Matchbox Pictures’ ‘genre-bending’ four-parter Hungry Ghosts breaks new ground with a story set among a Vietnamese-Australian community where the trauma of the Vietnam War is reawakened in the form of ghosts.
Timothy Hobart, a development producer/writer at NBCUniversal’s Australian production company Matchbox Pictures, was reading an article in a science journal about inherited trauma when he had a light-bulb moment.
The account of how some people are just as likely to inherit their grandfather’s trauma as the colour of his eyes chimed with a recent conversation he’d had with Sue Masters, head of drama at Australia’s multicultural broadcaster SBS. Masters had expressed interest in a drama set in the large Australian-Vietnamese community with a supernatural element. Hobart started thinking about the connection between inherited trauma and ghosts, a key element of Vietnamese culture that is celebrated each year during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Melbourne and Hong Kong.
Hobart pitched his idea, which would draw on the Vietnam War and the exodus of Vietnamese to Australia after the fall of Saigon in 1975, to Masters. She loved the concept so he brought in writer John Ridley as co-creator to develop the project up to the Bible stage with SBS funding.
After Screen Australia came on board, SBS greenlit four-parter Hungry Ghosts, directed by Shawn Seet (Deep Water) and produced by Hobart and Stephen Corvini. NBCUniversal International Distribution also put up a significant advance for international sales rights.
The supernatural drama explores three generations of Vietnamese-Australian families, all haunted by the traumatic events of war, and opens on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival when a vengeful spirit is unleashed, bringing the dead with him. As the ghosts wreak havoc, reclaiming lost loves and repaying old grudges, a young woman who’s never taken responsibility for who she could be must finally step up and accept her destiny.
To ensure authenticity, the producers made unconventional choices in the writing team, hiring playwright Michele Lee, a Hmong woman, and brothers Alan and Jeremy Nguyen, who had no screen credits. Masters recommended the Nguyens after meeting them at an emerging writers workshop. Hobart wrote the first episode and co-wrote the second with the Nguyens, while Ridley penned the third and co-wrote the fourth with Lee, who was hired after one of the original writers, playwright and novelist Hoa Pham, had to drop out.
“One of the first ideas I had was that I would facilitate this project and possibly not even write it,” Hobart says. “We searched the country wide and far but the pool of the Vietnamese-Australian writers in TV is very small. Alan and Jeremy were fabulous. They interrogated every idea and held us accountable to make sure the story is authentic.”
Hobart was writing three episodes of Foxtel’s prison drama Wentworth when he first met Ridley, who was an in-house writer on the show, and they later collaborated on the Matchbox Pictures/Seven Network crime drama Wanted.
“John is extraordinary when it comes to plotting,” Hobart says. “I felt very comfortable with the emotional heart of the story but we wanted to make sure the plot was true to the horror genre, and there is no one other than John I would turn to to help flesh that out.”
Corvini continues: “John has done a lot of commercial drama but he had not been given the opportunity to write something at this level. He has a great story brain and he delivered great work.”
Corvini, who produced the miniseries Safe Harbour and Better Man for SBS, had long wanted to work with Seet. When offered the gig, the director, whose father is Chinese/Malaysian, responded: “Hallelujah. I didn’t think I would ever get the chance to do something like this. As well as being an Asian story, it combines horror, thriller, romance, humour and an old-fashioned ghost story, and we’ve never seen a lot of those characters before. It has an authentic voice; it isn’t an outsider-looking-in experience.”
Bryan Brown stars as Neil Stockton, a photographer famous for his collection of Vietnam War photographs, which are featured in an exhibition that causes consternation in the community. Aussie Clare Bowen, who was a regular in all six seasons of Nashville, which aired on the US ABC network before moving to CMT, plays his daughter Liz.
A big fan of Nashville, Corvini wanted to cast Bowen in Safe Harbour but she wasn’t available. “She is one of those people where we need to remind Australians that she is Australian,” he says. “She and Bryan make a magnificent father and daughter. Bryan plays a Hemingway-esque character who has a lot of regrets about being an absent father and tries to do something about them, but it is too late.”
Casting initially proved challenging due to the limited number of Vietnamese-Australian and Chinese-Australian actors, so casting directors Leigh Pickford and Marianne Jade looked far and wide via mass call-outs, appeals via SBS Radio and posting flyers in Vietnamese-populated suburbs.
In her first major TV role, experienced stage actress Catherine Văn-Davies is May Le, a self-made woman whose world is crumbling as she is deeply in debt and has lost her business and her long-time partner. “She was one of the first to audition and she knocked it out of the park,” Hobart says.
Văn-Davies’ Vietnamese mother fled Vietnam by boat in 1978 (her father is Anglo-Australian), so the subject resonated with the Canberra-born actor. “May Le is the unsuspecting hero of her storyline. When she is thrust into this series of events, she has to step up. She realises she has a great lineage and she reconnects with her predecessors,” Văn-Davies says.
Transgender woman Suzy Wrong, a Singapore-born, Sydney-based theatre critic, took the role of Roxy, a trans woman and gifted clairvoyant who is May’s best friend, in just her second TV role (the first coming in an episode of pubcaster ABC’s legal drama Crownies in 2011).
“I play probably the first trans character you will see on TV who does not have to explain herself, does not tell you her sob story and is living her very best life. Hopefully she will be a joyful change for queer viewers everywhere,” says Wrong. “Roxy and May are very close; they have almost a Mulder and Scully [The X-Files] relationship. Unlike trans people who are mostly negatively portrayed, Roxy is vibrant, funny and exuberant. She’s a clairvoyant who suddenly meets ghosts and she could not be happier.”
Văn-Davies, who had been a guest on Wrong’s podcast, suggested her to the casting directors. Pickford gave her an outline of the character and asked her to meet with Seet. After chatting for half an hour, he asked her to audition – and although she hadn’t read the script, she did a cold read and nailed the part.
“When I first looked at the Roxy character, I thought, ‘There is no way we are going to cast this,’” Seet says. “She is Vietnamese, trans and she has to be charismatic. When I met with Suzy, I knew she was 100% right for the role.”
Rising star Jillian Nguyen made her screen debut in Justin Kurzel’s bushranger movie True History of the Kelly Gang last year after graduating from the 16th Street Actors Studio in Melbourne. She plays Sophie Tran, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who is studying biomedicine and gets possessed by evil spirits.
That background parallels Nguyen’s own experience. She was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where her Vietnamese parents spent five years, and moved to Australia when she was 14 months old. She set her sights on acting when she was only seven, after watching James Cameron’s Titanic 20 times.
Nguyen was in Sydney last November appearing in Daniel Keene’s play The Serpent’s Teeth when her cousin, who runs a Facebook group for Vietnamese Australians, told her she had received a message from Pickford asking for recommendations for actors. She saw Pickford but did not land the role until March.
Sophie treads a fine line between inherited trauma and mental illness. On Nguyen’s first day on set, her character was the subject of an exorcism by a real-life Buddhist monk. “It was thrilling. I’d never seen a female character doing anything like this on Australian television,” the actor says. “She has so much fun, including an underwater scene where she tries to kill her mother. I think the show will really challenge the way people see Asian women and, in particular, Vietnamese women.”
The cast also includes Ryan Corr as a first-year doctor who encounters May, Gary Sweet as a shape-shifter and Susie Porter as a UN worker who is infected by ghosts. Two 82-year-olds, Laurence Mah and Linda Hsia, play a Buddhist monk and the family’s matriarch respectively. One cast member, Ferdinand Hoang, also served as the dialect coach.
Seet collaborated with his long-time DOP Bruce Young on the seven-week shoot in Melbourne and Queensland’s Gold Coast. The ghosts are not wraith-like but are in human form, enhanced with make-up to convey the trauma they bear and what Seet calls “tricks in camera.”
The result – debuting tonight and airing across four consecutive evenings – is unlike anything ever produced before in Australia. Masters acknowledges it was a gamble for SBS, but observes: “Everything we do is a risk, but Hungry Ghosts is in very strong hands. We want to be dangerous. It has five compelling, engaging stories and it subverts stereotypes.”
