Delivering the goods

Delivering the goods

By Michael Pickard
July 11, 2023


Australian shortform series Appetite shines a light on convenience culture with a mystery that begins when a delivery rider suddenly disappears. Creator Mohini Herse and producer Karen Radzyner join stars Shirong Wu and Kabir Singh to tell DQ about this satirical comedy noir.

Comprising six episodes of between eight and 13 minutes long, Australian drama Appetite might come in small bites but they all add up to a satisfying meal that manages to blend numerous genres while skewering the rapid growth of convenience culture.

Opening with a dramatic cycle ride through the streets of Sydney, the story follows three penniless food delivery riders who are brought together after their housemate mysteriously vanishes on the same night as a rider has a fatal roadside accident. Forced to uncover the truth behind what happened, the unlikely investigators find themselves entangled in a mystery to uncover and expose a multinational food delivery behemoth called Appetite.

Created, written and directed by Mohini Herse (The Out There), the series stars Shirong Wu as Tessa, Gabriel Alvarado as Bastian, Raj Labade as Zal and Kabir Singh as the missing Raj, while Marta Dusseldorp (Bay of Fires) voices ‘Appetite.’ The series had its world premiere earlier this year at French television festival Canneseries.

Rising star Herse, who describes making the SBS series as a “baptism of fire,” first had the idea for the drama back in 2017. The project went through numerous iterations before she applied to the SBS Digital Originals initiative around 2020.

At that time, there had been a number of deaths of delivery riders in Sydney, which spurred a conversation about who was responsible – the rider, the driver, the customer, the app? The question around convenience culture really appealed to her as the subject for a drama, while the mysterious death that opens the series provided the necessary engine to drive the characters through six episodes. Once that was in place, she partnered with fellow director Neil Sharma and writers Neilesh Verma and Grace Tan to continue developing the show.

The pitch, however, proved tricky to nail down. “I was like, ‘It’s a comedy and it’s kind of a mystery.’ And someone else gave said it was a comedy noir, which I will happily take,” Herse tells DQ.

“Right at the beginning, we were all interested in playing with tone. Neil, Neilesh, Grace and I have this creative simpatico because we love shows like Atlanta and Search Party – Atlanta has this satirical tone that allows you to explore heavy social issues without being on the nose or overly didactic. And that’s why we were interested in exploring this mystery but done through a tone where people can just enjoy the journey and also really fall in love with the characters.”

Casting was also important to achieving that blend of tones, with Herse keen to avoid any overly earnest performances. “So it was just really knowing from the beginning why we needed this quirky tone,” she continues. “It was really difficult to convince the broadcaster as well. They were like, ‘Is it a comedy or a mystery?’ I said, ‘It’s both. It can be both.’ So I’m really happy we succeeded in this genre mash-up.”

Series creator Mohini Herse filming Appetite on location

“There were lots of tone conversations,” adds Photoplay producer Karen Radzyner. “But I would say Mohini and Neil just knew their tone, and Mohini led the writing team to make sure that was on the page. Neil knew how to deliver that through the performances, through the camerawork. All the questions were answered as soon as the rushes started coming through.”

The writing process was largely conducted over Zoom meetings, during which the team was supported by Elise McCredie (Stateless) as they sought to build out the show’s ensemble cast of characters while developing the mystery plot that leads Tessa, Bastian and Zal to search for the missing Raj.

“Elise was really important in guiding us because that was my second writers room, and all of the writers rooms I’d been in had just been mine at that stage,” says Herse, who put together a 100-page bible for the series that included interviews with delivery riders, academics, union members, city planners and people from real-life app businesses who told her about the inner workings of their companies.

“It is this really rich world and we were lucky enough to also have five delivery riders who stayed with the journey and helped out as story consultants on the scripts, did interviews with us and looked at the edits to make sure it was feeling real and authentic in terms of the characters and how they wanted to be portrayed,” she says. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to create that separation [between fiction and reality]. That’s not what Appetite is about.”

Particularly during and since the Covid pandemic, food delivery riders have become common sights on roads in cities around the world. Herse admits she herself is “guilty” of using the apps, but says the show is not about whether people should use them or not. “We’re too far along to be like, ‘Delete it,’” she notes. “It’s not about getting rid of an industry but examining our relationship with convenience culture.

The show looks at the dark side of convenience culture

“With Raj we got to explore the larger questions that are not just about the customer. There are some pretty wack things we’ve discovered about data farming and how riders’ cycle paths are informing how we shape cities, infrastructure and the privatisation of public spaces. That was really interesting too, and actually how sinister it is, and it’s affecting all of us, not just delivery cyclists.”

