1957: Australian country-music star Slim Dusty releases A Pub with No Beer, a song about an outback boozer that’s run dry. It races up the charts worldwide, reaching sixth in Germany, third in Britain and first in Belgium and Austria – because, clearly, some fears are universal.
2017: 25-year-old animator Josh O’Keefe prepares to host a pilot screening for his surreal, outback-themed series Doomlands at The Tote Hotel. A beer-less, subterranean, Coober Pedy-style pub is central to the plot.
“Beer’s the only form of hydration in this world,” O’Keefe says. “There are little kegs buried underground and the characters have to find them … They just live off beer, à la Wake in Fright.
That works fine – until one of the four main characters accidentally gives the pub’s entire stash of beer to her friends, who are headed for a bush doof on a sacred mountain. Two characters set off in pursuit of the liquid gold, while two others stay behind to deal with a rapidly approaching happy hour. Car chases and drug-fuelled trips ensue.
O’Keefe got top marks when he presented a few scenes in 2015, during his final year studying film at Swinburne University.
“I proposed a pilot episode and [the professors] were like, ‘Really? We don’t know anything about animation.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, all my mates do. Just help me with the storytelling and getting it all together.”
Coincidentally, Swinburne had begun offering a dedicated animation stream that year. O’Keefe was two years too early to take advantage of it, but he cut a deal with a lecturer and got help from some first-year students. He also started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $7000, which ultimately hauled in $11,000. Still, O’Keefe estimates the 13-minute pilot cost $20,000 to produce – and that was with help from a lot of his friends, including two other animators.
“I’d never made anything like this before, so I was expecting it to be done by the end of the year,” he says. Instead, it took two, with O’Keefe beginning his own freelance animation business – and becoming frontman for a band – in that time.
“But Doomlands was always simmering away,” he says. “It being done is bucket-list type stuff. Anything else is bonus.”
But that “bonus” is aiming incredibly high: at Hollywood. In January he hopes to pitch Doomlands to Netflix, Hulu, Cartoon Network and anyone else who will meet him.
“We want to do eight to ten episodes, 20 to 30 minutes long for international distribution. That’s the end goal for us,” he says.
O’Keefe is fortunate enough to have found his way into Bing Bong studios, a loose collective of talented animators working in Northcote. It includes Andrew Onorato, who also works on Doomlands, and whose work has appeared on the Adult Swim network and in the game Fallout 4. Then there’s Julian Frost, the guy behind Metro’s Dumb Ways to Die video, which has 156 million YouTube views; and Ivan Dixon and Paul Robertson, who work on Rick and Morty and Adventure Time, and also have a Simpsons credit sequence to their names.
So O’Keefe won’t be going into any meetings with his eyes closed. “Usually when people pitch, they don’t even have a pilot,” he says. “We’ve got that, and we’ve also got this pretty kick-arse production bible that outlines all the characters.”
Another plus: he recently met Adam Parton, an animation director for BoJack Horseman who works in Korea. “He wants to attach his name to the project and help us sell it.”
At this point, it looks like the pilot’s extreme Australianness will be either its ticket to success or its undoing. Will American studio execs and an American audience appreciate the references to Australian pop culture and vintage Ozploitation flicks such as Mad Max, Wake in Fright, The Cars That Ate Paris and Fair Game? (Or our impenetrable slang, and sense of humour, for that matter?)
It’s hard to say. But O’Keefe would love to spread a bit of our culture around. “We grew up watching The Simpsons, and now we know more presidents than prime ministers,” he says. “If we can create something like that in Australia … instead of Clinton jokes or Nixon jokes, we can have Howard jokes or Abbott jokes.”