Masters, whose exec producer credits at SBS include The Hunting, On the Ropes, Safe Harbour, Sunshine and Deep Water, notes: “I think it’s the most out-there thing I’ve ever done.”
Corvini adds: “This is a genre-bending series that celebrates diversity and shakes up stereotypes. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to show, for instance, a transgender woman without going into why she is transgender. It’s full of powerful and really dramatic passions, and it’s a very elegant piece of television.”
Playmaker Media’s The Commons portrays a world of the near future that grapples with the moral dilemmas thrown up by climate change and biotechnology advances. Don Groves finds out more from the show’s stars and creative team.
Screenwriter/showrunner Shelley Birse frets about the future of the planet and the prospect of millions of people being displaced by bushfires, cyclones, rising seas and years of drought.
That not-too-distant scenario is the setting for The Commons, an eight-part, character-driven thriller Birse has created for Australian streamer Stan, produced by Sony-owned Playmaker Media. For the series, Birse has overlayed the themes of global warming and environmental damage with her concerns about biotechnology and fertility procedures.
Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt stars as Eadie Boulay, a gifted neuropsychologist who spends her days putting broken people back together. Desperate for a child, she considers using a radical IVF technique despite the misgivings of her husband Lloyd (David Lyons), a vector biologist. After pioneering a treatment that enables patients to rid themselves of traumatic memories or strong fears, Eadie volunteers to do national service to help the residents of the resettlement centre, where people are assessed on a points system. Those who pass are admitted to the city; the others are banished.
Ryan Corr plays Lloyd’s best friend Shay, an experimental biologist who is working with Lloyd to find a solution to combat the deadly Chagas disease. Brit Rupert Penry-Jones (Black Sails) is Eadie’s brother Dom, a disaster capitalist whose company supplies essentials such as generators, food, water and medical supplies.
The cast also includes Damon Herriman (Perpetual Grace Ltd, Mindhunter) as a trigger-happy border security officer, John Waters (Mystery Road) as Lloyd and Shay’s boss, Simone McAullay (Broadchurch) as Eadie’s sister-in-law and Fayssal Bazzi (Stateless) as the resettlement centre’s pastor.
The set-up director Jeffrey Walker (Lambs of God, Riot), who directed four episodes, had long wanted to work with Birse and Playmaker Media. “The scripts were really beautiful and Shelley had created a really wonderful, intriguing world that spoke to me. I was also excited by the fact we could attract a great level of talent in front of the camera,” he says. “It combines the intimate and the epic. At its core, it’s about the relationships between these characters and their journeys, with the highest possible stakes.”
Jennifer Leacey (The Secrets She Keeps, The Wrong Girl) and Rowan Woods (Rake, The Kettering Incident) each directed two further episodes. The producer is Diane Haddon, whose credits include Reckoning, Friday on My Mind, The Code and Hiding, all for Playmaker Media. Birse penned four episodes, Michael Miller (Mustangs FC, Cleverman) wrote two and Matt Ford (House Husbands, Hiding) and Matt Cameron (Secret City, Jack Irish) each did one.
Birse came up with the concept after she finished The Code, the political thriller she created, produced by Playmaker Media, which ran for two seasons on pubcaster the ABC. Federal agency Screen Australia gave the prodco an Enterprise People grant, which enabled her to spend a year developing projects.
As part of that initiative in 2017, she was mentored by US-based writer Graham Yost (creator of FX’s Justified and The Americans) and producer/writer Fred Golan (Sneaky Pete, Justified). Yost and Golan had worked on a US remake of The Code with Birse’s help and wrote a pilot produced by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for Fox, which did not proceed.
Playmaker Media and Screen Australia encouraged Birse to come up with an Australian drama that would have international resonance and she pitched The Commons. The concept was inspired partly by her experience living in a small community on the remote New South Wales mid-north coast, an area regularly affected by flooding and power outages. “I hooked on the idea that it is a weird time to be alive when we face existential threats from climate change and from technology,” she says. “I promised it would be a very human take on some big issues and, in times of crisis, that can bring out the very best of people.”
Playmaker co-founders David Maher and David Taylor put the deal together with Stan and SPT, co-financed by Screen Australia, state agency Create NSW and the 20% TV producer offset. “It’s our most ambitious drama to date, both creatively and budget-wise,” Maher says. “Set in Sydney a few years in the future, it’s a world of super storms, the increased displacement of climate refugees, brownouts, gated, air-conditioned communities, privacy–infringing IT monitoring, advances in neuroscience and eugenics, and computers that are smarter than we are. It’s a grounded series that does not stray into sci-fi fantasy; it’s a hand-reach from where we are now.
“Amid this degree of foreboding, we are trying to inject some hope and balance on the way we live with the way the world is going. As Shelley likes to say, we’re all boomers or doomers. Before the Titanic goes down, she asks, ‘Are you preparing for the flood?’”
Stan was Playmaker’s first choice after the Nine Entertainment-owned streamer commissioned Bloom, which premiered in January 2019. The supernatural romance-mystery-horror created by Glen Dolman, which starred Bryan Brown, Jacki Weaver, Ryan Corr and Phoebe Tonkin, performed so strongly that Stan ordered a second season, which is now in production.
“It’s unlike anything else that has come out of Australia,” says Nick Forward, Stan’s chief content officer, who gave The Commons the greenlight after reading an outline and the scripts for the first two episodes. “As it’s set in Sydney, it has an Australian feel but is global in its ambition. It has sci-fi elements but is a very personal and emotional drama. The themes it deals with are very universal.”
Last autumn, Birse spent three weeks in LA with Yost and Golan fleshing out ideas for each episode. A big fan of Birse, Yost says: “Her characters are so real and humane and funny and doing the best they can and not always succeeding. I love these characters and want to see what happens to them. I think it will appeal to some of the people who watch The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s When They See Us.”
It’s the first Australian-filmed project for the LA-based Lyons since he appeared alongside Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Topher Grace in James Vanderbilt’s 2015 movie Truth. “I had been a fan of Shelley since The Code,” says Lyons, whose credits include the Netflix series Seven Seconds, NBC’s Game of Silence, Revolution and The Cape.
“At the heart of the show is my character’s relationship with Eadie in a terrifying world that is, as Shelley says, a ‘wince into the future.’ Jo Froggatt is such an immaculate actress, matched by her willingness to give on all fronts. She is the perfect number one on the call sheet because she dictates the state of play. I’m hoping The Commons will have a few years in it; I will come back in a heartbeat.”
Lyons relished the opportunity to work with the series’ directors for the first time. He was especially impressed when he saw Leacey had tears in her eyes as she watched a close-up of Froggatt on a monitor during an emotional scene with him. He also marvelled at Leacey’s habit of giving notes in a whisper to each actor, which he says ensured each gave a fresh take, not knowing what to expect.
One of Australia’s most in-demand actors, Corr was attracted to playing a cynical and obnoxious scientist who doesn’t much care for people but is determined to come up with ways to save humanity. “This was uncharted territory for me,” says the actor, whose credits include Bloom, Lingo Pictures’ upcoming Network 10 drama The Secrets She Keeps and Matchbox Pictures’ SBS miniseries Hungry Ghosts. “It’s the first series, particularly, out of this country that tackles subjects like climate change, refugees and immigration policies. The title refers to the commonalities we all need to survive like food, shelter, water and love.”
Corr was aware of Lyons’ work but was blown away by his performance, observing: “He is maybe the greatest actor I’ve ever worked with. That came out of left field. He’s such an intellectual performer and clever dude; he’s willing to challenge you to go in a different direction.”
Playmaker Media’s Maher first flagged the project to veteran production designer Tim Ferrier (Reckoning, Bite Club, Friday on My Mind) 18 months ago, before it was financed. “I got very excited about it from the conception,” Ferrier says. “I love the scripts, which are so dense and layered. It’s so nice to work on something with this quality of writing; the standard of writing in Australia is not always amazing.”
Ferrier enjoyed helping create the world Birse imagined, including a ‘Green Cathedral,’ which is a respite centre for trauma victims; an underground laboratory where Lloyd and Shay are developing a solution for the virus; and Dom Boulay’s high-tech apartment in a gated community.
