Party people

Party people

By Michael Pickard
May 15, 2024


After the Party’s award-winning star Robyn Malcolm and producer Helen Bowden reflect on the moral storm swirling at the centre of this New Zealand drama and explain how they worked to keep viewers on edge until its conclusion.

For her leading role in New Zealand drama After the Party, Robyn Malcolm won the best actress prize at French television festival Series Mania, where the series celebrated its international premiere earlier this year.

Indeed, Malcolm delivers a standout performance as Penny Wilding, a science teacher, basketball coach, environmental activist, mother and grandmother who isn’t afraid to offer her teenage students some home truths when she catches them watching pornography, or to pose nude for a life drawing class.

But while she feels in control in the classroom, it’s clear her can-do attitude and forceful nature have won her few friends in the close-knit coastal town of Wellington, while her relationships with her daughter Grace (Tara Conton) and mother are strained at best.

When her ex-husband Phil (Peter Mullan) reappears, Penny’s world comes crashing down. Five years earlier, she accused him of a sex crime against Grace’s friend at a party, but no one believed her, leading Penny to become an outcast among her friends and family.

With Phil’s return, Grace pressures her to let go of old accusations and move on. But as her old feelings rise up, will Penny pursue the truth or try to rebuild her relationships with those around her?

Full of twists, turns and ambiguity, the family drama evolves into a morally complex thriller as flashbacks hint at what happened at the party and Penny once again stands alone in her determination to pursue her allegations against Phil.

Malcolm’s performance has rightly won plaudits since the series debuted on TVNZ last year, but this wasn’t just another role for the actor – whose credits include Outrageous Fortune, Harrow and Upper Middle Bogan – she is also co-creator of the show alongside writer Dianne Taylor.

“It was very reactive to begin with in that we’d met and we got talking,” Malcolm tells DQ about the origins of the series. “We talked a lot about the representation of middle-aged women in film and television and how unacceptable it was. It seemed middle-aged women were either the awful boss, the stepmother or the lovely granny.

“But ‘middle-aged, post-menopausal women who don’t give a fuck anymore what people think of them’ seemed not to be an acceptable character to see in English-speaking television. We also just didn’t want to put a character on screen who’s a natural hero, because that’s not who we are in life. Di and I spent a lot of time talking about what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman and what it’s like to have a complicated history.”

While stories about young people often consider the life they are yet to lead, Malcolm and Taylor drew inspiration from the fact older women carry with them a history and a backstory that has shaped their lives – something that makes writing drama “very complex and interesting.”

L-R: Robyn Malcolm, Peter Mullan, Dianne Taylor and Helen Bowden at Series Mania

Then their conversations turned to their relationship with the truth, and experiences where people might not be believed. “We talked a lot about the shame of a middle-aged woman, about the anger of a middle-aged woman, all that stuff. Then we just danced around story for a long time and about where this character might sit,” Malcolm continues.

“What was a good situation to plonk her in where past and future have to collide? We were very interested in the mother-daughter relationship too. So how could we really compromise that? How could we fuck that up and keep a story in a grey area like, did he do it? Did he not do it? Is she right? Is she wrong?”

As a viewer, Malcolm enjoys watching series where she starts to feel responsibility for her own allegiances towards the characters – a feeling that also shaped her intentions with After the Party. “That’s life, to me,” she says. “You make friends with someone and then you realise four months later they’re an arsehole and you’re like, ‘Oh.’ We wanted to play in that territory.”

Malcolm and Taylor slowly built up the scenario that would bring Penny and Phil into conflict, and extended the ensemble around them, so that by the time they took the project to Lingo Pictures and producer Helen Bowden, the core of the series and its “moral backbone” was in place.

They then spent a lot of time with Bowden discussing how they could turn it into a compelling story viewers would want to follow over six episodes. “Because Di came from the film world, and I only ever entered into making a story myself one other time in New Zealand, we were flying by the seat of our pants for a long time,” Malcolm jokes of their entry into television.

The show centres on Malcolm’s Penny, who accuses her ex-husband of committing a sex crime against one of their daughter’s friends

“We didn’t really know what the rules were. We learned the rules very quickly. But what was also great about the people we were working with was that they were really happy to break rules and to try things this way, to try things that way.”

