Why I Adore… Heartbreak High

By Niki Aken

When I was in primary school, the school prefect told me that all the boys had ranked the attractiveness of the Year Six girls. My best friend and I had tied first. I wasn’t flattered, but it’s not because I took issue with being objectified (at that age). I simply didn’t believe what he was telling me. And why was that?

I may have been a studious, athletic House Captain, but in so many ways I felt inferior growing up Asian in Australia. The screen stories I devoured as a kid all featured white faces. Not Asian faces like mine. Television, film (and later, magazines) taught me that blonde and brunette girls with fair skin were beautiful. The romantic leads on TV didn’t fight over a raven-haired girl with olive skin. It was never the ethnic character who went on an inspiring journey; they were only ever cast in the support role– as the sidekick or the prop. Such was the power of having only ever seen guys fall for quintessentially Australian-looking girls, that I was 100 per cent sure the school prefect was using his hot-or-not survey to mess with me.

Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature.

Then along came a television program that included multicultural faces in lead roles: Heartbreak High. Is it corny that I credit a TV show for making me feel more visible and accepted? Maybe, but it’s also testament to the power of the television medium and the quality of Heartbreak High as a text.

The season 1 cast in front of Hartley High.

Heartbreak High is a teenage drama set in a multiracial, eastern Sydney community that spanned six seasons from 1994 to 1999. Produced by Gannon Television, it was first broadcast on Network Ten in 45-minute chunks. Later the ABC picked it up and reformatted the show to 25-minutes. Set at fictional school Hartley High, the series was a spin-off of the 1993 feature film The Heartbreak Kid (which starred Claudia Karvan and then newcomer Alex Dimitriades), which was also set in an ethnically diverse inner city area. The word “gritty” has become an unwelcome adjective in Australian film and television discourse, but in the early 1990s it was a welcome change – especially in this genre. Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature. In fact, it resembled the Canadian teen drama Degrassi Junior High more than it did our own teen programs like Neighbours and Home and Away.

Rivers (Scott Major), Jodie (Abi Tucker), Nick (Alex Dimitriades) and Christina (Sarah Lambert).

We’re introduced to the world through Nick Poulos (Alex Dimitriades) who is the central character in series one. His Italian-Greek cousin Con (Salvatore Coco) picks him up, and we meet their friends when they get to school. There’s Rose (Katherine Halliday), a Lebanese girl who runs the student newspaper, sporty Danielle (Emma Roche) and her boyfriend Steve (Corey Page), and Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez) and Jack (Tai Nguyen), who are Salvadoran and Vietnamese, respectively. Rivers (Scott Major) and Bolton (Jon Pollard) play two disruptive students, and new girl Jodie is played by Abi Tucker.

Heartbreak High covers a range of themes pertinent to teenagers including racism, sexism, homophobia, drug use and sexuality. In the third episode of season one, teacher Christina Milano (Sarah Lambert) decides to create an official school soccer team. This becomes a vehicle in which to explore issues of race and gender identity. Rivers thinks Aussie rules is superior to soccer and taunts Con and Nick in class, “We don’t want wog ball, this is an Aussie school.” It’s clear that Rivers is having a go at them based on their heritage.

When Danielle says she wants to try out for the new soccer team, she cops it too. Her boyfriend Steve tries to talk her out of it on the grounds of it being a rough game– he doesn’t want her getting hurt. But the blatant message from the rest of the boys is that she’d never make the cut anyway because she’s a girl. They tell her to play netball instead. “Girls play soccer!” she exclaims. Rather than Danni being let in as the token female, she proves her chops in the tryout and becomes the team goalie. This plot strand tackles issues of racism and sexism whilst highlighting values that are typically Australian. “I want a fair go,” Danielle insists before her tryout. While putting second-generation Australians front and centre, Heartbreak High simultaneously grounded itself with Aussie values. The students are unpretentious, hard-working and irreverent.

It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires.

Heartbreak High tackled some daring topics like teen pregnancy, drug use and homophobia, but the creators were always mindful of the age of their audience. Executive producer Ben Gannon, who sadly passed away in 2007, explained in an interview, “… we tried to show how those issues can affect your life, rather than making it seem somehow glamorous or something to emulate.” But there’s always the risk of becoming too didactic. “That’s a real turn off for a younger audience. We had to continually think about that.”

Social issues were explored through multiple story strands, and while the teachers got dedicated screentime, their stories were always borne out of the students’, not the other way around. Heartbreak High may have started out trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but it grew into a solid teen drama.

Teachers at Henley High.

The writers interwove teen romances with the issues at hand. In that same soccer team episode, Chaka challenges Rivers to a game of pool, and calls bullshit when he deliberately sinks the white ball instead of the black; she knows that he let her win on purpose. They have a rematch. It’s a close game, but Rivers wins. They shake hands. Chaka hasn’t proved that she’s better at Rivers at pool, but she’s happy that the game was fair this time. Meanwhile, Rivers is falling for the quietly confident Chaka.

