Closer Productions navigates its way through the pandemic with ‘Aftertaste’

(L-R) Rebecca Summerton, Bryan Mason, Sophie Hyde and Matthew Bate.

The creative team at Close Productions has resumed pre-production on the ABC comedy Aftertaste (working title), which stars Erik Thomson as a temperamental chef, using a new risk development tool.

Sophie Hyde (SH), Rebecca Summerton (RS) and Matthew Bate (MB), who co-founded the company with Bryan Mason, discuss their production and development slate and the vital support they are getting from the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC).

Q: Great to see pre-production of Aftertaste is underway, using the new risk assessment tool developed by Deloitte Risk Advisory/SAFC. In practical terms what will that mean?

RS: The situation is constantly changing and therefore so are the risks and the things a production needs to do to mitigate those risks. The new risk assessment tool developed by Deloitte and the SAFC provides us with a practical tool for assessing risk as things change and to and to formulate an effective response. It’s not rocket science, and the processes we have in place are practical things that many people in the community are already doing to keep themselves safe and healthy.

We currently have the privilege of working in SA which, at the time of writing, has no community transmission of COVID-19. This means we have to be particularly diligent around the way we bring people into the State. It is comforting to us as producers and to our financial partners that we have a COVID Safe plan created in consultation with a company who are recognised for their expertise in providing risk advisory services.

Q: Where did Julie de Fina and Matthew Bate get the idea and what was the pitch to Screen Australia and the ABC?

RS/MB: Julie de Fina and Erik Thomson were looking for producing partners and brought the pitch document to Closer. Matt had grown up working in kitchens and had a long standing interest in food and we loved Julie’s pitch which was whip-smart funny.

We partnered up and Julie and Matt started riffing on where the series might go. It morphed from a quite broad kitchen comedy into something more about a dysfunctional family reconnecting through food. The #metoo movement had recently unravelled at the time of development and coloured the thinking around how accepted the toxic, aggressive male chef had become.

The comedy in the series comes in taking that trope down a peg or two. It’s been fantastic poking fun at the food world and the ‘Masterchefs’ who have become such deified creatures. Watch this space to see Australia’s favourite dad Erik Thomson go full tilt Gordon Ramsay.

Q: How have you coped through the shutdown? I assume JobKeeper enabled you to retain staff?

RS: Yes, there were some staff at Closer who we were able to access JobKeeper but some who weren’t, including many of the crew ready to start on Aftertaste, who are employed on short-term contracts.

It was difficult for us to stop production knowing that there were a lot of crew relying on that job, but we were fortunately only at the very beginning of pre and have been able to be clear about postponing and worked hard to get production started again. So, while I’ve been working to restart Aftertaste and Matt has been writing on it, Sophie, Bryan and the others in the company have leaned into the development slate.

Q: The SAFC has been very pro-active in helping SA-based producers and projects through the pandemic. How has that benefited Closer Productions?

RS: The SAFC responded quickly to the pandemic and announced a broad suite of programs to respond to the crisis. Closer successfully applied to the SAFC for the business resilience training offered by the SAFC. It proved very useful for the four directors of the company (Matthew Bate, Sophie Hyde, Bryan Mason, Rebecca Summerton) to take some time during the shutdown to work on our business and do some important planning.

It is a credit to the flexibility and hard work of the SAFC and indeed all our financial partners that we have been able to get Aftertaste back into production in these uncertain times.

Q: With the temporary suspension of the commercial networks’ local content quotas and the cutback in ABC’s funding – thankfully not in drama and comedy – how receptive generally are broadcasters to pitches and commissioning?

SH: They always say they are ready to hear any idea at any stage but, aside from a few key examples, our experience is they usually respond best when an idea is very formed, very solved. So, there is a long period of development to get a project ready to pitch to a network and the balance is working out how far to go before checking in with market.

There are still so few avenues for projects here in Australia, and the threat to quotas and reduced funding at ABC is (to put it mildly) not good. It’s vital that we support film and TV as a cultural necessity otherwise we are inevitably swamped with stories from bigger markets. We need to keep reflecting and challenging our own culture here.

Sophie Hyde on the set of ‘The Hunting’ (Photo credit: Nat Rogers).

Q: Matt wrote and directed the online series Video Nasty- The Making of Ribspreader, which follows underground horror filmmaker Dick Dale’s quest to make his first low-budget feature. Where and when will that screen?

MB: I shot a film for Dick Dale in the 90s called Yowie – and it was one of the funniest and best film experiences of my life. I’ve always been a massive fan of Dick’s work – he’s Australia’s greatest trash filmmaker. So, when I heard he was making his first feature film Ribspreader, myself and co-director Liam Somerville, started turning up to set with a camera knowing that I would be filming absolute gold.

