For the younger generations, religion probably means very different things than it did for our parents. This year, Vassar College Television’s (VCTV) new series, “God Only Knows,” starring Meghan McDonell ’17, Tonya Ingerson ’18, Joseph Syzmanski ’17 and Imani Russell ’18 seeks to address such matters as religion, spirituality and belief. The premiere episode was shown first at Modfest on Feb. 13. An improved cut was then screened this past Sunday, Feb. 22 during the Oscars screening collectively held by VCTV, Vassar Filmmakers and the Film Major Committee.
“God Only Knows” tells the story of a young prophet, Jess, chosen by God to revitalize religion to her peers in college. Along the way, Jess gradually discovers the importance and meaning of life.
The show’s creator, Harris Gurny ’17, came up with the idea of a college prophet at the end of his freshman year. “Last May, I was studying for finals with my friend James Pedersen when I thought of an idea about what it would be like to have a prophet at a liberal arts college. Without thinking much about it, I blurted out my idea, and we then spent the next three hours creating what became ‘God Only Knows’ instead of studying. I wrote a first draft over the summer, and James wrote a second draft in September. It was truly a work of collaboration,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
As Director of Production and Series Creator, Gurny is not only responsible for what happens on site, but also for the project as a whole.
“I ensure that the creative vision for the series prevails through all stages of production. I go to weekly writers, producers, directors, editors and exec board meetings to ensure that the intention of one branch isn’t lost in translation by another branch … There’s a lot more that goes into making television than what meets the eye. As Director of Production, I supervise shoots, run production meetings and instruct crew.”
At the same time, Co-director of Pre-Production, Ashley Hoyle ‘18 (for disclosure, Hoyle is a reporter for the Miscellany News) works to ensure that shoots can take place as planned. “It’s my job to deal with all logistics involving shooting the episode. We are responsible for coordinating actors’ schedules, communicating location and times to the org, making sure all props and food for our crew are on set, and of course, budgeting time and making sure we stay on schedule,” she explained.
Moreover, both Gurny and Hoyle point out that the series is a result of collective efforts. Four branches of people work together to produce an episode, including writers, producers, directors and editors. Writers split into groups of three to make a draft of the episode that the whole branch then edits. Producers meet weekly to prepare for shoots. Directors decide together the creative direction of the shoots and direct on site. Then editors cut the footage into the final product. “There is a lot of communication and help across branches and each of us is pretty entrenched in every aspect of the process!” Hoyle commented.
Gurny added, “There are 44 names on the credits list of ‘God Only Knows.’ If you go to Vassar, chances are you know one of them, and they all worked hard to get this on the web.”
While the emphasis on collaboration allows VCTV’s members to gain specific experience in different branches, it also poses challenges. “VCTV is a very big organization, which makes the job harder since everyone has to be on the same page. The greatest lesson I have taken away from my experience at VCTV is the importance of effective communication,” Gurny explained.
For the leading actress who plays Jess, “God Only Knows” is McDonell’s first time acting in a film. She found it quite different from her previous acting experiences.
“I auditioned for the series because I didn’t have any film acting experience and thought it’d be fun to try it out. I’ve been acting in a theatrical context for years, and film is so much different. It forces you to dissect each scene into so many little pieces and perform each one repeatedly, out of context, and out of chronological order. It requires a lot of focus to stay present and engaged, especially by the fifth or sixth take of a single shot,” she said.
Russell, who plays the prophet’s friend Paulina also shared her opinion on the script and her acting experiences. “I think the script is very clever. I am playing a stoner friend and that is pretty new for me—life and role wise—but I think my character is funny and also super clever, and I enjoy getting to be someone else for a little bit,“ she explained.
VCTV produces one series each year and to many of its members, such routine productions provide important opportunities to gain hands-on experiences in filmmaking.
“The greatest part of producing a series every year is that members can get an enormous amount of real, valuable hands-on experience in television production. Being a part of VCTV is a tremendously valuable learning experience, and shooting a series is a great way to gain experience in all aspects of production,” Hoyle wrote.
For some, it also serves as a social opportunity. “I think this webseries is a good way for me to meet new people on campus and work on my acting. I’m a freshman so this is all very new to me,“ Russell said.
Ultimately, the people working on “God Only Knows” see the series as a work that not only deals with broad questions of spirituality and religious matters, but also is relatable for Vassar students. “I think ‘God Only Knows’ raises a lot of questions about spirituality, meaning, and relationships. In addition to being set on a campus similar to our own. I think it will help people think critically about the state of things at Vassar,” Hoyle commented.
Gurny elaborated on the specific theme of the work. “‘God Only Knows’ is a show that could only work at a school like Vassar College, where atheism is the norm. It is about the mediation of hipsterdom and religion, and whether the two are mutually exclusive. I suppose it was the bizarre juxtaposition of these two concepts—somewhat pretentious liberal arts students and a spiritual movement—that originally interested me. This is a secular show; it’s not about god, it’s about the characters and how they react to their revelation.”
He continued, “‘God Only Knows’ is very self-conscious of the fact that it is a show set on Vassar’s campus; I think every Vassar student can relate to it.”