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.