Dixi: Interview: Dan Berlinka

Dixi Orange BackgroundDan Berlinka is a writer, director and producer who began his TV career as a producer at the (then) World Wrestling Federation. More recent credits include Hollyoaks, Thunderbirds Are Go (ITV), Hank Zipzer (Kindle/CBBC), The Sparticle Mystery series 3 (Sparticle Productions/CBBC), and Shaun The Sheep (Aardman/CBBC), as well as being the head writer, producer and director of CBBC’s first online drama commission Dixi (Kindle/CBBC), for which he won a Best Original Interactive Children’s BAFTA award 2014. Shortly before Dixi 2 launched he chatted with Paul Simpson…

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Have you been involved with Dixi from the start?

Yes and no. Kindle Entertainment came up with the original idea which became the basic plot of series 1: a girl’s social media profile is hacked and she sets out to find out whodunit. They pitched it around, and the BBC liked it and developed it as a TV property originally. Controller of CBBC Cheryl Taylor, said she liked it, but thought they should be doing it on the web. She wanted to do an interactive drama. At that point, they had a writer they’d been working with who had been developing it as a comedy drama format. It had gone through a couple of iterations – half hour and fifteen minutes – but when he was asked about developing it again at three minutes, for the web, and making it interactive, he felt it was time to move on, as he was about to start another job.

Dixi 1I bumped into Anne Brogan from Kindle at a Christmas party who said they were doing a web series. She told me a little bit about it, and it sounded really interesting. The next day I met with Executive Producer Melanie Stokes who told me a little bit more; it was just one of those ‘right place, right time’ things. Everything that I had been doing up to that point put me in the right frame of mind, and my kids were the right age, and I was watching their online behaviour. That’s when I came on board to develop it as a three minute format. My immediate thought was that we should build a fictitious social network, tell the story as posts by the characters, so it’s all self-shot. It all went from there

Series 1 covered the hacking but for Series 2 you’re going into The Cabin in the Woods territory – to an extent…

To an extent, yes. How do you do a sequel to a whodunit? There’s a reason why Poirot and Marple don’t go back to the same place: you need new suspects.

GirlsWe had a challenge: we had these characters who our audience had really grown to love, so we wanted to bring them back, but we couldn’t do the same story again. Early last year we were talking about a sequel and we knew we’d need to bring in new characters. April Hughes, who plays Mimi, had jokingly said in one of the last scenes that we shot for series 1, “What if they all go on a field trip in the next series?” That was in my head and I suddenly thought, “Chain messages! We could do something about a curse, because we could play that out quite well and there’s an internet safety story to be told there.”

That’s in our DNA: it’s not that we sit down and make a list of internet safety points and then craft our story, but we get some of our money from BBC Learning and it’s part of what we do. It was around the time that I was getting annoyed with my grown-up Facebook friends posting that ‘I want to stay privately connected but because Facebook has changed their settings, I’m making a Geneva Declaration…’ and I’d been sitting there posting links to Snopes.

So we thought of doing a story about not believing everything you see on the internet. We were also thinking about how younger kids can get freaked out – I started reading a story about two 14 year old girls who attacked a classmate to make Slenderman appear, and lots of other creepy stuff, and I thought there was a Dixi story there to do.

It reminds me of the old R.L. Stine teen horror books.

Absolutely. We’ve talked about Goosebumps a lot, mostly when we were getting notes saying that it was too scary! We were saying it’s not that scary, but you never know. Different kids are scared by different things. I grew up on horror films in the early Eighties, the video nasty boom, so I was watching all of that stuff and reading Fangoria as a teen, so it’s important to have different people in the team with different sensitivities.

We went back and added more Scooby Doo style music to some of the scenes just to keep the tone a bit lighter. When we used really scary music, then it was scary. You can change the tone a lot.

harmonyI was quite surprised by the Buffy references given that that show is 15 years old now!

That came very much from my daughter – about three years ago she discovered Buffy on Netflix and bingewatched it and wouldn’t stop going on about it. I’ve barely seen it, but the other writers (Nina Metivier, Jessica & Henrietta Ashworth) are all big Buffy fans. I wrote the line for Mimi complaining that she’d been compared with Harmony (right) when she was clearly Buffy – and I didn’t put Harmony originally, because I didn’t know the characters that well. My daughter said, no, it would have said she was Harmony. Nina , who aside from being a writer is also the co-producer and a major Buffy fan, came in and had exactly the same note, but thanks to my daughter I’d already changed it.

That gave me the character very quickly.

