How To Leave Your Day Job And Make Travel Documentaries Instead
Unplanned America isn’t your normal travel doco-series. Three mates ditch the itinerary and discover America’s most unique subcultures, visiting everything from the world’s oldest BDSM training chateau to an Anarchist Skater Colony at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. But how do you go from working full time to travelling for a living? Simone Ubaldi connects the dots.
Tim ‘Gonzo’ Ryan quit his first job because he felt powerless. He was working at a major Australian television network, first as a runner and production assistant, then as a producer. For five years, it was a dream role – he learned a huge amount about TV production and made some great friends – but the last few months were filled with frustration. He felt like a cog in a machine.
Gonzo had developed, shot and edited a reality series for the network that followed a young Australian band to the States to track its fortunes with a major label. Literally weeks before the series was due to air, it was pulled and buried by the network. “We put so much into it, but in the end, it wasn’t ours. So we decided to make something that was completely ours,” Gonzo says.
An idea takes hold
With his mates, Pawel Jarecki and Nick Maher, Gonzo had cooked up a plot to take back creative control of his career. He would save some money and quit his job with the network. They would fly to America. For six months, Gonzo, Maher and Jarecki would drive around and seek out adventure, and they would film it all for television.
“Worst case scenario, we go overseas for six months and have an amazing life experience,” Gonzo thought, but there was always a chance it could blow up in his face. He was leaving a good job and a secure salary for what, a protracted holiday? Was he foolish to step away from his career and into the unknown? Happily, fate stepped in and gave Gonzo a push. The day before he was due to resign, a company-wide email went out: the network was downsizing and he would get a redundancy package. As far as signs from the universe go, this one was pretty clear.
A risky leap into the unknown
Gonzo, Maher and Jarecki made their separate ways to America, meeting up in Texas. They had roughly $50,000 between them for six months of travel, cobbled together from savings and credit cards. They bought a 1999 Camry with 300,000km on the odometer and hit the road, in search of weird and wild corners of American culture. Armed with a Canon XF100 (“The best camera a consumer can buy, shittest camera a pro can buy”), the guys had a very loose notion of what their series would be, but they had the name all figured out. A document of their brave leap into the unknown, the show was called ‘Unplanned America’.
The first series of Unplanned America was filmed in 2012 and went to air on SBS2 in 2014. With Gonzo, Maher and Jarecki as our guides, the show explores a Real Doll manufacturing business in southern California and hangs out with a group of self-appointed superhero vigilantes on the rainy streets of Seattle. It looks at urban rejuvenation in the devastated city of Detroit and makes its way into New York’s underground ballroom and vogueing scene. In a particularly memorable episode, the boys attend a festival called The Gathering of the Juggalos, where seemingly redneck fans of Insane Clown Posse gather for an annual celebration of outsider unity.
Struggle towards the finish line
Gonzo and the boys collected some phenomenal memories on their first unplanned road trip, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Living on a budget, they were crammed into cheap hotel rooms, sharing a bed or sleeping on the floor. They often camped by the side of the road, and their not-so-trusty Camry broke down more than once. Perhaps most challenging, they came home with a substantial amount of debt. They had a mountain of editing ahead of them before they could sell their show and no money to sustain them while they did it.
Jarecki camped in people’s backyards while Nick took up space on friends’ couches. “I moved back in with my parents for a good while, while we were trying to edit the show together, and that’s when I turned 30,” Gonzo laughs. “I felt quite pathetic.” They had invested everything they had into the show and they didn’t know if it would pan out. Gonzo still had doubts. He’d been out of the television industry for six months and there was no knowing he could get back in, if their self-funded fantasy ride didn’t pan out.
The risk pays off (with a little persistence)
Initially, SBS rejected the show. The boys spent six months shopping their pilot episode around to other Australian networks, with no luck. In a desperate last play, they re-cut their pilot and instead returned to SBS2, who had in the meantime done research to determine that their viewers wanted to watch road-trip adventure shows and cultural documentaries – it was a matter of right time, right place, finally. “But to give ourselves due credit, we had taken the risk to put ourselves in that place, and our tenaciousness to not take SBS’s first no for an answer is something I’m proud of,” Gonzo says.
The boys had taken a huge gamble in filming a whole series that may never see the light of day, which is certainly not the norm. But again, this paid off. “It was nice to also say in the pitch ‘we’ve got the whole series in the can, ready to edit. We just need you to back us the rest of the way.'” SBS2 bought the first, second and third series, all of which SBS International later sold to Netflix.
“In the end, I don’t think things could’ve turned out any better. SBS have been really supportive ever since we signed the contract, allowing us ample creative control as well as managing to get our show seen around the world. It’s really quite mind-blowing,” Gonzo says.
Find a way to fund your passions
Recently, Gonzo, Jarecki and Maher returned to the States to shoot Unplanned America season three. Jarecki has purchased a van, which doubles as his home, and Gonzo has moved from his parent’s house to a room above a pub. It’s hardly a rags-to-riches tale, but it’s working for the guys.
“There’s a perception that there’s lots of money in TV, but this is all self-funded. There are three of us doing the jobs that would be done by ten people on a bigger production,” Gonzo explains. “We could have edited it faster and got more freelance work. The trade off with us having creative control and making the show we want is that we’ve had to live more meagrely. But ultimately, it’s worth it.”
Unplanned America is Gonzo’s passion project. Even if he hasn’t hit the big time financially, he knows he’s on the right path.
“Had I not made this show, I probably would have gotten another job in the industry and been a lot more financially secure. But I never feel bad getting up and going to work, working on this show. I used to work in a bookstore and on the way to work I’d pray for a minor crash to happen, just something minor that would cause a bit of havoc with the traffic so that I could get to work an hour late,” Gonzo laughs. “I haven’t had that thought for a very long time.”
Season three is currently airing on SBS2.
Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read.