By Paula Hendrickson
Public access television, YouTube, and other streaming services have opened up viable opportunities for motivated writer-producers to get their shows seen even if they don’t have connections at a production studio or network. One example is the locally produced sitcom The Deadersons, which started on YouTube and is now available on Amazon Prime and can be seen on a public access channel in Kenosha.
Similarly, a creative and resourceful group of Australians produced Sonnigsburg, a high-quality, six-part supernatural drama premiering November 14 on community stations in Melbourne and Adelaide. It will be viewable the next day via YouTube.
I cannot wait to watch Sonnigsburg. One of the writers, Keith Gow, is a longtime online friend and an outstanding writer. (I’ve been privileged to read several of his scripts over the years, but not a single page of Sonnisburg, which is actually the brainchild of writer/producer Fiona Bulle.) In honor of Sonnigsburg’s premiere, I asked Gow a few questions. Here are a few highlights.
Paula Hendrickson: How and when did the idea to make Sonnigsburg start out, who was involved, and how did the collaboration work?
Keith Gow: Fiona Bulle, a writer/producer, who had made a web-series, a short film and feature film, really wanted to make a TV series and decided there would be a market for supernatural drama on Australian television. She brought together a group of writers to create the story and write the scripts in a writers’ room, based on the US model. The crew were mostly found through people who had worked on Fiona’s previous projects, but for casting we wanted to look outside the regular actors we always worked with.
PH: How long did it take from the time the first script was finished until its TV debut?
KG: The first script was finished in June 2014, just before it went into production. The series will air in November 2016, so about two and a half years.
PH: A lot of people dream about selling a TV series, but you guys made it on your own. What were the challenges – and benefits – of making the show on your own terms, and with limited funds?
KG: We tried to write and cast and produce the show as close to professionally as we could. That meant lots of re-writes. That meant proper call sheets for shooting days. A lot of us were learning as we went, but we tried to do everything the way a fully funded production would do things. But without a proper budget, scheduling was more difficult and re-shoots were harder. In a way, all those things were challenging – but we all got to learn more than we would have if the project was out of our control. If we’d sold the script to a network, we wouldn’t have all been able to challenge ourselves with trying things we’ve never done before.
PH: Judging from the trailer, Sonnigsburg has amazing production values. How were you able to make telecast-quality episodes on such a tight budget?
KG: We have an amazing professional director of photography, Bernard Winter, who has camera equipment that would have been beyond our budget. But, the truth is, these days everyone has access to camera equipment that can make broadcast quality television. Most phones even shoot in HD now; not that I would recommend making a TV show on your phone. Nearly all our equipment was owned by friends or could be loaned from people we know.
All the people who worked on the show have ambitions to work in film and television. Every aspect of the series has been touched by people who are up-and-coming professionals. It was an opportunity for everyone to test out the skills they had learned at university or film school or just by working on smaller projects prior to Sonnigsburg
PH: YouTube is a viable option for indie series, but what does it mean to you that Sonnigsburg will air on a community station as well?
KG: … I think the fact that it’s airing on TV allows the show to stand out a little bit more. It’s great that anyone can put a show online, but that has become a very crowded marketplace. Especially in this day and age, where a lot of people watch TV through streaming services, the line between TV and the internet has blurred significantly. But for a project like this, it’s nice for it to be able to stand out from the crowd a little. Though we are very proud of the series, so we’re glad it will be made available on YouTube the day after each episode airs.
PH: What’s been the best part of the Sonnigsburg experience, so far anyway?
KG: I think the excitement generated by the trailer has been a real vindication for the team; it’s had 200,000 views on Facebook from all over the world. The trailer looks good and showcases just a little of what we have been able to achieve. The finished product is going to be even better. I’m so proud of everyone who worked on this show, but I am thrilled that people are going to discover some amazing new actors in the show. Our lead, Ann Truong, is phenomenal.
PH: How would you convince readers wondering why they should watch an Australian series on YouTube to check out Sonnigsburg?
KG: Sonnigsburg is a great universal story about being haunted by your past and how our characters cope with that. It’s a mystery to be unraveled but also a really human story … and it’s a creepy story with ghosts.
If you want to see Sonnigsburg, do what I did and subscribe to its YouTube page: youtube.com/channel/UCrOSLmhXVAqSgPOhLSEZhpA
For more about Sonnigsburg:
Read about the production process on Gow’s blog: keithgow.com