Young female detective takes notes during interrogation.
Credit: Vidya Rajan
Stories & Ideas

Tue 23 Jan 2024

Anton De Ionno
Anton De Ionno

ACMI X Community Coordinator

Anton De Ionno interrogates Vidya Rajan and Jesse Vogelaar on their new ABC series Ruby Rai P.I., creating Ruby Rai, collaborating and Melbourne's not-so-secret private investigator racket.

Ruby Rai P.I. is the new series from comedian and writer-performer Vidya Rajan (which she co-wrote with Elyce Phillips) about an aspiring gumshoe sleuthing her way through Melbourne's underworld while navigating an endless parade of unhinged characters and pony-related trauma.

The series was commissioned as part of the ABC and Screen Australia's Fresh Blood initiative, which awards 10 projects with $50,000 each to produce a three-episode comedy web series. Ruby Rai P.I. also marks the second collaboration for Rajan and writer-director Jesse Vogelaar, both of whom are ACMI X residents.

The ABC recently dropped all three episodes of Ruby Rai P.I. on Youtube, which you can devour here.

ACMI X Community Coordinator Anton De Ionno interrogated Rajan & Vogelaar on creating Ruby Rai, collaborating like "little angels", and Melbourne's not-so-secret private investigator racket.

Anton De Ionno: Ruby Rai is joining a long and illustrious line of beloved television detectives. Those are some big, orthopaedic shoes to fill! Were you thinking about any iconic sleuths when creating the character of Ruby?

Vidya Rajan: Not really! I love detective fiction but I couldn’t find a direct analog with Ruby. Elyce, my co-writer, is a big Raymond Chandler fan so we discussed that a bit – how she would deviate from the usual noir hero. We also talked about the detective figures in (NBC sitcom) Brooklyn 99 and the comedy of that!

ADI: Detective stories in film and TV often adhere to a set of aesthetic conventions: grim, noir-ish interiors and seedy back alleys or the pristine rose gardens of twee little villages hiding nasty secrets. Did the genre’s visual legacy factor into the design and direction for Ruby Rai P.I.?

Jesse Vogelaar: It was something we gave a lot of thought to. We wanted to honour the noir genre with how we handled it but stay away from parody. The comedy was all within the world. In the show we jump quickly to different points of view including how other characters see her and how she sees herself. When we close in on her mental state, we live in the noir zone for a little bit. Then we zoom out to this vibrant world that feels vivid and surreal, where everyone is unpredictable, and characters occasionally transcend time and space.

ADI: Did you research private eyes for the series? If so, what’s the going rate for solving a crime in this economy?

VR: I do not know the rates (doesn’t seem high though) but one of the great things we realised is that the P.I. industry is alive and thriving in Melbourne!  There are offices all over the city and their branding is so interesting. Google 'Private Investigator Melbourne' and you’ll see what I mean. Also, the reviews people have left....a real treat.

Ruby Radio

Vidya Rajan in a scene from Ruby Rai P.I., episode 2, courtesy of the artist

ADI: Ruby Rai P.I. parodies the uncomfortable duality of Melbourne (humourlessly woke polycules, wildly misogynistic shock jock masculinity, etc.). Did you set out to explore this in the series?

VR: I think we’re exploring all kinds of strands of Australian culture and pop culture including those you maybe haven’t heard from before. And it’s not coming from the top-down lens, Ruby is a character on the margins in many ways so there’s genuine curiosity and often subsequent horror in interacting with everyone.

JV: I love that about this concept. It’s looking at so many different facets of Melbourne that are overlooked and then dialed up to an extreme. There are so many characters and situations that are already banked up for a longer series.

ADI: We get an unnerving glimpse into Ruby’s past (why do horses have such big eyes???), if the web series gets a full-length pilot, will we get to learn what propelled Ruby from the world tween television to hard boiled gumshoe-ing?

VR: Yes! To me the instinct was really in the character comedy of it – a P.I. is such a slinky, hidden sort of thing to do with your life, so it was funny to think she would have had the opposite experience in her past. Maybe she loved attention then. Though both being a P.I. and a child star do involve wigs and maybe she’s not moved past it. I also have always loved to do cursed children’s TV parodies in my comedy and love a star kid joke (who doesn’t??).

It’s thus also a send up of the noir trope of the P.I. having a dark traumatic past: it’s so silly if that trauma was an exploitative weird children’s show rather than...I don’t know, the war or whatever it was in the 50s. I didn’t grow up in Australia, so the team was my guide here. There’s a mermaid show I’ve learnt about, since that I’ve got my eye on for the series if it happens.

