A long time ago, we used to be friends with a whip-smart teen sleuth named Veronica Mars, and now, thanks to a historic Kickstarter campaign, Mars is back in Neptune -- this time on the big screen; star Kristen Bell and creator Rob Thomas took EW along for the roller-coaster revival of the beloved cult TV series

By Jeff Jensen
Updated February 14, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Someone is about to die. Something is about to get crushed. Catastrophe is about to strike the world of Veronica Mars.

It’s after midnight in a scrappy neighborhood of Long Beach, Calif., doubling tonight as the fictional coastal town of Neptune. The locals are clustered on the sidewalk or gathered at their windows, sipping cocktails and snapping photos. They have a ringside seat for a miracle: the resurrection of Veronica Mars, the cult TV series starring Kristen Bell as a hotshot teen private investigator, reanimated as a feature film seven years after cancellation. It’s day 16 of a breakneck 23-day shoot, and something important needs to happen before the crack of dawn: A rhino-tough utility truck must charge at top speed and smash into a dumpy hatchback pulling out of a driveway, then turn and smash into it again. The collisions will leave one character dead and another fighting for life. It ends with Veronica screaming.

Kristen Bell sits at a monitor inside a darkened parking garage as creator Rob Thomas and his crew prepare to roll vehicles and film. Jason Dohring, who plays Veronica’s bad-boy ex-boyfriend Logan, stands behind her, along with Enrico Colantoni, who plays her father. The mood is tense. Nothing can go wrong. If Veronica Mars were being made with Fast & Furious money, everyone could come back tomorrow and try again with another car (or 12) if the crew missed the shot. But a $5.7 million flick working fast and furiously to finish has no such luxury. Bell describes the backup plan: a close-up on Veronica’s face as she witnesses the mayhem from her house. “But if we did that,” she says, “you’d know we cheated. We only have one shot at this.”

Adding to the pressure felt by Bell & Co. — not just tonight, but every day — is the sense of obligation to the 91,585 investors backing the movie, a number that might even include you. Veronica Mars is the first major-studio film to be financed via Kickstarter. The ambition was to raise $2 million in 30 days. Mars fans — that’s “Marshmallows” to you — met the goal in a mere 11 hours, and then kept on giving, motivated by the fulfillment of a dream, plus nifty incentives. (T-shirts. Autographed scripts. Walk-on roles. A premiere screening in your hometown.) “Never before have we had a platform that allows people to tell us what they want,” says Bell. “We said, ‘Guys! We really want to do it again. Do you?’ And they answered!”

The campaign was a media sensation unto itself. Twitter went bonkers. Pundits debated the ethics of Hollywood using crowd-funded donations to bankroll its livelihood. Creators and fans of fallen TV shows began wondering aloud if they too could Kickstart anew. “We’re guinea pigs for a whole new model of filmmaking,” says Thomas. “It would be nice to be a success.”

Final judgments are still weeks away. (Four, to be exact, as the PG-13 film opens March 14.) Tonight, success is measured by a cool car crash. “Please! No clapping, no applause!” yells the assistant director to the tipsy spectators. Thomas calls “Action!” The truck revs, peels, and smashes. The hatchback spins as if clocked by a roundhouse punch. Asked if he thinks he got the shot, Thomas gives a response that pretty much sums up everything: “The jury’s still out. Ask me again later.”

Veronica Mars has fanboy grief in its very DNA. The TV show, which began on UPN in 2004, might never have existed at all if it weren’t for the demise of another gone-too-soon cult classic. “The cancellation of Freaks and Geeks was really on my mind when I created Veronica Mars,” says Thomas, 48, who cut his TV teeth writing for Dawson’s Creek and before that was a high school educator and author of YA novels before YA novels were cool. “I really wanted to do a show about teenagers that felt real.”

