The Secret Life of Us: articles

Young Hearts Run Free

It's one of those fierce February days in Melbourne where the temperature will climb to 40 and the heat announces its intentions from dawn. By mid-afternoon, up on the roof of an old-style block of flats on The Esplanade in St Kilda, the sun is blazing and relentless. Director of photography Brendan Lavelle is trying to beat the heat by wearing a vest whose pockets are packed with ice. Trays loaded with polystyrene cups of cold water are being passed around, sunscreen is slathered on and sweaty hats are firmly in place.

The atmosphere up on the roof is congenial and businesslike, but these aren't easy working conditions. Heavy sound, camera and lighting equipment must be lugged up and down three flights of narrow wooden stairs, and the cast and crew are working through a handful of scenes over five hours in blistering heat.

"It's diabolical up there," sighs actor Claudia Karvan. "The characters we're playing are having lots of fun, drinking and having parties, but every time we shoot there, it's about 35 degrees, there's no shelter and that black stuff on the floor makes your feet hot. It looks beautiful but it requires a little more effort."

The effort is rewarded by striking views that showcase Melbourne at its camera-ready best: the sweeping arc of the Palais Theatre and the imposing curves of Luna Park's Big Dipper visible in the background with the bay beckoning beyond them. The look is funky and fun, a mix of retro charm and urban contemporary. This is the sense of the city that Network Ten's new series, The Secret Life of Us—the flagship of its revived commitment to local drama—is hoping to evoke by utilising bustling, eclectic, sexy and slightly shabby St Kilda. Secret Life is anchored by the shore, amid the strips of shops and cafes, with its tribe of twentysomethings moving between the beach, the bars and the bedrooms in a messy, funny, anxious, confused dance of life.

"Rooftops are intrinsically sexy things," muses co-producer John Edwards. "Long ago, when I was at that age, we used to have a really great rooftop and the best seductions took place there. It felt very romantic, public-place sex where you think you're safe."

There are lots of liaisons, dangerous and safe, in Secret Life, a 22-part series that charts the relationships of nine central characters, eight of whom occupy three apartments in the block. These include Karvan's unlucky-in-love Alex, a doctor who shares her flat with laid-back writer Evan, a character whom actor Samuel Johnson wryly notes spends more time seducing women than slaving over his keyboard: "He's a slut," Johnson grins.

In the telemovie that opens the series, they're looking for a flatmate when the exuberant Kelly (Deborah Mailman) bursts in, a riot of color who lights up the room. Alex's best pal and swimming buddy, Gabrielle (Sibylla Budd), a political staffer, shares a flat with her boyfriend, lawyer Jason (Damian de Montemas), while scaffolder Will (Joel Edgerton) and actors Miranda (Abi Tucker) and Richie (Spencer McLaren) occupy the third apartment. Simon (David Tredinnick), a bartender at the local watering hole, the FU Bar, completes the core group.

"Originally we were thinking about Bondi, but Bondi is very different now from what it used to be," says co-producer Amanda Higgs. "St Kilda is a mixture of artists, young professionals and the older residents who've been there forever. Everyone walks everywhere, there's so much movement in the space between Acland Street and Fitzroy Street. The bay is beautiful and there are the most incredible sunsets. There's life and energy and that's perfect for our show."

The show, in one sense an apartment-block drama, is a long way from one ostensibly near neighbor, the hammy soap, Melrose Place, an arguable forbearer that comes to mind when the setting and the age range of the apartment dwellers is discussed. But Secret Life is an ocean and a decade away from Aaron Spelling's potboiler, and its sensibility is even further removed.

Its witty and insightful scripts and vibrant, engaging characters convey an authentic and lively sense of city life. The conversations between the female characters sound more genuine than those on allegedly female-oriented shows such as Sex and the City or Ally McBeal. And the producers have worked hard to avoid a static soapy feel. The punctuation between scenes is unlikely to be a fixed wide shot of the apartment block, the sort of needless repetition that is often used to link things, but also slows them down. In Secret Life, the transitional shots are more likely to be a neon-lit zoom down Fitzroy Street, or images of Acland Street waiters packing up their caf chairs. It seems convenient, but incidental, that this community of characters, who, according to Evan, "have been friends for 100 years", happen to live in the same block.

