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Podcast – makers of Netflix's Special on digital originals

How writer and story editor Ryan O’Connell (Will & Grace) teamed up with an Australian director, the star of The Big Bang Theory and Netflix to create a comedy like no other.

Ryan O'Connell and Anna Dokoza

Ryan O'Connell and Anna Dokoza (Photo: John McRae)

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

There’s no reference point for a comedy series like Special.

Created by Ryan O’Connell, who also wrote, executive produced and starred in the Netflix short-form, semi-auto biographical comedy, he says Hollywood at first wasn’t sure what to do with.

In Special, Ryan plays a gay man with cerebral palsy who starts going after the life he’s always wanted – including career, love and moving out of home for the first time. It’s based on Ryan’s book I’m Special and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, which was optioned by actor Jim Parson’s company That’s Wonderful Productions. Australian director and executive producer Anna Dokoza also became attached.

In this wide-ranging interview, Ryan and Anna break down how Special came to be, including the balancing act of making semi-autobiographical stories for the screen, and condensing that down into six 15-minute episodes. Like this episode, Anna says “the joke per minute ratio” was high.

They generously detail their experience and tips including:

  • The specific requirements for writing and directing short-form content.
  • New markets for short form content, including their experience with Netflix. 
  • Authentic casting and Ryan’s experience of “the burden of representation” where he feels the success/failure of a single show can impact whether that community’s stories keep getting told.
  • How people from diverse backgrounds in decision-making positions can advocate for new talent.
  • Ryan’s personal journey of being closeted about having cerebral palsy for 28 years.
  • And their observations about diversity in creators/writers in US-dramas vs comedies.

Anna and Ryan were in Australia as special guests of Screen Australia and SBS as part of the Digital Originals initiative for new creators.

LANGUAGE WARNING: This episode contains mild course language. And a lot of laughs.

Just starting out? Read our Beginners Guide to Screen Australia.

Interested in making short form content? Consider the Story Development: Generate or the Online production funds.

Ready to launch your short form content? Read our Communications Guide for Online Originals.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT 

[00:00:02] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. On the podcast today I'm joined by Anna Dokoza, the director of Netflix's short form comedy series Special, and it's writer, creator and star Ryan O'Connell. The pair were in Australia as guests of Screen Australia and SBS for the Digital Originals Initiative for new creators. First off, a bit about Special. It's a semi-autobiographical series and was nominated for four Emmy Awards in 2019. It follows a gay man with cerebral palsy in his mid 20s who starts going after the life he always wanted, including career, love and moving out of home for the first time, despite concerns from his overprotective mother, Karen. Ryan's onscreen persona, also called Ryan, lands a job at an online blogging site, Eggwoke, where he lets his new colleagues believe his symptoms are actually the result of a car accident. Comedy ensues.

[00:01:06] Ryan (Audio from Special trailer plays) "I'm Ryan, the intern.".

[00:01:08] Olivia from Eggwoke "Listen, Shyam.".

[00:01:08] Ryan "It's Ryan.".

[00:01:08] Olivia from Eggwoke "I need a viral content now.".

[00:01:11] Ryan "I don't know what I'd write about. Oh, I was hit by a car!"

[00:01:16] Olivia from Eggwoke "Everybody come hug, Ryan! He was hit by a car and now he has a weird, sad limp forever. OK, that's great. That's enough. Thank you." 

[00:01:23] Caris Bizzaca Throughout this episode, Ryan and Anna (who hails from Sydney) talk about how Special came about, authentic casting, Hollywood's views on diversity and the positives and challenges of working on a comedy that's made up of 15 minute episodes. Both Ryan and Anna were also executive producers on special and discuss what that role means in the US. Remember to subscribe to the Screen Australia newsletter for all the latest from the Australian screen industry and also subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. Before we kick off this episode also just a bit of a heads up that there is some colourful language ahead alongside the many insights. So without further ado, here's Ryan O'Connell and Anna Dokoza from Special.

[00:02:09] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. Ryan and Anna, it's great to have you here.

[00:02:13] Ryan O'Connell Thank you.

[00:02:14] Anna Dokoza Thank you for having us.

[00:02:15] Caris Bizzaca And so what brings you to Australia? What have you come all this way from the states for?

[00:02:21] Ryan O'Connell We're here to be mentors (laughter). We're here to mould the new generation. No, we're here for Screen Australia. We're here just mentoring a bunch of short form content creators. And yeah, that's pretty much it. It's been a blast.

[00:02:37] Caris Bizzaca Fantastic. And so just to clarify, it's kind of like a day or two days of workshops and things.

[00:02:43] Anna Dokoza Yeah, it's a couple of days of, basically they've gathered 11 - I think we heard from 11 groups - who have their ideas. They're all at various levels. There are some people who are pretty far along, they have scripts, they have bibles. And then there are people who are literally at sort of concept level wanting to know how to harness this concept and create in this particular instance, short form series.

[00:03:09] Ryan O'Connell Yeah. I'm addicted to being on the other side of things where it's like we're giving notes whereas I'm not buried and getting notes from a producer so I'm addicted.

[00:03:18] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, you're not kind of sitting behind a laptop trying to figure out how to tell the story. You're helping someone else.

[00:03:21] Ryan O'Connell Totally. Totally. I'm helping someone else shape the story, which is like very, it's better to be in this posish (position) than the other way around.

[00:03:27] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And so a bit about your background in the industry for both of you: could you tell me a bit about some of the projects that you've worked on and most recently your role in the Netflix series Special? So Ryan, you first.

