Andy Nehl has worked across film, television and radio, and his wealth of knowledge and passion for exploring topical political and cultural issues makes him an unstoppable media force.
Nehl grew up in rural NSW and Queensland and lives in the bustling inner-western suburbs of Sydney. He is one of the producers behind The Chaser, Hungry Beast and Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure, and led the team that transitioned Triple J from a state-based radio network to a national one in the late 1980s and early 90s. He has also co-written and directed two documentaries, Media Rules and Buried Country. Nehl’s work has been nominated three times for an AFI Award and he won in 2006 for The Chaser’s War on Everything (Best Television Comedy Series, shared with Mark FitzGerald and Julian Morrow), and 2009 for Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure (Best Television Comedy Series, shared with Nathan Earl and Craig Melville).
Nehl is currently busy producing (and sometimes appearing onscreen as an extra!) in comedy news series The Hamster Wheel (Wednesdays, 9.05pm, ABC1). In this interview, he delves into his past to reveal some secrets of the trade and gives us some juicy insight into The Chaser’s APEC summit media stunt that stopped the nation in 2007. Nehl is a strong advocate for honesty and passion when working in collaboration, and believes that having a genuine curiosity and strong work ethic are pivotal to making it in the industry. With the recent development of highly sophisticated digital platforms and the ease and speed of downloadable content, Nehl is intrigued to see what the future holds for television and media consumption in general. He is unafraid of change, and is a recently self-confessed Twitter fiend.
Andy Nehl is one of our longstanding AFI and now AACTA members within the Producers chapter. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad. (You can check out our previous AACTA Member Profiles here.)
AFI | AACTA: Where were you born, and where do you live now?
Andy Nehl: I was born in St George, Queensland, about 500kms west of Brisbane, and now live in the inner-west suburbs of Sydney.
Is there a significant memory from your childhood that still resonates strongly with you today?
There’s a lot. As far as memories relating to film and television go, two television programs I saw as a kid in the sixties had a big and lasting impact on me. One was the Mavis Bramston Show on Channel 7, a satirical comedy program that had a lot of fun with topical issues in Australian society at the time. The other was the ABC’s ground breaking and sometimes irreverent current affairs program, This Day Tonight. Both those programs inspired me and opened my eyes to the importance of understanding and questioning what’s happening in the world, and the potential for humour to communicate ideas. I think they certainly contributed to me becoming a journalist and wanting to work on the one hand across current affairs and documentaries, and on the other hand, satirical comedies or entertainment programs.
You originally started working in radio. Why and how did you make the transition to Film and Television?
I started making Super 8 films when I was in year 8 in high school. At university, I made a few short 16mm films and also had a casual job as a camera operator/production assistant for the University of NSW’s audio-visual unit, so I was into film and TV well before I started working in radio. I also studied filmmaking at UTS. I made the transition into paid employment in television, because I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time – working as a current affairs journalist at Triple J when ABC TV was looking for reporters for a show called Beatbox in the mid-’80s.
You’ve worked extensively with ABC TV to produce a number of highly successful satirical series that examine the state of our cultural, economic and political landscape, including: CNNN, The Chaser Decides, The Chaser’s War On Everything, Yes We CANberra, Hungry Beast and The Hamster Wheel. Is it important for you in your work to have the opportunity to publicly explore, comment on and critique current socio-political ideas, issues and events?
Yes it is. I have always been focused on exploring social, cultural and political issues whether it’s via comedy TV shows, current affairs or serious documentaries. I have been fortunate to work on many of these kinds of programs over the years with great teams of people.
We vividly recall the day when the Chaser team fooled security at the 2007 APEC summit and drove straight through to the red zone in a fake motorcade, a stunt that drew 2.24 million viewers and became the most-watched comedy show ever to be screened on ABC TV. This could have been a publicity nightmare, but instead garnered the respect and attention of the nation. How did you go about managing this precarious but powerful piece of television?
