'West Wing' Star Richard Schiff Returns to Politics in 'Chasing the Hill' (Exclusive)

The forthcoming web series will explore the complicated process of running for Congress in a fictional story that plans to take a docudrama approach.

In the year of a presidential election, with a wave of political dramas soon to hit TV screens and theaters, indie filmmaker Brent Roske is hoping his upcoming modestly budgeted web series designed for pay per view distribution will get on the viewer’s ballots as well.

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Chasing The Hill, scheduled to hit the web on May 15,will star Richard Schiff, the veteran actor who played White House communications director Toby Ziegler for the seven seasons on the heralded NBC drama West Wing, which ended its run in 2006. He will be joined by a cast of familiar and new faces. Schiff, who is also a producer on the project, is busy with a new TV series pilot and several upcoming movie roles, but decided to take on Chasing The Hill in order to “take something (being distributed) on pay per view and see what we can do with it.”

“What interests me is the trail people have to get on to be successful in politics today,” says Schiff, “which is very different than even five or ten years ago because of the Supreme Court decision (Citizens United). It’s all about Pac money now. It’s about how much you can raise to spend on TV advertising and negative campaigning.”

The fictional plot will feature appearances from real-life politicians, adding a kind of docudrama feeling to accompany the series' guerilla-style approach to give the series a sense of realism. Many scenes will be shot on location with hand-held cameras.

Among those from the political world who are participating are former Virginia Governor and Senator Chuck Robb, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, California Rep. Mel Levine, Libertarian party chairman Mark Hinkle and community organizer Marcy Winograd.

The 46-year-old Congresswoman, who will have a family and political life, will portray a independent-minded Democrat. The show will reflect that it is a presidential election year, but Roske insists it isn’t partisan. He says it is “party agnostic,” and that it will mainly focus on "campaigning and the ins and out’s of the strategy involved.”

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The first episode will also feature Current TV talk show host Cenk Uygur, who recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his show The Young Turks. He will do an interview on the actual set of his Current TV show in Culver City with the fictional Congresswoman running for re-election. “I'll be playing a fast-talking news anchor who challenges politicians and asks them questions the mainstream media won't,” says Uygur, who in the past has also been an actor. “I would have been offended if they asked anyone else to play that part. That's the role of my life.”

Schiff is playing what he describes as a “political operative,” which is part political consultant and part pollster.

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Schiff is taking on Chasing The Hill at a very busy time in his career. He recently did a role in an untitled Fox TV pilot for showrunner Mindy Kaling (The Office). He also has a role in Showtime’s House of Lies, and appears in the indie drama Knife Fight (along with another former West Wing star, Rob Lowe), the crime drama Fire With Fire, which also stars Bruce Willis, and more.

He is doing this political project for well under his usual salary, even though Schiff has been hesitant to take on any political roles since West Wing. “You don’t always like to go back to territory you have already covered,” says Schiff. “On West Wing I played a certain character and I’m associated with that worldwide. I go to London and I get interviewed on the BBC about American politics because I’m seen as being in the political world. So I’ve been careful as to what projects in that world I want to be part of or not. “

He insists it wasn’t about being stereotyped but rather about doing a range of acting roles. “If I spent seven years playing a cowboy I’d probably want to do something else for a while,” says Schiff. “But if somebody offers me a cowboy role that’s fun, I might say yes.”

Which is what he did when Roske brought a script for the first episode to a reading with a group Schiff has long been involved with. The group includes actors, writers and directors who get together to talk and read scripts and other material. After they read Roske’s script, recalls Schiff,  “I said 'It’s fun'. He said, 'Well, I wrote it for you'. I said ‘OK’ and we’ve been talking ever since.”

Roske is the former creative director for the NBC-owned TV stations, who switched to indie filmmaking. On June 1, he is scheduled to begin directing Alice Stands Up, an independent feature being made on a budget of about $250,000 which stars Sally Kirkland, about a woman who has to pick herself up and start again as an effect of the recession. Kirkland also starred in a short Roske made, African Chelsea, which got favorable notices playing several film festivals.

Chasing The Hill is something Roske had been mulling since he was a volunteer on the Obama campaign in 2008. When the production of Alice Stands Up was held up while they waited for more financing, he decided to try and do something where he would have more control on every level.

“This is a complete byproduct of my impatience with standard industry practice,” says Roske. “The immediacy of TV on the web will allow us to get feedback rapidly. And the freedom of being able to do it ourselves creatively -- in how we make it, how we sell it and how its distributed -- is something that appeals to  me and I know it appealed to Richard as well. He will have an active voice in the evolution of the storyline.”

The episodes, all shot on location, will be about 30 minutes but could be longer. “It’s going to be as long as feels right,” says Roske. “I’m excited about that.” The first episode, called Awesomeness Is A Warm Gun, runs 37 minutes.

The actors will work under a SAG new media agreement, which means they get some pay upfront but most will be on the backend depending on the success of the show. Others actors already set to participate include Ken Davitian (Borat, The Artist) and Hayden Black (Goodnight Burbank). That means, at least initially, that success depends on how many people pay $2.49 for a link to download episodes from a new web site, ChasingTheHill.com. There will be no commercials.

Roske says after the first episode posts in mid-May, and they will wait about six weeks to put up the second episode. After that they hope to post a new episode every week or two until they complete the first batch of ten, and then they will decide if it goes forward for a second season.

The marketing budget is on a par with the rest of the production, which means it is nominal. Roske is hoping that his show will become part of the political conversation along with the bigger TV shows and movies, and viral marketing will help bring in an audience. “There is a conversation out there,” says Roske. “I just want to plug into it.”

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