From the moment we knew what the plot of The Pact was going to be, there was only one option for our lead actor.
I’ve known Rose Flanagan since we were both regularly on stage together in high school theatre. In fact, on some level I think Rose is at least partly responsible for my giving up on chasing the dream of being an actor – when you’re performing opposite someone as gifted as her, your own shortcomings as a prospective thespian become all too clear. Rose’s talent is formidable and, to paraphrase Jon Favreau speaking about Don Cheadle, I believe that if you can have Rose Flanagan in your project, have Rose Flanagan in your project.
Rose has appeared in a couple of Bitten By shows, directed last year’s production of The Critic and as of very recently is a newly minted member of the Bitten By Productions committee. She also had a leading role in the largely improvised web series Bogan Book Club that I was part of back in my podcasting days. In 2016 she featured in another web series pilot I wrote that, despite high production values never went any further than one episode. I’ve worked with Rose a lot and yet I’ve always felt like she naturally gets pushed into the funny roles. Which makes sense; Rose is hilarious, but like most gifted comics she’s a fantastic dramatic actor as well, something I’ve always wanted to capitalise on. The Pact, then, felt like the perfect opportunity.
I wanted to move quickly on filming. Already other creators were making and releasing isolation series, and while ours would not be set in the time of Covid, I was adamant that we wanted to release as soon as possible to capitalise at least somewhat on the fact that this was made entirely remotely by Melbourne artists during a particularly trying period for the industry. Once we knew what the full arc was going to be and once the scripts for the first couple of episodes were at a high enough standard, I figured it was time to get the show on the road.
Casting too was yet to be completed, but we had a few actors locked in, and with Chris Farrell (who played Bruce in my play Springsteen) on board as protagonist Morgan’s estranged brother, we could get the first episode together and, if nothing else, at least get a sense for what we had on our hands.
John and I went through a couple of options for what the best way to film would be. Recording an actual Zoom call was considered – the app even alternates between who is speaking at any given time, which in theory suited our purposes, but there were so many variables. A dodgy internet connection could scupper an episode. Plus, while doing it this way would be the most realistic, the show still had to be watchable. Blurry footage and laggy exchanges of dialogue would not make for an especially appealing viewing experience.
This, by the way, would become the biggest point of discussion in the early stages of The Pact – where to draw the line between reality and entertainment. While naturally entertainment would always come first, given that the concept of the series was based around only video calls we had to maintain at least a foundational amount of fidelity to the form.
My pitch for how to film was to get the actors to call each other on speakerphone with headphones in, but record directly into their webcams. This way they would look on screen like they were responding to each other, the recordings would be clear, and the actors would be able to react, if only to a voice. In the end, however, the consensus was that the actors wanted to see each other, and so more or less the same principal was used except the calls would be actual video calls allowing them to best bounce off each other.
Practice recordings of the first episode seemed to indicate that this would work. By not recording the calls themselves but rather just each actor’s individual side, the quality remained relatively high. Going forward however, we would find that with vastly divergent equipment available to each actor, the filming process would differ depending on the circumstances.
So we set a date to shoot episode one. It felt premature and a little thrilling – like, were we just allowed to go ahead and make this without some higher up calling the shots? I brushed those feelings off. We were going into uncharted territory here. Feeling a bit uncertain wasn’t indicative of anything other than the fact that we were trying something new, and that was inherently exciting.
You might be wondering, around this point, why I haven’t mentioned a director. If so, you’re smarter than I was. Because, in an act of blinkered naivety on my part that I still can’t believe I was stupid enough to allow after years of working in theatre, I figured we didn’t really need one.
Yeah. Any guess why we faced challenges early on?
I think I was just so carried away by the idea of the whole project, by a brazen sense that we were making something simple, that I didn’t give enough thought to the fact that the series needed a single voice to guide it. I mean, in theory at that point I was that voice – I was editing every script as it came in, taking calls with the actors and handling some of the production stuff, but a showrunner is a different job to director. Which didn’t stop me doing what I felt was enough ‘directing’ to keep the series on track. Before the shoot of episode one I sat in on a read with Rose and Chris, gave them some notes, then logged off to let them film. Piece of cake.
John soon came back with two different versions of the first episode. One, shot on the actors’ phones in high definition, felt slow and baggy. The second, using webcams, felt warmer, livelier, but it was by no means a stunning vindication of the whole concept. John and I discussed and agreed version two was preferable, but should we have been shooting in high-def?
