David de Lautour’s Alibi


For almost 20 years now, David de Lautour has tripped back and forth between NZ and the US. He studied at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy on an acting scholarship. Now he lives in Los Angeles and Auckland, moving back and forth as work requires.

His time in two quite different cultures has given him what he hopes is a best-of-both-worlds personality. He has a level of self-confidence more common in American culture, and he loves Kiwi ingenuity – and rugby.

Over the last 25 years, he’s appeared in a wide range of shows including US network shows Hart of Dixie, NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles, made-in-NZ titles Xena: Warrior Princess, Power Rangers and Legend of the Seeker, local shows Being Eve and, as All Black Stephen Donald, in TV movie The Kick.

He’s best-known here for the Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside, in which he plays the younger version of the late Frank Whitten’s Ted West. The show is currently in production for season five.

The show has been TV3’s most successful homegrown drama in a while. It took the Best Actress and Best Drama Series at last year’s NZ TV Awards to add to its win at the New York Festivals’ Word’s Best Awards in 2016.

Like most actors, David has periods of time when he’s “resting”. Like many other Los Angeles-based actors he puts some of that time to use developing his own projects. During his presentation, David returned a few times to the theme of doing what you want to do (or need to do) to get something done. When he had no acting work, he turned to writing. When he felt the urge to see something he’d written get made, he turned to directing. When he’d shot something, he realised he’d have to learn to edit.

“You never know what you’ll learn from doing stuff,” he reckoned. One thing he learned by becoming actor, writer, director, and editor was an appreciation of what the people in various roles bring to the table – and how not to piss them off. “Don’t do line reads,” he said about how not to help actors interpret a scene. Just because you know how you’d do it, don’t impose that on someone else. And, when something’s in post, don’t be annoying when the editor is doing their stuff.

Three’s company

As everybody knows, the entertainment industry runs on relationships. David enjoys the collaborative nature of filmmaking, whether that’s working with cast and crew on set, in post with an editor, or with a writing partner. (David’s wife Hannah Marshall is the co-creator and co-writer for Alibi.)

Actor and producer Gareth Williams completed the team behind Alibi. David reckoned that an odd number of people in the creative team helped prevent them getting stuck. This was especially true, he noted, when the writing team are husband and wife. “You’ve always got a tie-breaker!”

He welcomes input, and looks to deliver benefit as well as deriving benefit from others’ work. He said that whatever set or show he was on, he always made an effort to learn everybody’s name.

Asked how he chose the production company, Flying Fish, for Alibi, David admitted he didn’t really choose. “We had one option.”

When they first met with Fish, David admitted he was “just hoping they wouldn’t steal our idea”.

Far from dipping their fingers in the till, Flying Fish became excellent partners. Predominantly known for commercial work, they were looking for more opportunities to do dramatic work to build the Flying Fish Entertainment brand. Fish also has post facility, Mandy, in the same building. Good timing was also part of getting Alibi through the doors at TVNZ. When team Alibi was ready to pitch to prospective partners, TVNZ was seeking material for its OnDemand platform. TVNZ was open to exploring the opportunities online platforms offered, beyond being a home for episodes of existing shows.

The ability to release a whole season all at once online is one of the main differences from linear TV. Alibi took that a step further. Not only did the series arrive all at once, but the episodes could be watched in any order. (Each episode focuses on one character’s alibi for the time when Jodie Foster was killed.)

The final episode, the reveal of who actually dunnit, released a couple of weeks later.

The structure of the show was an important part of the concept. David noted that – when he’s writing – he focuses on the structure. But he also stressed that the structure served the concept. He didn’t want to sell the show (either to funders or audiences) on any novelty value the structure had.

Something shitty

One thing he said the team never did was to refer to Alibi as a web series, but always as a TV show or online production.

“Say ‘web series’ and people think comedy or something shitty,” he said. “We wanted to make drama.”

As web fest organisers we’d obviously beg to differ about what percentage of web series are comedy or shitty. However, David is right about the perception of web series in some quarters – and perhaps especially for people whose background is broadcast TV.

David praised TVNZ for getting on board with the idea, and for rubber-stamping the creative and casting decisions the team wanted to make, rather than being heavily involved in dissecting or reworking them. To some degree, he believes that this was down to the team setting their sights high.

In concept, casting, production values and vision, the show felt like a TV show apart from obvious differences like the release schedule and episode length.

David did credit TVNZ with input into the production. They wanted a bigger presence for the show than just the episodes online, and wanted it to engage in other ways than just “watching TV”. The Awatihi Community Newspaper on facebook and the instagram page for character @freakymaliky, came out of this multi-platform plan.

Some of the other things that distinguish web series from TV also appealed to David, including the shorter length of the process. It took, David reckons, around 18 months from coming up with the idea for Alibi to shooting it.

David spoke about putting the team together at various stages of the project, and what was luck, karma or smart decision-making.

“We had high standards,” he said, which helped draw actors of the calibre of Joel Tobeck to the show, but most of them still read for roles. Xavier Horan (David’s fellow cast member on Westside) and Fasitua Amosa read for their roles, “and blew us away”.

Working with experienced actors was one of the pleasures of the project for David. “Every take is great, every take is usable, and they give you something subtly different with each take.”

Mood reels are great, “because you don’t have to pay for them”. But when you show people a mood clip that’s cut from shows like The Night Of, Top of the Lake and True Detective, they know you’re aiming high.

Use your connections

Working on Westside at South Pacific Pictures, the country’s largest producer of TV drama, delivered a number of benefits for Alibi.

Since the end of season 1, David has badgered SPP to allow him to direct a block of the show. In season 5, which is currently in production, he’s finally got his wish. After originally turning him down, and turning him down again, SPP allowed him to direct a couple of scenes, and then a day’s shooting.

But Alibi also bolstered his case significantly – and not only because it was good. The team was smart enough to invite SPP’s CEO Kelly Martin to be a consultant on Alibi. She got to see first-hand how David handled being something other than an actor.

Martin wasn’t the only SPP person on the team. When it came to planning the production, the team chose to shoot Alibi in December (2017). That followed a season of Westside wrapped and came before production started on a season of SPP’s Brokenwood Mysteries. That allowed David to talk to a number of the crew and encourage them to do Alibi during downtime, secure in the knowledge that they had “proper jobs” already lined up to go on to.

A second season of Alibi isn’t on the cards here, but the idea might have further to run. David reckoned that it would also be possible to put together a linear version of Alibi – and that’s something he’s discussing with producers in the US at present.

In the meantime, David has got another season of Westside under his belt. Gareth and Hannah recently received support from the NZFC’s He Kauahi scheme for short Frankie Jean and the Morning Star. All three creators, plus SPP CEO Kelly Martin, picked up NZFC/NZ On Air development support for series Rockburn as part of the Raupapa Whakaari Drama to the World initiative.

Watch Alibi on TVNZOD.

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Published on 14 May 2019