By FIONA RAE
The planets have aligned, the goats' gizzards have been cast, and on any given night of the week we, actual New Zealanders, can see actual New Zealand drama.
Mercy Peak is tiptoeing through the drama minefield and coming up roses. Street Legal is stomping around in size 11 boots, exploding everything with glee. And then there's a teenage girl with a perplexed look and an inquisitive nature who is just trying to figure out what it means to be.
Being Eve is a combination of clever writing, lovable characters and fun fantasy that casts American television teenagers in an even more absurd light.
It also seems a minor miracle, given the dearth of local children's drama. Eve's closest predecessor (I may be wrong here) would be Terry and the Gun Runners — and I think I was a teenager when that screened.
So what's gone right? A serendipitous clash of elements? The right butterfly flapped its wings in Venezuela?
Well, take a writer/director who has never produced television, throw in some short-film makers with a similar lack of television experience, add a crew who think a piece of No 8 wire is a special effect, mix with a superb cast, and then give them some great scripts that they get really, really excited about.
Vanessa Alexander is the newbie TV producer brought in by South Pacific Pictures — a decision that SPP head John Barnett describes as a gamble, but one that has more than paid off.
"We felt that Vanessa had, with the work she'd done to date, demonstrated a clear ability to interpret a story and tell a story," says Barnett. "It was based on creative ability. She did know how to tell a story and did know how to get people to buy into that vision."
The work that he's talking about is the charming and amazingly low-budget feature film Magik & Rose, which Alexander wrote and directed. A children's TV series was the last thing she thought she'd be doing next, but she was swayed by Eve's scripts.
"A lot of people worked on it just because the scripts were so enjoyable. It was great. I was offered a few feature scripts after Magik & Rose and I didn't take any of them because this was the only thing I read that I thought was worth it."
"As soon as I saw the first episodes I got really excited because it was what we had envisaged, only better," says series writer and co-creator Maxine Fleming. "I've never had crew members come up to me and say they really liked the scripts and they loved doing it."
Fleming, with Gavin Strawhan, then head of creative development at SPP, conceived Eve in a Grey Lynn cafe following NZ On Air's announcement that it had earmarked $2.1 million for children's series.
At an interview at the same Grey Lynn coffee house, both Fleming and Alexander talk about a collaborative process that is apparently unusual in television. Strawhan and Fleming were involved in casting, read-throughs and during shooting. Crew members contributed ideas, especially when it came to the effects.
For Fleming, an experienced television writer, it was a first, and for Alexander, well, she had no preconceived ideas of how the process should work anyway — and neither did the short-film makers.
"We let makeup and wardrobe and everybody stuck their 50 cents worth in. We had all kinds of silly crossovers, like Gavin wrote the lyrics to the theme song," says Alexander.
"We didn't have that, 'You can't do it because it won't work'. So there was a lot more of an attempt to put things to screen where maybe someone else would have gone, 'There's no way you can do this in the time'."
There was also lots of good old Kiwi ingenuity, crew putting in "absolutely massive" hours and breaking down the normal demarcation between jobs on set.
Then there's the loveable Eve, otherwise known as Fleur Saville, who did a stellar job, says Alexander, given that towards the end of the shoot she was working 14-hour days, and especially as she's never had any other television roles. If Being Eve is a sort of anti-Dawson's Creek, then Eve is definitely not Joey.
"We didn't want her to be just a complete know-all, so there had to be this conflict between what she knew in her head and what she was feeling, so I think that makes her more endearing," says Fleming.
"We wanted it be very Kiwi and working-classish, for want of a better term. That's why we made her dad a plumber rather than giving him some middle-class occupation; why we wanted the kids to wear school uniforms instead of getting around in really groovy clothes all the time. We definitely didn't want a lot of incredibly unlikeable rich kids navel-gazing their way round the place."
Amazingly, Saville was cast from 1000 girls at a general audition with just nine or 10 stage productions behind her. And it was touch and go whether she would be Eve, says Alexander, describing Saville as "nothing like that character in real life, not even a little tiny bit".
"She's a blonde surfie chick," laughs Fleming. "Her looks counted against her!" In the end, they made themselves an Eve.
"After we cast her we dyed her hair brown and took her out to Sky City and — she wears quite sexy clothes in real life — we made her wear navy and her glasses, and we made her wear them for a week. And I think it was quite interesting for her," says Alexander.
Saville herself is more pragmatic, describing the process as all part of the package.
"I had to start being her, I had to start going out as Eve and wearing what Eve would wear and wear the glasses and do the manky hairstyles and not care what I looked like."
Although having her face on bus shelters and in malls is "weird. Full stop!" like Superman, when she takes off her glasses no one recognises her — especially as at the end of filming, her hair was dyed back to blonde.
So that's Eve's story — how a bunch of non-TV people made a great little TV show. •
By FIONA RAE