In a rapidly changing world, socially, politically and environmentally, the key question is this: will Ferrier’s creations remain a figment of his and Birse’s imagination, or will The Commons prove to be a dark foreboding of times to come?
Netflix’s first original Australian series, Tidelands, is a novel twist on popular mythology. Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield, co-founders of producer Hoodlum Entertainment, tell DQ how the sirens-focused show came together.
When Australian author Stephen M Irwin first met with Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield (pictured above with actor Elsa Pataky), the co-founders of Brisbane-based prodco Hoodlum Entertainment, they suggested a TV series about sirens – mythological creatures who lure sailors to their deaths with their enchanted music and singing.
By happy coincidence, Irwin, whose second novel had just been published, had compiled a sizeable dossier on the mythology of these creatures in various cultures around the world for his next novel, set on an icebreaker in Antarctica. Irwin immediately came up with a fresh angle for Tidelands. The series would focus on a group of young people who are the children of humans and sirens, combined with a young woman who returns to that world after her father dies, hoping to get her hands on the inheritance.
The concept was fleshed out in meetings between Irwin, Robertson, Mayfield and Hoodlum producer/writer Leigh McGrath. “We spent a good few days in a room nutting out the story we wanted to tell, unpacking the world of sirens but with no tails or scales,” Mayfield says. “We knew we were not going to make a monster story or The Little Mermaid. We wanted to get to the emotional heart of the story of the characters who were the bastard offspring of sirens and humans.”
That was in 2013, but the Hoodlum partners and Irwin had to put the project on the shelf while they embarked on crime series Secrets & Lies for Australia’s Network Ten, followed by the US remake for the Disney-owned ABC network. Irwin also scripted the Lingo Pictures miniseries Wake in Fright for Ten and Hoodlum’s feature film Australia Day for Foxtel. Then came Harrow, Hoodlum’s crime drama starring Ioan Gruffudd for ABC Studios International and Oz pubcaster the ABC.
In between these projects, Irwin wrote the bible and the first episode of Tidelands, which the LA-based Robertson pitched to Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix VP of international originals, last year.
“I told Kelly the show is about a group of people who live on the outskirts of town, who are disenfranchised and different and crave privacy,” Robertson says. “I felt it was something that is very relevant now. She loved the genre and the fact it is set in the world of mythology and is sexy and fun.”
Within a week, Luegenbiehl had commissioned the show, Netflix’s first original Australian series. The Hoodlum execs had known Luegenbiehl since she worked at the US ABC network, where she acquired the format rights to their first production, comedy mystery drama Fat Cow Motel, in 2004. In 2015 she then commissioned Hoodlum’s first US show, Strange Calls, a remake of the Oz comedy created by Daley Pearson.
For Tidelands, Irwin wrote five of the supernatural thriller’s eight episodes and co-wrote another with emerging writer Chris Squadrito. McGrath penned the other two.
In the biggest role of her career, Charlotte Best (Puberty Blues, Home & Away) plays protagonist Cal McTeer, a street-smart, sexy and sharp-tongued young woman who returns home to the small fishing village of Orphelin Bay after years in juvenile detention for manslaughter. Best was on the shortlist when Robertson had lunch with her US manager, Circle of Confusion’s Charles Mastropietro, who pressed her claim. Best came in for a chemistry test, as did all the key cast, and, according to Robertson, the actor was “mind-blowing.”
The plot centres on Cal as she aims to collect the inheritance of her late father, who led a group of smugglers and had shielded her from the truth of the Tidelanders – the children of the sailors and fishermen lured to their deaths after hearing the sirens’ song. Orphans, they don’t know the identity of their mothers and live in a hippie-style shanty town away from the Orphelin Bay residents.
Another major plotline is the dynamic between Cal, her uncaring mother Rosa (Caroline Brazier) and Adrielle, the self-proclaimed Queen of the Tidelanders. The latter is played by The Fast & The Furious’s Elsa Pataky, who Robertson had wanted for the part from the off.
Aaron Jakubenko (The Shannara Chronicles, Spartacus: War of the Damned) is Augie McTeer, Cal’s fisherman brother, with Peter O’Brien (Glow, Winter) as deckhand Bill Sentelle and Mattias Inwood as Corey Welch, the local cop and Cal’s former flame. Marco Pigossi and Madeleine Madden (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mystery Road) play Tidelanders, and Hunter Page-Lochard (Harrow, Cleverman) is a fisherman/smuggler from Orphelin Bay.
Tidelands marks the English-speaking debut of Brazilian actor Pigossi, who has a multi-title deal with Netflix, including Brazilian original Invisible Cities. Robertson says: “He plays Dylan, which was a difficult role to cast because he is strong, sophisticated and sexy but also subservient to Adrielle. Kelly suggested him, we looked at him and we loved him.”
The first two episodes were directed by New Zealander Toa Fraser, who has helmed instalments of Daredevil and Iron Fist for Netflix and previously collaborated with Jakubenko and Inwood on The Shannara Chronicles. “We just hit it off,” Robertson says of meeting Fraser, who was hired after impressing the producers with his showreel. “He was so passionate about the project. We wanted to work with people who are as excited about it as we are.”
Catriona McKenzie and Daniel Nettheim, who both worked on Harrow, and Emma Freeman each directed two episodes. Robertson had long wanted to work with Freeman and was particularly impressed by her expertise on Glitch, Matchbox Pictures’ supernatural series for the ABC, on which Netflix has been the coproducer on the second and third seasons.
The 16-week shoot happened in and around Brisbane, supported by Screen Queensland, on a healthy budget that matched the ambitions of the producers. “We shot on water, underwater and at night – all those things that cost money,” Robertson says.
The Australian actors spoke in their natural accents and there are references to Brisbane, so it is an identifiably Aussie show, albeit partly set in a hitherto unknown world. There were three DOPs: Katie Milwright (Celeste, The Space Between), Robert Humphreys (Harrow, Secrets & Lies) and Bruce Young (Bite Club, Sunshine). Production designer Matthew Putland and costume designer Tess Schofield also both worked on Harrow.
Tidelands was Hoodlum’s first production not to include recaps at the start of each episode, recognising that many Netflix subscribers binge-view shows, but there are still plenty of cliffhangers. The producers enjoyed the collaboration with Netflix, noting there were no creative disagreements. “Netflix had approval on the casting and gave notes on the script and footage – but no more so than any other studio or broadcaster we’ve worked with,” Mayfield says. “It was never heavy-handed. They brought a lot of currency to the project because there was so much interest around their first original Australian series.”
A writer with a prodigious output, Irwin can churn out as many as 12 pages a day after weeks of plotting and structuring, followed by extensive rewrites. “As they say, the secret of writing is rewriting,” he notes. “We wanted the show to be grounded and gritty – so when people die, they die painful deaths. In many ways, it’s rough and bloody, but it’s also very sensual and sexy.”
Robertson says: “It’s a big new world with a really well thought-out mythology. At its heart, it’s the story of a girl who comes back to her home town and tries to find her place in the world. While she is trying to discover who she is, she finds out the people she thought were her people are not her people, and the story she’d been told about her life is not really the truth. It’s also the story of a triangle of three women – Cal, Rosa and Adrielle – who are trying to find their place and become queen of their domain.”
Hoodlum’s aim for Tidelands, as with all its productions, is for a returning series. “We started with such amazing material that we think we have enough stories for many seasons,” Mayfield adds.
The creators of Screentime miniseries Pine Gap reveal how they recreated the eponymous Australian/US defence base and explain why it makes the perfect backdrop for drama.
Australian writer-producers Greg Haddrick and Felicity Packard knew they would face at least one major challenge when they pitched a miniseries set at the Pine Gap defence facility in the Outback to US and international broadcasters.
The problem? That few Americans are even aware of the existence of the joint US/Australian base, let alone its pivotal role in collecting and sharing intelligence on sensitive matters including terrorism, arms control and targets for missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.
But Netflix was an obvious choice as the copro partner with Australian pubcaster the ABC for Pine Gap, a six-part spy thriller produced by Banijay-owned Screentime Australia that launched on October 14.
