Mike McLeish, actor, singer, and music theatre star is best known for his unforgettable channelling of a charmingly Machiavellian Paul Keating in the mega-hit musical Keating. As performers have done for centuries, he and his wife – and fellow performer and writer – Fiona Harris, have had to create their own opportunities.
They are now into the second series of their self-produced series The Drop Off which is distributed through Facebook. In its short, sharp episodes, the comedy series explores what can happen when adults are thrown together in their kids’ school playgrounds. The other two lead actors of The Drop Off are the couple’s comedy pals, Scott Edgar (from comedy group Tripod) and music theatre star Christie Whelan Browne.
Below, McLeish explains the challenges of making your own web series (although the recently released Series 2 of The Drop Off did receive principal funding from Screen Australia).
He says that unlike a broadcast television show, creating an online series is “more often than not, a very pure and undiluted representation of what the creators wanted to make in the first place”.
What was the genesis of The Drop Off?
Fiona sent me an email just before 9am one morning in late 2014, right after she’d dropped our kids at school. The subject heading was: “Show idea – The Drop Off”. We both knew straight away that there was something there worth excavating.
Before online content became a viable platform, we’d spent many years trying to pitch what we hoped broadcasters were looking for. We even came close a few times, but no cigar. In the meantime, we used live theatre as a creative outlet because you could go from the inception of an idea, to a finished script, to performing the thing in front of people within a few short months, maybe weeks.
Today, content creators can go from inception to script (if there is one!) to being in front of a potential audience of millions within weeks, days or a matter of hours. And apart from the proliferation of design-specific viral content, there are also so many stories being produced in the online realm that easily match the quality of anything being aired on broadcast television; shows that have been lovingly and painstakingly developed, professionally cast, crewed, produced, post-produced, the whole nine yards. The glaring difference is that what you see online is, more often than not, a very pure and undiluted representation of what the creators wanted to make in the first place.
Is creating and producing your own content harder or easier than it looks?
It’s something every actor in this country has been told for decades: “Get out there and make your own stuff. Don’t wait around for the work to come to you.” It’s still damn fine advice that maintains its relevance today more than ever before, mainly because the opportunity to make (and freely distribute) your own stuff has never been greater.
It’s just important to remember that if you have an idea that you love, do everything in your power to do it justice. Fiona and I have been writing for a long time – Fiona for a lot longer than I – and the vast majority of quality work that we’ve garnered as actors (and subsequently as creatives) has come about, one way or another, because of the projects we’ve generated ourselves.
How did you find the money to produce your own online series?
Money. Sheesh. Cue your song of choice. ABBA? Pink Floyd? Kanye? They all make solid points. We were very fortunate to receive enormous help from Paul Walton at Princess Pictures for the production of Series 1. Paul’s remained a champion of the show ever since and acted as our executive producer on Series 2.
Paul, Fiona and I all knew we wanted to make more of The Drop Off, but we also knew that we wanted to take the show up a notch or three, and to do that, we were going to need… yep, cue your song of choice. (I personally can’t get the intro to Pink Floyd’s classic out of my head.)
The application process for any sort of government arts funding is pretty arduous, and we’d been down that road a few times before to no avail. The fact that Screen Australia created a funding stream for online production was such a great validation of web series and the world of online content in general.
They recognised that a lot of exciting voices were making themselves heard online and they decided they wanted to help nurture and develop those voices. Bravo. And as arduous as the process may be, it forces you to broaden your perspective on your project and consider all sorts of things that are too often ignored. Pesky little things like, oh y’know, the budget ’n’ stuff.
How do you judge the show’s success – how many likes it gets on Facebook?
I think it’s dangerous to judge the success of something online by likes or clicks or views. Of course part of you hopes that yours will be the thing that captures the zeitgeist and soars beyond 10 million views and you’ll soon be inspecting bayside mansions to buy with your annual advertising revenue.
But it’s also worth noting that one of the most viewed YouTube videos of 2018 was a man playing recorder to a bunch of raccoons. We didn’t make The Drop Off with a view to conquer the internet. The direct response we get from people we know, respect and admire is what buoys us up. But if we hit 10 million views, we’ll probably buy a bunch of new friends anyway.
Has it opened new opportunities for you as actors, writers or producers?
Apart from the basic desire of wanting to make something good with good people – which is kind of a mission statement for us – we always wanted The Drop Off to be our creative calling card. We were keen to create something that showcased what we could do, not just as a creative duo, but as producers as well.
Paul has encouraged us all along to take full control of what we do and what we make, and Series 2 of The Drop Off is the first time we’ve done that with a screen project. It was most certainly a lot of work, but the benefits of completely taking the reins of your own project are too numerous to list here.
What have you learned from making The Drop Off?
We can tell you all about BNFs and M&Es and DCPs and EPKs and the ATRRA and SPA and cast loadings and sync rights and the benefits of paying overtime in advance and all sorts of other scintillating stuff. We’ve also learned that being a good producer is about surrounding yourself with good people.
What is the future of the show?
We absolutely love this show. We love the endless possibilities of this drop off world and we know the characters so well now. We have these incredible actors with such sharp, comedic brains who we love to write for (Scott Edgar and Christie Whelan Browne), not to mention some of the guest cast we’ve introduced who we desperately want to see more of (Pia Miranda, Georgina Naidu, Rohan Browne to name but a few).
And for Series 2 we brought together such a remarkable crew (including Tori Garrett as director and Joanne Donahoe Beckwith as D.O.P), we’d like nothing more than to bring all those people back together for Series 3. But in order to do that… well, you know the drill… cue Pink Floyd.
In the meantime, we’ve secured a deal with the excellent people at Echo Publishing to develop the concept into an adult fiction novel set for release in 2020, so chances are we’ll have Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the next series.
Main image: The Drop Off cast (L-R) Scott Edgar, Christie Whelan Browne, Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish