Trans-Tasman partnership a winner for 800 Words

Channel 7

First look at new dramedy with Erik Thomson coming soon to Seven.

In Huia, the air is crisp and salty.

Empty tents sit in an empty circle of grass surrounded by trees, just meters from the beach.

There's a crowd of people who look like they've sprung straight out Woodstock, waiting in the parking lot to populate the fake campground

Peter Elliot is a picture of professionalism in a full suit and shined shoes, even while standing  atop a picnic table.

READ MORE:
* 800 Words nabs three Logie nominations
* 800 Words' Anna Jullienne and the acting anxiety dream
* Erik Thomson on 800 Words
* Is Michelle Langstone New Zealand's most versatile actress?

* TV Review: 800 Words


This is the second season for the cast and crew of 800 Words, so when director Murray Keane steps up on the table too, it takes a little while for everyone to focus.

Someone's playing guitar inside a tent which is supposed to be empty, a few of the boys are throwing a rugby ball around, others are playing swing ball, a few others are laughing at a private joke – everyone's beyond comfortable with each other now.

The whole cast from season one is back for round two; Erik Thomson in the lead as George, Anna Jullienne, Michelle Langstone and Cian Elyse White as the three main female leads, and Benson Jack Anthony and Melina Vidler as George's kids.
800 Words will continue to follow the Turner family in season 2, focusing on Shay's departure, Jan's arrival, and some ...
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800 Words will continue to follow the Turner family in season 2, focusing on Shay's departure, Jan's arrival, and some Guy Fawkes fun.

Everyone is there as Keane talks them through what's needed before getting down from the table and resuming his spot in front of the monitors.

They do the first take in which the ladies of Weld are supposed to admire George as he walks by.

When Keane calls cut, he's shouting something about how "it looks like two wallets rubbing together" and everybody laughs.

"We know what it looks like, we've been watching it long enough," Jullienne shouts back.

Thomson looks affronted, prompting Langstone to placate him with, "no, you have a very nice bum".

Everyone laughs. Even – despite himself – Keane, who is waiting to go ahead with the next take.

Keane is new to the 800 Words crew this season, having been brought in on account of his directing prowess. He's worked on some of New Zealand's biggest series; from Xena and Jackson's Wharf, to more recent shows like Go Girls, Step Dave and Westside.

He brings a hearty enthusiasm to the set, which means when something goes well, it's not "good", not even just "great", but "f...ing great".

Everywhere you look, when they're not actively involved in a scene everyone looks like they could be on holiday, and they're even more close-knit than last season.

Murray Keane directing on location in Huia.
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Murray Keane directing on location in Huia.

It's little surprise, given what they've been through since they were last here shooting on location.

Then, no one knew what to expect from 800 Words. It was a feel-good family show, locally made and small in scale. They worked off the hope that people would embrace the warmth of it and that would be enough.

The show was the first of its kind: pitched by Kiwi company South Pacific Pictures, picked up by Aussie network Channel 7 to be made by both in the first trans-Tasman production ever.

Suffice to say no one was really prepared for the success that came.

In New Zealand, the show averaged a nightly audience of close to 200,000. But across the ditch, more than 7 million Aussies tuned in over the duration of the first season, and it averaged about 2.1 million viewers per episode.

It was the No. 1 entertainment programme every night it aired, and was the No. 1 regular drama programme for the entire year.

Plus it picked up four Logie Award nominations; best drama programme, most outstanding drama series, best actor (Erik Thomson) and best new talent (Benson Jack Anthony). Thomson won his category at the ceremony last May, with Melina Vidler nabbing the prize for most outstanding newcomer, which was announced in advance of the awards.

Huia captures the small-town feel of 800 Words, plus it's a beautiful location.
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Huia captures the small-town feel of 800 Words, plus it's a beautiful location.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

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For creator and writer James Griffin, the success of the show proved the value of going against the grain.

"The reception was way more than anyone expected, in a world where everything is seemingly predetermined, that was just one of those lovely moments where the little show that could, rose up," he says.

