these influences? Or is there a separation in your interests?
ES: People ask this and I wish I had a cool answer about patterns and meaning and stories or some other nonsense, but truthfully they really do feel like different interests and modes of thinking. I think everybody has different interests and likes and dislikes–somebody studying physics can love Proust or he or she could hate Proust. A dancer could make a killer lasagna. And maybe I’m being too superficial and there really is some underlying link to my childhood or something like that, and I secretly just want my dad who loves comedy and math to love me–but I don’t think so. I think it’s just different things that I like doing.
MPK: What other writing influences do you have?
ES: In terms of storycraft I draw heavily from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth which lays out the architecture of myth and how stories work. I am a pretty staunch believer in three act structure (beginning, middle and end) and those classic ideas. I draw heavily from 20th century drama like Arthur Miller or Clifford Odets, with attention given to real psychoanalytic character stuff. Finally, I love Edgar Wright movies, The Simpsons and Arrested Development.
MPK: Turning back to Untold Genius, how did you find and recruit actors for the show?
ES: We first drew from the well of people we knew. So, my partner in this, Moshe, plays a role, and the director of the YCDS play, Lin Snider, plays a role. It was really fun also to cast Jon Schapiro who is not an actor and is an actual jazz musician and teacher at YU as the “Jazz Scholar”. Then, for the rest of the roles we went online to a website called Backstage where we posted the casting announcement and sifted through hundreds of headshots and reels, which is an experience I don’t wish upon my worst enemy. It’s super weird.
MPK: What were some challenges you encountered when planning and shooting the show?
ES: Um…everything was a challenge. Nothing was easy with this because nobody involved had ever filmed something like this. We didn’t know how to light a shot and we were just flying by the seat of our pants every single day of shooting. In fact, I bought lights just for this and started watching YouTube videos about how to light a documentary shot. Our main character in this episode is a trumpet player, but our trumpet prop didn’t arrive in time and so we had to quickly rewrite the script day-of as our actor just waited in my living room. And then editing was a nightmare because we had to learn Premiere and Photoshop because we didn’t have money to pay anybody to do this stuff. We shot everything back in August, had our first cut by mid-September and it was terrible. We had to just rewrite like 70% of the episode in the edit room and it took us until now to actually release the darn thing. I don’t know why I’m saying all of this. It’s not reflecting very well on the show…It’s great. I swear.
MPK: Your first episode is launching on Monday, February 26. Any plans for the next episode?
ES: That really depends on viewers like you. We have ten episodes written and ready to go. And it’s a full story that has a beginning, middle and end. But, episode one cost me personally a bunch of money and I can’t afford to do the rest of the show like that, so we’re turning to Kickstarter and our friends and family (and Observer readers) who like the show to help us make it come to life. So, please do watch the first episode, and if you like what you see and can afford it, please do toss us a couple of shekels and I’ll be eternally grateful (and there are some rewards through Kickstarter in there for you if you do).
MPK: What is your ultimate goal for the show?
ES: If you ask me when I’m feeling really good about myself and optimistic, I would say, “Yeah, the show takes off and people like it and then we get hired to go make more cool stuff and life is awesome and just gives me whatever I want!!” But, realistically (and a much healthier attitude) is that I just want to tell this story. This was a story I was excited to write when nobody was asking for it. It’s a story I was excited to tell people about when they didn’t want to listen. And it’s a story I’m excited to bring to the screen, regardless of whether anybody sees it or not. I truly do believe that doing things that matter to you, even if they matter to nobody else, are worthwhile. And while that’s a nice sentiment to close out my proverbial YA novel about finding yourself –it’s really hard to actually believe, especially when something that took a tremendous amount of work and excitement just falls upon deaf ears, but I find being so goal oriented distracting and I’m trying to get better at just appreciating this for whatever this is. God, I sound like such a pretentious snob. It’s a silly comedy! I swear!