Lara Azzopardi has been a producer on such shows asÂ Lost Girl, The Listener, The L.A. Complex and Combat Hospital, and totally switched genres when she became showrunner, writer and director on Backstage, Family Channel’s series about the artisticÂ kids attending an arts high school.
Pregnant with her third child, she expected the usual six to eight-month show development so she could give birth before filming would begin. Nope: Producers Fresh TV accepted her series bible and pilot script on a Friday and greenlit it the following Monday. Filming 30 episodes of Backstage in 30 days was tough enough, but Azzopardi had just given birth, meaning baby was on-set through the entire process. Combine that with the fact her cast was made up of singers and dancers with little formal acting training, and Azzopardiâ€™s ride has been a wild one.
I’m fascinated with the behind-the-scenes of television, and I think you’ve got to be the only showrunner I know that was hauling a newborn around during production.
Lara Azzopardi: It was not planned that way! [Laughs.] I would never have been able to do that if it was my first baby. I don’t think I would have had the courage. It all kind of worked out in a crazy way and I felt I knew kind of what I was doing. But when I think about it now, it was pretty insane.
Fresh TV pitched this “Fame for kids” idea to you. What was it that excited you about their idea?
They had put together a two-page document that had a very general synopsis of the school and stock characters of the people they wanted to see in it. I had never done a kid’s show before. I had written a freelance script at the beginning of my career for Degrassi and that was eight years ago. When I met them, they had read a spec script and a script from The L.A. Complex, and they wanted to meet me from that.Â I’m a huge fan of shows like My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights, and I told them, ‘I’m interested in doing a Fame that’s grounded and, as a parent, I’d love to watch too.’ I went off and wrote a pretty big bible. I wrote fast. I’m a pretty big fan of ensemble series, so I was excited. We sent in the script on the Friday and it was greenlit on the Monday and I was due three weeks after that.
I’ve been in development before, and it usually lasts at least a year if you’re lucky. So, when I took this on I figured I had time to get notes, do re-writes and see what happens.
Not only did they greenlight it, but they greenlit it for 30 half-our episodes.
I’ve seen the first two, and you pack so much into those two episodes that it seems daunting to write 30. Was it daunting? How did you do it?
At the time, I didn’t know what I was in for and it was happening so fast. By the end of itâ€”and we have three stories per episodeâ€”we wrote about 97 stories. That’s credit to my writing team Kate Hewlett, Lauren Gosnell, Matt Schiller, Scott Oleszhowicz and Jennifer Pertsch. I had my baby in my arms when we started the room and were breaking an episode a day, sometimes an episode and a half a day. We wouldn’t leave the room until it was done. The baby was in the writers’ room in a sling and we were breaking from 10 a.m. until, sometimes, midnight.
The reason for the rush, too, was that we wanted to get that Friday Night Lights look, which meant filming on location, which meant a real school … which meant we would only have the school from when it let out in the spring until it went back in for the fall. We shot using two crews at the exact same time in the same location shooting four episodes as a time. We filmed 30 episodes in 30 days. I have to give credit to the cast and crew; these kids had four scripts in their heads and once and the crew were passing the scripts between them.
At the end of the day,Â BackstageÂ is a coming-of-age story for all of these kids. They are figuring out who they are until graduation and even then some of them might not know who they are.
Do the 30 episodes represent one year of studies at Keaton School of the Arts?
Let’s talk about working with the kids in your cast. I’m assuming not very many had acting experience?
We cast real dancers and real singers, so I think because they all had a discipline they had worked at, they brought a drive and professionalism with them. I was nervous because we were casting non-actors and had a crazy schedule. They were up for the challenge. We had two acting coaches on hand and had done an acting workshop beforehand and I was available anytime they needed.
I like the usage of the characters speaking to the camera, like a confessional.
That came from necessity and from creative. For me, it was backstage not only in these kids’ lives but also backstage in their heads. It’s what they’re really thinking and feeling. It allowed us to be very subtle when we’re in the moment in the show and that subtext is said in the confessionals. We shot all of the confessionals at the end of production.
We meet Vanessa and Carly right away and see the first day of school through their eyes. But they have a major fallout and are at odds. Will they become friends again?
It’s a journey. I have three daughters and I really tried to write a friendship in terms of how I’d love to react with my girlfriends or daughters. There are going to be arguments and I just hope we made a show where both girls are right and wrong. There will be lots of ups and downs.
Jax is an interesting character. You want to like him, but right now he’s an arrogant jerk.
Jax is someone who has had some success and then goes to a school where everyone is good and he’s not better. There is quite a journey that he goes through over the 30 episodes and he learns a lot about himself.
At the end of the day, Backstage is a coming-of-age story for all of these kids. They are figuring out who they are until graduation and even then some of them might not know who they are.
Backstage airs Fridays at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Family Channel.