A little bit about Peter Blackburn. We first met working on The Trial of Dorian Gray. Kashmir introduced us, thinking that Pete would be a great fit for that script. His reputation preceded him and I went to that first meeting apprehensive, suspicious that he would be a haughty wanker looking down his nose at our little indie theatre project. Not because anything I’d heard about him indicated that this might be the case, but rather because he is held in such high esteem in the Melbourne theatre scene that it was hard to imagine he would want any part of our project without lots of money and lots of changes.
It took maybe two seconds for me to be disabused of that stupid notion. Sometimes you meet people with whom you instantaneously connect and that was one of those times. Pete is not only one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, but one of the wisest, most committed, and most formidably talented. He works without ego; committed only to the realisation of the project as best it can be. He has a singular ability to draw incredible, layered, natural performances out of actors and tends to finish a project with the fierce loyalty of everyone involved. Pete deserves the same evaluation I have of Rose; if you can get Pete Blackburn to direct your play, get Pete Blackburn to direct your play.
Or, in this case, web series.
That the idea of bringing Pete on board didn’t occur to me earlier is indicative of my own idiocy. I’d even sent him early scripts and outlines for feedback without ever thinking to suggest more direct involvement. Pete, after all, had been on board to direct our planned next show, Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller before lockdown happened, and with The Pact more or less replacing that play in our schedule, moving the whole team over probably would have made sense.
It was after we decided to reshoot the first ep and I called Pete for feedback about what we’d gotten wrong that a very obvious realisation clicked into place. At some point in that phone chat the idea of Pete directing the whole series was raised and that was that. He connected up with John, Rose and the rest of the cast, and the ball started rolling. Episode one would be reshot, and then they would roll straight on to the rest of the series. And under Pete’s guidance, we wouldn’t have a repeat of the same issues with episode one.
Well, not a repeat anyway. As the first cut was turned in of the reshot episode one, it became clear that this would be a particularly tough nut to crack. The problems, I stress, were not the direct fault of anyone involved. It was a confluence of minor things that all together meant the episode designed to kickstart the series was not making for especially compelling viewing. The script needed a tighten. There were eyeline issues. Tonally it came off as too dour and downbeat.
People say endings are hard, but I can promise you that they are nowhere near as hard as beginnings. After all, the challenge of ending well won’t matter one iota if your story hasn’t drawn in an audience, and it’s very tough to do that without a strong opener. The new version was a marked improvement on what we had, but another round of collating feedback illustrated that my reservations were not paranoia; the problems were problems.
My reluctance to reshoot remained. This should have fixed everything. But then, if the me of two weeks previously was to be believed, this should have been an easy project. And that was proving to very much not be the case.
Things got a bit heated as we discussed what to do about episode one. The consensus was largely against reshooting. At that stage I was more or less willing to accept being outvoted, but that didn’t change my doubts.
Episode two came in and, while it was solid, it was hard to see it as proof that our concept overall worked. Episode two is very much a table setting instalment, paving the way for the fireworks factory without getting there itself. Which made me anxious to see three and four; three includes a major reveal that sets up the remainder of the series, while four works as a kind of climax to the ‘first act’ of the story.
The two episodes were filmed back to back and so, as new scripts came in and I edited them, I waited. Some issues with three meant that four was ready first; it was sent through shortly after restrictions were eased enough for us to have some friends around to dinner. So, rudely, I stepped into my room to watch the cut.
And in moments, we were vindicated.
Four was brilliant. Chris and Rose infused so much anger, hurt and betrayal in their performances; a pay off to the tensions between their characters in episode one. They brought Kate’s searing script to breathtaking life, sending me running back to the dinner party overflowing with exhilaration.
Kashmir felt the same, and that catapulted us into a bold new conversation. We weren’t convinced episode one was working. And at VCA I had been taught over and over that where possible, you should start the story as late as you could. So what if episode four became episode one? If we started with a showdown between two siblings, the culmination of years of unspoken resentment and hurt. What a statement of (accidental) intent that would be.
There’s no harm in entertaining a bold idea, but it’s not always worth seeing through. The episode was satisfying because it followed from something we’d already seen. In isolation it would be a great acting showcase, but not an effective start to a series. Still, it proved what we were capable of and, to me, demonstrated exactly why episode one would have to be reshot again. This was now the standard we had to try and reach wherever we could.
Three, meanwhile, had its own issues. The aforementioned reveal didn’t seem to be landing the way we thought. But in a case where the bold idea was exactly the right move, we came up with some drastic cuts that reshaped the episode into the gut punch it needed to be. Several people have now reported that three is the moment where they go from mildly interested to fully on board with the series. The first of many examples to come of how a good edit can transform something.
Altogether we were well on the way. Five and seven were in the process of filming, as we were yet to find the cast member we needed for six. Everything was looking good. But as Covid restrictions lifted, the big sales pitch of what made the series unique began to lose relevance. The succession of trial and error coupled with the growing scope of the show had slowed everything down far more than we had planned. Which left us needing to work out a way to get as much filming and editing done as quickly as we could, without sacrificing the standard.
Writing words about writing words.