[00:03:41] Ryan O'Connell Yes. I have been a television writer for six years now. So I've written for shows like Awkward on MTV, which I don't even know if it aired in Australia. I think it does because I get so many residuals (laughter). I really do, like truly I get like, never mind, anyways. And then I wrote for Will and Grace and then I created, wrote and produced a Special.

[00:04:04] Caris Bizzaca And starred in.

[00:04:05] Ryan O'Connell I guess I starred in it too. Sorry. I just felt like the last thing was so obnoxious I stopped myself.

[00:04:11] Anna Dokoza He does everything on it, basically. Everything.

[00:04:13] Ryan O'Connell Except foooooor... DIRECT!

[00:04:16] Caris Bizzaca Which brings us to...

[00:04:18] Ryan O'Connell Anna Dokoza!

[00:04:21] Anna Dokoza I actually started out as a journo and then I directed reality and then I moved into producing scripted comedies. And in the scripted comedy space, I have worked on shows like Flight of the Conchords and Bored to Death. And what else have I done. Insecure and Divorce. And then I have directed on Special and Shrill and Lady Dynamite. And I have a new series coming out on Adult Swim called Three Busy Debras, which is executive produced by Amy Poehler.

[00:04:54] Ryan O'Connell More like three busy Anna's! Oh my god, she can't stop working! I love it.

[00:04:59] Caris Bizzaca And so on Special as well, you were EP, executive producer as well. So just for Australian audiences, in the States what is an executive producer? What do they do?

[00:05:10] Anna Dokoza Well, it's actually quite varied.

[00:05:12] Ryan O'Connell What do they do? I'm like I'm an EP, what do we do? Yeah I don't know.

[00:05:15] Anna Dokoza There's no specific definition. I think there's a lot of ways to be an EP and there are EPs, who are EPs kind of by name because they put the project together.

[00:05:23] Ryan O'Connell But they don't do anything.

[00:05:24] Anna Dokoza Nothing. And then there's EPs who do a great deal. And I think you can be a creative EP. You can also be like a logistical EP. You know, I think if you've been on a show for many seasons, you work your way up to being an EP. So it depends on the project, depends on the tone, it depends on what the project needs. And I think in a creative sense of the word, it is really working with the creator to make that creative vision a reality. And it's sort of being a voice to enhance the voice of the creative and also just to have those conversations - everything like does this make sense for this character to how are we going to do this? So you can get really creative and you can get very practical. And in fact, the two cannot exist without each other. And I think for a show to be successful, you can't separate the physical from the creative and you just want to use one to enhance the other and vice versa.

[00:06:21] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, Special was so bare bones, especially season one that I feel like everyone just wore a lot of hats and people were super involved. It was good.

[00:06:30] Caris Bizzaca And Anna, I also have to ask because I saw that you're from Sydney originally, but you know, you look at your IMDb and it's so many international projects. Have you worked your whole career overseas?

[00:06:45] Anna Dokoza Basically. In Sydney I worked in news. I worked for Channel Nine.

[00:06:50] Caris Bizzaca When you were a journo.

[00:06:51] Anna Dokoza Yes. So I have never done anything scripted in Australia. Well, news stories are scripted, but the only sort of background that I have here is based on the news world, but everything else is American.

[00:07:07] Caris Bizzaca And then so a bit about Special, Ryan could you give us a bit of an idea of the story of Special in terms of how it came to be a Netflix series.

[00:07:18] Ryan O'Connell Yeah it was a real journey. She limped her way to the finish line. It took four years, door to door. Basically, I wrote a book called I'm Special and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves it was optioned by That's Wonderful Productions, which is Jim Parsons Production Company.

[00:07:33] Caris Bizzaca AKA Sheldon on Big Bang Theory for anyone that -.

[00:07:35] Ryan O'Connell Oh is that what he does?

[00:07:36] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, I think he might have been on that show. (laughter)

[00:07:38] Ryan O'Connell  I'm not familiar (laughter). No, of course. Yeah. He's iconic. And then so I met with Jim and his husband Todd. And I just really loved them. And it was kind of a match made in heav'(en). So we developed the project and then we went out and pitched it in 2015 and (sing-song) "noo one boought it!" Yeah. They were a little confused. I also like sh*t on someone's dick in the pilot so they were like, 'OK? I'm confused'. And then we regrouped (laughter).

[00:08:06] Anna Dokoza And took out the sh*tting.

[00:08:09] Ryan O'Connell We took out the sh*tting. Actually yeah I think we did. And we pitched it to this digital platform, Stage 13 within Warner Brothers that was doing short form content. And I had always imagined it as a half hour. But at that point, I was a desperado, honey. And I followed the green lights and the green lights were 15 minutes. So I wrote the scripts and then we sent them to Netflix, actually. And Netflix was like, oh, lol, we'll do this. I'm giving the most, like, truncated version. Like, truly, this was horrific and took years. But  Netflix did become involved and it was really random. They literally were like, oh, we'll totally do this. So it went from like a lot of 'no's, no's and f*ck no's' to like 'sure'. And then that's when we brought on Anna as the director and Anna and I kind of sat with the scripts and developed them some more for like a couple months before production and then we shot the damn thing and here we are.

[00:09:06] Anna Dokoza So Anna, from then your perspective, how did you come to this story and how did you get involved?

