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Putting the band back together

Justin Harwood’s web series High Road launches its third season later this week. SCREENZ was lucky enough to catch up with lead Mark Mitchinson and the creator as the wind-up gets into full swing.

The famously cheap first season went up on to Vimeo “almost just for friends”, but grew an audience and plenty of positive reviews. Among those enjoying the series was an old friend of Mitchinson’s in the UK, Greg Wise.

The show was rewarded with NZ On Air support for season two. When Harwood first found out there was $100,000 on offer, he considered using it to make the second and third seasons “and then we could have the box-set”.

NZ On Air’s Brenda Leeuwenberg persuaded him to pull back on that plan, in part to help send a message that the agency didn’t expect people to work for free just because something was being made for online. “They wanted to try to bridge the gap between online and broadcast a bit,” Harwood said.

That was almost two years ago, and the recent announcements about the agency’s proposed platform-neutral funding strategy are now aligned with that view.

Season 3 of High Road, launching Saturday (5 November)

Season two of High Road went on a round-the-world jaunt collecting enough festival awards to win the Web Series World Cup. One of its wins (although not one which contributed to its World Cup rankings) was at the inaugural NZ Web Fest, which will have its second edition two weeks after High Road’s third series launches. Harwood will present at #NZWF16, sharing some exclusive material from the making of the new series.

Mark Mitchinson, who plays High Road lead Terry Huffer, and Harwood have been friends and neighbours out on Auckland’s west coast for several years, a stone’s throw from where season one began and (as season three is a prequel) where it’s now heading.

I asked Mitchinson if making a prequel had changed any of what he knew or assumed about Huffer from making the first two seasons.

“Who he was and where he was from was in my head from the beginning, so it was an easy process, really. The story kind of wrote itself.

“Season two was such a big series, we wanted to get back to our roots, so it’s small – but perfectly formed.”

Small, as in shooting in the UK and featuring two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson?

“That small.”

Emma Thompson and Greg Wise flank Mark Mitchinson

Emma Thompson and Greg Wise flank Mark Mitchinson

Mitchinson’s old friend and fan of High Road from the beginning, Greg Wise, is Thompson’s husband. Rather than allow Mitchinson to lean on the friendship to enquire if Wise and Thompson might be up for a cameo appearance, Harwood emailed Wise and explained he was the creator of High Road and Mitchinson’s neighbour. “You owe me for that,” Harwood said.

“We’re in,” came the reply.

Which gave Harwood a bit of challenge. The script he’d written, not assuming Wise would be up for it, had Mitchinson’s Terry making fun of Thompson’s career. So Harwood sent through a script for them to consider before they accepted.

They were still in, so a date was set.

The second challenge was that being in the UK didn’t really work within the new season, which continued on from the end of season two and which NZ On Air had signed off on. So Harwood wrote another season to incorporate the trip to the UK. The original season three material is now back on NZ On Air’s desk as a proposal for season four.

Harwood and Mitchinson went to the UK to shoot the episode (which opens the new season), featuring Thompson as herself (but Huffer’s sister) and Wise as himself (her husband). Thompson’s previous experience of New Zealanders includes playing alongside Rhys Darby in The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio).

Thompson and Wise were very accommodating, helping secure their local pub as a shooting location, and getting into the spirit of the show.

“As actors, we don’t often get the chance to hang out and improvise, to play and explore characters and have fun,” Mitchinson said. “That was something we were able to give Emma and Greg – something they probably don’t get to do on those big British and American productions.”

The British actors aren’t the only well-known faces turning up in season three. Michael Hurst is on board, following his wife Jennifer Ward-Lealand who appeared in season two. Danielle Mason, Luanne Gordon, Peter Muller and Erroll Shand all return to play younger versions of their characters. Shand even gets to wear clothes in season three.

Even though Mitchinson and Harwood both say that the story for season three is a smaller story than for season two, the show’s still a labour of love to some extent. We muse on what the local industry could or should have become by now if government hadn’t stripped away support for local production over much of the last decade, through the sinking lid of standstill support for NZ On Air and closing TVNZ’s digital channels 6 and 7.

“People expect such big things at a very low cost,” Mitchinson says. “Good art can sometimes come out of poverty, but all art shouldn’t have to. It’s a testament to the quality of High Road that it competed at the level it did and won the World Cup, but it made no difference here. Nobody notices.”

Harwood’s connections from his life as a member of The Chills continue to pay dividends for the show’s soundtrack. As well as having plenty of connections here and overseas with whom Harwood has been able to do affordable licensing deals for tracks, he’s also been able to get friends together to spend a few days’ jamming in the studio to create original material for the soundtrack.

prod_highroad_s3_errollshand_markmitchinson

When we spoke, Mitchinson was shooting Screentime’s Dear Murderer and also has work coming up on the second seasons of Filthy Rich and the inbound Shannara Chronicles. While he enjoys them, those are the gigs that feed the family and allow him to choose some smaller projects to feed the soul. Nic Gorman’s upcoming feature Human Traces, produced by Nadia Maxwell and with The Dark Horse’s Tom Hern and James Napier Robertson as EPs, is one recent example.

High Road’s obviously another.

Mitchinson calls Huffer an Everyman, and cheerfully admits he’s a lots of fun. That’s something that Harwood thinks helps in attracting a lot of people to the show – the ability to have a good time and make something good.

“The flawed hero is a lovely character to play,” Mitchinson said. “You’re not going to make him a role model. He tries hard not to be a dick, but… ”

Season three of High Road launches, kind of appropriately, on 5 November. For those late to the party, seasons one and two are ready and waiting.

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