I’ve always wanted to make a ‘making of’ film and this really has become my ‘love letter to cinema’ film. Dick has this ability to bring incredible people into his world – many of them untrained or emerging, many from the world of the punk music scene he’s also a king-pin within. I find the whole thing such a relief to be around – it’s what I started making films for the in the first place, and that spirit often gets lost when things get annoyingly ‘professional’.

The project was financed through Screen Australia, and more recently the Adelaide Film Festival via Mat Kesting (another long-time Dick Dale fan). The series is divided into 6 parts and will launch online later this year, but in October we will be premiering at AFF and will host a screening I’m hoping will be This is Your Life, hosted by John Waters playing Jerry Springer. You should all come.

Q: DCD Rights sold The Hunting to numerous markets including the UK, France, Canada, Russia, the Netherlands and NZ. Any US deal?

RS/SH: The US deal is still in progress we believe.

Q: Sophie and Bec, you are attached as EPs to writer/director Adrian Francis’ feature Paper City, the story of three survivors of the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo. How is that shaping?

RS/SH: It’s a very beautiful, reflective film. We knew Adrian from back at uni and we were big fans of his short doc Lessons From The Night. When he approached us with Paper City we could see that it is a film that was gently forceful about what it had to say but wouldn’t immediately have a big market interest.

Adrian has filmed with people in Tokyo who are not being heard and who are nearing the end of their lives. There is an urgency for them, in Japan remembering its history. But the style of the film wasn’t an obvious “sell” to TV. We wanted to help encourage them to make the film in the style they wanted to, which meant them piecing together the funds and staying true to it.

I’m so glad to see it’s getting finished and has those final bits of financial support. Truly, we’ve been on board for a story room and some advice but the rest is all them. Sometimes it’s important to have someone say, “yes keep going with this, don’t change it.”

‘System Error’ (Photo credit: Anders Wotzke).

Q: Matt Vesely’s short comedy/drama System Error, which explores mental health through the story of George (Nick Nemeroff), a robot who works in a dingy convenience store, had its world premiere in Tribeca. Where and when will it screen here?

SH: Yes, it premiered at Tribeca, which sadly wasn’t a physical festival this year. Like many films on the festival circuit, we are trying to work out where the best places for it to screen are.

It will be at some Australian festivals coming up but I don’t think they’ve been announced. His previous short My Best Friend is Stuck on The Ceiling is up online now and is a total delight.

Q: Animals had a limited cinema release here last year, further proof of how hard it is for Aussie films to cut through, but had a decent run in the UK, no doubt helped by the Irish setting? I assume Cornerstone Films did deals for other markets, including the US?

SH/RS: Yes, the UK release was exciting and great. We’re not sure if the Irish setting helped that, but the book on which the film is based is popular in the UK as is the writer and the lead actor Holliday Grainger. Our UK distributors Picturehouse did a smart and connected campaign to excite the audience.

The Australian release was very limited which was sad of course for us. Though the film sold very fast at all festival screenings, it didn’t pick up any buzz in Australia. We had very limited funds to back the release here which meant, despite excellent press, it flew under the radar. There are other territories sold and Cornerstone have been in so many deal discussions for the US, but what they want to get is specific and I believe they are not settled yet.

Q: Maya Newell’s In My Blood It Runs is having a long tail in cinemas, which shows Aussie audiences’ appetite for compelling feature docs?

SH: Yes, In My Blood It Runs has really built a strong following, in part because it’s a beautiful and relevant film and in part because of the incredible job the family, advisors, Maya and impact team have done in connecting with various organisations and audiences over several years. It’s work that started well before the film and has continued throughout the making and the release.

The film and the impact campaign was funded via Good Pitch and that has meant that we have been able to do the necessary work to keep people (including the family and advisors) employed to work on it over this whole period. It’s been an incredible thing to watch and it goes from strength to strength, with the continuing cinema screenings, the success of the virtual cinema campaign, schools really picking it up, ABC screening and now sales to the US for theatrical and TV and into Europe as well.

Q: Can you please elaborate on your development slate?

RS/MB: We have a broad slate of projects in various stages of development. After the success of The Hunting we are developing another 4 X project with SBS. We also have a crime series in development with Bunya Productions.

SH: We love working in TV and have several TV projects in development but are also continuing to develop features. I’ve personally been focused on the development of two new featuress, one written by Matthew Cormack, who wrote 52 Tuesdays and The Hunting, the other a novel being adapted by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who was in 52 Tuesdays and made her first film as writer/director with Closer [short documentary A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old Girl] a couple of years ago.