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Homecoming Queens: why you'll find them online

The creators of SBS On Demand’s first commission Homecoming Queens are tearing down traditional storytelling formats – they reveal how and why.

Michelle Law and Liv Hewson star in Homecoming QueensMichelle Law and Liv Hewson star in Homecoming Queens

Homecoming Queens was always envisioned as a web series by its co-creators and writers Michelle Law and Chloë Reeson.

This was a bold statement back in 2015 when they first began developing the idea. Netflix and Stan had only just launched locally, and the broadcaster’s catch-up services weren’t yet commissioning digital-first programs. This was before The Katering Show, before No Activity, before Pine Gap.

So why a web series?

“They are a very fresh form,” Law says. “And I think they do get a bad rap and are seen as a bit of a stepping stone to longer form series, but I think they need to be respected in their own right.

“It's a different form of storytelling and it forces writers to contain a story within a particular framework, but it's also inviting viewers to consume something in a way that's perhaps more conducive to their lifestyle.”

For Reeson, social media has changed the way we tell and watch stories. It’s become much more personal, as every individual has become their own storyteller and curator in what they choose to post and share.

Reeson – who identifies as non-binary – says because of online storytelling and streaming platforms we are seeing a shift away from telling the same stories, the same ways, by the same people.

“With the internet it's impossible now to pretend that these diverse narratives and ... stories don't exist.”

“With the internet it's impossible now to pretend that these diverse narratives and these multitudes of stories don't exist,” Reeson says. “We're seeing them shared online all the time.

“It paves the way to allowing us to tell the kind of stories we're trying to tell with Homecoming Queens. It proves there is an audience, people are interested in these sorts of narratives, and people are living these sorts of lives.”

The semi-autobiographical Homecoming Queens is the first commission for SBS On Demand, and follows two best friends navigating life in their 20s after being diagnosed with chronic illness. Equal parts comedy and drama, the seven-part series is grounded by the friendship of the two main characters, who are partly based on Law and Reeson and hence share their names. But while Law plays Michelle, Chloë is played by Liv Hewson (currently starring alongside Drew Barrymore on Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet).

Reeson says Homecoming Queens came about from this idea that you’re brought up to believe your 20s are all about being young and carefree and having fun. So then, what happens, if like Reeson and Law, you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, and that picture of what life was ‘meant’ to be, isn’t possible?

“I think that having that sort of diagnosis in your mid 20s is really at odds with everything you're expecting [and] you fall between the cracks of representation a little bit,” Reeson says.

“I think that having that sort of diagnosis in your mid 20s is really at odds with everything you're expecting.”

“For me personally when I was diagnosed with cancer at 22… that was not ever supposed to be on the cards. But these things happen that aren't connected to the expected narrative. And it's bullshit, but they do happen. So we wanted to create a show for that audience who are experiencing things they have no blueprint for.”

Law, who like her character Michelle was diagnosed with alopecia, says Homecoming Queens also shows a diversity in-front-and-behind-the-camera that’s not seen enough.

“Something that's really close to my heart is the fact that we've got an Asian Australian director with Corrie Chen with an Asian Australian lead and that's something as far as I know we haven't seen on Australian screens before, and I feel like things are finally sort of starting to change for the better,” she says.

Law, Reeson, producer Katia Nizic and director Corrie Chen dissect the differences in making a web series – and creating something they had so much agency over:

Development

Homecoming QueensHomecoming Queens

It took about three years to develop the idea for Homecoming Queens.

After Reeson and Law came up with the initial concept, director and executive producer Corrie Chen joined the creative team. Chen had been friends with Law for years – in 2013 she directed the short Bloomers and doco short Suicide and Me, both of which Law wrote. She, in turn, mentioned it to producer Katia Nizic from Generator Pictures who was immediately drawn to the idea, both for the story and to film something back home in Brisbane.

Nizic says during the early stages, Screen Queensland came on board when there was a mini bible and episode outlines, and with the support of Matchbox Pictures and Anthony Mullins, the TV Development Executive there, they were able to run a series of writers’ rooms.

"I initially got in touch with Matchbox via Debbie Lee," Nizic says. "She suggested we talk to Anthony Mullins in their Queensland office [and] he became one of the key people guiding us through the early process."

She says there were three or four early development workshops in Brisbane during that first 6-9 months.

"Which is quite a lot considering we didn’t have a lot of money. We had a small amount from Screen Queensland to write the first and second drafts of seven scripts, so we just took it upon ourselves to meet at any opportunity and progress things as far as we could."

SBS first showed interest at a Film Victoria pitching event in Melbourne, where Nizic pitched the idea to SBS Head of Scripted Sue Masters. 

"Sue Masters really liked the idea, but she’s so busy and I had to follow up until she agreed to read the first two scripts," Nizic said. Once she did, SBS came on board with development money for a proof of concept as well as further script development.

