Here's how three Australians made a TV show for nothing and sold it to Netflix
Four years ago, the three us—Nick, Parv, and me (Gonzo)—loaded into a barely roadworthy Toyota Corolla and set off across the US. We wanted to make a documentary series that took us deep into the country's bizarre subcultures. Just like Louis Theroux without the British charm. For six months, we slept in tents on the side of highways and survived off some of the country's finest $1 fast food menus.
This isn't how television is supposed to be made, let alone a show that gets picked up first by a national broadcaster and then the world's premiere streaming service, Netflix. But back when production began on the first series of Unplanned America, we were naïve enough to think everything would just fall into place. There's a "right" way to make a TV show, and then there's our way: With the budget of literally five minutes of House of Cards, you can travel across an entire country and shoot three whole seasons.
Unplanned America was born over happy hour beers, when we decided, on a whim, to fund a six-month shoot in the States with our own money. We'd worked together in TV for years and were tired of making "content" to satisfy a brand's mission statement or to fit a fickle trend. As good fortune would have it, I was made redundant a matter of days after our beer-fueled production meeting, giving me the money and the kick in the ass I needed to head overseas and start filming.
Filming what exactly, we didn't know. We were just confident we could make something better than what we'd been churning out. The boys raised their share of the budget by camping in friends' backyards to save on rent and maxing out our credit cards. We didn't own a camera, had no interviews lined up, or any on-air experience. We didn't have a plan A, let alone a plan B.
On the road in the US, we were the entire crew. Usually, the people on camera aren't the same as the people behind it. You'd stay in nice hotels, and have at least $100 each for food every day to keep healthy working 16-hour shoots. Not for us. Forget about the comfort of separate rooms, we slept in shared tents, on couches, and on floors. Splurging meant a night in a joint called something like "Banana Bungalow"—an exotic description for a hostel filled with drunk Aussie travelers. To be fair, we were pretty trashed most of the time too.
After the shoot wrapped, the three of us headed back to Australia to cut it all together. Instead of a post-production team, we had a dilapidated desk in the corner of a friend's office and a dying old MacBook. Voiceovers for the pilot episode were recorded in the cleaner's storeroom. All we could pay our sound mixer was a bottle of stolen scotch (from one of our parents, so it's not illegal).
If Australia's SBS2 had ever seen our "editing facilities," I doubt it would've picked up the pilot. In fact, it actually rejected us when we first approached. Apparently the show wasn't the "right fit." It was last minute desperation, after six months of shopping to show around with no luck, that pushed us to ask again. Luckily, SBS had since found their audience wanted more "road-trip adventure shows and cultural documentaries." Fucking bingo. Right time, right place.
The money wasn't huge. It was just enough to buy a few decent computers and edit the rest of the first series. In March 2014, two and a half years since the show was conceived over beers, Unplanned America first hit the airwaves. It felt pretty satisfying when the credits rolled for that first episode. Much to our surprise it was a little bit of a hit. SBS2 quickly green-lit not one, but two more seasons. We filmed the next season with the luxury of being able to afford a camera guy. But a daily food allowance was still nowhere near $100.
Back home and deep in the edit for season two, we got the news that the show had been picked up internationally by Netflix. It had seen the first season and bought the rights for that season along with season two and three, sight unseen. Even though SBS International absorbed most of the money as part of their distribution deal, we were still over the moon. We'd just spent months on a road trip filled with strange moments and encounters, but this moment was particularly surreal. Our little DIY show was suddenly going to be streamed by people all around the world.
So here's where selling three seasons of a TV show gets you: I've upgraded from living with my folks to a room above a sketchy bar. Parv went from camping in people's backyards to living in a van. Nick moved from the couch at his mate's house to a couch in our very own office. Although our stupid heads are being beamed into lounge rooms across the globe, we still have to share footlong subs for lunch. Hopefully, the money that's supposed to come with success isn't too far away (give us that sweet House of Cards cash, Netflix!). Money was never why we made the show, though. We needed a change from the status quo. We got that and so much more.
Our show is still very much DIY. The voiceover booth is still in the storeroom, our office is still made up of furniture we found by the side of the road. Unplanned America wouldn't exist without mates rates and the three of us doing the job of about eight people at every stage. Reflecting now, I'm actually shocked that we didn't give up. The only thing that kept us going was the hope other people would be as sick of watching all-singing, all-dancing cooking construction shows as we were of making them. Unplanned America was all we had. It was the fail safe strategy of putting all your eggs in one basket.
Unplanned America is available to stream on Netflix.