The taboo of therapy, coming as a massive surprise to the Western world, is still very much a fact in the majority of the world. Even in the countries where going to therapy is starting to become ‘normal,’ there still is quite a bit of stigma attached to telling your grandma that you see a therapist every week. And when we look away from capital cities and huge business and media centres where people actually have the resources to pursue therapy, the rural parts of the West are still completely unaware that going to therapy might be just as essential as going to the dentist.
Stef Smith, creator, director, writer and producer collaborated with Photoplay to write a series precisely to explore that wild idea. “A happy/sad series about therapy” – is what ‘It’s Fine I’m Fine’ is defined as, and its nine episodes, written by different creators, explore a range of people simply…going to therapy. The writers of each episode had full creative freedom on how they approached the series, as long as it is placed in the therapy office of a suburban Australian psychologist.
The freedom and diversity amongst the team made the series flow between genres and enabled it to jump bravely into topics between love, loss, anxiety, anger, obsession and so much more. The series also has a somewhat fluid form when it comes to genre (hence the ‘happy/sad’ aspect of it), by even dabbling into magical realism. Not to mention the covid-proof benefit of a single location for a project of this scale.
‘It’s Fine I’m Fine’ comes as a breath of fresh air but equally an exercise in educating people on what therapy really should be. By refusing to follow what she calls a “cheat sheet of do’s and don’t’s” for the format, which to her is ultimately just hot air, Stef Smith still pays homage to the psychologist profession and was ultimately aiming to tell the real stories of some…real people. If it happens to be true that life imitates art, Stef describes it as “funny and fucked up and happy and sad and silly and serious,” which is exactly what this series came out to be.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Stef to find out more about the creation of the series, how the team worked together (and separately) to create these unique stories and why going to therapy isn’t a bad idea.
LBB> Tell us how this project emerged and what the initial conversations around it were?
Stef> I wanted to create a framework for a show that allowed the stories of multiple writers, from different perspectives, with minimal location moves. So therapy felt like the perfect place for me. One room, different patients, ANYTHING the writers wanted to explore was on the table. With magical realism and comedy in there, nothing was really off-limits - other than leaving the room.
The initial conversations involved me saying, ‘this is what I want to make’ and people either saying yes or no. The people who said yes are the ones on the team.
LBB> Why do you think this series was important for Australian audiences and what do you expect the responses to be?
Stef> Culturally, therapy is still pretty taboo. Even saying you have an appointment for mental health feels like it contains a stigma, as if it generates an, “Oh something must be REALLY WRONG” kind of response.
Where I grew up in rural Australia therapy it’s often commonly perceived as reserved for ‘snowflakes’, or for someone who is severely mentally unwell. When really, every person on the planet needs a little bit of therapy. And therapy can take so many different forms; exercise, music, fresh air, talking, or - seeing a licensed practitioner.
But I personally have such a love and respect for the profession that I wanted to ensure that therapy was never the ‘joke’. I take its representation extremely seriously and worked with a licensed therapist and screenwriter, Nicole Pesa, to consult on all of the stories.
There have already been people on our team who have said that making this, or watching an (unreleased) episode, helped spark a conversation with a loved one about their mental health and seeking help. And that happened after they laughed through an episode of someone getting therapy.
The series shows that therapy doesn’t need to be an intense offloading of trauma and can still be incredibly valuable - to both the patient and the audience of our show.
Plus, I’m fucking sick of seeing shows that are made up of 30-second expositional scenes of meaningless bullshit because that’s what producers keep telling us audiences want. “No scenes longer than 2 minutes”. “Must have a mystery engine or be short, sharp and consumable” or “Oh my god how much stuff recently has been based off true events because original IP is so hard to come by….”
Truly, no one fucking knows what audiences want. Even the greats don’t know. We’re all just having a crack and hoping for the best. Because people are complicated and sometimes we ourselves as audiences don’t even know what we want. Sometimes it’s ‘Real Housewives’, sometimes it’s ‘Love Me’, sometimes it’s ‘Sharp Objects’. I’m all for making something you love, rather than being manufactured into a cheat sheet of writing do's and don’ts and proven how to’s - which is primarily hot air and lies.
My producing team, EPs, funding bodies and Photoplay were immensely trusting and never tried to force the project into any of those boxes. They just allowed it to be what it would be, gave thoughtful feedback and trusted the process. I’m so grateful to all of them!
At the end of the day, this is a show for humans who want to observe or know more about other humans. To be moved, to laugh, to be surprised (a naked Andrew McFarlane will do that with words by Nick Coyle). To see into different worlds, cultures and abilities they hadn’t necessarily been privy to previously AND it won’t leave you emotionally drained before bedtime or induce nightmares - unless it’s Nick Coyle’s stress dream… Which is deliberate.
LBB> Tell us what it was like to work with creators from such varied backgrounds and with such different experiences when it comes to inequality.
Stef> The liberating thing with this project was that the writers had free rein to explore whatever they wanted. Everyone was employed for their writing potential, not because of their background. There were people who wanted to explore their unique cultural perspective within the framework, and people who didn’t. The decision was entirely theirs.
