Extraordinary tales of fantasy in mythical, far off lands has been a huge part of film and TV over the past few decades, especially thanks to the success of the LORD OF THE RINGS movie franchise (adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels), HBO’s hit series GAME OF THRONES, Starz’s OUTLANDER, plus SyFy/BBC’s MERLIN, the syndicated LEGEND OF THE SEEKER and many other similar projects.

While those movies and TV shows have entertained millions of people throughout the world, web series are also making a considerable contribution to the fantasy genre.

The latest entry is REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK, created by Kate Madison and Christopher Dane (who also co-stars, in addition to writing and set design). REN premieres its first season of 5 episodes through Mythica Entertainment’s official Youtube channel on March 1st. (See additional links below).

REN stars Sophie Skelton, who was recently announced as one of the top leads in season 2 of OUTLANDER, in the series’ title role; that of a young, yet resourceful woman whose life is changed forever following a fateful meeting with a mysterious spirit. It’s at that time that Ren discovers she’s been branded with an ancient, yet unmistakably evil mark; one that instantly makes her an outcast.

Sophie Skelton, starring as the title character in REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

Sophie Skelton, starring as the title character in REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

Having been forced to abandon her home and family, including her widowed father Dagron (Nick Cornwall) and younger brother Baynon (James Malpas), Ren seeks to find out the truth behind the infamous sign she now wears.

Duran Fulton Brown also stars as the dashing, yet fierce mercenary Hunter, who accompanies Ren on her mission, while gradually experiencing his own personal self-discovery. In addition, Dane plays the role of Karn, who has served as a mentor and guide to Ren up till this point.

Coming off the overwhelming success of Madison’s award-winning LORD OF THE RINGS fan prequel film BORN OF HOPE, she wanted to continue to create entertaining films that would both feed her love of the fantasy genre, while appealing to fans of shows like GAME OF THRONES, MERLIN, LEGEND OF THE SEEKER and the like. Yet, as she recalls, BORN OF HOPE came with a heavy price tag.

“I’ve had itchy feet to do something else since BORN OF HOPE, and I’m still surprised how long it took to get the next project out there, but unfortunately, it pretty much always comes back to money, and that with BORN OF HOPE, I had money in the bank and that’s why I started making the project in the first place, because I could,” remembers Madison. “And with REN or with any other project, I had nothing left.”

Duran Fulton-Brown, co-star of REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

Duran Fulton Brown, co-star of REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

Madison and Dane would soon discover that web series were not only an evolving, growing form of entertainment, but also one that has become increasingly viable among indie filmmakers.

That, combined with the goals of creating a fantasy project that would be uniquely original exhibiting a strong, yet relatable female heroine at its center, proved to be the impetus for what would become REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

“…We were trying to do things the proper way, so it took that time and I was very keen to get out there and make something new,” says Madison. “I think as with some of my projects, my original idea was, ‘maybe if I make it about a girl who does this, maybe I can play the part.’  And then, when I start to go into it properly, I decide that actually, if I was casting it, I wouldn’t cast myself, and so, that usually changes.”

The inspiration for Ren herself, and the extraordinary journey she begins in the show’s first season came, interestingly enough, from another popular source of fantasy entertainment: video games.

“If you look at a lot of fantasy games, a lot of characters have tattoos, markings and that sort of thing, and it seems to be a big thing in fantasy. And I thought, well, that’s kind of a cool idea,” recalls Madison.

Through the series’ heroine, Madison sought to turn that common aspect of fantasy-based characters completely on its head. “What if, though, instead of it being the norm and everybody having markings and different things, what if it’s not and this girl who gets this marking becomes an outcast and persecuted because of it?”

REN creator Kate Madison, on the set.

REN creator Kate Madison, on the set.

Creating a series that would win over devotees of existing fantasy franchises was also important for Madison.

“As the idea of REN developed, I thought it was actually something that a lot of people would like,” she says. “A lot of it was inspired by LEGEND OF THE SEEKER, which only lasted a couple of seasons, and I know there was a hell of a lot of people who wanted to see more of that show. I felt like with REN, to a certain degree, we could help fill that void.”

With compelling characters, thrilling action sequences, and a powerful story at its forefront, REN is sure to appeal not just to viewers of shows like GAME OF THRONES, OUTLANDER and fans of movies and games in the fantasy genre. The dynamic between its female and male leads, and the way it seeks to balance aggressive action with humor and fun, also helps REN stand out.

”Although it’s mostly about Ren, we’ve got Hunter as a very prominent character, so (it’s) a male and female kind of lead going off on a quest,” adds Madison. “We’re trying to keep REN kind of in a middle ground between the darkness of GAME OF THRONES and the lighthearted-ness of LEGEND OF THE SEEKER or MERLIN.”

Similarities aside, Madison feels that REN’s characters and their journeys are at the heart of what really makes it work. ”…It’s similar to GAME OF THRONES in the sense that especially at the beginning, it’s very much about humans and non-magical things,” she says. “There’s a few sort of magical elements in REN; the whole getting the mark is kind of a supernatural thing, but it’s very much a human story and it’s character-driven.”

Crucial to the success of any film, TV show or web series is its audience. Since online content and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram seemingly go hand in hand, Madison knows that as an independently produced show, REN has a major advantage over more well-funded, major studio projects – the fans can interact directly with those in charge.

