One Sacramento man proves it’s hip to be square
Joe Gillis’ new PBS series Beyond Geek spotlights all things nerdy
Joe Gillis knows all about sacrificing dreams to tackle the realities of life: going to work, raising kids, paying bills. Still, there came a point when Gillis’ “dream project”—the new PBS series Beyond Geek—had waited just about long enough.
“I actually shot the first episode four years ago,” says Gillis. “I wrote it, started putting it together back then, then years later reached a point when I finally was able to get a distributor lined up. It’s been a long process.”
The idea to create the show had long been filed away somewhere in the corner of Gillis’ mind, years before shooting that first episode. But there was always a reason to put off doing it, including raising kids, work and a family tragedy.
The show, which combines the Sacramento director’s two lifelong passions of filming and geek culture, is essentially a documentary about some of the nerdy things he likes, but with a twist: The cast features three rotating hosts—two of whom (Nate Lake and Dan Reynoso, a.k.a. Danny Secretion) are from Sacramento—who completely immerse themselves in the worlds of the devoted enthusiasts they’re interviewing.
Now, it’s finally done. The series launched in October and airs weekly on PBS affiliates across the nation. But in order to complete it, Gillis had to force himself to commit wholeheartedly to the project—in the very same way some of the show’s subjects dedicate themselves to stuff like cosplay and video games.
Three episodes have aired so far, and three remain. The next installment, “Floating to Space” (6 p.m. Saturday, November 22 on KVIE2) focuses on the Rancho Cordova company JP Aerospace, a group attempting to launch balloons into space.
The local region is particularly rich in potential subject matter, Gillis says.
“Sacramento is extremely nerdy and I’ve been to things like Star Trek conventions and you get made fun of,” says Gillis. “The goal is to show something that you might not realize is cool or you might make fun of, but by the end of the episode you’ll like what they’re doing.”
In fact, growing up in Sacramento helped him learn about many of the activities covered in the show, and most episodes have some sort of local tie-in.
As a kid and teen however, Gillis was most passionate about TV and film—even though it remained a hobby rather than a career for most of his life. As an adult, he says, feeding his kids was more important than following his dream of being a director. Rather, Gillis worked various nine-to-five jobs for about a decade before really pursuing it.
Then, in 2004, he found a job as product marketing manager at a software company, and found himself getting paid to create videos for a living. In 2008 Gillis got a job at the Idea Factory, a production company that was just starting to produce the DIY Network TV show Yard Crashers.
By the time he took that job, Gillis says he finally felt he had the production and editing skills needed to create a documentary about nerd and geek culture.
But work success got in the way. About six months after he started, the Idea Factory “blew up” after the launch of Yard Crashers and changed its name to Big Table Media. For years, Gillis was too busy working “mega hours” writing, producing and editing for Big Table Media to work on his own project.
Priorities, however, changed after tragedy struck: Four years ago, Gillis’ sister died in a car accident. Her death shook him greatly.
“It was one of those things where you realize you might not have all the time in the world, and so I realized I needed to get started going on my dream project,” he says. “As sad as it sounds, that was the pushing off point really.”
And so he started piecing together Beyond Geek. First, that meant partnering with his wife Rachel to executive produce the show. They searched for the right hosts, people with little or no television experience who’d be relatable to an “average viewer.” This included a guy named Nate Lake (who was born in Sacramento but now works in advertising in Los Angeles) and Dan Reynoso (who Joe knew from shooting music videos for some of Reynoso’s bands such as the Knockoffs). Later, they hired Utah writer Sage Michael to tackle content for the show’s web site—and then decided he’d make a good host, too.
Reynoso said he was glad for the opportunity.
“I don’t have any formal training as far as television goes,” he says. “Joe just called me up and said, ’would you be interested in doing this?’ and I have a habit of saying ’yes’ to every project.”
In 2013, the couple looked at their bank account and realized they had enough saved up, and had enough credit, to complete the project. When they found a distributor and got an air date, Joe left his day job. Then, it was just a matter of firming up the details.
Things moved fast from there.
“The next thing I know I’m getting a phone call saying, ’I need to know which weekends you can fly out to Pennsylvania and what weekend you can fly down to Southern California,’” says Reynoso, “and the next thing you know I’m in front of a camera set in front of a camera crew. I didn’t know that the wheels were already turning and that this was definitely going to happen no matter what.”
In one episode, Reynoso profiles a band called 8-bit Weapon that makes music with old computers and video game sound chips. In another upcoming episode tentatively set to air in December, Reynoso uses a weapon to fire blanks in the reenactment of a World War II battle.
“I had to participate in a battle reenactment and basically climb around the mountains and forest, knowing that someone’s pointing a gun at me somewhere hiding up in a tree,” he says. “It was just kind of like being thrown into the deep end, and I had to learn how to swim.”
Reynoso says his favorite part of the shoot was interviewing a real World War II survivor, but the most intense moment happened when he encountered a certain “badass” reenactor who plays the part of a German soldier.
“One of the more notorious participants is a gentleman by the name of Yergen, and me being the newbie, I set the goal high: I told myself, ’I’m going to get him,’” he said. “You have to watch the show to find out if the newbie takes out basically the best of the best out there.”
Now that the first season has been picked up by PBS stations across 36 states, Reynoso and Gillis hope to get together again to shoot another season.
Besides, both agree it’s pretty much “cool” to be a nerd now.
“You have multiple comic conventions in the United States that have surpassed 100,000 people in attendance,” says Gillis. “That tells you it’s pop culture at that point.
“I think everybody’s realizing that deep down, we all are geeks and nerds.”