Spotlight Interview with Writer Jesse Dorian ("SVEN")
Before we talk about your latest screenplay, SVEN, we'd like to learn more about your inspiring journey- how did an ex-drug dealer and a community college dropout become a screenwriter, actor, editor, and director?
Okay, well first let me just say-- How dare you. How dare you kick off this interview with such a great question. And the truth is, I was actually a screenwriter, actor, editor, and director before I was ever a drug dealer and a community college dropout... but unfortunately, I had bills that I had to pay on time, and back then I didn’t have the right connections into the industry. In fact, I had even less connections back then, than I do now — if such a thing was even possible. Also, it didn’t help that I lived in Texas, which is where anything that’s too rational or intellectual is told to die. Or at the very least, awarded with a gunshot wound.
Jesse Dorian - Imitate Invertebrate
Alongside writing, you also have a goth-pop music project on the side. What can you tell us about that?
You’re referring to Imitate Invertebrate. It’s a solo music project of mine that I’ve had for years in which I write, compose, and sing everything. For the longest time, I had only been working on this one project. Quite frequently, anytime I would tell someone about my music, and ask if they would let me play for them some of what I was working on, the overall response would be, “Okay. I’ll listen to your shitty little death metal band.” And then afterwards, they were surprised that the music I was working on wasn’t death metal, and then even more surprised that my music wasn’t anywhere near as shitty as they were anticipating.
So, I’ve started working on about 22 songs or something, and have only technically finished two so far — classic ADD amirite? And the two songs that I actually did finish, I had produced in a professional recording studio in San Antonio.
Long story short, I absolutely fucking hated how they turned out but they were both a valid effort. So, I released them as a digital EP but never really told anyone about the EP. I did no promotion for it, but I needed something accessible out there as a point of reference. It’s been 5 years, and it’s something I might as well start telling everyone about now — especially because I’m on the verge of returning to Imitate Invertebrate to at least finish what I started. For now, it’s on Apple Music, Pandora, Spotify, SoundCloud, Youtube.
How do you choose the stories you are going to write about, and where do you find your inspiration?
I would say that traveling has a lot to do with the inspiration behind the settings and environments of where most of my stories take place but not necessarily with the stories themselves. I choose to not write conventional screenplays— I don’t really know exactly what the hell any of them are about until I finish writing the entire story. Then, I take a step back and decide what’s missing, or— what I already included that doesn’t need to be there after all.
I don’t walk in with a plan. Doing that, would suck out what little fun there is to screenwriting. Maybe I already have the ending figured out when I start writing, maybe I don’t. It’s not an excuse for me to be unorganized, it’s an excuse for me to be spontaneous and deliver a story that’s truly different, takes credible risks with its characters, and maybe even does it all with an ending, or resolution that no one will see coming.
How do you deal with writer's block?
I have absolutely no method for dealing with writer’s block. It’s still a total mystery to me and it doesn’t happen to me frequently enough to where I figure that I have to map out exactly how I’m going to deal with it. I’m already too preoccupied with how my brain doesn’t know how to shut up. There’s almost always an internal dialogue going on inside my head that refuses to end. It’s quite annoying, actually.
Brandon Bennett (as Sven), Jesse Dorian behind the scenes of “SVEN” The Internet Series
Now let's dive into your recent work, titled SVEN. Where did the idea for the story come from, and how did you build the unique character of Sven?
There is a long, complicated backstory to the origins of “SVEN.” I came up with the character of Sven about 15 years ago, more or less. As a project, “SVEN” was originally an unscripted internet series I had created and uploaded to Myspace — Yes, I said Myspace, that’s how ancient this is — but then abruptly abandoned before I finished it back in the fall of 2008, so that I could make more money at the time selling weed out of my apartment.
And back then, I was doing — what all community college students from a small town do in their late teens, and early twenties — a lot of drugs, and watching a lot of David Lynch.
But going even further back, in late 2007, I made an experimental short film that served as my final for a technical film class, while at Austin Community College. It was one of the last school projects I worked on before I finally dropped out. A long-time friend of mine since 6th grade, Brandon, played Sven in my college project, and subsequently in the internet series.
Brandon wasn’t a professionally-trained actor at the time but he was, and always has had the potential to be a versatile and unique physical performer. Plus, he’s good at following instructions.
Brandon takes direction extremely well and is incredibly easy to work with. So it made sense at the time to give the character of Sven no dialogue. And it wasn’t until I began outlining some of the ideas for the screenplay in late 2012, that I realized that “SVEN” really was beginning to take on a new identity.
It was beginning to look and feel a lot like a contemporary throwback to classic Universal Studios monsters. And on that note — I think Sven, as a tortured soul, would make the quintessential Universal Studios monster for a contemporary era. An original classic monster for a new generation, if you will.