Yes, and April, who plays her so brilliantly is that: her twitter bio says she is an “actress, martial artist and lover of all things fluffy”, and she is very girly and pink and fluffy – but she was world champion of a type of Taekwando. She was a proper martial artist. What she brings to her character is that combination.

OscarWhat we wanted to do as well – and this is an indirect Buffy influence – was have a character who was unashamedly girly, and into girly things. Sometimes when you’re doing kids’ dramas, you want to fight against over-stereotyping, but we don’t allow for the girlie girls. Here we’ve got a character who’s been established as that; let’s let her continue to be that but let’s take her into the woods and have her confront her fears and come out on top.

We had great fun with that character, and for this kind of story with those sort of scary movie tropes. April is so innocent-looking, that it just became a lot of fun.

The difference between Shari (Claudia Jessie) from Series 1 and Mimi from Series 2 is that Shari was just a force of nature – she led everything. She steamed in, and was relentless. That was her charm, her unstoppability. With Mimi, it’s more hesitant: she has to summon up the courage to do the things that the story demands of her.

In Series 1 she was very much a supporting character, although a very important and pivotal one. She was much more of a follower and was following Chloe, the mean girl, around because she wanted to have a friend, and she’d rather be the friend of the popular girl although that girl was really mean to her. By the end of Series 1 she’d stepped out from that and was forming her own friendship group.

For series 2 we started from that. Eve is right in episode 2: the smart thing is to delete the Curse when it’s sent through. If they all do that, there would be no story. But because Mimi is young enough, and in the way that people know things aren’t real but just to be on the safe side they’ll forward them, and because her friendship group was so hard fought for over Series 1, there was a lot at stake for her there in terms of losing those new friends that she made.

Big bad SydDo you go to BBC Learning with the lesson you’re going to be teaching, or do they come to you with the lesson they want you to teach?

The former; we show them the story and all the internet safety bits that we’re going to teach. There’s a bit where Isla follows some bogus instructions to remove the curse from her laptop, and deletes her own operating system. That was a good beat for us from a story point of view, and also good to get across about believing hoaxes – that’s a passionate thing of mine. People should learn to Google things! We did another about Syd, where we were saying you don’t have to do everything you’re dared to on the internet. We find those bits where they arise quite naturally – we never have to shoehorn in that internet safety lesson.

The broadest one is the main thing: think about what you do and how it affects other people; be careful what you do.

How does the interactive part work?

CreepyWe talk a lot about interactivity, and for Series 1 we all agreed that we had to get out of our heads that interactivity means voting for an option. That’s not really that satisfying – let’s say it’s a vote for which door a character goes through. Fifty one percent say Door A so they do that – but forty-nine percent voted for Door B so they’re not having an interactive experience, they’re not part of that. Because we shoot in advance, we’re not giving kids a chance to change the story: our interactivity is that they can comment and talk to the characters, and then their comments appear in the news feed and the characters talk back to them.

And of course with the sandbox way you can dig around on the site, there are clues hidden in plain sight. The major clue for Series 1 was buried somewhere on the site but because it was there right from the beginning, nobody spotted it until one person put it all together just before the final episode went out.

We never cheat, that’s the rule. Obviously we have red herrings and we want to wrong-foot people as much as possible, but the promise is always that when we pull off the mask (literal or metaphorical), it’s not going to be some person you’ve not seen before in the series and have no idea how they are connected to it. You may not know all of their reasons – we hold back motive – but it won’t be some totally random person. I was always frustrated with I Know What You Did Last Summer: the moment you find out who it is, there’s a bit of “Who!?”

Bro1How long does Series 2 run?

We launched on Tuesday 10th February, Internet Safety Day, with a six-day countdown. The first time we had an open period where the site was up and you saw people’s blogs and Vines but the story didn’t start till Shari got hacked at the end of that period. This time, it’s the same thing – you’ll see all of the characters talking and posting to each other – but the story is already beginning, inasmuch as the Alice Curse starts to get posted from one person to another then another. So by the time we hit episode 1, where Mimi receives it, if you have been logging on prior to episode 1, you’ll have seen this curse moving within the friendship group.

There are thirty full episodes, two episodes a day, five days a week over three weeks, from Monday 16th February. One goes up around 4pm, the other around 6.30. First time, we did one before school, one after, but looking at CBBC stats, most kids go on after school, so we’re doing the uploads then. Also because it’s a slightly scarier story, we wanted to do a later one – all of our biggest scares are in the 6.30 episodes.

You can find out more about Dixi 2 and join in the adventure at the website here.

Thanks to Guy Lambert and Adina Vlad for their help in setting up this interview

 

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