Haddrick and Packard hatched the idea when ABC executives asked what they planned to do after ANZAC Girls, a 2014 miniseries that centred on the Australian and New Zealand nurses who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front in the First World War. As showrunner, Haddrick thought Pine Gap would be a great setting for a thriller that deals with the growing tensions between China, the US and Australia, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Packard, who lives in Oz capital Canberra, knew a lot of people who had worked at the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), a government foreign intelligence-collection agency.
Funded by the ABC, they started developing the screenplay with producer Lisa Scott, a long-time collaborator. David Rosenberg, an American who lives in Australia and worked on the operations floor at Pine Gap for years, provided plenty of non-classified information.
Based on her conversations with Rosenberg and former ASD personnel, Packard was keen to explore the complexity of relationships involving people in the intelligence services who are not allowed to discuss their job with their partner.
“Greg and I were entranced by the idea that you fall in love with somebody from a different country, you have both signed secrecy agreements and you have a fundamental loyalty to your own country,” says Packard. “What if you can’t tell your partner everything? And what if you work on the base but you partner doesn’t and you can’t talk about your work at all? What sort of stress does that level of secrecy place on relationships?”
Given the scale of the production, which involved location shooting in the Northern Territory and the construction of the vast operations floor in the Adelaide studios managed by the South Australian Film Corp, the producers knew they needed a copro partner.
Elizabeth Bradley, Netflix’s former VP of content, was a fan of the duo’s previous work including ANZAC Girls, Janet King, Cloudstreet and the Underbelly crime franchise. She contacted Haddrick to ask if he had any projects he thought might interest the streaming platform, so he sent her the first two scripts. That was followed by three long phone conversations as Haddrick explained the role of the base and how intelligence is shared between the two countries. He also mapped out the personal stories of the Americans and Aussies who work at the base and the issues of trust, loyalty and betrayal. Netflix signed on a year ago and the first two episodes will have their world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival this October.
“There was a lot of interest in the idea from many American end-users. It was a matter of finding the right partner who was willing to take a risk on a show being made 12,000 miles away,” says Haddrick, who has since left Screentime, where he spent 17 years as head of drama, to launch his own banner, Rainfall Creations. ‘Rainfall’ was the CIA’s code name for Pine Gap.
Mat King, an Aussie director who helmed three seasons of Law & Order: UK and episodes of Doctor Who and DCI Banks, was entrusted with all six episodes. King, who grew up in Adelaide and was aware of the Pine Gap base, worked with Packard and Haddrick on Underbelly: Razor in 2011 and had been keen to collaborate with them again. “I had to pitch my vision of the show to Netflix; they were happy and approved me as the director,” King says. “The biggest part of my pitch is that I saw this as a six-hour film with six chapters.”
In casting, Netflix execs made it clear they did not necessarily want marquee names, asking the producers to cast a wide net to ensure they got the right actors. The US-born, UK-based Parker Sawyers plays Gus Thompson, the US mission director, who is forced to question where his allegiance lies when he begins a romance with Jasmina Delic (Tess Haubrich), the Australian communications intelligence team leader.
Sawyers, who earned rave reviews for his turn as a young Barack Obama in 2016 movie Southside with You, relished playing a character whose skin colour is incidental and a story that has nothing to do with the issue of race. His main challenge was learning 66 pages of dialogue, much of it in the lingo of the intelligence world. He had worked for the Republican governor of Indiana, as a model and for a lobbying firm in London before deciding, aged 28, to pursue his long-held ambition of becoming an actor.
Steve Toussaint, a Brit of Barbadian descent, plays facility chief Ethan James, a former US Air Force fighter pilot whose job has taken a toll on his personal life. “These people are doing incredibly important jobs; the weight of the world may not be on their shoulders but it’s close to it,” says Toussaint.
The actor, who was a regular in ITV’s Lewis and had recurring roles in Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude and Epix’s Berlin Station, was attracted by the script and by the series’ mixture of physical action and cerebral interplay. He sees the show as highly topical, observing: “It’s about the shifting nature of geopolitics as the US comes to terms with no longer being the dominant superpower due to the emergence of China.”
The set of the operations floor was the largest that any of the key creatives had experienced, including 168 computers, a mezzanine level and multiple corridors. The executive offices and a cafeteria were built in a warehouse at the former General Motors factory in suburban Elizabeth. “We could shoot wide shots inside our world, almost interior landscapes, which gave a sense of scale to what was happening in the base,” King says.
FX house KOJO digitally created the Pine Gap facility and plonked it in a valley west of Alice Springs, which was filmed by drones. Geoffrey Hall (ANZAC Girls, Deadline Gallipoli, Wolf Creek) was the DoP. Hall and King adopted a non-traditional approach to TV drama by thoughtfully framing shots and aiming for a cinematic tone.
Knowing that Netflix viewers often binge-watch shows, consuming three or more episodes in one sitting, the producers and King edited the end of each instalment with a hook or a question mark to encourage viewers to continue to the next.
Packard wrote episodes one, four and five, with Haddrick penning the rest. The lengthy development was an advantage. “Starting pre-production with six very advanced scripts does not happen very often in Australian television,” says producer Lisa Scott. “There are many times you rush into production. This time, Felicity and Greg wrote double-digit drafts of episodes one and two.
“Producing is hard and it’s only getting harder because you have to stretch the dollars as far as you can, and you put everything on screen. There is no right way to do what we do. A lot of what we do is subjective. Netflix’s financial support enabled us to realise the vision that Greg and Felicity wanted from day one. When we started with Netflix, we wanted to prove that Australian producers could produce world-class entertainment – and hopefully we have done that.”
While the climactic episode resolves the key plotlines, Haddrick says: “There are enough tantalising loose ends that it could easily go to a second season. Viewers can look forward to a fast-paced, gripping and compelling story told in an environment that really hasn’t been explored before. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done.”
Commissioned by Foxtel, Goalpost Pictures’ Fighting Season is the first Australian miniseries dealing with the plight of Australian soldiers who served in Afghanistan. DQ finds out how it came together.
During frequent trips to the US several years ago, Australian producers Kylie du Fresne and Rosemary Blight were struck by the fact that US military personnel were the first passengers to be invited to board planes, or had their own airport lounges.
The Goalpost Pictures co-founders contrasted that recognition with the near-invisible status of Australian soldiers at home, including those who suffered PTSD after serving in Afghanistan.
Realising this subject had never been explored in an Australian television drama, they began fleshing out their ideas for a miniseries with writer-producer Blake Ayshford. Penny Win, head of drama at pay TV giant Foxtel, loved the concept and agreed to fund development.
The result is Fighting Season, a six-part drama/mystery that will premiere on Foxtel’s Showcase channel on October 28. UK-based distributor Sky Vision is handling international rights.
Set in 2010, the story follows a platoon of soldiers who are recalled from Afghanistan after the death in combat of their captain, Ted Nordenfelt, during a mission marred by mistakes. They arrive to a near-empty airport with only their families to greet them. The mystery of Nordenfelt’s death unfolds with devastating effect on the men, their loved ones and friends, testing the bonds of mateship and the army’s culture of self-sacrifice.
Ayshford wrote three episodes and Belinda Chayko, Kylie Needham and Tommy Murphy each wrote one. During his research, Ayshford met with a number of serving soldiers and one who had just left the army after undertaking multiple missions to Afghanistan. These men became the basis of Fighting Season’s characters and stories. He also interviewed family members on how they coped with the absence of partners or fathers for six months or longer.
“It feels very true to life; we could not invent some of the stories we were told,” says Ayshford, who has a personal connection to the subject due to his father serving as an airman, meaning the writer lived on several army bases around Australia as a child. “It’s a deeply human story, a gripping mystery with a lot of heart. I went to a screening for buyers from 60 countries in London and you could have heard a pin drop.”
The 2010 setting was chosen because Australian forces suffered a particularly heavy toll of casualties and the defence forces’ top brass were resistant to the phenomenon of PTSD. The following year saw the emergence of support groups such as Soldier On.