At one early stage, Secret Life was going to be called Fast Times—an admiring reference to Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling's wonderful 1982 teen movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There was also talk of Nine Lives as a title, though Edwards says that sounded too much like an action movie. And there was a desire to avoid the conventional: "There are so many two-word titles, like Blue Heelers, Water Rats, All Saints, Ally McBeal," says Higgs. "We wanted something that was quite different."

Being different is something that Secret Life aspires to. Claudia Karvan, who was initially cautious about making a six-month commitment to a series, says that one of the things that swayed her was the quality of Judi McCrossin and Christopher Lee's scripts: "The only television series I've ever done was at the ABC when I was about 15, The Last Resort, so you can understand why there was some trepidation about committing to something else," says the actor whose credits include High Tide, The Big Steal, My Brother Jack and Risk. "So I committed to four episodes, but when I saw the telemovie and I read the four scripts, I decided I'd like to do the whole thing. I was really surprised and excited by it. I don't think I'd ever seen anything like this on Australian television."

Apartment-block dramas aren't new, especially on Ten, which has given us Melrose, Number 96 and Above the Law. And shows about the lives and loves of—demographically desirable—twentysomethings have come in a rush over recent years: comedies like Friends, Coupling and Spaced, dramas like This Life and love is a four letter word.

But Higgs and Edwards were keen to create a new style of Australian television for a new century. "We were trying to do something that wasn't a traditional medical drama, legal drama or police drama," says Higgs. "I was a big fan of This Life —John less so—but I thought that it was really about good storytelling, good scripts and good actors. And I thought that was something that we could do in Australia: it didn't rely on special effects or big budgets. With good scripts and a good cast, we could do character-based drama that wasn't necessarily about the world of cops."

A veteran producer who's worked on a range of dramas over a couple of decades (Police Rescue, Stringer, Cody, Echo Point, On the Beach, Big Sky), Edwards makes his reservations about the British lawyers-in-lust drama clear when he describes Secret Life as "This Life with a sense of humor". But like This Life, it's about people stumbling around, trying to untangle the mess of their working lives, love lives and friendships. They drink a lot, they laugh and cry and fight, they like to party and they don't always scrub up well the morning after.

"In Australia, we've been making old-fashioned shows," says Edwards. "They've been, philosophically, shows of a small town: here is our world, evil comes along every week, bumps into our world, we beat up evil and throw it out again, and we go on happily ever after. That's the Blue Heelers paradigm, which applies to most of our drama. But there's a new wave: on American television, Buffy ain't that, Dawson's Creek ain't that, even Party of Five ain't that. They are much more morally ambiguous."

For co-writer Christopher Lee, the post-teen years provide fertile ground for a type of storytelling that is character- rather than plot-driven. "Twentysomething characters are interesting and intriguing for writers to work with," he says. "In your 20s, you're still being asked a whole lot of questions by life, and we don't give the characters many answers. Secret Life is about a group of people who are finding things out for the first time in their lives and having to work out life as they go along, and we've tried not to be prescriptive. We haven't plotted them in the normal way that you plot a TV show.

"What we were trying to avoid was what you could almost call it the television of last century: blokey cops, doctors and lawyers, a plot-driven show with superficial characters. On Secret Life, there's no plot, as such. There's just the depth of the characters and the questions that we ask them, the problems that we put in front of them. We treat each episode thematically: there's a theme that we deal with, and we use that theme to dig into the characters, rather than working out some sort of three-act structure where a plot is developed."

The themes, says Lee, an experienced writer who's worked on Police Rescue, Stringer, The Bodysurfer and Big Sky, are "the usual: love, sex, career, friendship, betrayal".

In something of a coup, the producers managed to secure Secret Life by stitching up an unprecedented financing deal with Britain's Channel Four, the kind of deal that local producers dream about. When Edwards and Higgs approached Ten with their project late in 1999, the network had just given the green light to the ultimately short-lived Above the Law. Although enthusiastic about the idea, the Ten was reluctant to commit to another series. "We pitched a show about moral ambiguity," recalls Edwards. "I did the whole philosophical thing about how we have to break new ground and they gave us sixpence to go away and start, and we came back with a bunch of characters. They were preoccupied with other stuff, so they let us experiment for a while, they let us play."

