Interview w/Cynthia Lair of Cookus Interruptus

Posted on March 27, 2012

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Elizabeth Ellis: Let me start with background on you and how your career led you to be interested in a show and specifically a show on the internet.

Cynthia Lair: Well, I have a background in acting and I made my living the first twenty years of my life acting in television commercials. Now, that’s not 0-20, that’s like 20-40. Or more. So, I have a lot of experience there and it’s something I really enjoy. I founded going back to school to study nutrition with money I made doing television commercials and went to a three year school studying nutrition and then I started teaching cooking classes as a means of disseminating nutrition information because I found doing one-on-one counseling didn’t fit my personality. So, then I had a child and for some reason I don’t know, it was like I was being invaded, really, I had to write that book. I don’t know why, really. I never set out to be an author or anything like that.

Cover of "Feeding the Whole Family"

So I birthed this book about feeding kids, babies and children, better and that kind of propelled everything I do. Not the book, but the idea that it’s so ridiculous that we can’t feed our children better. This drives me insane. So I started teaching at Bastyr University as a result of the book. My goal, really, was to reach teachers so there were some people out there in the world who had some common sense about what to feed children. That really was underneath it all. So I was really just teaching, writing, teaching, writing and a little bit of acting, but not very much production, really, because a lot of the commercials and film productions in the Northwest vacated the area. So, Brad Huskingson is a local director and he got talking to some of his cohorts in the production field and wanted to create a pilot for a television show and we knew each other from working together and he approached me about doing a pilot that was supposed to be some sort of cooking show and we made a 7 minute pilot for Cookus Interruptus. At the time, we didn’t really have any channels for trying to get anyone to pick it up as a television show and it’s pretty quirky so advice came from everywhere to put it on the web and that’s what we did and we now have like 170 episodes.

EE: And do you see any correlation between the content and the internet or any things that the show has been able to do because it’s online?

CL: Well, because it’s online, we control the content and that’s pretty nice because then I can really get across any messages that I choose and I like that. And we can produce as much content as I like and I don’t have anyone saying ‘this is what you have to make this week,’ or whatever. So I like ebing able to control the content and really the goal for me, from a professional point of view, I guess, would be I just wanted to take all the piousness out of eating healthfully and treat it as though it was something normal and fun and not just for the educated or the elite or the obsessed. It tends to fall into those categories and I think we can reach more people if we don’t treat it in that way, which is why I was really interested in producing this content with humor.

EE: And how did [actors] Matt [Smith] and Bhama [Roget] come to be involved?

Cynthia, Matt and Bhama

CL: They were there from the very start because the concept, even when we were doing a television pilot was that it was a family setting and that it was a very modern family situation where offspring has grown up and moved back home, the boomerang kid, and people are out of work which, um, happened to tie in really nicely with the economy! (laughs) And so, yeah, that was it from the beginning because again, we wanted to make it seem like it’s normal to eat this way. It’s not restrictive, it’s not for saints!

EE: So when you were bringing your team together did you bring in a producer or someone who was above you or has it always been more collaborative?

CL: It’s always been collaborative, which definitely has its pros and cons. All the work then falls on Brad and myself and we both have jobs where we’re making money. We don’t actually make money from Cookus Interruptus. We’re able to pay for our production costs but we don’t actually take home any money. So, um, it’s tough to find the time to do all the things that need to be done.

EE: Who manages the crew and gets the space and that kind of thing?

CL: Um, well that’s been interesting. Brad mostly handles the film crew, so if he wants a second camera or if he wants a certain sound guy or all that stuff he does that and Matt and I take care of the actors so if we want an extra person to come in or if we want to try something different with somebody then we take care of that part. And we pay our crew and we pay our actors, we just don’t pay ourselves.

EE: So take me through the process of creating an episode or a batch of episodes.

