Matt Okine swaps stand-up for television as the creator of The Other Guy, the latest series to blur the boundaries between comedy and drama. Alongside co-star Valene Kane, he tells DQ about creating television with a dose of reality.
From Fleabag and Catastrophe to Girls, Transparent and Master of None, the boundary between comedy-drama and dramatic comedy has never been more blurred. These shows have perfected the art of making us laugh while grounding their stories in reality and throwing in plenty of deep and meaningful life lessons.
A new entry into this expanding genre is The Other Guy, created by stand-up comic and radio presenter Matt Okine and commissioned by Australian SVoD platform Stan. Described as a funny, raw and poignant look at breaking up in the digital age, it follows radio host AJ as he finds himself single after discovering his girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.
Okine (pictured above in The Other Guy) has co-written the series with Becky Lucas and also stars as AJ, opposite Valene Kane as ex-girlfriend Liv and Harriet Dyer as best friend Stevie. It is produced by Aquarius Films alongside distributor Entertainment One.
“It definitely rides that line between comedy and drama,” Okine tells DQ during a trip to London to perform on stage. “I never set out to make a gag-fest and I would say overall it has a very restrained kind of humour. I really didn’t want to try too hard and didn’t want to be making jokes for the sake of it, which I find is a real issue with a lot of things that I watch because it detracts from the believability of the characters. It frustrates me that people go for gags over substance a lot of the time. I really wanted to make a show that felt honest and knew when to hit back and throw the punches at the right time.”
The comic star says the show is far from a Matt Okine documentary, but admits there are elements that have happened in his own life. In particular, he drew on some of his own experiences for the premise of the series – AJ’s break-up with Liv. Perhaps unusually, however, he chose not to show the event that led to the split, instead setting the series several months later when the couple are still living together but dealing with the fallout of the betrayal.
“It’s a weird one – there’s an underlying frustration while you’re watching it because you want the characters to talk about the affair more, and you want them to fight and be frustrated and all these things, but that’s just not real,” Okine explains. “That’s just not how real life works. Everyone thinks they know how they’re going to react to an event like that where you find out your partner’s been cheating on you with your best friend. It would have been really easy to have a scene where my character walks in and finds them in bed and it’s this comic play out of the whole thing. But we find them in a completely different time, way past that event, way past the point of saying sorry. And those are the things I liked about it, that I wanted to feel the tension in those sorts of places instead of more of the tension around them actually fighting. You’ve got to choose your points of conflict for them to mean anything.”
The Other Guy was a lesson in writing for television for Okine, who is more used to the bright lights of a comedy club or the intimate setting of a radio studio. Working with Lucas and script producer Greg Walters, he says he learned a lot about how to craft a drama by building interesting characters and always second-guessing the direction of the script.
“We plotted it out for a couple of days in the writing room and then Becky and I would sit on my couch in my house and type away,” Okine recalls, adding that the toughest part of the process was writing the series while he was still presenting a breakfast radio show. “That almost killed me. It was really difficult getting up at 04.30 every morning, doing my radio show, leaving work at 12.00 and then writing until 19.00. There were certain times where I just didn’t think I would be able to do it.”
Starring opposite Okine, Kane is best known in Britain for emotionally demanding roles in crime drama The Fall and psychological thriller Thirteen, so a comedy was something of a new challenge for the Irish actor.
“I’m not that funny, either on screen or in real life, and Liv isn’t funny. She’s the honest heart of the story,” Kane says of her character. “I loved the writing. Matt and Becky wrote a truthful and honest depiction of break-ups and modern life for people in their 30s, which I hadn’t read. It just struck me like the kind of TV I’ve been enjoying, like Girls – a fucked-up but realistic portrayal of people in their 30s, which we don’t see really.”
That realism meant Kane had to play a character closer to her own personality than any she has portrayed on screen before. She describes that process as “weird and definitely difficult” in the beginning, so much so that she doubted her own acting ability.
“I remember calling my girlfriend and being like, ‘I can’t act, I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she says. “It was a really different muscle to do as little as possible while maintaining as being as real as I could. It was difficult.”
Okine’s biggest challenge could be found in the editing suite, however, as any dreams he might have had about sitting back sipping a margarita once filming was finished swiftly evaporated. Instead, he found himself in meetings discussing whether international audiences might understand the word ‘pokies’ (an Australian term for slot machines), or if a shot of one character looking at another that might infer romantic intentions, with no alternative selections available.
“I had no idea how much crafting still happens in the editing process and how important my input would be at that stage,” he admits. “So for the first few days after we shot, I had a meltdown. I felt like I had been running an 800-metre race and I’d sprinted the first lap and forgotten there was another lap to go and I was exhausted. That was something that really threw me for that first week. I don’t think I was as on top of my game as I should have been.”
One thing that was particularly important to Okine was casting, as he sought to piece together a diverse group of actors he wishes he had seen on screen when he was growing up. “I am really proud to have a show I could have watched 10 or 20 years ago and felt represented on screen,” he adds. “But I don’t want to think this show is this purely because I’m half-African. That would be underselling what we’ve created.
