Sixteen years ago, a group of relatively unknown, mostly theatre actors – plus perennial favourite Claudia Karvan – began filming a show that would go on to set the benchmark for Australian TV drama.
Love My Way, Foxtel’s commissioned scripted drama, was a game changer, introducing Australian subscription TV viewers to the HBO Six Feet Under model. The network urged the show’s creators to push the envelope; to take things further, and the result was something really quite extraordinary.
Created by John Edwards, Karvan and Jacquelin Perske, Love My Way tells the story of a fractured group of thirtysomethings, all part of a messy but loving blended family held together by eight-year-old Lou, a character who would sensationally be killed off in that first series.
With the show now screening on 7Plus and 10Play, a whole new audience is about to discover Frankie, Julia, Charlie and Tom’s messy world – and be devastated all over again by Lou’s death.
So settle in with a glass of red – and a box of tissues – as we chat to the creators, writers and stars about this formative series, and ask the question: will any Aussie drama ever come close to being as good?
John Edwards (creator and producer): It all goes back to The Secret Life of Us. Channel Ten gave us a development deal [after series two] and we began developing it sort of as a Secret Life of Us: Next Generation-type thing, with thirtysomethings rather than twentysomethings. Claudia was going to be leaving Secret Life, so we decided to do it together.
Claudia Karvan (creator, producer and role of Frankie): The Secret Life of Us was very much about your 20s, and I had just become a mother, so I was feeling a little bit disconnected from the material. I wanted to move on and do something that focused on your 30s. In my own life, at the time, I was dealing with the legacy of past relationships, so step-children, ex partners – I wanted to explore that.
Edwards: There were a bunch of other influences, but one of them was a Good Weekend article, on “Happy Divorce”. That was one of the early things that inspired us.
Karvan: I brought the idea of “the legacy of past relationships” to John and Jac [co-creator Jacquelin Perske] and we developed it together. John came up with the most extraordinary group of writers you could ever imagine – Tony McNamara is now a BAFTA winner/Oscar nominee, Brendan Cowell, Fiona Seres. We had this team of guns; just really extraordinary people, brave writers, smart writers, all at the beginning of their careers. I guess that was partly luck, and also John’s extraordinary ability to put a team together and to recognise talent.
The writers’ room
Brendan Cowell (writer and role of Tom): I think I was 26, and Claudia and John saw me in a production of The Shape of Things for Sydney Theatre Company. I had a meeting about The Secret Life of Us, which didn’t work out, and then John read a little bit of stuff of mine through my acting agent and gave me a call and went, “You know, we need a bit of a young male voice in this story room, do you want to come in?”
Edwards: We put together a writers’ room that was quite inexperienced in many ways – they only really had a few hours [of TV experience between them], with Jacquelin leading them.
Cowell: I ended up kind of becoming a spokesman for Tom and Charlie [Dan Wyllie], the brothers; really pushing the masculinity and the sibling rivalry and the fact they loved and hated each other at once; trying to really get that to the forefront. Because I thought that the men in The Secret Life of Us were a little bit metrosexual; kind of like a fantasy of a male – they were doctors and the worst thing they ever did was masturbate! So I thought, “I want to have a couple of flawed males at the forefront of this show.”
Edwards: We were really confident and very pleased with the work we had done – and then Channel Ten passed. We all got a bit upset and called people rude names and things like that, and got banned for life from Channel Ten – again!
Cowell: Ten commissioned six episodes, and then for reasons I don’t really bother myself with, it didn’t happen. So we were nowhere with these great six episodes.
Edwards: That was 2003. Claudia and I went to see Brian Walsh [Foxtel executive director of television], and said, “Brian, we’ve got this show which we think is really hot. We can have it ready for you at Christmas time when the free-to-airs aren’t on air. We can have Claudia on the cover of every magazine and it will be Secret Life of Us: Next Gen”.
My greatest fear at the time was that we were making a navel-gazing arty show for the middle class. But I kept saying, ‘Oh well … we’re just putting our honest, bare lives on the page.’
Cowell: [Originally] it was probably a continuation of Secret Life of Us; it was bedrooms, hallways, sex, love, failure, hopes, dreams. And then Foxtel grabbed it. It was around the time that Six Feet Under had exploded onto the HBO platform and cable TV. It was the beginning of, “Oh, TV can be good!” Then [Foxtel’s head of drama] Kim Vecera and Brian Walsh were kind of like, “What about if you went Six Feet Under with it, and we made a cable TV, HBO-style show?” And they said, “Why don’t we drop a bomb on the show to make it more than just red wine and tears?”
Why don’t we drop a bomb on it?