Wu and Singh auditioned for the roles of Tessa and Raj over Zoom, with Singh stating that they “vibed right off the bat,” despite Covid restrictions preventing them from meeting in person.

“All the chemistry tells test felt good, but with Shirong it definitely felt different,” he says. “I was really hoping she got cast, and she did and then the rest is history.”

In the search for Raj, it is Tessa who takes the lead. She’s a student struggling to stay solvent while trying to reassure her parents that everything is alright, and ends up taking a job with Appetite to earn more cash.

“Tessa is someone who’s very strong-minded and hard on the outside,” Wu says. “She’s not very willing to express her feelings, so much so that when she is struggling, being an international student and maybe not having enough financial means to have a very comfortable life, she chose not to tell anyone and so she did everything in her power to make it without letting mum know back home. In that same spirit, she goes to find Raj. She just can’t stop thinking she could do more.”

L-R: Stars Gabriel Alvarado, Shirong Wu, Raj Labade and Kabir Singh

“I think it comes down to you wanting that one person you can share your ups and downs with,” Singh says, “and Raj seems to be that person who just helps her. Raj always seems to be there for Tessa.”

Considering his character is at the centre of the mystery, there’s not much more Singh can reveal about Raj’s journey through the series. But he says he could relate to Raj as he once worked as a delivery rider himself to make some extra money.

“It’s a story I’ve lived and I’ve heard hundreds of times, and when this story came to light, I knew this was me,” he says. “I knew this story needed to be told, but I’m not going to delve more into my character. I want people to watch it and see what happens.”

Because of the story’s universality and the global growth of delivery apps in the past five years, both actors believe the series can resonate outside Australia.

“People like Tessa, Raj and Zal and Bastian exist all around the world,” Singh says. “Everyone is into convenience culture and, since Covid, everyone wants things [delivered] rather than going out to get them. And these people are the unsung heroes of the food industry. They are providing convenience culture to our doorstep, but there is a dark side to it, which this series is trying to explore.”

Produced by Photoplay and Fell Swoop Pictures, the series was shot in Sydney in just 12 days. It was important then that the cast bonded quickly, which they did through a short rehearsal period and the fact there was just one truck they would share for costume changes, hair and make-up, and production meetings.

The Appetite team assemble for a group shot on set

“Mohini and Neil made us feel like family from day one, like we belonged there,” Singh says. “This was a big opportunity for both of us. I worked on sets where the directors are not calm and are kind of all over the place, and that makes you not trust the process. But working with them, everything was a breeze. The two weeks had just gone and we were like, ‘Oh, it’s already finished?’”

Photoplay joined Appetite in late 2021 when it was only at pilot script stage, with SBS boarding the project at the same time. Radzyner had previously partnered with SBS on another shortform project, Homecoming Queens, and then faced a race against time to build the show’s budget by applying to numerous other funding bodies.

“We tried to get some extra finance because there are stunts, there are a lot of night [shoots]. There are a lot of drivers,” she says. “It’s a big show and we wanted to get as much production value on screen as possible. Mohini and I were on the phone and on emails non-stop from the time we started collaborating. Then we got the finance completed and went straight into pre-production.”

Filming took place in June last year, with a dramatic visual style that incorporated bike rigs and rigs on other moving vehicles – equipment not usually available on a shortform budget.

Karen Radzyner

“Camera-wise, the creative team had the thought to get the best camera,” Radzyner says. “Then we had the DP, Drew English, in really early so Neil, Mohini and Drew were storyboarding things. They really planned it so we knew exactly what we needed to shoot. And there were so many conversations about, ‘What if we do it this way? What if we just use a GoPro? No, we’re not doing any GoPro. It’s going to be all top-quality camerawork.'”

The production team also had to design the Appetite app and associated logos, plus the bright pink jackets the riders wear. But the app was more than just a design project – it was also the show’s antagonist.

Herse now has ambitions to turn the series into a longform TV drama, with the potential to dive deeper into company behind Appetite and the relationships between the four main protagonists.

“There’s so much more to explore,” says Radzyner.

Herse adds: “The characters are so awesome, you just want to watch the four of them and see where they go and what other connections they go on to make.”

The show also has underlying messages about convenience culture and the gig economy that Singh believes need to be brought to viewers’ attention.

“Dark topics are uncomfortable for the public to accept,” he says. “They don’t really want to accept that people do die – that’s where the whole series came from – but comedy is the best way to throw in that punch, where people are warm to receiving that kind of knowledge and going, ‘Oh, well, let’s start the conversation.’ All we really want out of the series is to start a conversation. You can’t change people’s minds individually, but starting a conversation is the best you can hope for.”

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