He chose a teen-detective angle because he was interested in the genre and thought a high concept would make it more marketable. Thomas made his hero a girl in part because what he wanted most was a show that reflected a generation of kids turned “prematurely jaded” by calamity and media influence, and he believed embodying those attitudes in a once-popular mean girl — transformed by tragedy into a champion of outcasts, misfits, and assorted freaks and geeks — made for a more compelling treatment of innocence lost. “She’s the queen of the disenfranchised,” says Bell, 33, of her breakout role. “I also think that for a lot of girls, she is almost a little superhero.” Thomas also aimed to offer a different take on a “strong” female on television. “I wanted Veronica to be smarter than people,” he says. “The thing that she has going for her that I think is the toughest thing for teenage girls is her self-confidence. She doesn’t give a s— what you think about her. She’s been down so far, the silliness of high school can’t lay her low anymore. I thought it would excite people to see a girl who wasn’t going to let what some cute boy thought of her dictate how she felt about herself.” As for Veronica’s appeal among adults: “Veronica says all the things you wish you could have said to those a–holes in high school,” explains Bell. “She is your revisionist history.”

Veronica Mars was a show of its time, for its time, and ahead of its time. Along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, and Gilmore Girls, Veronica was part of a wave of well-written female-centric dramas that captured the imaginations of women, critics, and plenty of dudes, too. It debuted the same season as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Desperate Housewives — a flashpoint for the emergence of serialized, big-saga television and Internet-based fandom. Those fans — 2.5 million of them on average in season 1 — made Mars part of the shipper phenomenon by lobbying for a romance between Veronica and Logan, the troubled son of movie stars. “I honestly don’t know why people like the guy,” says Dohring, 31, who’s a more mild-mannered personality off screen. “I watch some of those old episodes and go, ‘Jeez, Jay, you’re such a dick!'”

Veronica‘s third season premiered during the first year of The CW’s existence. Under pressure to grow the show’s audience, Thomas continually tweaked the storytelling, yielding inconsistent quality and ratings. Not wanting Veronica to end, he wrote a season finale that deliberately left everything unresolved. He wanted fans to clamor for more, and thus make it hard for The CW to cancel the show. The network was unmoved. Thomas and Bell then shot a 12-minute presentation for a new approach to the series, casting Veronica as an FBI agent. No sale. The CW canceled Mars in 2007. Fittingly, the last episode made Veronica the town pariah, and the last shot left her out in the cold. Her only consolation was that she was dating a boy who loved her to pieces. Unfortunately for the shippers, that boy was the sweet if regrettably named nerd Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), not Logan. Not only was this salt in the wound for fans, but the idea of Veronica and Logan forever adrift and separated symbolized their broken relationship with the show. “I would agree with that,” says Bell. “The thing that can never be. This idea resonates, too: You wanted — want — to see them save each other.”

After the cancellation, Thomas and Bell started talking about making a low-budget film that would provide closure or, even better, keep the story going. Warner Bros., which owned the property, was becoming increasingly wired for blockbuster franchises (Harry Potter, The Dark Knight) and had no interest in a small movie that only promised, at best, small returns. Yet fans kept asking, and Bell and Thomas kept wanting. “Veronica is the best friend that I would beg not to move to Europe,” says Bell. “I feel so much responsibility to the girls that this show has affected. There is a role model here that I care about. I think when you get that amount of love from a fan base, you would be an a–hole if you didn’t give it back.”

In 2011 Thomas became intrigued by crowdsourcing and began hatching the Kickstarter plan with his agent. The thinking: Crowdfunding would minimize the financial risk for Warner Bros. and generate massive — and free — publicity. If the fans failed to rally, well, everyone would have certain (if humiliating) proof of lifelessness on Mars. Thomas pitched the plan to Eva Davis, head of Warner Premiere, a direct-to-DVD division. Davis liked the idea. The deal: Thomas and Bell would raise funds to pay for production (the minimum: $2 million; the ideal: $5 million). Warner Bros. would cover all other costs and support a brief theatrical run if the studio saw enough interest. Thomas and Bell shot a funny fund-raising video at Bell’s home with Dohring, Colantoni, and Ryan Hansen (who played the loutish Dick Casablancas), with the intention of launching ASAP. Thomas now says that would have been a mistake: In truth, he had not fully researched the business of crowdfunding. “It would have been a mess,” he admits. “I was flying blind in a moment of inspiration.”

