Is it just me, or is everyone making a comedy webseries these days? I approve!
The state of comedy on commercial television is fairly dire, with most Australian networks giving us few if any options for innovative scripted comedy on the actual box, despite the outstanding success of some in recent years. Thankfully we have the ABC and SBS who at least have made a commitment to the genre. But this is an era that’s experienced an explosion of media platforms, a disintegration of traditional audiences and a hunger for choice by those fractured audiences born from a greater access to knowledge and overseas content. It’s only fostered increasingly tighter budgets from our heritage media overlords and a culture of fear where being incredibly risk-averse was already the default position.
That’s all getting much too serious for a post about funny shit, so let’s get back to it, shall we?
Town Centre is one of the newest batch of web-based comedies vying for your viewing pleasure. It’s been a labour of love for Writer and Producer Sarah Frost; a whole seven years in the making!
In this four-parter (an intended first episode of an eight-episode series) our hapless hero is Saed Azizi (played by Zac Drayson), a key criminal witness willing to testify to notorious underworld figure Roberto Baskobble’s involvement in a major arms deal — despite the fact he’s already been threatened and shot by one of Baskobble’s henchmen. With a price on his head, Azizi is given a new identity as ‘Stanley Pisque’ and placed in the witness protection program. He is relocated from his home in Melbourne to the small town of Thathath in northern New South Wales, where he is the made the new Manager of the local shopping mall, Town Centre.
It’s not an intrinsically funny set-up, but wherever there’s the terrifying stench of death, the imposing intrusion of happy-go-lucky comedy is never completely unexpected: the newly named Pisque leaves behind a lovingly possessive and paranoid mother who’s killed his loved birds and wants nothing more in this world than to marry him off to a woman named Dorcas. The police in charge of Pisque’s case have a worrying interest in competitive origami and an alarming disinterest in catching Pisque’s would-be killer. The shopping centre he’s been put in charge of is a dilapidated mess in a backwater community, kept alive only by the narrow-minded misfits who run the place, all more interested in themselves than in actually making any money. And then there’s Cameron (played by Garry Who), a passive aggressive megalomanic desperate for someone, anyone, to take him seriously.
Drayson is great in this. It’s a big step away from his Home & Away roots. He plays Pisque with a commitment and sincerity that makes his character’s predicament all that more pitiable (and ridiculous). It was good to see Gary Who as well. A regular through all of Paul Fenech’s exuberant homages to bogan Australia, like the recent series Housos, Who is frankly frightening as Cameron because he too plays the role with such understated sincerity, it’s almost too real for comfort.
I slung a stack of questions over to two of the team on Town Centre, Writer and Producer (and Actor!) Sarah Frost and Director Damien Cassar. They very generously answered all of them! If you’re interested in what goes into making an independent production, grab yourself a cuppa and have a read of what they they had to say about their experience, influences and the wait to bring Town Centre to the screen…
First of all, let me congratulate you both and the whole team on the project! Putting together a series is always a challenge, and Town Centre has really come together as a solid comedy piece. How’s everyone feeling about the result?
Sarah Frost (SF): Thanks!! We – myself and my co-producer, Stuart Waller (aka HotFrost Productions) – are thrilled with the result! There has always been a general sense of excitement among the cast and crew about this project. There is something a bit special about it and we can see fans already loving it, which is just great!
Damien Cassar (DC): Given the trials and tribulations to get to this point, and the parameters under which the show was made, I think we’ve done really well. We have a solid introduction to the universe of the show from which it is evident a series can grow.
How did Town Centre come about initially? Was there anything in particular that inspired the story?
DC: Defer to Sarah on this one. There was five years of work on the show before I came on board. Though a hint – if you go to a “little town” called Bathurst you might find your answers. Given I haven’t been to Bathurst since my gold panning days of Year 6, I’m the wrong person to ask.
SF: The story is inspired by a few things:
Firstly, my time working as a young adult in a Shopping Centre in a large town in Central West NSW. It struck me how I would see the same people every day at work and then, because of the size of the town, you would see those same people socialising, shopping, and probably went to school together. You kinda knew their business purely because of the size of the town… and they knew my business too. There was always the “new” shopping centre that was being renovated which stressed out the shopkeepers in the “old” centres, but within 5 years the “new” centre was the old one and there was another one being renovated… like a retail popularity contest. Shopping centres are such a central hub with so much scope for story and characters. Everyone can relate to them because we all end up in one at some point! I thought it would be an interesting story framework and I hadn’t seen it explored before on Aussie TV.