And in some ways, Sven’s a little bit like the wolfman; and a little bit like Kong. Sven’s also originally from the same general area as the Gill-man from Creature From The Black Lagoon. Except unlike the Gill-man, Sven's not a complete asshole. Sven doesn’t put his hands on women without their consent first; and he has good table manners. Sven has both the etiquette, and the mental capacity to get through an extensive dinner and social outing without ever feeling the urge to strangle and pulverize one of his girlfriend’s parents.
Jesse Dorian “A Close Divide” behind the scenes - May 2011
You managed to build a colorful world, full of mystery and interest around the characters and their background, all while using one location throughout most of the story. What is your creative process like? Do you normally start with the characters?
Back in January and February 2011, I wrote my third feature screenplay, “A Close Divide,” in about 5-6 weeks. “A Close Divide” was supposed to compensate for “Sly,” the second screenplay that I had written. “Sly” was a movie that I really wanted to film. It was going to be my directorial debut. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anywhere near the amount of money that I would’ve needed to make it.
Long story short, “A Close Divide” was the movie I ultimately wound up directing, editing, and co-producing in the summer of 2011. It was a movie that was written entirely within my limitations and within reason of the budget I was going to have to work with. I also starred in the movie as one of the two main leads. The film was never technically released, and it was a troubled production to say the least. It was also the single-most traumatic, negative, most thoroughly discouraging experience of my entire life, and I’m still in therapy because of it… but “A Close Divide” is another story that I’ll save for another day.
The reason I bring up my incomplete film “A Close Divide,” is because when I started writing projects that I knew I wanted to produce myself, instead of starting with the characters, I would initially begin with my limitations. “SVEN” is a special case compared to all of my other scripts. It’s the only original script of mine that I had adapted from an original concept that I had already created, and filmed — or at the very least, started to film.
The idea for Sven wasn’t preplanned. It gradually developed around the limitations that a low-income college student faces when wanting to attempt a film project. The story originally all took place inside my apartment because I didn’t have to consult with anyone to use it as a film set. I could film scenes entirely on my own time, and with no money. Therefore, I produced, directed and filmed all of it using a brand new Sony HDV-FX1 that I had purchased with money I had saved up from multiple low wage jobs. This was back when filming in high definition still meant filming with mini DV tapes. And then, I edited the first few episodes using iMovie at the time because that’s how minimal the whole production was.
I also composed all of the music for the “SVEN” 2008 internet series using a KORG Triton synthesizer that I had purchased back in high school, using most of the money that I had earned scrubbing dishes in the back of a restaurant for a year and a half. Again, an advanced piece of equipment for its time— but in this era? It’s hard to believe how much you could really utilize all of it if you were both driven and persistent.
I also had a pet emperor scorpion, named Precious, who died in- between filming that same year, and a 2nd emperor scorpion, named Lilian— which would somewhat influence the project, and eventually go on to become the name of the human character in the feature script for “SVEN.” Also, in the beginning, the entire production of “SVEN” in 2008 was just Brandon in-front of the camera and me behind the camera.
Later that same year, I asked Sara, a friend of an ex-roommate of mine, if she would like to participate as a new character. And then, after Sara was on-board as Lilian, I inevitably would’ve played the character of Michael on-camera, while someone else could be behind the camera. Because none of the series was scripted, and characters weren’t to have entire conversations — since Sven had no dialogue — only monologues, this made it particularly easy for us to just make shit up as we all went along, and not have to memorize dialogue word- for-word.
SVEN is undoubtedly an original and special story, not only because of the conflict between a human character and a 6-foot-tall humanoid primate, called Sven. You used the cinematic medium differently than most full-length screenplays. Most of the plot takes place in one location, the apartment where Sven, Michael, and Lilian are "imprisoned". It is not easy to keep the reader in suspense for a long time, in one location and with only three characters, and yet, you succeeded in the task! How did this choice help you build the story, and on the other hand, what were the challenges?
What I think Is one of this screenplay’s greatest strengths, and I think it’s one that others would agree with, is its simplicity in execution; its audacity to be brief, even at feature length. One of the biggest criticisms that I’ve been receiving about “SVEN” through countless film festival submissions involving industry feedback is— it’s too short. And most of the judges who feel that “SVEN” is too short, their overall constructive solution to this “problem” is— to make the story longer by complicating the shit out of it, and by answering questions that the script raises, that I don’t particularly believe need answering, at least in this installment. The way that I set “SVEN” up, and the way that I structure the story in the end, is intentional. It’s meant to “appear” small in-scope.