The Chaser’s APEC stunt involved an incredibly large amount of planning to mitigate the potential risks involved. In a worst case scenario, we didn’t want any of team to get shot by an overly zealous sniper when Chas, dressed as Osama Bin Laden, stepped out of the motorcade. We had very serious briefings for everyone working on that stunt and we ensured that all the appropriate precautions were taken. The NSW Police expected that the Chaser team would try something during APEC and we confirmed with them that we probably would, without saying what, when or where, but stressing that whatever we did, we wouldn’t breach any laws. On the day, I had the direct number of the NSW Police Minister’s media adviser up on my mobile phone, ready to dial as soon as the stunt happened, to let police know that it was only the Chaser, and not a security threat. We originally expected to be stopped at the first Green Zone gate and as well as four small cameras with the motorcade, had another five cameras set up around the Green Zone gate. We were taken by surprise when the police waived us through and we rolled on past where a Red Zone gate had been the day before. We didn’t end up with a publicity nightmare thanks to the high level of planning involved and the professionalism and appropriate actions of all staff who watched as the stunt unfolded. The subsequent fallout, after people were arrested, was also well-managed by the Chaser Team and the ABC’s editorial executives, legal department and publicity department – everyone working together to explain the reality of what had actually happened.
What are the most important elements for you in creating thought-provoking but entertaining television?
Good creative ideas, good research, good writing, good cinematography, good sound, good editing, good planning and preparation, assembling a production team of the best people you can, being prepared to take risks, being dedicated to excellence and making the best possible program you can, a mountain of hard work, and having fun while you do it. Whatever the genre, whether it’s a comedy, satire, documentary, drama or current affairs – being aware of your audience and providing them with some truth or insight into what’s going on in the world or the nature of humanity.
Honesty cuts through and engages audiences, whether it’s honesty of talent in an interview or honesty in a performance.
What does a typical working day entail for you?
That varies depending on the day. Yesterday, a show record day for The Hamster Wheel involved the following: script read through; meetings with the Chaser team; viewing edits of segments; supervising the formatting of final scripts; the preparation of logs for over 70 video inserts; reading 80 emails and writing 10; making a lot of phone calls and posting a few tweets promoting the show; heading to wardrobe and make up and then on to the set for a quick shoot as an extra in a sketch; informing the graphics team and editors of any last minute changes; discussing legal and editorial issues with our ABC executive producer and lawyers; being in the studio control room for rehearsals and the recording of the show, live to tape – which happens three hours before it goes to air; spending the final couple of hours in an online edit suite as we do a quick trim of the show and get the finished program into a tape machine, five minutes before it’s broadcast. After that it’s sit down with a laptop to monitor the stream of Twitter comments about the show, for half an hour as it goes to air. One of the fun bonuses of working on shows like The Hamster Wheel is getting to play occasional cameo roles in sketches.
Can you describe the collaborative creative process?
The collaborative process has varied on different programs and documentaries I have worked on. With The Hamster Wheel as with other Chaser shows, the five Chaser members: Chris, Craig, Julian, Chas and Andrew are the key creative team who write and collectively refine the scripts for The Hamster Wheel. Those scripts draw on the work of a team of researchers and loggers who scour the media, finding appropriate material. When scripts are completed they go through a legal and editorial approval process with the ABC and then our crack production team swings into action, organising shoots, producing graphics and editing segments. Given it’s a topical weekly show, production is very fast-paced and we work flat out to get items finished on time. It’s a massive collaborative effort, with everyone involved contributing to the show.
The fact that you need to collaborate with large numbers of people to make films and television programs is what I love most about working in the industry.
It’s a joy to work on shows like The Hamster Wheel where the team functions like a well-oiled machine, all working together towards a common goal, where every one gives their all, inputting to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Over the last ten years, have you noticed a significant shift in the way that television is produced? How has the internet, and in particular the ease and prevalence of downloading content, impacted the viewership and the broadcasting of free-to-air television?
The main change in the way television is being produced over the past ten years is that (while there are exceptions) in general, production budgets have come down in ‘real terms’. The workload has increased and more corners need to be cut in order to produce programs within the budgets that are available from broadcasters.
…in general, production budgets have come down in ‘real terms’. The workload has increased and more corners need to be cut in order to produce programs within the budgets that are available from broadcasters.
The Internet and downloading have had a significant impact on free-to-air television audiences, as has the growth of FOXTEL and the new free-to-air digital channels. The result is that audiences for TV programs across all networks are down. But the Internet, mobile, social media and the multiplatform/multiscreen environment have also provided great new opportunities for engaging with audiences, evolving new forms of programming and promoting programs. The industry is in a state flux as we have entered the era of downloading and IPTV. Business models are changing and no one is sure where things will end up. Look at the current difficulties being experienced by Channel Nine and Network Ten. It is a challenging but very exciting time to be in television.