“I hope it makes people think about what we’re asking modern soldiers to do and the risks they take, both mentally and physically – particularly mentally,” says du Fresne, who produced with Elisa Argenzio. “What they see and what they experience is outside of the realms of experience of most Australians. I hope our show gives a voice to that experience and shines a different light on what we ask soldiers to do in the name of the safety of our country. If a soldier watches the series, we want him or her to say, ‘I can see my life.’ That, to me, is truth.”
US-based Kate Woods came back to Oz as the setup director, helming four episodes, while in his TV debut emerging director Ben C Lucas called the shots on the other two. “I loved the scripts, which just got better and better, and it’s an important subject,” says Woods, speaking from the Albuquerque, New Mexico, set of Netflix drama Messiah, which was created by Aussie Michael Petroni. “Australia has not looked at the situation of its veterans in Afghanistan, our longest war, and the effects when they come home.
“We send these young men to war and teach them to kill. And when they do, and it becomes part of their life, how do they assimilate that into themselves as human beings when they come back home? And what responsibility do the armed forces have for that?”
Woods, whose recent credits include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. and Underground, admired Ayshford’s work on such shows as Barracuda and Devil’s Playground and had long wanted to collaborate with Goalpost Pictures.
Keen to give opportunities to new voices, Goalpost hired Lucas after he made his feature film debut on Wasted on the Young, followed by OtherLife, to which Netflix acquired worldwide streaming rights. Coincidentally, he was developing a feature about returned servicemen and PTSD when he heard Fighting Season was in development.
“I actually hunted this show down. It’s always a subject that’s been really close to me,” he says. “I’ve not been in the military. Plenty of my family have, and I have friends who have been through some quite extraordinary ordeals, so there’s an academic interest in the subject, not necessarily a personal connection to it. But I’m interested in the storytelling that comes out of what these men and women go through. It’s also quite a sensitive subject and you want to get it right.”
Woods says she and Lucas had different approaches to the project, explaining: “I always come from inside the actors and create the work around that; he came from an image-making perspective, but we always arrived at the centre.”
Emerging screenwriter Chris Squadrito, who began his career as a development assistant to Ian Collie and Rachael Turk at Essential Media while completing a masters in screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2013, served as the script editor. Ayshford says: “Chris is very talented, one of those writers who thinks internationally. He is really going places. I am fairly hands-on when it comes to giving feedback on scripts to writers, so Chris acted more as a script editor in the UK sense: he worked with me a lot, giving general and later detailed feedback on the scripts.”
When Blight and du Fresne first approached Foxtel’s Win, it was just after Foxtel had screened Deadline Gallipoli, a 2015 miniseries dramatising the infamous First World War campaign through the eyes of war correspondents Charles Bean, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Phillip Schuler and Keith Murdoch.
“It just seemed both timely and important to have a sort of bookend to that drama,” Win says. “One hundred years after Gallipoli, the myths and legends that had grown up around it and the increasing focus of ANZAC Day meant it had become almost an alternative Australia Day. Blake wrote a compelling treatment about the reality of the Australian soldier coming home – a world we seldom see on screens – that beautifully highlighted the gap between the myth and the reality.
“We knew it was a story worth being told. Kylie and Blake made sure there was truth in everything on the page and screen. There was a lot of research and input from those who had served. The heart of this story shines through – it’s not so much about the battles, the war, it’s about coming home after and not being forgotten.”
Ewen Leslie (Safe Harbour, Top of the Lake: China Girl) plays Nordenfelt, a ruthless leader and excellent soldier who is seen in flashbacks. The character suffers from PTSD but fears he could be discharged if he seeks the help of a psychiatrist.
Filming the show gave Leslie a greater respect and appreciation of the armed forces, observing: “If I had a family member who had returned from war, I would treat them with as much empathy and delicacy as possible.”
Kate Mulvany (Secret City, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) is Ted’s widow, an army engineer and captain who suspects a cover-up. The narrative struck a personal chord with Mulvany, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who suffered from severe PTSD and died two days after the actor landed the role. “The moment that I read this script it was so familiar to me, it was heartbreaking. I had complete compassion for these characters, complete empathy, and I know them because I’ve lived them,” she says.
“At the end of each shoot day, I called my mum and said, ‘I played you today, mum, on screen.’ These women deserve to have a voice; they are the forgotten soldiers, they are the allies of our soldiers on the home front and they deserve to have their stories told too, and that’s what Fighting Season does so beautifully.”
Jay Ryan (The CW’s Beauty & the Beast, Canadian miniseries Mary Kills People) plays Sgt Speedo Collins, a father-of-two who has undiagnosed PTSD and is the only one who knows how the captain died. “I interviewed a lot of soldiers; a lot were special forces because a lot of our stories are inspired by true events from special forces,” Ryan says. “Some of those soldiers had experienced PTSD and were still going through it and some were not. So it was interesting to hear what these real guys on the ground had experienced and how they felt about an actor portraying a soldier with unacknowledged symptoms of PTSD on screen.”
As most of the soldiers are aged under 21, the producers hired emerging actors including George Pullar, Marco Alossio, Julian Maroun and Paul de Gelder. The cast also includes Sarah Armanious as Speedo’s wife, Jay Laga’aia as a minister of religion who is the father of Alossio’s character, Sabryna Waters, Lex Marinos, Lucy Bell and David Roberts.
“It is a war drama but it’s not about war. It is about the futility of war, the fallout, family and healing. And ultimately people will come to watch Fighting Season because it’s not glorifying war, it’s simply about how we pick up the pieces and how we move on from that,” Laga’aia says.
A team led by production designer Paddy Reardon built a section of an Afghan village in a quarry near Sydney, which was raided by the Australian soldiers. The wide-angle battle scenes were filmed in the vast expanse of the outback near Broken Hill. Other scenes were shot in the suburbs of Sydney where the soldiers and their families lived. Shooting the raid in the village was the biggest challenge, involving three camera teams. The production also received permission to film the annual ANZAC Day march in Sydney, in which thousands of people participate, including serving and former armed forces personnel and their families.
According to Woods, DOP Geoffrey Simpson achieved a magic realism with some sequences, portraying the nightmares experienced by the soldiers. She drew a lot of inspiration from her hero Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, noting: “No one else can tell stories like that in a masculine world.”
Costume designer Damir Peranovic relished the contrast between the faded greens of military uniforms with the “at home” uniform of cargo shorts or jeans with graphic T-shirts. After watching documentaries including Illustrated Man by New York-based photographer and director Sophy Holland, hair and make-up designer Angela Conte discovered nearly all the men got tattoos when they came home from Afghanistan: some from sadness, others from shame or guilt. So she designed tattoos that were relevant to each soldier.
Founded 10 years ago by Blight, du Fresne, MD Ben Grant and Cass O’Connor, Goalpost Pictures operates on a broad canvass encompassing feature films as well as TV projects such as supernatural drama Cleverman, a copro with New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, which SundanceTV acquired for US audiences. Its feature slate includes The Sapphires and the upcoming Top End Wedding, both directed by Wayne Blair, and Leigh Whannell’s sci-fi thriller Upgrade, a copro with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions.
Earlier this year the prodco signed a first-look deal with London-based global distributor All3Media International. Du Fresne adds: “Because we have always done films and television, we can be a bit dextrous in the way we move between the two, with talent and with stories. On the TV side, there are genuine global opportunities to make international content. Of course, it is a much more crowded marketplace than 10 years ago and the competition is greater, so we have to think very cleverly about the kind of projects we are doing.”
Harrow, Disney-owned ABC Studios International’s first scripted series, is a fresh twist on a well-worked genre. Don Groves chats to the creative team and star Ioan Gruffudd.
Four years ago, Australian screenwriter Stephen M Irwin and writer/producer Leigh McGrath had an idea for a procedural crime series centred on a brilliant yet unorthodox forensic pathologist.
Both loved classic, character-driven forensic shows like Quincy, which ran on US network NBC from 1976 to 1983 and starred Jack Klugman as an LA County medical examiner.
But they knew they needed an original angle to differentiate their show from myriad other procedurals and came up with this twist: the protagonist, Dr Daniel Harrow, committed a murder years ago, and thus much of the suspense hinges on how, why and when the crime occurred.