[00:09:14] Ryan O'Connell By the time I got involved, Ryan had the scripts. There were eight scripts and I read them and I just loved them. And I very weirdly, I thought at the time, related to this main character even thought the main character is nothing like me, but is everything like me. And we met and it was awesome. And I think we just spoke the same language. And I fully understood what he was trying to make. And I thought that was really exciting.

[00:09:41] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, it was great. You know, it's like basic chemistry. Where like, this person speaks my own language, they understand exactly what I want to do. Which is really actually hard. Like, it's hard to find that person. And I think we were really lucky in the sense that we've got a great team that just understood exactly what kind of show we wanted to make. And it felt very #blessed, the whole time it did, because it was so hard. We had no money. We were shooting in Austin, Texas. There were a lot of things against us. And it all sort of worked out. It felt that way when we're shooting, too. We were like, wait. I mean, I'm sure there was tonnes of fires to be put out every single day. But it felt like magical on set.

[00:10:22] Anna Dokoza And at the end of the day, we're making a comedy. So I think if you approach the project with that many limitations, with that level of stress, it's going to affect the product. So our primary focus every day was to laugh, quite frankly. So having a good time on set was really important.

[00:10:37] Ryan O'Connell Your laugh in particular is like a drug. She has such a good laugh. And when you're doing a take, you want to hear that laugh. And if you haven't heard it. Ooops, got to go again. (Laughter). If you can't get that Dokoza laugh. It's like something went wrong. Because I think you're a liberal LOL'er. You LOL liberally on set, you do. Yeah. I think it was just really fun. It was really harmonious and it was just a really great group of people. I feel like you were really good at like, I'm sure you were stressed out, but I just felt like I didn't feel it. And I don't know, I think that a good thing.

[00:11:06] Anna Dokoza That's the main thing. I think it affects the comedy, you know, and I think we were hyper aware of that. And we had really exceptional artists. You know, every job, every department took pride in their work. They were very, very good at it. And I think combined they elevated the script and the project and everything, quite frankly, in a way that we were hoping for but could never really admit out loud. You know, that there was a world in which what was ultimately a fantastic story could sort of take a whole different life when everybody takes ownership of it. And that's really what you want. You want everybody to feel like it's their thing that they're creating.

[00:11:46] Ryan O'Connell I think also when you're making for two dollars, obviously no one's there for the money, like truly. And so I felt like everyone that was there genuinely wanted to be there and wanted to contribute to the story in a meaningful way. And it really did feel like the stars were aligned in a weird way. It felt very guided like 'from above' (laughter).

[00:12:07] Caris Bizzaca And with a story where you've said there are parts of it that are based on you. So then how is it to bring this story to the screen and trust other people to deliver something that you've created and that is quite personal and, getting someone like Anna onboard?

[00:12:24] Ryan O'Connell Well, I'm really picky. I'm like, really picky in the sense that like I just if you were there, the trust was already there. Like, you didn't have to work for it. I understood that you knew what you wanted to do. I kind of just knew that I assembled really great people. I mean, Anna's fantastic. Our producers were fantastic. Like everyone was just so good at their f*cking job. And I think that's kind of just what you look for as people that are. I'm also a perfectionist and like laser focused and like love to work. And I think you just need to be with people that are the exact same way. And I feel like that's sort of what our team was. So I really did feel like I was in good hands the entire time we were shooting. And I don't know, it just felt like, very safe. I felt like, OK, this is like gonna be fine? (laughs)

[00:13:09] Anna Dokoza Yeah, but I think there's also a level of dissociation that Ryan had to go through. Because he's not the character. It is based at him. But there is a strong deviation. And when you know Ryan in real life and you know Ryan in the script, they're not even close, because obviously Ryan is not a wallflower.

[00:13:27] Ryan O'Connell Right. She's ready to bloom. (laughter)

[00:13:32] Anna Dokoza Whereas Ryan, the character had to go through a lot of growth and a lot of personal understanding and a lot of sort of coming out of the shell and having an understanding that he's dealing with a character that is not him is also something that you have to sort of figure out as it goes along.

[00:13:49] Ryan O'Connell Yeah. I mean, I just had to focus on performance the entire time because I was a first time actor. So what I always was really grateful to Anna and our producers for was that they gave me that space to just be an actor. I remember when I worked with an acting coach, she was like, it's gonna be really intense because you're gonna be wearing your actor hat, your producer hat, your writer hat. You're going to have to go from hat to hat in any given moment. And I have to say, barring maybe once or twice, like I never had to take off just my acting hat. I just really was there to focus on the work that I was there to do. And all the other stuff was taken care of, again because I was surrounded by people who knew how to do their f*cking job and do a really great job.

[00:14:27] Caris Bizzaca And rewinding a bit, because the intention was never that you would play the role that you played of Ryan?

[00:14:34] Ryan O'Connell No. That was a journey we all had to go on. (Laughter)

[00:14:34] Caris Bizzaca So how did that come about?

[00:14:39] Ryan O'Connell So I was never attached to play the part of me. And when we went out in 2015, it was sort of like, who's going to play Ryan? Who knows?! You know we'll wait outside of a physical therapy place with a net and see what happens? No, um, I don't know. Looking back now, I've always been a performer. I've always loved to perform. And I guess I've always wanted to act. But I never gave myself permission to want that because I felt like I was already asking for so much being the writer, creator and producer of the show. Like, I think as marginalized people were always so scared of taking up so much space. And also it wasn't like buried only a little bit where I was like 'gosh, I hope one day I can play a part. Like if only there was a role, if only I let myself do this...'. Like, no, it was buried, honey. Like buried deep. Like, I wasn't even aware of it. I was like oh yeah I'm not going to play myself. Anyways. It wasn't like, 'no, Ryan, you can do it!' It was not there. So anyway, we went to Stage 13 and they were like, 'ok we have no money. So you have to, like, play you'. And I was like, 'okkkk' and like, that's it. It was anti-climatic.

