Driver is a happy camper

HAPPY CAMPERS: The cast of TV3's new comedy Sunny Skies.
HAPPY CAMPERS: The cast of TV3's new comedy Sunny Skies.

Oliver Driver did what any self-respecting Kiwi actor would do when approached about making a local sitcom - silently screamed.

But the 38-year-old former star of Sunrise, Shortland St and Serial Killers was eventually won over by Sunny Skies 茁co-creator Mike Smith and his promises of collaboration.

"I'd worked with Mike a few times on different things but I still had this feeling that it was the last thing I wanted to do because it will suck and it will be terrible and it will be Melody Rules," the near two-metre Driver recounts on the phone from Auckland.

"I expressed all those fears but Mike assured me that he wanted to make it really co-operatively with a really good cast and crew in a fun environment. I then said I'd agree as long as the writers and him were aware that if any of us at any time think it's lame we say it and then we fix it. We don't want to get into the situation where we watch it and go 'yeah, it was a bit lame'."

Driver admits the initial draft was a bit lame ("there were lots of lame Melody Rules-esque visual humour and gaggy s..."), but after a directive from Driver and co-star Tammy Davis (Outrageous Fortune) to the writers to make it "fast, funny and dialogue driven", the result was a show about the unlikeliest pair of siblings since De Vito met Schwarzenegger in Twins that the actor (who plays a sharp-edged businessman who along with his brother inherits a campground) now whole-heartedly believes in.

"I think it was really important that Mike had a really strong vision of what he wanted, directed all six episodes and was still brave and secure enough to allow the rest of us to play with it. We did a lot of workshopping and changed lines. He also had the idea of having us shoot each scene as scripted and then doing something different on another take. That lasted for maybe the first day - until he realised Tammy, Morgana (O'Reilly, who plays the campground manager) and I were just going to say what we wanted."

Driver was also a fan of shooting on location at the Sandspit Holiday Park in Warkworth.

"We stayed there Sundays to Fridays for three weeks. It kind of felt like being on holiday. Even if I finished at 4pm I would stay to the end of the day watching the other scenes and laughing at what the other actors were doing, or I'd hang out with the crew and play table tennis, before we had a beer and dinner together when filming ended."

Becoming in Driver's words, "a tight little community", the cast and crew were all responsible for regularly cracking jokes and extremely relaxed with one another".

"One of the makeup girls kept on getting in shot. By the third or fourth time this happened, on any other show I've worked on someone would have been screaming at her, but here the cameraman ended up focusing on her and everyone just dissolved into peals of laughter.

"It is hard to describe what a fun experience it was, but without a doubt it was the most fun I've ever had shooting a TV show."

He has high hopes that "fun" will translate into a show Kiwi audiences love, but even if it isn't a ratings success he hopes some sort of legacy will come out of it.

"As well as often ending up with far too many cooks involved in a production who all have their idea of funny, the trouble in New Zealand is that we only get to see the best of US and British shows. We don't see the 300 American sitcoms that are a bit s... because we don't buy them.

"So when we make a New Zealand sitcom and put it next to New Girl and say 'oh, it's not as funny as New Girl' - that's not really fair. I say we should give it another season - give it time.

"It happens in drama as well. Look at The Cult or This is Not My Life - they didn't rate brilliantly and had flaws, but the network should give those same people the money again because they know what they've done wrong and are the best people to make a better show. But that's not something we do here, instead we cancel things, like Hounds, and give all that money to a brand-new team who haven't done it before and then they wonder why the have all the same issues.

"If we want to be serious about making great comedy, a first series should be essentially six pilot episodes. We should fund them again and then fund them again and if by the third series it's still not working then you have to accept it's never going to work.

"Look at Cheers, it rated at the bottom of the heap for the first 20 episodes, but then it became the most popular television programme of its time. Shortland St is another example. Sometimes, you have to force audiences to give things a go."

Driver cites John Barnett and South Pacific Pictures as examples of a producer doing "what the networks should do" - continually investing in the same people.

"Take Outrageous Fortune - people say 'wow, what a fluke'. Well, no it wasn't, it's just that it was the fifth show that James (Griffin), Rachel (Lang), Robyn (Malcolm) and Mark Beesley had made together."

As for his childhood camping experiences, Driver admits to still being haunted by his father's belief in not using campgrounds.

"We used to camp at places like Omaha Beach [an hour north of Auckland]. We'd arrive at 9pm at night and wake up the next morning to find ourselves right next to the car park. He was a big camper but it was always in random, strange places.

"Now, if I'm really honest my brother is the one who likes to camp. I always say to him 'you've got a tent and I've got a credit card'."

■ Sunny Skies, 8pm, Fridays, TV3