“It’s a ‘whydunit’ as opposed to a whodunit, where the character solves murders as well as using his skill to cover up his own crime,” says McGrath, a former story editor on Thames Television’s long-running UK cop show The Bill.
Irwin, who at the time had just scripted murder mystery Secrets & Lies for Brisbane- and now LA-based prodco Hoodlum, wrote the pilot script on spec and he and McGrath created a pitch document, with the show taking its name from the lead character’s surname.
The problem was that Hoodlum had zero experience in the crime procedural genre. “It was a big idea and it was not an easy fit in Australia or overseas, so the first challenge was getting people to read the script,” says Tracey Robertson, who founded Hoodlum with Nathan Mayfield in 1998.
Sally Riley, who had been appointed head of scripted production at Oz pubcaster the ABC in May 2016, liked the idea but could not immediately see where a show like Harrow would fit in the schedule.
Fortune was in their favour, however, when Robertson and Mayfield met with Keli Lee, the London-based MD of international content and talent at Disney’s ABC Studios International.
Lee was executive VP of talent and casting at ABC Entertainment Group when ABC greenlit the US remake of Secrets & Lies, which was co-written by Irwin and executive produced by Barbie Kligman, Robertson and Mayfield.
Lee was impressed with the Harrow script and the treatments for all 10 episodes, and within a couple of weeks commissioned the show, the studio’s first scripted series. Soon after, the ABC’s Riley came on board.
“Nathan and Tracey were absolute terriers who, by hard graft rather than good luck, got the script to the right people at the right time,” says Irwin, who wrote eight episodes and co-wrote another with Lucas Taylor, the script editor, while McGrath penned one.
The producers drew up a list of actors from Australia, the US and the UK to play the lead. Lee pushed for Welsh-born Ioan Gruffudd, whom she had known since he starred as a 200-year-old man attempting to find a key to unlock the curse of his immortality in the series Forever, which ran on ABC in 2014 and 2015.
After reading the pilot script, the LA-based Gruffudd spoke via Skype one Sunday morning Australian time with Irwin, who was at home in Brisbane. “I knew we’d found our guy, someone who could be a little bit acerbic, funny, gruff and likeable and could carry quite a lot of medical information,” Irwin says. “He also needed to have the gravitas that suggests the character might have done something quite bad for a reason to be revealed.”
Asked what differentiates Harrow from multiple other crime procedurals, Robertson says: “Some tend to just be all plot while others are all character and no plot. We have created great, well-defined characters in Harrow himself and the people around him, while each episode deals with a crime of the week. There are no cardboard cut-out stereotypes.” The drama premiered on ABC Australia in March, with Disney Media Distribution licensing the US and international rights.
To ensure the series had a large-scale, cinematic look, the producers hired directors who either had feature film experience or had worked in the TV murder-mystery genre. Kate Dennis, whose credits include the Australian original and US remake of Secrets & Lies, plus CSI: Cyber for CBS, AMC’s Turn and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she was Emmy nominated, was the setup director and directed one episode.
Dennis, who was booked to direct an episode of Netflix comic book-based drama Marvel’s Jessica Jones when Robertson offered her the gig, was initially reluctant. “I told Tracey that me and procedurals are probably not a good mix, but I read the script and thought this one was different and out of the box,” she says. “It’s very character-driven and there is the mystery of the man at its core. I was very attracted to it.”
Dennis created the look and style of the show with Robert Humphreys, who was the DOP on the first five episodes (Simon Chapman shot the remainder). During three weeks’ hectic prep, she wrote a detailed series bible for her fellow directors that set out numerous cinematographic rules, including often having the camera behind Harrow or raking past close to his face; shooting through foreground objects and shifting shadows of water or patterns on windows and other reflective surfaces; basing the colour palette on the human iris; and making Brisbane itself a character.
Tony Krawitz (The Kettering Incident), Tony Tilse (Wolf Creek, Underbelly), Daniel Nettheim (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) and Peter Salmon (Wanted, Rake) each handled two episodes, while Catriona McKenzie (The Warriors) did one.
Nettheim had long wanted to work with Robertson and Mayfield again after directing the duo’s first ever production, Fat Cow Motel, an interactive comedy drama that screened on the ABC in 2002. He watched footage of the first five episodes before directing the final two instalments. “My prerogative was to honour the earlier work and to try to bring something fresh so I was not repeating the same ideas,” he says.
“The show has a unique tone because of the level of humour. What I really enjoyed from some of the earlier episodes was seeing what an actor like Darren Gilshenan can bring to those comedy parts and how well that sits with the grimmer parts of the investigation.”
To round out the cast, the producers did a lot of chemistry tests, pairing various actors with Gruffudd. Robertson found that process so productive that she intends to use it for all future productions, including supernatural crime drama Tidelands, Netflix’s first original Australian series, which was also written by Irwin and is shooting in Queensland this year.
Ella Newton is Harrow’s estranged teenage daughter, Fern, while Anna Lise Phillips plays his ex-wife, Stephanie. Robyn Malcolm is Maxine, Harrow’s often exasperated boss, and Darren Gilshenan is Dr Lyle Fairley, a resentful colleague who keeps butting heads with Harrow.
Remy Hii portrays Simon, a forensic pathologist who is completing his studies and is a protégé of Dr Harrow. “The two have an odd-couple relationship as friends and colleagues,” Hii says. “Playing opposite Ioan was a lot of fun because he has such an incredible range. At my first audition, we did chemistry reads together and there was an immediate connection.
“A lot of the subject matter is dark because we are in a morgue for much of the series and we deal with death but the scripts are so witty and they pop off the page. All the characters are larger than life, but so relatable.”
Hii, who appears in every episode, adds: “It was a heavy workload and lightning fast – that is Australian TV. You prepare to the eyeballs and, at the same time, you are prepared to drop much of your homework in order to get it done. You never know what challenges will be thrown your way. It was a blessing working with six of Australia’s top directors – people with so many different processes, styles, visual flair and experiences.”
Mirrah Foulkes plays scenes-of-crime officer Sergeant Soraya Dass, a former detective who has moved to Brisbane from Melbourne and works with Detective Senior Sergeant Bryon Nichols (Damien Garvey). Dass develops a romantic relationship with Harrow but has her own dark secrets, says Foulkes.
Foulkes had taken time out from acting to write the screenplay for Judy & Punch – a feature she will also direct, which reimagines the puppet show Punch & Judy – when Robertson asked her to audition in early 2017. She found the short prep time challenging, noting: “My favourite part of the process is rehearsals and eking out all the interesting things that are going on in the writing. You don’t have time for that in Australian television. The best-case scenario in a show like Harrow is you get a quick catch-up with the directors and touch base on some key moments in each episode, some key emotional beats. It was incredibly hard and fast, and I enjoyed it. The scripts were hugely ambitious and the shoots were really tricky.”
Filming started in Queensland in August 2017. The budget was only slightly higher than the average for an Australian drama but did allow a nine-day schedule for each episode (seven is typical), plus elaborate set builds and hiring well-known actors such as Tony Barry, Ditch Davey, Gary Sweet, Chris Haywood and Dan Ewing for guest roles.
“When you have a big international partner in Disney-ABC, the bar is raised in production values,” Mayfield says. “This is about taking a show that speaks to its Australian audience but is viable and competitive to sell internationally. Disney-ABC brought a wealth of knowledge, information and experience. We got a lot of valuable insights into storylines and character beats.”
Business partners for 21 years, Robertson and Mayfield share every aspect of their jobs, from creative development and physical production through to business affairs, although he is Brisbane-based and she spends most of her time in LA.
“We are a very close-knit team,” Mayfield says. “There is a short-hand and a trust that have been built over two decades. We do butt heads occasionally on creative things when neither of us has the answer, but that is healthy because the best idea wins. We always want to deliver on the promise.”
Gruffudd gravitates to the dark side
Ioan Gruffudd follows his riveting performance as a renowned surgeon accused of date rape in the SundanceTV and ITV series Liar by playing a forensic psychologist who harbours a dark secret in Harrow. DQ gives him a call.
It’s no coincidence Ioan Gruffudd is now being cast as damaged characters after playing heroic types in Horatio Hornblower, Black Hawk Down and two Fantastic Four comic book adaptations.