Another huge inspiration is my best friend and her family who were Palestinian immigrants and my neighbours. I was always fascinated by my friend and her family, especially the idea that in a town of thirty five thousand people, they were one of five families that broadly hailed from the Middle East. There were hardly any Asian or Indian families at my school or in the community either. I have often wondered at this strange dichotomy within Australian culture where on one hand, we say that we are strongly multicultural, and yet the reality is a large portion of Country Australia isn’t. Another thing I noticed was the deep Aussie-ness of my friend, which leads me to the question: what makes someone Aussie? Particularly in modern multicultural Australia? How does a second-generation immigrant, many of whom are my close friends, identify themselves as Australians, yet don’t have the “blonde-haired-blue-eyed” appearance of the traditional “Aussie”. It’s something that I have thought much about and discussed with friends who find themselves in this situation. I think this element of Town Centre will resonate with many people trying to navigate this weird territory. I have taken to light heartedly exploring it through my show.
Another key inspiration has been the swathe of amazing sharp, fast, intelligent comedies that have come out of the US and UK over the past decade. I love the comedy heritage in this country but I think there is not enough. There are a handful of productions every year but we should be making so much more. When you recognise the talent that is around at present, it baffles me that we have such a small trickle compared to the flood that other countries produce. I want to get competitive, step up and get our talent and our stories out there!
It’s a pretty big achievement for any independent production to get itself off the ground. Has the project lived up to your own expectations? Do you feel you’ve achieved what you set out to make?
SF: I always believed that the idea of Town Centre was good. And I knew that to make the show work, I would have to have very strong concept, story and script, which is why I spent so much time developing it (7 years). As an unknown writer, I didn’t have anything else to recommend me except my writing. The fact we got the amazing cast, crew and support, confirmed to me that all that work had paid off and we had something good. We hope that everyone involved has the same sense of achievement and of being a part of something really worthwhile. We believe and always have, that Town Centre has got huge potential and seeing the finished product confirms that belief. We are unbelievably amazed and proud of the finished product!
DC: I think we’ve definitely achieved what we set out to make – a pilot webseries that promotes the show. Really the webseries was designed to secure interest to make an actual pilot. However, I think the cast and crew were so solid that we have an initial episode that could essentially be the pilot. So in terms of living up to that standard, definitely. In terms of the project living up to my expectations, I think the things I saw in the initial script, coupled with the potential I saw in the cast, have really shone through in these four episodes.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of the project from a production perspective — I believe you ran a Pozible campaign to raise the budget?
SF: We raised some money through a Pozible campaign which helped pay for insurances, art department, catering and hiring. Our fan base started from these amazing supporters and we just couldn’t have done it without them. We are still amazed at what we managed to pull off on such a modest budget.
How did you both meet? Had you worked together before?
SF: We met at a Metro Screen networking night where we only had 6 minutes to talk before the bell rang and we had to move onto meet someone else! The thing that attracted me to Damien was his own personal attachment to the story of Stan, our main man, particularly around the theme of second-generation-immigrant. I had written the story with my own tunnel vision for my friend in country Australia, but Damien helped me realise that there are many young Australians who have this multicultural identity issue in their lives in the cities as well. The other thing that attracted me to Damien was his love of the same comedy show that I was trying to reference. I’d met with other directors and writers who looked at me funny when I mentioned these show (Arrested Development, The Office US, 30 Rock), so I was delighted to find comedy kindred! He has been an amazing director and I’m eternally thankful that we hit it off in 6 minutes! As an aside, our DOP, Glenn Hanns was at that evening too!
DC: I met Sarah at a Metro Screen “speed dating” networking night in 2012. It wasn’t love at first sight – it took a couple of people before we found each other. My background was all over the shop – advertising, branded content, documentary, narrative shorts. At the time I was working on the reality show MTV Style Me; before then I had been trying to write and direct “serious drama” for ten years or so. Style Me was somewhat of a “revelatory experience” because it confirmed that perhaps comedy was more my thing. I had already made a comedy short in my 20s about the Australian Idol phenomenon, then a small short with Nick Boshier (of Bondi Hipsters) about the Oprah phenomenon but Style Me, which was six half hour episodes of essentially scripted “reality” comedy, really confirmed comedy as a choice. In came Sarah, who was looking for a comedy director for her pilot script. We exchanged details, she sent me the script. I saw a lot of potential. And Sarah was very driven and ambitious, which I respected. I signed on in January 2013.
