Alex Casey talks to Shortland Street producer Simon Bennett about the jaw-dropping Christmas cliffhanger (contains many, many spoilers).
My first question is: were you making a concerted effort to make the whole of New Zealand feel physically sick?
The aim wasn’t to make people feel sick, but to make people think ‘I can’t believe they just did that’. We wanted it to be one of the most disturbing things people have ever seen on Shortland Street. It is shocking, it is a disturbing armed siege situation, and there have obviously been recent instances of this happening in real life. It’s not even as if it’s an implausible notion.
Like all Christmas cliffhangers, we wanted something that would put the whole community of characters under pressure, and leave a huge a question mark looming at the end. I think this scenario is the best we’ve ever done, just because it is so close to the bone, so difficult and so confronting.
It was definitely confronting.
But it’s also a slow burn, it starts slow and the tension just winds up right through the 90 minutes.
And it’s those last few minutes that really got me. That bloody Sol3 Mio song was honestly some of the most incredible final minutes of a soap I’ve ever seen. Where did the idea come from to have our most beloved opera trio be the score to something so disturbing?
They contacted us, actually, about six months beforehand. We knew that the timing would be around Christmas, and we also knew that we would be doing a wedding of some form. So we planned to have Sol3 Mio singing at the wedding. As we got closer to the time, and the focus moved away from the wedding, I thought it would just be amazing to have this beautiful opera at the wedding underscoring these horrible events. Often the contrast between romantic and bleak can be really powerful.
Nobody is going to be able to listen to Sol3 Mio in the same way again. The whole sequence felt very cinematic to me, not like normal soap fare.
It’s such lovely romantic music, isn’t it? That juxtaposition is not a new or original technique by any means, but I think it is for Shortland Street. It’s so nicely edited – and what you saw was actually the tame version. We had a version with an alternate sequence that was much more bloody and confronting, but we pulled back. We always have to remember our audience and our PG rating.
Was it difficult working around the 7pm timeslot with that much bloodshed and violence?
We were in discussion with the TVNZ programme standards people long before we locked down the final cut. We didn’t want to produce something that wasn’t going to be acceptable at 7pm. We have a responsibility to our audience and the codes of broadcasting practice. We took on board all the advice that we were given, got the story through and it still remained very strong.
What you’ll notice if you watch it again is that there’s not even a lot of gun in the show, we cut around it a huge amount. The number of seconds of gun onscreen is microscopic, you just think you are seeing it all the time because you know that it’s there.
That said, I’m sure somewhere out there there is the uncut original version of the cliffhanger floating around. The final frame of the uncut version was Drew, drenched in blood, post being-shot, collapsing. We had to cut right back on the Drew material because it was just so bloody.
Was Ben Barrington bathing in blood bags for days?
I think they shot all of his crawling scenes over about three hours one afternoon, and then he had to go back and reshoot it for the TVNZ promo shoot. Which took three days, whereas we took seven days to shoot the 90 minute episode and the 60 minute relaunch episode. All that material done in seven days, and the 60 second promo took three days. Granted the production values of it are amazing.
What a machine Shortland Street is. How did people react when the heard the idea for the cliffhanger this year?
I think the network were pleased with the idea, because obviously you can get higher stakes than that. When there’s a possibility that a whole bunch of people could be dead, that’s a very compelling reason to tune back in. It’s doing all the right things as far as the function of Christmas cliffhanger goes.
I think for a lot of the cast, they were worried about who was going to get the chop. Then of course there are all the production issues that have to be addressed, dealing with fire arms and armour and wedding dresses and wedding makeup, all of that takes a lot more time when you are shooting.
There was a whole lot of set up in the cliffhanger which only becomes meaningful in the new year. It becomes very important to follow people’s movements during the siege, because the new year kicks off with this major mystery.
Prior to airing, the working title of ‘The Red Wedding’ was getting bandied about a lot. Was that an intentional mislead?
Oh, that was just me joking around. I love Game of Thrones, and the Red Wedding episode was so shocking to me on such a visceral level. I found it so affecting and upsetting, I wanted this episode to try and affect the audience in a similar way. I also really didn’t want the real story to leak until the audience had seen it. So yes, it was a misdirect. We still have a wedding… it’s just not the wedding people expect.