CL: We always shoot them in batches. We’ve done as many as 8 or 9 a day. We’re trying to cut back and not do more than 5 a day so it’s not quite so challenging. The prep work is really on my shoulders and it’s deciding what recipes I’m gonna make and test them and make sure that I like them the way they are. I need to make sure there’s a variety of recipes, not, you know, all tofu or something like that. Then I make these elaborate charts that have all the recipes, the shopping lists, all the prep work that needs to be done, what equipment I’ll need, what kind of tableware I need to show it off at its best and I call it The Matrix and it takes quite a long time to make. When I put the recipes in a document I also look up history and nutrition tips and little silly things like that and put that on the recipe so I have that to chatter about when we’re filming, or give to Bhama or Matt to chatter about. We certainly don’t use all of that, but it’s there. So, after I’ve done all that, we usually have a pre-production meeting and sit around and make a list of what interruptions could happen and I make a list and we bring it to the shoot and usually don’t use any of it because once we’re there things just happen. But it’s great to have it as a net. We’d feel naked without it. But we don’t script anything. I have an assistant usually to help me with food and we create a mis-en-place to showcase the dishes and for the two days before the shoot I’ve been prepping all the ingredients and then on the day I walk Brad through, kind of like, ‘these are the dry ingredients, these are the wet ingredients, they’ll go together like this and into the oven in this,’ or whatever and he makes note of that and, you know, might talk to second camera or something like that and then we all go, ‘Okay, what should we do in this one?’ and somebody’ll go, ‘I know, I could come in and… I’ll just come in.’ and I’ll go, ‘Okay!’ (We both laugh) Like, I don’t really care what happens because I’m just going to react to it anyway. Sometimes we rehearse it with the interaction, once, maybe, if we want the person to come in at a certain time in making the dish, but then we never say the same thing twice. When we shoot it, we usually shoot it just once, but then we ding the ending, which means we do it two or three times to give Brad some options for what’s the funnies when he’s editing.

EE: Do you have any favorite moments or highlights that have come out of that process on the show?

CL: Oh, yes. If I was a younger person, I would remember them all but I’m an old person with a fuzzy brain! One of my favorites, though, was when we were shooting in our old location at Gay’s house and there were chippers chipping wood all day and rather than getting all upset about it we just decided that there were chippers there and Bhama ended up, in character as Jane, giving one of them her phone number. Just silly things like that. Or, the time that she came in and told me that my car was rolling down the driveway backwards and I went ‘What?!’ and ran off set to go take care of it. And of course, it wasn’t true but that’s what we do. And Matt’s always doing really sick stuff like coming in without his pants on.

EE: Really, Matt? I would have thought Frank. So, the rest of these questions are about financial stuff that’s sensitive and you can opt out if you want but it would be helpful for people to hear, I think. Do you mind talking about it?

CL: No, go for it!

EE: Thank you! So where does the money come from to make the show?

CL: Well, Brad and I made an initial investment and Matt put in a little bit too. Between the three of us I think we had like 30 or 35,000 dollars and we needed that just for production and to hire web designers and we had to have someone who had the capacity to hold a big number of videos and that was a big investment at the beginning. But for the last two, two and a half years at least, maybe three, we’ve had a little bit of advertising and that and little dribs and drabs from Amazon and selling things, just tiny amounts, really, we no longer have to put any money into it. We can pay for all of our upkeep and production from that advertising.

EE: So who manages that accounts and keeps track of it? Do you have a line producer or is it just you and Brad?

CL: Everything is Brad and I. We do have a bookkeeper to pay bills and balance the checkbook and create end of the year stuff for us. Not a lot of work.

EE: So are you and Brad really the only people on the set not getting paid?

CL: Everybody is paid except Brad and I.

EE: And do you interact with unions at all when it comes to cast and crew?

CL: With the union? No. The unions don’t cover this yet. They may and we’ll have troubles then, but so far, so good.

EE: But I assume they’re not being paid as much as they would on a union job and how do you navigate that? Do you have any advice for beginners about getting people to work for less or for free or just keeping people motivated?

