Interview: The Bazura Project’s Lee Zachariah

You might have noticed that we don’t usually run interviews here, but when the chance to speak to The Bazura Project’s Lee Zachariah came along, how could we say no? Especially when by saying yes we could waffle on about all manner of obscure comedy topics and only occasionally remember to ask a proper question. Fortunately Lee was willing to put up with our crap – at least to our face – and so, after a lot of heavy editing to get rid of the many sections that were just conversational chit-chat, this is the result.

 Being a critical website, we have to ask: how do you go about dealing with criticism? Seeing as we’re conducting this interview before the ABC version airs, it’d be criticism of the Channel 31 show…

“The only criticism we really got when was someone said how cheap it looked, and we already knew that. We knew that in our first season when we had blue curtains we couldn’t afford the colour red – people would say ‘that’s a crappy curtain’, and we’d say ‘well, we know’. We escaped most criticism back then because everyone loves an underdog, but that’ll change.”

Is it a concern that critics – people you’ve never met – now to some extent have your fate in their hands?

“Not really – I wrote for Ain’t It Cool News for eight and a half years, and I think that really thickened my skin. At first I was like ‘I can’t believe what these talkbackers are saying’, the really negative comments were getting me down, and then I just found it hilarious, and then I just stopped caring. I think if somebody has a legitimate criticism about the show I’d take that as constructive and try to work on that, whereas if they just want to throw personal insults at us I’m not going to care much about what they have to say anyway. So yeah, I’m pretty happy with what we’ve made, I’m very happy with what we’ve made, so I’m pretty confident about putting it out there.”

So how did Channel 31 help you develop?

“31 is a great starting point for people who are in no way ready – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There is no better training ground that will teach you what you need to know than 31 does. And it helped doing a show week by week rather than filming them all in advance and asking ‘what worked and what didn’t?’, because we were able to improve week by week rather than season by season. We’d be trying to plan a long way in advance – certainly with the second season, where we figured out we wanted to do that Back to the Future ending, we had to film that over 13 weeks with us constantly changing into our BTTF costumes every time we did a different opening. For season three we shaved out heads for a Full Metal Jacket sketch, let our hair grow back, and then filmed season three. We put that opening, featuring our heads being shaved, way towards the end of the season after our hair had well and truly grown back – but by and large it was done week-to-week.”

What do you think about your timeslot? You’re up against some fairly big-deal shows…

“We’re very happy with the timeslot, I think it’s a great time to be on. We haven’t really looked at what else is on at the same time yet, we’ve had our heads down making the show for so long we haven’t really had time to check what we’re up against.”

It’s Hamish & Andy for the first week, The Slap is on the ABC…

“I don’t think we’ll really have the same audience as Hamish & Andy, Hamish & Andy have the audience that likes funny people who are good-looking and we have an audience that likes funny people with questionable appearances. We can be a little homely, we can be a little battle-scarred.”

Okay, so what are your comedy influences? Please don’t say “we just like to piss-fart about” like every other Australian comedian ever.

“I’ve never been asked my comedy influences before, it’s really weird – I didn’t come from stand-up comedy so I’ve never really thought of myself as a comedian. I think Shannon and I have always approached Bazura as an interesting film show first and foremost, but because we like telling jokes we made it funny. I guess my influences are The Marx Brothers, Looney Tunes. In Australia John Clarke and Shaun Micallef. Douglas Adams, a lot of British comedy, The Goon Show, Monty Python and all that.”

There’s a lot of big names and comedy professionals appearing in Bazura – Shaun Micallef, Tony Martin, Kat Stewart, Julia Zemiro – how’d you go about getting them all?

“The moment Micallef said yes it was like the heavens parting. It was pretty much a wish-list – once we realised we were in a position to get people we liked in our show, we got out our wish list and they all said yes, which is something we did not see coming. That was really insane, everyone was totally into it and we don’t know why, there was totally no reason for them to trust us, but then they did. With most of the larger cameos, the producer handles all that stuff, I think she takes the script and sends it over to their agent. We just handed our wish list over then she takes over. There was certainly a lot of improv – everyone stuck to the script, but there was some improv and a lot of ideas being thrown around.”