[00:15:43] Anna Dokoza But also, I think with the benefit of hindsight, I look back now and go, oh, my God, thank God we didn't f*ck up like that. I mean.

[00:15:49] Anna Dokoza (Both Anna and Ryan together) Who else could have done it?

[00:15:51] Ryan O'Connell Because here's the thing. Look, not to be a b*tch, but like we'd have to find a gay disabled actor who had the same level of disability as me and talked my own bizarre language, which is barely English, like it just was so specific that I just don't think we would have been able to do it.

[00:16:07] Anna Dokoza But it's so obvious, like I don't even know why anything else was entertained.

[00:16:10] Ryan O'Connell I know it's so weird. It honestly is so odd to even think that we went into those rooms being like 'and it's not gonna be played by me!' like it's so f*cking weird.

[00:16:18] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, cause it makes so much sense that you do play the role.

[00:16:20] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, exactly! I know. God, it was so odd. Anyways.

[00:16:25] Caris Bizzaca Well when it comes to authentic casting and things like that, because I'm wondering particularly say this role where you were able to step in and play the part, and it obviously made sense. But there would be other people that have created content where they don't even have that really hidden, buried desire to act or don't feel comfortable in front the camera. But they want to still have authentic casting. And I suppose, is there any kind of area where you think there's compromise or do you think that people should just wait it out and find the right actor?

[00:17:02] Anna Dokoza Well, yeah. I think this is a unique case because it's Ryan's voice. And there were also very specific physical sort of things that were in the script, but I think as a creator, one of the wonderful things is finding actors that actually elevate and show a part of this character you never really counted on. So it's not to think like someone can't do this version the best way. It's almost like they elevate it to whole other level that you didn't think was even possible. So there has to be room for the magic of an actor coming in and really owning that character and showing you a version that's even better than what you have in your head.

[00:17:44] Ryan O'Connell But I'm also really interested in like, we would never we would never hire a non-disabled actor to play a disabled person. Like, I'm very passive about hiring queer actors to play queer characters. And again, this is not because, like everyone's like 'what do you mean? It's called acting. That's their f*cking job!. And I'm like, yeah, duh b*tch, I know what you're f*cking talking about, but I'm just saying, we don't live in an equal playing field, so I know plenty of gay actors that truly would be like Chris Evans or be like a huge A-list star but they're not, because they're gay. So if I can give people jobs that don't ordinarily get them, then why would I not do that? You know what I mean. If you're in a position of power, I think that's your job is to give people opportunities that normally wouldn't have them. And like, again, I would love to live in a world where straight actors play gay and gay actors play straight and it's all equal and la-di-dee, lah di-dah. But we just don't live in that space yet, unfortunately.

[00:18:37] Caris Bizzaca And a bit about short form content because as well, the workshop that you're in Australia for, you are working on short form ideas and you were saying you always envisioned this as half hour originally, Ryan, but what did you both find in making something that is short form. Were there benefits to it? And in terms of the storytelling, how did you find it?

[00:19:00] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, I think so. By the way, like I've talked sh*t about short form plenty of times, but I have to say, like it really worked out. First of all, on a purely selfish level, we live in a time where there's peak TV and there's like 40,000 shows that are dropped every day. And it was incredible to be a part of a show that people could binge in two hours. I truly believe that got more eyeballs on our show because people were like, oh, I can literally watch this in an afternoon. And so many people came to me were like, 'oh my God, I wish there was more'. How often can you say that, honestly, in today's TV thing, we you're like, 'OK. Everything's a little too long'. (Laughter) It's 34 minute comedies. And you're like, 'okkkkkkk'. I just think to be in an oversaturated market like we are and have people leaving wanting more, is truly incredible. I also think with short form, it was like boot camp for my writing because it really taught me how to be economical and streamline what I wanted to do. And there was no fat on the scripts. Everything there had to be there for a reason. And I feel like as hard as that was sometimes in terms of killing my darlings, I think it was really incredible because it made me really look at storytelling in a very economical, serviceable way. And I feel like even, I just feel like, I don't know... I think I'm just smarter with writing scripts now in terms of everything kind of serving a purpose.

[00:20:24] Caris Bizzaca And the episodes itself, you know, I found when I watched Special that it's hard to believe that they are 15 minutes or so because there is so much packed in there. When I think about it, they say they don't seem short form.

[00:20:39] Anna Dokoza And also the joke per minute ratio is much higher than it would be in a half an hour. (laughter). You got to pack em in. But it is layered. And I think that's the best part about short form, is that it forces you to be the best version of this particular story. So you don't navel gaze and f*ck around. You  just get straight into what it is that's making this character tick.

[00:21:01] Caris Bizzaca And then, because it is very funny, but there are also really heartfelt and dramatic moments that just really punch you. How do you achieve that tone in terms of directing choices?

