I am super excited to bring you this month’s TENANT profile – with Melbourne-based, award-winning television producer Joanna Werner.
I first met Jo through mutual friends around the time she graduated from RMIT’s media studies course. A decade on, her many impressive achievements include co-creating the popular young adult (YA) series, DANCE ACADEMY.
Now in its third (third people!) season DANCE ACADEMY has become a huge hit with audiences in over 157 countries across the globe, including Australia (ABC TV) Germany (ZDF), the US (Teen Nick) and the UK (Nickelodeon). In fact I checked the TV guide today and ABC3 have programmed a five-hour DANCE ACADEMY marathon. Happy holidays Australian Fans!
Catching up over the years it has become apparent to me that Jo does not like to sit still for long. Each time we meet there is a new project on the boil and a sniff of excitement on the horizon!
The appetite and drive she has to realise her personal and creative goals is wonderfully infectious and combined with some seriously high in-built standards I have little doubt that that we will be seeing a lot more great work coming out of the Werner Film Productions office.
Jo, thanks for talking to TENANT today. Firstly, congratulations on another recent Logies nomination…
Thank you! It’s wonderful to be recognised for the work you do. I am so proud of all the team. We have all worked incredibly hard and made something I really do love. Believe it or not the Logies it is actually a really fun night out as well!
You probably know a fair few people in the room as you’ve been working successfully in television for over a decade now. Tell us a little about your background, when did you know you wanted to be a TV producer?
I decided I want to produce for screen in my first year of university. In my final year at high school I thought I wanted to be an engineer. When I look back… I think I was motivated mainly by a desire for job security.
Then, kind of at the last minute, I decided that I would take a risk and focus on screen media, which I was very curious about.
The media course I decided on at RMIT University offered many subjects and I just really took to producing.
I saw many similarities in producing to the things that attracted me to engineering too. Things like project management, coordination of talent, teamwork, a realisation of a creative vision and a tangible end product. I like the idea of making “something”.
Before you started your own company you worked for one of Australia’s most well-known and established children television producers, Jonathan M Shiff. How did you transition from an energetic student to energetic TV producer?
After university I was desperate to get experience in film and television in any capacity. My first job was as a researcher for a reality TV program. The show was called Marry Me. I had to find people who were prepared to propose on TV! It was a really tough job!
I then worked in a lot of different roles; as a field producer in reality TV, an extreme sport camera-person, a runner on a feature film, producing film clips and low budget short films. I worked for lots of different production companies doing many roles in my first years out of the media course. It was a really fun time, I meet a lot of great people and it was good way to learn, hands-on, about the many aspects of screen production.
Then a couple of years out of university I saw a job advertised for an Assistant Television Producer – which is something you very rarely see – and jumped at the chance, along with about 600 others. And fortunately I got the job! As you said it was with Jonathan M Shiff, one of the Australia’s most established children’s TV production companies. I worked on a number of his popular series such as H2O: Just Add water and The Elephant Princess.
Why did you leave such a successful company to create your own series?
I know it is a big decision… for anyone to decide to start their own business and go out on their own. It can be daunting, but I felt very clear about it, that in some ways it felt like a simple decision – well at least it felt straightforward.
At the heart of it, I just really wanted to make DANCE ACADEMY. It was my dream show and I felt certain I was the right person to make it happen. I truly don’t feel certain about a lot of things, but with DANCE ACADEMY I had absolutely no doubt, I felt very sure about it.
It was exactly the show that I had wanted to watch when I was 15, doing ballet and growing up in country Victoria. It was a show I just KNEW had an audience.
When you started your production company in 2008 you were only 29 years old and you started production on the company’s first television series that very same year!
Many producers speak of the years it takes to get a project off the ground. Why do you think it happened so quickly for you?
I think all success is a mix of hard work and a good bit of luck. Three years prior to starting Werner Film Productions I had met Sam Strauss who was an ex-dancer and an aspiring writer. She was working in casting on a children’s series on which I was Associate Producer. Over a couple of bottles of wine one night we discovered that we both wanted to make the exact same series. The next day I read a pilot script she had written and thought it was the best thing I had read and was absolutely the show I wanted to make. We worked on the script and pitch document in our spare time over the next three years. We wanted our proposal to be irresistible when we met with potential co-production financiers.