And then Veronica was grounded all over again. In August 2012, Warner Bros. shuttered its direct-to-DVD business. Thomas says everything went “dormant” for months. But the studio didn’t give up on the project, and eventually it landed in the digital distribution unit. “It was very innovative,” says chief digital officer Thomas Gewecke. So the Kickstarter was kick-started anew, this time smarter and better: Warner Bros. decided a significant theatrical release was not only viable, it was necessary to entice fans to donate. During the delay, Thomas and Bell became more active on Twitter, nurtured Marshmallow hopes, and waited for the day when they would mush their followers toward Kickstarter. The campaign finally launched on March 13, 2013. One day later, Team Veronica knew what they’d be doing that summer.

The film that Thomas wrote with frequent collaborator Diane Ruggiero is designed to please fans — and maybe play with them, too. Key themes: coming home, reclaiming the past and clinging too tightly to it, possessive relationships, and even pop culture fandom. Thomas says he began with the last image of the movie, then worked backward to build the story. The movie, he says, “is about Veronica accepting her destiny.”

Set nine years after the events of season 3, Veronica Mars begins with the heroine living in New York City with Piz (!) and starting a career as a lawyer. She’s drawn back to Neptune — and the PI life she’s trying to put behind her — after that rascal Logan is accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend. Conveniently, a high school reunion brings together Veronica’s old friends and frenemies. Winks and in-jokes abound. New Girl‘s Max Greenfield reprises his role as Deputy Leo in a cameo that cleverly addresses the FBI season that never was. And shippers, prepare: Veronica may be sweet on Piz at the start, but Logan comes on strong. “I’m just flattered that anyone would consider me competition for Jason Dohring,” says Chris Lowell. “That guy is so charming and too cool for school. My dream would be if Piz and Logan ended up together.” (SPOILER ALERT! That doesn’t happen.)

If you’re not a Marshmallow, you’ll find a movie that’s been recently tweaked with you in mind: Following an October test screening, Warner Bros. asked Thomas and Bell for a narrated prologue that would introduce Veronica’s world to newcomers. The studio also gave Thomas money to shoot additional scenes last December to clarify plot points and satisfy the test audience’s desire to see more of Veronica with her father. Says Gewecke: “I think it’s going to appeal to a broader audience of people who maybe aren’t familiar with Veronica Mars but have heard about it. We’re excited about the prospects for it.” (Bell’s recent blockbuster turn — as the voice of Anna in Disney’s Frozen — can’t hurt either.) It helps Veronica‘s chances of flourishing as a low-budget movie (or movies) that the things that made the series so entertaining don’t cost much. Says Dohring: “We weren’t an action show. We’re full of relationships, emotion, wit, charm, and clever dialogue. That was our brand.” But even then, there is only so much a movie — big-budget or low — can do for fans. No matter how much nostalgic fun we might have with this return trip to Neptune, a one-night stand with Veronica Mars: The Movie can’t replace our severed relationship with Veronica Mars: The Series. She may be a revisionist-history superhero, but she’s not a time machine. Says Colantoni: “I’m sort of a purist — I love and miss the television show. I love and miss how detailed her world was on TV. It’s just the medium. You can create something bigger in television. It’s not by any means a criticism of the movie or wanting a franchise of movies. I’ll always be loyal to that world, because I was carried away by those 65 episodes of that girl’s life.”

Whatever happens at the box office, Veronica Mars will continue to live on after the release of the film with a series of novels published by Vintage and overseen by Thomas; the first one hits in March. Thomas and Bell also want to make more Mars, be it as low-budget movies or a Netflix series. The team won’t rule out another Kickstarter campaign, but they’d prefer that Warner Bros. foot the bill moving forward. “I know what number we’d have to hit to do it again,” says Bell, who naturally declined to divulge said number. “I think we can do it. So I am not too pessimistic about this being the last round.”

In the same way they took to the Internet to revive Veronica Mars, Thomas and Bell say they will be looking to the Internet next month to measure their achievement. “When people write the epitaph on this, I want it to be ‘It was a success. The fans were happy. The studio made money.’ And then I think I want us to be ‘fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes,” says Thomas. “If I get all three of those, I will be totally happy.” Adds Bell: “My gauge will be my Twitter account. I don’t look at numbers. I never have.” She stops and reconsiders. “Wait. I lie. I look at the Frozen numbers. Only because it’s really fun. Once we got past $300 million, I was like, ‘YES! Finally! I am in a successful film!'” Now maybe Marshmallow Nation can give her another one.