// Via Viewfinder magazine (www.viewfinder.co.nz)
High Road, is a six-part web series shot on location in Piha, New Zealand, about Terry Huffer, an ex-rocker and community Radio DJ who is down on his luck especially when it comes to his unrequited infatuation.
High Road has received critical acclaim for its ‘cracking soundtrack and top-notch cinematography’ and its stellar line up of leading actors – all in all, a ‘slick’ pro looking comedy.
Director and series creator Justin Harwood talks to Viewfinder about his new web series that evolved from a TV script he wrote seven years ago, the challenges of shooting on a zero budget and getting some of the country’s leading actors involved in the series; and why he decided to release all of the six eight-minute long episodes at once.
HOW HIGH ROAD CAME ABOUT
Back in 2007 I wrote a six-part, 30 minute per episode TV series just to see if I could. It was a bit of an under-developed script since a lot of the action was in my head, but it was pretty funny (well I thought so anyway) and was fun to write.
I called TVNZ at the time to see if they would be interested in taking a look at a local script. The first question the person at the other end of the phone asked me was how I had got their number. I was told in pretty harsh terms that all script ideas had to be submitted via a well-established production company (I guess they were talking about South Pacific Pictures), with a full production budget and shooting schedule – and not to call again.
I found their attitude weird, considering at the time the BBC had a writers corner on their website where anyone could submit scripts and concepts and they would ‘take a look’ – which I thought would be healthier for our industry.
So the script sat in my drawer while I went on with other things. I did, however, give a copy to my neighbour Mark Mitchinson and told him he was perfect for Terry Huffer, my Radio DJ character. From that moment on – and throughout the following seven years – he has bugged, nagged, badgered and needled me constantly to make it.
I never really thought High Road would ever make it to TV because I always felt it would have to be changed by the very process of getting it to TV. Broadcasters have lots of boxes they have to tick, which kinda annoys me, even though I understand what they need to make for their audience. And so I was happy for High Road to just be a script.
THE STORY INSPIRATION
I was working in an advertising agency at the time of writing the script and around the same time I also started Radio Piha out of my house. Part of the script’s bigger story involves a cynical ad guy who lives out at Piha, So I guess it was a case of write what you know.
CHOOSING A WEB SERIES FORMAT
I think a film is a big commitment and with no funding, I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish. These days, getting stuff to an audience via an online platform has become really easy – you can make an HD movie on a smartphone. I’ve been watching a few web series lately and I really like the idea of simple, fast stories; you can do away with setup shots and having to explain everything. It’s nice to treat your audience with respect and believe they can figure out the story without bashing them over the head with it.
Though I didn’t research web series, I did a search a while ago and watched quite a few and, quite frankly, was disappointed with their quality. The acting is usually pretty naff and so it wasn’t too inspiring. However, I did find HIGH MAINTENANCE on Vimeo, which is fantastic – probably better than most TV shows – and that made me think High Road would be a good web series.
Web series are a legitimate medium and we are definitely going to see more and more of them start to take the place of TV shows as more people get used to watching stuff on their mobile devices.
THE PRODUCTION BUDGET
I paid everyone petrol money for the shoot days and bought coffees, but tried hard to use resources that were free. We got the caravan for free and the other locations for next to nothing, so we were lucky in that way.
In my day job, I own a small production company called Tomorrowland, and through work I do there I work with lots of crews for shoots. One of my most dependable DOPs is Chris Matthews, an awesome cinematographer, with great skills. I had mentioned the High Road story to him over the last year or two and he too started to bug me, offering his services and gear (he owns HiDef Cameras) for free. Spencer Locke-Bonney at High Voltage Lighting is also a regular I use and he put his hand up (truck and all) as well, so it was all on.
I didn’t look for any funding. I think it’s great that there is funding available, but for me, the process involves too much farting around convincing people of your ‘vision’ and all that.
And I don’t really like the way funding is done in this country. The specs read like your story has to fit a criteria and/or for it to be judged for its relevance to culture or some vague notion of New Zealand identity. If you want stories like that, then it should be done by The Ministry of Information.
High Road is about an English rockstar who starts a radio station and has trouble with the ladies; not much Kiwiana in there. Can’t we just tell stories for the story’s sake? I just don’t think funding should be linked to a ‘type’ of story.
MAKING MONEY FROM HIGH ROAD
We don’t expect to make money from the series. We are living through a dark time, where technology has raced ahead of the old business models and we are all scrambling to find a new way of getting revenue from content. In the post-Napster and YouTube world people demand things for free when and where they want it. This is understandable because technology has allowed it and the only thing standing in the way is old, white men who reckon they own everything. And so we say: “Screw those old guys – if you won’t give it to me my way, I’ll just take it.”
Something will have to change, as making stuff costs money, no two ways about it, and maybe we will have to go through a little dry spell of content, movies and music before we all realise there was an upside to paying for things.
Although High Road was written a while ago, we decided to shoot it on the spur of the moment.
The first shoot day was a Monday in April, a date I just pulled out of the air. Mark wasn’t working and was looking for something to do, so he intensified his nagging. I called my DOP Chris Matthews and lighting guy, Spencer Locke-Bonney on the Thursday before and asked if they were available on Monday – and they were – so I locked them in. And so it started. We were just going to shoot two scenes from the script to see what it felt like and if the script worked, so it was very casual.
On the Saturday before shooting, I suddenly realised the story was set in a caravan and I didn’t have a caravan. So I went to Fiona (as seen in episode three playing herself) at the Piha Camp Ground and grovelled and begged and she found the perfect vacant caravan, gave me the key and said “fill your boots”. She was a real life saver.