“We cast who was best at the time but definitely in the writing process I wrote a lot of those ethnicities into the show, right down from the first scene where there’s an Indigenous Uber driver. We’re not trying to make huge political statements by having brown people on screen or having more women involved as characters who aren’t sexually driven. We just wanted to make a different show, something that was pure.”
That The Other Guy was made for Stan also played on Okine’s mind, as the six episodes in season one run to three hours in total, less than some feature films. The Australian says he’s satisfied that some people have chosen to watch the entire series in one sitting: “I’m really excited by that because it’s a show that does build. It doesn’t start off with a bang and drip away as the ideas fall off. It reaches a high point later on in the series. It was good to know people could immediately watch that next episode and get some momentum going.
“Also, the fact it’s on a streaming service and wasn’t relying on advertisements meant what we lacked in budget, we made up for with freedom. Stan was so supportive. You can tell everyone is really excited about how quickly the company is building and it’s awesome to be a part of that process. I’m going to look back in 10 or 20 years and be like, I was part of the beginning of that movement within Australia.”
Okine says his heart is now in television and admits he would be disappointed if The Other Guy only ran for one season. “It’s weird, the whole time you go through it thinking, ‘I can’t do this ever again, it’s too difficult,’” he concludes. “I will never give birth to a child – or I don’t foresee myself being able to in my lifetime – but it’s the closest I’ll ever get. The whole process I was thinking it was so painful but, now it’s finished, I feel like another one.”
Iconic Australian film Romper Stomper is getting a small-screen sequel, 25 years after it first appeared in cinemas. Here, producers John Edwards and Dan Edwards and creator Geoffrey Wright tee up the series, which has been commissioned by streamer Stan.
Romper Stomper launched the career of Russell Crowe when it first hit the big screen in 1992. Now 25 years later, the controversial Australian film has inspired a television sequel ordered by SVoD platform Stan.
Picking up after writer/director Geoffrey Wright’s film, which followed a gang of neo-Nazis (led by Crowe’s Hando) in Melbourne, the six-part series is described as a high-stakes crime drama and political thriller that explores the human face of extremism. In particular, it follows a new generation of the activist far right, their anti-fascist counterparts and three young Muslims caught up in the conflict.
The cast includes David Wenham, Sophie Lowe, Toby Wallace and returning stars Jacqueline McKenzie and Dan Wyllie.
The show is produced by Roadshow Rough Diamond in association with Screen Australia and Film Victoria. Its producers are John Edwards and Dan Edwards, with Wright also returning to direct alongside Daina Reid and James Napier Robertson. The series has been written by Wright, Robertson, Omar Musa and Malcolm Knox.
Distributor DCD Rights has already closed a deal for SundanceTV Global to air the series in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Dutch-speaking Benelux, Iberia, Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Here, Wright, John Edwards and Dan Edwards tell DQ more about their decision to bring Romper Stomper to the small screen.
What was behind the decision to bring Romper Stomper to television? John Edwards: When we started with Roadshow, Dan had looked through their distribution history – and one title jumped out as having had such a huge impact on him as a teenager. Dan Edwards: I tracked down Daniel Scharf, who was one of the producers of the original film. We met with Geoff and Daniel the following week. After an hour of quite forthright discussion, we had an embryo of a concept that scared the hell out of all of us, but in such a way that none of us could walk away from it. Geoffrey Wright: Clearly, the ascendancy of Donald Trump in the US made the blended issues of culture, race and politics uppermost in the zeitgeist.
In what way is the film still relevant today and how will you use the original themes in the series? John Edwards: Back then, it was an exciting study of a group at the very fringe of society. Now, extremists who are not so different are right at the centre of political power and our cultural life. Dan Edwards: Over the past few years I had grown interested in international groups like [anti-fascist movement] Antifa. It struck me that the anarchic core of the original film was probably more naturally attributed to the antifascist/anarchist movement than the fascists who in Australia today are more often jet-skiing, outer suburban types with mortgages. Australian fascism is much more hidden in plain sight and, as a result, scarily close to the centre of society. Wright: In the old film, newcomers to society – in this case Western society – are demonised and made the focus of irrational fear and loathing. Today’s newcomers are often second-generation Australian Muslims, and they are the current focus of misplaced fear and loathing.
Had you thought about the series before now?
John Edwards: We decided to make the show while the Trump campaign was gathering, without knowing he would be elected or the subsequent coming out into the open of extreme right-wingers would happen. And this at a time when Australian politics has a hamstrung parliament…
How has the show been developed with Stan, a streaming platform rather than a traditional TV channel, in mind?
John Edwards: Stan was always the right place for a show that was both intrinsically noisy and needing to be executed with a great deal of creative freedom. Dan Edwards: Romper Stomper could almost have been made nowhere else. Stan has shown tremendous courage at every stage of the development and production process.
How has the writing process taken shape? John Edwards: We put together a story room based around Geoffrey, James and Daina [the three directors], and Dan very much wanted to seek out new writers’ voices to drive that room – hence the novelist/journalist Malcolm Knox and the novelist/poet Omar Musa. Dan Edwards: After working on a brief outline with Geoff, we decided to try to reach for new and exciting talent, given the talent drain in Australia to the bigger English-speaking markets. This required a number of quite unusual cold calls. James Napier Robertson was one of the first, as I’d been keen to find an excuse to approach him since watching The Dark Horse, and he joined the writer’s room the following week. I called Omar while he was taking some time off deep in the Indonesian jungle somewhere, and he flew straight into Sydney and into the room, while with Malcolm we had been searching for a project to work on together, as both John and I were big fans of his novels and sports journalism.