[00:21:18] Anna Dokoza For me, Ryan's physicality was really important. So there's a lot of wide (shots) in this show in a way that sometimes you're not allowed to have in comedy, quite frankly. You know, a lot of the times the punch line has to be in a close up or has to be all sorts of things. But for me, a lot of comedy comes from Ryan's physicality and I think we approach it that way. So it was really important for me to see Ryan in the world, which you can do that in wide shots because he never went into the world. So seeing him sort of interact with other characters in other locations and things like that was really exciting because you get to sort of show a different side of things and play it a little bit, sort of in a different way that might feel... it just wouldn't be the right thing for another comedy. But for this comedy, it really worked to see him as a representation of how he actually felt, like he always felt like he out of place.

[00:22:08] Caris Bizzaca Like a fish out of water.

[00:22:09] Anna Dokoza Yes, exactly. But you've got to show the water. And I think in this case, we were able to do that and really sort of lay a visual foundation for his emotional state.

[00:22:19] Ryan O'Connell Yeah. The thing I'm also most impressed about in terms of your directing is tonally, so we cross shot it or cross boarded it. What do you call it?

[00:22:29] Anna Dokoza Cross-board.

[00:22:29] Ryan O'Connell Cross-board. So the first week we shot Eggwoke, which was kind of just truly an absurdist comedy. Like literally it was just LOLing all day long. Like Olivia, my psychotic boss, just the delivering one liners. And we're like, 'wait are we making 30 Rock?'. And then you go to Karen's house and it's very emotional and very heart wrenching and like to me that was my actual one fear of getting the edits, and was like, 'OK, I hope this all tracks. I hope this totally doesn't feel like a mess. And it didn't. It really didn't. And I have to say, like, that's a testament to Anna's ability as a director. And like, it never felt weird or jarring or you never got, like tonal whiplash. I was very impressed by that cause even when we were doing it, I was like, 'oh, I hope this cuts together' (laughter).

[00:23:13] Caris Bizzaca Again, you're just like, well, no, I built this team and I trust what they can do.

[00:23:17] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

[00:23:18] Caris Bizzaca And so then in terms of short form, you've said some of the positives about it. Where do you kind of see it going? Do you think that short form can exist on these streaming platforms? Do you think more people will be embracing it?

[00:23:32] Ryan O'Connell Oh, totally. I think especially going back to the peak TV saturated moment, like I think people are looking for content that is such not a time commitment, really, because I can't tell you how many shows I want to get into you, but I truly don't have 10 hours to spare. I just don't.

[00:23:47] Anna Dokoza I also think short form is going to be embraced because a lot of decisions about green lighting projects are, quite frankly, based on fear. And you're taking less of a chance if you're giving someone a short film, you're like, I'm giving you a chance, but if you f*ck it up, it's not going to make me look bad. So I think it's a safe way to allow new voices for the establishment without too much sort of risk.

[00:24:13] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, but in terms of special going forward, if it was to get a second season, which I don't know if there's any news or anything-

[00:24:22] Ryan O'Connell -Me either.

[00:24:23] Caris Bizzaca -But if it was, would you want it to be longer. Back to the half hour.

[00:24:27] Ryan O'Connell Oh yeah. I won't do short form again. I love short form, but never again.

[00:24:31] Caris Bizzaca It is hard, I imagine, to get those scripts down.

[00:24:35] Ryan O'Connell Honestly, this is surreal. The only reason why I'm so adamant about not doing short form is that the character of Kim deserves her own storyline and she deserves her own emotional arc. And you cannot do that in 15 minutes.

[00:24:49] Caris Bizzaca For anyone that hasn't watched it, in which case you have to go and watch it right now, cause it's an excellent show, but Kim is the friend-

[00:24:55] Ryan O'Connell Yeah. Ryan's best friend, at his work. And I think she's so incredible and Punam Patel, the actress that plays her, is incredible. And I think there's a trend in TV of like the person of colour best friend that's there is like the emotional sherpa or like cheerleader for the main white character, and I just don't like it. I think that they deserve to have their own rich, inner, complicated lives. And so I felt, that was the one thing with the scripts that I felt frustrated was I always want to give Kim more to do. And I just couldn't. I was really bound by time. So I will not do that again.

[00:25:28] Anna Dokoza And Ryan writes excellent female characters.

[00:25:31] Ryan O'Connell I try and just be in touch with the female experiaaance.

[00:25:33] Caris Bizzaca Well between Kim and the mum who is incredible in the show. Yes, I definitely agree. And yeah, because when you're writing short form, you can only really, in terms of writing, have that A and B storyline, right?

[00:25:50] Ryan O'Connell And even with Special, it was complicated because I wanted to give Karen (Ryan's mum's) story as much emotional heft as Ryan. And in order to do that, I had to switch point of views for Episode 5 and make it from Karen's point of view to really make her journey land the way that Ryan's does. And so there's a lot of tricks you have to do. And I think that's the kind of cool thing about short form, too, is I personally don't believe that you're tethered to like traditional structure. I think you just do what you have to do to service the story. So I think doing things like switching point of view and all that stuff, I think that's really cool, and I would encourage people to do things like that and take those creative risks if you are doing short form.

[00:26:25] Caris Bizzaca And then seemingly from like a directing point of view, do you think that you can take more risks in the short film?

[00:26:31] Anna Dokoza You can, but you actually visually it's challenging just because you can't get all the pretty shots unless they serve story. So there's less room for just visual. Like you can't put in a huge transitional shot unless it serves story. So you just as you have to be economical with writing, you have to be economical visually as well.

