28 May 2019 | BY Shelley Lee - @ShelleyLee_
“We could feel (the industry) was changing – it was this new take of motherhood.” Sarah Scheller explains.
This duo co-created and have now co-written two series of The Letdown together. The pair are old friends and pick up from, expand on and finish the other’s sentences seamlessly, without ever seeming to cut the other off.
The Letdown (for those out of the lactation-loop the title is a play on the ‘letdown reflex’ in breastfeeding) was a lengthy labour of love for years before ABC Television aired their 30-minute pilot in 2016 as part the Comedy Room initiative, and it’s now co-produced by Netflix.
The concept of an un-airbrushed portrayal of parenthood came to Scheller when she had her daughter a decade ago (she also has a nine-year-old son) after a horrendous mother’s group experience.
“I just didn’t need it and I wasn’t really into oversharing with you know a group of strangers that I didn’t feel comfortable with” she says.
Bell, who also stars as The Letdown’s leading-lady Audrey, gelled significantly better with her own mother’s group when her now five-year-old son was born. The Helpmann Award-winning actor had never written a screenplay before; neither had Scheller who says they both had a clear vision of the type of comedy they wanted to make.
“We wanted to get away from the well-trodden tropes that surrounded motherhood on screen,” she says.
They workshopped the show so long, they started to see others the industry catching on to their idea.
Bell and Scheller’s take on mum-life is non-glossy, funny and at times very frank. “There was still a gap when [The Letdown] landed. It felt like that hadn’t been filled yet,” Scheller says.
“That scene with the coffee”, “The driving, god the driving”, “All of it! I relate to all of it!” These are some of the comments that flowed on the Facebook group page of my own mother’s group, when in 2017, shortly after the series started airing on the ABC we discovered The Letdown.
We, our babies and all in our households had just battled the five-month-old sleep regression, and for some (myself included) the war was still raging. The 30-minute episode on ABC iView could usually be played in full, even if my son decided brief catnaps were the only sanity breaks he’d give me that day.
Most importantly though, for me as a new mother, it was tear-jerkingly authentic and funny. I was a shell of the woman I remembered being and it felt like someone had made a TV series just for me.
Off the hook hormones or the perils of a weak pelvic floor can be easy comedy fodder, but this team doesn’t go for the laugh without giving the emotional fallout a look-in.
Authenticity has been the key to The Letdown resonating with audiences in Australia and across the Netflix reach of around 190 countries and territories. “So many people are messaging us from Japan, or Argentina or South Korea” Scheller laughs, shaking her head.
Bell says it’s been a little weird and surprising how big the Netflix reaction has been. “It’s radical. We were very prepared for it to do nothing.”
Sensitive, topical and political issues are key to the storyline in the new season. “The response that we got from Season One, the scenes that really resonated were the darker moments,” says Scheller, “Like the scene on the bus [Audrey crying she mourns her old life, juxtaposed with the joy seeing baby Stevie’s first smile], or the fight between Audrey and her mum. Anything involving tears basically” she says. “The really full-on stuff. That what people loved, so we felt a responsibility to keep pushing it.”
Most of the show’s more outrageous moments are ripped from the writers’ lives, or those around them. “It’s those experiences that you’ve had that come through in the writing that make it so relatable to other women and other mums” explains Scheller. “Most of it is Al or my experiences; if not one of ours then one of our very good friends whom we pilfer from regularly. It’s so much easier for us to write from a place of truth if we know it’s actually happened.”
Sarah’s husband Trent O’Donnell (No Activity, The Moodys, The Chaser’s War on Everything) who directed the first season was her inspiration for a bouldering (indoor rock climbing) incident early in Season Two. She and Alison crack up remembering him stressing to all on set that a sexing episode was not inspired by their Los Angeles -based family. “Trent told the whole crew many times that he does not send me pictures of his bum. He was very insecure about that storyline,” she says.
The distance means most writing collaboration is digital and carried out at all hours of day and night across the Atlantic. When they get together in person Scheller and Bell typically knuckle down at Charlie’s (a hub for Australian filmmakers in Los Angeles), consuming copious bowls of soup and cups of coffee, or Bell’s homemade cakes.
As the babies graduate to toddler status, rather than returning to some sort of ‘normal’, a whole new set of relationship, personal and parenting dilemmas come into play in Season Two. The Sydney shoot schedule was tight, with the stela cast they’d assembled last season including Noni Hazlehurst, Sacha Horler, Lucy Durack juggling other stage and screen commitments. They could only secure Celeste Barber who plays Barb for five days, and Xana Tang was abroad working on Disney’s upcoming Mulan.
This was factored into the writing but the small window to shoot meant key creatives from Season One were unavailable, opening the door to introduce more women in key crew positions including director of photography Nicola Daley and editor Julianne De Ruvo. The new appointments resulted in a crew ratio of around 60 per cent female to 40 per cent male.
“We wanted to see what would happen if the camera was in the hands of a woman,” says Bell. “The process of series one had more men involved than women. There was a lot of explaining that had to happen.”
“Woman-splaining,” clarifies Scheller before Bell continues: “There’s definitely a shorthand when you’re dealing with female heads of department with a story this specific and with the level of detail that we put in our scripts. And the psychological resonance of all those details.”
O’Donnell directs a further three episodes this season , while Amanda Brotchie ( Picnic at Hanging Rock, A Place To Call Home) helms two and Bell and Scheller share their directorial debut in one.
“It was great. I was in Sarah’s hands when I was in front of the camera,” Bell says of the experience. “And, boy did I work her.” chimes in Scheller.
As a writing team, there are other projects in the pipeline that allow them to detach from mum life and flex their creative muscles in different ways. “It’s exciting” says Scheller.
“We live and we write motherhood, so it’s a thrill to think about other things” elaborates Bell, “We still love doing it[The Letdown], but it’s really nice to use other parts of our brains”.