Alex Casey took a time machine taxi to the Westside set, and walked onto a pristine replica of 1970s New Zealand with all the novelty retro trimmings.
There is nothing more surreal than sitting on the West family toilet. The bowl itself? Hard plastic and skin-crawlingly orange. Perching next to it is a crocheted toilet paper dolly that your Nan would probably love. Nearby, a hideous woolen poodle stares intently forward. I suspect it is housing a toilet brush, but I daren’t look. The prop toilet paper certainly has a je ne sais quoi about it – definitely not the plush Cottonelle of the optimistic Obama era. More like the rough discoloured one-ply of a D.O.C. longdrop. It is supposed to be the ’70s – all Vietnam and Robert Muldoon. The wallpaper slowly started to make me feel sick, I realised I was receiving a heavy dose of 2013 Met Gala Kim Kardashian from all angles. Tell me I’m wrong.
This watershed water closet moment came last November, when I was lucky enough to visit the set of the Outrageous Fortune prequel, Westside. Outside, the sky was grey and overcast – which is seemingly always the case out South Pacific way. It’s as if the gods know their efforts are wasted over those enormous metal hangers, bursting with their own brand of fake television sunlight. Inside, it was like stepping through a time machine, or at least through the door of the ‘Fuzzy Vibes’ vintage store on K’rd.
The Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside premiered exactly ten years after the Outrageous premiere. The original comedy-drama centred around matriarch Cheryl West, and her quest to force her criminal family to ‘go straight’ after her husband Wolf is incarcerated. A decade later, the Wests have returned – except we’ve traveled back a generation to the ’70s to see how it all began. It’s a superhero origin story of sorts, just with a lot more turtlenecks and flares.
Halfway through the season now, Westside has seemingly met the expectations set by its leopard print-clad predecessor. It mixes history, drama, comedy, raunchiness, weed and winged eyeliner to create a world that’s about as visually appealing and thematically dark as a poisoned lamington. Where the whacky likes of That 70s Show and The Brady Bunch lean towards the more cartoonish elements of the ’70s, Westside feels alarmingly true to life. There’s not a Look Sharp disco wig in sight, the tie-dye tees buried deeper than Rita’s bag of gold.
Walking through one of the huge tin lots, the cavernous space was piled high with curvaceous lamps, rickety cane chairs and enough orange and brown furniture to decorate a lovely jafa-themed house. It looked exactly like the upstairs section of the second hand shop in Paraparaumu under the huge Virgin Mary statue, if you’ve ever been there. Constantly on the cusp on collapsing and crushing everyone under a mountain of phone tables and shag rugs. A shaggadelic and musky way to die for sure.
The TradeMe street value of the props around me were out of sight, but my mental calculations where interrupted when the publicist Fern (Sutherland, also a Brokenwood Mysteries actress) brought over some Westside cast members. Esther Stephens (Ngaire Munroe) and Sophie Hambleton (Carol O’Driscoll) were lazily picking at their lunch. I looked around at the catering. A retro looking combo of beef and carrots – that brown and orange memo goes real deep out Westside way.
Esther and Sophie had finished shooting for the day, but were still immaculately styled in ‘70s hair and makeup. I was in awe of their perfect waves of shiny hair, and the type of eyeliner you can only achieve after a night scream-crying in front of Youtube tutorials with sellotape all over your face.
Sophie Hambleton’s character Carol already shapes as the classic card of the show. Married into Ted’s gang, her regional twang and burned offerings to shared lunches feel like a loving tribute to the older generation of Women’s Weekly-fueled Middle New Zealand. Anyone who has ever encountered a cheese hedgehog in the wild will know what I mean. She told me that she sent her audition tape up from Wellington, and three weeks later she was on set in curlers. “I am a devotee of Outrageous Fortune,” she said, “I never actually thought I would get to be on it”.
I nodded, gently scooping some beef sludge and carrots onto my plate. “The world is so rich, there are so many characters,” Sophie said. The beef sludge was pretty damn rich too. She touched on how the show, essentially a domestic drama, also manages to set the scene for the state of New Zealand at that time. “It’s full of nation-defining moments, people discuss politics and shit when they’re having a cup of tea.”
In episode one, the Commonwealth Games are used as both a historical timestamp and an ongoing plot device. Entrepreneurial Young Wolf starts his own betting book at school, and John Walker’s gold medal celebrations allowing Ted to crack a safe in peace. Recognisable archival footage plays to us and the characters as soon as the TV has properly warmed up. It’s basically a New Zealand history lesson told through the West living room.
Esther Stephens was as regal as all holy hell, gliding around in the glamorous ‘70s makeup of prim housewife Ngaire Munroe. She even made her mandatory plush actor’s robe look like something you could wear to the Oscars. “I was lucky that Ngaire existed before me, there were strong clues to her character that I found in the Outrageous script. I think she has a similar energy to me,” Stephens said. Wearing a mustard-coloured jumpsuit that would make anyone else look like a huge chicken nugget, Esther Stephens looked at home in all the high-potential-to-be-ugly ’70s garb. Turns out, she lives for it, “the ‘70s are my spiritual home, I actually made my friends watch Woodstock at my 9th birthday party”.
