YouTube star Michael Shanks has taken the leap to television with his pop-culture infused comedy The Wizards of Aus, and talks everything from orcs to an Australian Hot Fuzz. By Caris Bizzaca.
Clouds hang over a film set just outside of Melbourne, where knights in shining armour trudge through a smoking battlefield and nearby, a couple of terrifying goblins huddle beneath a Hello Kitty umbrella.
It’s an important day on the set of The Wizards of Aus, a series from YouTube star Michael Shanks (aka Timtimfed), which was initially destined for the web, until it was picked up to air on SBS2.
The medieval theme park Kryal Castle has become the backdrop for the series’ epic opening sequence, where an intense battle is taking place in the Magical Realm. A Gandalf-esque wizard named Jack (played by Shanks) is doing his bit, blasting away goblins and sighing at the idiotic decisions of the knights. Fed up, he high-tails it out of there, to a far less mystical place – the western suburbs of Melbourne.
“It was so important to me that the opening almost hold up visually to Lord of the Rings,” Shanks, who also directed and co-wrote The Wizards of Aus says.
“Obviously we’re never going to get that good, but unfortunately we weren’t making Danger 5 so we couldn’t kind of make a joke about our low production values.”
Instead they used some visual trickery and technical wizardry to turn what was essentially a handful of actors into a busy (and gory) battlefield, before transporting the action to Melbourne’s suburbs.
The idea for The Wizards of Aus first popped into Shanks’ head some five or so years ago and was something he dismissed at time.
“I guess because it was in the back of my mind for five years that a lot of the conceptualising had been done sub-consciously,” he says. “Because then this time when I started thinking about it and I brought Nicholas Issell on board to write with me, it just kind of spewed out of us.”
As any fans of Timtimfed would expect, The Wizards of Aus is filled with a tonne of hilarious visual effects, helped by a cast that includes heavyweights like Guy Pearce as a narky TV journalist as well as fellow YouTube star, Aunty Donna‘s Mark Bonanno as Jack’s nemesis Skulldrich.
“That character Skulldrich always existed from the early draft, but when Nick and I were writing the series we were watching a lot of Aunty Donna and we just thought, we have to get that guy,” Shanks says.
“We ended up writing the character for him. That was the biggest thrill of casting because I don’t know anyone else who could have done that role, and it’s such a pivotal role.”
The only tough part came in the editing room. “Every take Mark does is ever so slightly different and all of them are genius.”
Not that there was a huge amount of improvising on set. While there was some, Shanks’ style of comedy is much more grounded in the writing.
“I really believe in the directing styles of Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright,” he says.
Regarding modern comedy Shanks says “it’s like an actor does eight improvised takes of everything and they stitch it together later. And while that’s funny, I don’t find it very clever or interesting. I want to feel that there’s a camera there and that you can get a joke from a camera move, from blocking, set design or sound effects – to really use the spectrum of the tools we have.”
Shanks says film and TV should take risks and not be just theatre or stand-up comedy with a camera. And his hope is to one day make a high-concept comedy film in an everyday Aussie city with this sensibility in mind.
“I’d love to make the Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz of Australia,” he says. “It’s a hugely arrogant goal to have in the loftiest of sense, but I really like unpacking genre tropes in kind of a mundane setting. I think that style is exactly what I’m interested in doing – tightly choreographed, hard stuff to make.”
The Wizards of Aus will play over three nights at 8.30pm on SBS 2 from January 19-21, and every ep will also be available to watch on SBS On Demand after the first episode airs.