I’m genuinely flattered that anybody— whether it be a casual reader/filmgoer, or even an industry feedback judge— would want to know more about “SVEN,” the character of Sven and his origins, and the logistics of the world around him… but that’s what sequels and spinoffs are for. It’s like, can’t I just start with something small, please? And if enough people respond to it positively, and they dig that aesthetic and concept on a small scale, then by all means, we can take the continuation of the story, and go much bigger next time— in Sven’s origin story, and in the sequels, which would probably answer and cover most of the other things that the audience wanted to know about Sven, Lilian, and her father, Dr. Farnsworth. And I’ll be the first one to admit, “SVEN” is an ideal concept for both sci-fi world-building, and horror franchising. I am aware.
Without giving away spoilers, can you give us some background on this experiment that led to Michael and Sven sharing the same apartment?
So here’s the situation— Sven is inside this habitat, and replica of an everyday apartment involuntarily, and Michael is there voluntarily. They are both technically prisoners, sure. But Michael at least has an idea of what he’s gotten himself into. It is implied that Michael is informed beforehand, that once he goes in, he can’t come out until the experiment ends. However, what I do make clear, is that Michael is an addict that is being exploited. He’s there voluntarily in-exchange for an unlimited daily supply of his “fix.” But what Michael doesn’t take into consideration beforehand, is that he probably won’t make it out alive.
The overall purpose of the “experiment” has nothing to do with Michael, nor does the outcome of his fate matter to the architects of the experiment. The focus is not on him; Michael is a pawn. The focus is on Sven. The “experiment” is all about provoking Sven, and pushing Sven to some kind of breaking point. Because Sven is a “potentially dangerous” species that we still don’t quite understand.
From the moment we’re introduced to Michael, we instinctively know that he’s going to break down. Just like anybody else would, if they were in the same situation. Michael may be a monster, figuratively— but in reality, he’s human whereas Sven, is not.
Another challenge is the dialogue in the story. For almost the entire story, the only one who speaks is Michael. At some point, the fact that Sven understands him but doesn't answer him drives him crazy, and he loses control. Can you share with us the construction of Michael's long monologues? Were there moments when Sven's silence annoyed you too?
No. Because Sven is not perpetuating the dilemma that both he and Michael are in. Sven is not interested in provoking anyone directly. Sven is not driven by ego; he doesn’t care about being famous. Sven is a gentle creature, until he isn’t. Just like the rest of us.
And it would be typical for someone to identify with Michael over Sven, not because Michael is a despicable person, but because he is a human being. And how normal is it for a human being to be loud, obnoxious, aggressive, misogynistic, manipulative, violent, and hateful, for no other reason aside from the fact that that’s simply how they cope with their own existence? They instigate when they’re irritated, they troll when they’re bored. They’re looking for a fight. They’re desperately alpha. What other animal on earth hunts other animals for sport— just to immediately post a selfie afterwards with their prey on Instagram, to show off to all of their followers that their mental stability only comes 2nd to killing shit that isn’t them…?
So depending on what side of the coin you really see yourself on, will determine whether you see Michael’s behavior as justified or not.
Sara Cummings (as Lilian), Jesse Dorian behind the scenes of “SVEN” The Internet Series 2008
For much of the script, Michael talks to Sven, but Sven never responds, so Michael's character ends up driving the plot forward - with one long monologue at a time. What inspired this decision?
I’m really glad you asked this question. And again, this all goes back to being inspired entirely by the limitations that Brandon, Sara, and myself had while filming the internet series back in 2008.
Michael is clearly an extrovert that is trapped in an introvert’s world. Whether he’s talking directly to another person, talking to another living creature, talking to himself, or talking to the wall, he’s going to talk. A lot. And if the audience doesn’t like it, they can get up and leave. Michael is still going to talk too much, and Sven is still going to be trapped inside the habitat with him.
And relevant to the question, another common criticism I’ve been receiving amongst my screenplays is that some of my scenes are “too dialogue-heavy” and that I should “show, not tell” so much… but seriously, it’s 100% intentional. And it’s not just an excuse for me to lazily take a few exposition dumps on top of the heads of everyone in the audience… it’s so that there’s room for the actors to shine, and deliver something that renders their role in the film as an actual performance. Because, you know, this is a movie after all. And I think that the actors should be allowed to participate in the narrative as well. And I’m not knocking on visual storytelling in the sense of “show, don’t tell,” it’s like, okay. I get it. I definitely think there’s a time and a place for it.
And so, going back to Michael… I think that Michael doing all of the talking for a majority of the film not only serves occasionally as an internal dialogue for the audience, but also fills in some of the missing pieces of the story, as we learn about it from Michael’s perspective. And what we don’t learn from Michael verbally, we learn from Sven visually. And this is how the story unfolds, without it seeming like I’m just taking a massive exposition dump all over everyone.
The story has many moments that make the reader feel uncomfortable, mainly because of Michael's violent behavior towards Sven. Where did the inspiration for writing the character of Michael come from, and what messages did you want to convey through his fascinating character?
