As is often the case in life, things aren’t always what they seem to be. Beneath the surface, what we think we really know sometimes turns out to be wrong, and the people we claim to know really well can sometimes be far different than who we ever imagined them to be.

In the new web series thriller THE STRANGER, such a scenario takes place in the fictional small town of Evergreen, Tennessee. It’s a place that’s just like any other small town in America, but it’s one that soon finds itself in the middle of a terrifying mystery – that of the unsolved murder of a young collegian named Jessica Langley. From there, the incident sets in motion a series of unexplained events that put Evergreen on edge, and brings together two people determined to find out who (or what) killed Jessica, and why.

Created by Dustin Street via his production company Big Small Town Studios, THE STRANGER debuted the first 8 episodes of its 15 episode first season on April 30, 2013 on the popular video platform Blip.TV, after its first four episodes debuted 2 nights earlier before a sellout crowd at the legendary Capitol Cinema in Erwin, Tennessee, where the series is filmed. After going on midseason hiatus to complete the long, arduous filming process (more on that later), the remaining 7 episodes premiered on November 13, 2013. The series’ first season finale aired this Monday, May 12th.

The series stars Austin Olive as Cal Hayes, a hardened lieutenant and chief investigator for the local police department.

Having returned from a six month suspension due to his mishandling of a drug bust that ended with his fellow lieutenant Nick Daley (played by Doug Reiser) being shot and wounded, Cal ends up taking the case of who killed Jessica (played by Kacy Tiller), and soon finds that he’s got a bigger mystery to solve than the murder of a young woman; one that will dramatically impact the once peaceful town of Evergreen and its residents.

Joining forces with Cal is Nicole James (played by series co-executive producer Tanesha Franklin-White), an aggressive private investigator known for her work with attorneys in prenup lawsuits, but whose professional and personal mission suddenly changes upon Jessica’s death as she vows to seek justice for Jessica and her family.

Together, Nicole and Cal are determined to find the truth behind Jessica’s murder and the mysterious events that have resulted because of it. The series’ large ensemble cast also features Michelle Hachten as Jessica’s cousin Allison, whose life changed forever as a result of Jessica’s death, and who continues to be haunted by both her cousin’s murder and the unknown motive behind it.

For Street, the genesis for what would later become THE STRANGER took shape in his younger years at a time when virtually every child grew up fearing things that go bump in the night.

“The show really began as a seed that took root in my mind in childhood. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I had this recurring dream of a shadowy figure walking down the hallway toward my bedroom door in the middle of the night. I’ve never really been afraid of the dark, but this figure always stuck with me, and the image of the so-called ‘shadow man’ still haunts me,” he recalls.

In his adult years, those haunting memories would soon become the basis for THE STRANGER’s primary male protagonist. As Street explains, the role of Cal grew out of both a need to confront the imaginary villain he saw in his imagination, and out of a life long admiration for some real life heroes who battle real life bad guys every day.

“Later in life, I would develop a hero to combat this figure in my dreams. That sort of archetypical hero was the first basis for Cal Hayes, the male protagonist of The Stranger. I’ve always had a respect and a sort of reverence for cops, so that was the profession I assigned to my hero as a child. To me, making him something very real and very human was a way to help me conquer my fears of something completely inhuman,” he adds.

From there, Street began the extensive process of creating an entire world that would put his past childhood nightmares into a broader context.

“After I decided I wanted to turn this nightmare from childhood into a serialized drama, I realized the true task was going to be giving that simple, unsettling image some context and adding in all of the things that make a show a show,” Street recalls.

“When that time came, I turned to Drew Howell (series co-executive producer/co-showrunner w/Street), a close friend of mine. Drew and I have been making up crazy stories together for years. Oddly enough, it started with a fan-fiction story set in the world of Power Rangers, of all things. During those days of making up these really deep, really dark stories set in that world, that’s when I would really form a bond with Drew over the art of storytelling. Those crazy plots and characters we would come up with really drew me to work with him again on something that was serious and that would actually get made.”

The task of finding the actors who would bring THE STRANGER to life was just as extensive. Street and his production team placed numerous ads in local newspapers and school magazines throughout Erwin, along with casting notices on Craigslist. Combined, those ads generated enormous interest among the local acting community, and after countless auditions, casting and re-casting, Street assembled the performers who would make up the large ensemble cast of his series.

