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Yolanda Ramke: the road to Troppo

From viral short films to Netflix features, the global Haunting series and Australian TV with Troppo, writer/director Yolanda Ramke reflects on the steps that got her here.

Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling on set for TroppoYolanda Ramke and Ben Howling on set for Troppo (Photo credit: Bradley Patrick)

Yolanda Ramke has traversed a career path filled with zombies, haunted mansions and now crocs - an odd mix on the surface, but one threaded together by a line of steadfast collaborations, meetings that paid off years later, and opportunities seized rather than squandered.

The latest level-up is with Troppo, an eight-part crime drama series for ABC that Ramke not only created, but wrote on and filmed a block of with frequent co-director Ben Howling. In Troppo, which premieres on Sunday 27 February at 8.30pm on ABC, a disgraced ex-cop (Thomas Jane) begrudgingly teams up with an impulsive PI (Nicole Chamoun) to investigate the murder of a brilliant research scientist in Far North Queensland. But their search for the truth will also drag their own secrets into the spotlight, putting not just the case, but their sanity and very survival on the line.

An adaptation of the Australian novel Crimson Lake by Candice Fox, it came to Ramke via Simonne Overend, a producer at EQ Media and chair of Australians in Film. Ramke’s screenplay for her then un-produced feature Cargo had won the inaugural Australians in Film Gateway LA Script Prize in 2015 and Overend reached out off the back of that. EQ Media had optioned several projects they wanted Ramke to write on, including Crimson Lake.

“It started for us with a pilot script and an accompanying series bible,” Ramke says. “Then it was a case of trying to sell the show to get networks on board, both here in Australia and looking internationally for finance.”

This part of the process would take a number of years to stitch together. When Troppo finally went into production in late 2021, it was led by EQ Media Group and Beyond Entertainment and financing from ABC and AGC Studios, Screen Australia, Screen Queensland and City of Gold Coast.


But back in 2020, when this financing momentum was still building, a writers’ room was held where that series bible was re-interrogated.

“The novel that Candice Fox wrote is such a fun read with these juicy, rich, messed-up lead characters that we love and a world that's so sumptuous and dangerous,” Ramke says. “We were drawing influence from that and then looking at the various things you do to make what is a person's interior world on the page work for eight hours of television with having to go a lot deeper and expand characters.”

The writing team included Andrew Lee alongside episode writers Blake Ayshford, Penelope Chai, Kodie Bedford, Craig Irvin and Jane Allen. Allen was also script producer as well as EP’ing alongside writer/producers like David Ogilvy of Beyond Entertainment.

“The collaboration that happened in the room to plot what has been a very complicated show [between] juggling the mysteries with that deeper character stuff, I feel like I'm in such good hands with those writers and EPs around me as someone that's going through this process for the first time as the creator on an episodic series…

“I thought I respected TV writing before, but it's on a whole new level now, seeing just how intense that process is and how much replotting, reworking, rethinking and reshaping happens. And that challenge trying to hold eight hours’ worth of storytelling in your head at once so you know if you pull a piece from one place, what the domino effect is going to be on later episodes…

“We're excited about how it's come together.”

From afar, it’s easy to summarise Ramke’s ability to deftly skip across genres (horror, crime) and styles (shorts, features, premium TV) as effortless. Except that it’s more purposeful than that.

“When I think about what I watch, I don't just watch horror. I love horror, but I love sci fi and crime and westerns and war films and romcoms,” she says.

“I'm always looking for the opportunity to get to work in a different space and not be pigeonholed.”

It’s always been the approach. In those early years after Griffith Film School, Ramke picked up odd-jobs wherever possible, from a costume attachment on H20: Just Add Water to an extras costume assistant on Australia, a trainee AD on Spirited, then assistant props on Packed to the Rafters and later production secretary.

“For seven years I was just taking what I could get,” she says, adding working across those different departments for a budding writer/director was invaluable. “I ended up in the art department. I worked in production. All sorts of things just to be paying the bills and learning and making contacts and observing. Then in my free time, I would be writing short films and taking classes.”

One of those short films was Cargo, which was a 2013 Tropfest finalist and went onto become a viral success when it was uploaded to YouTube. Ramke and Howling leveraged the short film’s 14 million+ online views into developing and making Cargo their debut feature film. Produced by Causeway Films (The Nightingale) it starred Martin Freeman, was picked up by Netflix even before its International Premiere at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and became Netflix’s first Australian Original feature drama.