CL: Yeah, I mean, we pay people not quite what they would normally get but almost, and so far they’ve been happy to just enjoy the day and we don’t shoot that often. So, we’re only asking people to give up one day maybe 4 times a year, so we haven’t worn out our welcome, though I think some people, by this time, maybe our sound guy, maybe our makeup person, are thinking, ‘Wow, I thought by now this might have turned into something a little more lucrative,’ but so far they haven’t complained and we’ve been able to get the same people back. I usually hire some of the culinary students from Bastyr and I pay them like $15 and hour. I think it’s really important to pay people something. To value their time. And we’ve always done that. Even if it’s token, I think that’s important.

EE: What are you doing to advertise the show and get the word out about it?

CL: Well, that’s gotten, um, the last two year, Brad and I have gotten busier and busier in our jobs and we’ve had less and less time to devote to that. For a long time we were just posting our videos or links to our videos as many places as we possibly could. We would post on different blogs, a Seattle P.I. blog, a Seattle Magazine blog. We’d post on things like Local Harvest. But all of that posting added up to maybe 10 hours a week, even, and we haven’t been able to keep up with that, but luckily our traffic hasn’t really fallen off… at all! In fact, it has increased. It kind of doubled two years ago and then last year I think we had like a 20-30% rise in our traffic. Um, so yeah. I mean, here’s kind of what happened, business-wise: We started out with kind of a shaky business model, which was, if you get enough eyes on your site, people will want to advertise. When we first started in 2008, that was true! That if you got 100,000 people viewing your site, that might be worth a few thousand dollars a month in advertising. Well, just in the last 4 years, those two ideas have grown very separate, so that nowadays, it takes a million hits to generate a hundred dollars worth of advertising income. And that’s just because so many more sites are out there and so many more organizations have just said, ‘goodbye, we’re not going to be in print anymore, we’re just gonna be online,’ and they come fully staffed with people that that’s what they do is just study SEO and get people to their site. And, so, as that competition has increased and increased, our business model has kind of gone out the window. Or else, we weren’t able to keep up with keeping up traffic to such an extent that we could warrant more and more advertising. So, it’s hard now. It started out as okay and now it’s really hard.

EE: But, do you have the viewership you need to support that advertising, I mean, what are the numbers associated with your show?

CL: No. We get about 100,000 views a month. Three years ago, we would have been thrilled out of our minds to have a 100,000 views a month! Now, that’s chump change in the world of the web. Like Whole Foods, we approached them about advertising and they wouldn’t even talk to us unless we had a million hits a month.

EE: Wow. Okay, so what are your plans for the future of the show? Do you have somewhere that you’re headed?

CL: We don’t! We don’t have any direction! (laughs) At this point, I mean, I think Brad is still interested in trying to make it a viable business, and often will set up meetings with people he thinks can help us do that. For myself, I guess I’ve kind of come to view it as a public service and I’m happy just to keep it up that way. We’re now just putting up one new video a month and rotating the other ones in, so that makes our production video much more manageable. One new one a month, that seems like nothing compared to what we were doing before, which makes it a lot easier to keep up. And I don’t know! Brad’s sort of the dreamer and I’m just really pragmatic and I don’t see what there is that could be turned into revenue but maybe somebody else will.

EE: Thank you, Cynthia! Those were all of my questions. Do you have anything else you want to put out there about the show?

CL: No, I mean, I just think that even as seasoned as people like Brad and I were, it just seems like the web was kind of the Gold Rush where you think if you just get out there and work real hard you’ll get enough gold in your bucket and make a million dollars and be one of the Astors or something like that and… it’s just not true. [laughs] I mean, if you wanna do stuff on the web I think it’s totally cool. It’s this great place to have freedom and do anything you want! But as far as being the next best blogger and getting some huge book deal or something like that? Woah. I mean, it’s possible but it’s also possible to fly into LA and become a star on the next big sitcom. It’s kind of all the same!

Posted in: interviews