Re-watching the show recently, it rankled me to watch a scene from series one, where Jodie desperately needs an amp to record her demo for an A & R exec. She relies on Nick to find her a replacement rather than do anything about it herself. However, in the same episode, Danielle fights for her place on the soccer team. So it’s not like the boys are constantly swooping in to save the day for the girls, it’s more that the characters who are “activated” varies from one episode to the next. The writers did a good job of spreading the hero stories across the cast. It might be Nick and Danielle in one episode and Con and Rose in another.

Rose (Katherine Halliday) and Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez) in a school debate.

Stylistically, it’s shot fast and messily, conveying a sense of youthful exuberance– especially so in earlier seasons. Before any heroes are in shot, a boy chases another through a crowded hallway, knocking a stack of papers out of a girl’s arms. You feel like you’re being told that the world can be loud and shambolic, and that’s normal. Heartbreak High used a staggering amount of extras, and that sole element adds so much authenticity; it grounds the show heavily in realism.

Katerina (Ada Nicodemou) and Mai (Nina Liu).

The sets aren’t polished and ordered. I longed to be one of the gang at Ruby’s (and later, The Sharkpool), but it wasn’t because it looked like a privileged hangout. There are no grandstands on the oval, just a view of community housing. The students don’t wear expensive-looking sports gear– one kid wears cut-off denim shorts to soccer practice. Not ideal for exercise, but whether it was by accident or design, it sells the idea that he doesn’t have any dedicated sports wear, something many teenagers aren’t often given the opportunity to relate to.

Drazic (Callan Mulvey) and Anita (Lara Cox).

I recently uploaded a photo of the cast ensemble of series one to Facebook. There was an immediate response, friends far and wide revelling in nostalgia. My friend subsequently added a photo of Rel Hunt, who played Ryan from series four onwards. “Seriously thought I was going to marry him,” was her caption. I handed the DVD case to one of my mates, just to gauge his reaction. “Anita…” he said longingly, his one-word response speaking volumes about why ordinary Aussie kids tuned in to Heartbreak High. It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires. After they were introduced in series four, Drazic (Callan Mulvey), Anita (Lara Cox) and Ryan were popular heartthrobs, but every character on the show was in a relationship at some point. They were all portrayed as desirable by virtue of their personalities (notwithstanding the fact that Drazic did for eyebrow rings what Don Draper has done for pomade and cuff links).

Callan Mulvey as Drazic.

It’s true that by the time Heartbreak High moved from Channel 10 to the ABC a significant number of ethnic characters had left. Nick died in a tragic boxing match at the end of series one, Jack scored a scholarship to a selective school, Yola the school counsellor (Doris Younane) fell pregnant to an Australian policeman and also left. Given the premise of the show, the cast had to change lest it become too unrealistic. But it’s worth noting that the tone changed too; it somehow became a bit less raw.

You could argue that diminishing the speaking roles for ethnic characters sends a message to Australian teens as powerful as what the show purportedly set out to achieve.  But despite the proportion of ethnic characters changing, Heartbreak High continued to connect with the topic of cultural diversity while it’s contemporaries simply didn’t. This is as relevant as ever today, where reality shows present a truer picture of multicultural Australia than our dramas do. A classroom full of kids who would’ve been deemed ugly ducklings in Summer Bay – kids like me – were validated and celebrated here. Heartbreak High was hugely successful and sold to eighty countries. By casting non-Anglos as normal teenagers in a contemporary setting, Heartbreak High proved that multiculturalism could work on mainstream television.

About Niki Aken: Nicola Aken is a screenwriter based in Sydney, Australia.  She got her start in television researching for Underbelly: The Golden Mile, followed by Underbelly: Razor.  In 2012, Nicola researched and wrote two episodes of Underbelly: Badness.  Mediaweek praised her debut screenplay ‘Troubleshooting’ as “amongst the best the Underbelly franchise has delivered.”  Her second script ‘Strike Force Tuno’ was the series finale.  Nicola has also written and produced a short film called Poppy, which is a tribute to her university job of cinema projectionist (aka The Coolest Job Ever).  It is currently on the festival circuit.  Nicola is currently writing for the ABC and Screentime WW1 miniseries Anzac Girls with Felicity Packard. She tweets at @nikiaken and occasionally blogs at nicetruck.tumblr.com.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and James Madden explains how Lantana won him over. Briony Kidd loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman, and David Evan Giles explains how Bliss changed his view of Australia. British film critic and sportswriter Scott Jordan Harris defends Aussie soap opera Neighbours, Bradley Dixon heaps praise upon the comedian and writer/director Tony Martin, and Stephen Vagg revisits the classic comedy Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

AACTA Member Spotlight: Jessica Hobbs – Director

Jessica Hobs on set

Jessica Hobbs on set DEVIL’S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

Jessica Hobbs is the director of many hours of groundbreaking, heart-stopping Australian television dramas, and though she grew up in New Zealand, we’re very happy to claim her as one of our own.