After that first day we probably shot for another five days, pretty much a day an episode; a couple of half days and four full days. I am an editor, so I shot to cut. Because everyone was doing it for free, I was really aware of holding people up and making them work longer than I promised, so a few of the final shots were the first and only takes. The actors were amazing and they really bought into it, which made it super easy for me.
Once we wrapped for the day, I would go home and cut it together, usually cutting the whole episode that night. I would send a link to the crew and actors in the morning for them to see, which they really loved and it helped to keep them enthusiastic about the project.
Once we had finished filming, it was about two months of waiting for sound to be mixed and getting the grade right and then we had a worldwide premiere at the Piha Bowling Club – and went live online in August.
All up, it took five months from day one to release, but there was a lot of nothing going on while I worked for a living.
Casting was easy, as Mark Mitchinson has been my neighbour for about 11 years and the part of Terry Huffer was pretty much written for him.
Mark knew Danielle Mason (Dani) and Andre King so I called them, gave them an overview of the story, and sent them scripts and they were both keen, although at that stage I think they were keener to work with Mark more than being enamored by the script. I had only seen Dani in one thing, but I trusted Mark and I was fairly relaxed about it.
Dani’s first scene was the first scene in episode one and she was awesome. We were all speechless. From that moment on, we knew we were onto a winner.
Peter Muller lives across the road from me and I literally stopped him as he drove out of his driveway and said, “Peter I’m shooting a little thing down at the campground on Monday, you in?” And like all good sports, he showed up and nailed it.
Luanne Gordon was a bit harder to get on board. I am a big fan and our DOP was her friend and said she was cool, so I cold called her. She didn’t want to do it because she didn’t know me, but I sent her the script and she agreed to do it for a laugh.
We were so lucky to get these amazing actors and I really think that’s why High Road is so engaging and as good as it is.
We shot on a Sony F3 camera. Recorded 4.2.2 – 150mbps ProRes on an external recorder (the Samurai). We used Canon EF lens – mainly; 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 16-35mm.
I cut on FCP 7 on my laptop, usually in bed after shooting. I was too excited to sleep because shoot days were so much fun.
Grading was done on Da Vinci Resolve (the free one) on an IMAC.
The biggest challenge was pulling the trigger on the project. We didn’t have any funding, it was all favours from the crew and actors, so just getting up enough bravado to say to them all, “Shooting Monday” was hard. As soon as the camera rolled at 8:30 that Monday morning, it was on and we just went for it.
The second hardest thing was that because no-one was getting paid, I couldn’t demand they show up, so scheduling was really touch-and-go. For instance, we organised to shoot on a Tuesday morning and the Monday night Andre called to say he had to take a paying job which we all totally understood and agreed, but then I had to cancel and reschedule. That happened a few times with all of the actors and crew, but it’s no big deal. They did it for free damn it, they were entitled to be loose with their commitments.
EPISODE LAUNCH SCHEDULE
I believe the one episode at a time release is really just an advertising requirement so broadcasters can string out the audience in order for them to see ads more often, and since we don’t have any advertising or funding to recoup, that didn’t make sense to me.
We are living in an on-demand world so it made more sense to me to let people watch it their own way and release all six episodes at once. Netflix is doing this, as is Apple TV and HULU, so why not High Road?
I do think the traditional TV format is over. I have just re-watched the Sopranos on Apple TV at my own pace and it was so much more awesome than once a week on TV.
THE AMAZING SOUNDTRACK
I love music. As we shot High Road and I got all my vinyl out as props, those record covers started to become an important part of Terry’s style, his history. I figured that since we aren’t making any money out of High Road and I don’t think it’s going to get much coverage, we could use a little well-known music for the soundtrack. I only chose bands that have already made millions (except for perhaps Stereolab, but they are friends of mine so I figured I could sweet-talk them if I had to). Plus all the music is available on Spotify for $12 a month.
I wish I had had Season Two written so we could have shot it at the same time as Season One. We got on a bit of a roll, the cast and crew were really excited about it and happy to turn up so it would have been great to have two seasons in the can, but before we started shooting I didn’t even think we would get to episode three.
THE WEB SERIES FORMAT
I think web series are part of a democratic revolution for filmmakers. You just have to browse Vimeo to see some unbelievable stuff. The cost of production is so low now and there is high demand for content. Combine that with the mobile revolution and the new on-demand attitude and it’s a gold mine for anyone who wants to make something and get it seen.
I think it is great to just make stuff – get it out there, have people see it and hopefully enjoy it. If they don’t, make something else.
There is a second series in the works but I don’t want everyone to work for free, as that ultimately is a dead-end road. So we may look to Kickstarter to get some cash together for a second series where the story takes a turn and Terry ends up in a much worse place than he was in series one, if that’s possible.
TIPS AND ADVICE
The lamest truth I could say is just go and do it. But that’s easy for me to say, since I live next door to New Zealand’s best leading actor and across the road from a Shortland Street star.
Along those lines though, the thing I would say is don’t procrastinate. Don’t talk yourself out of starting. Don’t think you have to wait for funding, or a script re-write or any of that stuff. Remember there is no such thing as writers block, it’s just an excuse for not starting or, even worse, not finishing.
The best thing you can do is finish something because it means you can start something else. And there is always something else to start. You won’t know how good it is until it’s done, so you just have to finish.
As for web series, there are no more gatekeepers to tell you that you can’t make something.
And lastly, you’ll be surprised how keen people are to help, so just ask and lead the way; really great people will follow.