November 18, 2014

It came from the BSLC: MaroonTV cultivates murder, suspense

The premise of Ivy, the latest original series from student broadcasting station MaroonTV, is weird. As the show’s casting call informs us (you may have seen this—it appeared on numerous listhosts): “When grad student Markus is working late one night in his biology lab, a mysteriously mutated plant specimen kills one of his lab assistants.” So begins a dark spiral of murder, mayhem, and mystery at the University of Chicago as Markus scrambles to cover up the death and continue his grizzly research project. We’ve all been there.

If a sci-fi murder mystery about a man-eating plant is something of a leap for student television, the concept came naturally to show runner and head writer, second-year Tate Hamilton. “I was walking through the quad last fall,” Hamilton explained to me in a recent chat, “and, you know, there’s ivy all over the buildings, and something just struck me—like, what if the ivy’s not just covering the buildings; what if it’s strangling them? Just the idea of ivy as an antagonistic force was interesting to me.”

The old ivy-as-murderer story is well trodden territory at this point—one is reminded immediately of The Ruins, that terrifyingly bad 2008 horror flick—and the Ivy team is keen to distance themselves from other, less scrupulous man-eating plant vehicles. “The plant itself is not going to be, like, an Audrey 2, Little Shop of Horrors type thing; the way we have it set up is the plant paralyzes you, and then suffocates you by slowly growing over you,” Hamilton said. “It’s not this wild thing that’s attacking people—it’s more of a creeping terror.” Comparisons to UChicago’s course load are apt.

Still, beyond the requisite in-jokes (“Like, maybe when they’re walking across the quad, people with nerf guns will be running around,), Hamilton and his co-writers, fourth-year Maayan Olshan and third-year Lilian Huang, are generally playing their maroon sweaters close to the chest.  There’ll be plenty of gratuitous shots of neo-Gothic architecture, sure, and they’ve secured permission to shoot on-location at the BSLC, but the Ivy crew will be aiming for a more general take on the already highly specific nature of experimental botany at high-level research institutions. “We’d like to make a show that’s relevant to UChicago students, but not so full of UC hicago references that it wouldn’t be interesting to people outside the school.” Dean Boyer will have very few cameo appearances.

Unfortunately, the cast and crew will still need to film around the very real horrors of campus life—namely, winter weather and busy actors (the crew plans to film every weekend of winter quarter). “The two leads will be putting in some major time, for sure,” Hamilton said. “I myself will have cut back on some RSOs.” The production process is long—they plan to air the show at the end of Spring Quarter—and appropriately DIY, with a skeleton crew of intrepid multitaskers at the helm (at least one of the writers will also be on camera duty). They’ll have to get creative with the show’s central premise: “We don’t want to be extremely campy…. Obviously we’re going to have to film some of the more gruesome death scenes off-camera,” Hamilton said. Even HBO would have trouble doing carnivorous plants convincingly, but MaroonTV will try its best.

Pending success, Hamilton hopes that Ivy will do for MaroonTV what House of Cards has done for Netflix in terms of brand recognition. “MaroonTV has been kind of under the radar so far. We hope that this project will raise awareness for the group and get people interested in all aspects of the station, not just its original programming,” Hamilton said. “More funding would be fantastic, too—but it’s also about showing people what you can do with an RSO if you put your mind to it.” Stuff that includes, apparently, sci-fi murder mysteries about man-eating plants in the BSLC.

“It’s sure to be something interesting, with lots of twists and cliffhangers. And it’s fun to see the UChicago campus on screen,” Hamilton said of the five-part series. “If you like to see the entire populace of BJ being killed by a plant, this is probably your show.” Grab the popcorn, folks.

Auditions for Ivy will be held Sunday, 4–6 p.m., Monday 8–10 p.m. and Tuesday 8–10 p.m. in Logan 603. No botany experience necessary.