Brian Walsh (Foxtel, Executive Director of Television): If I am being frank, at that stage, producers were coming to Foxtel with drama pitches that had been rejected by commercial free-to-air networks – we were the last cab on the rank. We felt we were not getting introduced to ideas that were unique, fresh, provocative, and that pushed the envelope. We wanted them to come back to us with something … that took its inspiration from the storytelling that had been developed by the likes of HBO, and mould something for Australian audiences that they hadn’t seen before on television.
Karvan: One of the beauties of Love My Way is that we developed it for so long with Channel Ten, so we had a whole lot of percolating time before Foxtel very bravely picked us up. We were Foxtel’s big drama commission. So in terms of the DNA of the show, that was a massive game-changer, because we didn’t have to make a show and include their stable of actors, for instance. They didn’t have a drama “brand” that we needed to make a nod to. To be honest, my greatest fear at the time was that we were making a navel-gazing arty show for the middle class. But I kept saying, “Oh well, that’s the instinct – we’re just putting our honest, bare lives on the page, and we are all bringing our secrets into the room and using them for material.” We all really loved each other and got along very well. It was a very intimate group of writers; we all respected each other. Those sorts of dynamics don’t come along every day.
Edwards: Jacquelin Perske came into the story room one day and said, “What if the whole reason for this group of people, this extended family all broken up and twisted around, what if the whole reason for them being together was gone? What if we killed Lou?” And we all went, “Oh Jesus, no. F—.”
Walsh: I remember vividly the debates we had about the storylines, and particularly the character of Lou, and how we would deal with that tragedy. It was pretty ground-breaking for us to do what we did with that character. But we really wanted to rattle the cage. We wanted people to stand up and take note of the sort of drama that Foxtel was capable of commissioning.
Cowell: I have got a terrible memory, but I remember being in the writer’s room when we decided to do it. That’s my most cemented memory – of all of us looking to each other, and it was like we were going to climb Everest or something. It was like, “Are we going to jump out of this plane?” It became about us making a show about grief.
Dan Wyllie (the role of Charlie): Lou’s death was the linchpin of the series. It was, “What do you think would be the worst thing that could happen?”
Everyone was traumatised when writing it, calling their preschools to make sure their kid was OK. It was really brutal.
Karvan: One of our catch-phrases in the room when we’d be pitching ideas, or plotting a little scenario or run of events, was, “Nope, that’s too TV.”
Cowell: The fact that it shook the foundations of the writers to such a degree kind of cemented that we had to do it. You had this group of adults, all deeply immature and flawed, with all these tangled relationships, and they were all being adults because there was a kid there. The only reason they were being jovial and not kind of exploding was because they cared about Lou. And then we thought, “What happens if we take her out? What is this family dynamic?” Everyone was traumatised when writing it, calling their preschools to make sure their kid was OK. It was really brutal. But suddenly we were really making something quite special and layered, and we knew we had the characters and set-up to go there – and we went there.
Edwards: I felt very uneasy about it. I had killed a couple of [characters] before, and I always thought it was a phony way of getting drama; I’ve felt it since – I felt bad about killing Patrick in Offspring.
Karvan: I don’t think any commissioner in Australia would let us do something like that, but [Kim] just didn’t bat an eyelid and said, “Yep, let’s run with it.” So we were given this incredible commission from Kim, where she kept saying, “Push the envelope, push the envelope, go further, go further.” No commissioners say that to you! It’s very expensive to make television, so much of it is playing it safe and second-guessing your audience – we didn’t have to.
Walsh: It absolutely reset people’s perceptions of Foxtel drama and signalled a dramatic shift in the commissioning process at Foxtel. We were no longer the last cab on the rank …
Edwards: So we went ahead and did it and planned around it. The central question of the show when we started was, “Can love survive divorce?” Then it became, “Can love survive grief and tragedy?” It grew and morphed.
Alex Cook (the role of Lou): To be honest, I think I didn’t really have to [think too much about the tragedy when filming.] I think it was mainly exciting for me – I was eight years old! I don’t think I could really have grasped it. But I think my parents, especially, had to really brace themselves. They got the whole series and were asked, “Are you going to be OK with this?” And they were like, “We will be fine.” But I was blissfully ignorant of who I was working with, and what was going to happen [to my character]. And I just had a whole bunch of fun! After it aired, though, my mum actually took me to Centennial Park [where the character of Lou suffers a massive heart attack and dies] and made me run around to erase the memories! She was like, “OK, we’re good. You’re alive and you’re fine.”
A cast of unknowns
Asher Keddie (the role of Julia): I wasn’t aware of the show in development at that stage in my life – I was in a very different place to Claudia. I was asked to audition and given a couple of scenes to do, and they were fantastic scenes. One was the quite well-remembered Ikea scene with Charlie, where I’m screaming about needing storage! At that point, I had been working really heavily in the theatre. It was the first lead role that I’d been asked to audition for, as opposed to guest roles. I remember feeling excited that it was John and Claudia because of Secret Life. I had done a guest role on [that] and had had such a wonderful time.
