After two difficult years for the world at large, who could blame a commissioner for wanting to order a show that is heartwarming and uplifting? A show about the most important things in life: love, family and friendship?
Such were the drivers behind Binge executive director Alison Hurbert-Burns’ decision to make the streamer’s first original series since its launch in May 2020 a romantic drama.
“I just felt that Australia needed a love story,” she tells IF.
After putting out to the market that the Foxtel-owned platform was searching for “interesting, complex, sexy, love story ideas”, Warner Bros. International Television Production Australia approached with the rights to Swedish drama, Love Me (Älska mig), created by Josephine Bornebusch.
Hurbert-Burns was immediately on board. She was already familiar with the original, having attended a WB format day in the UK in early 2020, where Viaplay Sweden explained why it had ordered the show initially.
From there, the team moved quickly; Love Me got the greenlight in January, writers’ rooms were underway by Easter and the show was shooting by July/August. The Swedish version helped to create the universe, but all were keen to put an original stamp on it.
Love Me looks at looks at modern love experienced by different family members at three distinct times of life, as they all reach an emotional crossroads. The ensemble cast includes Hugo Weaving, Bojana Novakovic, William Lodder and Sarah Peirse, together with Bob Morley, Heather Mitchell, Celia Pacquola, Mitzi Ruhlmann and Shalom-Brune Franklin.
In terms of casting, Hurbert-Burns says they laboured over getting the right people so that audiences could see themselves, and she hopes it is a nice mix of familiar faces and up-and-coming talent.
“We did a lot of work on the character interaction and a lot of re-writing and development of the dynamics of the family,” she says.
“The thing I like about the show is it’s multi-generational. So you’ve got three love stories. One for someone in their 20s, one for someone in their late 30s/early 40s, and one in their 60s. You’ve got an audience range.”
WB executive producers Michael Brooks and Hamish Lewis brought on Aquarius Films’ Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford to produce, Emma Freeman to direct and assembled a writing team led by Alison Bell with Leon Ford, Adele Vuko and Blake Ayshford.
Echoing Hurbert-Burns, Fielder tells IF the series appealed because it felt like an “antidote to what was going on in the world”, with “beautifully drawn” characters.
“The show just felt like a warm hug.
“It’s been a really tough year. It’s nice to sit back and watch a show that feels good; makes you laugh a little bit, makes you cry a little bit.“
Another draw was that Love Me would be the only English-language version of the show, which gave scope to make a show that felt truly international.
“Part of the brief of the show was to make it a love letter to Melbourne, in terms of the way we shot it, but also part of the brief was that we wanted Melbourne to look and feel like it could be anywhere in the world. It could be New York, London, Paris or Berlin; just a big international city in which these universal stories unfold,” Fielder says.
“We were very much focussed not on making the ‘Australian version’ or making an Australian show; it was very much about making the English-language version that would sell to all territories.”
Novakovic, who in recent years has been in the US working on projects like Instinct, Birds of Prey and I,Tonya, jumped at the chance to play lead role Clara, the daughter of Weaving’s Glen and sister to Lodder’s Aaron.
The character is a successful, sharp-witted anaesthetist, but has yet to find love as she approaches 40. When she crosses paths with her neighbour Peter (Morley), sparks fly, but she clings to cynicism and self-doubt.
For Novakovic, the script was relatable, real, honest and “very Chekovian”.
“People are crying when they should be laughing, and people are laughing when they should be crying. It was just a world that I wanted to live inside of for a long time. I actually cried at the end when it finished. I blubbered like a baby. I didn’t want it to end,” she tells IF.
“It’s not a popcorn light-hearted piece, but who the fuck likes watching that anymore? You’re watching real stuff; three generations of people experiencing grief and love simultaneously. You’re watching three generations of people experiencing sexual awakenings. That includes 65-year-olds. It’s pretty awesome.”
Fielder agrees that Love Me is a “sex positive” show.
“Particularly in regards to the older characters Anita and Glen who are in their 60s, we wanted to really embrace the idea of people in that age group having passionate, active, wonderful sex lives. We were very committed to showing that in all its glory.”
In terms of Clara specifically, Novakovic embraced the fact that she was a female lead character who was charming and funny.
“Until her charm stops working, which is the prototype for a male rom-com lead a lot of the time.
“I love how different we are. I literally wear my heart on my sleeve; you know how I’m feeling when I’m feeling it, whether I want you to know it or not. Whereas Clara has such an ingrained survival mechanism of controlling her feelings. But in times of duress, they come out. I was enjoying this marriage between someone I’m definitely not, and allowing someone I am to pop out of that person every now and then.”
While many of Love Me‘s writers may be known for their comedic chops, Hurbert-Burns notes that the show is definitely a drama – just one with levity.
“Life’s never a straight line. You have a family that’s dealing with grief and death, but they’re falling in love at the same time. To deal with what the reality of death is sometimes like, if you have to laugh,” she says.
Fielder praises Freeman’s ability with actors, how she is able to hit the right emotional beat and her great visual eye that, together with DOP Earle Dresner, has given the show a warm and aspirational look.
Equally effusive is Novakovic, who regards the director as a “visionary.”
“She is a force to be reckoned with on set, but has the gentlest, most creative energy. She knows what she wants; she has the most elegant way of being bossy I have ever encountered.
“And she respects actors, heads of department and crew in a way that facilitates a whole work of art… Every department is important, every department co-collaborates. She’s a fearless leader like no other in the Australian film industry.”
Ultimately with Love Me, Hurbert-Burns wanted to make a show that would not only sit alongside Binge’s HBO, FX and other international dramas seamlessly, but more importantly, would move people.
“We were driven by the story.
“This was about connection, it’s about chemistry… we’re not commissioning to fill a hole. We just wanted to make a beautiful, sweeping story.
“We were very much trying to replicate family, relationship and sexual dynamics that happen in real life. There are some interesting sex scenes that you’ll see in this. There’s certain moments of reality, that I think the audience will say ‘I might have done that before’. We wanted it to feel very authentic. It’s not studio gloss.”
As for what’s next for Binge, Hurbert-Burns says the door is open, encouraging producers to pitch both scripted and unscripted. The platform will be announcing its next drama soon.
“If it’s talent-led or just a great story, we want to hear about it. Our audiences are – as streaming audiences are now – broad. They’re not niche. In the early days, we’re looking for some beautiful dramas and comedies that are broad in their appeal. We’re not looking to commission horror or anything at the moment; we’re going to start with the kind of drama that Love Me is.”
All six episodes of Love Me stream on BINGE from Boxing Day.