Geoffrey, how do you balance writing and directing duties? Wright: The two have always been linked to me, so balance isn’t an issue.
How would you describe the visual style of the series? Wright: That will vary a bit between directors, but it’s safe to say it’s energetic and restless.
What was the decision behind Jacqueline McKenzie and Dan Wyllie reprising their original roles as Gabrielle and Cackles, and how do they fit into the new story? John Edwards: The concept from the get-go was picking up the story a generation later, imagining where the survivors would land. Wright: McKenzie’s role was a major one in the movie and the notion of her being a mother and exploring her relationship with her son is central to the new story. In the case of Wyllie, he played a prominent and memorable character in Hando’s gang and represents the pull of the past on current events.
What are the biggest challenges in producing the show? John Edwards: From the very start, we were determined to have at least two action sequences, with all the energy of the original per episode. That’s very hard to achieve across six episodes, but we’re doing it. Dan Edwards: Telling the story from multiple points of view, given that the original film was more or less from one, the skinheads. Geoff and the team were not interested in remaking the movie, so we’ve stretched what’s possible to tell as many sides to a contemporary story as possible within six hours.
What’s the message behind the series, 25 years after the film? John Edwards: I don’t know about a ‘message,’ but in throwing these different points of view into a plausible mix, there are lots of cautionary tales. Dan Edwards: That’s a hard one… Perhaps that violent extremism is less effective than playing a centrist long game? Wright: The series is about identity and the idea that there is far more to that than simply blood. Blood is not destiny.
What is behind the trend for film-to-TV sequels or reboots? John Edwards: Producers are always looking for a good story, and inspiration can often be found in the past. But for networks, there’s the advantage of there being a brand. In this case ,though, the story is even more important in a contemporary context.
John Jarratt brings the scares in Australian thriller Wolf Creek. He and creator Greg McLean give DQ the lowdown on the murderous series, which is about to air in the UK for the first time.
From Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter to Norman Bates and Heroes villain Sylar, television’s serial killers can take many forms.
But in Mick Taylor, the small screen might have found its most murderous psychopath yet.
The shadowy figure at the centre of the Wolf Creek franchise was first brought to life in two cult movies (Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2) before Australian streamer Stan commissioned a six-part series from the films’ creator and director Greg McLean.
John Jarratt reprises his role as Taylor, who massacres an American family enjoying a holiday in the Australian outback. However, 19-year-old Eve (played by Lucy Fry) survives the attack on her parents and brother and sets out to bring the killer to justice.
Cast as Taylor for the first film, which was released in 2005, the actor admits he was initially apprehensive about playing the character but soon found himself at ease working alongside McLean, who he describes as “one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.”
After an eight-year gap, Wolf Creek 2 arrived in cinemas in 2013 and it wasn’t long afterwards that Jarratt found himself discussing the possibility of bringing Wolf Creek to television.
“Greg rang me and said he’d been keeping something under his hat,” Jarratt recalls. “He said he’d got this crazy idea of turning Wolf Creek into a six-part series. I thought it might be getting a bit gratuitous – I couldn’t see how it would work, so I wasn’t entirely convinced. But I read the scripts and they were very, very good so I had to eat my words and they have done a brilliant job of bringing the scripts to life.”
Adapted for television by McLean, Peter Gawler and Felicity Packard, the series is produced by Screentime in association with Emu Creek Pictures. It is distributed internationally by Zodiak Rights.
McLean says he couldn’t have asked for a better transition from the movies to the series: “I set out to do something we felt was on par with the movies in terms of production value and the look and feel of it, but we also wanted to go a bit further and explore the world and explore the Australian outback in different ways,” he explains. “We got to expand the scope, which was awesome. It’s been a huge hit in Australia. You never know how it’s going to go – it could be crappy or amazing. Our goal was to blow people away with it. I thought we had an interesting story to tell, with all the scary elements of the film but more like a thriller.”
In the first movie, three backpackers are taken hostage by Taylor and, despite escaping briefly, are then hunted down. Though it might have been problematic to take the same structure of the original movie and stretch it over six hours of television, McLean says the series quickly fell into shape when the creative team decided to turn it into a revenge thriller, with Eve on a quest to avenge her parents and brother.
This also allowed time to be spent delving further into Taylor’s character – some of which was explored in several prequel novels released around the time of the second movie – as well as pursuing additional plotlines a movie running time doesn’t allow.
“Scary stories are specific in terms of how they work,” McLean notes. “Trying to keep that atmosphere and tone for a long time is difficult. That’s why this is much more of a crime thriller as opposed to a horror story. Once you have the context of the characters, you can bring in the horror. And with a character like Mick, who has the entire outback to hide in, you can keep trying to track him down. It’s a fugitive story.”
Jarratt describes Mick Taylor as a “happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life larrikin who can hold his hands up and is afraid of nothing – unfortunately he’s a serial killer and a psychopath at the same time.”