It was a difficult question without a clear answer. Comparisons to other series that used the same form indicated that we should have been. Love In Lockdown, for example, looks very slick – although to be fair Gristmill has a lot more money than us. But even so, if we wanted to be a contender in the growing field of isolation made entertainment, we had to at least look as professional as possible.
In the end, John and I agreed that the high definition version looked too sharp, not at all like an actual video call. For the gritty, downbeat sensibilities of The Pact, filming with standard definition webcams ultimately suited our purposes better. If I’m honest, I still have my doubts about this choice, but it was a choice and in the end the series’ future does not rest on the quality of the footage, but on the quality of the content.
On which front we were faced with some problems. I sent the episode around to a few people for feedback and for the most part received muted positivity. It was when I sent it to a friend of mine who works as a filmmaker in a different state, who knew nobody involved except for me, that I finally received a serve of brutal, if kindly phrased, honesty. He liked the story and the concept, but he felt that the episode as it stood just fundamentally did not work. He didn’t believe the performances and didn’t find it especially attention grabbing. Which was going to be a problem if it was supposed to launch a fourteen-part series.
It left me at a crossroads. Of course I could choose to ignore him. Nobody else had reacted so negatively. But crucially, nobody else was as unbiased as him. In his reaction I saw the potential reaction of not only the audience we wanted to capture, but the industry at large.
I also didn’t want to reshoot. Nobody was getting paid for the project and everybody had already given up a lot of time. There was only so much I could expect of people. But as I watched the episode again and again, the truth became clear. We could not start a series with this. Not one that had any chance of being taken seriously. And that not only meant a reshoot, it meant a rethink of the project across the board.
Rose and Chris are two of the best actors I know. But for a story that was becoming increasingly complex and challenging, they couldn’t be expected to fly blind. And while I was cautious of how much I could ask of everyone, I was also aware that to not make the project to the highest standard possible was to do the team a massive disservice, to create a scenario in which the brilliance of the people involved would not be evident. Which would render the whole project pointless.
I called John and, tentatively, asked how he would feel about starting episode one from scratch. With the saintly patience that he would demonstrate again and again in the weeks to come, he agreed it was the best option. I apologised for wasting his time, but he simply replied with something that has stuck with me – ‘that’s creativity, man. Trial and error.’
So far what we had made looked a little too much like an error. Which meant a new approach. Namely, that we needed a director and fast.
So, Covid happens and suddenly all the things you would usually do with your time fly out the window. You can’t leave the house and everyone’s on Zoom calls. The internet is full of condescending posts about how productive X was during the Y pandemic of Z year. And while those posts are annoying, they’re at least a break from the endless conspiracy theories, finger wagging and politicising of mask wearing.
With the possible exception of the book industry, the arts, at least as a viable form of moneymaking, begin to collapse. You can’t put on plays or make movies. But as the weeks wear on, you find yourself wanting to make something. If only to keep occupied.
So what are your options?
The idea for an isolation web series started with hearing the news that several famous actors were going to make a TV show that was entirely based around video calls, about an agency of agoraphobic detectives. Of course they weren’t the only ones; in Australia we’ve seen the release of shows like Love In Lockdown and Retrograde turn the era of Covid into the contemporaneous setting for brand new comedies, while in the States Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock returned for special, video call based reunions.
But what stood out about The Agoraphobics Detective Society was the fact that it isn’t about Covid. Yes, it’s made during quarantine and a product of very specific circumstances, but one that found a different and valid reason to tell its story through video calls than the obvious. Without seeing the show it’s hard to know how well it works, but I liked the fact that it wouldn’t feel dated in a (theoretical) post coronavirus world.
So I started thinking and the more I thought the more excited I got. Making a web series with video calls would be easy, right? After all, everyone has a smartphone. Actors could film their parts in isolation, we could edit the footage together and that would be that (that would not be that, but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
I decided a mystery would be the most exciting framework for this story, and from there the early pieces fell quickly into place. Six or so episodes, I figured, about a young woman living in Germany whose ex-boyfriend back home in Australia has vanished. Separate from all the people who might know something, her only recourse is to one by one call figures from her shady past in an attempt to shed light on what exactly happened to him – in the process bringing her face to face with the ugly truth behind what made her leave in the first place.
