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These days, Priestley directs the teens

BURBANK, Calif. — Believe it or not, it has been 19 years since "Beverly Hills, 90210" premiered on Fox.

And Jason Priestley, who played that nice young Brandon Walsh, will turn 40 next week.

He's a director these days, and his latest project is the Web-only series "The Lake" on thewb.com. It's reminiscent of the summer episodes of "90210" that aired in that show's early days — a bunch of attractive teenagers hanging out by the water as all sorts of soapy complications play out.

Making a Web series is sort of the equivalent of independent filmmaking — low budget, not much time and the need for everybody to pull together to pull it off.

"Our entire production time was 12 days, so it was a rather quick shoot," Priestley said. "We had a lot of material to shoot every day. But I think that because of the wonderful cast that we have assembled here, they really were able to pull it off.

"But it was a great opportunity, as well, because I got to work in this new medium and discover what the medium can do and what the medium can't do."

And, according to everyone involved, Priestley is largely responsible for making it work. Executive producer Jordan Levin — whose resume includes a stint as the head programmer at The WB television network — said, "He's one of the best directors I've ever worked with. This had so little margin for error."

"He has such a generous way and a kind way about him that puts everyone at ease, especially within the constraints of how we had to work," said Elisa Donovan, who plays one of the moms in "The Lake" and acted with Priestley in several episodes of "90210" in 1995-96.

"It's really pretty extraordinary. He's just really great."

As for the young actors in the cast of "The Lake," well, they were certainly aware of Priestley — even though they weren't exactly in the "90210" demographic when the show was on the air.

"I was a little young for that," said Heather Ann Davis. "But I had a really cool neighbor who was a couple years older than me, and she always wore the '90210' shirt. I'd say, 'Oh, I love that show, too.' "

Mim Drew, who plays another of the adults on "The Lake," recalled watching "90210" with her friends while she was in college.

"It was great. And then to walk into the room and to work with Jason was a real treat," she said. "He's a real actor's director. It was a lot of fun."

TIGHT BUDGET: These days, your average hourlong drama on TV costs somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million bucks.

"The Lake" was operating under a somewhat more restricted budget. TV types — even online types — are loathe to release budget figures. But when asked if the 12 episodes cost about what one TV episode would, Levin quickly replied, "Oh, no. We wish."

Half the cost of one episode?

"That would be nice," he said.

Mid-six figures?

That got a thumbs-down sign from Levin.

"People didn't quite have to bring their own lunches, but we definitely worked with a much smaller crew than is generally used when shooting television," said Priestley, who directed 15 episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and has directed episodes of "The Outer Limits," "7th Heaven" and "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."

"It was an incredibly streamlined production ... It was very lean and mean, because we had to be."

WATCHING ONLINE: Episodes of thewb.com's "The Lake" range from about eight to 12 minutes. They're being released four at a time on successive Mondays.

Episodes 1-4 went online last week; episodes 5-8 go online today (Monday, Aug, 17); episodes 9-12 go online Monday, Aug. 24.

There's an overall arc to the story — the 12 episodes add up to about the length of a feature film — but they're designed so that you can watch them one at a time.

NO RETURN: Priestley directed an episode of The CW's "90210," but he's not planning to reprise his role of Brandon Walsh.

"I don't think so," he said. "There's no reason for Brandon to ever show up at the new-and-improved West Beverly High."

And, yes, there was a touch of sarcasm in that response.

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com