Sarah, the scripting is pretty tight; you certainly get a strong sense of exactly who all the characters are and what drives them. It seems you’ve taken a TV pilot script (commercial half hour) then restructured it into four shorter episodes for the purposes of a web release. Would that be right? How long had you been working on the scripts for?
SF: Yes that is the approach for the pilot. Really, we are road testing our show. If people like it and we build fans then we have a larger scope to move forward into a full series. Once all of the shorter episodes are released we’ll join them together so people can get a sense of what a full TV episode might look and feel like.
I’ve been working on the scripts on and off for about 7 years and have a full 8 episodes at different stages of development. This pilot script was the most recently written.
Damien, what attracted you to this project? Did you bring any of your own usual collaborators to the project?
DC: I remember the first time I read the script. I was surprised at how tight it was. I also found myself laughing out loud. I could see from this first reading that Sarah and I had a similar sense of humour – cheeky, random, clever, a little bit postmodern… and don’t tell anybody, but maybe a little daggy too?
Beyond the wackiness, the element that appealed to me the most was the premise. I really loved the idea of a bloke of hybrid identity being forced to live in a small country town. I hadn’t really seen this before in a comedy on Australian television. I also related to this element personally – I am the urbanite that comes from a hybrid cultural background and am in frequent interactions of cultural confusion. Yet I also related on the level that Stan is a straight man in a crazy world and sometimes I feel like that (which is probably why my family are perplexed as to why I am making comedy when I am NOT. FUNNY.).
For Sarah, she comes from the other end – she grew up in a country town and knows Thathath and its characters…so…in a way it was a perfect fit.
In terms of collaborators, the crew mainly came from Sarah and Stu Waller, the producer. The only team members I brought to the table were either actors with which I had worked before (Paul Ayre) or actors I had heard about (Adam Dunn). I had worked with DOP Glenn Hanns before, and I regularly collaborate with camera operator/DOP Adrian Reinhardt (he shot my short film The Visitor). Other than that I was meeting and working with all cast and crew for the first time.
What were your references (both in the writing and then in the production)? Did you consult with anyone or seek any advice before starting?
SF: The comedic style of Town Centre emerges from my love of comedy, in particular, the influences of comedy creators such as Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Ricky Gervais, Mitchell Hurwitz, Australia’s Working Dog, and Gina Riley and Jane Turner, Chris Lilley. I have observed these fabulous comedy shows and their creators over the years and gleaned certain techniques and approaches to attribute to my story. I mostly wanted to see a show that used these techniques that have worked so brilliantly in the US and UK but with an Aussie voice, story and sensibility.
I haven’t done any formal scriptwriting course, only one day and weekenders at AFTRS with folks like Allen Palmer and Chris Taylor. I did get a bit of script assessment, which wasn’t very helpful and I have mostly asked friends and colleagues for their assessments and advice and used my own judgement and observations.
DC: I didn’t really seek any advice. Thirty three years of incessant television watching was my touchstone. For me the first show of which I thought when reading the script, and my eventual main reference was Arrested Development. I still think (even with the Netflix season) it’s one of the greatest comedies of all time. Things I drew from it – the camera as a character, the use of randomness, eclectic music, heightened performance juxtaposed with subtle performance, commentating on itself and just a general level of zaniness that you have to keep up with. I was also heavily influenced by the awkwardness and sweetness of the UK and American The Office, which I think was a reference for Sarah too, along with 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation.
I grew up on a lot of crap American sitcoms, so I’m also really into referencing the fact that we’re in a sitcom – Community does this to a degree. Other shows of which I was currently watching that were at the back of my mind were Episodes and Veep. I’m pretty eclectic in taste when it comes to comedy – my favourites range from Family Ties to Fawlty Towers to The Larry Sanders Show to Frontline to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Louie. In Australia recently I have very much enjoyed Please Like Me and The Moodys. However, if Town Centre could ever reach the heights of The Golden Girls – I will be in heaven. My references for the more “dramatic” elements – the opening of Episode 1, Part 1 – were Australian multicultural cop shows such as Wildside and East West 101.
