“Hello! Nice to meet you; am I OK to park in one of the blue bays?
“No worries. I’ll just run back over and stick this on the dashboard then.”
Four sentences, two smiles, one firm handshake later, and Dario Russo is off; cruising back towards Flinders University’s Carpark 5 with long, easy strides – parking permit in hand.
The co-writer, producer and director of SBS One’s ground-breaking, 60s-styled action comedy series Danger 5 is instantly likeable, and seems happy to be at his old alma mater.
Leaning over a double espresso at Flinders’ Bedford Park Campus, his easy-going demeanour dissipates somewhat as he gets down to the serious business of talking about the art of making entertaining TV.
“In terms of the Australian screen entertainment scene, I’d like to see people return to an interest in genre. That’s what is missing from our market,” he says.
“I don’t know if that’s because of audience demand, or because of a blockbuster approach that says bigger is always better, but genre seems so far away from our screen culture.
“We’ve recently produced The Babadook and Wolf Creek, which are good horrors, but I’d love to see Australia return to producing and offering more genre productions.”
While they may not be at the cinema, Danger 5 and Russo’s Italian Spiderman, the online action-comedy sensation created while he was still at Flinders, do demonstrate that he is prepared to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to genre.
Both are in a 60s retro action-comedy style, with everything from the shooting and editing, to the costumes, script and funky music exuding an almost psychedelic energy.
Dramatic cut-aways, intentional over-acting and satirical depictions of extreme gender stereotypes make Russo’s alternative reality a place of complete escapism that somehow manages to be side-splittingly hilarious and occasionally challenging at the same time.
Asked about his influences, he talks about Jurassic Park and Aliens, and Monty Python and The Young Ones. He says he fell in love with Stephen Spielberg’s genetically reincarnated dinosaurs before he discovered James Cameron’s space marine busting Aliens, even though Cameron’s movie was made seven years earlier.
His love of Monty Python and The Young Ones comes from a passion for British comedy, which he shares with his dad, Carmine – who, incidentally, plays Hitler in Danger 5.
Russo says his long time compatriot in 60s-inspired action-comedy, David Ashby – who he met during high school and is one of the stars of Italian Spiderman and Danger 5 – is equally inspired by Star Wars and the muscle pumping theatrics of 1980s pro wrestlers.
All of those influences come together in their work, which he says is their attempt to recapture and share the things and feelings they loved during childhood.
“It all stems back to those childhood obsessions with franchises,” he says.
“There’s this fantastic thing about being a kid and being in love with characters; about escaping into their world and fantasising about them. We want to recreate that.
“It’s about making memorable programmes that people will want to get the dvd of, and creating characters that viewers will really buy into and want to take further.
“Some people have had tattoos after watching our stuff, which might seem a bit extreme, but that’s the kind of cultish reaction we want.”
Even in Russo and Ashby’s world there are limits though, firstly in terms of getting a big enough budget to take their work to the next level, but also because of a creative restriction he believes is inevitable in Australia’s small and often government-funded industry.
“Almost everything receives government funding here, and we’re no exception,” he says.
“That’s great in one sense, but puts limits on what we can do with our projects.
“The Australian industry has an agenda to be culturally and socially relevant, which is great, but then we’re disappointed when people don’t go and see our movies at the cinema.”
Given Russo and Ashby’s mission to produce entertainment for mass audiences, not being seen is a non-negotiable that may see them eventually move overseas.
“I think Australia is sometimes too proud to produce something that’s just for entertainment, because our industry feels it needs to be more culturally sophisticated and socially relevant than that, but it’s not where David and I are at,” he says.
“Sure, our characters are emotional, and we want people to connect with them, but those emotions are at the extreme end because ultimately it’s escapist entertainment, and we want to be as far from realism as we can get. It’s not our mission to be culturally relevant.
“So far we haven’t had to compromise our vision and we’ve still been able to entertain people, but we do feel a bit isolated in Australia and I worry about how long it can last.”
Russo’s double espresso is long gone, but his intensity is undiminished, and moves to a new level when asked if he can sum up in 25 words what it is that really drives him.
He thinks for a few seconds, then leans forward again and nails it 18.
“I’ve just got this uncontrollable desire to create things,” he says. “I want to keep creating things until I die.”
And, in the shorter term, what’s his shared mission with David Ashby?
His mood lightens visibly as he relaxes, sits back in this chair and smiles broadly.
“Well we‘re just two guys on a desperate journey to walk into a store one day and buy the action figures from our own movie,” he says.