But when he’s on set, does Jarratt stay in character? “I’m not a method actor, I say I’m a professional actor. But there are times when you have got to stay within things,” he admits. “You cannot just turn back into John Jarratt and have a coffee break and then go and stab a girl and turn into a psycho. You have to stay within that realm so during the day I’m fairly well in character to an extent. It’s like when you’re a football player sitting on the substitute bench. You sit in a chair and stay interested in the game and are ready to play the opposition. That’s what I’m doing.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Jarratt says he’s not a fan of horror – “I don’t like Freddie Krueger or zombies – the Mick in me wants to obliterate them!” – instead preferring films such as Cape Feare and Psycho, where the scares are grounded in reality, rather than fantasy.
But having become synonymous with his character, was there any doubt he would return for the Wolf Creek series? “You cannot do Silence of the Lambs without Hannibal Lecter,” he says. “Without me, they’re buggered! I have got to be in it or it’s not Wolf Creek.”
McLean says Mick Taylor was born out of a desire to create a character who was the complete opposite to another iconic Australian movie character – Crocodile Dundee, who had three big-screen outings in 1986, 1988 and 2001.
“He has all the looks and sounds of the Australian cliché but possesses all the terrible qualities we don’t talk about – he’s homophobic, racist, sexist,” McLean says of Taylor. “A lot of these things were popular in the fifties. Ideally, society becomes more tolerant and equal but Mick is that throwback character – a nightmare where all these things are taken to the nth degree. If he doesn’t like someone, he kills them and his beliefs justify his actions.”
But unlike Lecter (played by Mads Mikkelsen), for example, whose murderous streak in three seasons of Hannibal was limited by NBC’s status as a broadcast network, there were no such limitations for Taylor on Stan.
“I thought there would be a lot of controls, rules and regulations,” confesses McLean, “but because they’re a streaming service, they said don’t censor it or yourself. They let us do it. We didn’t want it to be gratuitous. The TV series definitely has a different tone to the movies. It has shocking things but it’s not full-on horror. It’s much more about the characters, the environment and the suspense.”
For the series, McLean collaborated with fellow director Tony Tilse (Murder in the Outback, Ash vs Evil Dead), whose experience in the horror genre helped keep the spirit and tone of the movies intact – something that was enhanced further by the decision to replicate the vast isolation of the Australian outback by returning to the same filming locations.
“We realised we had to go back to the locations the film was shot in,” McLean explains. “For television, we cannot really afford to go out there but we made the decision we had to have the same scale. It really gives context to the story. The landscape is one of the biggest characters.
“Mick becomes an omnipotent point of view. There’s the suggestion [later in the series] that there may be some other aspects to Mick, maybe some supernatural elements. But one of the reasons it’s so scary is because it’s an unbelievably isolated place. Add Mick to it and it becomes really scary. It’s vital to Wolf Creek and as important as Mick Taylor.”
For Stan, turning a feature-film franchise into its first original series presented an opportunity to take advantage of an existing fan base and a premise that could create a lot of noise for the SVoD platform.
“Taking a fresh approach to an existing film franchise was an exciting opportunity for us,” explains Nick Forward, Stan’s chief content officer. “By flipping the protagonist and making the story about loss and revenge, it enabled us to go much deeper into the mythology Greg had created with the original films.”
From the start, Stan was “heavily involved” in developing the series, which “exceeded our wildest expectations” when it debuted in May, Forward adds. “It was important to us that the show had a strong female protagonist, and that the tone and genre evolved from the straight-up horror of the movies. Once production was under way, however, we were more than comfortable to step back and let people do their thing. With great on- and off-screen talent across every part of the production, we knew we were in very safe hands.”
Wolf Creek will return to the big screen next year, and McLean confirms there are talks about a second season of the TV show after that.
“Hopefully people really like it,” he says, speaking ahead of the show’s UK debut on Fox on August 30. It will also debut in the US on Pop TV on October 14. “The key thing is we were lucky enough to expand the world of Wolf Creek and that is the Australian outback. It’s one of the last mysterious places on Earth. It’s so vast and so empty and sparsely populated, it’s a place with creepy stories and characters. It’s an original setting for this crime drama. If people like being scared, this is certainly the place to go.”
But will Mick Taylor be back for more? “Evil never dies,” Jarratt jokes. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Sky1’s adaptation of The Last Dragonslayer suggests the scripted market is swinging back towards TV movies and miniseries, as Crackle announces a follow-up to The Art of More.
There are reports this week that UK pay TV channel Sky1 has greenlit a TV adaptation of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel The Last Dragonslayer.
Set in a world where the power of magic is being eroded by technology, it centres on a teenage girl who finds herself mixed up in a prophecy about the death of the last dragon.
The project is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it underlines the continued interest in fantasy projects – The Magicians, Shannara, Game of Thrones and American Gods being a few others – and secondly, because it is reported to be a two-hour single as opposed to an event or returning series.
A few executives in the drama business are starting to support the idea of shorter-run productions because of the sheer volume of scripted content now on the market. Although the received wisdom is that singles are harder to promote than series and offer fewer long-term return, there’s no real point spending tens of millions of dollars on a series that is going to fail because viewers can’t be bothered investing eight or 10 hours of their lives in it. It will be interesting to see if there is now a renaissance in the TV movie format.
