The many moods of Christmas
The plot for ABC comedy drama A Moody Christmas treads a familiar path: London-based son returns home to Australia for family Christmas: chaos ensues. An ode to the Aussie festive season, it spins the story of one dysfunctional family’s attempt at forced civility with a twist – each episode of the six-part series is set on Christmas Day, one year apart.
Created by production company Jungleboys, A Moody Christmas airs at the end of a soft year for ABC comedy with little memorable fare to deliver laughs in 2012. The format of the series, the brainchild of Trent O’Donnell and Phil Lloyd, creators of Review with Miles Barlow, has the potential to finish the year with a chuckle.
ABC executive producer Debbie Lee says it is a natural fit for the public broadcaster. “We commissioned it because it was a fantastic, unexpected idea that completely made sense. I think it will connect with quite a broad audience on the ABC because there is a character for everyone to relate to,” she says.
Although Jungleboys is seasoned in delivering short-form humour, having worked on commercials and online content with a roster of directors with serious comedy strips, this is the production house’s first foray into long-form primetime content.
O’Donnell, director and creator of the series, explains it was the format that sparked the initial idea. “Before we came up with the characters we wanted to do something that had an interesting narrative structure, something that was set a year apart. And then we thought Christmas provided such a wealth of ideas. In theory it is such a joyous time of year. In reality, for a lot of people, it’s a day spent with people you otherwise wouldn’t choose to spend time with,” he says. After bashing out the original idea, the team picked up development funding from Screen NSW.
“We had to sit down and re-write the whole thing from scratch because we didn’t have a central character or idea of the family in mind from the outset,” says O’Donnell.
Set in Sydney’s suburbia, much of the five-week shoot took place in a red brick home decked out with faded Christmas decorations. With a chipped green swing set and several wilting gum trees, it feels alarmingly familiar and will no doubt bring back memories of Christmases past for many viewers. “We were pretty lucky with the house because the art department finished on set two weeks prior to shooting, so we were able to rehearse here in situ,” says producer Andy Walker.
When Encore visited the set in the final weeks of shooting, there had been plenty of rain, and Walker says: “Some of the Christmas lunches were inside but most were shot outside because it was easier to work, so we had huge potential weather exposure. But, with seven days to go, I think we have lost an hour all up.”
Keeping it fresh
Shot on two ARRI Alexa cameras, with each episode shot in or around the house, for director of photography Simon Chapman, the difficulty was keeping it fresh. “There is a lot to shoot every day. The call sheets are always really, really big but it is also a challenge to make the one space interesting in every episode,” he says.
Weather and setting aside, the next greatest difficulty for the team was the premise itself as each episode jumps forward a year. O’Donnell says: “It is both a blessing and a curse and it is really limiting to what you can do with each episode set over a day, or a day and a bit. At the same time it’s great in that you can have a character who is young and single and fancy free, but the very next episode they could have a child and be tied up.”
And the format made developing the script tricky. “Setting it a year apart made it hard to write in a convincing way. And it’s Christmas Day; you can’t have massive events happen every year. It’s not true to life. You can have one or two huge things but that’s it. So it was about finding the balance between on and off screen storytelling,” says O’Donnell. Continuity was also an issue. Chapman says: “It was a constant nightmare giving the characters a different look, ageing the house in a realistic way and being beholden to a specific year in time.”
But for producer Walker, this was actually the attraction. “There wasn’t the back story being filled. You just jump straight in and over the course of the episode, you start learning what’s happened. There are some obvious changes in characters year to year, in looks etcetera, but most things you find out as you watch,” he says.
An ensemble cast
Cast in-house, Walker explains it took a while to find the right mix of talent but the final result is an experienced ensemble cast including Ian Meadows (Paper Giants), Jane Harber (Offspring) Tina Bursill (Wish You Were Here) and Guy Edmonds (Underbelly).
“Trent and Phil obviously had strong ideas about who they wanted. Putting together such a big ensemble was quite a challenge, but we are really thrilled with the cast we have ended up with,” says Walker.
“Making TV, you move so quick and you can’t make someone funny or give them comic timing. So the casting was, and is, the most important thing on a series like this,” says O’Donnell.
Unusually for a TV series, there was a large amount of rehearsal time.
“The cast found the two-week rehearsal period invaluable. There was a reasonable amount of improvisation and ad-libbing because they knew their characters so well. With such a tight shooting schedule, rehearsal is key and I’m really pleased we set it up this way,” says Walker.
Chapman agrees. “It has actually been one of the best things about this whole production to have that rehearsal time,” he says.
There were other flow-on benefits from the rehearsal period. “With the actors in the location, we could go over it all thoroughly before the crew got on set. And because we had blocked it in rehearsal, we knew exactly where to light and how to set up the elaborate one-shot scenes,” says Chapman.
The mixture of drama and comedy, with a slowly unfolding love story, meant producers Lloyd and O’Donnell had their work cut out setting the tone of the series. “I didn’t want it to get into a low-rent, Kath and Kim type world where the humour was around that eccentric low socioeconomic class,” says O’Donnell. “I didn’t want it to be funny about the way they talked or dressed, but at the same time I wanted it to be relatable and I wanted people to be able to identify with it. I strived for the middle ground.”
Making the budget
Funded by Screen NSW, Jungleboys and the ABC, the show’s budget was tight although it allowed for a 50-person crew for the five-week shoot. Chapman says: “Given how much we have got to get done every day, the approach we have taken and the crew that we have got is just right. I don’t feel on any particular day we are lacking. And we are not relying on toys to make the show work – it’s about the actors and it’s about comedy and we give them the environment to work in and be as quick as we can.”
The series premiered on October 31 and the team behind it are already thinking about a second season. “We have always seen the scope for a second series, but in that English comedy sense Phil and I have always imagined it to be two series and two series only,” says O’Donnell. Executive producer Jason Burrows says for Jungleboys, it’s a way to break free from creating just ads, allowing directors on their roster to expand their skill set.
“We have reached a really good point in that we are one of the top commercial production companies but moving into long form is very important for us because most people in the industry don’t want to just do advertising,” says Burrows.
With Lloyd and O’Donnell experienced ABC contributors, they are well aware of the state of the television landscape, but think that content will triumph. “We are making a show that we want to make and I guess that is all we can do. But if there was anything to come out of it at the end it would be that people watched it,” says O’Donnell.
- This article first appeared in Encore magazine. Download the iPad edition, now free.