From Mother & Son to The Clearing, the Wooden Horse curated slate.
Producers Richard Finlayson & Jude Troy have hand-picked projects for a boutique, successful slate in just over 3 years of their production company.
When writer / performer / producer Matt Okine was asked by producers Wooden Horse what he was interested in creating he pitched large.
Producer Richard Finlayson recalls, “He told us a story about when he’d been touring with Denise Scott in Hong Kong. They were having a drink one night, and they both had a dream to remake Mother and Son together.
“We said, ‘That’s going to be hard, because as far as we know, a lot of people have tried to do that before and the Creator always says no.'”
Starring Ruth Cracknell & Garry McDonald, Mother & Son is, after all, frequently referred to Australia’s finest sitcom.
But Wooden Horse saw the ambition and met with revered creator, Geoffrey Atherden.
“The first time we met with Geoffrey, we had a fantastic lunch. He was charming and lovely. At the end of that lunch, he said no. But we persisted and brought Matt into the discussion over a drink. Geoffrey and Matt just connected straight away and at the end of that meeting, we left Geoffrey with a one-pager that Matt had written… a beautiful, contemporary, diverse, reimagining of an Australian classic. Geoffrey called us and said he’d love to do it.
“We’ve involved him in every step of the process ever since. He’s been a wonderful collaborator.”
Wooden Horse was founded in 2019 by both Finlayson, a former ABC Director of Television, and producer Jude Troy, formerly of eOne and Hopscotch Films. In just over three years they have produced Stuff the British Stole for ABC, The Other Guy and Revealed: The Cape for Stan, and the recently released The Clearing for Disney+.
8 episode comedy Mother & Son will screen on ABC in August with Atherden having been a consultant as part of an ‘open door’ invitation to the Writer’s Room.
“He was involved in the room as much as he wanted to be, which was actually seldom,” Finlayson continues. “But he came along for a number of days. He definitely read the scripts all the way along. He would give us laser-focused notes, great rules that he had for the show. Y’know, right from the start, we never laugh at Maggie, we only laugh with Maggie. That sort of thing. He had a really great sense of the core dynamics that underpin that relationship. We’ve honoured those all the way through, and checked in with him to make sure we’re doing so.”
The series also features Angela Nica Sullen as sister Robbie, Andrea Demetriades, Catherine Văn-Davies with special appearances from Jean Kittson, Virginia Gay, Tiriel Mora, Jenna Owen, Veronica Milsom, Andrew McFarlane, Krew Boylan, Justin Amankwah and Zara Tate.
“We did ask Geoffrey to do a cameo but he decided against it,” says Jude Troy.
“It’s a very grounded comedy, that core relationship is crucial to it: Maggie, Arthur, Robbie are so essential, but we do go beyond the kitchen. It’s a great showcase of Western and southwestern Sydney.”
“It’s a wonderful evolution really of the original sitcom. Not only are the characters, I guess, reimagined for a contemporary Australia, but the form of the show is also reimagined. There’s a bit of an arc across the series that really makes it fun to watch. But you can also enjoy every episode on its own,” adds Finlayson.
Wooden Horse consists of just 7 staff, headquartered in Redfern, with a creative hub from Melbourne to Brisbane.
“It’s a very curated slate. We’re not a volume business,” Troy explains. “We wanted to create something really special (with Wooden Horse). That fire in the belly and that joy at heart is a lot about what we do.
“Undoubtedly, I would say The Clearing is a highlight of my career, not just a highlight of Wooden Horse. It was a terrific journey.”
After securing the rights to J.P. Pomare’s thriller In The Clearing the race was on to attach key creatives.
“We flew to Melbourne pretty much on the last plane before the first lockdown and we met with J.P. and then with Matt Cameron and Elise McCredie. Elise’s agent said, ‘Look, she’s pretty busy. I’m not sure you’re gonna get her. ‘ That was a Friday, and by the Sunday, both Matt and Elise had called and said, ‘We love it, we’re in!'”
Jeffrey Walker & Gracie Otto were both attached as directors followed by a heavyweight cast including Teresa Palmer, Miranda Otto and Guy Pearce.
“Everybody who came on board that project had a clear sense of what it could be. There were no grey areas, and we pitched it out to the market, globally. We had such great interest. I mean, it was competitive, and it was exciting. But Disney+ were going to get that and that was an absolute.”
While Wooden Horse has not seen viewing numbers from Disney+, they are confident the show has resonated with audiences.
“They give us great feedback. They would tell us if it wasn’t going well,” says Finlayson. “They couldn’t be happier. I think one of the hallmarks for them, obviously, apart from the performance here in Australia, which has been fantastic… is the way that it’s picked up and embraced by other Disney territories around the world. When (Disney exec) Kylie Watson-Wheeler first showed the series to the Hulu team they loved it from the outset, and it’s been heavily promoted on that platform. It’s been in the Top 10 on Hulu. It’s been a real success in the US and other territories around the world as well.”
“We have optioned J.P. Pomare’s next book and we are working in early development of that. I don’t want to tell you the creative team yet but we’re very excited,” Troy confirms.
“It’s completely different, wonderful protagonists. We don’t tend to announce developments, but that’s the journey that we’re taking. And we absolutely intend to collaborate with Disney again and certainly we’ve already got another project that we’re working on with Elise. There’s definitely a great synergy with the team.”
A second season of Stuff the British Stole with Marc Fennell is also in the pipeline for ABC.
“We’ve optioned a book called The House of Kwa which is Mimi Kwa’s memoir, a big, sprawling multigenerational Chinese diaspora story. That has been in a Writers Room,” says Finlayson.
“It’s an All Australian-Chinese Writer’s Room.
“The Cape which is Stan documentary, was always being developed as a drama, so that’s something that we’re working on as well.”
The immediate future is, of course, the launch of Mother & Son in August. No pressure.
“I think Matt’s on tenterhooks,” Troy admits, “because this is IP that everyone’s going to be like, ‘Well let’s see what they did with that.’ But it’s a great world to dwell in. I really can’t wait for you to see it.”
The Clearing is now screening on Disney+
Mother and Son, will premiere on Wednesday 23 August at 8:30pm on ABC