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From One Alumnus to Another: Claudia Bailey Interviews Julie Kalceff

Inspired by her body of work, particularly the latest, First Day, recent graduate Claudia Bailey (Bachelor of ARTS Screen, 2019) talks to fellow alumna Julie Kalceff (Master of Arts (Film and Television) Scriptwriting, 2002) about authentic storytelling, queer representation on Australian screens and the responsibility that comes with handling sensitive material. The times being what they are, Julie and Claudia met on Zoom. Here’s a transcript of their chat.

CLAUDIA BAILEY: I think it is safe to say that there is a huge gap for LGBTQI+ representation in the mainstream that isn’t a stereotype or comic relief. But this is why First Day is exciting as it’s the first Australian scripted television show to star a transgender person in the lead role. So, what was the process of bringing this character into the mainstream on the ABC?

JULIE KALCEFF: It was an interesting process because First Day is children’s TV and I hadn’t worked in children’s TV before. It was part of an initiative for the International Day of the Girl that the ABC and Screen Australia ran in 2017. They had done some research and clearly there wasn’t as much content for girls as there was for boys, or that had female protagonists as opposed to male protagonists, so they did a call out for a stand-alone twenty-minute TV episodes with a female protagonist, targeted at a female audience between 8-12 years old. I saw this call out but I ignored it because I had just come off Starting From Now – which is definitely not children’s television.

But it kept popping up and at the same time, a close family member was transitioning, a six year old. I saw her mum struggling with what to do, wanting to support her child but not knowing what that looked like. Was it sending her back to the same school presenting as female after she had been presenting as male, or was it to enrol her in another school? I could see she was struggling with the lack of information and not knowing what to do. Those two things came together. I thought, “wouldn’t it be great for both her and her daughter if there was a children’s TV episode about a transgender girl?” That way they could watch it and realise they’re not alone At the same time, though, I wasn’t sure if the ABC would make a children’s TV episode about a transgirl.

I knew, though, that I had to try. I wrote up a one-pager about what the story would be and got in touch with producer, Kirsty Stark. We applied to the initiative, and we were one of the five selected. It was a good lesson for me in terms of not second-guessing what people are looking for or what you think they might want. I guess the short way of saying that is, we were able to put a story about a transgender girl on mainstream television because the broadcaster was open to it and Screen Australia was open to it. They actively backed it and have supported it since then.

CB: I think it speaks to the thirst for these kinds of authentic, untold stories. Something that I’ve noticed in the criteria for all funding applications is the need for it to include diverse storylines and characters. As you have said First Day is a children’s TV show and so I’m curious about how having a younger audience influenced how you told the story and how you worked with those kinds of restrictions in mind.

JK: Kirsty and I were very mindful in making this that we’re both cis-gendered and this isn’t our story. We spoke about this a lot but we were also aware that a twelve-year-old girl doesn’t have the capability of making a TV series. We knew once we cast Evie (who played Hannah) our job was to empower her and give her the tools she needed to tell this story.

In terms of creating a children’s TV series there was a lot I didn’t know. Initially I wrote it as a mother-daughter story and the ABC came back saying that because it’s children’s television it has to be about the kids. It has to be from their point of view. They have to have agency and they have to be the ones that solve the problems. Which was interesting because as someone who hasn’t been twelve for a long time but remembers being a kid, it feels like kids don’t have a lot of agency and they’re always being told what to do. So that was a challenge. How do I write a story that is about a child who is twelve and probably doesn’t have a lot of agency in her life but make it a story where she is an active protagonist in her own story?

I had to keep relearning that, it’s not about the adults, it’s about the kids and their relationships. When it came to making the series, you can’t really leave a child in jeopardy at the end of an episode. It was pushing that boundary of having a cliff-hanger at the end of an episode but with the audience knowing there was someone there for her and she wasn’t alone. You can’t include derogatory terms. You need to work out how to show bullying without people using language that we don’t want kids to copy. I think these restrictions were challenging but ultimately, I hope, made the end product stronger.

