Tue Jul 7, 2020

A countryside crime drama from New Zealand

Inspired by scandi noir crime dramas: Constance

A countryside crime drama from New Zealand

Interview with Fiona Armstrong, producer and co-writer and Travis Graham, director and co-writer of the pilot Constance. Constance won the Best Pilot award at die Seriale 2020.

This year’s award for best pilot went to Constance, the first episode of a drama and crime series surrounding the death of Constance O’Brien. Fiona Helen Armstrong, Travis Graham, Jonathan James, and Henry Rolleston created the series and shot the pilot in 2018. It came through a direct selection from New Zealand Webfest to die Seriale 2020 and had its European premiere here. The episode begins with beautiful shots of hills and sunrise, which are accompanied by ominous music. This sets the mood for the whole pilot. The story takes place in the made-up town of Titakataka. The beautiful landscape we can see in the first shot and throughout the pilot is from Wanaka in the Otago region on the South Island of New Zealand. In the pilot, we meet two families – the O’Briens, who lost a family member, and the Abbotts who are friends and acquaintances of the O’Briens. At first, it seems like Constance’s death was a hunting accident, but at the end of the episode, it turns out that forensics could not match the bullet to the weapon of the suspect. Now Constance’s death will be treated as a homicide and everyone is a possible suspect. Kindly, two of the creators, Fiona Armstrong and Travis Graham, agreed to answer some of our questions.

Fiona Armstrong as Tanya Abbott © Constance

Seriale: What inspired you to write this story? Did you have any particular role model or other influences?

Fiona Armstrong: As four creators we had just graduated from drama school together and knew we wanted to work together. We all had connection to the South Island, a love for a dramatic script and many stories to share. Our first day at the story table was incredible, we had so many ideas and the project felt super timely in NZ. At that stage, we did not have a lot of scandi noir like dramas like it. Constance was influenced by successful scandi noir crime dramas such as “The Killing”, “The Bridge” and “Broadchurch”. A gritty drama with tension and horror but like its predecessors, the heart of the story is family.

Seriale: Among other things the jury complimented the narrative approach and visuals, they could also tell the director had a clear vision and went for it. How did you implement or express your vision to the cast and crew?

Travis Graham: Being my first time directing for screen I leaned heavily on the director of photography (colloquially known as a DOP, in some countries they are known as the cinematographer). I presented my ideas and shared some inspiration I’d taken from established TV shows. She (Nina Wells) was outstanding and supportive and helped realize our ideas. It helped knowing the story intimately as I was one of the writers and also had the other writers around the set to bounce ideas off of. That was probably the key - communication was strong between myself, the DOP and the creators. We were on such a super super super tight budget that there was no (unfortunately) time to present to other departments. Having the spine of the project on the same page meant each department generally had someone involved that knew where we were going with the story. And writers doubled as actors and actors doubled as crew etc. and helped in different departments. So, to be honest, everyone involved worked tirelessly on either side of the camera to get this over the line.

Seriale: Did any coincidences happen that turned out to be even better than what you had in mind?

Travis Graham: Drone footage! We were working to an incredibly tight budget and we didn’t have a cent to spare. A wonderful local producer Toby Crawford put us in touch with Ross – who very generously came on board with the project. The drone footage became such a standout in the show as it showcased the wonderful scenery so well, it almost became its own character. We were incredibly lucky.

Susan Brady as Carolyn Abbott © Constance

Seriale: The acting throughout the whole cast is amazing, the jury also mentioned that, and together with sound and music it really intensifies the atmosphere. How did you put the cast together?

Fiona Armstrong: We were so lucky to have some of New Zealand’s top talent willing to partake in the project – and we agree that their acting is amazing. As we didn’t really have any budget, we couldn’t audition. We are all actors, so we appear in the pilot. But most of the cast had connection to our drama school, The Actors Program. The school has a fantastic alumni community and one of our Producers Jessi Williams works as the Program coordinator there. When asked they all came on board and we are forever grateful. A local South Island musician and friend, Danny Fairley at Mirrors audio created the music for us. He is super talented as not only did he compose the soundtrack; he also did the sound edit for the show. The music really became its own character and we were thrilled with Danny’s work.

Seriale: Why do you think everything worked so well and harmonic together?

Fiona Armstrong: Everyone that came on board the project gave their heart and soul. Our entire cast and crew backed it and I think this is why everything came together.

Seriale: In your video for our red carpet you said the countryside of New Zealand had a special dynamic to it. Why did you choose to let the story take place in south New Zealand and even more specifically the Otago region?

Travis Graham: At the point when writing the story – NZ had not told a rural, South Island drama. Fiona spent five years living down there, and it felt like the right place. Central Otago is picturesque, but it is also very secluded. It is surrounded by high country stations (perfect for the story) and jaw dropping views. But cold winters and arid summers make it a breeding ground for danger and beauty in equal measure. There is something chilling about something so morbid happening in such a beautiful setting. The community is small, like the rest of the world is and vulnerable to lies, corruption and violence, however given its size, these events are often more intense and impact more people.

Henry Rolleston as Arthur O’Brien © Constance

Seriale: What were the specific circumstances for the production of the pilot?

Fiona Armstrong: Very specific! Constance was made for a competition. For TVNZ which is one of our leading broadcasters here! It was submitted as a pitch alongside 750 other projects. It made it to the final fifteen, was further developed and then made it to the final five. We were given $5000 to turn the pitch into a pilot!

Seriale: How far have you developed the series and what are your plans for Constance?

Fiona Armstrong: Once the pilot was completed, we formed our own production company Tiny Earl Productions. We wanted to keep developing “Constance” as a short drama – 6 x 23 min episodes for web, but broadcasters here told us it would be a hard sell as it appeals to an older demographic (we still don’t agree!!) We spent the next 12 months developing the story into a full TV show for 5 x 43-minute TV. We had a pitch, a pilot episode, and a full series! However, unfortunately a similar TV show has since been broadcast on television here! It is a great show and has a different premise – however it shares the setting and genre with “Constance”. So, it was back to the drawing board for us! The good news is we have now developed a dark comedy – which will go into production later this year. We will keep developing Constance and give it a slightly different spin, so one day have a chance of funding here again!

Seriale: Can we expect new episodes and when?

Fiona Armstrong: It is really hard to get funding here in NZ and there are only two real platforms! But never say never. It’s our first production and holds such a special place in our heart. It’s a really important story to tell in New Zealand too and we will keep pushing the series the best we can. What brought you into creating web series? Online content is the new way we want to watch TV! We do not like to be told when and where we should watch something. Audiences like fast moving dramas that keep them on the edge of their seat! And so, a web series was perfect for Constance! We look at how much we could do in 17 minutes…there is no need for always making a full TV hour.

Peter Rowley as James O’Brien © Constance

Seriale: What do you think about the New Zealand web series market? How do you see it?

Fiona Armstrong: It is really hard for new creators here in NZ, but we also have an industry of people making wonderful work! There was an incredible short drama called Alibi made by a company here called Plus6Four that really inspired us. They started working with lower budgets and now their work is getting picked up internationally. It shows us that it is possible! Even from a small island in the middle of the sea!

Seriale: Are you planning on taking a step into an international market or do you want to stay New Zealand based?

Fiona Armstrong and Travis Graham: We absolutely hope to! Constance has always done well in the International market and we would love to find collaborators.

Seriale: Thank you very much for answering our questions. Hopefully, you will be able to continue Constance because we definitely want to see more.

Interview: Annabelle Mueller

Constance (2018)
Country: New Zealand
Genre: Crime, Drama
Runtime: 15 minutes
Director: Travis Graham
Writers: Fiona Armstrong, Tessa Livingston, Henry Rolleston, Travis Graham
Producer: Jessi Williams, Fiona Armstrong
Cast: Sara Wiseman (Kate O’Brien), Peter Rowley (James O’Brien), Travis Graham (Tom O’Brien), Henry Rolleston (Arthur O’Brien), Renaye Tamati (Vanessa O’Brien), Jessi Williams (Sergeant Sophie Cooper), Craig Hall (David Rooks), Jay Simon (Stephen Abbott), Susan Brady (Carolyn Abbott), Fiona Armstrong (Tanya Abbott)