I’m an easy cry, but I must say I bawled at least five times during this. I think it felt particularly fraught in light of more recent current events.
Exactly, of course the Paris attacks happened after we shot this. After we had edited and finished it, the news came through. We had that moment of ‘holy hell, can we still proceed with this?’ kind of feeling. We did realise that there would be about six weeks before it was on telly, so it wasn’t going to be quite as raw.
You’ve mentioned the Shortland Street curse before, where real life events often mirror Shorty plotlines, is this the eeriest coincidence yet?
We’ve had so many. We’ve have had earthquakes on the show that have been followed by earthquakes in the real world, severe storms often coincide with Ferndale, the neo-NAZI uprisings in Christchurch, outbreaks of various diseases. There is a bizarre synchronicity between stories cooked up for Shortland Street and real-world events. When we killed off Pixie we all had our fingers crossed behind our backs.
Beyond Shortland Street, I’ve noticed a fair few shows having to delay airing due to proximity to real life tragedies. Can you tell me please, what is happening to the world?
I just think the world is increasingly in a state of severe dysfunction, and it’s a whole lot of things coming to a head. We are lucky to be living where we are, but there’s no denying that world events have been pretty grim for the last while.
I think anyone who is a storyteller tries to harness things floating in the ether which unites people and will effect people. Shortland Street has always tried to be topical and relevant, but I think that art in general is reactive to society. If society is screwed up, that’s what is going to come through the stories.
Was there any discussion after the Paris attacks around changing the episode in any way?
Not overtly. Our last lot of notes from the program appraiser, which came the Monday after Paris, was that they still thought there was too much blood. I don’t know for certain if they were related or not. We couldn’t have not screened it, because it wasn’t just the 90 minute episode but the five weeks of story that followed. If we had rewritten and reshot it, we would have been off air for about three months. People need to remember that we are always working six months ahead of what people are watching on telly.
And ahead of all the news events, however unfortunate they may be. Question for you: why did Murray’s poor old Dad have to die?
From a structural point of view, we wanted it to be absolutely apparent that this was a genuinely serious situation. We weren’t going to finish the story with a whimper, or let people off the hook. People needed to know that Gareth was genuinely capable of hurting people and that everyone in that room was in jeopardy.
The sense that they were helpless, and unable to help at all in that scenario also increased the seriousness for Gareth. When Murray’s father died, the avenues for escape become much narrower. Yes he was a minor character, but he had been on the show enough for the audience to recognise him, and recognise how much he meant to Murray and the Cooper family.
What also cut to the core for me was that Gareth took all their cellphones in the caf. I found that immensely stressful. What was the thinking behind severing the lines of communication like that?
The characters also had to switch off all their phones at the wedding. It’s actually a bit of a cheat, because there was a major logic flaw in the fact that people in the wedding didn’t know what was going on at the hospital. In the real world it would have been all over the news, and all over Twitter. That’s why we made the rule that everyone at the wedding would have their phone off.
Cellphones are just a major bugbear in general for storytelling and drama. People spend so much of their lives communicating through phones, but it’s inherently very boring to watch. You have to factor phones into every element of contemporary drama, it just makes for such better dramatic tension when people can’t get in touch with each other.
There’s always the balance of lightness with Dayna and George, was that supposed to provide relief? Because I didn’t feel very relieved.
It was supposed to be romantic, but also sickening because of what was going on at the same time. I really want to know who caught the bouquet, that’s the real cliffhanger for me.
What fresh hell is coming to Ferndale in 2016 then?
There is a bit of a detective story in the new year, as our characters take turns to track down the mystery perpetrator. The big question mark is, who shot Drew? Because it clearly wasn’t Gareth. That occupies the show for quite a few weeks into the New Year. Obviously there are serious repercussions for the surviving characters, but I can’t tell you who those are.
And obviously more people have died than we know about.
Any last words to rattled Shortland Street fans?
I hope that people have been absolutely gripped, and that they feel like they have seen some good stories this year. I believe that this is the strongest cliffhanger we have done, I hope the audience agrees. It’s a hideous set of circumstances and we’ve tried to treat it seriously rather than just as light entertainment. We’ve tried to honour the truth of the situation. Now you’ll just have to come back in the New Year to find out what the outcome is.
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