“I’d been dying to play these three-dimensional parts, flawed characters, for such a long time but I’d never really looked old enough or had enough weight and gravitas in my face and experiences before,” the Welsh actor says on the line from Brisbane while shooting the final episodes of Harrow. “I’m meeting these characters in the right time of my life. I’m in my 40s and I am starting to look right for these parts.”
Gruffudd did not expect the critical acclaim that greeted Liar in the UK, the US and Australia, which no doubt persuaded the networks to greenlight a second season from the creators Jack Williams and Harry Williams. The first season of the show saw Gruffudd’s character accused of rape, with viewers left to unravel the truth.
“We knew we were doing something special and good but you just never know, until you go out there into the universe, how people are going to respond,” he says. “I think the purpose of casting me was to put people off the scent, especially in those early episodes, to lull the audience into a false sense of security that this guy could not possibly have done this.”
Gruffudd leapt at the chance to play the title role in Hoodlum Entertainment’s Harrow, drawn to the scripts by Stephen M Irwin and producer Leigh McGrath. He relished the prospect of playing a character he describes as eccentric, slightly curmudgeonly, borderline arrogant and selfish but also funny.
In addition, he was a fan of Hoodlum’s Irwin-scripted Australian series Secrets & Lies, rating Irwin as an exceptional writer. And he was happy to return to Queensland, where he had worked on the films San Andreas and Sanctum.
Harrow also stars Remy Hii, Mirrah Foulkes, Ella Newton, Darren Gilshenan, Anna Lise Phillips and Robyn Malcolm, for whom Gruffudd is full of praise. “I am working with the crème de la crème of Australian actors. They are stars in their own right and could lead a show in their own right,” he says.
Similarly effusive over set-up director Kate Dennis, he says: “Kate blessed the ship and all who sailed in her. She set up the look, the costumes, the production design and the tone. It is unique but there are elements of House, Rake and CSI. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be funny, with office gallows humour, and the next scene could be quite sad and tragic.”
Dennis marvelled at Gruffudd’s ability to tread the fine line between comedy and drama, the ease with which he mastered wads of dialogue laden with medical terms and his ever-cheerful demeanour on set. “He’s a genuinely terrific person to be around and deeply professional,” she says.
Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson adds: “The show has a great sense of humour and deals with the light and the dark really well. Dr Harrow has his own view of the world and is a really lovable character, which Ioan sells to the moon and back.”
Commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS, miniseries Safe Harbour offers a fresh perspective on the global refugee crisis. DQ sits down with the on- and off-screen talent behind the show to find out more about this ‘very cinematic’ piece of television.
Actors from a Middle Eastern background are usually cast in Australian TV shows for one of two reasons, according to director Glendyn Ivin – “To make us laugh or make us scared.”
Ivin seized the chance to avoid those caricatures when he was hired to direct Safe Harbour, a four-hour psychological thriller commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS.
Produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, the miniseries tackles the controversial topic of asylum seekers and the moral dilemmas they pose to governments, societies and individuals, particularly in the West.
The plot follows five vacationing Australians who set sail on a yacht bound for Indonesia. En route they encounter a broken-down fishing boat full of desperate asylum seekers.
Despite concerns that the Aussies could face charges of people-smuggling, they agree to tow the stricken vessel back to Australia, but by the next morning it has vanished. Five years later they meet some of the refugees and discover someone had cut the tow rope, resulting in the loss of seven lives.
The relatively unknown Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas play Zahra and Ismail, an Iraqi couple whose nine-year-old daughter dies after the vessel sinks. Robert Rabiah is Ismail’s brother Bilal.
“When we were casting we had a lot of people come out of the woodwork who were great actors, often from the theatre,” Ivin says. “They saw this as an opportunity to explore Iraqi or Arabic characters who were neither good nor bad: they were very human. In the show, we don’t explore characters in terms of their race, religion or politics; we explore characters purely as human beings. It’s paid off because their performances are so rich and so beautiful.”
Australian-born Chamoun, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon during its civil war, made her screen debut in the SBS series Kick in 2007 and more recently appeared in December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Sticky Pictures’ Ronny Chieng: International Student, both for pubcaster the ABC.
“Nicole came in and did this screen test that had me in tears. It was in Arabic but there was a guttural panic and sadness behind what she was doing; the words seemed to force themselves out of her throat in a way I wasn’t expecting,” Ivin says. “She did something I’d never seen an actor do before in a screen test. She requested that she did not talk beforehand; she just wanted to come in and do the scene and then we would talk afterwards. When she arrived in the room, she was in a heightened emotional space. She delivered it twice, and then through tears we began the more familiar casting small talk. She is an incredibly passionate actor who puts everything on the line.”
Chamoun says of her audition: “I felt compelled and so connected to the story and this character I was not leaving that room without [getting the part].”
Of Zahra, she says: “She is a strong, hard-working woman, the glue in the family who is trying to keep everyone together when everyone around her is crumbling. She takes on the weight of everyone’s problems and comes out fighting. I don’t know if I would have been as strong and determined. It was gut-wrenching for me but this could have been real and has happened to many, many people.”
After a lot of hard work and perseverance, Chamoun’s star is rising: she also plays a Muslim university student who gets embroiled in race riots in Melbourne in Roadshow Rough Diamond’s Romper Stomper, an original series commissioned by streaming service Stan that debuted in Australia on January 1, 2018.
Ivin was similarly impressed with the performances of Shammas, an experienced stage actor whose screen credits include Screentime’s Underbelly and ABC comedy At Home with Julia, and Rabiah (Screentime’s Fat Tony & Co, Matchbox Pictures movie Ali’s Wedding).
The producers secured marquee names to play the Aussie holidaymakers. Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Rake) plays Ryan, the boat’s captain, with Phoebe Tonkin (The Originals, The Vampire Diaries) as his sister Olivia and Leeanna Walsman (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Cleverman) as his wife Bree.
Joel Jackson (The Wrong Girl, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door) is Damien, Olivia’s boyfriend who disappears after the incident on the water and reappears at a group reunion five years later. Jacqueline McKenzie (Love Child, Hiding) is the fifth passenger, a lawyer named Helen.
Filmed over six weeks in Brisbane and off the Queensland coast, Safe Harbour is co-funded by Screen Australia, Screen Queensland, SBS and NBCUniversal International Distribution, which has international rights. The series is due to premiere on SBS next Wednesday.
The concept was one of 300-plus ideas that flooded in after Matchbox Pictures opened an office in Brisbane in 2015 with the support of Screen Queensland and issued a general call-out for stories. Matchbox development executive and producer Stephen Corvini says the two-page treatment from neophyte writers Phil Enchelmaier and Simon Kennedy for the project, then titled Asylum, was the standout.
Corvini held a brainstorming session in Brisbane with Enchelmaier, Kennedy and experienced writers Beatrix Christian and Anthony Mullins, who runs Matchbox’s Brisbane office. Christian subsequently dropped out to co-write FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s Picnic at Hanging Rock for Foxtel, so Belinda Chayko and Kris Wyld came aboard and a series bible was written. Wyld then moved on to create and co-write medical drama Pulse for the ABC and Matt Cameron was hired.
Chayko had worked with Cameron on Matchbox’s miniseries Secret City for Foxtel and the prodco’s drama series Old School, which starred Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, for the ABC.
Corvini subsequently pitched the project to SBS head of drama Sue Masters, who readily agreed to fund the script development. After four scripts had been written, SBS gave the greenlight and Screen Australia and Screen Queensland provided production funding.
The international relevance of the subject was a big plus, as Corvini explains: “Shows that travel are very important to the company and, as storytellers, we want our stories to travel. We absolutely want to be successful in the domestic market foremost, and with NBCUniversal distributing they have a say in what we produce and give us some indication of how a show like this will perform internationally.”
Masters says: “We’re inordinately proud of the show. The fact it is a psychological thriller was very exciting. The great beauty of the SBS charter is that we won’t make anything that is unimportant. The challenge is always to make it engaging, compelling, fresh and bold. Four-part, one-hour series are dense and quite difficult.”
