We take special pride in all of our writers and editors at Paste, but I can’t help my bias towards the TV writers. The critiques from our reviewers are often so thorough, and so engaging, I find myself wishing they’d step away from the box—if only for a moment—and create their own unique programming. So it’s exciting to see that Leland Montgomery has done just that. Our own critic makes his directorial debut with the smart, apocalyptic comedy God Particles, a web series in four parts, now online.
God Particles chronicles the lives of Rue, Saul, Allie, and Jill—a group of LA millenials who all find themselves connected in small, strange ways as they face the possibility of doomsday, brought on by scientists’ attempts to create the higgs boson, or god particle. Whether they live or die is far less interesting than some of the bigger questions raised by the series, like “Why does it take an epic tragedy—or the threat of one—for people to take control of their lives?” Montgomery opened up with us about the genesis of his web series, apocalyptic themes in TV, and his talented cast, which includes Zoë Chao of The Comeback, and Julia Wackenheim-Gimple of Red Band Society.
Paste Magazine: So, tell me about your interest in the god particle. How did it work its way into the script?
Leland Montgomery: My interest in the god particle first started with a play called Post Eden, by this Ontario-based playwright, Jordan Tannahill. It’s all about these misguided teenagers who think the world is going to end because of the Large Hadron Collider. I read the play thinking that the Large Hadron Collider is a great metaphor for, like, man’s hubris.
Up until recently, the narrative (at least in the west) was that progress would bring a sort of Jetson-age utopia. But that narrative is changing, I think, and people are a lot more afraid of the future—especially our influence on the future. With Global Warming, and food and water shortages, I think people are nervous that our species is wrecking everything. There is a ton of content right now about the apocalypse; Interstellar, The Walking Dead, Planet of the Apes, The Leftovers, Under The Dome. The Large Hadron Collider is an interesting symbol in this kind of cultural conversation, because it’s like an apocalypse switch. There’s an immediacy to it that other man-made disasters haven’t quite achieved yet—“Let’s press a button and hope the earth doesn’t implode into a man-made black hole.”
The immediacy really puts the characters in a high stakes situation where they have no control. I mean, what’s an underemployed 20-something year-old in Burbank going to do in this situation? She can’t do anything. So, she’s just gotta let it happen, and get ready to meet her maker. That internal examination powers the story in a lot of ways.
Paste: Speaking of Rue, I loved her character! I definitely saw some of myself there—eating Doritos and watching Netflix in the middle of the night. Why was it important for the story to start with her?
Montgomery: I like Rue’s character a lot too! (laughs) I also see myself in her. It was important to start the story with her because in many ways she’s not only the protagonist, who incites the action by bringing this prophecy of doom to the townspeople, but she is also the clearest example of the show’s reoccurring theme: she wants to be special.
All the characters want to be special, but Rue is most in tune with this desire. Allie wants to be special in the eyes of her partner, Jill wants to be special in the eyes of society, Saul wants to be special in the eyes of the boy who got away, but Rue just wants to be special in general. In the face of the apocalypse, this desire is a little silly, you know? Because, if the world ends, what does it matter how special you were?
Paste: Can you remember the first scene you wrote? How did you know that God Particles was meant to be a web series, as opposed to, say, a short film?
Montgomery: The first scene I wrote was probably the one between Rue and her boss, Cynthia. I used to work in a call center, and a lot of the scenes were scribbled on little yellow note pads in between calls. I think it’s very likely that was a conversation I overheard, verbatim. (laughs)
The biggest reason I decided to make it into a web series as opposed to a short film is because I like how much agency you have with a web series. Even with a short film, you have to apply to festivals, and hope someone likes your work. A web series gives you total control over distribution and publicity, and getting people to see it.
That said, I was also really inspired by Adam Goldman and Kit Williamson. Both men are gay filmmakers, and their shows [The Outs and The Eastsiders, respectively] premiered right when I graduated from college. They’re totally fantastic, and I was inspired and challenged to make something as good as their works.
Paste: You have such a great cast here. What was the audition process like?
Montgomery: It was a little unconventional. Most of the people were both friends of mine, and also collaborators who I’d worked with all throughout college. It was very much a, “Hey everyone, let’s put on a show,” type of deal.
There were a couple of parts I wrote with specific actors in mind—like Zoë Chao [Rue] who’s a series regular on The Comeback, and Julia Wackenheim [Cynthia], who’s recurring on Red Band Society.
Paste: I’ve had other writer/directors say there are benefits to performing both duties, because it gives you a bit more control. But you’re also acting in the series. What was the whole experience like for you?
Montgomery: It was really difficult! (laughs) Because when you’re working with micro-budget filmmaking, you’re doing everything. You’re making the call sheets, and getting craft services, and also making sure all the actors and the extras get to the location on time, and renting the equipment, and production designing the set—that takes up so much time, energy, and attention that when it was time to get in the scene, I was like, “Uh, what’s going on?”
But it was also a fantastic learning experience. It really opened up my understanding of all three mediums, which is invaluable. I’m really grateful for it.
Paste: The doomsday concept is always fun to play around with, and I love your message at the end here—that there really are a bunch of doomsdays happening for all of us, every day.
Montgomery: I really love the idea of doomsday as a story device because it instantly makes the stakes super high. Even if the apocalypse in question isn’t a real threat, just the idea of it makes people think, “What if it did happen?” And then suddenly a dinner scene is really tense!
Now, there’s a collective feeling that the world is on the brink of destruction. I feel like everyone I know is panicked that things are going to end in one way or another. So, I suppose in a weird way, the ending is sort of saying, “Calm down, things end, and change all the time. Things are no worse than they’ve ever been.” The state of the world right now is worrisome and that worry will, I hope, create change. But there are also moments of kindness, and generosity, and beauty that I think we should focus on as well.
Paste: I think that message comes across in the finale. Everyone comes together, and everything also kind of falls apart. I love the fighting/make-out session, and all the other commotion at the dinner party. Did the final scene always play out like this, or did you have a different ending?
Montgomery: It’s nice that it all comes together. What I really love about that last moment is that even though all these awful things have just happened, the group sort of bands together in crisis. I always thought it would end in a fight—they think the end of the world is going to be explosions and black holes, but actually it’s just an incredibly awkward dinner party in the valley. (laughs)
In one of the earlier drafts the fight got really ugly and mean, and everyone said exactly what they felt. It was super-direct and, because of that, not very dramatic. When I showed the scene to the cast, Claire [Jill] brought up the fact that it didn’t seem true to any of the characters. She made the point that they all live in this sort of oblique world where no one ever quite says what they want to say. So why, in this moment, would they break down into confession? So, I went back and rewrote it and made it a little less obvious.
I was working with an ensemble that I’d spent almost a decade collaborating with, so there was a lot of trust. And since the material was really written to underscore the actors’ strengths, I think everyone had this really lovely feeling of what was authentic, and what wasn’t. I was able to take a lot of cues from them.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Montgomery: In the immediate future, I’m releasing another little web series called Learning To Be Special, which will come out in mid-December. It’s made up of some material that we shot in preparation for God Particles. It’ll deal with many of the same themes, but it’s a lot shorter. Each episode is about 30 seconds to a minute. In the long term, I’m working on adapting Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which we’ll shoot sometime next summer. I’m really excited about that.
Paste: Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to more from you!
Montgomery: Thank you.
Leland Montgomery is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste. You can watch God Particlesonline now.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.