COVID-19 has turned the entertainment industry upside down. Projects have halted, theatres are closed, but many in the field have navigated new ways to continue to tell stories in step with this tumultuous time.
Renowned theatre actor André Sills, indie director Dennis Nicholson, and Muskoka resident and filmmaker Oliver Ward are three such creatives who found inspiration in the chaos, harnessing their talents to produce Private Idiots, a buddy comedy web series that’s garnering buzz with fans and critics alike.
Over the course of nine episodes, each of which hovers around five minutes long, the audience gets to know a pair of private investigators—Boise Jobs (Oliver Ward) and Steve Mann (André Sills)—who seem to have nothing in common but their work and a love of Toronto takeout. In the confined quarters of a small sedan, the audience watches and listens as the two debate a range of topics, from the mundane—like the quality of chain restaurant coffee—to the timely, like the role that white women, or “Karens”, play in systemic racism. All of these conversations happen while the duo is covertly following a vaccine scientist who may be a key figure in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sills, Nicholson, and Ward have been friends and collaborators for over a decade, and when the pandemic hit they had nothing but open schedules and ample inspiration for timely content. The trio ran what they called a “Writers’ Zoom”, a mini writers’ room where the three connected on Zoom every week to work on the outline for the season, assign episodes for each of them to write, do read-throughs and work on script revisions.
With the nine-episode season written they were ready to film. Ward would travel from his home base in Huntsville and Sills would come in from his home in Hamilton. They would meet Nicholson at his home and film in his car, driving to a variety of locations on Toronto’s east side. With safety at the forefront, they filmed with just a two-person crew; Nicholson served as both director and sound producer. Several talented friends also took on the role of guest cinematographer for various blocks of shooting, all following all the provincial safety protocols, filming two episodes a night.
Sills—who is a favourite on Stratford (Robert LePage’s Coriolanus), Shaw (An Octoroon) and Toronto stages and was in the original stage cast of Kim’s Convenience—says that creating the series presented a chance to fill a creative void when he would normally be on stage or in front of the camera. Developing the show also provided some catharsis for Sills during a challenging time.
“Creating Private Idiots really was a saving grace in the midst of the ever-changing world of 2020,” he says. “To go from eight months of work to nothing, meeting via Zoom with the boys once a week to carefully craft the world of Private Idiots gave me a way to channel all the of the emotions I was feeling at the time.”
The series does explore several emotionally charged issues. Ward, who originally created the two main characters for a short film back in 2012, sees the protagonists as average guys who are just trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world.
“No one really has all of the answers to all of this craziness we’re facing right now,” he says. “They epitomize how lost many of us have felt lately.” Though it is Ward’s character Boise who seems to be the most easily confused by conspiracy theories and navigating his position in society. While his intentions aren’t malicious, Boise is often too quick to spout off the first thought that enters his hipster bro, Joe Rogen-loving mind, setting off his partner who finds his white privilege and naïveté hard to stomach.
Scenes play out a bit like the comments section of a 2020 news story brought to life, only without the vitriol and a lot more humour. Filmed in unbroken, fast-talking, single takes, these guys don’t shy away from sharing their opposing opinions with one another, anything from their favourite film director to their choice of breakfast syrup. And while Steve, who owns the operation, maintains theirs is a strictly employer-employee relationship, the audience can clearly see that, like a lot of connections in 2020, over time the close quarters and honest conversations deepen the bond between these two.
The binge-worthy series already has a bit of a cult following, garnering rave reviews from both critics and fans who can relate to the raw content. NOW Magazine gave it “NNNN/5” and calls it “timely, informative and fun.” The creators are pleased with the response.
“My hope is that through laughter, people can examine themselves and find a way to talk again,” says Sills. “Like these two do, it’s not always perfect but at least they are trying.”
Private Idiots is available on YouTube here. The series was directed by Dennis Nicholson. It was written, created, and produced by Oliver Ward, André Sills, and Dennis Nicholson. It also guest stars Vienne Hehir, Billy MacLellan, Mark Brombacher, and Ivana Kingston.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!