That is a great story, I think everyone loves to hear about a touch of fate in life story, but you missed another ingredient – talent. Don’t you think success’s recipe also includes a generous dollop of talent? What you and Sam have created has captured hearts across the globe…
Speaking of which I understand that you learned your first series was financed while visiting France?
Thank you… and yes that’s right. I had pitched the series to the ABC and to the German broadcaster ZDF. Both networks had expressed real interest in the series but had not fully committed and I needed both of them on board to finance the show. I flew to Cannes in the south of France to attend MIPCOM which is a television market held each year and is often the only place you can get broadcasters together.
It was the first day of the market and I had a 9:30am meeting with the ABC and ZDF. When I arrived they had already been speaking for half an hour and had reached a decision. Pretty much as soon as I walked in the room someone said “we’ll take 26”, which is the longest run of a series you can get. It was a long way to travel for that 30 minute meeting but it was certainly worth it!
I remember I walked across the road, ordered a glass champagne and then I called Sam to tell her the amazing news. It was 10am, and was one of those great personal moments that I’ll always remember.
I’ll bet French Champagne never tasted so good!
You grew up a long way from Cannes in country Victoria. Tara Webster, the lead character in the series, is a girl from the country who wins a scholarship to a city-based dance school, where the series is based. Is this you?
Whilst I certainly identify with some aspects of Tara she is Sam Strauss through and through. But the country part is all me!
I was born in Echuca which is located on the border of Victorian and New South Wales where the Murray River and Campaspe River meet and I grew up on a lucern farm half an hour out of Echuca near a small town called Gunbower.
I loved growing up in the country… surrounded by all the space. I did all the usual country things, like riding horses and motorbikes, swimming in the rivers… and yes doing ballet! I did ballet from four years old right through high school.
I absolutely loved growing up in the country and feel a bit sorry for kids who don’t have the opportunity to spend time in the country with all that space to dream and play.
You then moved to Melbourne for university, and are still based here. Have you always lived in Seddon?
No, when I first moved to Melbourne I lived in a residential college at Melbourne Uni, then in Princess Hill, East St Kilda, Windsor and Albert Park. I bought the house in Seddon about eight years ago and live here on and off – when I’m not living away for filming.
After living in so many places around Melbourne, what attracted you to buying in Seddon?
I love that the house, and Seddon generally, has a country feel. It reminds me of a country town in the 80s – there is space to relax and the people are lovely. There are lots of creative types and young families in the area, it is close to the city and is multi-cultural. The West is still considered a bit of a new find amongst lot of first time buyers and I think a lot of us over here feel like we know something the rest of Melbourne doesn’t!
I know what you mean, Seddon is a charming suburb, as is Yarraville which also retains old world, country-town charm. There are some very interesting local shops, great cafes and a good community feeling.
When you are at home, what are favourite things to do in Seddon and surrounds?
Yarravile has the Sun Theatre which I love, I also completely love 1 + 1 Dumplings in Footscray; Sedonia in Seddon and The Station Hotel is one of my favourite places for a great pub dinner, not just in the West, but in the whole of Melbourne.
Where would you take a visitor to Melbourne?
I think I would share some of my favorite day-to-day experiences. I would take them to 1+1 Dumplings or The Station and then maybe to some bars in Smith Street… which is where my office is located.
You travel quite a bit for your work. What is a place that reminds you of Melbourne but is not?
Toronto… I was just there a few weeks ago and really loved it. It has almost as many hipsters as Smith St… cool little bars and Canadian’s are almost as polite as Melburnians.
You are not the first person I have interviewed to observe similarities to Toronto. But I think you are the first to say that Melbourne is a polite city…?
Yes, I think Melbourne is a polite city. More so than many places I’ve worked and visited, it’s welcoming and you can feel at home very quickly.
I think Melbourne is relaxed, cool and interesting… people are smart and curious and visual – from the fashion to the architecture and the textures of suburbs.
Haha! Polite on the eye perhaps! Are there any changes you’d like to see in Melbourne?
A more comprehensive transport system and I think the roads are getting bad… I think the traffic planning is poor.
Again, most of the people I interview say the same thing about the public transport which is such a shame as Melburnians love to get out and about to sporting and cultural events!
What do you think Melbourne will look like in 20 years?
