This is the final part of an ongoing series about the making of The Pact - links to the previous parts are below.
A few years ago, not long after Boone Shepard was released, I decided to try and read the finished book in its bound final form. I didn’t get very far. I was still too close to all the work that had gone into it to see it as anything more than a chore. In the end it took me over a year after release before I could read Boone Shepard again and conclude that actually, I was proud of it.
As such, it wasn’t a surprise that my first marathon viewing of the whole of The Pact, edited, mixed, graded and finished, wasn’t a lot of fun. All the way through I fretted about the pace, the picture quality, aspects of the scripts and performances. But I had also only just come out of those long hours in the edit suite, watching every episode over and over to make sure it was as good as it possibly could be, that there was nothing left we wanted to change. After that, there was no way I could view it with anything like objectivity.
So we geared up for release. Pete, Rose and I all did interviews. Reviews began to come in, mostly positive. Farrago called it “confident and bold”. TheatrePeople described it as a “wonderful online twist of the usual neo-noir narrative format”. The Independent Arts Journal rightly raved about Rose’s work, but were critical of the structure of some of the early episodes, suggesting that the conflict was contrived to give each episode a narrative shape. ScreenHub, for their part, felt that we’d missed the mark. Some of the criticisms I found unfair or at least could explain the choices that led to them, but that’s the nature of the beast. You can’t walk an audience through all of your intentions so ultimately the work has to speak for itself, for better or worse.
If I’m honest, I probably expected a bigger response across the board. Maybe the choice to release the episodes daily instead of in one hit was a mistake, but we really did want the individual chapters to get their chance to shine. Still, from the start there just wasn’t all that much engagement. Across Instagram and YouTube the views were okay, but they peaked in episode one and never hit the same heights again. We did what we could to promote it, including regular Instagram Live events where various members of the team (writers, director, editor, producer) chatted to key cast members, and those got pretty decent viewer numbers, but overall the series didn’t blow up the way we ideally would have liked. Which isn’t to say that I was expecting a million views an episode or anything, but I guess one of the realities of putting so much time and work into a project is that you can begin to believe that the ways in which it has consumed your life will translate to it striking a chord with others. That rarely happens, especially when your sole means of promotion is your team posting about it on Facebook.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the figurative room of this blog, one that you likely became aware of around the time I mentioned the first episode getting better numbers than the rest. Some people I’ve spoken to say that the first episode wasn’t strong or involving enough to keep them watching, and that’s probably fair. It was a tough nut to crack, and we had to try and crack it without fully knowing how to tell a story in this way, something we could only learn by doing. Without the budget or time to revisit things again and again, in the end we could only do what we could do. And while that’s not a blanket excuse for any of what might not work in The Pact, it’s the reality. We made this in weird circumstances without any money because we wanted to. Every single person involved went above and beyond what I could have asked of them to bring the show together. And if that wasn’t enough, well, I can’t say what would have been.
I do think, for whatever it’s worth, that the show finds its feet as it goes on. There was unquestionably an element of trial and error in the early stages, as we got a feel for the medium and the story, but once we found that balance the show, for me, hits a stride that I believe really works. If people found the first episode a struggle then I wish I could push them to watch at least a few more, because a lot of the feedback we've had from people who finished the series indicates that as it finds its momentum and voice it becomes a pretty compelling binge.
None of that is to say that an audience should feel obligated to persevere if they simply don't find it engaging, but knowing as I do how great some of the performances and scripts are in the back half of the series, I do hope that more people give it a shot in the weeks and months to come.
There’s so much about the series that I’m proud of without qualification. On a personal level, I think my script for episode seven rocks. I think the performances, especially from our four most important players (Rose, Jimi, Greg and Tatiana), are stunning. Episode twelve is brilliant, and as the climax of the series I couldn’t have expected better work from the team.
I’m also proud that during this weird and, yes, unprecedented time we made something, something ambitious and complicated with a lot of moving parts that everyone committed to a hundred percent. I will always love collaboration and The Pact was a great one. How can I not be grateful for the fact that I got to spend a big chunk of lockdown telling a story with my friends?
It was challenging and it wasn’t perfect, but to briefly borrow the premise of my other lockdown project (which, incidentally, featured a lengthy post-mortem of The Pact), it was entirely worth it.
This is the fifth part of an ongoing series about the making of The Pact - links to the previous parts are below.
