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.