First inspired to work in drama, at age fourteen, when she saw Zeffirelli’s interpretation of the great tragedy Romeo and Juliet, Hobbs has gone on to perfect the art of empathetic, honest and affecting direction: from her early work on Heartbreak High through to THAT episode of Love My Way and her most recent outings on Curtin, Spirited, Tangle, My Place and the incredibly popular and AACTA Award-winning television adaptation of The Slap.

Over the years, Jessica Hobbs has won numerous AFI | AACTA Awards for Best Direction in Television and Short Film.* The Slap has also recently been nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best International Television Series. She is currently working on a two part telemovie Devil’s Dust for ABC TV. Spanning the 1970’s to the 2000’s, Devils Dust is a political thriller that deals with asbestos victim Bernie Banton and his courageous fight against James Hardie Industries.

Despite her wonderful credit list and ever-growing stash of nominations and awards, Hobbs still confesses to the odd moment of self-doubt, but believes the key to getting through is to retain your sense of humour, particularly when things don’t go according to plan.

In this interview, Jessica Hobbs talks about the particular challenges and advantages of working in the television medium. She shares her insight into eliciting the best performances from actors, and talks about the importance of a great script. Hobbs is generous with her praise for those who gave her a start and mentored her early steps in the industry and, in turn, she offers some advice for young directors just starting out.

Jessica Hobbs is one of our newly anointed Honorary Councillors for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) within the Direction 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.

AFI | AACTA: You grew up in New Zealand. What was your educational path towards directing as a career – and directing in Australia?

Jessica Hobbs: I always had a strong interest in theatre and film but I didn’t know that directing was an actual career when I was younger. I do remember being shown Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at school when I was 14 and wondering who it was that got to create that world. But the idea of it as a proper job, as a career, that only occurred to me a few years later.

AFI | AACTA: Was directing something you always wanted to do, or a career which you fell into?

Jessica Hobbs: I decided when I was about 19 that I’d like to direct but it was a long time before I felt brave enough to tell people that that was my dream. I started working in the film industry in New Zealand at 21 as an assistant director and then a year or so later, I started making short films.  I spent many years working as an AD (Assistant Director) while trying to develop my directing skills. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started directing full time when Ben Gannon gave me my first big break, directing Heartbreak High. I spent two years directing on the show and it became a bit like a mini film school for me. Every six weeks, I’d get another two hours of story to work on. I loved the directorial process they had on that show. For television at that time, they gave the directors a huge amount of creative freedom.

Jess Hobbs onset DEVIL'S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

Jess on set DEVIL’S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

AFI | AACTA: You’ve directed numerous television dramas – from Heartbreak High, Love My Way, Tangle and Spirited, to My Place and The Slap. What is it about directing television dramas that particularly appeals to you? What do enjoy least about it?

Jessica Hobbs: I love directing television and I feel that we’ve been very privileged over the last few years to see a big renaissance in the way that television is made. Television allows you the freedom to explore character development and story structure in greater depth over a longer period of time.

The less positive side of working in television is that it is always a race against time and budget constraints. But, I also see friends who are filmmakers having very similar struggles so perhaps the tyranny of trying to balance creativity and economic realities is across both mediums.

AFI | AACTA: In many of the aforementioned series, the characters and storylines are layered, complex and complicated. They often deal sensitively with fraught emotions or the personal intricacies of life’s ups and downs. I can imagine that this sort of subject matter could be quite difficult to direct. How do you go about getting such honest performances out of your actors?

Jessica Hobbs: I spend as much time as possible talking with them about the story and what we are trying to convey to the audience. Then, we break that down into what they feel it is that their characters want and how they are going to go about getting that.

Every actor uses a different methodology to perform. It’s important that I try to understand their way of working so that we can make the most of our time together. Ultimately, it is the actor who is up there on the screen, not the director, so it’s a big process of trust and giving them the freedom and space to try different things.

AFI | AACTA: In my opinion, you were responsible for directing one of the most moving pieces of Australian television history – that heartbreaking, earth shattering moment in Love My Way [spoiler alert!] when Frankie and Charlie’s world is turned upside down with the death of their only daughter. This moment in the series still resonates with its audience to this day. What for you were the most important elements in being able to do justice to such grief onscreen?

