Last Man Standing: articles


Travis McMahon, front, Miriama Smith, Matt Passmore, back, and Rodger Corser, the core cast of Last Man Standing

Delivering the male

It’s 9.25AM on a Wednesday and the sounds of sex are coming from Studio 4 in the Central City Studios. Just outside, on a grey December day, the traffic is flowing steadily between the Bolte Bridge and North Melbourne. But inside these soundproofed studios amid the construction zone of New Quay, there’s no truck noise, just the sound of actress Miriama Smith swooning through two minutes of bedded bliss for her character, Zoe. And she’s doing it without assistance from her unseen partner in the scene.

“I couldn’t be an actor,” remarks second assistant director Kara Masters, shaking her head as sound recordist Andrew Ramage announces that Smith’s first take of pleasure moans only amounted to one minute and 45 seconds, and that he really needs two minutes. He helpfully suggests she might pad it out with a bit of giggling before the purring.

In the scene, from episode nine of Seven’s new 22-part drama series, Last Man Standing, the central group of friends has rented a beachhouse. Zoe is in one bedroom, having an audibly fine time with a new beau.

In the bunk beds of a neighbouring room, her ex-husband, Cameron (Matt Passmore), and his pal Adam (Rodger Corser) are trying to block out the sound of Zoe’s enjoyment.

Smith, a statuesque 28-year-old who played a nurse in the New Zealand hospital drama Mercy Peak, is all business, despite the ribbing from the crew. She delivers a second take to rival Meg Ryan’s famous diner scene in When Harry Met Sally… it meets the two-minute requirement, and Ramage cheekily inquires about what she’s doing over Christmas.

Smith brushes aside the wisecracks with the good humour of someone who’s heard it all before, and heads off to board a flight to Sydney for a fashion magazine shoot.

It isn’t always easy being the only regular female cast member in this blokey environment, as the Green Room attests. The box-like actors’ retreat looks as if it has been set-dressed to resemble a male recreation zone: the magazine selection runs to sports, cars and busty women, there’s a nude pin-up on the wall, and a cricket bat and well-battered cricket balls resting beside the sagging couch.

No surprise that Smith spends her down time on set in the make-up van, chatting or flipping through more girl-friendly publications.

Gender issues, the subtleties, lunacies and complexities of male-female relationships, are central to Last Man Standing. This Australia-New Zealand co-production is about love, longing, loss, friendship, pain and the whole damn thing. Zoe, who works for an airline, is the gal pal/love interest. The others are Adam, a food photographer, Cameron, a landscape gardener, and Bruno (Travis McMahon), a nurse.

Originally inspired by the pilot script for a British sitcom, it has grown into a drama-comedy about the foursome and the life-shaping decisions that they face as they move towards their 30s.

Executive producer Ewan Burnett was alerted to the pilot by a couple of English producer pals when he attended a TV market in Cannes in 2002.

He read the script by Geoff Deane (Love is a Many Splintered Thing) and acquired the rights for his company, Burberry Productions (Bootleg, The Farm, Fergus McPhail), attracted by its qualities and its potential.

“It was unashamedly heterosexual and it had a very strong male voice,” he recalls. “But it worked really well for a female audience in that it was a group of men trying to work out what women think.

“It was very perceptive about men and what drives us, the primal forces versus what men are becoming. It looked at what it is to be a single straight male in today’s society and the expectations women have of us. It looked at how our roles have changed, and how we’re expected to be sensitive new-age guys but also to be able to do the caveman thing. I think a lot of men have difficulty understanding what a male is these days. The identity of men is changing and this looks at it honestly.”

Although it sounds as if it started out as something like a big brother to Men Behaving Badly, as it has developed the series’ reference points might be closer to Coupling or Cold Feet.

Around the production, there are also whispers of the “S” words: Sex and the City for men, The Secret Life of Blokes.

Burnett and scriptwriter Marieke Hardy can understand the easy-reference shorthand to popular productions from the past, but they’re loath to have their baby inappropriately pigeonholed.

Hardy, who shaped the series with Burnett and wrote 19 of the 22 episodes, mentions High Fidelity, with its confused, music-obsessed main character, as a point of reference for Adam, the series’ occasional narrator.

Burnett says that the concerns of Coupling, if not its half-hour format and quick-gag approach, are in similar relationship-scrutinising territory.

Hardy is keen for Last Man Standing not to be regarded as “that show about sex and swearing”.

“People said that Secret Life was about drinking and swearing and sex, and it wasn’t,” she explains.

“You hope that people can see to the core of it and see that it’s about relationships. It’s a character-driven show. I think it’s quite gentle, an affectionate look at men.”

Burnett rejects the “Sex and the City for men” label: “This is an hour program, it’s not a sitcom, it’s not gag-driven. The sexuality in the show is a function of the relationships. Yes, there are boobs and bums involved, and there is some nudity, but it’s not gratuitous.”

Rodger Corser, who did a stint on McLeod’s Daughters, observes, “Sometimes when they portray Australian blokey males, they’re very two-dimensional.”

