Once upon a time in the West: An oral history of Outrageous Fortune
It's been a decade since we first met the West family, with a steamy sex scene between Cheryl and Wolf West introducing us to New Zealand's favourite bogans. Ahead of the prequel this week, Michelle Duff talks to creators Rachel Lang and James Griffin and actors Antonia Prebble, Tammy Davis, Shane Cortese and others for a candid behind-the-scenes look at the show that made television history.
They would be the neighbours from hell, but by the time six seasons of Outrageous Fortune were over the nation had a lot of love for the Wests.
As creators Rachel Lang and James Griffin tell the story, their aim was to break through the taste barrier - and the cringe factor often associated with homegrown TV - and write the rudest, grittiest piece of drama that New Zealand television had seen. By the time the series ended with the 107th episode in November 2010, we'd seen it all - sex and drugs on any available surface, wild parties, illicit businesses, affairs, and even murder.
And we were hooked. The network demanded more episodes from producers each season as viewership grew, and core cast members ticked up the awards. After season five's cliffhanger, where Cheryl stabbed a policeman and gunshots were fired at her and Pascalle, the premiere of season six had the highest ratings for any New Zealand show at 711,570 viewers.
The show sparked an extensive Auckland Museum exhibition, at least one piece of academic research (on the emotional impact the end of Outrageous Fortune had on fans) and now, a prequel. Lang, who has created Westside along with Griffin - telling the backstory of "Grandpa" Ted West in the 1970s - said at the end of Outrageous the whole cast and crew were exhausted, and she could never have imagined making a prequel. Yet the audience demand for more West is clearly there.
In the five years since Outrageous ended, many actors have left the country or moved on to new projects, and were reluctant to talk about the show. For many it made their careers, but also saw them inexplicably associated with characters that had become iconic - like Antony Starr with twins Jethro and Van, and Siobhan Marshall with ditsy Pascalle. Those who did open up talked about an atmosphere on set that was like a family, with shared fish pie dinners, giggles over the many sex scenes, and a last episode that felt like a school graduation. So what was it like to make a show that became so ingrained in our culture? We asked the producers, directors, actors and writers to explain.
Outrageous Fortune creators Rachel Lang and James Griffin, Qantas Film and Television Awards in 2009
Television was getting a bit boring, really
RACHEL LANG (series creator): I thought it was time we had a rude show. I had done a show called Mercy Peak that had a white trash family in it, and I thought a funny version of that would make a great show. Then I heard on the radio that the median income for a woman was something like $15,000 a year, and I thought "Oh my god, how could anyone do that without turning to a life of crime." That was about 2004.
JAMES GRIFFIN (creator): It was born out of a fear of unemployment, Rachel and I were both working on shows where we could see the writing on the wall. We came up with about 10 ideas and one of those was about the matriarch of a crime family deciding to go straight and discovering sometimes honesty is not the best policy.
KELLY MARTIN (former TV3 programming director): The premise of the show and the fact it was centred around a strong female character and was set in a world that felt like the real world were all attractive. We had about three other series in front of us, but it stood out as something that would work.
SIMON BENNETT (executive producer and director): I saw the first pitch Rachel and James put into South Pacific Pictures along with a few other ideas, I was head of drama at the time. I remembered the bogan family from Mercy Peak - Antony Starr actually played one of those characters - and I thought this could be a lot of fun, this will go well. I think until then shows like Mercy Peak had been quite sort of old-fashioned and gentile, whereas this was rude and vigorous and in your face. It took a lot of risks, and I liked that about it.
CLAYTON ORCOLANO (production designer): I got a phone call, and all the heads of department sat around a table and said "What is this show? What is the point of difference?" and I remember Rachel Lang saying we want this to be simple, nothing complicated. We drove round and round and round trying to find the right house, and when we found the West house I just knew it. I couldn't have known what a monster I'd create, it's so iconic now and the poor owners still have to live there.
Creating the Wests we all know and love
RACHEL LANG: They sort of invented themselves, which sounds a bit weird. Cheryl was the first, but it wasn't like we made them up in sequence. There were a lot of interesting things happening in New Zealand at the time, everyone seemed to want to be famous so that was the basis of Pascalle. It was interesting that the characters who were the most intelligent were the most immoral, like Jethro, where characters like Van who were incredibly stupid had the biggest hearts.
