My name is Nick Issell, and I’m a screen writer. Feel free to be adequately impressed… Oh, you’re not impressed at all? That seems about adequate to me. Anyway…
When my best buddy-boy, Michael Shanks, approached me to co-write The Wizards of Aus with him, I’ll admit, I was a little wary of the idea. The Wizards of Aus was Shanks’ baby and I was tentative to get involved. He’d been throwing around ideas for ‘the wizard thing’ (that was the concept’s profoundly creative working title) for many years. By this point I had been working with Shanks since year 11 – we’d written a number of scripts together (all lost to time, thankful), and I had been present for every episode of Doomsday Arcade. In fact, it was maybe only a few short months after Doomsday finally wrapped, that the Wizards concept first popped from Shank’s fertile brow (yuck). He even shot a few scenes. I played a Spinning Wizard. It was pretty shitty, but even so I was pretty daunted by the idea of meddling with a concept Shanks still clearly held so dear. I also wasn’t particularly interested in working on something I’d have no ownership or claim over – a glorified punch up writer. Thankfully, I was wrong to have such misgivings, and so I signed on for a job that has probably been the best one I’ve ever had.
Shank’s original concept way back when, up until we sat down for our first series brainstorming session, was that the show would be in the mockumentary style. This was another reason for me to be wary, for a number of reasons. Firstly, we had just written and shot a mockumentary short together called ‘Keeping up with the Comstocks’. As far as I was concerned we had had a crack at the medium, and were now done and dusted. I really had no interest or inclination to try it again.
Secondly, we began work on Wizards in December of 2014. A month earlier, What we do in the Shadows had been released; a mockumentary comedy about a specific supernatural species, set in a predominantly white, southern hemisphere nation. If we had have stuck to the mockumentary style, comparisons were bound to have been made. Hell, if some director in South Africa had have made a movie about… oh, I dunno, aliens or something… with a similar framing device, we’d have been in real hot water. But the foremost for problem, for me at least, was the risk of mockumentary – a philosophy that Shanks and I share. Mockumentaries are inherently risky, not because they’re hard to make, but because they seem to be easy.
As a result, every beanbag with a camera, half a joke and no money thinks they’ve got the next ‘We are Spinal-Tap’ on their hands. But for every ‘The Office’ out there, there are twenty thousand garbage mockumentaries floating around the deepest doldrums of YouTube, that’d put any first year student film to shame. I quickly convinced Shanks that a more classical narrative style would suit the show better; it didn’t take a lot of work to be honest. We were on the same page about Wizards very early on.
The Wizards of Aus was written under very strange, high pressure conditions. When the original pitch went ahead none of the episodes had yet been written. We were fully approved for funding and a hard month or so was allotted for us to write all six episodes. How we did this, I’ll never truly know. It was a fun, feverish, creative blur. We spent many hot days and long nights locked away in the dungeon that is Michael’s weird, tiny office – a task made infinitely easier by the fact that we lived in the same apartment complex at the time. We wrote together, drank coffee, wrote, watched the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (helpful), then wrote some more.
I’d take the scripts away, do a pass on them, change what I thought didn’t work or wasn’t funny, send it to Shanks who would do the same (and change a lot of it back). Then we’d come together to write again, argue for several hours about why the changes we’d each made or not made were important and had to stay, suck each other off about how funny we both are. Then we’d write, maybe get drunk sometimes, watch ‘Legend’ for some reason (not helpful). In the final days of writing we’d drag ourselves to the writing room, write, contract scurvy, then make our final, valiant assault on the writing. Somehow we’d got it all done, in a very narrow window, and were also still friends. I don’t know how we did it, but in my own, modest opinion, it’s probably because we’re both monumental geniuses.
As a result of all that writing, Wizards as it is now is nothing like it originally was. Shank’s original concept for Wizards was about an immigrant wizard called Jack who moved to Melbourne, followed by his hitherto unnamed dark wizard nemesis. That stuff all made the final script (the dark wizard eventually got fleshed out to become Skullrich), but it served us as a pretty solid, very barebones basis for the series. The best decision we ever made when structuring and fleshing out the narrative and world of the show was this: Magic has no rules, so neither should we.
We wrote literally whatever we wanted. We basically wrote a cartoon, but for live action – a dream for us as creatives, but a nightmare for our producers, I’m sure. As a result, when I walked in and said I wanted to write in a giant eyeball king, or a regency era, Mister Darcy-esc Mummy, or a bing-bang-bog head of a dog, it went in. When Shanks wanted to devote an entire episode to a hitherto unseen Baby Bones, it went in. When we decided that we needed horses to eat quiche whilst sat at a kitchen table like a human – something no one believed would be budgetarily feasible, let alone a position a living horse could physically contort into – IT BLOODY WENT IN!
The series actually came together quite easily. Episodes quickly fell into place. Jack goes on a particularly boring adventure – applying for a recycling bin, speed dating, getting stuck in traffic, etc… – which is then quickly livened up with any number of supernatural shenanigans and magical characters. What we struggled with was how to end it. We had set up quite a bit of underlying real world politics, namely the asylum seeker debate, in the form of a fictional vote to decide if Wizards were allowed to stay in Australia. We knew that we had to bring all that to a head in the conclusion but, contrary to popular belief, heavy political issues turn out to not be that funny.
The final episode went through a number of iterations. We even had a lot of really great, really funny stuff on the cards that eventually had to be scrapped – a really funny beach cricket sequence amongst them that I was sad to see go – before we finally settled on the ‘Town Hall Scene’, a sequence that can only be described as our spin on the final episode of ‘Seinfeld’. It works and it’s funny, but no matter how you cut it, it always hurts to kill your darlings.
From there on I stayed on the project in a number of other roles for the entirety of production. I worked on preproduction planning the show, designing the characters and helping out art department. I was on set making up alternate lines, or running errands or royally fucking up the second unit green screen footage. I acted with Guy Pearce, and creeped him out with awkward small talk behind the scenes. I spat sugar in a very nice young woman’s face whilst dressed as a mummy. In post I even animated some 80s style lightning effects. However, on the final, final day of shooting – a pick up day with actor Bruce Spence – I stepped back into the role of writer, with hilarious, disastrous results.
Bruce was playing Regimand, Jack’s pervy, painting-bound, wizard father. A line wasn’t really working, a sleazy pick up line. I spent an hour, sitting alone on set scribbling down any vaguely funny, vaguely magical sounding pick up line. Finally I hit gold – a gross line regarding the nature of mermaids. I pitched it to Shanks. He wouldn’t stop laughing. He pitched it to Bruce, who justifiably shot it down – “I’m not going to say that”. I had instantaneously alienated an actor who I was incredibly excited to work with, and whose work I greatly respect.
Living the dream, folks!
I am incredibly proud of The Wizards of Aus. I’m proud of the work I did. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as a writer. I’m proud of Michael Shanks. I’m proud of the entire team. But most important of all, I got the opportunity to work with a massive cast and crew of incredibly talented people, many of whom I am proud to now consider my friends, nay, family… apart from Guy and Bruce… I really, really creeped them out…
Ah, geez Nick!