LOS ANGELES -- Veronica Mars is back at work, against all odds, doing the job she gave up years ago, in a project that has no business existing under any of the rules by which we understand Hollywood.
It’s a scorching day in an industrial section of downtown LA, and Veronica herself, in the form of the pocket-sized Kristen Bell, has her telephoto lens out, reluctantly plying her trade as a private detective for the first time since the end of the low-rated TV show that bore her name, and now as part of the “Veronica Mars” movie that was improbably funded by that show’s fans.
This is day 3 of the Film Shoot Brought to You By Kickstarter, a crazy idea dreamed up by the show’s creator Rob Thomas, who co-wrote and is directing the movie. $5.7 million crowdfunded dollars later, Bell is back in character, performing surveillance on Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter, reprising her role from season 2 of the series), who is at the center of the film’s big mystery.
Ivan Askwith, associate producer and the point man for social media related to both the film and the Kickstarter that is funding it, goggles at the idea that they are here, and under these circumstances.
“These people gave money to a movie that didn’t even exist yet,” he observes.
The movie very much exists at this moment, though — and everyone involved is deeply grateful to the audience that made it so.
The scenes being filmed today don’t feature the bulk of the movie’s cast — only Bell, Ritter and Martin Starr (playing Cobb Cobbler, a Neptune High alum we’ve never met before) are scheduled to work today among the film’s major players — and only have a bit of the sardonic banter that Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero have brought from the show to this new incarnation. But they feature Veronica back at work, and once again finding ways to be more clever and resourceful than her wealthier opponents.
It’s a practical location, with Bell working on the rooftop of one building while Ritter is in an industrial loft set across the street. Thomas is on Bell’s side of the street, sporting a WWVMD — What Would Veronica Mars Do? — bracelet that was given to him by a fan he met outside the parking lot. They’ve been lingering around this and the locations of previous days, hoping for a glimpse of Bell, or Jason Dohring, or any of the other stars of the mid-‘00s teen drama.
Bell, who had plenty of experience handling a camera in the UPN and CW days, is concerned that she aim it at just the right angle, and while Thomas and director of photography Ben Kutchins discuss this and other matters related to the blinding sunlight, Bell’s attention is drawn to Milo, a white terrier mix who belongs to the building’s manager.
“Is he friendly?” she asks, running over to hug and pet him. She’s not as overcome with emotion as she might be if Milo were a sloth, but it’s nonetheless an adorable scene as Milo licks her face and she says, “Oh, thank you, buddy!” in the same tone of voice Veronica used with her beloved pooch Backup.
There’s a strange sense of life imitating art imitating life throughout the day. While Thomas films Bell filming Ritter, a documentary crew — making one of the many rewards for Kickstarter backers, a film that’s as much about the campaign as it is a making-of piece — is busy filming all of them. At one point, Thomas and the other producers will pause to study a mock Entertainment Weekly cover featuring one of their characters that will look not too dissimilar from a real one featuring Bell and Dohring that will be published much closer to the film’s March 14 release date.
Throughout the day, Askwith is taking pictures to send to the film’s Instagram account, and everyone has fan outreach on their minds. Thomas and producer Joel Silver had tried for years to talk Warner Bros. into making a follow-up movie, without any interest. The Kickstarter campaign not only provided the great majority of the film’s budget (Warner Bros. would later kick in some cash to handle fulfillment of the Kickstarter rewards, and to pay for a few reshoots), but demonstrated that there was, in fact, a lot of very active and vocal love for what was perennially one of TV’s lowest-rated series during its three seasons on the air. At every opportunity, Askwith or someone else in production is trying to find ways to communicate with the fans, keep them posted on filming and generally keep thanking them for making this all possible. One of the director’s chairs arrived with Dohring’s name misspelled, and a new one was ordered; the plan is for him to sign both and sell them for charity.
Comedy veteran Dave “Gruber” Allen swings by to play one of Cobb’s neighbors. It’s a double reunion with Starr, since they worked together on “Freaks and Geeks” and then teamed for a memorable episode of Thomas’ brilliant-but-canceled Starz comedy “Party Down.” Almost instantly, Allen has Starr cracking up between takes, and seeing him makes Starr nostalgic for his last collaboration with Thomas. Soon, he’s talking about the best way to get a “Party Down” revival, which has come close a few times in the past without ever materializing. Between the possibilities opened up by Kickstarter and Netflix’s deal to revive “Arrested Development,” Starr is convinced there’s a way Thomas can make it work, if they can just figure out the logistics of it.
But that’s a dream to be considered on a different day. Right now, everyone is basking in the dream they have improbably brought into being.
“It’s one of the reasons I love working with Rob,” says Dan Etheridge, one of Thomas’ long-time producing partners, who worked on the show and returned for the movie. “I’ve had him come to me a number of times during our ten years together and say, ‘Hey, what if we shoot ‘Party Down’ in our backyard?’ And lo and behold, it’s a series. So when he told me about the Kickstarter, it was like, ‘If anybody can do it, it’s him.’ So of course we jumped right in and went for it. But I tell you there were dark times in that stretch over the last year where many people would have given up and it really looked dark and he did not. And that was a tough row to hoe.”
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com