Edwards: Asher had done a fantastic bit in Secret Life. Nobody knew who she was then, but she tested and she was streets ahead.
Cowell: I’d been writing a lot for Tom and at the end John said, “You’re going to have to end up bloody auditioning for the role! I can’t just give it to you.” He said, “We’re not going to tell them you’re one of the writers, you’re going to have to win the part yourself.” And somehow I did.
Edwards: Brendan tested for that role and the network were really happy with him straight away. So we had Brendan, Claudia and a lot of people forget this but we had Sam Worthington too in that first series. We went to Sam for the role (Worthington played Frankie’s love interest, Harold, in season one) because we needed a bit of a name. And Dan Wyllie – we had always wanted him. In fact, we had wanted him for Secret Life but he was unavailable as he was doing theatre.
Karvan: I knew I wanted Love My Way to be Sydney-based. The other massive parameter was that I didn’t like working in a studio – Secret Life of Us was a studio. I said to John, “We have to do everything on location. We need that little bit of sunshine that comes randomly through a window,” or “We need wind to blow a tree branch out the window.” Just that sort of veracity that being on location gives; it gives it a different quality and inspires spontaneity and mistakes. And great things come from mistakes.
I’m not really sure I understood the impact that developing a character like Julia would have. It really was a precursor for what was to come for me.
Edwards: The design was Colin Gibson, who subsequently won an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road. The house – that house was a nightmare to shoot in, because it was so tiny. But we had seen that house, and it was Claud’s idea to use it. I knew about it – I used to play football on the ground underneath it. Got two tries under those goalposts there!
Cowell: We got to make the show we wanted to make. It’s as simple as that. Then cast the best actors in the country, not just pluck them from the Logies foyer. It was alchemy. Who would have known Asher Keddie would have gone on and had that career? She turned up and goes, “Why am I in this TV show? I’m doing theatre in church halls in Melbourne!” Even the older actors who were in the series were like, “Why have they chosen us?” But Claudia and John chose their favourites. The scripts started coming in, and they were all brilliant.
Karvan: Often in serial television you have the guestie who comes in, but we avoided that like the plague. If you compromise on the quality of that performance, you compromise the whole episode. One moment of dodgy acting and you drop the ball.
Keddie: With retrospect, I’m not really sure I understood the impact that developing a character like Julia would have. I just feel so grateful that at that time in my early career I was offered the opportunity to be challenged by putting a character like her on the screen. It really was a precursor for what was to come for me, and what I would be attracted to in the future.
Wyllie: Everyone was saying that Charlie was a bit of a jerk, and he was looking out for himself and being a bit selfish, but I completely got the guy. He just wanted to have a surf! Which gets harder and harder to do! We were allowed to tinker, and make things our own with the directors, and on set. It was a different level of engagement. Asher had a theatre background, so we were pretty sympatico from the get-go.
I really do believe it’s one of the great offerings of Australian TV history. It’s funny how it kind of remains under the radar in a lot of ways.
Keddie: I hadn’t met Dan or worked with him, but it was an easy and robust connection. So what you see is really the dynamic that was there between us, and between Julia and Charlie together. We loved that they grated on each other, but that they adored each other as well. The four of us – Dan, Claudia, myself and Brendan – really didn’t know how it was going to be received. Clearly now we know it was quite a ground-breaking TV drama. We didn’t know whether the rawness of it and the boldness of it was going to be something people could absorb, or want to absorb. It turns out they did, and that they still are.
Cook: I watched it recently [as an adult] and I cried! … It’s just this very honest observation of families and how they interact. It’s not aspirational in a way that lots of other TV is, but you don’t hate the characters either. They are very human.
Cowell: I basically got half of Hollywood to see [Love My Way] from me sending 10 DVDs over [to the States]! My agent was basically dealing Love My Way DVDs! And that’s how people saw it, family and friends – people got through winters with those DVDs in London. Because it still doesn’t have the life we all thought it should. And there’s something great about that because it’s become this cult hit. But you know, I really do believe it’s one of the great offerings of Australian TV history. It’s funny how it kind of remains under the radar in a lot of ways.
Settling on a name
Karvan: The opening credits – I’ll never forget that meeting. It was a brainstorming session and we came very quickly to the idea that blood was connecting them all; that we would use water to symbolise that blood connection. It was actually [co-writer] Lou Fox, I am pretty certain, who came up with the [Psychedelic Furs’] Love My Way tune as a suggestion.
Cowell: At that point in my life I was young, so I was like, “Oh, who’s this old person’s band?” We had a lot of different titles, such as “This is It”, or maybe “Is This It?”– that was one. Then we were worried people would say, “This is Shit…”
Karvan: We always wanted to call the show “Is This It?” This was the name of the Strokes’ album at the time – that was given a big thumbs down.
