On the set of the ‘Veronica Mars’ movie

LOS ANGELES — Veronica Mars is back at work, against all odds, doing the job she gave up years ago, in a project that has no business existing under any of the rules by which we understand Hollywood.
It”s a scorching day in an industrial section of downtown LA, and Veronica herself, in the form of the pocket-sized Kristen Bell, has her telephoto lens out, reluctantly plying her trade as a private detective for the first time since the end of the low-rated TV show that bore her name, and now as part of the “Veronica Mars” movie that was improbably funded by that show”s fans.
This is day 3 of the Film Shoot Brought to You By Kickstarter, a crazy idea dreamed up by the show”s creator Rob Thomas, who co-wrote and is directing the movie. $5.7 million crowdfunded dollars later, Bell is back in character, performing surveillance on Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter, reprising her role from season 2 of the series), who is at the center of the film”s big mystery.
Ivan Askwith, associate producer and the point man for social media related to both the film and the Kickstarter that is funding it, goggles at the idea that they are here, and under these circumstances.
“These people gave money to a movie that didn”t even exist yet,” he observes.
The movie very much exists at this moment, though – and everyone involved is deeply grateful to the audience that made it so.
The scenes being filmed today don”t feature the bulk of the movie”s cast – only Bell, Ritter and Martin Starr (playing Cobb Cobbler, a Neptune High alum we”ve never met before) are scheduled to work today among the film”s major players – and only have a bit of the sardonic banter that Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero have brought from the show to this new incarnation. But they feature Veronica back at work, and once again finding ways to be more clever and resourceful than her wealthier opponents.
It”s a practical location, with Bell working on the rooftop of one building while Ritter is in an industrial loft set across the street. Thomas is on Bell”s side of the street, sporting a WWVMD – What Would Veronica Mars Do? – bracelet that was given to him by a fan he met outside the parking lot. They”ve been lingering around this and the locations of previous days, hoping for a glimpse of Bell, or Jason Dohring, or any of the other stars of the mid-’00s teen drama.
Bell, who had plenty of experience handling a camera in the UPN and CW days, is concerned that she aim it at just the right angle, and while Thomas and director of photography Ben Kutchins discuss this and other matters related to the blinding sunlight, Bell”s attention is drawn to Milo, a white terrier mix who belongs to the building”s manager.
“Is he friendly?” she asks, running over to hug and pet him. She”s not as overcome with emotion as she might be if Milo were a sloth, but it”s nonetheless an adorable scene as Milo licks her face and she says, “Oh, thank you, buddy!” in the same tone of voice Veronica used with her beloved pooch Backup.
There”s a strange sense of life imitating art imitating life throughout the day. While Thomas films Bell filming Ritter, a documentary crew – making one of the many rewards for Kickstarter backers, a film that”s as much about the campaign as it is a making-of piece – is busy filming all of them. At one point, Thomas and the other producers will pause to study a mock Entertainment Weekly cover featuring one of their characters that will look not too dissimilar from a real one featuring Bell and Dohring that will be published much closer to the film”s March 14 release date.
Throughout the day, Askwith is taking pictures to send to the film”s Instagram account, and everyone has fan outreach on their minds. Thomas and producer Joel Silver had tried for years to talk Warner Bros. into making a follow-up movie, without any interest. The Kickstarter campaign not only provided the great majority of the film”s budget (Warner Bros. would later kick in some cash to handle fulfillment of the Kickstarter rewards, and to pay for a few reshoots), but demonstrated that there was, in fact, a lot of very active and vocal love for what was perennially one of TV”s lowest-rated series during its three seasons on the air. At every opportunity, Askwith or someone else in production is trying to find ways to communicate with the fans, keep them posted on filming and generally keep thanking them for making this all possible. One of the director”s chairs arrived with Dohring”s name misspelled, and a new one was ordered; the plan is for him to sign both and sell them for charity.
Comedy veteran Dave “Gruber” Allen swings by to play one of Cobb”s neighbors. It”s a double reunion with Starr, since they worked together on “Freaks and Geeks” and then teamed for a memorable episode of Thomas” brilliant-but-canceled Starz comedy “Party Down.” Almost instantly, Allen has Starr cracking up between takes, and seeing him makes Starr nostalgic for his last collaboration with Thomas. Soon, he”s talking about the best way to get a “Party Down” revival, which has come close a few times in the past without ever materializing. Between the possibilities opened up by Kickstarter and Netflix”s deal to revive “Arrested Development,” Starr is convinced there”s a way Thomas can make it work, if they can just figure out the logistics of it.
But that”s a dream to be considered on a different day. Right now, everyone is basking in the dream they have improbably brought into being.
