Making Something of Her Own

Writer and director Amy Taylor is about to begin shooting a web series based on a teen-aged detective she created named Jess Archer. When I ask her in our recent interview what she wants viewers to take away from the series, she is ultra-clear.

“It’s a comedy/mystery,” Taylor says. “So I want them to laugh. Then I want them to come away realizing Jess Archer is a great character. Not a great female character, but a great character, period.”

Further, she wants females to know they can play roles other than girlfriend.

“I want them to say, ‘I can be the hero of my own story,’” she says. “And for them to say, ‘I can concentrate on what makes me happy, embrace whatever weirdness I have.’”

Taylor walks that talk. She calls the series “geektastic” and unabashedly cites Veronica Mars and the sensibility of Edgar Wright as her influences, even on the Kickstarter page that made the series possible. With me she adds Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew and sci-fi fantasy to the mix.

“I’m really excited,” she says about her project.

Taylor’s progression to this point comes out when I ask her what she lives riveted to. She explains that about four years after undergraduate work at Princeton, where she was a classics major, she went to Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts to earn her MFA.

“I came to L.A. after school,” she says. “I wanted to make movies, be a director. There are not a lot of great roles for women. I wanted to write [interesting] characters for women.”

Jess Archer Versus, the full name of the web series, stems from her thesis film, Jess Archer vs. the Ex. It played at the Dragon Con International Short Film Festival (which, according to Wikipedia, annually attracts over 52,000  fans of science fiction, fantasy, and comic books to Atlanta, Ga.).

“She hates people, loves mystery, stands up for injustice,” Taylor says of her creation, whose sidekick is her best friend, Chase Pollard. “She’s not defined by being a woman. She’s a detective, a friend, and she’ll stand up for a bullied person. She’s kind of a loner, standoffish. She doesn’t understand why she needs more friends.”

For Taylor, the dynamic between Jess and Chase draws a bit from perhaps the most famous detective ever written.

“It’s a very Sherlock Holmes-Watson thing,” she says. “The way Watson helps us understand Holmes.”

Taylor has been drawn to quality storytelling for as long as she can remember. As a child she recalls being able to buy five books and getting one free – this was in her Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys phase – and saying to her parents, “We’re buying five.” Later, while at Princeton, it took her a while to realize what she loved about being a classics major was the mythology and storytelling aspect of it.

“After college I bounced around a bit,” she says. “I wondered, ‘is film making something that real people do?’”

The answer turned out to be yes. Enter the MFA program in Ohio and the birth of Jess Archer. After moving to L.A. in 2011, Taylor decided to take the leap and make her character the center of a web series.

“When it screened at Dragon Con, we got responses like, ‘we love these characters’ and ‘can we see more?’ and at that point I hadn’t formulated a plan for it,” she says. “I figured maybe there wasn’t enough for a feature yet, but I wanted to make something of my own. I had a lot of ideas for [Jess Archer]. I thought the internet was a great place for her.”

Because, of course, online series have become a much more sophisticated part of our culture. They’re the real deal now. After raising the money needed on Kickstarter, Taylor is set to begin shooting this summer. She’s looking at 12 episodes as the fall season starts. The shooting action will be taking place back in Ohio and Taylor can hardly wait to get started. Some of the same cast as her thesis film will be working with her.

“I’m nervous a little bit, of course, but we have really great producers,” Taylor says.

When it came to writing the script, she fought off urges to procrastinate and “watch Parks and Rec for the third time” and told herself she had to sit down and finish it, even if it took 24 hours.

“And that’s what I did,” she says.

There was delight at her character in the process.

“She kept showing me different sides of herself,” she says.

Showcased among the plot’s twists and turns, a detective became fully drawn.

“Girls are conditioned in society to be apologetic,” Taylor says. “Jess Archer is not apologetic.”

She has mysteries to solve, after all.

By Nancy Colasurdo