Of this trio, who have been friends since high school, he says, “They have a good time. They’re great mates and they can communicate with each other. They’re blokey blokes, but there’s a difference between blokes and yobs. You can be a mate of someone, you can be a bloke, doesn’t mean you’re an idiot or a dickhead. You care about your friends, you can give them an absolute ribbing, but when it comes down to it, you’re there for them.”

While Burnett found the bare bones of what he was looking for in the pilot, he believed that changes were needed to make the production work for an Australian audience, which is where Hardy came in. The producer had known the writer since she was a child actor on the second series of The Henderson Kids II (1987).

There’s clearly a relationship of trust and admiration between them and, on Last Man, Hardy is taking a writer-producer role that would be the envy of many screenwriters. She has some say about what happens to her words and her characters.

Rightly noting that Hardy looks about 13, but is actually 28, Burnett explains, “The thing about Marieke is that she’s immensely fond of men. She’s also incredibly analytical, critical but perceptive, about what drives men. Because the male voice was so strong, and was about men, I was very concerned about having a bunch of men writing it. I wanted a show that was truthful, that was perceptive about men and male behaviour, but wasn’t condemning of us.”

To help achieve that aim, Hardy worked with a script department and plotting team that included Kirsty Fisher, Jonathan Correll and David Hannam.

“If we have a house theme at Burberry, it’s about people trying to make sense of the world,” says Burnett.

“The thing I love about comedy is having characters go off, with the greatest sincerity, and stuff up spectacularly. If anything, the motto of the company should be ‘Heroic Misadventure’,” he says, adding with a laugh that “it probably defines my business style as well”.

Burnett, Hardy and the Seven Network are keenly aware that Last Man Standing will be the first new local prime-time drama to debut this year, and it arrives at a time of trepidation in the TV industry.

Last year there were only two new prime-time series, the ABC’s Fireflies and Ten’s The Cooks, and both died.

Seven is approaching this year with a renewed commitment to Australian drama, which includes Headland, a series created by network script executive Bevan Lee. There’s hope that the fledgling productions will bring some vibrant new blood to a stable reliant on the trusty Blue Heelers, All Saints and Home & Away.

Burnett is cognisant of the state of the business: “I believe very strongly that you shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder. You shouldn’t be letting other things freak you out because if you, as an experienced program-maker, have a project with great characters and compelling stories, and you can bring to that great scripts, a terrific cast and a great team to make it, you can make a terrific series.

“Obviously you go through a process of assessment all the way through, but if you’re running scared and second-guessing on the basis of what’s gone wrong with other shows, that’s when you can trip up and create a blancmange, that’s where you compromise on story elements and character elements. With the support of the network, we have really kept a strong focus on the characters and on the story.”

Network confidence is critical, as the sad case of The Cooks illustrated. Without that support, it can be a short and unhappy run: with The Cooks, it was basically one week to perform, or you’re toast.

“If a network supports a program and keeps it running, then it has a chance to grow,” says Burnett.

“I think that’s the reality with Last Man Standing: they believe that it’s a good program and that there’s a lot of potential. I mean, it’s three men trying to work out women: we could go for 300 episodes for God’s sake!”

Three guys and a girl*#8230;

Adam (Rodger Corser): “Adam’s girlfriend leaves him at the start of the series, so he suddenly finds himself single again,” executive producer Ewan Burnett explains.

“He’s trying to feel good about being single but he’s also feeling quite shattered.” Writer Marieke Hardy describes Adam as “the most everyman of the group”.

Cameron (Matt Passmore): “Cameron is the attractive sexual predator,” Burnett says.

“His marriage fell apart because he was rooting around and he’s grappling with what it means to have something more meaningful. Cameron isn’t unredeemable. Like a lot of men, he allows his penis to make decisions and his willy frequently doesn’t make the right decision.”

Bruno (Travis McMahon): “He’s a nurse and he’s surrounded by women who fancy him,” Burnett says.

“He doesn’t buy into the niceties and the flirtatious aspects of relationships. He’ll say what everyone else is skirting around: it can be gauche but it can also be incredibly honest. Some people find it attractive; others find it offensive.”

Hardy says that one of the challenges with Bruno was not to turn him into Nudge from Hey Dad, i.e. the loopy guy who could be relied upon to bumble in and say something stupid.

Zoe (Miriama Smith): “She’s pretty strong-willed and independent,” Hardy says.

“Since her marriage break-up, she’s built this veneer of self-protection around herself. She’s reserved to a degree, she’s got a real wild streak and she’s comfortable with the boys. We didn’t want her to be the all-purpose woman: ‘I like football and beer and I’m also really sexy!’ We didn’t want to make her some goddess, so she’s flawed as well.”

Burnett says Zoe needed to be the kind of woman men want and women like.

Last Man Standing premieres on Monday at 9.40pm on Channel Seven.

By Debi Enker
June 02, 2005
The Age