CB: I think it definitely did. I don’t know if you’ve seen Eighth Grade but something that works really well is because you’re so connected and emphasise with the 14-year-old protagonist, all the stakes are absolutely heightened. Sure, going to a pool party in the broad scheme of things might not be a big deal but because you’re with that character, everything feels enormous and that is how it feels at that age. And I think that is what First Day also does really well. I think that Hannah is given a lot of respect which is really refreshing and I think that’s why it would be empowering for younger audiences to watch, to see people their age being taken seriously and with dignity.

JK: I agree. I think when you’re at that age everything is a big deal. I remember at that age if I wasn’t allowed to go to a party and all my friends were going, it was the end of the world. The other thing is I tried to make the story as universal as possible because it isn’t just for transkids. In fact, I think it is more for cis-gendered children to learn what it is to be a good ally. As a result, we made the first episode about starting high school, which I think is a universal experience people can relate to.

CB: Definitely and that is something I’ve really enjoyed in all of your work. Which I did binge as I have nothing to do so why not? But it’s how you have showcased not just the adversity but also the really joyous and gorgeous about being part of the LGBTQI+ community. Personally, coming out has been one of the most fulfilling and affirming experiences of my life. But I feel that all I see is the trauma and pain and rightly so, as that is a big part of our history. But I wanted to ask you why you choose to show the good and the joy and the hope?

JK: I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney so I didn’t know anyone who was queer and I certainly didn’t have any role models. If there was an LGBTQIA+ character on screen, they were always killed off or they were a plot device and they’d end up being the butt of the joke—

CB: —or the best friend, never the protagonist.

JK: That’s right. As I got older, I realised that’s really damaging and I didn’t want to be part of the problem. You have to take responsibility for what you put out into the world and if you’re creating something, it is going to impact people. You need to ask yourself, what impact do you want that to be? If you are making something that is lazy or clichéd or using LGBTQIA+ characters as a stereotype, then you have to take responsibility for that. I always wanted to create LGBTQI+ characters that were three-dimensional, so the characters in Starting From Now have their flaws but the show isn’t about being a lesbian or angsting about being queer.

The idea with that series was to always get to a point where we know the characters are going to be okay. I think part of why I want to make content is to empower audiences and to allow them to see themselves on screen. Because there is so little LGBTQIA+ content, there is an unrealistic expectation that everything you make is going to be everything for everyone and that’s just not the case. Hannah in First Day is not every transkid, her experience is quite positive and there are kids who don’t have that experience, which was why I included the character of Sarah.

CB: I think it’s that you’re not trying to sum it all up but you’re trying to give one more authentic, three-dimensional experience that someone out there could identify with or if not, gives them insight which is always a good thing.

JK: I believe screen stories should be aspirational. So, a kid watching Hannah will hopefully realise it can work out okay. There is hope. There are people who have gone through this and so can I. They’re the sorts of stories I want to tell. Obviously there needs to be conflict and adversity but there also has to be hope. I want to write and create stories that have a sense of hope and where someone’s sexuality is just one aspect of who they are, they’re not defined by it.

CB: I think that’s probably why Starting From Now was so successful because it was a show that, yes had lesbian character but it wasn’t like The L Word where – honestly I couldn’t tell you what happens in that – but they had conflict and dreams and families. They weren’t just lesbians. After watching, I’d read all the comments and people are really passionate about who should end up together and vying for particular characters. I did want to ask, looking back on Starting From Now, what do you think made it so successful (a.k.a. the 130 million views on Youtube), what magic stuff did it have?

JK: I think it was a few things. One, it came out at a good time. There wasn’t a lot of lesbian content online, in fact there wasn’t a lot of lesbian content at all apart from The L Word. A lot of the online content I did see wasn’t very well written and didn’t have good actors. They were my two focus points. I knew I had little to no money to make the series so I knew I had to weigh up where that money would go. For me, it was story and cast. At its core, it’s a soap opera and because it’s episodic, having dramatic questions that go across a season and an episode, and ending an episode on a returnable element. I think ultimately it came down to having a great cast, and I tried to write it in a way that would keep the audience coming back.

