Following the success of The Pick Up, Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish chat to us about their brand new webseries, The Drop Off.
What was the inspiration behind The Drop Off webseries?
The idea for The Drop Off arrived at a time when we were both feeling a bit disheartened with the TV industry. Over the years we’d had a few projects that we’d spent a lot of time developing and writing and pitching around. We got close a few times but ultimately none of the projects were picked up. It’s a familiar story for writers everywhere.
We were frustrated that we couldn’t find a way to put our work out into the world for people to see, in the same way we had with our comedy festival shows, which is why we decided to make a web series. We could write it, produce it and release it exactly the way we wanted to, all on our own terms. That will sound so blindingly obvious to the current generation of content creators, but we’d spent a long time operating within the parameters of the broadcast system, where you’re trying to navigate which commissioning editor is looking for what type of show for which timeslot. Timeslots! Yeah, they used to be a thing.
Anyway, at that time in our lives, we were fully immersed in our daughters’ primary school community and had a fab and funny group of mates we met with every day. We wanted to write something that reflected the joys and the satisfaction we’d found through these almost accidental friendships. We also wanted to tell stories about parents that deliberately excluded their kids, and presented them as smart, funny and loyal friends instead of the unhealthily cliched bitchy, bossy mum brigade we’d seen on other TV shows.
The Drop Off recently screened as a telemovie on Nine, tell us about that journey from web series to telemovie. What did the adaptation process look like?
We had such a lovely and positive response to the web series. Our goal was always to use the web series as proof of concept for a TV show – for a broadcast channel or a streaming service – so we went back to the business of shopping it around. The ABC felt like the natural home for The Drop Off, but they passed because they felt like it was too similar to Allison Bell and Sarah Scheller’s excellent The Letdown. We love that show, which is why we furrowed our brow at the comparison and made a case as to why we thought they were very different shows, but no dice.
Soon after, Channel Nine showed an interest and started chatting to us about adapting all the existing footage from the two seasons of the web series into a telemovie. It’s not the path we imagined for the show - but then nothing in showbiz ever really follows an expected path - and the folks at Nine were really positive and great to deal with, so sure! Why not? We get to see our show on the tele. Let’s do it.
Fiona went back through all the raw footage and started doing a paper restructure, before sitting down and doing a first cut of what the telemovie would look like using all the existing episodes as well as deleted scenes and B-roll footage that hadn’t been used in the web series before. She then inserted graphics, music and interstitials to let it breathe and give it some rhythm as a stand-alone piece. It would still be a vignette-style show, but we wanted to make sure it would stand up as a 90-minute movie.
It was actually a really challenging but enjoyable process and when it was done, she went off on tour with a play for three months leaving Mike to take her first cut, timecodes and all the raw footage into the legends at The Post Lounge to make sure we would deliver exactly what was necessary to Nine. All hail Dan Lake and the team in TPL’s Melbourne facility for their extraordinary work. Not to mention their patience, good humour and excellent on-site coffee machine. Five stars all the way.
The universe you’ve created has taken an interesting path with a series of books following the screen versions. What inspired you to move these characters from the screen to the page?
Fiona had been writing kids’ books for a couple of years, and when the second series of The Drop Off was released, her publisher loved it and got in touch asking if we’d consider adapting it into a novel. Fiona jumped at the chance as it’s been a lifelong dream of hers to write a novel, but Mike was more reticent. He’s never had any aspirations to write a novel, and his reading habits are... well, you can’t really call it a habit if you don’t do it that much.
Fiona convinced him it would all be FINE and so that’s when the work on The Drop Off novel began. We had such great characters and that is always the best place to start as a writer. We also had such a rich world to explore, and it was a world we were already very well acquainted with, so it wasn’t as difficult as we’d expected to map out a longer narrative arc. Both novels are told from our three main characters separate perspectives, and it was so satisfying to have the opportunity to take a deep dive into their minds and their lives.
As partners in life as well as creation, can you give us a snapshot of your history as a creative team? What is your advice for aspiring creative-couples – what can a relationship bring to the dynamic?