Another of this week’s major scripted TV stories is that Sony-owned on-demand service Crackle has commissioned its second original drama series. Following up on The Art of More, starring Dennis Quaid, Crackle has now greenlit a project called Start Up.
Set in Miami and starring Martin Freeman (Fargo, Sherlock, The Hobbit), Start Up explores what happens when a brilliant but controversial tech idea gets incubated with dirty money. The message seems to be that Crackle is mainly interested in backing high-concept thrillers with proven theatrical talent attached.
There are a couple of stories with a Canadian flavour this week. In the first, Canadian broadcaster Global TV has ordered an original drama after partnering with producer/distributor Entertainment One. Called Mary Kills People, the six-parter has been created and written by Tara Armstrong and is set in the world of assisted suicide. It tells the story of a nurse who helps people with terminal illnesses.
The other project is a production partnership between Macmillan Publishers’ in-house film and TV unit and Toronto-based Wildhorse Studios. This one will see the two partners collaborate on a TV adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer novel Shadows on the Hudson. Written in 1957, the book tells the story of Jewish exiles in New York City just after the Second World War and just before the creation of the state of Israel. It was first published in serial form by a Yiddish newspaper called The Forward.
As previous DQ columns have demonstrated, the US TV market offers an almost constant pipeline of new scripted shows. However, this time of year is especially prolific because it is when the major networks greenlight shows from paper to pilot. Like baby turtles heading for the ocean, there will be lots of casualties before we finally see full series being commissioned. But pilot season is a useful indication of the way networks are thinking.
This week, for example, ABC ordered two new legal-themed drama pilot (no real surprise given that one of its biggest hits at present is legally themed show How To Get Away With Murder – congratulations, by the way, to Viola Davis for her latest SAG Awards success). The first of the two pilots is Notorious. Created by Josh Berman and Allie Hagan, the story follows the relationship between “a charismatic attorney and a powerhouse television producer as they attempt to control the media, the justice system, and ultimately, each other.”
The second is the aptly named Conviction, which comes from The Mark Gordon Co, the firm behind ABC political thriller Quantico. This one focuses on the prodigal daughter of a former president who is blackmailed into taking a job at LA’s ‘Conviction Integrity Unit.’ Here, her job is to investigate cases where there’s reasonable suspicion the wrong person may have been convicted of a crime.
The CW, which is the US market’s fifth broadcast network, has also announced a bunch of new pilots including comic-based project Riverdale, Transylvania and an untitled Mars project. These new projects join a previously announced paranormal drama called Frequency from Kevin Williamson, which is a reboot of the 2000 time travel movie of the same name but with a female lead.
Transylvania continues the trend towards fantasy Victoriana (with examples including Penny Dreadful, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Ripper Street, Dickensian and Jekyll & Hyde). Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of a young woman looking for her missing father who goes to Transylvania and she teams up with a wrongfully disgraced Detective. Once there, the duo encounter the usual suspects.
The Mars project is not actually new, having first been talked about in 2013 when it was called Colony. A reimagining of the 400-year-old Roanoke ‘Lost Colony’ mystery, it follows a team of explorers who arrive on Mars to join the first human colony, only to discover that it has vanished. The show is not the only Mars project in the market, with Syfy currently making Red Mars, based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning science fiction series.
In the UK, meanwhile, the Radio Times quotes director Peter Kosminsky saying there will be a second season of Wolf Hall – but it’s not possible yet to say when. According to Kosminsky, nothing can happen until author Hilary Mantel finishes the novel upon which the sequel will be based. Then it needs to be adapted for the screen and slotted into the busy schedules of actors Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. “She [Mantel] has still got at least a year of writing on the novel,” says Kosminsky, “and we have to get it adapted, which will take quite a while because it’s probably going to be quite a thick book. It’s not going to be any time soon I’m afraid. Two years down the road I would think, probably.”
Usually when we talk about greenlights, it’s six to 12 months before a show actually appears. But US comedian Louis CK surprised us all this week by releasing a new series on his website without any advanced warning. Entitled Horace and Pete, it stars Louis CK, Steve Buscemi and Alan Alda in what is being described as a black comedy version of Cheers. The 67-minutes show revolves around an Irish bar and the people who work there and frequent it.
Given the quality of the talent involved it will be interesting to see how it is received and whether it encourages other creatives to drop surprise series via the internet. (Actually, there is something vaguely similar here to the recent story about JJ Abrams making a Cloverfield sequel without telling anyone.)
Finally, on the distribution front, Australian streaming service Stan has become the exclusive home of Showtime’s brand and programming, echoing a similar deal with Sky in Europe.
Australian prodco Essential – behind such shows as Rake and Jack Irish – is spreading its wings internationally. DQ looks at the company’s story so far and gets the inside track on its forthcoming content.
Australia’s Essential Media and Entertainment is going global. The prodco is developing a raft of dramas intended as coproductions with international broadcasters and distributors.
The list of potential partners is impressive – Ian Collie, partner and head of drama at the firm, is discussing numerous projects with the BBC, Channel 4, Lifetime, Sundance Channel, StudioCanal and other broadcasters and distributors.
“We are developing drama projects that are international in scope and would or could work more for those markets than for home broadcasters,” he says.