I think what makes Michael not just such an effective villain, but an effective character in-general, is that we’ve all met somebody like Michael: someone who becomes way too comfortable, way too fast, and has complete disregard for the comfortability and well-being of those around him. He’s the epitome of selfishness.
Michael’s someone who might be somewhat tolerable if he were working alongside you, in close proximity at a 9-5 job… but if you were trapped inside a habitat with him for weeks, and then months on end, it would be a completely different story. And once he begins to show his true colors, there’s no painting back over them. It’s simply who he is, and he’s completely indifferent to how it makes others feel, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And the fact that Michael’s an addict, is irrelevant to him being a bad person. Michael is a victim too. And the unspecified drug that he’s addicted to, is the sole component that is single-handedly keeping him from breaking down while in-confinement, much sooner.
Brandon Bennett (as Sven) in “SVEN” The Internet Series
Throughout the many conflicts between Michael and Sven, Michael seems to be the aggressor, but Sven does not respond to him, not just verbally. He manages to contain Michael's violence even when he goes down really low and humiliates him. Why doesn't Sven actually defend himself and Lilian?
The reason Sven never bothers to defend himself is because Sven never actually feels threatened by Michael. He’s obviously not afraid of Michael.
And when you refer to “Lilian,” I assume you’re referring to the scorpion, and not Lilian, the daughter of Dr. Farnsworth. Michael only “assumes” that the scorpion’s name is Lilian but Sven never actually confirms this. However, Lilian Farnsworth, is not actually ever inside the habitat with Sven and Michael. Sven is using his memories of Lilian, and projecting them as fantasies within the habitat, as a way to help him maintain his own sanity in isolation; it’s what keeps him going, and it’s what gives him hope.
But Sven does indeed, have a breaking point. It’s not until Michael maliciously destroys the one thing inside the apartment/habitat that Sven truly loves and cares about, does Sven actually feel threatened. And then in a matter of seconds, that’s when Sven goes from zero to a hundred as he proceeds to “defend himself” from Michael.
Brandon Bennett (as Sven), Sara Cummings (as Lilian) “SVEN” The Internet Series 2008
At some point, Michael calls Sven "a monster", but it seems like the real monster is Michael, who does literally anything to make Sven fight him. The more aggressive Michael becomes, the more the reader connects with Sven's character, and wants him to get out safely from the encounter with the crazy person in the room with him. What message were you hoping to convey to the reader?
When I first started playing the character Michael in the “SVEN” 2008 internet series, I had no plans of making him so horrific. I mean, Michael was always supposed to be a villain but it wasn’t until I first started writing the screenplay way back in 2012, that he became what he is now. Unfortunately, back then I had to be intoxicated at the time of writing the first draft to even begin to fictionalize what makes the character so repulsive. To this day, there are certain sections of this screenplay that I still hate reading back to myself; the dialogue makes my skin crawl to the point of where I have to question if there’s something seriously wrong with me because I’m the one who wrote it… but then I remember, “oh yeah, it’s only a movie.”
What's next for the screenplay, and what's next for you?
Okay. So now, I’m going to tell you how I really feel… of all of the screenplays that I have in competition right now, “SVEN” to me, is clearly the most bankable. I think “SVEN” is the screenplay I have that would appeal to studio execs the most. It has a clear hero, and a clear villain. The opportunities to expand on the story and lore of Sven and the chilamasman species— in future installments, prequels, side stories and spinoffs amongst multiple mediums including mainstream theatrical releases/content for streaming services, miniseries, graphic novels, comic books, video games— seems quite limitless. As a mainstream theatrical feature, it would probably only cost about $10 million to produce, if that. A $10 million price tag, in order to help secure the casting of an A-lister for the supporting role of Dr. Stephen Farnsworth. And then, I can only imagine what would, or could happen with the story afterwards.
But all ambitious speculation aside… what’s next for “SVEN” is anyone’s guess. And for me? First thing’s first — I need the best representation I can possibly get. My endgame in all of this… is to return to acting. I love acting in front of the camera. I would give up everything just to act. Thankfully, I’m an actor that can also write all of their own material if they have to. I know my characters pretty well now. And without question, I should probably play Michael in the feature-film version of “SVEN.” The person that I am today, could knock it out of the park tomorrow. Also because Michael is a fun character to play.
Where can our readers follow more of your work?
At the moment, I’m sort of a minimalist. I haven’t been a part of social media for most of the past decade really, but that’s all about to change, I guess.
For now you can find links to a selection of my projects at linktr.ee/jessedorian
Also, for now, I’m allowing the first two chapters of “SVEN” The Internet Series 2008 to be on YouTube but they’re currently unlisted. Here are the links if anyone’s curious to what those were like:
SVEN CH I: https://youtu.be/y7M304wFS1A
SVEN CH II: https://youtu.be/CxsfMWG7AvE