A half-dozen lights, just as many cameras, and 20-plus crew were members stuffed into the living room of an unassuming home in an equally unassuming south Los Angeles neighborhood. Between the equipment and the bodies, it was basically impossible to move an inch as the camera focused on Kristen Bell and Ryan Hansen. Just then, the director called action and Hansen launched into an explanation of how — and why — a heinous crime was committed, the kind of speech Veronica Mars fans have come to expect Bell's Veronica to deliver.
In the middle of Hansen's monologue, Bell tried, but failed, to stifle a sneeze. While that would render the take unusable on most Hollywood productions, director Viet Nguyen let the scene play out before cut was yelled and he walked up to an apologetic Bell. "That was great," Nguyen said with a mile-wide smile. "I'm actually going to use that take."
Such is Play It Again, Dick — a Hollywood-skewering webseries that doubles as the latest extension of Rob Thomas' Veronica Mars franchise. Revolving around Hansen's attempt to capitalize on the cast's resurgence in popularity following the 2014 feature film, the series, running on The CW's online content portal CW Seed, once again reunites the cast, this time under very different circumstances.
Embracing an absurdly comedic tone, Play It Again, Dick — which chronicles the misguided production of an even more misguided show-within-a-show centering on self-professed playboy Dick Casablancas (Hansen), now a private investigator for hire — calls for each of the actors to play a slightly skewed version of themselves, as well as reprise their beloved Veronica Mars character. "It's like fan porn," Hansen told BuzzFeed News with a laugh. "It's a fun way to see everybody be goofy, but still have the characters together."
Initially designed as a promotional tool for the 2014 Veronica Mars feature film, Thomas realized the concept's potential after The CW expressed interest in funding it. "It was supposed to be a really guerilla-style shoot before the movie came out," Hansen said. "Then, when The CW wanted to make it, Rob decided if his name was going to be on it, we should really do it right."
Five months later, with scripts completed for eight episodes, the cast gathered in that unassuming two-story home, just south of Wilshire Boulevard, for a chockablock eight-day shoot. On this day, the fifth of the shoot, Bell and Hansen were on hand to film the series' climax. The day's big scene featured Hansen, who literally unmasked the perpetrator (yes, with some shades of Scooby-Doo), delivering the aforementioned monologue as Bell — playing Bell playing Veronica Mars — stood passively to the side, simply existing to offer ego-fluffing compliments and marvel at Dick's detective skills through gritted teeth. That is, when she could keep her sneezes at bay.
Joining Bell and Hansen in the scene were Percy Daggs III (Wallace Fennel), Amanda Noret (Madison Sinclair), Lisa Thornhill (Celeste Kane), Ryan Devlin (Mercer Hayes), and Rob Buckley, a Mars universe newbie. Additionally, the webseries also brought back Jason Dohring (Logan Echolls), Chris Lowell (Stosh "Piz" Piznarski), Enrico Colantoni (Keith Mars), Daran Norris (Cliff McCormack), Francis Capra (Eli "Weevil" Navarro), and Kyle Gallner (who played the late Cassidy "Beaver" Casablancas). Most are juggling two characters — the actors play themselves as well as the characters in the titular show-within-a-show — while others only appear in the fictionalized universe. The result is a high-concept, if slightly confusing, endeavor that vexed even the actors when pressed to explain.
"Ryan's version of this Wallace is different from Rob's version of Wallace because of Percy's ambition to be very different from the other Wallace," Daggs told BuzzFeed News when asked to explain his character. "The version I play of myself here wants to be a badass a bit more. He wants to break out and do something different; he doesn't want to just get the file, he wants to get in the car and help get the bad guy."
But not all the actors stray as far from their true selves for the series. "The Kristen that's in this movie is extremely close to my personality, because I adore Ryan and I would do anything for him," Bell said, perched in the shade of a dozen enormous trees that enshrouded the house's backyard. "The only difference is that I don't poo-poo him as much as the Kristen in this webseries. We have an extremely jovial, brother/sister relationship and we are able to pal around with that. And off camera, have a whole helluva a lot of fun."
The strong sense of family and camaraderie Bell spoke of permeated the entire set, which was almost completely comprised of crew members who previously worked on at least one Thomas project (either Veronica Mars, Party Down, Cupid, or his latest, The CW's iZombie). Much like the Mars alumni, once you're in Thomas' brain, he can't stop bringing you back.
"Rob quickly gets to know his actor's strong suits," Buckley said of his new iZombie boss, who specifically created this Play It Again, Dick character for him. "I love it because there's a shorthand that starts to exists between the two of you, so there's less time of explaining. If he's writing a certain character, he knows which of us can do it well. If he's got something in mind for you, it's like he's given you a gift."
Although, the actor momentarily was taken aback when he found out exactly which character Thomas had written for him this time around. "I play this effeminate choreographer, who ends up having to act in the show, but he's, like, the world's worst actor — and they'd been calling the character 'Buckley' the entire time," he said, with a laugh. "It's kind of a mixed bag when you tell me the character's strongest traits are that he's an effeminate bad actor and you've named him after me. But, of course I was in."
Daggs didn't hesitate to sign on either, although spending more time with his Veronica Mars family was only part of the project's immediate attraction. "I haven't had the opportunity to do much like this in my career," he said about the show's highly satirical tone. "This is so over the top and absurd, it's kind of amazing. But I trust anything these guys are doing with Veronica Mars, so it was a no-brainer for me. I said yes right away."
Bell's participation, however, was initially in doubt, given her increasingly packed schedule — and pregnancy. But the actress never imagined a world in which she was not a part of the group's next undertaking. "First and foremost, these people are a priority for me," she said. "Working for Rob is a priority for me. And this character is a priority for me. All of those things combined means we can give a little something extra to the people who want it. And if the fans will enjoy it, we'll keep doing it."
The success of Play It Again, Dick will likely determine exactly how much more the fans get. While the film's 2013 Kickstarter campaign earned a record-breaking $5.7 million and caused nearly as many articles about the future of Hollywood independent filmmaking to be written, the movie underperformed in theaters, only earning an additional $3.4 million, leading many to question just how big the appetite for Mars truly is.
For Bell, the last year and a half has shown her that — despite the numbers — the fans are voracious, and will welcome a return to Neptune as often as possible. "They've now earned a stake in this project," she said of the ever-growing legion of loyal fans. "Previously we could say, 'We want to do this,' but they are the reason we've been able to breathe life into this again, so I'd like to know what they want. Do they want us to keep making low-budget webseries like this? Great. Then we'll do it. Do they want another movie? Great. We'll do it. Do they want to try and get it on TV again? Great. We'll do it. When people ask me what I foresee from Veronica, I want to do what the fans want."
That sentiment is shared by everyone in the cast, as none of the actors believe Play It Again, Dick will be the final leg of this 10-year journey. "There's this feeling that we'll get to do this again," said Hansen, who now shoulders the burden of keeping the fanbase engaged. "I could really fuck things up [but] the fans are so die-hard. It truly feels like Veronica Mars will live on for a long time."