The plan is to expand the company’s slate from locally commissioned dramas such as Jack Irish (top) and Rake (both for Australian pubcaster ABC) and The Principal (for SBS).
The internationally targeted slate includes Trust and Arc of Fire. The former has Rake’s Richard Roxburgh attached to star as a charismatic cult leader, a former corporate high flyer who creates a grassroots movement of followers who are perceived as a threat to the established order.
Sarah Lambert (creator of Playmaker Media’s Love Child) came up with the concept and will write it alongside Blake Ayshford (Devil’s Playground, The Code, Nowhere Boys) and Kris Mrksa (Glitch, The Slap, Janet King).
Arc of Fire is being developed by Australian author Peter Temple (who wrote the Jack Irish novels and The Broken Shore, the latter adapted as a telemovie by Essential for the ABC) and Mrksa. It’s an international manhunt thriller set in a world where everyone is under surveillance, based on Temple’s novel In the Evil Day.
Two other projects being pitched to international broadcasters are Eden, an eco-thriller surrounding a biotech company in Tasmania, created by Brisbane-based writer Anthony Mullins and Collie; and Open Heart, a psychological thriller about organ transplantation, on which Collie is collaborating with producers Vicki Sugars and Claudia Karvan.
“Although the demand for TV drama in Australia is high, somewhat paradoxically it is harder to get shows away,” Collie says. “Broadcasters like the ABC and SBS are experiencing budgetary cutbacks, as are the federal and state financing agencies, and there are more players in the drama arena, so competition for slots is fierce.
“In essence we are reverse-engineering the process by going to an international player first with our stories and wonderful array of talent often attached, getting those players to drive the development and editorial, and then maybe later looking for an Australian co-financing partner, whether that be a terrestrial broadcaster or a subscription VoD platform.”
Essential’s scripted push in the US is headed by Simonne Overend, an Aussie who has worked for RGM Artist Group, the ABC, BBC4, Disney, Roadshow, Film Victoria and United International Pictures.
Overend, the Los Angeles-based VP of drama development, is working with Monumental Pictures’ Alison Owen and actress Natascha McElhone (Solaris) on a contemporary miniseries inspired by the classic novel Little Women. Scripted by Jordan Roberts (Disney’s Big Hero 6), the show will follow four sisters during a military scandal as their family loses its fortune and finds itself at odds with the conservative and traditional society.
The project was developed by Owen, director Julie Anne Robinson and Overend before McElhone came on board as a producer and the lead actress. The producers are looking for a pilot commission after the ABC network let its option lapse.
Essential’s exports to the US have not been without problems. The US remake of Rake wasn’t renewed last year when the legal drama’s ratings on Fox plummeted after the premiere drew 7.1 million viewers.
Peter Duncan, who co-created the original with Roxburgh, created the 12-episode US series, which was produced by Essential Media and Fedora Entertainment in association with Sony Pictures Television.
With the benefit of hindsight, Collie believes broadcast network viewers struggled to warm to Keegan Deane, the sleazy criminal lawyer played by Greg Kinnear, because the character had few redeeming qualities. He thinks the show would have been more suited to a cable network whose viewers have an appetite for edgier fare.
Duncan, who served as the showrunner with Pete Tolan, says “there were too many voices” involved in the production, typified by a casting meeting he attended where 23 people sat around the table.
Meanwhile, the Fox network opted not to proceed with a Jack Irish remake after ordering the script for a pilot adapted from Essential’s trio of telepics, which starred Guy Pearce as a former criminal lawyer turned private investigator and debt collector.
From that experience, Collie came to one conclusion: “We need to take a stronger role in driving US versions of our shows. The script for Jack Irish lacked spark and wit and freshness; it was a bit predictable.”
The plan now is to focus on the six-part Jack Irish series, which again stars Pearce with Marta Dusseldorp as Linda, Jack’s ex-wife, and is due to start shooting in August.
“That will give us a better template from which we can renew our efforts for a remake,” says Collie, a former lawyer who co-founded Essential in 2005 with Chris Hilton and Sonja Armstrong. Head of children’s entertainment Carmel Travers became a partner in 2009.
The series will introduce a love interest for Irish and see Linda, a journalist, sent to the Philippines on an assignment. Andrew Knight, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios wrote the scripts, while the directors are Mark Joffe (House of Hancock, A Place to Call Home), Daniel Nettheim (Glue, Line of Duty) and Jonathan Teplitzky (Broadchurch). Knight is producing with Collie.
ABC head of drama Carole Sklan says: “The tele-features had huge appeal for our audience and did such tremendous work in reaching a broader viewership that we spoke with Ian about the possibility of Guy Pearce coming back for an extended run.
“We were thrilled that Guy enjoyed the collaboration so much and that he was able to take the time from his career in Hollywood. The world of Jack Irish – the pubs, clubs and horse racing – features an ensemble of such colourful regular characters that it lends itself to a returning drama series. The show is so distinctively Australian in what it says and how it says it. It showcases so many fabulous Australian talents in writing, directing, acting and production that this was the perfect opportunity to continue to deliver to the audience more of this idiosyncratic crime drama.”
