Friday, March 1, 2024

So You Want To Film A Pandemic Thriller During Lockdown? We Talk Creative Challenges with Morgana O’Reilly

There are parts of 2020 that are pretty thick with dramatic irony but a classic moment is that when Morgana O’Reilly first did this Capsule interview about INSiDE, a pandemic set in lockdown New Zealand, we both had a real ‘touch wood’ moment when she described the fact that the premise was New Zealand entering another “hopefully fictional” lockdown. Boy, did we have a nervous giggle when we both touched wood around us, hoping that we would continue to skate through on good luck. That was on Monday 11 August – a day later, Jacinda Ardern held her 9pm emergency conference and announced Auckland would be going back into Level 3. As a result, INSiDE was delayed until this week. Let it be said that there isn’t a dark sense of humour to this year at times.

“What’s that saying? ‘Necessity is the mother of invention!’ All that annoying shit you don’t want to hear when things are going well,” Morgana laughs down the phone. At the start of New Zealand’s national Level 4 lockdown in March, creative funding body NZ On Air put out a call to action for ideas that could be made under lockdown conditions and Morgan’s husband, director Peter Salmon, joined forces with  Shoshana McCallum and Dan Musgrove to create the concept for INSiDE. The three have a production company called Luminous Beast and they, as Morgana puts it, “jimmied up the idea and threw it out there.” It had to be do-able under Level 4 restrictions – you know, where we couldn’t leave the house.

That’s quite the creative limitation at the best of times, let alone when you consider that Morgan and Peter have two small children, Luna, 5 and Ziggy, 2. “I would play the main character – no other competition when it’s just me in the house – and then a few weeks we later we got the money and it was like ‘Oh shit, now we have to make it! And… what are we going to do with the kids?’”

For a chilling moment, it looked like the only solution would be to film through the night once the kids went to bed, but luckily filming eventually started as New Zealand moved to Level 2 and all New Zealand parents breathed a sigh of relief as child care became a feasible option once again. INSiDE tells the story of a withdrawn tech expert, Rose, who is hacking into other people’s video calls in an attempt to find some human connection in an increasingly lonely, post-lockdown-again world. Rose unexpectedly reconnects with her high school bully, which brings up trauma from the past, adding another level of paranoia to an already fractured quarantine. It’s a thriller with a very dark humour twist – the writing room included Tom Sainsbury, Kura Forrester and Nic Sampson, because as Morgana explains, “People who are funny are the very darkest of all.”

With her Mean Mums co-stars

Morgana has been a popular stage and screen actor both here and across the ditch, known for roles in Housebound, Neighbours, Wentworth, and Mean Mums (on Tuesdays at 8.30pm on THREE). Being able to help bring to life something like INSiDE, in a truly bizarre time in history, was a great creative challenge, she says, and meant working with her director hubby from home. “We’ve been together for 10 years and we know each other’s artistic vibe, so after all the hard bits of getting the kids out the door by 7.30am, it was just myself, Peter, Dave Cameron as our Director of Photography and then one of the writers or a friend, off to the side, reading out lines of the person who was going to be on Zoom. It was very intimate, working with this cool little team. It was like making a student film but with people who are hard-core professionals!”

Morgana and her husband, director Peter Salmon

It was empowering to be able to create something in such strange circumstances but also to have her job brought back to such basics. “When lockdown happened, it was like all possibility of other jobs was taken away and I was left with just… ‘okay, who are you as an artist?’ I’ve got management in America, I’ve got [work in] Australia and New Zealand and lockdown was like, ‘what if there were no ‘what ifs’ any more – and it was just you?’”

“I think we’ve all had these little revelations along the way and I think it will be interesting to see how that’s going in New Zealand a year from now, when the rest of the world has profoundly changed,” Morgana says. “I keep saying, ‘This is our 1969’. We’re changing so fast – culturally, politically, environmentally… it’s a lot!”

She credits Jacinda’s calm and caring leadership for helping us get through. “She was so clear about everything – it’s hard to be awesome when you’re really f—king scared and you can find a bit more space when you know exactly what the rules are.”

New Zealand’s relative good luck (*touches ALL the wood*) with Covid-19 means that we may be one of the first countries able to film projects again and Morgana says there’s already been a noticeable rise in US teams start work down here. “I’d like to see more vision with our own storytelling community… that we start to go ‘Okay, who are we as a country artistically and try to be better and more suited for the time that we’re in and the formats that are available,” she says. “Rejigging the balance of what is commercially viable and what are the stories that our country needs to tell and needs to hear.”

New Zealand Premiere of INSiDE is Thursday 24 September, 8.30pm on Prime

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