The cast features a mix of new faces and a couple of old hands — how did the casting process play out? Did you wait to find everyone once you were in pre-production, or had you already lined up some players?
SF: We had many approaches to the casting. We researched actors and approached some personally and through agents. Some agents such as Sophie Jermyn, Encompass, and Martin Bedford were amazingly supportive. We also put the word out on some casting websites and were approached by certain actors once the word had gotten out. Stuart was working with Zac Drayson on another production and gave him the script. We originally had Zac read for Peter but as soon as Zac auditioned, Damien saw him as Stan. That was a brilliant call of Damien’s as Zac plays this role SO perfectly. We couldn’t have orchestrated that ourselves. As an actor myself, I was keen to see new talent, but we knew we had a good enough script to attract a good range of experienced talent.
We had to re-cast two older cast members and at the last minute managed to get Gennie Nevinson and Garry Who. I still don’t know how we got these amazing actors. Garry jumped in and played Cameron with such a skilled hand. He was also very encouraging at the quality of the script, which again confirmed that we had something good.
I really wanted to create an ensemble show, again like Parks and Recreation or The Office. I wanted to write complex plot lines and have these characters interact. I wanted to write characters with colour, flavour and heart. We needed to find actors who could thrive in the ensemble framework, which we absolutely did!
DC: We cast the entire show from scratch – however, Sarah was keen to play the role of Stephanie and had some actor friends lined up – Hannah Bath to play Emily and Hailey McQueen to play Carly. I made them all audition and they were all so bad that I cast them.
There was an extensive casting process. Zac auditioned several times. He originally auditioned for the role of Peter. I took one look at him and said – yes, you could pass for Middle-Eastern. He also had a gravitas that spoke “leading man”, I thought the retro factor of casting a Home and Away star would be great, and just plain simply I saw in him the capacity to carry a show and be the funny straight man.
I’m really happy with the troupe we pulled together – a combination of up-and-coming comedic talent and veterans such as Garry Who and Gennie Nevinson. Both of these actors were last minute castings (we originally had two other actors in their roles but our first attempt at shooting fell through in April 2013) and the show is better for it. Muriel’s Wedding is one of my favourite Australian films of all time so I was a bit star-struck to be working with Deidre Chambers. Since securing Garry I have been pushing for Sarah to write a role for Cameron’s long lost hippie brother, to be played by Jon English.
Where exactly did you shoot this? (I’m making the quite elitist assumption there is no actual Thathath…) What was that like?
SF: There is no Thathath! We filmed the pilot in Riverstone, North West Sydney. The perfect country location without needing to ask our cast and crew to travel too far. We filmed at the local school (Norwest Christian College) and church (Riverstone Community Centre). We have strong relationships with these groups and are extremely grateful for their generosity! We also filmed at the local shopping centre, Riverstone Market Town, and the surrounding area.
DC: It involved a lot of suspension of disbelief. Finding a small country town shopping centre is next to impossible in Sydney. We had been originally slated in April 2013 to shoot at an abandoned shopping centre in Parramatta and when that fell through, on regrouping we decided just to bite the bullet and use Sarah’s home suburb and her contacts and “do what we could”.
Comedy is never easy. The series manages to pack in a lot of laughs yet revolve around quite a tragic figure in Stanley Pisque. Did you see that as a potential risk?
SF: No, I never thought of it as a risk. I never thought of it at all to be honest! It is just the story of a very normal straight-laced guy with his own identity and mother issues who is thrust into a life of chaos. He is a creative, polite gentleman and I get to poke him… lots! And we see how he deals with it and how he learns how to live his own life, at 33! – without the supports and comforts around him.
I deliberately played with lots of comedy styles, absurdism, witty dialogue, banter, nonsense, character centric comedy, editing gags, music gags, physical comedy. I am happy that it is a mixed bag and want it to continue as such.
DC: I don’t really see Stan as tragic. Maybe that helps. I see him as heroic – having to step up in a crazy situation. I am hoping he gets to learn a lot about himself in the process.
What was the best bit about putting the series together? What’s really stood out for you as a highlight?
SF: The best bit has been to see my people (characters) come to life and to see that people love them, love playing them, watching them, talking about them and laughing at them. I am also thrilled that my instincts as a creator have been confirmed. What I’ve been wanting in Aussie content is what other people want, both audience and creatives. That is quite valuable to me.