JAMES GRIFFIN: At first Van and Jethro weren't identical twins, but we decided to have the same actor playing two characters would be much more fun. The only character that really differed from on paper was Munter, who was originally a little weedy sort of white guy. Somehow Tammy Davis wrangled his way on to the audition list and all of a sudden Munter was this stoned Maori philosopher.
SIMON BENNETT: There was just such a great mix of characters, even before there were actors inhabiting them. For me the ones who leapt out were Van and Jethro and Pascalle, because they had such strong voices. Cheryl is central to the show, but she's more of an everywoman that's holding it together. Wolf was the hardest role to cast, and we ended up holding auditions in Australia to find Grant Bowler because we couldn't find that alpha male, naughty, larrikin character who was a strong actor.
ANTONIA PREBBLE (Loretta West): Loretta was interesting for me, because she and I are so different but I instantly felt like I knew the character - I just knew how she sounded, how she walked. I remember thinking she was just a great strong character who knew what she wanted. Over the course of the show she became a woman - she started off this tomboy who had never had a boyfriend and ended up a brothel owner who had made a porn film.
TAMMY DAVIS (Jared "Munter" Mason): I didn't want to play a stereotypical character, I wanted Munter to be smart and clever and loyal - I didn't want him to be some dumb Maori boy who smoked weed and drank piss. There was room for me to mould him so I did, and by the end of series one people were beginning to fall in love with the character because he had heart. My relationship with Antony Starr as Van was really strong, I don't think New Zealanders had seen a bit of a bromance for a while - we looked after each other and had each other's backs, and I think people really liked that.
SHANE CORTESE (Hayden Peters): When he first entered the show, he was quite a cool cat, a bit enigmatic, a bit loose and mysterious and as he went on and became ingrained into the family you saw his real side and he's actually a bit of a nerd, really, a bit of a dick. And he became funnier and funnier. Getting into character was easy enough because I spent about an hour with one of the directors and he took me through all of Hayden's back story and where he was coming from. And once they put me in a pair of leopard skin boots, a black velvet jacket and neck chains - it's pretty easy, you just fall into it.
NICOLE WHIPPY (Kasey Mason): I auditioned for another character and then they offered me Kasey. They told me a little bit about the role, mostly about how she has this Hoochie Mama business and she'll be in her lingerie a lot. At the beginning Kasey was meant to be quite hip-hop, so in the first season I'm in these weird baggy clothes and then the second season I get more bogan. She was pretty funny because she was really out there and she didn't think about what she said, she'd just say it.
SIMON BENNETT:: It was a great leap into the unknown because no-one knew quite what they were making and didn't expect it to become such an icon. Mark Beesley was very much in his element, he had just directed Savage Honeymoon so he really understood the Westie behaviour and mindset. He spent a lot of time teaching the actors about swearing and sex and things like not smiling or laughing easily. He was instrumental.
On making the steamy bits
RACHEL LANG: New Zealand shows up until that point had been relatively tame, and we wanted it to be big and bold and brassy which is why we had sex in the first act. They were people who loved life, so sex was part of that culture if you like.
NICOLE WHIPPY: My character was married to Munter, and it was a running joke that he [was] huge, so there were always hilarious sex scenes around that. The other thing was that my husband was a stand-by props guy in the art department, so I would often have to do some sex scene with my husband standing right next to me handing us the props.
ANTONIA PREBBLE: I luckily escaped any until season 3, when I got together with Shane Cortese's character who was Loretta's first boyfriend. It was fortunate that I got to do them with Shane because we got on really well, we are great friends. I mean, it is totally awkward, of course.
SHANE CORTESE: Hayden only had sex with two people - and Tony [Antonia] and I were totally comfortable with each other. As a man, I'll turn around to the other actor and say, "I'm sorry if something, you know, happens", and then 30 seconds later I'm like, "and I'm really sorry if it doesn't." What's worse?
SIMON BENNETT: It was not something that came naturally to me as a director. Ultimately the only thing to do is to approach it like choreography. Let's just say the level of trust between directors and actors was very high.
When you're part of a cultural phenomenon
TAMMY DAVIS: The moment I knew I had made it I was walking down Lambton Quay and there was a group of five or six older women, maybe 60-65 years old, and they were shouting out: "We love you boy, we love you," and I was like yeah, I've cracked it. If you can smash that demographic you're winning, right.