"The fact that SBS commissioned a single-episode program at the same time as they commissioned the episodes for the show allowed us to access a more traditional television financing model and ensured that the high-level production values we had envisioned for the show could be realised," Nizic says.

Screen Australia came on board at the same time as SBS and with the support they were able to hold another couple of writers' rooms in 2017 and gain the insights of writers such as Marieke Hardy ahead of the shoot in November 2017.

Film Victoria came on for production funding once the other finance was in place.

Nizic says from the start, they never saw the web series as a lesser form. It was actually the perfect format to connect with their audience.

"In terms of the demographic we were aiming for, we knew exactly who we were talking to and how to reach them. The only barrier to entry was that none of us had made a long-form series before, so it was just about pushing that to SBS that we knew our audience, we knew who they wanted to talk to On Demand and we felt really confident that we were giving them something that would launch their On Demand commissions," she says. 

Writing a web series

The elements that make a web series enticing – freedom of duration and the number of episodes – also create unique challenges from a writing perspective.

The pair first thought out the key moments or scenes they wanted to explore and how that would fit into the arc of the entire series.

“So it was piecing together their story, and how these little punchy scenes would work in the context of all of that,” Law says.

Although semi-autobiographical, Law says much of Homecoming Queens is fictionalised.

“But it’s obviously inspired by real people and I'm playing myself and Liv [Hewson]'s playing Chloë… and scenes themselves are personal jokes that we've shared over the years, or things that we thought would be funny and have escalated from there.”

For instance, episode five revolves around a vibrator getting stuck inside Chloë, which isn’t based in reality, more something that Reeson thought would make for a funny sketch after accidentally buying a comically large, and comically small, vibrator online. In fact, it was this sketch that first got Law and Reeson laughing at the idea of a web series like Homecoming Queens in the first place – and it stayed.

“It's sort of the one thing we've carried throughout the whole development process,” Reeson says.

For the first year and a half of development, Reeson and Law both lived in Brisbane, so were able to write together, read out scenes, and edit as they went.

Law says, “We split it halfway and each went away to write those episodes and then we swapped them over.”

Reeson moved to Melbourne in 2016 and says that was when you could really see how critical those developmental meetings and writers’ rooms had been.

“It made it easy for Michelle and I to always be on the same page when we were sending drafts back and forth,” Reeson says. “We always knew we had a structure for each episode and a plan for the character’s journeys and the arcs and we wrote to that.”

The episodes of Homecoming Queens range from nine minutes to 16 minutes.

Reeson says they had an idea of a certain timeframe they wanted to stay in, but the online format offered them the freedom of giving particular episodes a couple more or less pages as need be.

“We were pretty loose about that, especially in the early development stages. We just wanted to write the ideas as they felt comfortable and then later it was a matter of editing them to be more consistent,” Reeson says.

“That's also one of the good things about the online format is it's more flexible and so you can play around with those ideas of what a narrative should be or how it should flow and be structured.”

Homecoming QueensHomecoming Queens

Reality v story

Being a semi-autobiographical… naturally the lines are somewhat blurred. So where does the truth end and the fiction start?

“There are elements of reality that sort of seep into the show itself,” Law admits.

For example, they actually filmed Homecoming Queens at Chloë’s old rental.

“So that is the real Chloë's house [that] Liv is living in for the show,” she says.

But as for the characters themselves?

“I don't really think of them as Michelle and I,” Reeson says, although the way they joke around and relate is drawn directly from them.

“Perhaps that was easier for me because I had Liv playing me…

“Also the impression I got was that Liv was approaching the role separate to me… I never got the sense that she was trying to mimic me or copy my mannerisms.”

Meanwhile Law always intended to play this version of herself.

“What a challenge that would be to cast an Asian Australian woman with alopecia living in Australia.”

“Firstly I sort of thought what a challenge that would be to cast an Asian Australian woman with alopecia living in Australia,” she says.

“[But] the Michelle on the show is quite different to who I am in real life. An example might be that Chloë and Michelle in the show are becoming more distant because of their illnesses and their fractured friendship. But in reality Chloë and I actually became friends after she became sick. I reached out to her and we became quite close through that way.”

Capturing the world

Chen says they shot on an ARRI ALEXA Mini, “because that is the camera of choice by my DoP Michael Latham” and used Cooke Panchro lenses.

Chen says that was a budget decision, but also because of the look of the lenses.

“There's just something about the creaminess and oldness of the look (of Cooke Panchros) that was quite appealing because it really evoked a sense of warmth, which was something that I wanted to capture about Queensland – and about the sense of home and their friendship.”

For Chen, being a part of Homecoming Queens from the development stage meant she understood what they were creating and what it would look like in so much depth, it felt more akin to making a feature film.

“I was able to pick my heads of department and was involved from the design of the credits, to all the music and score and the entire package. That was really satisfying and really exciting because I came out of this process going well, ‘why don't we do that more? Why don't we have more directors really early on in the scripting process?’”


Homecoming Queens airs on SBS On Demand from 12 April.