Originally I’d planned to write a full blog about the marathon shoot that wrapped The Pact, but on reflection I don’t know that there’s too much of any value to say about it. Not from my perspective anyway. I know it was grueling and intense for Pete and Rose – three of the series’ most intense episodes were shot back to back in one day – but for me that week and a bit in which the last half of the series was shot was a succession of updates on how each episode had come together. It was an absolute change of pace, after the drawn out filming of the early eps, but by this stage the team knew what they were doing and worked efficiently.
We hadn’t quite plunged into lockdown 2.0 at that stage, which meant that at least for a little while there John, Kashmir, Pete and myself could all be at the editing sessions. Together we watched and discussed every episode, as John worked incredible magic to make our series function before our eyes. Seriously; we were all wowed by how quickly he could piece the episodes together, how it took him mere seconds to make cuts or swap in footage from other takes. Par for the course for a professional editor, I’m sure, but for us plebs it was pretty exciting to watch him work.
The process did take longer than we expected. Every editing session would start with a rough aim of where we planned to get up to that day, but we never quite managed it, especially as the series went on and the episodes became longer and more complex.
For the most part there weren’t any major catastrophes. There were inconvenient discoveries along the way; like how the best take used for one episode had an object in frame that wasn’t present in the parts of the other take we were also using. In all those instances, John confidently and with seeming ease found ways around them. If there is one big lesson I’ve taken away from The Pact as a whole (and there are many) it’s how essential a good editor can be. And we had a great one.
There was also a bit of a looming deadline, or so we thought. After all, the reasoning behind the marathon shoot and the big whole-cast rehearsal had been the fact that, as we came out of lockdown, the novelty of the series and arguably its most interesting selling point, the fact that it was something made almost entirely remotely during lockdown, lost value.
Of course at that point we didn’t know that we were about to plunge back into Stage Four restrictions.
As we went on I found myself getting more and more ruthless with what would be cut. We (I) came up with some wildly inappropriate terms for our satisfaction when episodes came in under five minutes, which was the aim for at least the first half of the series. Splitting the difference between showcasing the subtleties of the scripts and performances but keeping the episodes punchy was a real challenge, but as we went on I was taken aback by how many moments that had seemed essential or justified on the page didn’t need to be there on screen. Occasionally there would be the distinct thrill of realising that whole minutes could be ripped out of the episode and actually make the story work better. Many of the later episodes, in their rough-cut form, were well over ten minutes. By the end of the edits, only the finale retained that length.
The best example of how this ruthlessness could end up serving us had to be episode nine, the monologue episode written by Damian Robb and conceived as a chance for Rose to show off just how good she could be alone on camera. The performance and the script were fantastic, but the episode was too long (ten minutes) without enough crucial new information at a point where the story had to be speeding up and delivering answers. We agonised over how to handle it, torn between wanting to show the full extent of Rose’s incredible, one-take work but knowing we needed to up the pace. Of course, given the episode was done in a single shot, we didn’t have the same luxury of being able to cut between moments as we did in others.
Or so we thought.
As we grappled with what to do, an idea was thrown into the mix; what if we did cut, harshly and jarringly, between key moments in the performance? We decided to give it a try and quickly we were blown away by the result. The cuts not only highlighted Rose and Damian’s work, but created the sense of coming in and out of consciousness, as Morgan, who by this point has fully descended into alcohol abuse, absolutely would be. The episode being framed as a filmed message for Brett meant that it also gave the impression of Morgan leaving multiple rambling messages one after another. It was a case where losing half the material actually allowed the episode’s role in the story to shine, underlining what it was trying to say while getting the length down to five minutes. Upon release it was one of the most well received episodes, referred to in one review as ‘five minutes of gold’.
Those hours in the edit suite, now that we’re on the other side of the series, are probably among my favourite memories of the whole project. Working together with good friends, pushing through disagreements and making discoveries as we all did our best to create something we could be proud of, something that had slowly grown into a lot more than the quarantine time-killer it had been conceived as. Between edits we had long conversations about all sorts of things, ate pizza and and left every night with a real feeling of excitement about what we had on our hands.
Meanwhile, covid case numbers grew and strict rules returned to Melbourne. Our worries that the series would be released too late to capitalise on the circumstances started to look grimly unfounded.
Almost matter of factly, we settled on a release date after much back and forth over when the best date would be. The finished episodes went to reviewers. After all the work we’d done, the release of the thing felt almost like an afterthought. I don’t think I even remember the moment when we knew that the series was fully locked.
So, after everything, we were finally done. The project that had been far bigger and more stressful than any of us had planned for was finished. All that was left was to see how it would be received.
Writing words about writing words.