Last Friday I uploaded a blog post talking about my bad teenage web series Phoenix and how that weekend, for no good reason anyone could articulate, the original cast were getting together to film an eleven-year-too-late finale that nobody outside of ourselves would ever see.
Well, we did it.
It’s hard to quantify the experience so I’m going to just write about it and hope that some kind of clarity emerges. On paper the very idea of reuniting to (in a single day) conclude a project long since designated a punchline is more than weird; it’s nonsensical. In practice, the day we spent rehearsing, filming, editing, reminiscing and finally watching was a combination of fun and deeply melancholic.
I arrived in the Yarra Valley on Friday night. Sarah, who spearheaded the original series with me, and I spent the evening digging up old scripts, notes and even MSN conversations about the series. Then, on Saturday morning the rest of our cast – Gemma, Garth and Sam – arrived. Despite the five of us not having been in a room together in probably a decade, we fell quickly into old rhythms. Caught up, had a laugh, then got to reading through the script and discussing the subtext. Which might sound overly dedicated given what the project was, but I maintain that we had to treat it as seriously as we treated the 2010 material, even if we knew that it was a ridiculous notion.
It was around five in the afternoon that we filmed the final shot of the series, out at Sarah’s old house. We wrapped with a cheer and a big laugh, then we walked down under the old bridge to where we shot some beautifully angsty “promo shots” in 2010, recreating our most self-serious poses for a new cast photo. Once that was done it was back to the house for food and my ongoing efforts to get the cut together. Naturally I was using Windows Movie Maker, just as I did in 2010, and naturally this experience was not a pleasing one. But finally, at around 11pm, I finished it and we sat down to watch the whole series through. We’d all had a few beers already by this point, so it was with a collective sense of rowdy anticipation that we hit play on episode one.
We laughed. A lot. I don’t think any of us had watched Phoenix since we made it, and the awkward shots, terrible acting, bizarre character motivations and absurd plot twists were a particular kind of hilarious. But as we went, something else emerged. A sense that certain moments or developments were almost sort of good. Not genuinely – this was still a slapped together attempt at serious drama shot on a camcorder by inexperienced teenagers – but there were times where you could see the merit of what we were going for, if not of what we achieved. The episodes certainly got better as they went, but then given the quality we started at there really was no way to go but up.
The strangest moment, I think, came when we hit episode sixteen – the last one we shot in 2010. It was at that point where we all realised that we’d been having such a good time watching the thing that we didn’t want it to end. And, beyond that, that it was very obvious that the us of a decade ago were only just getting started with this story. That there were clearly supposed to be many episodes to come. In a way, I think that sparked a strange sadness that we never finished it the way we intended back then. Which made the finale we had just shot feel… odd.
For context, the script I wrote to conclude Phoenix was designed as a kind of epilogue, but sitting where it does, right after what was supposed to be the midpoint of the series, it feels misplaced, like all the big climactic events the series was building towards had been skipped. Which, to be fair, they had. On top of that, despite its rushed and roughshod production, it was maybe a little too… good. The acting was better. The writing was better. A 2021 phone produces far sharper sound and footage than a 2010 video camera. There’s an inherent restraint and maturity compared to the go-for-broke spirit of the original, which was all unchecked ambition and spectacular failures. We intended to replicate the ethos of our 2010 selves, but for all my talk of taking it seriously, there was no real way to genuinely make an episode the way we would have a decade ago.
And I think that is why, as the series ended, we all felt a little down. Because on screen we saw the jump between the kids we were and the adults we are now. The fact that ten years ago we thought nothing of giving up every weekend to make this dumb series. That we were so passionate about this thing we ultimately made for nobody but ourselves. That we were all willingly together in the same leaky boat. And now we had come back together to finish it, but in finishing it we’d closed a book on not just a project, but a period of our lives.
There’s always a sense of melancholy to completing something. In this case it's not something that will ultimately serve a greater purpose, but something that had always lingered as a kind of creative ellipsis. A story that I’d occasionally considered reworking and even previously tried to as a YA novel series, but had never fully realised.
Until now. Not in the way that was intended, but then, somehow an awkward compromise feels entirely appropriate for Phoenix.