More often than not, writers from diverse backgrounds have been asked to be the consulting voice in a room without generating opportunities or credits. Mined for experiences but not given the chance to step up because “it’s risky”. If I was getting something out of this I wanted it to be a vehicle for career-building credits for others as well.
LBB> You mentioned the genre is ‘black comedy, comedy realism' - expand more on that, how did you blend all these genres and why did you think for the sake of these stories, this is the best approach to them?
Stef> ‘Cause life is funny and fucked up and happy and sad and silly and serious. Think about all of the incredibly harrowing things happening in the world at any given moment - it’s overwhelming. So we compartmentalise in a way, don’t we?
Plus on top of all of this, life is funny. Laughing at a funeral. Or you could be standing at the most beautiful monument in the world and accidentally shit your pants. I like that about stories. I like mess and I love a poo joke (episode seven - ‘Poo Boy’ by Jeanette Cronin).
LBB> Talk to us more about the cinematography and the ideas behind it, as well as how it ties in with the general mood of the project.
Stef> I love composed frames, it’s aesthetically what I’m drawn to. I also love how therapy gives the audience intimacy with the characters because you’re learning something about a person they might not normally disclose. You’re seeing behind closed doors.
So, I wanted the camera to really live In those intimate moments, but often with something slightly offbeat about them. You’ll see a lot of coverage and different frames throughout each episode, with some unexpected angles as things shift throughout the episodes.
The cinematographer Josh Flavell and our second camera operator/teadicam Jason Rodrigues and their teams created beautiful imagery.
LBB> What were the most challenging parts of the production process? What about the most rewarding and fun parts?
An ensemble of writers allowed an ensemble of actors to play in those worlds and I loved that each day we had a new story to tell and a new actor to welcome to the set. As for the challenges, the producers Florence Tourbier, Clare Delaney and Iain Crittenden as well as our producer’s attachment Jess Singh, our first AD Jen Gal and my script supervisor Nalin Narang were such beautiful support to me that the challenges always felt fixable. And on top of that Photoplay and our EPs always had my back. I have felt very supported throughout all of this it’s almost going to spoil future projects.
We were shooting 80 pages, 1 hour and 20 minutes of drama, in eight shoot days, during a pandemic wave, with a rotating ensemble cast.
But we were methodical in our planning and pre, and our crew were amazing professionals. All of them.
Plus our lead actor Ana Maria Belo has a knack for bringing joy, so wherever she went, it was hard to not find a reason to smile, even if things weren’t going exactly to plan.
Post production is often a process I find to be protracted and unnecessarily painful but I was also lucky to have built a post team of people who I genuinely adore. Editor Lily Davis from The Editors and I cut the entire 1 hour and 20-minutw project in 2.5 weeks. This is down to her skill, our close shorthand and me not wanting things to drag out, so we made thoughtful decisions quickly.
Then Tim Bridge and his team at Sonar made my life easy by doing a magnificent job. Our composer Jonny Higgins is stupidly talented and the most generous man, and our colourist Greg ‘Elvis’ Constantaras not only made beautiful images more beautiful but he also stepped up to do online because he’s amazing. It’s been a project filled with lovely humans.
LBB> When it comes to the 12 distinct stories, why did you choose exactly those to tell? Where did you find the balance and what was the decision process you went through when curating the story collection?
As wanky as this is going to sound, it was a kind of organic process. I worked backwards from what I knew…
I knew I was show running the entire series, and that it would be modular in the storytelling format - in the sense that at the end what we made could be broken out into 12 individual episodes OR for acquisition it could be a 4 x 20-minute format.
I knew that we would have one therapist across the show, in one office.
I knew I would build in an arc for our therapist, and that whatever the writers wanted to explore within that framework I could make it work. Some writers I spoke to knew what they wanted to explore, some would present log lines and I would select the one that I found the most exciting - prime example is Poo Boy. All I needed to read for that was the title to know I wanted to tell see it. But at the end of the day finding the balance was my job as both creator and director - so I had to not fuck it up.
Then on top of that, in development I had the support of an amazing team, the producers, EPs, Photoplay, our script editor Philip Tarl Denson and the funding bodies. I didn’t work in a silo.
Ana Maria Belo, Iain Crittenden and I worked together as script producers to really make sure the voice of our therapist was consistent throughout, and Ana and I did additional episode writing across the series to build in a narrative arc for Joanne to ensure that the series rewards return viewing by an audience. Some of the therapy patients also come back.
The producing team and production company gave me a lot of freedom and trust, and I then put that freedom and trust into the writers. Our industry is intensely risk-averse and I do understand why, but an opportunity to build credits is hard to come by. I wanted to use this project to share the industry connections I have been lucky enough to build through my commercial career with others who maybe didn’t have that same level of access.
And more than anything, I wanted this project to be a credit generator for people other than me. How boring if I had taken an opportunity to tell multiple patient’s stories and written them all myself. Fuckingggggg snooze.
It’s actually a very lovely TV show hidden in a short form framework for a broadcaster who likes to share stories. Someone very clever should buy it.