Bad times

Bad times

By Michael Pickard
March 21, 2023


In Australian drama Bad Behaviour, a year spent in the wilderness comes back to haunt the former students of an exclusive girls’ boarding school. DQ speaks to the cast and creative team about developing the time-jumping story and creating a camp spirit on set.

In the age of too much television, it’s notable when a show connects with an audience so much that fans flood social media with discussion and homemade character mash-up videos.

The latest example to draw this level of devotion is Australian drama Bad Behaviour, and executives from producer Matchbox Pictures have certainly taken notice. That the series enjoyed its international premiere at February’s Berlin International Film Festival is another sign that it has the clout to cut through the clutter.

“Our cast are really active online, and someone like Erana James, who was in The Wilds, she’s got a huge fan base, so that’s been very good for us,” says producer Amanda Higgs. “All her fans are working overtime, cutting up things and discussing it on Twitter. Someone mashed up all the scenes of Abbie Morgan, who plays Emma, so we’ve got a good young audience already.”

Executive producer Debbie Lee adds: “They’re connecting with the material, that’s what’s really exciting, and they’re talking about it.”

Corrie Chen

Based on the book by Rebecca Starford and directed by Corrie Chen (New Gold Mountain), the series stars Jana McKinnon (Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo) as Jo Mackenzie, whose chance meeting with old school friend Alice Kang (Yerin Ha) brings back memories of the brutal year they spent together at Silver Creek – the wilderness campus of an exclusive girls’ boarding school.

Playing out across two timelines, 10 years apart, the story follows the girls on their year living together at camp and the impact those experiences continue to have on them a decade later as they question whether to bully or be bullied in the unrelenting struggle for acceptance and social power.

The journey to making Bad Behaviour began with Starford’s autobiographical book, which was published in 2015. At that time, the author was doing a lot of publicity, and Higgs remembers how her experiences chimed with women and men alike, who would call in to radio stations to share their own stories. “It felt like there was something that would definitely reach the audience,” she says.

Jo’s year at Silver Creek is littered with traumatic experiences that Higgs says were actually much worse in Starford’s book. So the initial challenge facing the production team was how to dramatise Jo’s journey to ensure viewers followed her as she plotted a path from bullying victim to survivor.

The story was then extended 10 years into the future, where Jo is reintroduced to her antagonist, Portia (Markella Kavenagh).

“That was not in the book,” Higgs says. “But what we did take was the essence of Rebecca’s own journey into discovering her sexuality and having relationships with women, particularly, that were toxic, and what she was discussing in that biography was what we took as the essence of Jo re-meeting Portia.”

Jana McKinnon plays Jo, whose encounter with an old school friend brings back bad memories

With scripts written by Pip Karmel (Total Control) and Magda Wozniak (The Messenger), a writers room was convened to outline the story and ensure it always related back to the source material.

But Higgs admits it took a long time to find the right broadcast champions for the series. She found them in Amanda Duthie, formerly of SBS and now head of originals at Aussie streamer Stan, and Katherine Slattery, then of Film Victoria and now scripted development manager at Matchbox.

“It wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy pitch because it wasn’t an obvious plot-driven genre story,” says Lee. “It was pushing against that. It’s a very particular sort of storytelling, and it’s not one that was particularly fashionable at the time, just in terms of there being no dead body or that it’s not another missing-girl story. We didn’t want to do those stories, we wanted to do very strong, female-driven story.”

Bad Behaviour was on its way into production in 2020 – until Covid hit. Filming did begin in January 2021, with shooing taking place in Melbourne as well as Macedon, where the wilderness camp timeline was shot across a three-week schedule.

“That was a huge undertaking,” says Higgs. “We didn’t actually plan to do that, but it was so worth it. We all went on camp. For some of the cast, this was the first time they were in a TV show; for some of them, it was their first acting gig. So to be with people like Markella, Yerin and Jana… everyone just looked after each other and they all became a really great gang.”

Bad Behaviour unfolds across two timelines, 10 years apart

On some days, the cast would also go back and forth between their 15- and 25-year-old characters.