Not through design but through circumstance, we also released three seasons in one year. That gave us a great deal of momentum and allowed us to build a following. Drama doesn’t usually drop that many episodes in such a short space of time as it’s expensive and takes a long time to make. If we released the series now, we probably wouldn’t have the same response as there is more content online and even the YouTube algorithm is different. I feel like it landed at a good time and we had a lot of things in our favour.

CB: Timing is everything… You kind of touched on this before but it’s probably the thing I’m most curious about as it’s something that I think a lot and it’s how to tell stories in an ethical and inclusive way. As historically, as you said, when it is done incorrectly, it can be one-dimensional and damaging with tropes that circulate for decades in a loop. I’m sure you encountered this in making First Day and so, I wanted to ask what advice you would give on how to ethically portray experiences that aren’t necessarily your own.

JK: It’s a good question. I think if you are telling stories that aren’t your own or are about a group you’re not part of, then you really need to ask yourself why you are telling that story. And as I said, Kirsty and I had that conversation and our answer was that we are telling this story because a twelve-year-old girl can’t. I think it’s very important to ask yourself why am I telling this story and am I the right person to tell this story? If your answer is yes, then you seriously need to talk with people who can give you insight into the world and the characters and can really help you create an authentic story. With First Day, Evie’s mum would read the scripts. I chatted to Evie about her experiences and tried to do as much research as possible.

I think you have to do your research, talk to as many people as possible and not just get someone as a consultant but if you can engage them as a writer or someone who is actively involved on set, that is important. Even with the series, we had a writers’ room and we made sure we had a parent of trans kid and a transgender writer in the room and tried to really find a way to tell the story as authentically as possible.

We also sent the scripts off to GLAAD, a U.S. organisation who check screen content for positive and authentic representations of LGBTQIA+ people. A representative from GLAAD read the scripts, and they came back really positive. It’s in your interests to do it right and to make an authentic story because it will ultimately result in a much better series.

CB: Yeah. I feel like a key thing which may be an obvious thing is to collaborate and to save space for voices that need to be listened to and to not be so precious. Which I think can be a problem with the whole auteur pained genius that seems to be romanticised.

JK: Exactly. Film is a collaborative medium. If you’re not open to collaborating and think you know everything, then you’re missing out. Even as a director on set, if you are open to ideas, you can decide whether or not to use them.

CB: One hundred per cent. My last question is kind of a big and ridiculous question but I just like to ask people it. And it is, why do you feel the need to tell stories? I think especially in a world right now where it’s very hard to be a filmmaker and earn money. It was already hard but it’s now it’s harder. Why is it that you feel the need to tell them? What is the fire inside of you that keeps you going?

JK: I think it’s a couple of things. I feel like I’m in a privileged position. I’m out, I’ve been out for a very long time. I’m middle class and I’m white. So, I feel like I’m in a position where I have a responsibility to my community to tell stories that represent them. I know how much it would have meant when I was younger. I always go back to the idea that you should be the person you needed when you were growing up. You should always be giving back. I also believe there is a need to tell stories we haven’t seen before.

There have been so many times throughout my life where I have second-guessed this choice of career and thought, how do I keep doing this? It’s really hard to get a project off the ground and you have to hustle all the time. Quite often I’ve really thought about it and wondered if this something I can keep doing. It always comes back to my belief that there is nothing else I would rather do. I used to be a high school English teacher which is not a bad job, but it is not my passion. There is nothing else I would rather do and even though it is hard, and I may never make anything ever again, I feel I have an obligation and a responsibility to my community, and that’s a privilege. If you have the privilege of having a voice, then you need to be really mindful of how you use it.

CB: Yep. I big agree. Big old agree.

Find work by Julie Kalceff and Claudia Bailey in the Good Content Playlist.