Jessica Hobbs: That was a beautifully developed moment by the writers before I even started the directing process. They had the guts to tell the story in that way and to stick with their idea that Lou’s death was just something that happened out of the blue. There would be no accident, no one to blame. In many ways, that spontaneity freed up my directing and made me conscious that I had to try and keep it very simple and real. It needed to feel like it was a real time experience and I think that’s why it made such an impact for the viewers.

Jess with Essie Davis onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

Jess with Essie Davis (Anouk) onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

AFI | AACTA: You recently directed two episodes (‘Anouk’ and ‘Hector’) of the popular Australian mini-series, adapted from the book of the same name, The Slap.  Did you choose to direct these particular episodes/character profiles? If so, why?

Jessica Hobbs: I can be honest now and say yes, I definitely chose Anouk but I initially tried to avoid the Hector episode – [producer] Tony Ayres corralled me into it so I blame him! It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Hector episode just that quite frankly it terrified me.  It was the opening episode of the series and it involved introducing all of the characters and the drama surrounding the slap, itself. I kept trying to off load the episode onto other directors but to no avail. In hindsight, I’m glad Tony pushed me towards it. The project was a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a brilliant team of directors: Matt Saville, Rob Connolly and Tony Ayres.

AFI | AACTA: You were nominated for your first AFI Award in 2004 (Best Short Fiction Film – So Close to Home) and since then, have twice won the AFI Award for Best Direction in Television – in 2005 for Love My Way, and in 2006 for the two-part drama series about the invasion of East Timor, Answered by Fire. Last year, you were nominated again for the newly named AACTA Award for Best Direction in Television for The Slap. How does it feel and what has it done for your career to be nominated and win these Awards for your craft?

Jessica Hobbs: It was a great sensation to win those AFI awards. It does give you a wonderful feeling of peer recognition. I was immensely proud of both those projects so it was delightful to get the awards. Winning an AFI, or an AACTA as they are now known gave me confidence in my directing style and encouraged me to take more risks in choosing future projects.

Jess with her 2006 AFI Award for Best Direction in Television for ANSWERED BY FIRE

AFI | AACTA: The Slap has just been nominated for a BAFTA Award. Does international recognition feel especially gratifying?

Jessica Hobbs: Well, yes! I think for all of us on The Slap team, it’s been amazing seeing the program being so well received internationally. It has also begun to open up work opportunities for us in the UK.

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?

Jessica Hobbs: Trying to keep my sense of humour and not become crippled by self-doubt. I guess it is all part of the normal creative process but it can be very hard to cope with at times. Some things work brilliantly and others just don’t. I am finding that managing my emotional responses to all of that is a life long learning process, a bit of an emotional roller coaster.

AFI | AACTA: Is it difficult to maintain a work/life balance as a television director?

Jessica Hobbs: Yes, but I love the work and feel privileged to be able to do it. My children have a more mixed reaction to it but I’m trying to find a better balance for them.

Jess onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

Jess on set of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

AFI | AACTA: Which part of your job gives you the most joy?

Jessica Hobbs: The creative collaboration with writers, producers, actors, designers, cinematographers, editors – creative collaboration is the best part of the job for me. I adore working with people who push you to produce better work and open you up to all sorts of creative possibilities.

AFI | AACTA: Are there still particular challenges for women in the directing profession? Is there any advice you would give young women trying to get started?

Jessica Hobbs: I think the industry is very open to female directors now. My advice would be the same for anyone, both women and men, look at work that you like and try to work with the teams of people who have made the shows/films that you admire and keep doing your own work.

AFI | AACTA: Are you able to name three mentors who have significantly helped you or influenced you?

Jessica Hobbs: Ben Gannon gave me my first big break and a great piece of advice when I was starting out. He said that if I told the story well then he’d give me more episodes to direct. If it looked great but I didn’t tell the story well then that would be the end of it.

Meeting John Edwards, Claudia Karvan and Jacqueline Perske who all gave me the opportunity to direct Love My Way was momentous for my career. Those three people have had a significant and very positive affect on my directing work.

And Scott Meek [producer and former ABC Head of Drama] is a wonderful mentor to me and has been for many years.

AFI | AACTA: What is your all time favourite Australian film or television program? Why?

Jessica Hobbs: Oh god – picking one?!
Blue Murder for the effect it had on me when I first watched it. I had only just moved to Australia and was mesmerised by it. In terms of features, I still think it would be the experience of watching Samson and Delilah. I sat in the dark and watched in awe.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your sharing your time with us.

* AFI |AACTA Award Nominations and Wins:

2004 AFI Award for Best Short Fiction Film – Nomination
So Close To Home
2005 Won AFI Award for Best Direction in Television
Love My Way, Series 1 – Episode 8, ‘A Different Planet’ (Foxtel)
2006 Won AFI Award for Best Direction in Television
Answered By Fire (ABC)
2011 AACTA Award for Best Direction in Television – Nomination
The Slap – Episode 1, ‘Hector’ (ABC1)