SIMON BENNETT: When the second series was commissioned, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The ratings just kept building and it became huge with the audience. I remember the reviews of the first season were quite mixed, but we knew it had the energy and vigour that was quite different to anything else on screen.
RACHEL LANG: I think it was refreshing and funny and it operated on two levels, so you could just enjoy it on a pure entertainment level but it did have themes running through it that were slightly more intellectual.
NICOLE WHIPPY: One of my friends texted me and was like "Trust you to be in coolest TV show New Zealand ever had," and I was like, "What?" Even though I was in it, I didn't think like that about the show. All of a sudden there was a lot of publicity, and people catcalling when you went out.
KELLY MARTIN: Drama is always such a gamble. It did okay for the first couple of years and really got a following in the third year. We stayed with it as a network because I think audiences take a while to find things. We liked it and we really trusted the writers and producers, and once it took off it became a juggernaut.
SHANE CORTESE: Primarily it was a show about the love of a family unit and close friends. We all love to dream of having a close knit bunch of friends and family that would do anything for us. They're all on the wrong side of the law but we never disliked them for that. Their major crimes were against other criminals; at the core of that was the dinner table at the Wests, and if anyone was in trouble the family looked after them, and I think that resonated with a lot of people.
ANTONIA PREBBLE: It definitely didn't start with a hiss and a roar, it wasn't until season 3 when it felt like we were part of something quite special. When you're working on a show it's like you're in a bubble, so we had no idea until it had blown up.
Fast-forward to the best bits
SIMON BENNETT: The best part about making the show for me was the legacy left by the characters, because people became so emotionally involved. I think they were the kind of characters that people immediately recognised as being like someone they knew, a family member or a workmate, and the sex, drugs, petty crime and the emphasis on family and relationships was something mainstream New Zealand recognised as part of this country.
NICOLE WHIPPY: One of my highlights was when I got to work with John Campbell, when he came on. It was so awesome, I was star-struck. There was this whole thing when Cheryl murdered someone and the media turned up at the West house and JC was there. He joked to me "You know that besides Robyn Malcolm, your breasts are the other stars of this show," and I think only John Campbell could get away with saying that to me.
ANTONIA PREBBLE: It made my career. Before that I had been a child actor so it was my first adult role. Just being on set and being part of it was invaluable.
Is this really the end?
TAMMY DAVIS: Everyone was moving on. I could have done another few seasons of course, they could have called it The Munter Show [laughs]. I could have kept doing it, I miss the characters, I miss the energy of working on something that everyone believed in. You argue and bicker and fight and it's because you want to make it better, and very rarely do you have a job like that.
ANTONIA PREBBLE: After every actor's final scene the whole crew would stop and someone would come on set and the producer would do a speech. The final scene was between me and Siobhan and everyone was sitting around the monitor, like 100 people, it felt like we were doing a play. It felt bittersweet, like anything does when it ends. I was really proud of Loretta in the end, because she really stepped up and took a leadership role. She was there for her sister and her mother, and I thought that showed great responsibility from her.
SHANE CORTESE: Being in that world for six years is something I'm incredibly proud of, I think it's an important part of New Zealand television. People recognise me from a number of shows now but when they say: "Hey Outrageous Fortune guy," it's something I swell up about. When it finished it was like "What the f--- is going to happen now?" I loved being part of it, if it had've gone again, I'd have been up for it. I remember looking around the room at the guys, thinking this has been an amazing ride.
SIMON BENNETT: I directed the last two episodes, it was very emotional actually. Although I think everyone felt it was ready to be finished, it was still very sad. I remember shooting some scenes and really choking up, for instance when Loretta tucked her baby in for the last time when there was a party going on in the house that was the last time we would see those two characters together. Right the way through everyone was giving it the best they could, because it just felt like such a privilege to be part of.
NICOLE WHIPPY: My first baby Pearl was around seven months when we finished, and I had gone back to work when she was about 10 weeks old so I was really ready to end the show and move on. But looking back on it it was amazing, going to work everyday on a show that I don't know if we'll ever see the likes of again.
RACHEL LANG: I was pleased at the way we ended it, and I was pleased it was over. It had been exhausting working on the last couple of seasons almost back to back, and although it had been immensely rewarding it was also tiring. I never thought we would go back to those characters.