The first person I called about the project was Kashmir Sinnamon, a fellow Bitten By Productions member. Tripping over myself, I filled him in on my disparate episode ideas and the writers I wanted to get on board. I asked Kash to assemble his dream cast and we would create characters around them.
Next I did something sneaky. I called my good mate John Erasmus, who directed Bitten By’s 2018 horror show Dead Air but also is a very in demand full time editor who has worked on a lot of high-profile projects. I pitched him the idea without ever directly asking if he’d be willing to edit it despite that being exactly what I was hoping for. John, of course, figured it out pretty quickly and luckily mirrored both my enthusiasm and delusion; “should be pretty easy”.
In my head, we would get the series written, filmed and edited in about three weeks. Six five-minute episodes – how hard could it be?
At this point, unquestionably carried away and wanting nothing more than to dive right in, I wrote a pilot. Morgan, the troubled protagonist, receives a phone call out of nowhere from her estranged half brother Tim. They exchange awkward small talk then Tim reveals his reason for calling; that Morgan’s ex Brett has vanished. He urges Morgan not to look into it, not to ‘dig that shit up again’ but it’s clear that’s not going to happen.
For the record, I had no idea when I wrote it where Brett was. I didn’t know why things between Morgan and Tim were so fraught. Or what ‘that shit’ referred to. I had no idea. I wrote it, then I sent it to Kath Atkins and Damian Robb, two writer friends, and asked them what they thought happened next.
From there, we started a writer’s room. I sat down with Kath, Damo and ideas were thrown around, including notions of how to proceed. The suggestion was raised that we should set it during Covid, but I was certain the series would work better if it found a different reason to be all through video calls – i.e. the protagonist being overseas and wanting to see the faces of the people she calls to gauge whether they’re lying or not. Plus, thematically, it felt like there was something nice about the video call format, about the characters only showing what suits their agendas.
Quickly it became clear that six episodes wouldn’t be enough. As we explored, found answers to our mysteries, and in line with Kash’s suggestions crafted the characters we would need to arrive at those answers, our episode count ballooned to sixteen (later it would go down to fourteen, but it was still way more than John signed up for – sorry man). And while this would naturally mean more work, it also offered the opportunity to bring more people on board. I wanted to keep the story outlining team contained to Kath, Damo and myself in order to ensure we avoided a too many cooks situation, but once the major beats of what had to happen in each episode were worked out, then I wanted to involve as many writers as feasible. After all, half the point of the project was giving creatives something to do.
As showrunner, I would be writing the first episode and the finale, but I really wanted episode seven as well, the episode where Morgan comes face to face with her father, who may or may not be responsible for Brett’s disappearance. Damo and Kath were going to write three episodes each, but as we shuffled things around Kath went down to two – although one of those is the climax of the series, and as you’ll know when you see it, the hardest to pull off. For the record, she nailed it.
Episode two went to Karl Sarsfield, a recent VCA grad who had acted in a couple of my plays. Episode three to Bonnie McRae, who I work with at Melbourne Young Writer’s Studio and is one of the writers on the still gestating web series version of Heroes. For episode four I recruited Kate Murfett, an old school friend and terrifyingly brilliant writer – her episode would prove to be a particularly special one, but we’ll get to that. Five, six and seven were written by Kath, Damo and myself, while for episode eight John proved that not only is he a magnificent editor, but a fantastic writer as well. Damo wrote nine, and Kashmir, whose recently completed first play Old Gods will hit the stage the moment we’re allowed, wrote the absolutely pivotal episode ten. Eli Landes, who also studied at VCA and works at MYWS, turned what could have been a purely functional episode eleven into a funny, tender and deeply moving calm before the final three-episode storm, written by Kath, Damo and myself.
What wowed me the most about the work that every writer – a lot for what ultimately amounts to about eighty minutes of content – did, was how they managed to each bring so much to the series while maintaining a consistent tone and quality. Watching the finished episodes back to back, you can both identify each person’s individual talents, but they never distract from the whole. It feels cohesive, and that to me speaks to what has been my favourite thing about this project; how it was enriched by the many voices involved, all of whom came together to make something unique and singular.
Of course, I’ve written this whole post without mentioning two of the most important voices involved in the whole series. But we’ll get to that. After all, this has been a big, complicated, challenging production on a lot of levels, and the relative ease of the early development was not indicative of how things would go the moment filming started.
Writing words about writing words.