ADI: Tonally, the series sits snugly alongside Black Books, Search Party, Broad City – comedies that exaggerate the inherent absurdity of baked-in social norms and the emerging zeitgeist. These series create worlds that look acutely like our own, however they adhere to their own comic logic (or lack thereof). Tell us about crafting the show's tone and making something decidedly silly!

VR: Tone is the most important but also hardest thing sometimes. Most sitcoms that we now regard as distinctive – like Seinfeld or 30 Rock even – if you watch them, you’ll see they really only settle after one season cause they’re figuring out the limits of what they can do. Getting to do the shorts has been a good mini-version of that. On the page, it’s all about getting your script to support the silliness of tone for the director or team to understand – I think Jesse can talk more to that!

JV: I definitely felt the pressure to live up to Elyce and Vidya’s writing, as well as all of the references we were talking about. Setting up a tone required asking so many questions to each other. Does the camera move? Whose point of view are we following? We are both into surreal comedy, so it’s a challenge to take the rules we are following from an instinctual place to something that can be communicated to everyone else on the team. If you break an unconscious rule, there’s this inherent dissatisfaction that everyone feels. If we get a series, I’d like to make Naruto running truer to the anime.

Ruby Rai_Car

Vidya Rajan in a scene from Ruby Rai P.I., episode 3, courtesy of the artist

ADI: Each episode ends with a delicious little cliffhanger. Was writing a mystery series particularly challenging? How did you approach crafting a story that relies on clues and suspense?

VR: I have worked a bunch in crime writing rooms, and it’s mostly about drip feeding clues. But for this, it was pretty simple actually – we wanted to use the 5 minutes we had to explore the kinds of humour and characters we could fit in the world, and experiment with the style. So we deliberately had to find a mystery that was very low stakes and silly and didn’t take over the shorts. However, it’s been crazy how many people have messaged me asking like: What happens next?? What happened to the monstera murderer?? I did not expect people to lean into the hooks that much. People love a mystery I guess!

JV: For this format, there isn’t a lot of screen time and getting lost in the weeds of too much plot would have taken away from living in these wild situations. We wanted to hook viewers no matter in which order they watched the episodes.

ADI: The relationship between writer/creator and director must be a complex and intimate one. Can you walk us through how you two collaborated on the series?

VR: We met at an ACMI mixer but have known of each other through mutuals. We collaborated perfectly and like little angels. Jesse can elaborate or contradict me.

JV: Awww, I love that description. Yes, we tested the waters with a 72-hour film competition beforehand and figured it would work out. I'd already known Vidya as someone who was really talented and shared great memes. We were on the same meme-length. The most important thing is trust. I believed in what she was creating, and I felt trusted and valued in bringing it to life.

ADI: Let’s talk about the future! What are the next steps in the Fresh Blood program and how can we make sure that Ruby gets to nab that blue-haired bandit?

VR: We have to do a giant pitch doc for the chance to get a pilot – I think they might fund up to three teams – and then one team may go on from there to a series. This could be the last of Ruby if none of that happens! Watch and share if you like it, because either way we’d love to go out on a high.

Ruby Rai_photo Sarah Walker-0597

Vidya Rajan and Jesse Vogelaar on the set of Ruby Rai P.I., courtesy of Sarah Walker

ADI: Getting a half-hour series greenlit seems easy! Just kidding. How important are initiatives such as Fresh Blood in getting stories off the page and onto screens?

VR: I think they’re important. I wish there were more talent escalation programs in general that didn’t make you compete with other “diverses”. I’d love to see more pathways into programming and more risk-friendly environments to greenlight new talent. It feels like it’s taken so long for people to get here and it’s not nice to have that scarcity. But it may be the nature of the sick little beast!

JV: There is no clear, repeatable pathway for anyone trying to make it work in this industry. So, it’s great to have some tangible opportunities and there could definitely be more. Like Vidya said, it can take years for someone to get the chance to do something they’ve already been capable of.

ADI: Finally, what’s the most requested song on PISS 903?

VR: Well, Doncha Wish Ur Girlfriend Had a Dream Like Me - Pussycat Dolls ft. MLK Jr - is really taking off this week. But I’ve heard Justin Timberlake is dropping a response to the Britney memoir that is literally the sound of river animals crying so who knows what’s up next week!

Watch all three episodes of Ruby Rai P.I. on the ABC's Fresh Blood Youtube channel here.

Vidya Rajan is on Instagram @vidyarrrr

Jesse Vogelaar is on Instagram @jessevogelaar

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