“It”s one of the reasons I love working with Rob,” says Dan Etheridge, one of Thomas” long-time producing partners, who worked on the show and returned for the movie. “I”ve had him come to me a number of times during our ten years together and say, ‘Hey, what if we shoot ‘Party Down” in our backyard?” And lo and behold, it”s a series. So when he told me about the Kickstarter, it was like, ‘If anybody can do it, it”s him.” So of course we jumped right in and went for it. But I tell you there were dark times in that stretch over the last year where many people would have given up and it really looked dark and he did not. And that was a tough row to hoe.”

The campaign cleared its initial funding goal within its first 12 hours, and it became clear soon after that it would make enough money that Thomas wouldn”t have to shoot the bare-bones, locked room mystery version of the story he had as a default. But as the numbers kept going up – the campaign eventually cleared $5.7 million – it was up to the production team to figure out how to get everyone they wanted to sign a contract and find room in their schedule during the brief window when Bell would be free after the birth of her daughter and before she had to return to production on Showtime”s “House of Lies.”
“It was scary,” says Etheridge, “but there were more leaps of faith taken in that two month period just before and right after Kickstarter by Warner Bros., by Rob, by some of the actors involved. Normally you”re so bogged down working out contracts, and we got to a moment where everybody decided, ‘Let”s just leap off the cliff and hope that we land together.” And we did. So there was some serendipity at work. There was only so much deal making that could be done before Kickstarter, you know. Most of it just had to be after. But we knew that people who were in the show, really liked being in the show, really wanted to be in the movie and we tried to tuck it in after the TV season. And then we just got lucky.”
Ritter, for instance, got a part in Tim Burton”s “Big Eyes,” and the production schedules overlapped to the point that it didn”t look like she might be able to reprise her role as Gia. (Thomas jokes that he had another “Party Down” alum, Lizzy Caplan, on speed dial in the event Ritter had to bolt.)
“It was a real nail biter for a minute,” recalls Ritter, “because I really wanted to, of course, be a part of the movie. I didn't want to be the only one out.”
Given the haste with which this all had to be done, as well as the fans” desire to see all of their “Veronica” favorites back in the movie, it would have been very easy for any of the actors to try for a bigger salary than the production could provide.
“We couldn”t have afforded to be jacked up,” says Etheridge, “So it”s great that no one tried. And it”s wonderful that that goodwill from the show still existed all these years later.”
It”s a day more about technical challenges then acting or scripting ones – getting Veronica”s camera movements just right, quickly transforming the same rooftop into the window of Cobb Cobbler”s apartment – but all of the series” alums have that same sense of slipping back into familiar roles.
“It feels real,” marvels producer Danielle Stodyk, another longtime Thomas collaborator. “It feels right.”
It is, like every day of the 23-day production, a long one, and Bell disappears at every opportunity to spend time with her daughter. During the post-midnight “dinner” break, Starr recalls following the Kickstarter campaign online during its first day.
“A couple of hours into it,” he says, “someone tweeted at me that it would make them happy if I was a part of the movie. So I tweeted that at both Rob and Kristen, and they got back to me separately. Kristen said, ‘Keep your summer free,” and Rob said, ‘I think we have something in mind for you. I didn”t take it very seriously until it actually happened.”
Ritter joins him, and as they banter about the many sins committed by her character on the short-lived “Don”t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23,” Starr confesses that he never saw that show.
“I realized I just never paid my cable bill and so I didn”t get to watch it,” he insists.
Ritter isn”t having it, pointing out, “It”s not on cable. It”s free television.”
He tries to deflect by saying of the cancellation, “They cut the Bitch, huh?”
“Yeah, they killed the Bitch,” she tells him. “The Bitch is dead. Ding dong.”
The subject returns to Starr getting to be part of the “Veronica Mars” world, and how he knows so many of the people, through “Party Down” and elsewhere, even though he was never on the original series.
“It”s such a beautiful experience working with your friends,” he says. “It”s such a wonderful luxury that we have in this industry that most people never really get to experience. So I take full advantage of it every time I have the opportunity.”
But it turns out that “Don”t Trust the Bitch” isn”t the only show involving a new co-worker that Starr has never seen.
“I still haven”t seen a full episode” of “Veronica Mars,” he admits, to mock horror from Ritter, who is waving at him to give a different answer. (“Oh, no,” she cries. “I wish I could telepathically tell you to say yes!”)
“I”ve watched a third of the way through the pilot,” he adds, trying to dig out of the hole. “It”s great.”
At this point, the only people awake in this neighborhood are the small cast and crew, this writer, and a pair of fans who have been hanging around the set for the last hour.
“I was hoping to meet Kristen Bell, and I got a photo with her. Mission accomplished,” says Lauren Sierra, who contributed $25 to the Kickstarter campaign.
“I”m a broke college student,” she says apologetically. “It was all I could do.”
And this is the point of it all: a project loved so much by the people who made it that all would drop what they were doing for this reunion, and one so beloved by the people who watched it that they would – even a broke college student like Lauren – give their own money to a movie that didn”t exist yet.
And now it”s almost here.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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