The producers are grateful for the latitude afforded by Ten, noting that it was input from Ten's executive producer for creative development, Rick Maier, that saw the show shift from Bondi to St Kilda. "Rick has always had the view that it's really tough to get a drama to work on Ten: they've had a bad track record in recent years," says Edwards. "But Melbourne viewers will often stick with a Melbourne show a little bit, they'll give it a go. And in that first year, the death year, when it's so hard, if you've just got that little bit of home team support, that might be enough to get you over the first year hurdle."

Also raising backing from Optus and Southern Star, the producers shot the telemovie in a lightning-fast three weeks on a shoestring budget. Channel Four loved the pilot and committed to a series, affording Secret Life a prized sale to a prestigious network in a major international market. The Channel Four deal also signalled success in achieving a couple of other desirable luxuries: sufficient funding to shoot on film, rather than video, and to stretch to the production schedule to allow six days to shoot each episode (a series like Wildside, for example, would have only five), about half of which could be shot on location.

The solid financial foundation of the show is a big bonus. "From a hard-nosed business point of view, no Australian show has worked since Blue Heelers," says Edwards. "Eleven hour-long shows have been ordered since Blue Heelers. Some of them have worked domestically—Water Rats and SeaChange have—but they are still carrying huge deficits. They haven't got their money back. But there has not been an Australian show succeed in prime time in a major territory outside Australia since Police Rescue. Generally, they're not getting the money back, and you just can't stay in business not getting your money back." The Channel Four deal means that Secret Life, which premiered in the UK on July 3, starts its screen life in the rare position of being in the black.

Back on the roof, shooting a scene from episode 15, Claudia Karvan and Sibylla Budd are baking on the banana lounges as their characters mull over the latest twist in Gabrielle's love life. Karvan, who was the last actor to be signed for the key cast, says she's been having a wonderful time with her spiky, vulnerable, shoe-loving, professionally capable and privately confused character, and enjoying being a part of an ensemble where she can share the load with actors of the calibre of Mailman, Edgerton, Budd and Johnson, whom she describes as resembling a young Ben Mendelsohn. The producers see Karvan's involvement as a major asset: apart from being an accomplished and disciplined actor, she's a highly promotable cast member.

For her part, Karvan believes she's "bloody lucky to be involved. I'm hoping that it gets an audience and that everybody likes it as much as we do. Shows like this don't come along very often and it's a great thing to be a part of. To be in Australia and to work for a whole six months, with great actors and fantastic directors, it's a godsend. I'd be happy to do something like this every year."

If Secret Life catches the public attention it deserves, she might just get the chance.

The Secret Life of Us premieres on Monday at 9pm on Channel Ten

Who's who in Secret Life

Simon (David Tredinnick): Slightly enigmatic bartender at the local watering hole, the FU Bar.

Alex (Claudia Karvan): Professionally capable and privately anxious, a doctor who can't find the cure for her ailing love life.

Evan (Samuel Johnson): Alex's friend and flatmate, a laid-back writer who spends more time wooing women than slaving over his stories.

Kelly (Deborah Mailman): New flatmate of Evan and Alex, an exuberant force of nature with a plethora of philosophies about life and an inability to hold down a job.

Gabrielle (Sibylla Budd): A political staffer,  Alex's  regular swimming buddy and best pal since primary school.

Jason (Damian de Montemas): Gabrielle's live-in love and a lawyer who "planned to make a difference" but is disenchanted with his life.

Will (Joel Edgerton): Down-to-earth scaffolder who's still nursing a heart broken by Leah (Tasma Walton).

Miranda (Abi Tucker): Ambitious and insecure aspiring actor who lives with her actor-boyfriend, Richie, and Will.

Richie (Spencer McLaren): Aspiring actor, partner of Miranda and flatmate of Will, who might have just scored his big break but is too scared to tell Miranda the good news.

By Debi Enker
July 12, 2001
The Age