[00:26:55] Caris Bizzaca And so then to working with Netflix, you know, as the creato Ryan, how did you find working with Netflix and are they really hands on? What was it like?

[00:27:08] Ryan O'Connell They're amazing. They're a creator's dream. They gave me kind of carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. Netflix is, I don't know actually, because I actually don't think it's the same across the board. I think that they're hands on with certain shows, but they aren't with mine and they're not hands off like they give very smart notes, but they're thoughtful and they're kind of more on a macro level. They're never giving page notes. And I think that they just have always appreciated and understood my voice and they've never tried to mess with it. So as a creator that is the dream because I would be noted to death pretty much anywhere else, so I really appreciate them for letting me do what I need to do.

[00:27:46] Caris Bizzaca Because you initially didn't want to go to the US networks, like NBC and things like that and you went to cable.

[00:27:51] Ryan O'Connell No, God no. And I remember a studio, I think it was 20th Century Fox, not to drag them but anyway, they walked away because I said that I wouldn't go to network - ABC or NBC - and my agents were furious with me. They're like, 'you're making the biggest mistake of your life!'. And it was so funny, like being 27 and having the self-esteem of diet cheesecake, I still was like, oh, my God, I can't take this show to a network because they'll buy it in the room because it's gay and disabled and they will never make it, because they will never show the thorny-ness and the complicated side of being gay and disabled, or the sexuality, which was always my main thing, was like I really want to showcase disabled sexuality, gay sexuality, like that to me was the most exciting thing, honestly, about doing the show, was being able to show him as a sexual being.

[00:28:39] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And still on Netflix, Anna you already had a relationship with Netflix, because of Lady Dynamite?

[00:28:47] Anna Dokoza Yeah I did Lady Dynamite and I also another show called Huge in France. So this was my third-

[00:28:51] Ryan O'Connell Which came out the same day as Special.

[00:28:54] Anna Dokoza Same day as Special, except it didn't quite do the same.

[00:28:56] Ryan O'Connell Still huge in France. Not so much in America. (laughter)

[00:28:59] Anna Dokoza But that was a wonderful show as well. I just, I find Netflix to be always first and foremost supportive of the creative process. So they will never force a note on you. They will give you enough rope and you can hang yourself with it. (laughter) But that's your choice. So they understand and respect the creative process. And I think it is rare, but I do think more platforms are understanding that that's how you get a better product or a better story, which are one in the same from their point of view. So there is a lot more, I think freedom for the artists is becoming more available just because there is an understanding that that results in a very authentic story.

[00:29:42] Ryan O'Connell Especially when it's like from a show that is the creator, writer, producer, star. It's such a pure thing that I think they understand that it's best to not meddle too much into it. They're very respectful. Very respectful.

[00:29:58] Caris Bizzaca And then how has the kind of reception been, obviously it was nominated for some Emmys and there's been some great reactions to the series. What's it been like for you?

[00:30:10] Ryan O'Connell It's been amazing. It's crazy. Like we have 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's not like I have it fully memorised.

[00:30:17] Anna Dokoza Oh we do? Is that what it is? I didn't know that.

[00:30:18] Ryan O'Connell Yeah. 95%

[00:30:21] Caris Bizzaca Based on when you checked, this morning. (laughter)

[00:30:22] Ryan O'Connell It was 94 for a long time, which made me like steaming with rage because it was just like a weird number. It just felt odd. And then 95 just feels so much safer.

[00:30:33] Anna Dokoza Yeah now it's like top 5 percent.

[00:30:34] Ryan O'Connell Yeah. Now it's like lololol. 95. Like that's pretty chic. And then the four Emmy noms didn't hurt. Like here's a thing: getting this made was such a troll and I had to eat so many troll sandwiches and take so many no's and just deal with it, all of that. Having it be received in this way is so validating. And so just like, I don't know, I always really believed in it. And I always really believed that if it was on, people would like it and people would respond to beyond the gay and disabled community. And it's really nice to know that I was right (laughter). Because what if I wasn't? That would have been so bad. I would've been like ooops you're riiiiight. Our stories don't deserve to get told! (laughter)

[00:31:23] Caris Bizzaca Thankfully, we don't live in that world.

[00:31:26] Ryan O'Connell L-O-L. Yeah, it was hard, by the way too because I do have the burden of representation. So like if Special doesn't work out, like I remember like when Looking got cancelled, people wouldn't make a gay show or do anything gay for a couple of years. You know, I mean, like people were so shy.

[00:31:40] Caris Bizzaca Cause they're like-.

[00:31:40] Ryan O'Connell -'Oh it doesn't work, people don't really care'. I'm like, no, people just didn't care about those people because they were boring as hell. No offence (laughs). So I really felt like there was this weird pressure. I felt like where I'm like, oh, if Special doesn't work out, there goes any hope for another show featuring the disabled community or there goes another gay show. It's intense when you have to feel the pressure to showcase a community and have it's success validate its existence. It's f*cked up and it shouldn't fall on my shoulders, but that's sort of where we live right now.

[00:32:14] Caris Bizzaca And how does it also feel, you know, because it is you said there is some pressure and because it is a personal story as well, parts of it have come from your own life experience and to me, that takes a fair amount of courage, not just to write it, but then to stick with it for that amount of time, as you said, for it to get made - four years or so - what advice do you have for creators who are maybe scared of telling their own stories in the same way?

