In deep water

When Jaquie Brown frets on television about the shape of her head, she has Gerard Johnstone to thank. The writer, director and editor of The Jaquie Brown Diaries spends much of his time plotting his star’s most uncomfortable adventures—and the rest getting them to air. Florence Noble—part of the new series cast—tracks his journey from stunt school drop-out to creating our funniest sitcom.

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Photographs by Florence Noble

When Jaquie Brown frets on television about the shape of her head, she has Gerard Johnstone to thank. Johnstone, the writer, director and editor of The Jaquie Brown Diaries, spends much of his time plotting his star’s most uncomfortable adventures—and the rest getting them to air. —part of the new series cast—tracks his journey from stunt school drop-out to creating our funniest sitcom

I sit opposite Gerard Johnstone in a rigid poo-green booth at a popular cafe in Parnell, a few blocks from where he is currently editing series two of what he is now trying to call The Jaquie Brown Odyssey. He has a flat white. I am having breakfast. “Why the name change?” I ask, spitting mushroom on his face. “We decided to do away with the voiceovers.” He winces. “At the time, Sex and the City was around and we wanted to parody that, but it’s not relevant anymore and it bored me having to punctuate everything with a thought track. This series is stylistically quite different. Tonally, it’s a shift into the surreal. It’s like a bit of an adventure that Jaquie goes on, so we thought that ‘Odyssey’ would be quite cool. These questions are shit.”

Johnstone was born in Invercargill. Ever since, it seems, each day has been devoted to an endless ineffectual quest to be cool. At 12, he achieved a black belt in kung fu. “I wasn’t very good at other sports, I couldn’t catch a ball till I was 17.” I envisage a montage of a fully-grown Johnstone missing a ball and practicing kung fu. “I don’t do it anymore. I wear really tight jeans so I can’t do any head-high kicks. I could still hold my own with a chick though, I reckon.”

At 18, Johnstone moved to Christchurch to live with his father and tried, for the second time, to finish seventh form. “I had problems.” He pauses. “At the time my dad was a big drinker and I had to move out of home. But I was in a weird age bracket, where I was too young to get an independent benefit and too old to get student allowance. So my only choice was to leave school and go on the dole.”

I didn’t think directing was an option. I thought I would be getting a job on a film set—but I’m that guy on the film set they end up having to fire because I’m useless

Back then, Johnstone was a wigger. “I’d always wanted to be Maori. I’d grown up around predominantly Maori people, and I hung out with a bunch of guys that were all into hip-hop and stuff like that.” (Years later this role-playing helped him score a small part in Sione’s Wedding. “I heard about that film and knew Chris Graham through working at C4. I called him and said: ‘Can I be in that film?’ It was as simple as that. I got a call back for the main wigger, but then on the call back they said ‘You do a really good white guy pretending to be Maori. Could you do white guy pretending to be Samoan?’ And it just threw me. I can only do one type of wigger.”)

Johnstone enrolled at the only school in Christchurch that would take him. “It was quite an arty and hippie school and there were all these geeky white kids. For the first time I realised you could be skinny and white and that could be cool. My music tastes and everything changed and I got into media studies and drama.”

After failing to complete seventh form and being rejected by South Seas film school, Johnstone left for Australia to join a stunt academy. “I think what I was angling for was to be the next Jean-Claude Van Damme, but by the time I was old enough, everyone had moved on.”

The stunt course cost a couple of thousand dollars—which is all Johnstone had. He was forced to quit and wound up working in a meat factory for eight months. “A large part of that time I worked in the cold stores with a man on prison leave, who suggested on a couple of occasions that he might rape or stick a knife in me if I upset him. We had to wear balaclavas and shift boxes of meat.”

After that year, Johnstone returned to New Zealand; worked in another factory for another year; finally got into film school; finished; got a job directing promos at TV3; and then entered the 48 Hours Film Fest in 2003 as a director and won. “That was the start of trying to get into directing. Before that, I didn’t even think it was an option. I thought I would be getting a job on a film set—but I’m that guy on the film set that they end up having to fire because I’m useless.”

Johnstone heard through the grapevine that the TV3 drama and comedy commissioner at the time, Caterina de Nave, had seen his film and had showed interest in receiving pitches from him. Johnstone pitched an idea he had for a high school comedy, about a skinny white kid who couldn't get a girlfriend. De Nave didn’t bite.

In 2005, Johnstone’s team entered 48 Hours again. They won $10,000 and used it to make a 16-minute pilot of the high school comedy, which he took to TV2 and TV3. Both channels showed interest and Johnstone went with TV3, but the project only got as far as development. “There wasn’t enough funding for us that year. But because we’d made a pilot that looked like something they would broadcast, they didn’t have any qualms about letting me do The Jaquie Brown Diaries.”

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Today, in August 2009, Johnstone looks into his coffee and frowns. “At the moment I’m in worrying mode. There are things that I think I could be really proud of, but we had six months to edit the first series and this time we only have two. This series was very ambitious in terms of locations, cast and stunts. Everything required more time and money and we didn’t have it. I was rewriting episodes, re-planning for these episodes, and my attention was being taken up on things that should have been sorted out months ago, so I wasn’t doing any prep for what was coming up. It wasn’t much fun.”