Walsh: I felt a title like, ‘Is This It?” would be viewed cynically by the press. I imagined some of the barbs we might expect to get: “Really, Foxtel? Is this it?” I really wanted a show that had “Love” in the title. I felt it was more attractive, and more embracing, and had more heart than a title like “Is This It?” which seemed to be a negative. I wanted to turn it into something that was a positive, because through the storyline of Love My Way, there is hope; there is the promise that life can get better. That was one of the themes I wanted to explore.
Karvan: Then it all came together – it was magic. It was like there was someone above it all; like there was a plan. It was amazing.
Ben [Mendelsohn] would call me all the time from Sunset Boulevard, and say, ‘Hey Claud, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t given me a second chance.’
Enter Ben Mendelsohn
Edwards: We lost the house [it was sold for redevelopment] after season two. [Season three, the final season] was a bit different, but it took its own form. And of course we had Ben Mendelsohn. We were reinventing, and we went for Ben. And Ben, frankly, at the time, needed the gig. And he was terrific.
Karvan: Oh look, I still get calls [from him]. Ben would call me all the time from Sunset Boulevard, and say, “Hey Claud, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t given me a second chance.” He always goes, “Your little show, it saved my life, your little show.” Because he’d hit a certain point … but I had worked with him since I was 16. And he is just a master. And we wrote that role for him. We couldn’t believe it when he took it. I think we were criticised a bit [for the ending] because it was a whole lot of heterosexual characters sitting around a garden, and it was a bit conventional for some people’s tastes. It’s funny, you only remember the criticisms …
Keddie: I personally loved it [the series ends with the extended family sitting together. Ben’s character, Lewis, tells Frankie of a dream he’s had of Lou]. The “Lou filter” was in full force – I think it was a great choice. The impact of her death was so huge for all of them, and it redirected their lives. I thought it was very poignant, and not necessarily tied up with a bow. I thought it still had a sadness to it and a loss to it, but at the same time, hope. And that’s all we can hope for in situations like that – to feel some hope about continuing to live, which was so relevant to Claudia’s character, Frankie.
Love My Way: The Sequel?
Karvan: Would I reprise the role of Frankie? Yeah. Of course. I am open to anything; I am very open-minded. I don’t see why not.
Keddie: When things come to an end in drama, I’m usually ready to walk away and keep walking. But Love My Way, it would be incredibly difficult to resist jumping back in all these years later. I think it would be a very interesting thing to do. We have all moved on with different things. It was such a long time ago but, because the drama was so beautifully written and crafted, it would be irresistible probably.
Wyllie: Claudia is still wearing the same cardigans! And the same boots! Luckily I don’t have the same hair! I guess it would have to be set in an old person’s home; about everyone having hip operations! But look, [doing Love My Way] was a unique process that was thoroughly engaging and enjoyable and satisfying and unique. I would go back and do that again in a heartbeat.
Walsh: Would I ever go back there again? Yeah, absolutely. I think that Love My Way still resonates with so many people. Those actors, of course, have all moved on in their careers to global success. I think “life stages” is really interesting territory for us. If the idea was right, and it was an authentic approach, we would absolutely want to do it. But it has to be authentic. We wouldn’t do a remake, we wouldn’t do a reboot. It would have to be an evolution of the story.
Cowell: It was a moment in time, Love My Way. Will there be something that comes close? Well, I am still writing. Tony [McNamara] is still writing. Fiona [Seres] is still writing and John is still making television – I guess we all must think that we can make something as special.
Edwards: Secret Life really moved the needle in a lot of ways. And Love My Way, [Lou’s death] is the influential thing that everyone seems to remember. It was devastating. Then we did Tangle, which [was about] fortysomethings. It wasn’t an intentional trilogy – we just went from one to the next.
Keddie: I am always hoping for drama that is as engaging and as challenging as Love My Way was to make and to watch. I feel like I have been lucky enough that those kinds of projects have come my way and always have had a left-of-centre feel, and a point of difference.
Walsh: We kept [the show] within the Foxtel walled garden for a considerable number of years, and we eventually released it two years ago. I felt that we had, frankly, got a lot of use out of the property. And secondly, by licensing to the free-to-air universe, there was a chance that more eyeballs could see the show. So in a way, if John and Claudia were to come back with a follow-up to Love My Way, having it exposed on a free platform is a great marketing plus for us.
Karvan: The thing is, the gatekeepers are changing. Because of the access to YouTube, things are becoming more do it yourself; fresh, less sort of “story by committee”, or invested stakeholders, that sort of thing. So I have great confidence [we’ll have another show as good as Love My Way] because the landscape has been levelled and it’s a lot more democratic. I think it’s such an exciting time for storytelling.
Love My Way is now streaming on 7Plus and 10Play.