Fed up with the way people with disability are portrayed in film and television, writer/actors Angus Thompson and Nina Oyama took matters into their own hands, creating a raucous tale of sports, country living and horse steroids for the ABC. Anotherfilmnerd caught up with them to learn more about ‘The Angus Project'.
Much like the pilot it inspired, the story of how writing/acting duo Angus Thompson and Nina Oyama met as university students is pretty far from typical.
"I was in my third year of Public Relations and was close friends with many Theatre Media students when Nina started the course," Thompson, who has cerebral palsy, recalled.
"I was at a party in town when out of nowhere I hear ‘Shut up Angus'. I turned, and it was this first-year girl I'd never met before, I replied "righto" and carried on with my night."
The girl, as it turns out, was Oyama.
"In hindsight... telling someone with a disability to shut up isn't exactly a great way to start a friendship," Oyama said.
"My next door neighbour was Angus' carer, and she had a house party, and that's where I first met Angus. I saw him smoking and drinking, and initially, I was pretty shocked like, ‘How could his carer let him smoke and drink?' I turned to my friend Kelly, and she was like ‘oh that's just Angus, just tell him to shut up'. Later, when I was super drunk, I just went up to him, and I was like ‘Hey Angus - shut up!'"
With the benefit of hindsight, Oyama concedes she may have taken her friend's advice just a little too literally.
"I think Kelly just meant that I shouldn't be coddling Angus... like ‘he's here to smoke and drink, and party and you can hang shit on him like you would any other stranger at a party," she said.
Despite what Thompson calls the "rude introduction", the two became friends, bonding over a mutual love of tv shows like ‘It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' and ‘Broad City'.
"Through this, we noticed there was very little representation of people with physical disabilities in the shows we watched, and the representation that was there were minor one-note characters," Thompson said.
"Disabled actors rarely get to play disabled characters - able-bodied actors always play them - we hate that," Oyama said.
"And there's like this ‘Tiny Tim' complex surrounding disability portrayals on screen - it's always the same stories. Here's a person with a disability, they don't fit anywhere, but now they've found a place to belong' or ‘here's a person with a disability they have a dream which is ridiculous but now they have achieved their dream even though they're disabled!' 'The Greatest Showman' is full of this trope, so is ‘The Fundamentals of Caring'."
The solution? Take matters into their own hands.
"There's not a lot of roles being written for people with physical disabilities, especially not lead roles," Thompson said.
"Nina and I thought we do some pretty weird and interesting things, let's write something and film it."
The opportunity emerged through the ABC's Fresh Blood initiative - a program that gives young comedy writers, directors and performers the chance to develop their pilot and, potentially, get commissioned for series. Oyama - who was acting in two other Fresh Blood pitches - decided at the last minute that the initiative would be an excellent opportunity to bring ‘The Angus Project' to life.
"The day before the Fresh Blood deadline was due, I realised I had all these videos of me and Angus behaving badly together. With the help of an editor friend, we cut them into an upbeat comedy trailer, I knocked up a pitch document and then we just submitted."
The result - three webisodes which Oyama says are 100% fact. From there, Oyama and Thompson had the chance to develop a half-hour pilot through Fresh Blood. Oyama, a self-confessed control freak, took the reins directing.
"I had a few experiences with other things that I'd written where I handed scripts off and then was unhappy with the finished product," she said.
"I saw ‘The Angus Project' in a very specific way, and I was adamant that I wanted my specific vision to be realised."
She was not prepared for the challenges of simultaneously acting and directing. Oyama says she was fortunate to have support in the form of AACTA and AFI Award-winning comedy director Craig Anderson (director of the first season of ‘Black Comedy') and legendary writer/director/actor Rob Sitch (who had directed, written for and starred alongside Oyama in Working Dog's political satire ‘Utopia'). She said Sitch (who also plays the hapless news editor for the Bathurst Gazette - Angus' kinda-sorta boss in ‘The Angus Project') had taught her some important lessons about directing comedy for the small screen.
"He taught me that if you hire funny people to work with, they know how to feel out a scene and find the funny," she said.
"Stacking the cast with people like Rob Sitch, Veronica Milsom and Sammy J really helped me, and they did a great job."
In the pilot, Angus is an aspiring sports writer for the Bathurst Gazette, supported by his often drunk or stoned carer Nina. A twist of fate gives Angus the opportunity to land his first front-page story when celebrity Paralympian Wizza (Adam Bowes) comes to Bathurst to deliver a motivational seminar. The catch? Wizza will only interview if Angus manages can hook him up with horse steroids.
The good news - Angus and Nina know a guy, their regular supplier Kane (Sammy J). The bad news - Kane doesn't have any horse adrenaline on hand. The news that's either good or bad - depending on how you look at it? Kane knows how to get it. The worse news - it's by going directly to the source.
"It's an inherently progressive show… but in our minds it's just a dumb comedy which we wanted to make as funny as possible," she said.
"Angus and I loved making ‘The Angus Project' because we created this world where nobody questions Angus' place in it. Hit fits in everywhere, and nobody gives a shit that he's got cerebral palsy. The other guy in a wheelchair literally sends him to find drugs, and an able-bodied meth dealer makes him inject a horse with a needle. Ironically, the only person who treats him differently is the woman who runs the disability organisation."
The character of Wizza - the other character in the pilot to have a disability - was a very deliberate creative choice from Oyama and Thompson.
"We wrote the character of Wizza secretly hoping Dylan Alcott would play him. He was super busy winning the Tennis Open, writing a book and being on TV though," Oyama said.
"The reason we created the character was to show that people with disabilities could be insufferable dickheads - and that's fine. Wizza's someone able-bodied people look up to for inspiration, he's sporty, he's hot He gets the girls, and he's got a huge ego. We saw Adam Bowes play this sleazebag in ‘Jeremy the Dud' and he was great, so we asked if he'd be able to reprise a similar character for ‘The Angus Project'. He's an incredible actor, and nothing like Wizza!"
If it gets picked up, Thompson and Oyama reckon they can bring plenty of life and longevity to the characters of Angus and Nina.
"Nina and I have a backlog of stories we can take inspiration from," Thompson said.
"Bathurst is well known to most outsiders for the Bathurst 1000 V8s, and we want to show that this town has so many more quirks and fascinating, talented people than the public are aware of. We also have an idea for how Angus and Nina would cope when the town is swamped by V8 supporters on race weekend."
And to anyone who thinks ‘The Angus Project' is catering to the social justice crowd, Nina Oyama has a blunt message.
"Anyone who hates diversity can go suck an egg," she said.
"I mean, watch our show first… then go get an egg and suck on it."
The Angus Project is now on ABC iView and airs at 9.30pm on Tuesday, December 4.
Anotherfilmnerd's earliest cinematic memory was seeing Don Johnson throw up all over a suspect in John Frankenheimer's 'Dead Bang'. Ever since, he's devoted his life to searching out cinema that's weird, wonderful and features vomit in the most unlikely of places.