Recently, TheTalko had the pleasure of chatting with Alex Dobrenko, an actor who created, wrote and starred as one of the main characters, Sam in Distance. Distance is an interactive web series that features separate episodes from each of the main characters’ viewpoints. We chatted with Alex about his latest project and what it was like filming such an innovative series.
TheTalko: You created Distance after experiencing your own long distance relationship, what was that like?
Alex Dobrenko: I was in my own long distance relationship for about three years and so I was in Austin, Texas and my girlfriend was in North Carolina and we’re both now in Los Angeles and once I moved here I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to make something about that experience, to create something around that strange, weird thing that we did. Long distance just fascinates me, the concept, it’s just such an illogical thing to do and yet so many people do it, and why do people do it more now, related to all of the technology that enables us to love somebody across the country? But what does it actually do to that love and how does it change the ways in which we’re able to love? All of that was really interesting for me and they say write what you know and so we wrote this thing and made a pilot of it originally in 2015. That did really well and it was part of South by Southwest and a few other festivals, and that success allowed us to then raise a little bit of money and make the whole season.
TT: What are some of the difficulties couples experience in long distance relationships?
AD: (Laughs) The obvious one is not seeing each other. I think we’re best able to connect with other people in person. You can read what is happening in the other person best and you can feel connected most that way. Long distance pulls that out right from under you so then you’re both kind of always playing detective and trying to figure out what the other person is doing or saying and there’s a lot of hard work there. Obviously, sexually and like, intimacy is near impossible so you have to try to figure out how to do that which one of our episodes covers. Big events like birthdays… it just makes everything difficult. Everything’s a little bit harder. But I would say that because of that people who do long distance end up connecting in a much deeper way because they’re forced to. Because in order to make it work, you have to put it all on the line. You have to put more effort and really do a lot more emotional work … to understand where the other person is and what you’re both feeling at any given time.
TT: That’s a good point. So you’re saying that you have to work harder to make it work whereas if you saw each other every day you might not work as hard on the relationship?
AD: Yeah, you might take things for granted. It’s kind of like an emotional relationship bootcamp.
TT: How does Distance recreate the feelings of being in a long distance relationship? How did you manage to pull that off successfully?
AD: I think that one of the biggest things that we did, and you’ll see this when you watch, is that each episode is split into two parts. His side and her side and the audience gets to pick which side to watch first. I think that experience really highlights how differently we see things and how these two people can go through their own lives… briefly interacting with one another and how those things influence each other. So if you’re having a bad day, how does that influence what could otherwise be a very normal conversation with your partner? So allowing the audience to look at things from both perspectives really puts the audience into each of the character’s shoes and really helps highlight the distance between them. You can really feel it as a result of that.
TT: In your opinion, what makes long distance relationships worth it?
AD: I mean, I think they’re worth it when the person’s worth it. A lot of people have told me “I was in a long distance relationship, it didn’t work …” and it’s like, well, I don’t know if that’s because of the long distance. I think most relationships don’t work out. That’s how they work. But you wouldn’t blame a normal relationship on something not working out. I think that they work when both people want them to work and when both people are ready for them and ready for that kind of commitment. Lauren Wilde, my girlfriend, and I, we started long distance. The first three years of our relationship were long distance and I think that was incredibly helpful for us. I don’t know if we would have made it had we lived in the same city because those were three years when we were both intensely pursuing our own careers and were both being very selfish in terms of what we wanted from our lives and it was really nice to have a partner who cared but wasn’t there so you had to hang out with every day. It’s useful for people who are trying really hard to focus on their own thing.
TT: So you are still with the girlfriend, Lauren, that you started the long distance relationship with. Did Lauren have anything to do with making Distance other than being half of the inspiration for it?
AD: That’s a really good question. Lauren was a huge part of making this show. She was basically our primary producer so that meant she was a big part of everything from scheduling to logistics to cooking all the food. She wore a million different hats. She’s usually a make-up artist but on this, we needed her to kind of be everything and she really was in this amazing way, as well as being emotional support for me and for the whole team.
TT: Did Ashley Rae Spillers, the actress who plays Sam’s counterpart, Emily, consult with Lauren about being in a long distance relationship?
AD: Well, she and Ashley are really good friends. Not just because of Distance but in general, we all hung out a lot. This whole project was made with all of our friends so it really felt like a family in that way.
TT: Did Lauren and Ashley know each other before Distance?
AD: Yeah, Ashley and a lot of the other folks in the cast and the crew, we’re all just really good friends. We hang out a lot and a big part of the inspiration to make this was – how do we make something really cool with all of our friends? We tried to keep that vibe throughout.
TT: How does distance show that (if you can answer without spoiling anything)?
AD: I think we show that through the love that these two characters have. One of the most important things in making this show was to make it real, to make it feel as real as possible and not make it like the picture-perfect ending. It does not end greatly, it doesn’t end badly but it ends in a realistic way and if we can accurately show the highs and the lows of this experience then I think people are left with their own take on who was right, who was wrong and what this all is. The really big goal was to make sure neither character looked like the bad guy. They’re both flawed, real people and that’s the whole thing.
TT: Would you recommend a long distance relationship to anyone you know?