[00:32:44] Ryan O'Connell Well, I think I truly live in a give no F's space right now because I gave so many F's growing up, like the most F's, like imported from different countries F's, like drained all the other F's (laughter). And I think I reached a point when I came out about having cerebral palsy because I was closeted like the character where I just truly was like, OK, truly fighting who I was was a fight I did not win. So why don't I just give myself the gift of accepting myself and just move on and I have no fear anymore about that because I'm just done. I did it for 28 years. Either I was lying about being gay or was lying about my cerebral palsy. There was never a moment where I was just being my authentic self. And I just think that, like, it's your story. It's your biggest thing that you have. And don't be scared of it. To me, I always look at it as this. I've always looked at this in terms all aspects of my career, where it's scarier not to try and live in that space of 'what if'. To me the what if is the most terrifying way to live. Like I want to have no regrets. Like, I really don't. I don't want to ever think. Oh, what if I actually, you know, got up the courage to do this. No, I did it. And guess what? It didn't all work out and I got rejected and blah, blah, blah, but at least I did it, so I know when I can move on. And you have to get in that space where the fear of not trying is bigger than the fear of trying. You know what I mean? Does that make sense?

[00:34:11] Caris Bizzaca Yeah.

[00:34:12] Anna Dokoza I think also unless you are really true, it will come across in your art. So people won't relate to it.  Because if you are lying about your art, why can you expect anybody else to believe you? And I think you really, truly have to let it all hang because someone else will. And then, it's like if you really want your voice to be heard, you have to be honest with yourself about your own voice.

[00:34:38] Ryan O'Connell Also, people reward vulnerability because we still live in a culture that's like heavy on repression and shame. So I think when people see themselves living authentically, they're like, 'oh, my God, addicted. Where can I get some of that.

[00:34:50] Caris Bizzaca I want to be like that!

[00:34:50] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, exactly. Like, I wish I could be like that.

[00:34:54] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And then a bit about the States. Could you talk a little bit about the landscape in the States at the moment? You know, what kind of things that you're noticing is getting commissioned or like even how America, what their views are on diversity and stories about diversity?

[00:35:11] Ryan O'Connell I think people are definitely hornier for diversity. Like, I think that there's been like a real mandate for stories that have don't come from Kevin James to be told. Is he big in Australia?

[00:35:24] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. People know who he is.

[00:35:25] Ryan O'Connell Ewww he's penetrated Australia?! Get him out! Omg, I'm sorry. I hate that for you, I'm sorry. (laughter)

[00:35:29] Anna Dokoza Meanwhile, Kevin James is going to email us going 'you talking sh*t about me?'

[00:35:37] Ryan O'Connell Oh, I know. I'm like bring it b*tch. Briiiing iiiit. Um, no so I think people are understanding that. I think we live in a culture where we are having these tough conversations around diversity or lack thereof. But I have to say, it's still really hard. And I think that people have this image of like Hollywood being like, 'yeah, and you get a show! And you get a show!' and it's like, honestly, you enter most writers rooms and they're still predominately straight white men. And the stories getting told are still from straight, white men.

[00:36:05] Anna Dokoza And comedy directors are still male. It's really, it's very ingrained. I actually think drama is much more progressive and drama has always been much more progressive. Cause even if you look at shows from 20 years ago, like E.R., they had those characters that had those storylines. Drama somehow always embraces it. I think in terms of comedy, it's been a white, straight world for a really long time in all aspects, in front of the camera, behind the camera. And yes, there was that, there are still men who think women aren't funny and that's not going to change overnight. And then, God forbid, you bring in sort of more diverse voices. So while comedy is addressing all those diversity things, I think it's going to take a few more turnovers to really make it diverse.

[00:36:49] Ryan O'Connell Yeah, I mean, I think about Special in terms of like being the lead as a gay man and it's about his messy interior life. And I'm thinking about what other show where it is a lead. It's not an ensemble and it's a gay man. Not disabled, just gay. And I'm like, okay, what other show is that? I don't know. Like, Please Like Me was in Australia, right? Yeah. And so there's that. That's in Australia. And then.......???? I don't know. But that's dark as hell. And I think now every show is like, 'oh, now you have to the gay character on there obviously'. But just there as like the side salad. And so it's to me real change when diversity isn't the side salad is the main entree.

[00:37:34] Anna Dokoza Yeah. And it's three dimensional. You know, a lot of the times the characters are just placed in to fill that quota or to fill that diversity. But they have no layers and they have no inner life or they have nothing really going on that's complex or deep. So the change is gonna come when you have those characters, but they're also given the same story elements, the same emotional elements and the same arcs as every other character.

[00:37:55] Caris Bizzaca And do you find then, whether you're a creator of a series, are you maybe working with other writers or, you know, you are executive producing or producing a show and you're thinking about the people that are going to be on the set or in the writing room, are you conscious of this as your putting those teams together?

[00:38:11] Ryan O'Connell Oh, yeah. Oh, my God. Are you kidding me? Well, yeah, I am very conscious of it because I want to give people jobs and I want to give people opportunities. That's really important for me. So, yeah, we're very into that. Also, I just relate to like marginalized people because the like, get it. I'm like, 'you've been oppressed too? Let's get lunch!' So I think, I've just tried to surround myself with people that have had similar experiences. And yeah, I think that's a big, big thing.

[00:38:39] Caris Bizzaca And a couple of the more practical things, when you said that Jim Parsons was executive producer and I'm wondering like how much did him being on board help in terms of opening doors and getting conversations in those early days? Or, you said they it was his first project with his production company though.