“We would have loved to shoot things chronologically,” Higgs continues. “What was really tricky was location. We needed to shoot all the dorm stuff together, but then the actual school is made up of a lot of different locations all over Melbourne and then at Macedon. We were really locked in to where locations were and what Corrie specifically wanted for the look of the show. We thought we were going to lose some significant locations like the dining hall, for example, so it became an exercise in trying to actually maintain the look of the show more than anything else.”

With Chen directing all four episodes, the producers gave her the freedom to discuss every scene and every episode “in absolutely minute detail,” says Higgs, adding: “What you see on screen is very much her vision.”

Chen says Bad Behaviour is the project she has worked on that most resembles the vision she had at the very start. She was given Starford’s book in 2019, when the series was just at the bible stage. She then joined the two writers and Higgs in an “intense” three-month writers room, where they sought to crack the present-day timeline.

“That was the timeline where we had to make up more of the story,” she explains. “All the teen stuff was almost lifted directly from the book. We had to find the cohesion between why Jo had been triggered [in the present]. It took a little while to unlock.”

Chen then used the fact that Alice is a cello player to set the mood and tone of the series early on, with a soundtrack that is “full of yearning and melancholy and immediately rips your heart open.” It was also informed by her intention that the show would be about feelings – “and nothing else.”

The series debuted on Australian streaming service Stan last month

“Sometimes I don’t even care about the plot,” she says. “I feel like, in television, we’re so plot driven. It’s very rare to be able to make something where the hooks are based on emotions or emotional turns. There is also that sense that whatever is just outside the frame, that was what we should be either afraid of or excited by.”

McKinnon says she was “sucked into the script” when she first read it and describes playing Jo across two timelines as a “huge gift” for an actor.

“I wasn’t sure if I could pull 25 off,” she jokes, “even though that’s closer to my age. It’s always really fun to have a big difference in hair and make-up as well and just play around. It really helps – the different costumes, the different hair, the different make-up, and immediately it makes a difference for yourself as well. The way you walk into a scene is completely different too.”

Ha says there were many parts of her character she could personally connect with, while the role also gave her the chance to look back on her own teenage years and how they shaped her into the person she is now.

“It was a really fun playground, and I really wanted to work with Corrie as well,” she says. “She’s a genius. when I got the script, it was great, but I actually really wanted to work with Corrie.”

But playing Alice came with numerous emotional challenges for the Halo actor. “I remember when Portia [Kavenagh], Briohny [Melissa Kahraman] and Ronnie [James] were throwing liquorice at me and my body had a really instinctual response to that scene,” she says. “But it was nice to actually have real people to bounce off of in the scene instead of just imagining a blue screen and being like, ‘Aliens are attacking me and I have to scrap for my life.’ But also that was a real challenge, because it was real.”

Yerin Ha plays Alice, whose cello playing contributes to the show’s mood

“I felt like we were really connected and it was just a really loving and caring environment,” McKinnon says. “We were always checking in with each other, making sure we were all OK, but also allowing that space for letting happen what needs to happen in the scene.”

The intense scenes were punctuated between takes by moments of the cast “larking around,” with Ha in particular intent on enjoying her experience on set. “Otherwise I knew that when I got home, I was just going to be an absolute wreck,” she says.

“Being in this very particular environment with all these very different people and just being in the moment, connecting with each other and allowing things to happen was amazing. And it was so much fun,” McKinnon agrees. “To have people around you on set who are willing to go there with you and who are willing to give themselves to the scene and to connect and to really be present in the moment is so special.”

With delays due to Covid and other “leftfield challenges” relating to casting and financing, it’s little wonder Matchbox MD Alastair McKinnon questioned whether the series would ever be completed. It subsequently debuted on Stan on February 17, with NBCUniversal Global Distribution handling international sales.

“When you’re faced with something that everyone’s been working so passionately for, for so many years, and you really are pulling together a great team and you love the scripts, the prospect of it maybe not happening is quite traumatic,” he says. “But we came through that as a team.

“Ultimately it ended up being for the better of the show. And that’s the other strange thing about these journeys that you go on making these shows: there are always highs and lows. It’s incredibly challenging to make anything, and it’s getting harder with rising costs and inflation. But you generally find that it’s often those problems that do result in taking decisions or different directions that are often for the best.”

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