Filming the series’ 15 episodes, though, proved to be more of a challenge than Street, his production crew or his cast could have ever anticipated. “Production on the first season was a long, arduous affair, as the majority of the film crew (and cast) were brand new to this level of project, and even new to filmmaking in general. The early days of filming were a major learning process, and our learning curve continued all the way through the first season,” Street remembers.

Beginning in July 2012 (on Friday the 13th, no less), principal photography began on the first eight episodes of THE STRANGER, and it quickly became evident that Street’s team had a lot to learn regarding the ins and outs of filmmaking.

While most episodes were shot on Saturdays, the long hours and relentless pace of shooting each episode would soon take a toll on the show’s production crew. After a brief hiatus in November, production resumed in January of 2013 and the 44 day shoot was finally completed last December.

Despite those difficulties, THE STRANGER has already achieved tremendous success and a steady fan base primarily due to the show’s characters, its strong storytelling and the seemingly mysterious world that those characters inhabit. Even more so, says Street, it’s how they try to make sense of the extraordinary situation they find themselves in that makes THE STRANGER such a big hit with its viewers.

“A huge part of the success of our show has been our audience’s ability to connect with our characters in the way we have presented them in the narrative. Barb Tanner (Hannah’s close friend and assistant in her investigation) masterfully portrayed by Hannah Faith Rader, is a prime example of that connection. Barb literally is the audience’s bridge into this world,” Street says.

“There’s all this crazy stuff going on, and Barb really wants to be a part of it, but she doesn’t understand it at all. She relies on explanations from the other characters around her in order to fit into this story and play her role in the exposition. That’s what helps keep the audience on track, and the beauty of it is that as Barb gets further into it, that character does get more of her own moments to shine and lend something new to the story that we didn’t see from her before.”

Along with great characters and compelling storytelling, each episode of THE STRANGER takes full advantage of two of the great aspects of web series production – there’s no set structure for a typical episode, and each story can be told in as little or as much time as needed.

As a result, episodes of THE STRANGER typically run anywhere from 14-30 minutes, demonstrating that each episode takes the time to tell its story, and to get the viewers involved throughout. It’s a style of storytelling that Street and his production team had in mind long before a single frame was shot, and one he feels truly makes his series unique.

“Most web series, especially those in the mystery/thriller genre, have to run along at this pretty frenetic pace when it comes to plot development. We knew from the beginning that we really wanted to take our time with this story and pace it out in just such a way that it’s slow enough to be thorough, but fast enough to hold your interest. I think that’s something that sets our series apart: It’s that you really get the details in every single scene. All the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there and presented somewhere in the narrative, you just have to pay attention to it,” he says.

Heavily inspired by the work of LOST co-creator/writer/executive producer Damon Lindelof, Street has long sought to create stories that will resonate with viewers just as much as Lindelof’s work made an impact on him as a filmmaker. THE STRANGER is such an example of how Street utilizes Lindelof’s emphasis on compelling characters (like those on LOST and in other films/TV series) who try as hard as they can to make sense of unbelievable circumstances to create a powerful story all his own.

“That’s what I want people to take away from THE STRANGER, or any future work I do as well. It’s all about the connections a viewer can make with a living, breathing human being on the screen. How am I like this person? How am I not like this person? What makes this person tick? What would I do if I were given the choice this person was given?  Those are the kinds of questions we hope we can get our viewers to ask, and that’s why Damon’s impact on my life as a creator has been so meaningful. He’s the one who taught me that those questions are the right ones,” Street says.

Amid the incredible mystery and bizarre occurrences that take place throughout each episode of THE STRANGER, Street says there’s one major theme that’s always prominent, and will instantly resonate with viewers: “Redemption. It’s all about redemption. What is it? How does someone earn it? Do people deserve it? Why or why not? Does it come with conditions? What is the penance for it? How much does it really cost? These are all major questions that we have begun to pose in our series,” he says.

Adds Street: “We try not to be too obvious about it, because we believe a theme should be something that lies beneath the surface of what is actually seen on the screen. It should be a seed that gets planted in your mind because of something you’ve watched or heard. But our goal in that department is to make you think about redemption. The biggest compound question the show poses, over the course of the entire story, is going to be ‘who really deserves redemption, and how do they get it?”

(Note: Regarding closed-captioning of THE STRANGER, Street says: “The show is not yet closed-captioned; however we work with an actor who is an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing. We have a plan in place to collaborate with her and with other professionals to caption our first season by summer’s end. The captions will be available on Blip and all syndicated outlets, as well as on our DVD release of the first season.”)




The series’ first episode can be viewed below: