Making the band

Making the band

By Michael Pickard
December 1, 2023

In production

Paper Dolls producers Jessica Carrera and Mark Fennessy reflect on making this eight-part series that follows five singers through Australia’s music industry, charting their emotional highs and dangerous lows as they are catapulted to fame after winning a reality competition.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, aspiring singers found overnight fame when they were plucked from obscurity to star in reality singing competition Popstars. Chosen through a series of televised auditions, the winning contestants were brought together as bands that would go on to experience chart success and international stardom.

However, the good times rarely lasted more than a few years after these groups were thrust into the spotlight.

In Australia, girl group Bardot was formed by the five winners of the country’s first season of Popstars in 1999, and the story of one member, Belinda Chapple, is the inspiration behind a new eight-part drama that dives into the country’s music industry at the turn of the millennium.

Paper Dolls isn’t a biopic, however, and draws from stories and experiences across the music industry to chart the extreme highs and devastating lows facing the five members of fictional band Harlow, formed via a music reality show called Pop Rush. When industry outcast and former pop star Izzy James (Emalia) is offered the opportunity to join Harlow the day before their live debut, she jumps at the rare second chance she has been given, much to the chagrin of her new bandmates – free-spirit Annabel (Naomi Sequeira), rebellious rocker Jade (Courtney Clarke), innocent ingénue Lillian (Courtney Monsma) and perfectionist Charlie (Miah Madden) – who all went through the rigorous audition process.

Across the series, each member of Harlow will be pushed to the edge, emotionally, physically and psychologically, as they move between concerts and media appearances. Meanwhile, themes of exploitation, abuse of power and coercive control take centre stage as the show explores the demands and pressures these women face in return for achieving their dreams of pop stardom. The series is produced by Helium Pictures for Network 10 and Paramount+, where it will debut on December 3.

Mark Fennessy

Making Paper Dolls was equally demanding for producer Jessica Carrera and executive producer Mark Fennessy, who found the series led them to film a drama, shoot concert performances and record the show’s original soundtrack at the same time, all while the lead cast members spent their spare time learning the choreography they would perform in the show.

“The short space of time in which we went from development to being greenlit to production was such a fast process that everyone who contributed to the show can be very proud of what’s on screen,” Fennessy tells DQ as editing nears completion on the “gritty, distinctive” series, which is distributed internationally by Entertainment One.

“The five girls had to work incredibly long days, so when they’d finished shooting, they had to go to the recording studio.And then there’s choreography. But everyone had such a positive spirit on set.”

Paper Dolls is based on an idea by Chapple, who first approached Fennessy several years ago with what would become her recently released memoir, The Girl in the Band: Bardot – A Cautionary Tale.

The resulting series is now “a long way” from the Bardot story, as Paper Dolls became “more edgy, more distinctive, a little darker,” Fennessy explains. “There are certainly some things that happened to Bardot that are in our story, but there’s an awful lot that is completely fictional as well. It makes for quite a compelling, really entertaining drama and quite a universal story, with lots of ‘OMG’ moments along the way.”

The series was created by Ainslie Clouston (Amazing Grace), who wrote the scripts with David Hannam, Marieke Hardy, Jenna Purcell, Sara Khan and Thomas Wilson-White. Notably, each episode comes from the perspective of a different character, taking viewers into their own personal and professional triumphs and challenges.

Directed by Tenika Smith, Nina Buxton and Erin White, the drama also introduces a stylistic, show-within-a-show element, as Harlow is followed 24/7 by the Pop Rush cameras to chart the group’s rise. “It’s about the darker side of fame and celebrity,” says Carrera. “It’s peeling back the gloss and the glamour and getting to know who these women are as individuals. They’re thrown together in a house and they suddenly have the pressure of meeting everybody else’s expectations. Ultimately, what’s drawn them there is a passion for music, and that is an incredible premise for drama that just combusts.”

L-R: Courtney Monsma, Emalia, Naomi Sequeira, Miah Madden and Courtney Clarke make up Harlow

When they were casting the series, Carrera and Fennessy saw auditions from around 265 potential members of Harlow, who all met the brief that they had to be between 18 and 26 years old and able to sing, dance and act.

“We were blown away by the quality of talent. We probably could have cast three groups,” says Fennessy, who reveals some auditionees had five callbacks and still didn’t make the cut. “It was a really thorough process, but obviously it’s a crucial part of the show and we’re delighted with [the final group]. When you’re listening to them performing the tracks, they feel like they’ve been together for five years – the harmonies are terrific and the dancing is fantastic. That was a really joyous part of the process.”

Once the band was assembled, filming took place across three blocks and largely in chronological order, allowing the actors’ performances to follow the same linear path as their characters. Different locations were used around New South Wales, while the scripts called on Harlow to perform in places as varied as music festivals and shopping malls.

“We didn’t have a huge amount of flexibility in the schedule, but the girls were so rigorous in their rehearsing and their performances,” Carrera says of the 11-week shoot. “Where we are in episode one was just the beginning for them. And where they are at the end, you can see they have grown as a group, so it did actually work quite well from a storytelling perspective.”

Jessica Carrera

As with any music drama, getting the songs right was key. Numerous 90s classics feature on the soundtrack, while Fennessy and Carrera worked with Sony Music Publishing and songwriters Janeeva and Robby De Sa to create eight new tracks for Harlow, including a cover of Irene Cara classic Fame.

“Half of those were demos that had never been really released. The other half were written from scratch,” says Fennessy, a former head of MTV Australia. “Obviously the music has a nod to that period of the late 90s and early 2000s, but it’s also dance-pop music, so it needed to lend itself to choreography as well. They also had to be songs that could encompass five girls with harmonies and different vocals. It was actually great fun doing it.”

“It was almost like producing two projects – producing the music and producing the show itself,” Carrera adds. “And the music is written into the scripts. It’s very didactic. What they’re singing about reflects the story.”

Having worked in the music industry, Fennessy found he could bring some of his own experiences to Paper Dolls. But both he and Carrera stress the show doesn’t represent any one person working in the business at that time, while their main focus was always on ensuring the authenticity of the story and their duty of care to the cast.

“Sometimes it’s not overly flattering, but that’s the entertainment world too,” Fennessy notes. “It does have another side to it. It’s often not fair – that’s showbiz, as they always say – but it certainly was a challenging and interesting process for us in threading that needle.”

“I don’t think we would have been able to make a show with this content about the music industry 25 years ago. We’ve come so far,” Carrera adds. “This is a show set in a pre-#MeToo era, but there’s enough distance to be able to look back and reflect and acknowledge that it wasn’t a great time to be a woman in the music industry. Hopefully now we can start a discussion. How is it better now, and how can it be even better for all artists?”

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