It was a success, he says, because it was different. He and many of the cast call it an "antidote" to the darkness on television, praising it as something families could watch together – a novelty, in this day and age.

"You need to find the fresh and the new. That was the kind of philosophy behind Outrageous Fortunes; getting away from the taking-ourselves-too-seriously drama that was purveying things at the time," he says.

Griffin started the project with little more to go on than that producers wanted "a family-oriented drama".

He and his family were on holiday in Raglan and the setting prompted the entire show. As he was writing a newspaper column at the time, he added that into the framework and took those ideas to Maxine Fleming, another prolific Kiwi writer.

Back then, it was about a family moving from Auckland to Weld – a fictional town based largely on Raglan. But South Pacific Pictures (SPP) wound up partnering with Channel 7 and the trans-Tasman element came into play, adding "much more fun".

"You get to play with the levels of trans-Tasman rivalry, but also the fact that to move from Auckland to Raglan is not a big deal, but to move from Sydney to a small town on the West Coast of New Zealand is...a complete and utter lifestyle change so it makes it more dramatic and comedic at the same time," says Griffin.

According to SPP CEO and 800 Words executive producer Kelly Martin, the partnership happened because they absolutely had to have Erik Thomson in the lead.

"But he is linked to Channel 7, so if we wanted him in the lead we needed them to agree and to be involved. It was the perfect project for him, he really owns it, and this show really relies heavily on having that strong lead," says Martin.

Thomson read the script and "really wanted to do it", so the partnership became inevitable.

Mike Scott is the second director working on season two, and he also directed half of season one.
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Mike Scott is the second director working on season two, and he also directed half of season one.

SPP took control of production, while Channel 7 weighed in on the development process, scripting and post-production.

Funding-wise, SPP landed funding through a New Zealand Film Commission grant which gave the production a 40 per cent rebate, and Channel 7 footed the bill for the rest.

Martin says it was a long time in the making and she gives full credit to Channel 7 for "taking a huge risk" on the partnership.

"They didn't really know us from a bar of soap, we hadn't done anything in Australia. I think they were – understandably – very nervous, and you know it's a tougher market, the Aussie one, so we appreciated the risk they took and we're obviously really pleased that it paid off," she says.

And it's paid off for the cast too.

For Thomson, it's a chance to cut his teeth and lay the groundwork to move into production.

He's already acting as a "go-to guy" and helping in post production, scripting, casting and ensuring the tone of the show stays the same.

He's working 60 to 70-hour weeks but he also gets listed in the production credits, so he's racking up some experience and formalising his efforts at the same time.

And it's not just him benefiting – Thomson says the biggest thing from the actors' point of view is that a largely Kiwi cast is now getting exposure through one of Australia's largest networks.

"It's opening up a bigger audience for them. And quite a few of us are heading over to the Logies," he says.

800 Words boasts some beautiful scenery as places like Piha become Weld.
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800 Words boasts some beautiful scenery as places like Piha become Weld.

The Logies have been called the Oscars of Australasia and it's out of the realm of any kind of recognition for actors that we have here in New Zealand.

"There's a little bit of red carpet glam and a bit of hype and stuff which...is just that next level kind of thing," says Thomson.

And Thomson, Martin and Griffin all agree that this kind of trans-Tasman model can yield even more shows with this amount of success – as long it's the right project.

Erik Thomson suited up behind the scenes.
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Erik Thomson suited up behind the scenes.

Thomson says one of the big things that has made the show successful is that Australians view New Zealand as having "an exotic element".

"It's being transported across the Tasman to mystical little New Zealand, and I think the thing New Zealanders might not understand is that in Australia, the town is a big character in the show," he says.

"So the whole fish out of water thing is always going to be there on one level or another."

And the idea of creating projects specifically for the model is not only feasible, but likely – Griffin says it might already be happening, or at least he's "getting whispers" to that effect.

Thomson says the main take away from the project is that New Zealand has earned its stripes across the ditch.

"If there's ever a question of whether the Kiwis can pull something off, this proves that they definitely can."

Season 2 of 800 Words begins screening on TVNZ1 at 8.30pm on Sunday, January 22.

 - Stuff

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