Yolanda Ramke on the set of CargoYolanda Ramke on set for Cargo

It was a whirlwind, so much so Ramke says there wasn’t enough time to reflect on the speed at which things were happening.

“When you're in the thick of it, you're just laying the track in front of the train and just trying to kind of keep things moving forward… There was a part of me that always felt throughout that process like this could just fall over at any minute.”

She credits producers Sam Jennings and Kristina Ceyton of Causeway Films for backing her and Howling to make the “huge leap” from directing a couple of shorts to helming a feature film.

“Suddenly you're on this set with a full-sized crew and you're working with international cast and you're working on this crazy schedule in remote locations. It was the steepest possible learning curve,” she says.

“There's a part of me that will always be very proud of that film, but there's also that side that is going, ‘I just wish I knew then what I know now.’… [But] the rub of that is that you can only attain that wisdom and perspective by going through it.”

The global audience that came with launching on Netflix meant millions of eyeballs – a pair of which belonged to horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan of Oculus, Doctor Sleep and creator of Netflix’s staggeringly popular Haunting anthology, which at the time included The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan tweeted in July 2018: “CARGO on @netflix is superb. Martin Freeman is amazing, and what an emotional punch... damn. Best film of its kind I’ve seen in a while. Just... damn.” (In July 2021, Flanagan also tweeted here that Cargo remains one of his top zombie films)

Ramke was scrolling through Twitter when she saw it. “And I was such a big fan. Ben too. The first season of Hill House was just so elegant and beautiful and elevated and the idea that you could do that on a television schedule was mind blowing…

“In a really genuine way, I just responded to thank him and sort of echo that it was very much a mutual thing.”

Ramke and Howling’s US agents at CAA and Grandview saw this social media exchange and were aware Flanagan was starting to crew directors for The Haunting of Bly Manor, the follow-up to Hill House. They reached out to Flanagan’s producing partner at Intrepid Pictures, who indicated there had already been conversations about involving Ramke and Howling. Interviews followed and they got the job – directing episodes six and seven of Bly Manor on location in Vancouver, a series that topped the Nielson streaming list for the week of 12-18 October 2020, with more than 1.8 billion minutes of viewing.

Yolanda Ramke and Nicole Chamoun on the set of Troppo.Yolanda Ramke and Nicole Chamoun on set for Troppo (Photo credit: Bradley Patrick)

These highs haven’t been navigated alone: Ramke has shared much of her directing journey in the industry with Howling.

When they got the Bly Manor gig, before official pre-production started, the pair were so passionate about getting the job right that they flew to Canada on their own dime to shadow Flanagan as a director, observe, “and just soak it up a little bit in a non-pressurised way.”

Once pre did start, they hit the ground running, and that pressure reared – of stepping into a project they hadn’t originated like Cargo, and grasping the world, the tone, making it fit cohesively within the puzzle of the series, not disappointing Flanagan’s vision and doing justice to the script (their episode included an eight-minute monologue, filmed at night and in the rain). But it was a pressure that was shared between them.

“Whether a partnership works in that way really depends on the foundational relationship at its core and because we were friends before we became collaborators, I think that stood us in really good stead,” Ramke says.

Originally, it was a diplomatic decision – they co-directed Cargo because they developed the premise together and were aspiring directors. But there’s also a shared sensibility, and the evidence it’s a creative collaboration that works.

“There are places where our interests diverge,” Ramke says. Apart from creating Troppo, Ramke has recently written on series such as New Gold Mountain, while Howling has directed on the Australian version of Drunk History.

“But where they really line up is in this sort of genre space. It's really just so frickin comforting to go through such an occasionally pressurised process with a second brain in the mix, that's there by your side to help ideas and improve ideas and just basically have two sets of eyes on the thing,” she says, with the duo now developing their own supernatural mystery series Newfoundland with Automatik Entertainment in the US.

“[Directing] can be a really wonderful, but stressful job, so to go through that with a friend by your side and a creative partner, with that sense of camaraderie and knowing that you're not in that process alone can be a real comfort when times get really tough.”

Watch Troppo from Sunday 27 February at 8.30pm on ABC and ABC iview.