I really hope that our inner city suburbs retain their country feeling… like Seddon. I think it’s one of Melbourne’s greatest charms that while it offers everything you need in a big city, I still get these lovely flash-back moments when it can feel like a country town circa 1995 .
I also hope the traffic has been sorted out in 20 years!
Let’s get back to your creative work again… how do you approach your work, particularly when you might hit a roadblock?
Well one thing I have discovered about myself, and my mum will laugh at this, is that I really am unable to accept no as an answer! I do think there is a solution for pretty much everything. There’s always a way.
And… I try not to be impulsive in my reactions. Try being the operative word! I’ll sit on something for a while to make sure I’m not reacting from emotion but with sound thought behind my response.
What or who do you draw on for inspiration and what’s inspiring you right now?
I’m inspired by people who work hard and are dedicated… so I love shows like The West Wing… because all of the characters work really really hard!
Generally I think passion is beautiful and inspiring… for example, look at you, and TENANT… you don’t have to be doing this, you’re not being paid for it, no-one is demanding this of you, you could be home watching TV or hanging out with friends… but you’re choosing to create something. I think from passion and hard work come riches – not always money but certainly riches in some form.
Well I certainly get to meet some interesting people and hear some great stories! Good stories always feel like a special treasure.
When it comes to storytelling are you generally a fan of young adult fiction?
ABSOLUTELY!!! I am a mad fan of all things teen stories. It is such a rich time in everyone’s life – a time full of hope, possibilities, desire, learning curves and personal development. It is such a raw and brave time. It’s an honour to tell young adult stories.
In fact I am really happy, and proud, to say that I’m currently working on some projects with Sydney-based Melana Marchetta, the amazing and inspirational author of Looking for Alibrandi and On the Jellico Road.
What a scoop! And that’s the second time she’s been mentioned in a TENANT interview, Adele Walsh, who works in Youth Programming at the State Library, is a huge fan of her work – as are many YA readers. I imagine she would be an inspiration to work with. Congratulations.
Having worked in television for some time, what is that you like and dislike about the industry?
I love all of the creative people who are attracted to the industry and work in the industry. The writers, the editors, the choreographers… there are not many industries where you have so many diverse, creative and talented people coming together to work on one project.
I don’t like how all-consuming and stressful it can be… you can feel completely chewed up and spent at the end of production.
I remember standing in my office one day, wishing Dance Academy would just go away and die… And then you have a good night’s sleep (or a week of them) or get some great news like being nominated for an AACTA Award or an Emmy Award, fly to New York, meet some more creative people and suddenly get the energy to do it all again!
What other like-minded people or products do you enjoy keeping an eye on?
It’s really important for me to be across trends in TV and new programming, so I can honestly say it’s a part of my job to watch TV and there is just so much good stuff at the moment it’s really not too hard an ask! Right now I love, love, love Puberty Blues, House of Cards and Redfern Now. Housewives of Melbourne is a guilty pleasure and bloody fantastic reality TV.
What are you most proud of professionally?
I am very proud that we got a third season of DANCE ACADEMY funded. It’s very rare to get support for a third season in Australia and we were able to finish up and deliver our characters’ story lines to our fans.
I there are quite a few of those! I visited the show’s Facebook page and you have over 299K followers.
Are there any more series of DANCE ACADEMY in the pipeline?
At the moment, I would love to make an US version of DANCE ACADEMY in New York…to shoot in New York would be amazing.
Would the characters be the same, have the same names etc?
I’m not sure about the names but we would need to give them traits that connect them more culturally to a US audience. It would be fun re-imagining their identities in a cross-cultural context. It would also be an incredible experience to film in the US with the kinds of budgets that TV shows are able to get over there.
What’s on for the week?
The Logies! Yoga in Fitzroy, a game of tennis with my brother… then I will be in Sydney for some meetings.
Well the life and times of a TV producer does not sound dull!
Before you go, there is one more “pass-it-on” question I ask every TENANT interviewee; to name a Melburnian that you admire and would like to introduce to TENANT readers.
Well…I have two. A woman called Penny Guild, who’s an architect that I’m enjoying working with on a home renovation, and the outrageously fun and talented Lally Katz, playwright and screenwriter.
Thanks Jo, Have a wonderful week. Good luck at the Logies and for all of the wonderful projects you have on your plate!