By Tom Ue.
Subject to Change is a new series that focuses on a group of LGBTI teenagers. Its first episode aired on YouTube, where it was warmly received. In what follows, I discuss the series with Daniel Mercieca, Thomas Buxereau, and Rory Delaney. Daniel, its creator and director, has worked as a TV commercials producer for ten years. Some years in development, Subject to Change is Daniel’s first professional directing project. His school years in the western suburbs of Melbourne as a first-generation Australian inspired its stories. Thomas, the series’ writer, was born in France: he moved to Sydney and is now a proud Australian citizen. Thomas’ passion is character-centric drama. Rory Delaney is producer and long-term partner of Daniel’s. All three are based in Sydney in Australia.
Congratulations on Subject to Change, an excellent new series! Since the pilot aired on YouTube, it has amassed over 500K views and strong ratings on IMDB. What has the series’ reception been like?
Rory Delaney (RD): Thank you so much. We made a tactical decision to release the pilot worldwide on YouTube at the start of this year and have been stunned by the response, somewhat akin to a feeding frenzy. We’ve amassed 30,000 direct social media subscribers who are demanding episode 2 – somebody even started a petition to get it made. Combined with a bootleg version elsewhere on YouTube, the pilot is approaching a million views. The analytics and demographics provided from our online experience make a solid case for direct distribution of the series.
One of the many distinctive aspects of Subject to Change is its own subjectivity to change. How did this project develop and how is it developing?
RD: Indeed, it does change! We started with plans to create a broadcast-ready pilot to pitch as a first series of 12 half-hour episodes with high production values. The pilot was funded by Daniel and a crowdfunding campaign. Thanks to its success (reaching 170% of the target), we were able to secure rights to a couple of commercial music tracks and engage the best possible post-production facility. The past 18 months have been spent trying to get a feasible finance plan in place and this has driven most of the structural change to the series. Today we are distilling the developed series into a format that can be distributed directly to our current audience, and also keeping the same qualities that the audience has tasted in the pilot.
How much of the series has been filmed so far?
RD: Only episode 1 (Pilot) and Ben’s Video Diaries have been filmed. Production of the remainder of season one will only take place once our financial plan is secured.
Did the series develop organically or was it predominantly pre-written?
Thomas Buxereau (TB): Daniel has been working on the show for many years before we actively started to develop the pilot, and the characters as well as some of the main story arcs has already been fleshed out. I worked with Daniel to take in his ideas, and understand where he wanted to take his characters. That’s how the pilot was born.
Quite a lot happens in the first 20 minutes or so. How do you decide on the number of subplots and characters to include?
TB: This happened quite naturally. We focused on the characters’ journeys, and had many conversations on how to potentially take them there. Story points were defined from there. We played with different ideas until we decided to go for the 20- to 30-minute format, and then a logical sequence of events became clear. We always had the full season in mind as well, and therefore knew which subplots we wanted to hint at in the pilot.
RD: The pilot had some stories that weren’t included but were hinted at in a somewhat incomplete manner: for example, Ms Pearson’s emotional outburst at her desk. It was important to show that the drama didn’t solely revolve around the students but that it also includes adult characters in some depth.
Tell us about the casting.
RD: Casting the main teachers (Kate Worsley, Julie Ohannessian) was easy – Daniel had already worked with them on TV commercials and knew they were perfect for their roles.
Younger roles proved more of a challenge. Our budget couldn’t accommodate a casting director but we were fortunate to have the assistance of co-producer Di Smith who brought decades of Australian television industry experience to the process.
Surprisingly some emerging actors we’d identified beforehand were less than keen to audition for teen LGBTI roles, particularly for the character Ben (Aiden Debono) who is specifically of non-Anglo descent. Fortunately, we ended up seeing a solid selection of candidates who were all super keen and very supportive of the Subject to Change story.
The hardest work was finding the right combination of Ben, Karly (Maryann Wright), and Evie (Katy Avery) from many capable actors. We’re super proud of our cast selection and the cast’s dedication to seeing a series emerge from the pilot.
Was it a challenge to direct such a young cast?
Daniel Mercieca (DM): As a director, I wanted to ensure my young cast were comfortable with me and their surroundings. Some young actors can feel quite overwhelmed with the craziness that goes down on set, so allowing them to take it all in and not feel afraid to ask questions was very important to me. All that aside though, my cast were all very motivated and engrossed with the characters and the story they were about to embark on. It was amazing to witness their determination to get their performances on point.
Hedley High School provides the setting of Subject to Change. How do you see the series as being different from recent projects like Skins (2007-13)?
RD: Subject to Change definitely sits on the shelf as Skins, although we like to see it as having a style lending towards Puberty Blues (2012-) with a mix of Heartbreak High (1994-99). Our main difference is that we’re putting the stories of LGBTI teens at the centre of the storytelling. It’s contemporary, distinctly Australian, but with universal coming-of-age themes. Our priority is ensuring authenticity and legitimacy of the characters. If the audience relates without calling ‘Bullshit’ then we’ve found the key to engagement. From the constant stream of online comments I’m confident that Thomas and Daniel and the cast have gotten pretty close with the pilot.
The start of the series finds Ben in a month-long online relationship with Ethan (James Ritchie) who wants to meet. The series is especially strong in its attention to how outwardly confident these teenagers appear but how vulnerable they really are. How do you balance this?
TB: Again, this comes to knowing the characters inside out. This drives how they would react to these situations, and this was quite a natural process throughout the development of the pilot. We also organised some focus groups with teenagers of the same age as Ben to bounce a few scenarios off them, see how they would react, and this allowed us to polish the various aspects of this online relationship.
It was especially interesting to see how Ben’s personality is inflected in his writing, most of which is grammatical. Tell us about your attention to small details such as this.
TB: Daniel had a very clear view when it came the character’s voices, and this also translated into the instant messages you see in the pilot. Even the use of emojis reflects how these teenagers think and how much they are willing to disclose online. The messages shown in the episode are only a small fraction of the full message trails which Daniel wrote as a separate exercise to the script writing.
Ben’s video diaries provide some context and further subplots for the series: we learn, in passing, that his family is heavily religious and would not embrace his sexuality. What led you to decide what should go into the series proper and what should go in the video diaries?
TB: Because we decided to go for the 20-minute format, there were quite a few points we had originally planned on including in the pilot which had to be cut. All of which are key to understanding our characters, their backgrounds and ultimately their behaviour. The video diaries were developed after the pilot had been finished and were a wonderful opportunity to showcase these traits that hadn’t made the first episode. All of these points are further developed in the rest of season one.
What is next for the series?
DM: There’s so much to look forward to within the Subject to Change universe. We have so many great plans for its future and we can’t wait to announce them in the upcoming months.
RD: We’d love to be able to bring Subject to Change directly to its current audience and we’re looking at ways to make that happen.
What is next for you?
DM: Even though the last three years have completely been invested in bringing Subject to Change to life, I don’t think I’m quite ready for this chapter to close just yet. With an amazing worldwide fan base, it was inevitable to keep persisting in order to make this happen for them.
RD: The journey of Subject to Change has been an incredible challenge, particularly with the concurrent turbulent changes within Australia’s TV production and distribution landscape. I’m committed to production of its first season.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.