For Julie Kalceff, the second season of ‘First Day’ takes the story to new level

Evie McDonald in the second season of 'First Day'.

The first season of the Epic Films/ABC children’s series First Day, about a 12-year-old transgender student navigating her first year of high school, could only be deemed a monster success.

Not only was it a landmark series in terms of representation – star Evie Macdonald was the first transgender actor to play a lead role in an Australian scripted drama – it sold all around the world, including to Hulu in the US and the BBC in the UK. Along the way, it also won a slew of awards, including an International Emmy, a Rose d’Or and a GLAAD Media Award.

Naturally, heading into the second instalment, creator, writer and director Julie Kalceff and producers Kirsty Stark and Kate Butler felt pressure to live up to what they’d made the first time around.

However, a comment Kalceff received from a few people in the process made her determined to push on. Namely: The first season did so well – Macdonald’s Hannah has come out, and people accept her – why even do a second season?

For Kalceff, the comment was wrong-headed.

“I wish that was the end of the story; that when you come out, people accept you and everything’s great and it’s a happy ending. My feeling was: This is where the story starts. She now has to navigate the world as an out trans girl. What does it look like for her? Where does she go from here?” she tells IF.

“It was really important to me to do a second season. I think there is a misconception these days that it’s easier to come out and people are more accepting. That might be the case, but it’s still difficult.”

Hulu came on board as a co-commissioner with the ABC for the second instalment, in which we see Hannah run for class captain, exposing an underlying transphobia among her classmates. She then starts a group for LGBTQI+ students, but in doing so, finds herself at risk of alienating her closest friends.

Hannah is now 14, and her getting older allowed Kalceff and co-writers Eloise Brooke and Martine Delaney to explore new storylines. Following conversations with Macdonald about her own experiences at school, they sought to look at microaggressions, dating and the importance of finding your own tribe.

In addition to her starring role, Macdonald is a key collaborator on the show, offering input into what she wants it to cover.

I’d come up with some storylines and I’d run them past her, just to see if they felt authentic. One from a trans point of view, but also from someone who’s 14, because it’s been a long time since I was 14,” Kalceff says.

“Then through rehearsal periods, we’d go through the scripts together. If there was anything that she didn’t think was sitting right or anything that she disagreed with, then we had another look at that. Even on set, if any of the actors didn’t feel like the dialogue flowed for them, we’d rewrite it and we just make sure that it felt right for them and right for the age group.”

Elena Liu and Evie Macdonald as Olivia and Hannah in ‘First Day’ S2.

Co-writers Brooke and Delaney were important additions to this season for both Kalceff and Stark.

“We’re both cisgendered. We’re very much aware that this isn’t necessarily our story to tell,” Kalceff says.

“From the start, we wanted to empower Evie to tell the story. When we came to season two, we thought it was incredibly important to bring as many trans and gender diverse cast and crew into the series, and that included Eloise and Martine as co-writers on eps two and four. Just the lived experience that they brought to the storyline and to the scripts was invaluable.”

Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation also supported the production to have a number of attachments for emerging crew who are trans and gender diverse.

“We wanted to support creatives on a story that is about a trans girl, but also create an environment where Evie is not the only trans person on set – so that she feels safe and she feels supported, and that we create an environment that is reflective of the story that we’re telling,” Kalceff says.

Prior to creating First Day, Kalceff helmed the successful lesbian web series Starting From Now, which had more than 170 million views and sold to SBS.

From her perspective, the Australian industry is now much more open to queer narratives than when she started that project in 2014. However, she cautions there is still a long way to go.

“I feel like we need to get to a point where we have enough stories; that one show about a trans girl doesn’t have to be everything to everybody because that’s just impossible. When I wrote the first standalone episode [of First Day], I was so mindful, ‘This is about a trans girl. She has to be really nice, so everyone likes her.’ That’s a terrible place to come from when creating a character,” she says.

“I hope that we get to a place where we have so many different characters, and so many different stories that that’s no longer a consideration; that they’re just people in the world.”

As for what’s next, Kalceff continues to work on character-driven, female and LGBTIQ+-centred stories. She is developing a number of TV projects, and co-directing a feature documentary. After being one of the five-strong female directing team on anthology feature Here Out West, she’s also looking for more projects to direct that she hasn’t necessarily written – she found the experience freeing.

It’s a real joy to be able to talk to the writer about their intention and then think about how I can bring something of myself, elevate the script and bring it onto the screen. For me, a big joy about directing is working with actors. So being able to then cast right actors for that script and bring that to life is the best job in the world.”

And while awards and international sales are a boon, for Kalceff and the First Day team, the biggest barometer of success is the audience response: they make the show for trans kids and their families.

“I still get emotional when I think about it or when I read responses and emails that we get. I made this show for someone close to me; a little trans girl who’s very close to my family. Just knowing that now other children around the world are watching it with their families and responding to it… I’m really moved by it,” Kalceff says.

“It takes so much time and energy to make something and to create a project, that I feel like if you can put that time and energy into making something that actually helps people or starts conversations or maybe changes people’s minds, then that’s time well spent. It just makes me feel really proud.”

The first episode of First Day premiered last week March 31, International Transgender Day of Visibility. It continues every Thursday at 5.00pm, while all eps are up on ABC iview.