Enough serious questioning – that teen movie parody in episode two was hilarious! Just so you know.

“That was Shannon’s idea and I read it and said ‘that is really really funny – there is no way that’s making it into the final draft of the script’. Just from a production standpoint, but draft after draft it kept staying in the script and no-one said anything and I thought ‘are we actually doing to do this? Devote an entire day to this?’. And we actually got it done. That was one of the more fun days, too. And that’s me in the Bee costume, by the way. That was so much fun though, the kids were hilarious.”

 So rumour has it that while you were waiting to hear back from the ABC about Bazura, you almost got a different show up on Ten? What happened there?

“We did a pilot for Ten, a completely different show, then we got the green light from the ABC for our show. It was definitely a case of it never rains but it pours after hearing nothing for two years. The pilot for Ten was more issues of the day than movies.”

The Channel 31 Bazura was big on reviews, but the ABC2 version is review-free. Why?

“Part of it was because the ABC already has a review show, and part of it was that they wanted a six-part themed show where we filmed everything beforehand, which was really useful in doing themed segments – if we wanted Shaun Micallef for six segments we’d only need him for a day. No reviews this time around, and I don’t know if there will be in the future.”

It’s a cliché to say that film reviewers are frustrated film-makers – the whole “those who can’t, teach” thing – but in your case… well, you are a film reviewer, and you’ve made television shows, so perhaps ‘frustrated’ isn’t the right word?

“There’s something quite unappealing when you hear about a film critic or someone making a show about film who says they’re a frustrated film maker. On the other hand, that’s my story, I can’t really run from that. Everyone assumes you’re doing that because you can don’t the real thing. But when I got into film criticism it actually had nothing to do with wanting to make films, they actually come from two very different sides – it’s like somebody who likes two completely different things, they just happened to be film criticism and making films. I’d consider it quite separate from my film-making ambitions. But yeah, Bazura, that certainly comes from the film criticism part than the film making part.”

The Bazura path to television success – actually going out and making the show rather than toiling away in writer’s rooms for years – seems to becoming more popular, what with you and Twentysomething being picked up from Channel 31. Did you ever think about going off to write for Neighbours?

“It’s weird that the path to get into television writing is through Home & Away and Neighbours, that’s the path you have to go on. I know one of the Neighbours writers quite well and I wouldn’t want to write for Neighbours not because I think it’s beneath me but it’s really structured and intense and I don’t think I have those particular skills. And also I would have to watch those shows and I’m not sure I could watch them and stay sane. And that sounds really snobby, I know, but I’m just not wired for soaps and reality TV. I know most people aren’t wired for the crap I watch. Or Bazura, for that matter.”

So what is the trademarked Bazura path to success?

“You make the show you want to make and say ‘that’s the show we want to make’. I always get concerned when I hear success stories when – there was a great one about ten years ago of Elijah Wood recording himself as Frodo on his home video and sending the tape to Peter Jackson and getting the part that way, through that method, and I can just imagine a generation of young actors filming themselves reading the parts and sending them to directors thinking ‘it worked for him, why can’t it work for me?’. So whenever you hear a success story you think that’s the way to go – Ridley Scott came from advertising and because I wanted to work in film I tried for advertising courses at Uni. Whenever you hear a success story you think you’ve got to model yourself on that, whereas everyone has come up a different path. ‘You should never ever make a film using credit cards – on the other hand, Kevin Smith did pretty well out of it’. There are ways to work your way up, you start off writing Neighbours and you end up writing Underbelly, whereas for us it was making the show we wanted and putting it on community TV, but there are probably fifteen other paths to getting to where we are now.”

The Bazura Project is on ABC Thursdays – this week’s the final ep in the current series – at 9pm

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