We met doing an independent production of Six Degrees of Separation in Melbourne at Chapel off Chapel and became friends. Over the next two years or so, we kept being cast as a couple in different stage shows around Melbourne until we finally took the hint and became a couple in real life too. We always kept our creative lives separate – Fiona was writing and performing in sketch comedy TV shows and Mike was writing songs and performing in musicals around the country - but in 2012 we decided to take the leap and write and perform a comedy festival show together called Plus One. It was about six old university friends reconnecting after 15 years for a strange event. We played all six characters. The show was well received, and we didn’t kill each other, so we decided this whole working together thing could become a long-term prospect. Prior to Plus One, we’d always been each other’s first port of call for notes and thoughts on our own individual ideas or scripts or projects but had deliberately avoided actively collaborating. I suppose it was organic to a degree because we got to know each other’s style and sensibility, but the decision to work together was not taken lightly. In the end, we decided that just being married and having kids wasn’t challenging enough!
Obviously, we have our creative differences, but we are always honest with each other and don’t mince words. That’s the blessing and the curse of being a creative couple. We’ve known each other for a long time, so there’s no point pussyfooting around or worrying about each other’s egos. If you think yours is the better idea, you better be prepared to fight for it. Ultimately it helps to distil our ideas down to the best they can be. By the time we started working together, we’d known each other so well for so long that we naturally bypassed a lot of the awkward tip-toeing that can come with early collaborations. Life’s too short to be precious. You just have to embrace the best idea, wherever it comes from... even if you’ve just had a fight about who forgot to top up the kids’ Myki cards.
We’ve never reached any sort of critical point where we feel like we’ve had to find a resolution (or stage an intervention). We both believe in what we do and know that we’re on the same side, even if we are at creative loggerheads. So, we just keep working until we find a way over the hurdle. Or we just kick it down and keep running.
One of the main challenges is that you’re always together. ALWAYS! So, it’s difficult to know when to clock off and put your tools down. Our kids have been instrumental in establishing times of No Work Talk, which we’re grateful for, because it’s tough to put the brakes on when you feel like you’re onto something good. Unfortunately, that’s also a benefit, because if you have an epiphany about a project in the middle of the night, you can just roll over, shake your partner’s shoulders and scream “WAKE UP! I’VE GOT IT! I’VE GOT IT!”
Our advice to any other aspiring creative couples is that if you like your idea better, fight for it, but be willing to admit if the other idea is better. That sounds simpler than it is, but it’s crucial. Bring some humility along to temper your ego. That applies to any collaboration. And be sure to switch off and just hang out with the person you love. Flick that switch!
Being in a relationship definitely - for us anyway – brings a much deeper and more satisfying dynamic to our projects. The gestation period for new ideas is weird, but quite quick, because we will both go through a stage of thinking out loud to each other at any given time. We get some weird looks from the kids. We have quite different - and luckily complementary - strengths. We’ve both learned a lot from each other over the years. Fiona’s got a remarkable brain for narrative structure and character arcs and just stories in general. She’s the engine room of pretty much everything we do. Mike has a very special talent for putting the “zing” in everything we write. He’s a lot edgier and naughtier than Fiona but that’s why we work well together as writers.
What is it about Australian comedy that makes it stand apart globally?
It just has a very unique sensibility. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we also have a knack for using comedy to confront the darkest parts of us, as individuals and as a nation. All great comedies (and comedians) around the world have that same knack, but Australian comedy has a way of keeping you warm. Even if it slaps you in the face, it gives you a hug afterwards, which would be downright abusive if the slaps and hugs weren’t metaphorical.
What Australian TV or Film are you watching at the moment?
Fiona: We just watched The Dry and loved it!
Mike: I’m finally catching up on Mr. In Between.
Favourite Australian Comedy series of all time?
Fiona: Mother and Son – Ruth Cracknell was a genius
Mike: I can’t choose one! As a kid I remember seeing reruns of The Norman Gunston show and not knowing what the hell I was watching but laughing so hard. As a teen, Let The Blood Run Free had a similar effect. Then The D-Gen became a bit of an obsession, as did The Big Gig. More recently, Rosehaven and Black Comedy. I don’t remember my 20s or 30s.
What are you currently working on and what’s next for you?
We’ve got a kids’ TV show in development with the ACTF called, The Cliffs, which is about a friendship between two teenagers – one of whom is a ghost – who end up time travelling back to the 80s. We’re also developing the Billie B Brown books into a TV series with Paul Walton and Fremantle, and Fiona is writing soccer star, Sam Kerr’s junior fiction series, as well as starting work on another novel and writing football star, Marcus Bontompelli’s, first picture book.
We are also developing six, half-hour episodes of a new comedy show. We discovered while making The Drop Off that we’re very capable producers, so the idea of being show runners on our own TV project is a dream. I mean, being a show runner is a nightmare by all accounts, but to have that level of creative autonomy would be amazing.
Mike is also busy in his new role at the Michael Cassel Group as Director of Creative Development.