“Gerard amazes me often,” Jaquie Brown tells me later. “How he writes, directs and edits. And even though it's intense and stressful he doesn't get angry or lose the plot. He keeps it all inside. Sure, he'll probably get some sort of stomach disease later in life for keeping his stress and frustration inside, but for now I appreciate that, because I'm sensitive to noises.”

At the first cast read-through, Johnstone used the BBC series The Mighty Boosh as an example of how he wished the dialogue of his second series to flow. “It’s so confident and fast-paced. They’ve got these streams of dialogue. Sometimes you give an actor a page of dialogue and they go ‘Aargh!’, or when they come to do it they get nervous and forget their lines. It’s frustrating because you can make this stuff really sing and there are people out there who can. So it was important to me to use Boosh as a reference for the pace and feel of it.”

Speaking of confident performers, Johnstone and I met Steve Coogan a few months earlier. He laughs when I ask how he found that. “It was all right, I guess. I didn’t really talk to him. He was more interested in talking to the girls. It made him very human. When he showed us YouTube clips in his hotel room, I was watching him watching us watching the clips. It was like he was trying to gauge what people were finding funny, which I think was really telling. It’s a tough job trying to second-guess what people find funny. That’s why pace is good. Because then you’re saying, ‘I don’t care if you’re finding this funny, we’re moving on.’ Whereas, if you present jokes to people like joke … joke … they’ll say ‘Hmmm, yeah I’m not sure.’”

There are a lot of self-deprecating jokes about the star’s appearance in both series of Johnstone’s show, as there is in Ricky Gervais’ Extras. But Gervais writes jokes about himself, and Johnstone jokes about Jaquie Brown.

“Gerard is always writing in insults about me being unattractive and fat and repulsive to the opposite sex,” says Brown. “I've come to accept this is his way of showing he cares. It's nice really. Each time I read a script that has something about the shape of my head or my tits being lop-sided I think, ‘Aw, thanks Gerard. I know you care.’” Johnstone laughs. “She understands that I think she’s a very attractive lady. It’s just funny laughing at our imperfections.“

People who criticise New Zealand comedy in the media are usually fucking clueless. It brings out this idea to the rest of New Zealand that we can’t make comedy and maybe we shouldn’t bother

On the first series many ideas came from experiences that Brown has actually had, like going to the gynaecologist and being recognised. Other ideas came from Johnstone’s time working at C4. “I observed Jaquie, the other presenters and TV people in general,” he says, “They have really short shelf lives and I was pondering what that must be like and how insecure they must be. Jaquie was one of the presenters who was really lovely. You’d never know if she was insecure—but other presenters, not so much.”

In the first series, Johnstone teamed up with writer Jodie Molloy. “Jodie had a lot of good ideas from working in publicity, where she had first-hand experience of what it’s like to deal with show ponies and the bullshit of working at a network. One of the main characters, Kim Sharee, is a publicist, so Jodie had a really good ear for the kind of stuff that she’d get into.”

Their process of coming up with ideas seems simple. “We’d do a lot of shooting-the-shit kind of talk, and she’d get onto a story about how a guy tried to staunch a nosebleed by putting a tampon in his nostril and how his nose swelled up, and then little things like that ended up making it into the show. And other things like the fact that Jaquie always gets called Jackie Clarke, we had to do something with that. There is a lot of material there to begin with.”

The second series was different. Johnstone worked with Molloy a lot less because she wasn’t available. And having run out of true stories, his ideas had to be created from scratch.

Johnstone gives himself a clear brief to refine his ideas. “This is a show about a TV personality. The ideas for the show have to do with Jaquie’s situation; being who she is. Because if you’re just walking down the street going, ‘Is that funny?’ you can say no, it doesn’t work because it doesn’t have anything to do with being a TV personality.” It’s that simple? “Pretty much.”

Johnstone is one of NZ comedy’s self-proclaimed critics—to his friends—but he gets frustrated with critics who feel the need to publicly bag it. “People who criticise New Zealand comedy in the media are usually fucking clueless, like they have no idea how hard it is to make a show and how decisions are made. They’re not researching and it’s destructive because it just brings out this idea to the rest of New Zealand that ‘Oh, we can’t make comedy.’ And ‘Maybe we shouldn’t bother.’ It’s a vicious cycle.”

Does he think there are funny New Zealanders out there? “Yes! There are funny people out there and people with good ideas. We could possibly have a Mighty Boosh or an Office, but those people need to be supported and invested in. But we don’t have a culture of nurturing the right type of comedy.”

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Johnstone says he has no interest in making a series three of Jaquie Brown. He does however want to continue writing and directing. “TV can be a really fun format but it’s tough, especially in New Zealand. I think I’d like to get more experience and keep making things. Something with a budget, something with a little bit more time, so whether that’s a film or another TV series, I don’t mind. As long as it’s good and as long as I enjoy myself.”

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