Alex Casey took a surreal trip out to the Shortland Street set, and found scoops around every corner.//
When I arrived at South Pacific Pictures, I was greeted in the carpark by a giant tripod with a long brown wig balanced on the top – a sort of terrifying tribal challenge to all layman who enter here. It was the perfect surreal symbol to kick off my visit to the Shortland Street set. I should really have taken a photo but I was too freaked out that it might be some sort of spoiler. Oh yeah, spoiler alert: people wear wigs on telly. This is the first of many revelations about television, the world and life as we know it that I had on the Shortland Street set visit.
My first giant Shorty buzz came when I was circumnavigating the admin corridors and spotted the cast pigeon holes, chocka block with scripts. Michael Galvin! Angela Bloomfield! Frankie Adams! Kronos! (just kidding, Kronos doesn’t have a script – just his own trailer) The vibe was electric, it was the most electric hallway I had ever been in. And I’ve been in some good hallways. I wanted to sprint to the set, I could practically smell the coffee at Sugar and hear the buzz of the I.V. on a Friday arvo. But something stopped me dead in my tracks.
Sitting smack bang in the middle of the thoroughfare was a shadowy figure in blue scrubs hunched over on a spinny office chair. Now, from our ongoing series of groundbreaking videos, I would have recognised that stance anywhere. The figure sensed my presence, and spun around slowly in, what I was about to realise, was the funniest moment of my life. His lacquered jet black head creaked around to look at me accusingly.
It was only bloody TK, and I was on his turf. I started to think that it was him who left that worrisome wig display outside. TK was partially staring me down, partially practicing his lines (“it’s a tough call,” followed by looking out into the distance). I slunk past him, getting a stress rash on my neck from his brooding dark energy field. But I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet.
“Throw her in the scene,” he yelled in my vague direction, and then walked himself over to me in his spinny chair with the speed and action of a giant crab. “Are you some kind of journalist?”
TK leaned in with the paranoia of someone who may or may not have given some truly terrible interviews in the past. I explained that I was from this little TV website, and he spun around in his chair and declared proudly that he doesn’t have a computer like some evil Luddite genius. But he wasn’t totally in the dark.
“Hey, have you seen that website called Stuff? Man, there’s a whole lot of stuff on there!” I laughed, and then realised he wasn’t joking in the slightest. Our beautiful moment of mutual Stuff appreciation was ruined by the Cooper family, who swished past us on their journey to set.
The Coopers were heading to a film a rare stunt scene in their house, which I got to watch from afar, within the squashed confines of the flattened Warner house. When a particular set is not being used, it is able to be squashed down and packed up into basically a matchbox. After 22 years, they know how to use their space well.As they were setting up, I had a peruse of the Warner bookshelf. Here’s a weird yet understandable scoop – Chris Warner owns a copy of Kelvin Cruickshank’s Inside the Medium!! There was also a box of Warner crackers in his kitchen but, as always, I was unsure if they were prop crackers or real crackers.
I’m not allowed to talk about the intricacies of the Cooper scene they were shooting, but let’s just say there is a run in with an old chimney flue. The scene required some serious chimney stunt work, and was a one-take thing. If they didn’t nail it, they would have to reset for several hours and try again later. With around 20 minutes to film each scene and only two or three rehearsals, I can’t even imagine the pressure on the actors and crew to nail everything on the first try. But that’s the world you live in when you work on a serial drama with one of the fastest turnovers in the entire world.
Murray and Kane got to practice a few times with a plastic dummy chimney, before the big metal mumma was rolled in. It looked and sounded very heavy and dangerous. Everyone braced themselves with paper masks and gladbag suits for a sooty impact, there was even a fire advisor onsite. The publicist Selwyn, who took me around the set, informed me that they have always a wealth of advisors to come on set. From cultural advisors, police advisors, to medical advisors (obviously), the show’s commitment to accuracy in its representation is truly admirable. “We have to be socially responsible,” Selwyn whispered as the Cooper’s began their terrifying rehearsal, “we’re in prime time.” Murray and Kane nailed it in one take. Of course.
