In Australia, building a career in writing and directing is a tough ask, a chancy business with great stretches of credit card anxiety and moments of brutal self-doubt.
But Yolanda Ramke, along with her working partner Ben Howling, has gone from a viral short film, to a feature with an International actor, to direct in North America, to receive two AWGIES from the Writers’ Guild, to then create Troppo, the drama series currently running on the ABC. All in less than ten years.
In a business where ‘You can’t get there from here,’ is the most common secret adage, Ramke’s trajectory is worth detailed examination. Besides, her story is fun.
Read: Troppo review
In the beginning
Ramke’s father worked as a mechanic in the mining sector, while her mother was a hairdresser who moved into medical practice management, so the family bounced around rural Australia until they settled in Gladstone, where Ramke went to the local high school.
‘There just wasn’t a lot to do in those places, so we had to use our imagination,’ she says when we talk for ScreenHub. ‘I was always writing little short stories and out in the bush running around building cubby houses, and I was very much the instigator of childhood fantasy games in the backyard with the neighbourhood kids.
‘I do have a really formative memory of being eight years old and going to see Jurassic Park with my dad at the cinema. And we didn’t have cinemas where I was when we were growing up so it was a real treat. Seeing the impact on an audience, and seeing my father awed and blown away and sucked into this fictional world – I was enamoured of it.’
She knew when she left school that she had a passion for film and television, but had no role models and no direction. She wobbled towards journalism and enrolled at Griffith University. She took a while to find her feet in a course full of people at different ages and international backgrounds, and never felt really special or singled out.
‘I was just trying to learn and figure out how all the pieces fit together. When we made student productions I gravitated very early towards the role of writer and director, and I did draw encouragement from the fact that my classmates would tend to vote to get my projects up.’
Immediately after university she grabbed a soul-destroying job in customer service in a financial planning organisation. After eight months, ‘an internship popped up on [children’s series] H20 – Just Add Water. The costume department wasn’t my field and not something I’m very good at. But it was a chance to be on a set for three months, kind of volunteering and getting to see how a professional set functions.’
Then she scored a slot in the wardrobe department of Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia (2008), in its two month Queensland shoot. ‘It was my first feature set and one of the biggest I could possibly come onto. So it was spectacular and really fascinating.’
Building a breakthrough short
After that, Ramke crewed on a lot of reality television, and met Ben Howling on Big Brother in 2008. ‘We were doing the graveyard shift. Once the contestants had gone to bed we had a bit of downtime so we starting chatting about movie trivia and passing the time and we became friends.
‘And Ben was from Sydney so it was nice when I relocated that I knew someone down there. We were working individually on things but we would read each other’s material and help on each other’s shoots.’ Those ‘things’ included being assistant props on Packed to the Rafters for Ramke.
Five years after meeting, they decided to do a Tropfest film together, co-directing from Ramke’s script. Thus the Cargo project was born, with all the key elements in that one tight seven-minute film, which made the finals early in 2013. The next day it had 50,000 hits on YouTube, pushed along by various pop culture sites.
They did not make the short as a taster for a feature – they were just fascinated by the numbers growing on YouTube, which Tropfest later claimed reached around 3.3 million over the next five months.
‘We had that kind of absurd thing of waking up one day with an email in our inbox from someone at CAA [Hollywood based Creative Artists Agency] who had seen the short and was interested in having a conversation about feature ideas.’
They didn’t know until later that he was a very junior agent trawling the fringes for a project. They had to pay their own way while CAA introduced them to some production companies. It is a familiar but important inflection point in many careers.
Hustling a feature
For the first time, they had to look at Cargo as a feature, and developed a preliminary treatment that crystallised their ideas about tone, direction and the elevation of genre. Zombies were also pretty fresh at the time.
‘We came back with two American producers attached – Russell Ackerman and John Schoenfelder, who just started a company called Addictive Pictures. I wrote probably two drafts of the script on spec with those producers attached and it became clear very quickly that this was going to be a distinctly Australian film that would have to be shot in Australia, and would need boots on the ground here.’
Kristina Ceyton and Samantha Jennings from Causeway Films got involved, just after Babadook exploded onto the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. Now the project moved quickly. They applied to the script competition run by Australians in Film, the Hollywood support organisation presided over by development executive Simmone Overend. In her day job, she was VP Scripted Television for Essential Media and Entertainment, based in Los Angeles.
Cargo won, and the project finally had some money to pay for further development. ‘It really was a gift to team up with two producers that are actually giving you notes that make sense and that are elevating and looking at holes in the story. Both of them just have a really great story brain.’
Screen Australia came in with development money while the US producers stayed in the loop for the three-year grind. They had an early presale from the UK, but everyone was waiting for bankable cast. The project went to Martin Freeman’s agent, and the English actor agreed to come on board for a tough, fast shoot split between Adelaide and the hot, dusty Flinders Ranges.
“It was a challenge. The director in me definitely wanted to kill the writer because it was just about a ambitious as you can get as a first film. Lots of locations, lots of exteriors, a first time child actor and a baby, both of whom are in almost every scene, and big stretches of distance between your locations. We did three weeks out in the Ranges and three weeks around Adelaide with a lot of six day weeks.