Production of the fourth series of Rake, meanwhile, is due to start in Sydney on September 28. “The great challenge is to keep surprising even more and to keep the audience on their toes,” says Duncan.
From Essential’s origins as a producer of factual, which is still a mainstay of its business, the company has significantly expanded its drama slate, which started with Rake in 2010. One recent deal saw Stan, the subscription VoD platform co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media, which launched in January, announce a development deal with Essential for Enemies of the State.
The six-part political drama is based on a controversial Australian High Court judge and attorney-general, the late Lionel Murphy, whose life was marked by assassination threats, scandal, police spies and charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice, of which he was acquitted.
The project is being developed by Collie with Duncan and writers Tony Jones (host of the ABC’s current-affairs show Q&A) and Robert Connolly (Paper Planes). Duncan says his research for the show uncovered many aspects of Murphy’s life that were “ridiculously bizarre and fascinating.”
The commissioning of local content on Stan is overseen by Nine Network’s drama heads Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney plus Stan director of content and product Nick Forward. Ryan says he was attracted to the Murphy project as “an epic, Shakespearian tragedy of a man.” Asked to define a Stan show, he says: “Daring, noisy, high quality and something that feels exclusive – above and beyond what you will see on free-to-air TV. We are not subject to the same constraints as FTA, which is liberating for producers and programmers.”
Stan is looking for international co-financiers for both Enemies of the State and a TV series based on Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek horror movies, produced by Screentime and Mclean’s Emu Creek Pictures. “There is a huge amount of interest from overseas producers, distributors and broadcasters in Australian drama,” Ryan says.
Meanwhile, the inspiration for Trust goes back some years to when creator Sarah Lambert was working in the US on a documentary about a quasi-scientific cult that was banned in France but had set up a base in Canada.
“What struck me the most during the filming was how bright and relatively normal their followers appeared to be, despite devoting their lives to a leader who professed to have been taken by aliens, tithing their incomes to him and buying into a pretty out-there philosophy,” she says.
“My fascination with what drives people to lose themselves in these groups has continued and, after years of collecting articles, reading books and watching docs on the subject, it seemed to me that there was so much great material to base a drama series on.
“But I wanted to take a very different approach, something that hadn’t been done before. So I started developing an idea and wrote up a three-page concept. Around that time, Ian Collie and I were looking for projects to work on together and I pitched the show. It turns out Ian has a similar fascination for the subject matter – we started batting the concept around, and out of it came Trust.”
Also on Essential’s development slate is Future Boy, a 6×30’ sitcom being developed with the assistance of state agency Screen NSW. The creator is Tristram Baumber, whose self-funded comedy series The Cleanists screened in 2013 on the UK-based cable channel Showcase. Baumber also created Timothy, a comedy special that aired on the ABC last October as part of a seven-day initiative in support of Mental Health Week.
Future Boy follows a 22-year-old party girl living in a shared house who finds her hedonistic lifestyle turned upside down when her 45-year-old son from the future turns up. Essential’s scripted development producer Rachael Turk, who is producing, likens the show to a cross between The Big Bang Theory and Girls.
Collie sees a favourable climate for producing drama for Australian and international broadcasters, despite budget cuts to the ABC and SBS and limited opportunities at the financially struggling Network Ten. The Seven Network, he acknowledges, is a “harder nut to crack” because much of its content comes from Seven Productions.
“TV drama is healthy and, with more players like Stan in the market, we see more openings for drama,” Collie continues. “We always look for projects that have broad international appeal. For example, The Principal is in the crime genre and should be able to travel. Formats can sell more widely than finished programmes.
“The Principal covers issues such as equality of education, tolerance, masculinity and violence, father-and-son relationships and diverse ethnic groups of Muslims, Pacific Islanders and Asians. Thematically it should resonate widely.”
Alex Dimitriades plays the title character in the series, produced by Collie, which revolves around a high school in Sydney’s tough, multicultural south west. The principal’s attempts at reform are making headway until a 17-year-old student is found dead on the school grounds. The screenplay is by Kristen Dunphy and Alice Addison, based on an idea by Collie, Turk and, later, Dunphy, inspired by several real-life principals of Sydney schools.
Director Kriv Stenders (who directed Red Dog and is now preparing sequel Blue Dog) relished the chance to work on his first TV drama. “Ian approached me last year and we developed the scripts with the writers,” he says. “I found working in TV is a far more fluid and democratic process and more creatively liberating than films. TV drama is essentially a longform movie.”
SBS executive producer of drama Sue Masters says: “Ian Collie is assuredly one of the world’s most outstanding producers so when he presented to us a drama inspired by the inspirational-teacher genre coupled with a murder mystery especially designed for an SBS broadcast, we were instantly engaged. Ian inspires and attracts first-class talent both in front of the camera and behind the scenes
“Kriv Stenders has used the stark, minimalist architecture of a high school to underpin a high-octane murder mystery that is both compelling and deeply appealing. He wanted to create an Australian ‘suburban noir look and feel,’ which is very on-brand for SBS with acquisitions such as The Bridge and The Killing and more recent international dramas that are yet to hit our screens.”
In February Essential opened an office in Queensland headed by screenwriter Roger Monk as a scripted development producer, funded by state agency Screen Queensland’s Enterprise program, which is also supporting Ludo Studio, Bunya Productions, Matchbox Pictures, Two Little Indians and Hoodlum.
