Since its YouTube launch in May 2018, the pilot web series Ding Dong I’m Gay has had more than three million views. Rude, crude and unashamedly horny, it follows the comedic exploits of two cousins living the gay life in Sydney. Toby is a relaxed ingenue from the country; Cameron is a neurotic wannabe trying to play guru to his naturally cooler cuz.
After proving its audience in pilot, the real-deal 6-part Season One of Ding Dong I’m Gay is currently releasing episodes weekly. (You can watch it here.)
Supported by Screen Australia and Create NSW, the project is the offspring of real life couple Tim Spencer and Joshua Longhurst. They produce the series together with Rosie Braye. The three of them form the company Wintergarden Pictures.
Spencer and Longhurst also have other roles besides producing. Spencer wrote it, together with Zoe Norton Lodge, and also stars as the uptight Cameron; while Longhurst directs episodes alongside Sarah Bishop.
Braye, whose previous credits include the award-winning short film Cherry Season (2018), also handles publicity, which she’s had ample experience with in her day job as Senior Communications Manager at publicity company NIXCo. This extra kick of marketing nous is partly why we’re aware of it here at Screenhub.
Last week we caught up with Spencer and Longhurst, and also Braye, via email, to ask about the serious side of Ding Dong I’m Gay, the nature of living and working side by side; and what’s involved in making your work a YouTube hit.
Was there ever any question in your minds that Screen Australia and Screen NSW might find this a bit rude and boundary-pushing?
Tim: Absolutely! Before we went through the first development process with Screen Australia, that was a big question mark. But both agencies were so encouraging and kept wanting us to push the envelope further.
Joshua: A little, but Screen Australia and Screen NSW were really encouraging throughout the development, and also production. Our development executives wanted us to write the version of the series we wanted to make. It’s because of that trust and encouragement we were able to create the show with authenticity and push the boundaries in a way that stays true to the intentions of the series.
Can you give us a quick rundown of the timeline of development – including initial pilot proof of concept right through to recent premiere in July?
It’s been four years since conception, and the pilot proof of concept changed everything for us. The pilot was about two years in the making, and it went on YouTube in May 2018. We’ve been working on the first season, on and off, since then. We finished the polish on the scripts in September 2019 during financing, and production on Season One commenced in February 2020.
Your pilot was incredibly popular. What actions did you take to make sure it got such reach?
We had no money, so we had to ensure we were thinking outside the box and combining traditional and non-traditional marketing techniques to ensure we could extend our reach to all the corners of the world. YouTube also provides analytics, updating in real-time, that allows you to track your project. Then together, we would use this information to make our project more accessible. Part of it is strategy and research, and part of it is analytics and determination.
What are the key lessons for making YouTube work for your series?
Tim: The biggest lesson was how to keep audiences engaged. We’re not just competing with other content, we’re competing with other apps and social media notifications, and games. The average attention span online is short, so I was conscious about writing episodes that were fast-paced with lots of action and jokes. YouTube tells you exactly when people stop watching, and while that’s brutal information, it’s a fantastic resource as a screenwriter if you can put your ego aside.
‘YouTube tells you exactly when people stop watching, and while that’s brutal information, it’s a fantastic resource as a screenwriter if you can put your ego aside.’
You started shooting this series in February 2020. How has the pandemic and lockdowns affected the production process?
Joshua: We had finished the shoot, and thankfully our editors were working on assemblies as we shot, so we were at Fine Cut stage before we went into full lockdown. It made some aspects more difficult, so we had to upskill quickly to ensure we could continue to work effectively. This process taught me to be a better communicator. Overall, everything just took longer, but we had an incredible team and support networks.
You’ve both made successful short films. What’s been the biggest learning or challenge in the move to making a web series?
Tim: For me, the increased minutes on screen was the biggest challenge. There’s so many more moving parts to consider, so many more characters that need distinctive costumes and props that need to look right for the joke to land. The machine of production is more unforgiving, but once you get into the rhythm, it’s incredibly satisfying. Working with such a talented and dedicated group of creatives was a joy. Each episode has a beginning, middle and end, but the creative team’s consistency gives the whole season a satisfying sense of unity.
Joshua: I no longer think about my creative pursuit as being purely artistic, the most significant learning from this process has been in strategy and business, and how empowering and creatively rewarding it can be.
As partners in love and life, how do you maintain a work life balance? And how do you resolve creative differences (for example when Joshua is directing Tim)? Is this hard?
Joshua: I think we are pretty good at communicating, and we have been working together for long enough now to ensure there is a clear separation in our lives.Ultimately, I love working with Tim, so I think it’s easy to do this if above everything you have creative respect for each other. As for on set, there’s no time to think about something being too hard, we’ve asked too many people to invest in the success of this idea.
