Mission Impossible: How to make a TV show for the cost of a Tom Cruise poster

Chinese TV series maker Xinxin Ren Gudbjörnsson, the creator of ‘The Vampire Show’, reveals how she turned down the advice of experts to make a four-episode sitcom for 660 kroner

Since coming to live in Denmark, Xinxin Ren Gudbjörnsson, the creator of ‘The Vampire Show’ − a four-episode online sitcom set in Denmark that she wrote, cast, financed and filmed last year − has heard one word more than any other. And no, it isn’t hygge or skål. It’s impossible.

“It was difficult to deal with in the beginning because the concept of impossible was new to me,” recalled Gudbjörnsson. “In China, we often talk about how certain things can be difficult, but not impossible.”

Like many who have made sitcoms, Gudbjörnsson’s first instinct, with just 660 kroner to spend on total financing, was to seek expert advice. And the results left her feeling doubtful about her project for the first time, albeit temporarily. 

“It was especially hard to ignore when ‘experts’ tell you that it can’t be done,” she said. “I think it is important to remember that experts don’t know everything, and a lot of them are talkers, not doers.”

An application for funding from Venture Cup Denmark was turned down. “This type of business requires a lot of funding,” read the rejection letter. “I would definitely recommend you try and get funding from all the institutions that support these type of productions.” 

Gudbjörnsson, however, decided otherwise and proceeded to make the project happen without the help of any of the institutions. She quickly assembled a team of 20 technicians and actors and invested 660 kroner in setting up a website, thevampireshow.com, and buying two pairs of vampire teeth. The auditions and casting took place in March 2012 and filming followed soon after.

Gudbjörnsson used a free online casting service and Facebook to find actors and received just under 200 applications, from which she chose 20 to audition. “It didn’t matter whether people had acting experience,” she said. “A charismatic look, positive attitude and willingness to learn were more important.” 

At the auditions, the actors performed monologues and then took part in dialogue, and everything was filmed for evaluation. “I then called my first choices to a one-to-one meeting, where we talked about expectations and time schedule.”

The filming of each episode took place over a weekend, once a month over four months. Occasionally there was night filming. Everyone from the producer and director to the actors, technicians and extras had to bring their own food and help out on set. 

“We converted a cinema into a studio and borrowed the lighting, sound equipment and camera.” Gudbjörnsson’s husband is a film technician, so he directed, and she found friends who were willing to help out. One of the actors is a sound engineer, so when he wasn’t portraying Max, the super communist vampire, he was the soundman. 

“The key is not to be too much of an artist,” contended Gudbjörnsson. “I wrote the script. I had a very specific vision of how the series should turn out. But when things and people get in the way, I was willing to change it in order to finish the project on time. The show must go on.”

The result was four episodes of satire/comedy of about 20 minutes each. “The show is called ‘The Vampire Show’, but it’s not really about vampires. The show is set as a reality show with vampire contestants, but the genre is more political satire.”

It’s finished now, but Gudbjörnsson isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s writing a 90-minute feature film and filming will begin in 2013. The budget is zero kroner this time. 

“The film will be available online and in small cinemas, free to watch for everyone.” And of course, many people have already told Gudbjörnsson that it’s impossible. “Frankly, I don’t see how a feature film is that different from a series. It’s in fact easier in this case, because the film is vampire-free, which means we can film both day and night.” 

The film is going to be called ‘Adonis Escort Agency’. It’s a comedy about male escorts and, like ‘The Vampire Show’, it’s set  in Copenhagen. The casting will begin in around February. 

“Everyone will have to audition, even the actors from ‘The Vampire Show’. All the actors will therefore have an equal chance for a part. It’s still the same deal: no-one gets paid, you have to bring your own food to filming and rehearsals, and we will be very demanding,” Gudbjörnsson laughed.

So far it is a strategy that has paid dividends, but Gudbjörnsson is aware things could go wrong.

“Proper planning with back-up plans is the key,” revealed Gudbjörnsson. “Many things can go wrong when you don’t pay for people, equipment and location.”

Gudbjörnsson, one of life's doers (Photo: Søren Saltoft Christensen)

Accordingly, Gudbjörnsson hasn’t given up her day job, although she did recently swap her job as a high school English teacher for one working as a campaign manager at a bank. The ‘experts’ warned her that her ambition was mission impossible, but she didn’t listen.

“I showed up at the job interview with a battle plan for their sales campaigns,” she revealed. “The bank said that they’d rather have a person with a plan than experience. Besides, I wrote about ‘The Vampire Show’ in my application, and they were impressed with what I could do with 660 kroner.”

Visit thevampireshow.com to access links to the show, or alternatively watch the first episode, if you dare. To find out more about the auditions for ‘Adonis Escort Agency’, contact Gudbjörnsson via the show’s Facebook page.