Bruce is a modern Aussie 18th century convict who happens to be share housing a prison tent in Sydney Cove. The black comedy series is set in 1788 and rewrites Australia’s convict beginnings by combining historical facts and its hysterically flawed characters.
The series was filmed in Melbourne in 2016. Written by Warwick Holt and Mat Blackwell, Bruce follows the journey of a man whose simple plan is to follow his soul mate Daisy to the new land.
What inspired your web series?
The story of Australia’s founding seemed to us to be a uniquely bizarre and unlikely one, and one that had never been addressed on film the way we thought it ought to be: 1) with gritty black humour, and 2) with a focus on the brutal banality of the convict’s everyday lives, instead of just the Grand Historical Events. We wanted to rebel against the traditional po-faced Australian period dramas: indeed, we wanted to avoid being a “period drama” altogether, which struck us as being a very English way to deal with history. We wanted to treat Australia’s fashion in a distinctly Aussie way: a piss-take. And we wanted to focus on the characters that have had little voice in Australia’s history: the convicts.
What are the challenges you came across when making your series and how did you overcome them?
Dealing with real historical events dramatically is always a challenge; never more so than this extremely contentious period, when the indigenous inhabitants of this land had it seized from them. We wanted to be true to the spirit of history, and read everything we could find about the period of the First Fleet, but decided to stray from the historically recorded events. We were aware that however we treated it, we would potentially face criticism. We consulted indigenous advisors, and decided to stick with our decision to treat the “locals” as we did our convict characters – as if they were modern Aussies.
Beyond all that, the biggest challenge was the nearly decade-long battle to get the series green lit by a TV network… which we solved by deciding to rework it into a web series!
The characters in Bruce all have such strong and funny Aussie personalities; did you base them on anyone particular?
We didn’t base them on anyone in particular, but we did look at ourselves (or each other) a lot for inspiration: what would we do if we were in that situation? Often the actual dialogue came from the two of us talking about the story – at one point we said, if we agree about something, it becomes plot, and if we disagree, it becomes dialogue.
It was pretty clear early on that a couple of soft writery-types would be hopelessly ill-equipped for survival in convict 1788 – but that, for instance, a tough bogan optimist might find it pretty bloody nice. And that became a key part of how we built our characters up, making them modern Aussie archetypes and seeing what sort of horrific period-based grief we could put them through, and how they’d react to it, if it would crush them or make them stronger.
And then we shot some scenes in 2012, and once we’d seen actors deliver some of the lines, they inevitably started to feed into our vision of the characters.
The series has a unique and dark take on humour. Did you stick to the script strictly or did you allow for improvisation on set?
While everything was very carefully scripted, Tony did allow some improvisation, though only after getting takes of the scenes as written. But in particular our three leading men, Richard, Dave and Angus, were great friends, with the perfect chemistry between them, and it didn’t take long before we heard them improvising between takes – going so far as to invent “Convict Radio”. While the vast majority of the series was performed as written, one of the very darkest (and also most hilarious) scenes – Bruce is chained up on death row, with tears of hopeless defeat in his eyes, and Garry comes to tell him that he’s scored a girlfriend, what great news! – was almost entirely improvised. But we like to think that the actors were able to improvise so perfectly because the characters were written with such clarity in the first place.
How did you fund your series?
The Producer Jason Byrne raised development funding for Bruce many years ago from Film Victoria and the ABC. After a frustrating commissioning process in the FTA Space, he approached Screen Australia with the web series Concept, specifically to the Screen Australia’s Multiplatform Fund.
Mike Cowap’s enthusiastic support was critical and the Director Tony Rogers and Jason then topped up the budget with private investment.
Do you have any future plans for this series?
Who knows where Bruce will go! We would love to make more Bruce, whether as another season of the web series, or as a longer-form network series – we’ve even discussed making it into a feature film. We are also talking with distributors about selling it to networks around the world – we’ve had an incredible response from France, which we like to think is because of its wonderful storytelling and superb production, but may just be because it makes fun of the English.
What do you want your audience to take away from this series?
Ideally we’d like them to laugh, to occasionally shudder, to think about how Australia’s history has helped create the Australia of today, and to rethink the simplified and sanitised version of Australia’s convict past that most of us have been taught. But if an audience comes away with anything at all, we’d like it to be that feeling of seeing something they’ve never quite seen before.
What is unique about your series?
Australian historical comedies are a rare beast, and we feel that we’ve tackled the genre better than it has been done in the past. We also feel that Bruce has a very unusual black comic mix, not only getting laughs out of the grimmest of situations – literally gallows humour – but also providing an engaging, moving and shocking story. It’s telling, we think, that our black comedy just won an award for best drama!
What is your background as a web series creator?
Tony and Jason previously worked together on the hugely successful web series How to Talk Australians, which gave them a great insight into marketing online video. Jason then went on to be Executive Producer on Footballer Wants A Wife and Little Acorns.
Warwick has worked on web series since the web was in nappies, and made a series of videos for his band New Horizons In Violence in the early part of this millennium, going viral in the pre-YouTube days – which turned out to be an expensive exercise.
And Mat has been writing novels and short stories since he could hold a crayon, and has won a bunch of awards for his comedy (nearly all of them for work written in collaboration with Warwick), so is fluent in both hilarity and story-telling, whatever the medium.
What advice would you give to emerging creators?
Never give up: if you’ve got a project that you know is a goodie, keep at it! Sometimes it can get made ten years later: sometimes, the world needs to catch up with your vision. But on the other hand, as the cliché says, do have multiple egg-baskets. Sometimes an idea really does have to be let go… and it’s nice if that’s because another project is drawing all your attention.