REN co-creator/co-star Christopher Dane.

REN co-creator/co-star Christopher Dane.

“When you’re doing an independent production, you have to engage with the audience, because you’re literally going straight from you to the audience,” Madison says. “There is no middle man. It’s brilliant because they can literally come up to you and ask a question of the actual creator. That’s so hard to do on bigger productions.”

For Madison, valuable feedback from viewers through its social media presence on Facebook and Twitter (see links below) isn’t just an added perk of creating and distributing REN as an original online fantasy drama. It’s also a way that she and the production team can figure out ways to improve the show’s storyline and characters, according to the wants and desires of their audience.

“The joy of doing it as a web series was that it was an open-ended story that we can discover as we go along and as the audience talk about certain things, we’ll be following their comments,” she says. “And so, if the audience starts going ‘ah! I’d love to hear more about this or maybe they should visit that place,” then we can write that into the next season.”

Filmed on location in Wales, Cambridgeshire and Epping Forest (all in the U.K.), with a majority of the series shot in a specially constructed “studio” (actually a converted warehouse located in a car park outside Cambridge) that served as REN’s village set, each episode is distinctive not just because of its characters and story, but especially because of its impressive visual aesthetic and production quality, both of which were achieved on an incredibly small budget.

PR3_CrewInActionThanks to a dedicated production team consisting of volunteers hailing from various parts of the world (Germany, Scotland, the Netherlands, just to name a few), filming all 5 episodes of REN was a rewarding process for Madison, Dane and all involved on both sides of the camera.

Recalling their contribution, Madison says that the volunteer’s incredible determination to get REN from script to screen was a sight to behold.

“…They bring a real passion to the project and a real enthusiasm to make it happen and nobody wants to scrimp on anything,” she says. “We had a lot of generosity. I mean, that’s how you make this. I couldn’t do it on my own. It has to happen because of the team of people that come together to make it happen.

With many of REN’s sets literally salvaged from trash dumps, plus several that were about to be recycled, the show’s production crew worked long hours to construct and design them before cameras rolled. Spearheading the effort was Dane, who searched far and wide for anything that could help bring new purpose to materials that otherwise would have been headed for the scrap heap.

“I have to take my hat off to him (Dane), because he basically was the main man behind all of that. He would tirelessly go out with the van, picking up flats from London that we were sort of recycling, or we were both diving in skips and getting things,” adds Madison. “He was off finding someone who was doing a loft replacement and getting all the wood from that.”

REN fight choreographer Ronin Traynor.

REN fight choreographer Ronin Traynor.

The elaborate fight sequences, choreographed by Ronin Traynor, also enhance each episode of REN.

For Brown, taking on the intense physicality of those scenes would be both a learning experience, and an introduction to the true scope of what was really required of him as an actor in the series.

“His very first days on set were just fighting and running around and jumping over things and stuff, (and it was) kind of (a) baptism (by) fire straight into the show and into action,” Madison says. “He’s probably got the most action to do in the first season at least. So, he had various fights to do with various soldiers, but it went very well.”

Despite the lack of time to prepare and rehearse each of those sequences, Madison feels that those action set pieces turned out much better than expected in season 1 of REN. Yet, she adds, there’s plenty of room to grow.

“I learned a lot for the second season and how we’d shoot fights, how we’d be rehearsing them, all that sort of stuff,” she says. “But looking at what we’ve got in the edit at the moment, it’s all looking pretty exciting.”

Through the coming-of-age story arc of Ren’s character, her struggles, and how she manages to take on the challenges she finds herself facing in each episode, there are also opportunities for younger viewers to identify with, and possibly learn from, the journey of the show’s protagonist in their own lives.

L-R: Nick Cornwall and Sophie Skelton, co-stars of REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

L-R: Nick Cornwall and Sophie Skelton, co-stars of REN: THE GIRL WITH THE MARK.

For Madison, that aspect of REN may be the most valuable of all.

“I think the joy of a show like this is there can be lots of different messages that we can put in there to help people. So hopefully, it will help people like young teenagers trying to figure out their place in the world,” she says.

“Maybe this will help them, or to sort of reassure them that you don’t have to know what your aim is in life at such an early age,” she adds. “It (REN)’s very much about finding your place in the world, and your purpose in the world, and also discovering the qualities that you have that maybe you don’t realize you have.”

A series with plenty of action, drama, and most of all, heart, REN is much more than just another addition to the popular fantasy genre. While Madison feels that REN gives viewers a perfect opportunity to take a momentary escape from life’s troubles, it’s also a show that’s for anyone who’s ever tried to figure out what their destiny is in the real world.

“Ren very much is thrown into a world she doesn’t know, that she thinks she knows, but she doesn’t, and has to sort of rediscover herself, and this place that she lives (in), and grow up very quickly,” says Madison, who sums up REN’s concept this way: “It’s all about truth and loyalty and friendship and family. To a certain degree, I think we’re gonna discover that as we go along.”

NOTE: Madison says each episode of REN will be closed-captioned/subtitled.

ON THE WEB: http://www.rentheseries.com

YOUTUBE (Mythica Entertainment’s Channel): http://www.youtube.com/user/MythicaEntertainment

FACEBOOK: http://www.facebook.com/rentheseries

TWITTER: http://twitter.com/rentheseries