Just like Cheryl was the main feature in Outrageous, the core female cast hold a lot of power in their corner of the universe. With Antonia Prebble at the helm as Rita West, their unlikely and tumultuous ring of criminal housewives is a great addition to the safe cracking and beer chugging of Ted and his gang. Rita poisons her baking and buries cash, has many a sordid affair and dobs in guilty neighbours with the bat of a false eyelash. Paired with Carol and Ngaire, the group assert their puppeteer power as early as the first episode, spoiling what otherwise would have been an easy job for their husbands (and even imprisoning them just to get some peace and quiet).
After I had finished my (actually quite delicious) beef and carrots, we walked through the Art Department towards the set. I peered into one room, which was bursting with a hazardous amount of burning candles. Amongst them all, a man frantically watching them melt to just the right level of West-wax-neglect. He must have been so damn hot, poor Burning Man. “I have to get it just right,” he yelled over the flames. We walked past makeup, laden with false moustaches and elaborate wigs. Seemed dangerous having all the false hair so close to Burning Man.
On the set itself, they were shooting a dimly lit, smoke-filled scene in Rod Nugent’s pawn shop – the same place Rita traded her ring in. It was fascinating to see the level of detail, a seemingly fully-functioning ’70s pawn shop plopped in the middle of 2015 Henderson. I eyed up the jewels and started my TradeMe valuations again, but was interrupted by a dripping on my leg. It was my own leaky water bottle!
Disaster. I peeked back, terrified. It had dripped all over the wires, the gaffer tape, the actors’ chairs. “WAIT is that a cricket bat shadow or a boom shadow?!” someone yelled aggressively from behind a monitor. I stood in my steadily expanding puddle of water – harbouring a much bigger secret problem than boom shadows. A truly outrageous problem.
With liquid now pouring from every inch of my body (drink bottle water, sweat, small amount of nervous wee) I sought solace in the empty set behind me – the interior of the West house. I strolled the corridors, looking for places to hide before the director inevitably realised I’d flooded the set and smacked me over the head with a prop cricket bat. I stood in the kitchen, in awe of brand-new appliances I had previously only seen in hazy memories of Grandparents’ homes. There was a pristine sushine yellow Sunbeam milkshake maker, heated hair curlers, a 25c New Idea magazine.
I nervously took a seat at the dinner table, unsure if the scissors next to me were prop scissors or real scissors*.
Taking a cruise to the bathroom, I inspected the lavender-flavoured Mitchum. That sounds like a lovely drop, wish they had kept that up into 2015. Fern told me that finding the ’70s stuff itself is easy – it’s finding stuff that isn’t faded, rotting and moth-eaten that’s the hard part. The ’70s they’re presenting has to look real at all costs, and the search for set dressing took the Art Department to a lot of auction houses and even more hospice shops.
There was a brief break between scenes, and I noticed David de la Tour (Ted West) was having a breather nearby. He was wearing very high-waisted pants. I asked him if he liked the threads. “I love it” he said, “I’m used to the weird fabric now, I actually think the look is timeless”. It really wasn’t. “They make you stand differently, they make you walk differently,” he said, stretching out in his turtleneck and flares. I wondered if this was mostly due to the incredibly high crotch. “The character just comes out with the clothes,” he said, prancing around.
Later I would meet costume designer Jaindra Wilson, who had one of the hardest jobs in the Westside world. Her office was plastered with pictures of Edie Sedgwick, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones – she explained a lot of New Zealand’s ‘70s inspiration was actually of the ‘60s because we were always a little behind. Nothing has changed. Her department spent endless weeks trawling vintage shops, looking for older pieces that wouldn’t crumble under hot lights and long days. Luckily for her, polyester stands the test of time and will probably be the only thing left for the cockroaches to wear after we all get nuked. Tiny polyester jumpsuits.
Another frustration was sizing issues, with 2015’s big butts unable to slide their way into slimline ‘70s slacks. “We needed the actors to be pretty tiny,” she said, “alterations became key”. I asked her what the hardest item of clothing was to fit “the flared and high waisted men’s pants, definitely”. I thought of David de la Tour prancing around in his pants out there, and wondered how he would maintain his new cutting-edge look once the cameras stop rolling.
Before leaving the set for the cold harsh reality of flare-free 2015, I walked through the West house one more time. Through the open back door I immediately recognised the iconic bluey green panes of the West balcony and snuck out towards them. I pondered the cultural significance of these stupid glass planes whilst staring out at a jaw-dropping view of West Auckland. Sure, the view was printed on a canvas hanging two inches away from my face, but it was still beautiful. It was the perfect end to my time at Westside, where I realised that everything is an illusion, time travel is essentially possible and that water can thankfully dry very quickly under hot studio lights.
*The only on-set advice I can give you, aside from don’t take a full water bottle possessed by Satan, is that you should assume that absolutely everything is a prop. I learnt my lesson when I absent mindedly picked up a packets of rice crackers from the trolley on the Shortland Street set.
Westside airs on TV3 Sunday at 8.30pm, click here to catch up on demand
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.