We went down to the hospital foyer set, where I got very starstruck by the iconic janitor’s cleaning trolley. Selwyn explained that they used the same floor for the whole hospital and just change the colour coding on the walls to represent different departments. My brain was in tatters on the floor. We approached the famous Shortland Street lift, home of many an iconic entry and exit, many an iconic Vinny and Kylie striptease. As it turns out, the lift doors have to be manually operated by a person wedged in a tiny cupboard using a pulley.
I sat in the tiny lift-opening chamber, the walls scrawled with “kill me now” and other such uplifting sentiments. It’s a tough job timing the doors opening in tandem with the actors pressing the fake buttons, considering each scene only gets a millisecond of rehearsal. Every cog in the wheel has to work in time with each other, even the lift troll. If there’s one thing I want you to get out of this, it’s to spare a thought for the person sweating bullets in the cupboard next door when you see doctors rushing in and out of that lift.
I leant on a gurney of rice snacks, having been previously confused about the prop vs real dichotomy – I was pretty sure it was crew snackage. Wrong again, it was a the prop food trolley used in the show. My reality was warped to high heavens, there were fake rice crackers and real rice crackers. There were fake desks with files and real desks with files. The real desks were used by the Assistant Directors and wheeled around as they moved from set to set. Which, by the way, is the most beautifully smooth swan lake style procession I have ever seen. Like something out of an OK Go video.
Behind every handbag, bald cap (yep!) and ambo jacket are the good people from the costume department. There are two giant areas for costuming, one for extras and seasonal costume storage such as Christmas garb, and one for the core cast.
I ran my fingers really creepily through Rachel McKenna’s power jackets. The attention to detail is insane, they make sure to keep the wardrobes refreshed – but not outside the realm of what each character would be able to buy or afford. Chris Warner has a whole wall of cufflinks and ties. Dayna had a plethora of chunky jewellery. In a corner labeled “Ula”, there was a plastic baby in a box. Talking of babies, there was a huge stack of various pregnancy bellies. Between the racks of clothes, there were women furiously sewing fluoro police jackets. Spoiler alert: they are not real police either. Not even real police jackets.
On the way to the art department, I perved into the hair and makeup room. Lucy Elliott was having her hair washed, it looked very luxurious. The art department was so stacked with Ferndale merch I didn’t even know where to start. Everything on Shortland Street needs its own brand, down to letterheads and magazines. I talked to Alison, who was responsible for such things as the I.V.’s dramatic rebranding, and Chris Warner’s masterpiece charity painting. She was working on making fake stamps and fake mail for the Warner house. I held up a letter from Harry’s school, thinking he has probably been suspended for ongoing boot-throwing.
We went outside to finish the tour. I was dying to see the hospital frontage, and the grassy knoll that has seen it’s fair share of lunchtime tousles. I ran up to the skip where Claire’s body was found in the first grisly Ferndale Strangler murder. It was empty. I still maintain it was the same skip, although Selwyn the publicist was wary to confirm.
I lamented slightly that the Shortland Street parking lot wasn’t going to see any gnarly bomb/fire/grenade/helicopter action this year. Director Simon Bennett has decided to keep things light-hearted for the Christmas cliffhanger. “You can’t sustain the drama,” senior publicist Rachael Keereweer told me, “if you tear shit up every year, it becomes too farcical.”
Leaving the carpark, I was more overwhelmed with information than Chris Warner at a parenting conference. Stepping into Shortland Street universe extended far beyond anything I had previously imagined. It was like a simulated theme park experience, a hyperreal gurney-trip through endless corridors and seas of cufflinks with wild TK obstacles around ever corner. The frightening beheaded wig effigy that greeted me at the door had now been moved elsewhere, and I was able to pass freely back into the real world, albeit reluctantly.
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