And the fact that almost everyone stuck with us during our forced hiatus. We could have lost a lot more cast and crew at that time but almost everyone stuck with us. That was pretty amazing.
DC: The rehearsal process. It has been a while since I’ve worked with actors for such a dedicated period of time. I loved it.
A big highlight was when I saw the cast performing together on set and seeing people actually laugh. It was also wonderful to see Sarah and Steve (her husband’s) faces when the show was coming to life. They’ve put so much work and passion into the show.
The editing process with Daniel Le was fabulous. It was really collaborative and I think we both learnt a lot about comedy and storytelling. Editing is comedy’s best friend if done well, and, like a good piece of music, is all about timing.
And what was the most challenging part of the process?
SF: Finding a shopping centre location was a very difficult process, which led to us having to postpone our first shooting schedule. That put the pause button on the whole project for about 6 months. They were a very difficult 6 months.
DC: Just getting the thing made. The shoot falling through in early 2013 was a low point – everybody’s energy was drained. It’s a testimony to Sarah’s commitment that we came back.
The shoot was very packed, at times a bit rough and there were some trying moments (but they put up with me).
Post-production has been conducted around everybody’s busy schedules – so having the tenacity and patience to last the distance has definitely been a challenge.
If you were to do it all again tomorrow, what would you stick with and what would you rethink?
SF: I would stick with most of it. I thought about this process long and hard as a way to get my writing and show out there. There are so many doors that seem closed to newcomers in the TV world and you have to prove yourself somehow… this way I get to prove my work and build a creative team, a fan base and have creative control. Having creative control is very important to me and to establish a healthy working culture of honour, care and collaboration.
The one thing I would change is the shooting schedule for our first day, we tried to do too much and lost a scene because we ran out of time. That was the only downer in my view.
And in regards to the location difficulties, I would have given the actual shopping centres a miss, and put my energy in using what was available to us.
DC: I would have probably recommended to Sarah that we use a script editor. Perhaps there are moments that could have been even more tightly scripted.
I would have learnt to deal with the stresses of a packed shoot a little better too. Some times I let it get to me too much. There are things you always want to improve – the pacing of a scene, communication with cast and crew, better coverage, replacing the director…
We could have thought a little more about the production design of the show, sometimes it looks a little too low budget. But remembering the original intent and parameters under which we were working…we did awesomely!
Is the show too daggy in parts? That depends on whether your version of comedy is Louie or The Big Bang Theory…
What do you hope audiences will take away from the series?
SF: We want them to want more because they had such a good time! I want them to have joy as they engage with the characters and the world of Town Centre.
DC: That it’s a heartwarming, funny, insane show that will only get better and more heartwarming, funny and insane.
For anyone who may be considering putting together their own web series, what’s your advice?
SF: Just keep going. Be original and fresh. Create content and stories that people care about. Be disciplined with your time management. Keep evaluating your work and build a positive well-skilled team around you. Watch what other people/groups do to see what works and what doesn’t, but find your own style and voice.
Money is not the most important resource. People are. Care about the people you work with, honour them and be generous toward them. Film-making is a co-labouring enterprise and it’s the skills of the people in your team that will get your project off the ground. It’s hard work for everyone on set, so make sure you find the joy and the sweetness for it to be fun as well!
DC: It’s tough. You have to really believe in your idea. It’s good to have a supportive following to begin with. Crowdfunding campaigns help in that respect.
If you have an existing TV pilot script, really think about a web series structure vs the pilot structure.
Raise enough money to cover the post-production process, otherwise it will go on for years.
What’s the future for Town Centre looking like?
SF: There is an eight-episode season ahead, of which episode 1 is the first. This season has love triangles, a fashion parade, an animal farm, psychics, some terrible local theatre, a cultural day and of course further threats to Town Centre and Stan’s secret identity. I hope the appetite is whet!
DC: Sarah has developed a first series. I’d be interested in seeing the characters develop, going on tangents with them, but there being a main theme or arc for each series.
It would be cool to reference Australian comedy history, up the randomness, really take it into uncharted territory. Sarah…remember that idea we had about the It’s A Knockout episode?
Phew! Thanks guys. So inspiring to see such amazing commitment. I hope you’re giving yourself a holiday now Sarah… Here’s to a large (and well-deserved) audience!
All images courtesy of the production.