Write what you know — it's one of the first lessons in any creative writing class. And that's what worked for Dr. Giri Swami, whose new web television series, Headshop, was inspired by patients in Memphis emergency rooms suffering from the ill effects of synthetic drug abuse.
After treating numerous patients who had taken the synthetic amphetamine known as bath salts as far back as 2009 but finding little information on bath salts in medical journals, Swami headed to local head shops to find out more.
The result is Swami's directorial debut, which is equal parts Sopranos, Mad Men, and Weeds with plenty of nudity, violence, and, of course, drug use. The story line centers around nine characters whose lives intersect at a local head shop, where a fictional designer drug similar to bath salts is being sold.
After coming up with the initial idea for Headshop, Swami overcame a number of obstacles before seeing his series take form. In addition to meeting people who made promises but didn't deliver, Swami said he was amazed at the lack of infrastructure in the local filmmaking community.
"Being a doctor is very professionalized. There are all these licenses, all these tests. In the film world, there's nothing like that," Swami said. "I met people who were like, 'I'm a producer' or 'I'm a writer,' but they ended up not being able to do anything for me. The first round of production was extremely difficult. There was a lot of trial by fire, and it was probably the hardest thing I've ever done."
After a successful second round of production, Headshop finally began to take shape in 2011. Shot in a little under 40 days, Headshop doesn't look like a first attempt at directing, mostly because of the $400,000 budget largely supplied by Swami. In addition to professional editing and production, Swami also enlisted local professional actors and had members of alt-country act Lucero write an original soundtrack.
Actress Sommers Kelly said working with first-time director Swami was a learning experience, mostly due to the improvisations that Swami expected.
"Giri didn't have experience with actors. He had to learn how actors prepare," Kelly said. "Sometimes he wanted something done in five minutes, and it takes actors longer than that to get ready for a scene. It was a giant learning experience for everyone."
After a successful screening two weeks ago at the Five-in-One Social Club, Swami decided to abandon his initial plan of charging a fee to view the final two episodes of Headshop, allowing for the whole series to be viewed on YouTube or Vimeo for free.
"I wanted to follow the Netflix plan, where you can watch the whole thing as you want," Swami said. "If you want to watch [Headshop] once a week, you can, but I'm giving you the option."
Viewership for Headshop has been strong since its initial screening, with 45 percent of viewers who watched episode one going on to episode two and 90 percent of those viewers watching episode three. Swami said that although he enjoyed creating a series, his next project will be a horror film shot in Memphis.
All six episodes of Headshop can be found on YouTube, Vimeo, or at Swami's studio website, shockcollarstudio.com.