A two-hander starring Mulholland as philanderer Joe and Christie Whelan Browne as single mum Ally (with support from Butler’s daughter Lyra as Ally’s child), Loving Captivity plays out through phone chats, text messages and Zoom calls as the pair use their time in isolation to probe why their brief fling never went any further. It’s honest, funny, and just as much a product of our time as a depiction of it.
It began as a series of text messages as its creators poured their hearts out while Australia went into shutdown in mid-March. “For three hours a day for a week we texted,” says Butler, a writer on Neighbours and script producer on the five-part spin-off Erinsborough High. “We found it easier to be vulnerable with each other because we didn’t have to look each other in the eye.”
Theirs was a crash-course in (platonic) intimacy. They had only seen each other three times before shutdown, having met late last year at a speed-dating session put on by the Australian Writers’ Guild with the aim of pairing writers and directors. They bonded over a shared love of romantic comedies.
It wasn’t so much a meet-cute as a write-cute. “I think the reason we were meant to meet was to make this show,” Butler says. By April, they had a script. By mid-May, with Australia beginning to open up again, and with a $4000 City of Melbourne COVID arts grant in their pockets, they were ready to shoot.
Moving quickly is one of the hallmarks of this flowering of COVID creativity, says Lee Naimo, online investment manager at Screen Australia, which has backed all four shows (its investment in Loving Captivity came after the show had been shot).
“These shows are nimbler, quicker, at the cheaper end of the scale,” he says. “It still has to be a good story, it has to be well-written – but the whole thing also has to happen a bit quicker than normal.”
Part of that is because simply making something has its own value with so much of the industry not working. “At Home Alone Together came about because the whole comedy industry was shut down,” says Naimo. “These productions inspire people to think, ‘OK we can keep going’. We’ve got to keep people employed.”
In the case of Cancelled, Luke Eve and Maria Albinana went from idea to shooting the script in just two weeks after their planned wedding in Valencia was called off because of COVID-19. “It started off as a joke,” says Eve from the Spanish city, where the pair remain despite the easing of restrictions, because returning to Australia is problematic. “A day later, I thought, ‘actually there might be something in this’.”
Surprisingly, Screen Australia has not been inundated with proposals for COVID-themed projects. Naimo says there are a couple more in production, and a couple were turned down, but if and when normal transmission resumes, viewers are not going to be overwhelmed by reminders of what they’ve just been through.
That said, he adds, the fact there will be some reminders is no bad thing.
“Because so much has happened in such a short time, you do tend to forget,” he says, pointing to Retrograde‘s depiction of panic buying of flour (and, of course, toilet rolls) in the early days of shutdown as prime examples.
“They’re neat little time capsules.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.