In the middle of finals week last quarter, I discovered a web series called “Dorm Life.” Not to be confused with MTV’s failed reality series, “College Life,” – Dorm Life is a fictional short series that revolves around a dorm floor and their crazy antics. You have the overly-excited about everything resident, the best friends from high school, the sheltered geek who hopes to branch out in college, the funny guy, and then there’s the dreaded RA that everyone can’t stand. Sound familiar? Maybe even like your own college experience? As soon as finals week was over, literally the first thing I did was catch up on this series. I spent the first week of my winter break watching both season 1 and 2. As soon as I had finished, I started researching when a third season would be in the works. I contacted a couple of the actors from the show, and managed to get in touch with the main character Mike Sanders played by former UCLA alum Chris Smith. Dorm Life is a refreshing series with a whole lot of wit, charm, silliness and nostalgia. I guess I can’t technically say nostalgia yet since I’m still in college, but hell – nostalgia for my older readers.
Q: Hi Chris! How old are you and where are you from?
Chris Smith: I’m 25 years old and grew up in South Lake Tahoe, CA. I was born in Hillerod, Denmark.
Q: What was your major?
C: Theater Acting from UCLA and I graduated in 2007.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Dorm Life and how it was created.
C: “Dorm Life” came about pretty simply actually. Me and six other friends who were part of an on-campus comedy troupe decided that we wanted to keep making funny videos together after graduating. We brainstormed through a number of ideas, but “Dorm Life” kept sticking around and making us laugh. We all had unique dorm experiences and we really bonded over that. I had been in communication with the Social Media Studio “Attention Span Media” and we both partnered on the creation of the first season. Attention Span served as the production company and the rest, as they say, is history!
Q: How did you come up with these characters? Were you imagining certain stereotypes of college students at all or were some of their traits based off of the actors or maybe even people you knew in college?
C: The characters in Dorm Life were like mosaics from our collective dorm experiences. Early on in the writing process we brought in lists of our individual “Dorm-Lives” and basically sat around telling stories. Naturally, certain common traits and characters started to rise from the crop. From there, we decided on which characters we thought would be most fun to pair together in rooms and started to play in their interactions. After we cast the show, the actors started to add their own layers and we found a fun rhythm through improvising on set.
Q: You play new freshmen Mike Sanders, were you anything like him at all in college? How were you similar or different?
C: Haha, truthfully I was similar to Mike as a freshman…but I think I had a twinge of Josh in me as well. I was a theater major and was voted ‘floor entertainer’ in my floor government. I drummed up a lot of adventure and pranks on the floor but I was much sillier than Mike I think. Mike is more ‘movies and TV’ where Chris is more ‘circus’.
Q: I read that all of you were students at UCLA, but assuming that the show was created after you guys were finished with school, how were you able to film it? You didn’t actually film on their campus did you? How were you able to film “the res hall” scenes?
C: Because it was way too expensive to film on UCLA’s campus, we started looking into hostels and welfare hotels (no joke!). When that didn’t yield any results, we almost didn’t get to make the show! We only had a small window of time where we could use all the actors and the opportunity was closing. But at the last minute, Attention Span spoke with representatives from a small Buddhist college in Rosemead, CA that had a dorm wing available to film. We checked it out and it was perfect.
Q: Were any of the storylines from the show based off of your own experiences?
C: Many of them were sparked by our experiences. One of my favorite storylines was the ‘Mystery Hot Girl’ pursuit. My college roommate was a bit ‘new-to-everything’ and ended up falling for a girl down the hall. He didn’t know how to tell her, so I devised that he write a note and we would attach it to his Roomba and send it to her. I’ll never forget piloting the remote control vacuum with the fate of his love life on its back. We smashed it a few times into her door, and when she opened it, we bolted. I’d like to say that they ended up getting married….but it didn’t work out. Instead, we used it as inspiration for one of the sequences in the show.
Q: Give us your craziest college story.
C: My craziest college story (or at least the one that comes to mind right now) actually happened my freshman year at UCSD. (I was a sophomore transfer to UCLA). Me and a buddy on my floor really wanted to explore the UCSD campus at night. So we decked ourselves out in black and armed ourselves with flashlights to see what back alleys and secret passages we could find. We ended up staying up all night and brought our exploration to the edge of campus near Blacks Beach where there is a long winding path that leads you down some cliffs to the ocean. We decided to run down and catch the sunrise, but along the way, I saw this strange mass climbing up the path towards us. It looked too big to be a person and was moving in a strange gait. We were both convinced that we were approaching a strange ocean creature that had wandered up the path- a sea lion maybe? We both got really freaked out and debated going back. But after we decided that it was for the good of science that we document this creature, we pushed on. We got closer and closer to the ‘thing’ and saw that it was black on both ends with a large white stripe in the middle, but it was still too dark to see clearly. Finally, we got close enough to really see it and saw that the white stripe wasn’t a pattern of fur or anything, it was actually a bare butt. The ‘creature’ was a super-drunk surfer who was wandering aimlessly up the path with his surfboard and his pants around his ankles. We asked if he was okay, and all he could mutter was, ‘rough night’ and then kept walking. I later found out that that person was Jim Brandon from Dorm Life. (Okay, that last part is a lie).