What was clear from their early discussions was that After the Party would also confront audiences with people they can really love – but who are also capable of terrible actions. “We’re all capable of that,” Malcolm says. “We’re all capable of making terrible mistakes and saying terrible things. And yet somebody else who made a judgement about being a pretty horrendous human being can suddenly do something selfless, giving and heroic. That’s the confusion of life, and that’s also where human beings become really interesting. We wanted the audience to have a relationship with the characters that was a bit like that.

“We tried really hard not to manipulate the audience, but to stay in the heart of the characters so the audience could make up their own minds.”

New Zealand-born Bowden has worked in Australia for several decades, amassing credits from The Slap and Devil’s Playground to Lambs of God and The Secrets She Keeps. However, she had never produced anything in her home country. Then, a year after Bowden worked with Malcolm on 2017 miniseries Wake in Fright, the actor contacted her about a potential project she had been discussing with Taylor, and Bowden agreed to take a look.

The producer read the first script on board a flight from LA back to Australia, and by the time the plane landed she was keen to secure the project. “I thought the tone and the voice were really strong, and you could just imagine Robyn playing the part of Penny,” she remembers. “It was very exciting to find it, and then we went into quite a big development process.”

Mullan plays Penny’s ex-husband, who reappears in her life five years after the accusation

Part of the appeal was the intriguing scenario between Penny and Phil. “She’s just about getting her life back together and then he arrives back, and [it’s about] her inability to let it go,” Bowden says. “She just has to keep telling the truth as she sees it. The connections with family and community, and eco-activism, I thought were all great elements, but really it was the voice of the writing that really appealed to me and made me feel how unusual and just how funny it was when it was so dark and angry.”

Taylor led a writers room for the series, and when the first two scripts were completed, she and Malcolm met Bowden in Sydney. There they joined an Australian writing workshop led by Jacquelin Perske (The Cry, The Tattooist of Auschwitz) and the screenwriter encouraged the creators to pursue their ideas.

Perske was then invited to spend a week with Malcolm and Taylor opening up the story, before subsequent writers rooms took place with Kiwi writers in New Zealand. Sam Shore, Martha Hardy-Ward and Emily Perkins also write on the show.

One early conundrum they faced was how to set up the series, as it’s only at the end of episode one that it is revealed what Penny saw at the party. “That was subject, of course, to a lot of discussion,” Bowden says. “Even the idea that accusations had all taken place five years ago. We did at various points go, ‘Should we really just bring all that into the present?’ But in the end, we decided there was great value in having that, so we stuck with it. But to have that major turning point at the end of the first episode, you’ve got to know that you’ve managed to hang on to your viewers.”

Heading into production in New Zealand for the first time, Bodwen, Lingo Pictures and director Peter Salmon’s Luminous Beast production company were supported by Wellington’s excellent film infrastructure that has previously been utilised by directors such as Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), Taika Waititi (Wellington Paranormal) and Jane Campion (Top of the Lake).

After the Party premiered on Kiwi broadcaster TVNZ last year

“We had to do quite a lot of water work with After the Party, and actually there’s a good supply of boat grips and all sorts of things that would rival Sydney easily,” the producer notes. “But I was amazed at the skill of the Kiwis and the skill of the actors, because we’ve got all of those actors [in the show] out of Wellington.

“Peter directed it all and he’s worked quite a lot in Australia, including working for me. So I knew him really well and he’s wonderful and very clever. He’s done a really beautiful job. We were very lucky. And it was great for him as, because of Covid, he was back in New Zealand with his two little children, so he was very happy to have a reason to have a year’s work there.”

Salmon had also previously worked with Malcolm, so a shorthand was quickly established between the trio during the fast-paced 10-week shoot. But the ability to make the show was only secured when financing from the New Zealand government was used to complete its budget.

“We were very lucky the government had made a special Covid rescue fund for drama, and we were able to get some of that money. That’s what took the show over the line,” Bowden says. “I took it on before I understood how difficult it was to finance things out of New Zealand. I thought it would just be like in Australia, but I reached a point of thinking, ‘I don’t know if we can actually do this. Maybe we need to reset it in Australia.’ But when Covid happened, that fund was set and we did it. It was a really great experience.”

Audiences in Australia are currently able to watch After the Party on ABC, while Channel 4 has secured UK rights to air the series later this year following a deal with distributor ITV Studios.

If viewers were in any doubt whether to tune in, there should be little hesitation thanks to Malcolm’s award-winning performance as Penny. As for the character herself, Bowden sums up her up as a force of nature. “She’s just a bull in a china shop at every turn,” she adds, “and every time you think she might just hold back or not go full-on, she defies expectations.”

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