[00:38:59] Ryan O'Connell Well, I'll put it this way. Jim was the first person to get interested in the show. Once he was my agents used that as leverage to get other people interested. And then we had a bidding war within a week. It's because Jim was interested and people were like, wait, Jim Parsons wants to produce this? Like, what is this?! We need to get it too! So it's like having his name... I think like every D-list gay needs an A-list gay to help them like bring the ladder up. And that's sort of what Jim did for me. I think having Jim vouch for me and say this voice matters, this story is worth telling was incredibly helpful for me. And in terms of my career.

[00:39:41] Anna Dokoza I also think especially in Hollywood, I'm sure there's other industries, is people want to be told what's cool. So as soon as someone thinks something is great, that somebody else gets on the bandwagon til somebody next comes along. And they're like, everybody, this is cool.

[00:39:55] Caris Bizzaca They want to know what that next big thing is.

[00:39:56] Anna Dokoza Yes. Exactly.

[00:39:59] Caris Bizzaca I've heard that's like one of the big questions when you're over in the States: 'Okay. Who's the next new voice? What's the next big thing?'.

[00:40:02] Anna Dokoza Yeah. But it is cyclical, you know. And Ryan has talked about it before. You know, the country was not ready for this kind of comedy in 2015. And then the tide changed and then now it's ready,. But sometimes you have to wait it out because of what's cool, or what's happening, or politically. You might have this perfect story, but it's just not the perfect time. So timing is everything as well.

[00:40:27] Caris Bizzaca And so on that point, do you have any kind of further advice for anyone that's maybe, has a stor, wants to be a director or has an idea, just in general like any advice or even going to States - any pearls of wisdom?

[00:40:43] Ryan O'Connell I was saying this before where I think that like all the things that have worked out in my life in terms of getting a book deal or getting a job or getting the show made, a lot of it was luck and timing and the stars aligning. But what I needed in a foundational sense was I'm tenacious as hell, I metabolize no's as go F yourself. LOL I'll show you. Which is great. A great metabolizing moment of 'whatever'. And I think you kind of need to have that spirit because if you are someone who doesn't fit a mould or is unconventional, Hollywood won't know what to do with you because there's no reference point. There is no reference. That makes me sound whatever, but there is no reference point for me. There's never been a gay disabled-.

[00:41:30] Caris Bizzaca There's never there's never been a show like Special before.

[00:41:31] Ryan O'Connell No, there hasn't. So like when I came in and was like, 'I want to do this', people would be like 'I don't understand'. So it's like you really have to believe in your story and that it's worth telling. And do not get discouraged. Seriously now I'm full Lady Gaga Star is Born press tour where I'm like 'ninety nine no's and all it takes is one yas!' but it's true. It really is true. And you kind of have to just believe and also understand that people are running on fear and they lack imagination, and people always say, we're looking for this, we want this. Hone, they don't know what the hell they want. It is your job to tell them and push it through.

[00:42:08] Anna Dokoza Yeah. And I think also today young creators have the means to just do it. You know, there was no sort of YouTube. You just do whatever you want to [now] and you find an audience. And I think just doing it or whatever it is that you want - a version of it, a proof concept is within everybody's reach in a way that didn't used to be before. So just, do it.

[00:42:32] Ryan O'Connell That's so true. I mean, I'm totally inept and don't know how to do anything (laughs). So I would see people make amazing web series and yeah, you don't have to rely on the traditional gatekeepers, which is nice.

[00:42:46] Caris Bizzaca And I suppose just lastly, like, what is next for both of you? Ryan, like, where do you see your career going next or creating more shows or what's the kind of thoughts? And then Anna as well.

[00:43:02] Ryan O'Connell I don't know. I mean I do, but I can't share.

[00:43:04] Caris Bizzaca You know but you can't say.

[00:43:04] Ryan O'Connell I can't share! But no, it's all good. Things are good. Things are good. I'm in a good place. What about you, Anna?

[00:43:15] Anna Dokoza Yeah, I have an Adult Swim series called Three Busy Debras that's coming out next spring. And I think we're both developing things and doing projects. It doesn't end. You know, the hustle never ends. (laughs)

[00:43:26] Ryan O'Connell Oh, my God. It truly, honestly. When's it supposed to get easier? It does and it doesn't. Because for you, for example, like now people are like, oh, she's directed... and like if people meet me and they're like, oh, this is Ryan, he's made this, like, here's what we've done. We're not going into a meetin being like 'I swear I can do this! I can direct! I can do it!' No, it's like, b*tch, I did it. Look at it. Google it. L-O-L, X-O-X-O. So that is nice. That is nice to go into a room and have people know who you are and what you've done. But you still have to do the song and dance. You still have to  dance for your dinner. You know, I have blisters.

[00:44:10] Caris Bizzaca But in the world of peak TV, there's a lot more-.

[00:44:12] Anna Dokoza But the process doesn't change. Every project requires you to start at the beginning, to pitch, to make it.

[00:44:21] Caris Bizzaca Great. Well, we'll leave it there. But thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Really appreciate you taking the time.

[00:44:28] Anna Dokoza Thank you.

[00:44:28] Ryan O'Connell Thank you for having me.

[00:44:31] Caris Bizzaca That was Ryan O'Connell and Anna Dokoza from Special and a huge thanks to them for joining us on the podcast. Remember to subscribe to the Screen Australia newsletter for all the latest from the Australian screen industry. And thanks for listening.