Tim: We just kind of got on with it. There’s not a huge amount of time for discussion on set, but we’ve developed a shorthand over the years, and because we were working so closely during the development, a lot of conversations about Cameron’s emotional state were pretty clear for both of us. As for creative differences, I sort of nod and sulk for a while until I’m ready to accept that he’s right.
Although there are a lot of laughs in the series, there’s a serious side too. It touches on loneliness and the divisions that run through the LGBTIQA+ community, which from the outside can sometimes seem like one big happy family. If there is one positive message you’d like the series to have, what would it be?
Tim: There’s an idea that LGBTQIA+ people need to leave small towns to find connection and belonging in a big city. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes city life is equally confusing and isolating, but in different ways. There’s a lot of pathos to Cameron’s story, and this is highlighted by Toby’s immediate success in Sydney. For me, the series has always been about Cameron and Toby’s bond. Despite their differences, their love for each other is unconditional, and this has become such a foreign concept for Cameron that he really doesn’t understand it. So hold onto those people who love you for who you are, because they’re rare and precious.
‘There’s an idea that LGBTQIA+ people need to leave small towns to find connection and belonging in a big city.’
You worked with an intimacy coordinator on this project. Can you talk a bit about what you learnt from that process?
Joshua: I’ve learnt so much about intimacy on set while working with Nigel Poulton, it is difficult to distil into one idea. For me, it’s about complete trust on set, and how transparency around the intimate moments and everyone’s expectations ensures people can confidently do their job. I read a lot during pre-production to get a better understanding of how other productions had managed this in the past, and having Nigel on board meant that extensive measures were in place to ensure everyone was safe and supported.
If you had to give three top tips to a team trying to make a new web series, what would they be?
Joshua: Research as much as you can. When you are uploading to YouTube, you are more than just the production, you are the distribution and marketing team as well, you have to know how to use the tools available to you. You can’t expect the internet to accept your offering with open arms. You have to guide it through and find ways to introduce it to your audience.
Tim: Keep things simple. More locations and characters are difficult to handle on a small budget with a small crew. Accept the challenge of scaling back your vision and let it influence your creative decisions to find even better scenes and jokes. Just like in Bridesmaids, don’t let your characters get to Vegas.
Find people you like working with and who complement your skillset. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, you need to trust them and know you can work well together.
What’s next for you two and for Wintergarden Pictures? Anything you’d like to share?
Tim and Joshua: We’ve spent some time in lockdown developing our first feature film together. For Wintergarden Pictures, we are exploring options for a television adaptation of our short film, Cherry Season, and working on the development of Season Two of Ding Dong I’m Gay.
Questions for Rosie Braye
What’s it like to work with Tim and Joshua individually, and as a team?
Rosie Braye: If anyone can teach you the meaning of tenacity, it’s these two. Tim and Joshua are wildly creative and a lot of fun to work with, but it’s their determination and dedication that really impress me on the daily. Tim is a wonderful writer, and an excellent problem solver. When we’re faced with creative challenges, he always manages to find an elegant solution in his writing. He takes on feedback or constraints graciously, ruminates thoughtfully and then comes back with a new scene or line of dialogue that just does everything you need it to. As a director, Joshua brings a beautiful sensitivity to his work, a wonderful sense of visual language and a very strong artistic vision. At the same time, he is a savvy and strategic producer, whip-smart. He and I each bring something different to producing but our brains also seem to work in quite a similar way which is particularly useful when we’re on set and we’re all wearing multiple hats but working towards a shared vision.
‘If anyone can teach you the meaning of tenacity, it’s these two.’
What led you to want to form Wintergarden with them?
When first collaborating with Tim and Joshua it was clear that we all shared a love of film and a common vision for the kinds of stories we wanted to tell and see on screen. We connected through a shared passion for diversity. We all feel strongly that it’s important to tell authentic, representative and inclusive stories for a diverse audience – and we could see a gap in the market where we thought Wintergarden Pictures could sit.
We didn’t necessarily start out with the intention of starting a company together but as we began working on our first projects we quickly saw the strength in combining our different skillsets. I worked in film distribution for over a decade, specialising in marketing and publicity; Tim is an award-winning writer of theatre and film; and writer-director Joshua studied producing at AFTRS. Their beautiful short film, Oasis, had just screened on ABC iView so I reached out to see what we could do together – and now here we are!
Ding Dong I’m Gay, Season One, is currently screening on YouTube, with the season finale dropping on 19 August.