When talking about The Pact a while ago I alluded to the fact that it wasn’t my first foray into the world of web series. And for those five people who remember Bogan Book Club, it wasn’t even my second. The first is nowadays more a punchline than anything else.
I don’t exactly remember where the idea for Phoenix came from, but at some point towards the end of high school I decided to make a no-budget web series shot in ‘artistic’ black and white to show off how serious it was, a web series that would follow a group of teenagers trapped in a house after a nuclear war.
The concept was neither original nor terrible. The planned execution was the inverse. My initial idea was to shoot it with a group of friends from my hometown, none of whom had the slightest interest in acting. Or, for that matter, being part of it. The idea ended up in a drawer.
Then, while involved in a play out in Warburton towards the end of year twelve, I floated the idea to the director, Sarah Ward; now known as the founder of the ever-expanding Misfit Theatre. Sarah and I became totally enamoured with Phoenix, taking my original scripts and building an epic mythology out of them along with a planned thirty episode arc that, when it inevitably went viral and made us all world famous, would be the springboard to a hit movie.
Obviously none of that happened. We cast people who had been in the play and launched into filming without much of a plan. Which went about as well as you’d expect. This was a series shot on an old camera from which all uploaded footage was stretched and pixelated, edited on Windows Movie Maker in stolen minutes between work and uni. I vividly remember uploading the first episode to YouTube only to very quickly learn that strangers on the internet are not kind. I actually became that guy who made a fake account to rebut all the criticisms, as if anybody would go to such effort to defend a series ostensibly set after a nuclear war in which sunlight and trees were clearly visible out the window.
But we kept filming. We got maybe a little better but it was hard to come back from those awful first episodes. And there were other struggles. Cast availability issues meaning that we would either have to sub in new actors and hope nobody noticed, or else come up with sudden ‘plot twists’ that revealed an extra person had been living in the house all along, conveniently revealed right as another character vanished.
A combination of growing disillusionment with the project and the fact that, you know, nobody was watching meant that we stopped shooting with our sixteenth episode. That wasn’t the plan; I’m pretty sure at the time we had every intention of keeping going, but we never did. Over the following weeks there were half hearted attempts to pick up where we left off but time passed and lives moved on and before long Phoenix was squarely in the rear-view mirror – eventually even removed from YouTube to try and mitigate the inevitable humiliation should it be rediscovered.
Over the years I attempted to reverse that. I still thought the idea had merit and that, executed correctly, it could be something really cool. The year after shooting the original episodes we got fairly far along developing a rebooted version with a new cast that would in theory make up for the failings of the original. Never shot, naturally. The year after that, I actually wrote the first in what I hoped to be a Phoenix novel series, which remixed characters and events from the original web version with the seeming benefit of no budget constraints. It didn’t work. The pace was lurching and I wasn’t able to inject the material with any more originality than it had had to begin with.
Then, a few weeks ago, one of the old cast members got back in touch with the rest of us to point out that we never finished Phoenix. And between the jokes and reminiscing a vague idea emerged. What if a final episode was written that could wrap the series up? A final episode that could be shot and edited in a day, just like the old ones, after which we could all watch the whole series through, naturally with plenty of beers and laughs at our 2010 ‘acting’. Obviously this finale would never be released publicly, but rather exist as an excuse for the cast to get back together, have some nostalgic fun then a few chuckles at our own self-important expense.
Recently I was having drinks with some friends and the topic of Phoenix came up. I immediately slipped into my automatic response of disparaging everything about it, only to be quickly shut down by the point that when you’re an eighteen-year-old creative you’re supposed to make bad things. That’s how you learn. And besides, healthy giggles at the badness of said bad things aside, there’s nothing to be ashamed of about trying to make something when you’re a dumb teenager.
Hearing that really stuck with me. I’d never thought about Phoenix or even my shambolic early theatre writing that way before. I’ve always acted kind of apologetic when it comes to talking about old work but it’s only now I realise that I’ve got nothing to be sorry about. If I hadn’t made those crappy old projects, I wouldn’t have learned how to make the better new ones.
So anyway; call it sheer stupidity, call it a belated tribute to an early learning curve or a chance to do something fun with old friends again, but whatever the case we’re finally finishing Phoenix.
Writing words about writing words.