AD: Yeah, I would! I would want to maybe ask them first, “Are you ready [for] a pretty painful time sometimes?” Again, it’s like asking would I recommend a relationship to anyone. I would say the same thing. It’s hard, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Maybe long distance just highlights the difficulties earlier on. If you’re up for a challenge and you really want to see whether you and this person could last a long time, long distance is a great way to figure that out. And also it’s one of those things where it’s never somebody’s first choice. Nobody’s like, man, I wish I could be in one of these. It’s always, well I care about this person and I guess we gotta do it. If you care about the other person enough, it won’t feel like a choice. That’s how it was with Lauren and I. We had hung out for only a couple weeks before doing this. It was like, look, I’m not a big of long distance, neither are you but we don’t want this to stop so let’s give it a shot. I think a big tip would be not to treat it like a monumental, forever thing. Just be like, let’s see how this goes today… and then tomorrow, really taking it day by day and enjoying it as opposed to being like, oh my God, the next five years will be hell! It doesn’t have to be that.
TT: How did you and Lauren meet?
AD: We met on a film called Bloody Homecoming, a horror movie. She was doing the make-up for it and I was acting in it and that’s how we met.
TT: “Two people, Two perspectives, Two directors, One story” is the tag line. If you had to create another tag line with just one phrase that would sum up this very unique film, what would it be?
AD: The one phrase that immediately comes to mind is “Love is hard, distance is harder.” I think that sums it up pretty well.
TT: How did the idea for the interactive, dual-perspective approach come about?
AD: It was really organic. We really wanted to find out how to best represent the two perspectives of these two people and their individual lives. We realized that since this is going to be online, why not just have two different perspectives and two different episodes that represent those perspectives and then we really started to figure out how do we perceive things and how differently can we perceive the same moment? Then we got really excited about taking the same moment and make them look really different based on who the audience is and what they’re going through at any given time. Things grew from there.
TT: Do you expect Distance to go to Netflix or Hulu or any of their competitors?
AD: I hope it does!
TT: We hope so, too! If it does, how is the dual-perspective approach going to be handled?
AD: What’s cool about Netflix and Hulu and all those guys is that they’re doing a lot of the same work. They’re making interactive kids’ shows. They’re just a lot of different things that are very interactive already so I don’t think it would be a far stretch for them to allow this kind of interactivity as well.
TT: Do you expect the interactive, dual-perspective approach to be a trend that takes off?
AD: I hope so. That’d be cool. I think interactive storytelling will become a bigger thing. But I also think it’s important to figure out ways to do it where it never feels like a gimmick, where it always feels like it’s true to the story that you’re telling because I think that audiences can fish out when things feel like things are just there to be different. I think this is decidedly the opposite of that. It’s concept first and then we thought to make it interactive. I do think it will happen. I hope that at least some of them will be actually good.
TT: What elements/characteristics make Sam and Emily relatable characters to people currently going through long distance relationships?
AD: I think the fact that they’re both flawed, funny people who can make each other laugh and who at any given time, can be both loving and irrational and goofy and not perfect. They’re very imperfect, I think that’s what makes them relatable. They are not always in the right. They often don’t do the right thing and I think that’s what makes you really root for them. Sam is very neurotic, very anxious and Emily is very anti-technology and wants to be in the present moment which makes distance very hard.
TT: How important is it for couples in LDRs to set ground rules/expectations before committing to the LDR?
AD: Good question. I wouldn’t say it’s essential to set a lot of ground rules. I think some rules are good, some expectations, but also I would say those things should be set and developed as the relationship develops. It’s less about “Here’s the big plan” but more like, “How are we going to stay communicative and honest as things come up?” You got to start playing the game before you know what some of the rules are. … Honesty is the key of all that. For me and Lauren, it was “How do we stay honest with each other and ultimately, to ourselves?”
TT: Can you give us some good examples of those ground rules/expectations that should be set as the relationship progresses?
AD: Honesty’s the big one. Another one is for when you have visits and see each other to not make them like a super big deal. Don’t make it a whole big thing where you plan every minute. Try to have it be as normal as possible.
TT: Is social media a blessing or a curse (in disguise) for LDRs?
AD: I think the answer’s both just as much as it is in all of our lives. Ultimately, I think we’ll realize that it’s kind of a curse. I think that technology might be a blessing, the ability the video chat, all of that is insane. But social media, I don’t know if that’s doing anybody any favors in terms of long distance because it can only enhance the anxiety and worry. It’s just a cesspool of anxiety really in my humble opinion. And I’m as addicted to it as the next person so I’m not holier than thou about it. I use it and I don’t like how much I use it.
TT: An anonymous quote says, “If you want to live together, you first need to learn how to live apart.” Do you agree?
AD: I like that quote! I agree 100%.
TT: In one scene, Emily is “feeding” Sam cake through her laptop which makes for a very funny scene. In your opinion, how important is it for couples in LDRs to connect through silly, sweet ways like this?
AD: It’s essential. It’s leaning in to the goofiness of what this is as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist and [this scene] is the perfect example. It was based on a moment of when I was on video chat with Lauren and I was whisking up some eggs in a bowl in the kitchen and I wanted to show her that and so I leaned the bowl over so that she could see and obviously it all spilled right onto my computer and she got to see me freak out about that. All that stuff, being silly, being aware of what this is and how weird it is, how insane it is… it’s not the things themselves that connect you, it’s how you both collectively feel about them. It’s the same thing with the “Cyber Sex” episode. They’re doing an incredibly silly weird thing but it can be sexy and it can be intimate, not because of anything that’s happening on each other’s screens but because they’re committing to the vulnerability of doing that together. I think that’s what love really is. It’s far less about what it is that we do and more about the fact that we’re choosing to do it together and risk vulnerability and fear and everything else that you risk when you do those things.
TT: Just for fun, can you tell our readers what book have you re-read most often?
AD: There’s many but one that I want to re-read right now is The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. You should check that out. It’s a real good one.
TT: Alex, thanks so much for talking the time to talk with me. We wish you a lot of luck with Distance! Good luck with everything!
TT: Thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it.