Monk, whose credits include Matchbox Pictures’ Nowhere Boys, December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Every Cloud Productions’ East of Everything, is working with Essential’s Collie and Travers to source Queensland-originated stories and storytellers, develop and foster existing relationships with Queensland practitioners and provide a conduit to emerging talent.
Children’s head Travers is co-developing Camp Crazy with Brisbane-based Carbon Media, a teen comedy drama series set in northern Queensland that will follow the adventures of six misfit teens who are thrown together in a remote destination to solve the ultimate mystery.
On the feature film front, Collie is developing King of Thieves, a caper movie based on the true story of the infamous Australian ‘Kangaroo Gang,’ which fleeced millions of pounds worth of jewellery, fine clothes, linen and white goods from department stores in London in the 1960s and 1970s. It will be a coproduction with Trademark Films’ David Parfitt, whose credits include My Week with Marilyn, The Madness of King George, Shakespeare in Love and TV’s Parade’s End.
The script is by Andrew Knight (who co-wrote Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner and multiple episodes of Rake) and journalist Adam Shand, who authored the book King of Thieves: The Adventures of Arthur Delaney and the Kangaroo Gang. Federal funding agency Screen Australia has supported the development.
With Ruby Films’ Alison Owen, Collie produced Saving Mr Banks for the Walt Disney Co., which raked in US$83m in the US and US$112m at cinemas worldwide.
Collie believes a key part of Essential’s success in drama lies in collaborations with a group of talented producers and writers including Duncan, Roxburgh, Knight, Ayshford, Dunphy, Mrksa, Cameron, Addison, Lambert, Claudia Karvan and Liz Doran. “We like to work with people who have similar cultural sensibilities,” he says. “We give a lot of autonomy to our writers.”
That respect is warmly reciprocated by the creative community. “I think you only have to look at Essential’s shows to understand their approach to drama,” says Lambert. “Rake, Jack Irish, The Broken Shore and The Principal. They make shows that they would want to watch. They never talk down to their audiences. It’s sophisticated storytelling that’s brave, funny and smart. They’re not afraid to tackle complex subject matter and high-concept ideas. They’re really supportive of writers taking risks, always encouraging you to push the boundaries to produce your best work.
“Ian’s a great producer. He’s funny and smart and has strong story instincts. He’s very experienced and a real pleasure to work alongside. He’s attracted a brilliant development team around him who are a passionate and inspiring bunch. The bottom line is Essential is doing exciting work both here and overseas and it’s nice to be working with them – not to mention a lot of fun.”
Duncan’s association with Collie goes back to 2004 when he directed the ABC telemovie Hell Has Harbour Views, which starred Matt Day, Lisa McCune and Dusseldorp and was Collie’s first drama production.
When Duncan and Roxburgh came up with the idea for Rake, based on a brilliant but troubled guy whom Roxburgh knew at university, they turned to Collie, who by then had co-founded Essential. “We have both learnt a lot over the past 11 years,” says Duncan. “It’s so important to have the right people in front of and behind the camera. At Essential is a very fair and friendly group of people. When you go there you don’t feel you are dancing with the devil, which I could say about others.”
A former executive director of the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the Australian Directors Guild, Collie has a long list of factual credits including Australia on Trial, Whatever: The Science of Teens, The Making of Modern Australia, Rogue Nation, The Catalpa Rescue, A Case for the Coroner, Art House, The Shadow of Mary Poppins and The Original Mermaid.
Knight, another frequent collaborator, says: “Ian has a great creative eye and he trusts creative people. We do most of our deals with a handshake. We have never had a financial argument or a big creative argument.”
Broadcasters are similarly glowing in their assessment of Collie and his team. SBS’s Masters says: “As a former lawyer, for Ian there is no detail of the production that is too unimportant. However, his love for storytelling propels him to push the envelope creatively and he has unstoppable energy and vision in nurturing and showcasing the talents of the team he puts in place for a production.
“Moreover, he is not called ‘Jolly Collie’ without reason. Despite huge work stresses, Ian maximises every working moment to celebrate the craft with fun and enjoyment. On all of his productions, Ian draws the most inspiring and multi-award-winning team because he personifies what is the very best of the collaborative film and television industry.”
Nine’s Ryan observes: “Ian made a big impression with Rake and Jack Irish. He assembles talented people around him, which is the key to successful projects and a sustainable business.”
Sklan of ABC is similarly full of praise: “Ian and the Essential team are highly supportive of some of our most creative voices in television. Ian’s real skill is identifying highly creative and intelligent people and generating a process where they can do their best work.
“On Rake they’ve enabled creator, writer, producer and director Peter Duncan to express his vision across the life cycle of the project, and supported Peter, Richard Roxburgh and Andrew Knight in bringing us a highly entertaining television series that often dazzles with its wit and inventiveness.
“Ian’s personable nature is part of his very collegial approach to developing and producing drama. Drama is a complex, difficult and time-consuming art form – there are so many elements to get right. Ian is a highly effective problem solver. Being able to have positive and fruitful discussions at each stage is really critical to making the best programmes, and Ian is always a joy to work with for everyone involved.”