Q: What was your favorite episode?
C: I think my favorite episode is ‘Pranks’. Early on in the writing of that episode, I was a huge advocate for the ‘Window of Pane’ (the glass prank Mike pulls on Marshall). A lot of other people thought we should come up with something a bit easier to do, but I fought tooth-and-nail for it. We ended up finding a polycarbonate dealer who cut a piece to fit the doorframe perfectly. It was our most expensive prop on the first season and we knew we were only going to get one take to pull it off. While we were shooting it, we had all of the cast and crew gathered around to watch. When it worked, everyone broke out into cheers. I think that episode is a lot of fun, and also brings up one of my favorite on-set memories. [This is also one of my favorite episodes!]
Q: College is the best four years of your life. True/False?
Q: If you had to give advice to a new freshman student living in the dorms, what five things would you tell them?
C: 1) Hang out with your floor.
2) Play floor bowling as often as possible.
3) Don’t IM your roommate while they’re sitting across from you.
4) Bring a surprise pizza to one of your floor government meetings, even if you’re not in it.
5) Watch Dorm Life!
Q: What do you think college has REALLY taught you?
C: To be a sponge for new experiences and people. Having an open mind in college sets a precedent that you can carry with you into the ‘real world’.
Q: I recently acted in a friend’s five-minute movie and until that experience, I never really understood how much work and time went into something like this. We spent about two days filming for a five minute short film. For Dorm Life, the episodes ranged from 5-14 minutes, about how much time did you actually spend filming per episode?
Both seasons of Dorm Life were shot like feature films- meaning that we shot most of the episodes and scenes out of sequence so that we could be most efficient with people’s schedules and each new location. Season 1 was shot in 16 days (about 12 hour days with one day off) and season 2 was shot in 21 days. After production, I spent about two months editing season 1 and about five months editing season 2.
Q: Can you tell us any behind-the-scenes secrets from Dorm Life? Any juicy gossip?
C: I’m pretty sure that every cast member in Dorm Life has, at one point, kissed each other.
Q: The show was incredibly popular on Hulu and it was even nominated for awards in which you had won a couple. Did you ever imagine Dorm Life to become this successful? What has the success done for you and all of the cast?
C: I think we all knew we were tapping into something special when we set out to make the series. Not in a ‘let’s make this and get a bunch of awards!’ way, but rather, doing our best to make a college show from the college student point of view. I think the success of Dorm Life stems from that sense of familiarity for people who went to college.
Q: This is off topic, but can you tell me a little bit about That Juggler Guy?
C: Haha! Absolutely! “That Juggler Guy” is my ‘juggling persona’. Yes, I said that right. I have been a juggler since I was twelve years old and started a juggling group with my brother and a friend called ‘The Tahoe Jugglers’. We performed around town while I was at high school and did a bunch of charity events and street performing. When I went to UCLA, I was ‘The UCLA Juggler’ (a position me and my friend came up with) and performed at the football and basketball games which got me to travel with the basketball team to three final four tournaments and a couple football bowl games. I went on to juggle in Hong Kong, Beijing, Copenhagen, and just got into Cirque du Soleil as a physical actor. Like I said before…I’m a bit more circus than Mike Sanders.
Q: Do you think the webisode could ever be turned into a television show? Would you push it if you had the chance to?
C: We’ve always considered pushing Dorm Life to TV and would love the opportunity. Hopefully it comes sooner than later before we need to turn it into ‘Retirement Community Life.’
Q: I spent the first few days of my winter break off from college to watch both seasons of Dorm Life. I was so mad that the last season was actually released back in 2009 and that I was almost two years too late. Any chance of a third season?
C: It’s definitely possible! I know the third season is still being pitched around. It’s just a matter of the right pieces falling into place.
Q: Chris, what are all of you and the cast up to now? What can we expect from you in the future?
C: All of us dorm lifers are still pursuing careers in the arts. Jim Brandon and Brian Singleton just finished the NBC ‘Writers on the Verge’ program in hopes of getting staffed as TV writers. Jessie Gaskell is the head writer for E!’s TV show “The Dish”. And the rest of us are still pursuing various creative paths in acting, writing, and producing. [Note: You can also catch Nora Kirkpatrick on ABC Family’s Greek!]
I spent my 2010 getting agents for acting and writing and am excited to start creating again. I’m going to be making a bunch of comedic shorts (with some Dorm Lifers) this year while writing a feature film to make next year. My first feature film (which I made when I was 18 in tribute to my late father) just came out on iTunes last week. It’s my first filmmaking attempt, so I still cringe a bit at it, but it’s a great feeling to get it distributed. Plus all the proceeds go to a scholarship I set up at my old high school for kids who have overcome adversity and pursued a career in the arts. You can rent or buy it here:
Beyond that, the Dorm Life group is still chugging away in LA. After all, season 3 is always a possibility…
To watch every single Dorm Life episode, click HERE! Your ability to be unproductive begins now.