You also co-wrote and directed the documentary Buried Country (2000). What was the inspiration behind this project?
My friend Clinton Walker had been researching a book on the hidden history of Aboriginal country music for a few years and I came on board to help turn it into a doco. The inspiration was the music. Australia has had decades of great country music performed by talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists for over 70 years. While the Indigenous community was always aware of this, the majority of the non-Indigenous Australian population was not. Buried Country was a great opportunity to document and bring to the world’s attention this significant part of Australia’s musical heritage. I had been a fan of Aboriginal musicians such as Jimmy Little, Roger Knox, the Warumpi Band and Archie Roach for many years so I was keen to become involved when Clinton asked me.
How did this experience differ to working in television? Was this project more a labour of love?
Making a long-form documentary is obviously different to producing a weekly turnaround TV program full of short segments. The productions schedule is very different with longer blocks of pre-production, shooting and post-production. The team is much smaller, and the long-form narrative structure requires a different approach. But the need for planning and the creative collaboration of the whole team is the same. Is any documentary not a labour of love? Buried Country was funded by Film Australia and SBS Independent with a reasonable budget, considering the travel and music and archive licensing involved, but it still didn’t cover the vast majority of development or research involved, which both Clinton and I were happy to undertake due to our love of the music.
What are some of the ways that you have refined your skills and changed your working methods over the course of your career?
I have continually developed and refined my skills throughout my career and have learnt from different people I have worked with. The arrival of digital, multiplatform technologies and social media has changed the way I work and changed they way we all work. When I first worked for ABC TV in the mid-1980s social media like Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. They weren’t even a twinkle in some programmer’s eye. These days I’m on Twitter every day. Twitter has been my main source of news since I joined it four years ago. It is a great tool for researching ideas, marketing your programs and interacting with your audience.
What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced during your career? And what have been the highlights?
The biggest hurdle in my career was probably turning Triple J from a Sydney station into a national radio network when I was manager of it in the late ’80s and early ’90s. A very tough job, but also a career highlight, as Triple J successfully launched in capital cities around Australia. Career highlights in film and TV would be the docos Buried Country and Media Rules, and working on TV shows that pushed the boundaries such Beatbox, Blah Blah Blah, Hungry Beast, Lawrence Leung and The Chaser shows of the last decade.
Over the years you’ve been nominated three times and twice won an AFI Award for your work on Hungry Beast, The Chaser’s War on Everything and Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure. You also won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Hawaiian International Film Festival for Buried Country. How does it feel to receive such widespread recognition for your craft?
It’s great to receive recognition for your work, but as always that recognition really belongs to the whole team, because the success of those programs is due to the creative input and collaboration of everyone involved.
Can you name three mentors or people who have inspired and nurtured your creativity over the years?
Yes: Mark FitzGerald, producer and director at ABC TV over many years; Marius Webb, one of the founders of Triple J radio; and Stephen Stockwell, Professor with the School of Humanities, Griffith University.
What advice would you give upcoming television and filmmakers wanting to break into the industry?
Do whatever you can to develop your skills. Do short film courses, uni media courses, research and write scripts, volunteer on other people’s films and community TV programs, undertake work experience attachments on productions that interest you, attend industry events and watch lots of film and TV. Cheap video cameras and editing software means it’s easy to get together with friends and make short films. The more you do this, the more you will develop your screen story telling skills.
Be determined and persistent, and be a decent human being – the film and TV industry in Australia is very small, and no one wants to work with prima donnas.
The more practical experience you have, the more employable you will be. Be prepared to give a 110% and willingly work long hours with good humour.
What is your all-time favourite Australian film or television series? Why?
This is the hardest of the all these questions to answer because there are just way too many Australian films and TV series that I really like. Being forced to choose one, I’ll pick my favourite Australian movie of this year, which is The Sapphires. Why? It is a great uplifting story, with great performances, great music, great editing, great directing, and such beautiful and stunning cinematography from Warwick Thornton. And on top of all that, it has exposed the general public to a positive and inspiring story about the contribution of Aboriginal peoples to Australian culture. The Sapphires is a triumph for Goalpost Pictures and all the team who made it.
The Hamster Wheel is currently screening on Wednesdays, ABC1 at 9.05pm.
To read other AACTA Member Profiles, click here.
By Lia McCrae-Moore & Rochelle Siemienowicz