‘For the first week we were shooting on water, which anybody will tell you takes five times longer because the boats drift and you have to reset the camera and get people on and off the boat and all that sort of jazz.
‘We had challenges with the weather – they had literally a once in a hundred year storm and there were tornadoes taking down power lines on the day we were shooting a stunt where we had to light somebody on fire, which didn’t make it into the film …’
Causeway pulled in finance from everywhere – The Adelaide Film Festival Fund, Screen Australia, Screen NSW, the South Australian Film Corporation and deals through Umbrella Entertainment, Bankside, Head Gear Films, and of course the original producers at Addictive.
The international premiere was at Tribeca, supported by Martin Freeman, which is a compliment in itself. Cargo made $84,450 in the Australian market and left the world of cinema. But, it went to Netflix, where it has been available around the world since 2018.
After the excitement of Cargo, Ramke linked up with Simmone Overend again to develop a project on the Essential Media and Entertainment slate. But this story went sideways with the arrival of horror enfant terrible Mike Flanagan, who had made the Netflix cult series The Haunting of Hill House.
Remember how Howling and Ramke would pass the long hours at dead of night watching people sleep on Big Brother by talking movie trivia and generally chewing the fat? Those two people never really went away, despite their long, hard journey to success.
They are devoted fans of Flanagan, along with about eleventy million other tragics. He put a note on Twitter saying that he liked Cargo. ‘Once we recovered from our shock, I sent him a private message thanking him for his kind words with no expectation. He sent a lovely message back and our agent at CAA saw this trading of messages and reached out casually to Mike’s producing partner Trevor Macy.’
The gateway to international television
Flanagan was not directing all of season two, called The Haunting of Bly Manor. Howling and Ramke may already have been on a long list for the gig, but the exchange solidified into a Skype interview, a month on tenterhooks and then an email in the same casual tone. They were in to do a block of two.
‘I have so much respect for Mike and Trevor because they had decided not to go with the usual veteran TV directors. Instead they wanted to look at genre, horror genre, feature filmmakers and bring them into the fold.
‘It was the follow-up series to one of Netflix’s biggest shows of the previous year in America, with all those big Netflix toys at our disposal and huge expectations for the second season. It was a real baptism by fire and we could not have felt more supported by that company and by that team. It was such a beautiful entry into television – we were so, so freaking lucky.’
Compared to Cargo they had died and gone to heaven. They had a decent budget, interior shooting, a permanent set and gorgeous production values. They even had director’s chairs with their names on them.
Back in Australia, with The Haunting of Bly Manor making Netflix very happy with the numbers, she wrote an episode of New Gold Mountain as part of the team led by creator Peter Cox which won the 2021 AWGIE for Best Telemovie or Miniseries. So she is now accepted as a television writer in the local industry which is a useful spine to support her larger ventures.
Meanwhile, Essential Media and Entertainment in Los Angeles had changed hands to become EQ Entertainment. Simmone Overend was still involved, and the company had bought the rights to crime/detective novel Crimson Lake, written by Candice Fox, who some people call the best crime writer we have. EQ teamed up with US financing and production company AGC Studios, with Beyond Productions as a US-Australian bridge. Overend became an executive producer on the project along with a bevy of 13 other people. It is very Australian and the Ramke/Howling duo were logical local partners.
Ramke is acknowledged as the creator, with a lot of hard development yards supported by script producer Jane Allen. Now called Troppo, this eight episode jungle saga weaves two separate alleged crimes in different stories, bounces around in time, and is fully piggish in its problems. It works fine on the page, of course, but the story has to hold an audience for two episodes before it settles down to clear suspense.
This project has a full writing gang, with Ramke, Jane Allen, Andrew Lee, Blake Ayshford, Kodie Bedford, Penelope Chai and Craig Irvin. Jocelyn Moorhouse is the setup director, while Grant Brown, Catherine Millar and the Ramke Howling combo each getting two episodes.
Gone is the luxury of The Haunting of Bly Manor. Covid stopped the production from shooting in its home environment of Far North Queensland so it came down to the Gold Coast. They had limited night shoots and eight days for each episode. Which is luxury compared to many other Australian shows.
While the ABC is the local broadcaster, the international outlet is IMDB TV, the free ad-supported streaming service which is in its infancy as an Amazon product. Troppo launches in the US in May – series two will only happen if these eight episodes work for the Americans.
Once again the producers have the classic casting problem. Bankable Australian actors in the right age range for a burnt-out law enforcement survivor of mature years are otherwise busy, there may be a money problem etc. etc. So, the male lead is an American, Thomas Jane, whose performances in 2007 horror film The Mist and the comic TV series Hung reassured Ramke.
He does okay but the character is an American in a series defined intensely by its distinctive milieu. Our conversation finished with this exchange:
Me: ‘Do you get the feeling that there’s a reservoir of Australian performers who would eat a role like that? Who are unbankable?’
Ramke: ‘Yes, I do. I think there are people out there like that. Yeah, I do. I think we’ve got some great talent here that just can’t get a look-in.’
It is a problem that just won’t go away.