A Fresh Start leads to White Fever

Industry funding initatives, including those offered during the worst of the pandemic, really do lead to new work.

While the pandemic was catastrophic for production (not to mention what it did to families, economy, travel and the health industry) it has also led to new screen work.

Just ask Lisa Wang and Katherine Fry, executive producers of ABC comedy White Fever.

Industry initiatives such as ABC’s Fresh Start Fund, an allocation of $3.2m to help kickstart Australian productions and content ideas during the pandemic, was pivotal to the creativity of writer / performer Ra Chapman.

“Ra and I met through a VicScreen initiative,” Fry explains. “She was supported through VicScreen’s Talent Camp and then Ra and I made an application to ABC Fresh Start. They supported a web series, and then they said, ‘Let’s make it into a half hour series.’

“I don’t think this is always the case, but I feel like the those funding initiatives have really helped us. It was a very positive experience in that regard. Without that VicScreen initiative Ra and I wouldn’t have met. I think she got so much out of that Talent Camp experience. Fresh Start was a COVID initiative when not a lot of production was happening.”

Fry, who has held script development positions at Every Cloud Productions, the New Zealand Film Commission and South Pacific Pictures, partnered with producer Lisa Wang of Black Sheep Films. Wang has 30 years experience in television and feature films, working regularly as a producer, and line producer on Please Like Me, Lowdown, Problems, Frayed, The Family Law, The Doctor Blake Mysteries and the breakout hit Late Night with the Devil.

“I’m used to doing creator-led projects, like Josh Thomas, Sam Simmons, and Adam Zwar,” explains Wang. “So I sort of just use that model on this and let them do what they want up to a point. When I think we’re gonna go bust and I just say, ‘No, I don’t think we can do that. Can you work it another way?’ I don’t want to stifle their ideas, or levels of where they want to take it, especially because Ra is a fresh starter for TV.

“Getting into business with people is like a marriage. You have to really choose it carefully. But I think when I met them, I was like, ‘Nup. This is gonna be good!'”

In the 6 part comedy Ra Chapman plays Jane, a Korean-Australian adoptee who gets accused of having ‘White Fever’, and throws herself into reprogramming her libido, only to find that she is out of her depth.

The cast also includes Chris Pang, Greg Stone, Roz Hammond, Harvey Zielinski and Jillian Nguyen.

“Quite a few of the roles have been played by first time actors,” Fry continues. “We’ve been really thrilled with the response. There’s an adoptee dinner, which Jane goes to in episode three, and the entire cast of that dinner are Korean adoptees aside from John Harlan Kim, who’s a Korean-Australian actor.”

Wang adds, “(Casting director) Lou Mitchell started his career in Neighbours, so she called in a favour said, ‘John, do you want to be in this?’ and he knew Chris Pang… there’s a lot of goodwill going around Asian-Australians.”

“Chris Pang (pictured above) left Australia when he was doing Rush in 2011 and now he’s come back because we’ve now got a show like this. That was very emotional, especially for me, because I’ve been waiting for it too. (ABC executive producer) Louise Smith wrote to me and said that was very powerful, so I’m pretty proud of that.”

“We’ve worked with (ABC Comedy exec) Todd Abbott and Lou Smith as our EP and then we had Claire Atkins as one of our development managers and then Jenevieve Chang,” Fry continues. “Two Asian women were on the development team so they understood and really got the story and what we were trying to do. I think with White Fever, there’s the the fun comedy of Jane being attracted to white hairy men and setting out to date Asian men. But then underneath is the more emotional story of her reconnecting to her Korean-ness.”

“The challenge of the project was getting that tone because there’s emotion and then there’s that kind of broader comedy as well at play. We have been commissioned through Comedy. So it’s striking the right balance. But yeah, they’ve loved that it’s Ra’s story and in her writing,” Fry observes.

The series has also facilitated new opportunities for crew into positions which Wang believes will lead to further industry work.

“VicScreen has been amazing on this project,” she acknowledges. “They’ve given us a huge amount of money to support the Asian Australians behind the camera. I’ve been able to put a lot of specialist placements in to this production and at least one in every department, which has been amazing because they can just step up.

“After this, I can lead them into other jobs.”

White Fever screens 9pm Wednesdays on ABC.

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