Clickbait TV show: Netflix miniseries explores the ugly side of online identities


Netflix’s new miniseries was born out of a fascination with how the internet fuels people’s worst impulses.

It was March 10, 2020, and the covid pandemic still felt like a largely overseas problem.

Sure, people were joking about carrying around hand sanitiser, but on the Melbourne set of Netflix drama Clickbait, there wasn’t a sense of the impending doom and disruption that was about to hit everyone.

Less than a week later, much like most of the TV and film industry worldwide, the production would be suspended when it became clear that covid was reaping its way around the world, including in Australia.

Clickbait still had two episodes of its eight chapters to film. At the time, no one knew how long everything would be held up – optimistically, two weeks, perhaps – but it would be more than six months and two lockdowns later before cameras started rolling again.

But on that day in March, everything was looking rosy on the soundstages in Dockland Studios.

While Clickbait was filmed in Melbourne, it was created by Australian filmmakers, local industry veteran Tony Ayres (The Slap, Home Song Stories) and writer Christian White (Relic) who had three competing offers for the show before it landed at Netflix.

Set in Oakland, California, the story kicks off with the kidnapping of family man Nick Brewer, who appears in an online hostage video holding signs that declared “I abuse women” and with the promise that once the video has been viewed 5 million times, Nick dies.

Starring Zoe Kazan, Adrian Grenier and Betty Gabriel, it’s a whodunit thriller told from a different character’s perspective each episode. Clickbait explores the murky world of internet culture and what the barrier of a computer screen unleashes from our darker natures.

“I was intrigued by the new wave of crime that exists in the world now because of the internet and social media,” Ayres told in a production office steps away from the stage where Grenier and Australian actor Daniel Henshall were filming an intense scene for episode six.

“Particularly the way we’re dealing with a multiplicity of identities now. It feels as though we’re often juggling competing identities and a fractured sense of self. That was the thematic impetus to make the show.

“We’re not talking about hacking or state-level stuff, this is the day-to-day things that people are doing to each other, with the anonymity of the internet. Things like trolling, how people can hide behind the guise of anonymity.

“The internet brings out the best and worst in people. There is a reptilian part of the brain which I think can flourish in the dark. It allows people’s worst impulses to exist.”

Trawling through the internet – and just the regular, non-dark web kind – Ayres and White jumped into subreddits, Facebook and Twitter, and found a polarised society. And this was before covid and the 2020 US elections spurred new, overwhelming waves of misinformation.

Ayres called the hate-fuelled online behaviours an “intoxication of hate, the crystal meth of emotion”.

Clickbait’s thorny subject matter was what attracted Entourage star and environmental activist Grenier, who plays Nick, to the series.

“I find it fascinating because what we thought was crime, in the olden days, was simple. Rob a bank and the FBI comes after you,” Grenier said.

“Now there are nuanced ways in which people can be terrible to each other and what that does psychologically to people is fascinating. There’s a lot of loneliness in the world and the internet and social media exacerbates that.

“There’s a rush, I suppose, when they have a sense of power as a troll, it’s like a false ego. It’s fleeting but it’s a part of our nature, our psychology to bolster that part of us that makes us feel powerful.”

Grenier, Kazan and Gabriel were among the American actors who flew in to film Clickbait but there were local talent among the cast too, including Henshall, Phoenix Raei, Ian Meddows, Renee Lim and Taylor Ferguson.

That hybrid of Australia and America makes Clickbait unusual – and it was threaded all through the co-production between Matchbox Pictures, Heyday Television and Tony Ayres Production.

Left-hand driving cars and lane reversals were used on the streets of Melbourne to mimic American norms while little details such as US-style power points were built into the Brewer home on set.

The set for the Brewer home, modelled after a real house in Camberwell, evoked a West Elm catalogue, furnished to convey an easygoing, middle-class Californian home.

Even though it will barely be noticed on camera, there are American cereal brands on the kitchen countertops while even the rolls of paper towels are wider than the ones found in Australian supermarkets.

Setting the story conceived by two Australians in the US was born out of Ayres’ desire to expand beyond his Australian experiences.

“There was a version of it set in England but then we shifted it to America,” Ayres explained. “I started a new company a couple of years ago, which was much more international-focused.

“I was always intrigued by trying to set a show in another country and [the story] sort of suited America as a setting because it’s such an extreme place.”

The production hired two Americans as part of its writers room, Melissa Scrivner-Love and Bradford Winters, who helped the Australian filmmakers to understand the differences between the cultures.

“It really helped to have Americans voices in the mix, so we could understand their particular view of the world, and the vernacular,” Ayres said.

The cultural exchange worked in reverse as well – Ayres revealed that the American writers had no idea what a “dag” was, a term often thrown around in the writers room.

Clickbait’s budget constrained the production from actually shooting the whole thing in the US – although it did do some exteriors scenes around Oakland, which is west of San Francisco across the bay.

Ayres was confident he could replicate suburban Oakland in Melbourne.

“I felt that was something we could achieve in Australia,” he said. “And I’m a huge fan of Australian crews and Australian cast. I wanted the opportunity to try to prove that by doing an American show in Australia.

“This is a great opportunity for global exposure for the Australian cast and crew, to get an American credit.”

Ayres said it was still important for Australian filmmakers to be telling Australian stories in Australian accents, but Clickbait was a “sidebar” to the local content quota debate – an ongoing debate that has been kicked on in part because of the influx of international streamers such as Netflix.

“Australia is a small industry with an enormous amount of talent, but it is a very delicate ecosystem and content quotas are part of that ecosystem. We’re not a free market and there are very few free markets in the world within our industry.

“We do need a level of intervention to exist. There are really sound economic and cultural arguments for why we should exist. Identity is a fragile thing that we need to protect as an industry. We should be protecting what we see on our screens.”

So, while Clickbait isn’t an Australian story from an Australian storyteller who’s been in the game for three decades, there is still a thread of local DNA inherent in the production.

Even if the word “dag” isn’t spoken onscreen.

Clickbait is on Netflix from Wednesday, August 25

Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima

The writer travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Netflix

Originally published as Clickbait miniseries: The American TV show that was created in Melbourne

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