Interview with ‘Delusional Donovan’ producers Devan McGrath and Mark “Zebra” Thomas

Portland may not be a film and television capital on the scale of New York or LA, but we’ve got an increasing number of small screen shows filming here. And while we’re excited for the big releases, everyone knows Portland’s heart lives with the indie production. It’s only one of the many reasons I’m so excited to see Delusional Donovan a new locally made TV show premiering its pilot this Saturday at Mississippi Studios.

The darkly humorous sitcom follows the hallucinations of 8-year-old Donovan, who lives in in an imaginary world after witnessing a traumatic event. He is aided by his enabling mother, who tries to craft the world to his delusions, and his stoner neighbors. Writer and Producer Mark “Zebra” Thomas described it to sponsor publication BePortland:

The story is based on this overbearing very bizarre mother who does everything she can to manipulate the world around her, so Donovan only sees these sweet innocent visions. It’s not about her building a bridge between the real world and his world, it’s about making the entire world what his world sort of really is, and bringing that world to him.

qPDX took a break to sit down with Thomas, along with Director Devan McGrath to tell us more about the Episode 1: Stray Cat and people behind the scenes of DD, including producer and writer John Camacho, production manager Allison May, director of photography Josh Kletzkin, production designer Eric Sellers and actors Amber Martin, Splendora, and Dylan Hall as Donovan.

qPDX: Where did the idea for Delusional Donovan come from? Tell us a little about it.

ZEBRA:  I was actually at a silent ten day meditation retreat when I had the idea.   I was sitting in this meditation hall and suddenly started laughing uncontrollably.  I am a writer and have never had this experience where I sort of just downloaded these characters without much work.  Then the process of developing the series was where the trials and joys of the creative process started to rear its ugly head.

I know you have performance history with Sissyboy. How did this influence the creation process for Delusional Donovan? Was there just the inspiration of wanting to put Lee Kyle in a show?

ZEBRA:  That was part of it.  This show is all about what devan and lee and I learned together as artists.  I really wanted to make a big polished extension of all the chaotic work we did for portland’s night life so many years ago.

DEVAN: Since Sissyboy officially called it quits in 2007, a lot of us have continued to work together on various projects. I went to film school in Chicago after Sissyboy, and coming back to Portland for this project has been a beautiful full-circle kind of thing. It’s been a way to re-visit the energy and sense of humor and collaborations that we forged during the Sissyboy days, but in a format that’s more polished and mature. But still crass and raw in all the right ways.

How did you find the rest of the ensemble cast? Are they all Portlanders? How was it working with them?

McGrath with young star Dylan Hall as Donovan

DEVAN: After Lee Kyle (who we flew in from New Orleans where he now lives), the next person we cast was Amber Martin. We’d worked with her before, and knew she would be brilliant in the role of Tammy, Splendora’s girlfriend, it was just a matter of if we could afford to fly her out from New York, and if we could make the timing work. And we really lucked out; she was in town for Mattachine in early August, so we pushed our shoot schedule a week early so we could shoot with her for three days right afterwards while she was still in town. The rest of the cast is Portland-based, and we found through an audition process, pulling from at least three agencies, casting boards, Craigslist, and friends-of-theatre-friends. It felt like it took forever, but even now, watching the show, I am so in love with every single performance, and feel grateful to have been able to work with so many extremely talented people.

How did you find your young star Dylan Hall and how was it working with a child actor?

DEVAN: We saw a lot of kids, expecting to cast a young-looking teenager, but 8-year-old Dylan just nailed it. It was a nerve-wracking day for me when we offered him the role, because it also meant we were sending his parents the complete script for the first time. There’s plenty of things in this show that parents might not want their kids associated with. But we were up-front about the fact that even though the show has an adult sense of humor, we’d be sensitive with their kid. And his family was so sweet, and Dylan was amazing. He surprised me so many times by the questions he’d ask about the scene, and how much he really understood what was going on. Sometimes more than we’d hoped he’d understand. If all child actors were as great to work with as Dylan, I’d direct “Newsies” remakes for the rest of my career.

How was it working together as one writer, one director, both producers? Were you both on the set every day? Do you plan to stay in these roles going forward?

On the set with Dr. Dictor, a specialist in vaginoplasty

DEVAN: What was actually very liberating for me was that Zebra was the Executive Producer and show creator, and at the end of the day, he’s the boss. So my job was to bring my expertise, to have strong opinions and to lobby for them, but ultimately it was his call. And we actually have very different senses of humor, and so we disagreed on many things, but never fought about anything. Which is surprising given how stubborn we both are. I mean passionate.

Were the series to go into production, I’d love to continue directing some episodes, and maybe even write a few. The other writer John Camacho and I both have permanent “Developed By” credits, so even if the hypothetical network fires us all, we’ll always be a part of it.

Speaking of, now that you’ve shot the pilot do you have plans for shooting the rest of the first season? Has that already been written?

ZEBRA:  The full first season is in development.  there are about four shows written and a rough draft of the arc of the first season.  We ideally want to use this pilot as a marketing tool to sell the show and make it much more high budget before it hits the tv waves.

DEVAN: Oh my god, there’s more? Hold on, I’ma take a nap, talk to me about “rest of the season” after.

What are some of your goals for DD? Where would you like to see it broadcast? Where can we see it, besides the premiere this Saturday at Mississippi Studios?

We are looking at agencies to help market our show to networks.  we are still a bit at a loss as to how this will get sold, but we are talking to a lot of people and have faith this final product is very fun to watch and will get attention with networks.

Who do you envision as your audience for DD? Sissyboy and previous work brings to mind very adult, raunchy acts but this show is about a kid. How has that changed your process and/or who you are making the show for?

DEVAN: It’s still definitely intended for an adult audience, but we used the raunchy bits sparingly. We certainly drew a more conservative line in the sand, and were very conscious about never crossing it, which I think is less to do with a child being involved, and more that we do want this to appeal to a larger audience. Also, the things that people love in a bar show are different than what draws them into a TV series. You have to ground it in a reality that’s somehow relatable and likable, otherwise the double entendres and partial nudity get old quick.

Whoever the target audience is I’m sure there will be plenty of outrageous and delusional moments. What are some of the crazy characters, costumes, scenes we can expect to see in the pilot or the rest of the first season?

ZEBRA:  Classic gender bending, new gender bending, creepy gender bending, sexy gender bending…etc etc etc.

DEVAN: More bitchslaps than a Dynasty marathon.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with qPDX?

DEVAN: I’m so honored to have had the chance to work with such a badass crew and cast. This is hands-down the most fun I’ve ever had on a set, and we wrapped early almost every shoot day, which is unheard of. We’re excited for the public to see the show, but Saturday’s premiere is also about honoring everyone’s hard work, and celebrating what we all made together. Side note: John Cameron Mitchell loved the show, so by the transitive property, if you enjoyed Hedwig, you’ll love Donovan.

And here’s a little video sneak peak from their Kickstarter campaign to tide you over until tomorrow.

1 comment to Interview with ‘Delusional Donovan’ producers Devan McGrath and Mark “Zebra” Thomas