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Kiwi web series Pot Luck's themes find universal attraction

Writer-director Ness Simons says her lesbian web series has universal themes: “Friendship, finding love, dealing with ageing parents.”

Ness Simons has turned her love of pot-luck dinners into a globally popular web series.

Ness Simons needs a nap. “Scratch that: I need a long camping trip off the grid.”

In August, she took 15 days off her full-time job as head tutor at the New Zealand Film & Television School in Wellington to shoot the second series of her web series Pot Luck, and since then survived on six hours’ sleep a night to finish it. The six episodes, totalling 90 minutes, went live on December 10. It was then Simons, 39, could take that nap.

Pot Luck is a “dramedy” about three 30- and 40-something lesbian friends, and their attempts to stick to a pact made at their weekly pot-luck dinner. Player Mel (Nikki Si’ulepa) agrees to sleep solo until lovelorn Debs (Anji Kreft) gets a date, while Beth (Tess Jamieson-Karaha) promises to come out to her mum.

The series is a rock-solid partnership between writer-director Simons, who is gay, and producer Robin Murphy, who is not. “It’s come out of my head creatively,” Simons says, “but I can only do it because Robin is a sounding board, makes things happen and irons out any niggles, often before they happen.”

Murphy, who’s based in Hawke’s Bay but often works in Wellington, met Simons at a New Zealand Film Commission do, and both fancied making a web series. First up was Active in Hell, a 2013 documentary web series following three intellectually disabled young people taking part in a work-training initiative by IHC and Hell Pizza. Simons decided a fictionalised web series was next. “And is there anything more lesbian than a pot-luck dinner?”

The three stars of Pot Luck, from left: Mel (Nikki Si’ulepa), Debs (Anji Kreft) and Beth (Tess Jamieson-Karaha).

She has mixed feelings, however, about the promotional tagline: “New Zealand’s first lesbian web series.”

“We have an acceptance [of being gay] generally in society but it’s often surface-level,” she says. “I wanted queer people to see a reflection of their lives, but Pot Luck’s also about showing the characters aren’t just lesbians. It has universal themes: friendship, finding love, dealing with ageing parents.”

With Simons’ regular collaborators Pikihuia Haenga (director of photography) and Jules Lovelock (first assistant director) on board, Pot Luck’s first season was shot on a skeletal budget ($22,500 crowdfunding, plus small grants from Wellington City Council, the Emerging Artists Trust and Hell Pizza). Local businesses provided in-kind support including equipment, car rentals and accommodation.

Released in mid-2016, Pot Luck exceeded everyone’s expectations. So far, it’s clocked up 2.5 million unique views, and has shown (and won prizes) at local and international web-series festivals. With fans clamouring for more, NZ On Air’s Digital Fund granted the project $100,000, which paid cast and crew (albeit at discounted rates); this was topped up with crowdfunding, small grants and, again, support from local businesses.

Hell’s sponsorship is no accident. Aged 23, Simon decided the timing wasn’t right for film school and she could do with some business experience. She worked in the pizza chain’s original Kelburn store, then opened one franchise and bought another, selling up six years later to do the one-year course at film school. “Then I crewed on sets, made short film Actually Alex, and made music and corporate videos.” She got the tutoring job a year ago, and also teaches scriptwriting online through Whitireia.

Simons, who lives at Waikanae Beach, has never underestimated the difficulty of building a career in this industry. But she’s got grit.

“At one point, Actually Alex was in a US festival, Pot Luck was playing at DubWebFest in Ireland, and I thought, ‘This is small fry, but something’s going right.’ And this is exactly what I want to do with my life.” 

This was published in the January 2018 issue of North & South.