SBS adopted the four-hour drama template with FMA’s Better Man, which Corvini produced, followed by Essential Media and Entertainment’s The Principal, Blackfella Films’ Deep Water, Easy Tiger/Carver Films’ Sunshine and, also premiering in 2018, Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky.
“It’s creatively challenging – you feel like a start-up company every time you do one of these four-hours because they are all different. But we feel it is an efficient use of our money, and it’s important to have some marquee stars so that our projects can stand out,” Masters adds.
Chayko wrote episodes one and four and co-wrote episode three with Enchelmaier. Cameron did episode two. The plotting was a collaborative process involving all the writers plus Kennedy, Mullins and Corvini.
“The most difficult challenge in the writing was to get the delicate emotional balance of the characters right, particularly the Australians,” says Chayko. “The more we got into their stories and acknowledged the depth of their feelings once they realised what the consequences had been, that’s when it felt like it was all really coming together.”
Chayko sees one virtue of four-part dramas as the ability to tell stories that in the past might have been the subject of theatrical features.
Ivin, who directed Seven Types of Ambiguity and the US cable series Hunters for Matchbox as well as numerous other dramas including The Beautiful Lie, Gallipoli and Puberty Blues, heard about the project on the grapevine.
“It’s the first time in a long time that a project made me think, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I was jealous when I heard someone talking about it,” he admits. “Then I got a call from Matchbox when I had been day-dreaming about the project. I had been doing a run of commercials so I was really happy to jump back into longform drama. I see TV as the new cinema. This is four hours, one director and we’ve treated it as one film. It’s a piece of very cinematic television and the kind of thing I aspire to make.”
The director adds that the ambiguity of the moral dilemma at the heart of the story was the key to the drama. “I did not want it to be a for-or-against story,” he says. “We’re talking about the issue of asylum seekers, which could be anywhere in the world. From the outset, this felt like a way of contributing to and discussing this really important issue without it becoming a piece of advocacy.
“We as an audience expect a lot more from TV drama than in the past. As a director, the stories I’ve been drawn to in television, I know that if I had made them as feature films they would not have had the audiences they had on TV.”
Tonkin jumped at the chance to come back to Australia to work on a grounded drama after spending years on the heightened-reality milieu of The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. The actor relished tackling her character’s arc from being a hopeful, happy young woman to someone who, five years later, harbours a lot of anger, guilt and sadness.
Working for the first time with veterans McKenzie, Leslie and Walsman, Tonkin says she was a bit intimidated initially but felt comfortable after the first day and enjoyed the collaborative effort. “It was incredibly inspiring to work with all those actors; I probably learned more than I did in the past 10 years,” she says.
Ivin notes: “[Tonkin] proved herself to be a much greater actor than we had been aware of. I think people will see her differently from now on because she delivers a stellar performance.”
Similarly, McKenzie marvelled at Tonkin’s temperament and technique as she persevered filming a scene in dying light after a camera malfunction, observing: “Phoebe is at the top of her game in the US and it was lovely to see her back in Australia doing a fabulously dramatic role that she could get her teeth into.”
McKenzie describes her character as an embittered, driven and ambitious woman who is nearly unhinged after the tragedy at sea. Thereafter, she sets out to save her soul.
Like most of the cast and crew, Leslie found the week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane challenging, especially playing the boat’s captain with zero maritime expertise. He was cracking Jaws and Waterworld jokes before venturing out to sea but quickly desisted.
Leslie was attracted to the project because all the characters are complex and make bad decisions over the course of the four episodes, and by the chance to work with Ivin for the first time, having followed the director’s career since 2003 short film Cracker Bag. He also enjoyed teaming up again with Jackson after they collaborated on the Foxtel-commissioned First World War miniseries Deadline Gallipoli.
“What I really liked about Safe Harbour was that it’s very much a personal story about the inter-connected relationships, as opposed to being a political story,” Leslie says. “Because of the subject, people viewing at home are going to bring their own politics to it. But the show doesn’t make any attempt to push any agenda. I would not want to watch if it did. It sets up a very complicated dilemma and lets it play out as both sides make questionable decisions that have repercussions.”
Ivin is full of praise for the work of first-time cinematographer Sam Chiplin, who had been the B camera operator on The Beautiful Lie, a reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks for the ABC. Before that, Chiplin was a director’s assistant at TVC production house Exit Films, where Ivin met him.
“He created an amazing aesthetic on the show,” says the director, adding that he had only seen that level of enthusiasm and attitude in two other people: Australian DoPs Greig Fraser, whose movie credits include Lion, Mary Magdalene, Rogue One and Foxcatcher, and Adam Arkapaw, who shot the first series of Top of the Lake, True Detective and features including Assassin’s Creed and The Light Between Oceans.
Executive producer Debbie Lee, who is Matchbox’s director of scripted development, says the show is based on a key premise: what would viewers do if they were confronted with the moral dilemma the Aussies faced? “It is complicated and there is no simple answer to what is a unifying dramatic question,” Lee says. “It’s about the fantastic characters created by the writing team and their own dilemmas.”
Shooting a reimagining of the iconic Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was challenging but highly rewarding for cast and crew. DQ reports from the set of the six-part drama.
Primly dressed as a schoolteacher, Yael Stone is standing in front of a classroom of young girls in a historic building in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, speaking gravely about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Playing religious studies teacher Dora Lumley, she draws a comparison between Jesus’ place of entombment and the caves of Hanging Rock, from where three students and a teacher had mysteriously disappeared a few days earlier, on Valentine’s Day 1900.
“Don’t be a doubter, like Thomas. Believe in Jesus and the dead will rise again,” intones the actress, best known as inmate Lorna Morello in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. That prompts one girl to cry out: “They’ll come back here even after they’re dead!”
After numerous takes, each flawlessly delivered by Stone, director Larysa Kondracki calls cut on a pivotal scene in Picnic at Hanging Rock, FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s six-part reimagining of Joan Lindsay’s iconic 1967 novel, which previously inspired Peter Weir’s classic 1975 movie.
Amazon Prime Video came aboard as the US partner to the drama commissioned by Australia’s Foxtel in a deal trumpeted as the biggest ever for an Australian series in the US, surpassing SundanceTV’s investment in Top of the Lake: China Girl. Sales to several other key territories are pending, negotiated by FremantleMedia International.
While the budget is under wraps, another investor, state agency Film Victoria, estimated the production would inject more than A$11m (US$8.8m) into the local economy.
Directed by Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie and scripted by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, the high-end production is the first of a number of adaptations of Australian novels planned by FMA.
Jo Porter, FMA director of drama and one of the show’s executive producers, says: “It’s our first internationally facing drama production made in Australia. We want to make projects on home ground using Australian creative talent. We have optioned a few other books. Picnic is the first of what we hope will be many more of these ambitious projects.”
The cast is headed by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer as Mrs Appleyard, an English widow who moves to Australia and creates the Appleyard College for Young Ladies. Lola Bessis (Cassandra, Swim Little Fish Swim) plays Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, mistress of French conversation, music and dance. Anna McGahan (The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Kettering Incident) is Miss Greta McCraw, mistress of geography and mathematics, and Sibylla Budd (Tomorrow When the War Began, Winners & Losers) is Mrs Valange, mistress of art and literature.
In the key roles of students are Lily Sullivan, Madeleine Madden, Samara Weaving, Ruby Rees and newcomer Inez Curro. The top-notch male cast includes Don Hany, Harrison Gilbertson, James Hoare, Marcus Graham, Mark Coles Smith, Jonny Pasvolsky and Philip Quast.
The idea to revisit Lindsay’s novel germinated internally at FMA and the rights were secured from Barbara Mobbs, literary agent for Lindsay’s estate. Fremantle developed the project with Christian, who wrote the series bible and the first episode, and Addison.
“Bea [Christian] is a deep thinker with a beautiful sensitivity,“ Porter tells DQ on the classroom set at the heritage-listed Wattle Park Chalet, which was built in 1928. “She has a unique way of seeing the world and the human psyche. Her writing is quite lyrical, at times strange and wonderful, with a contemporary feel which is such an organic fit with Joan Lindsay herself.”
Several broadcasters were interested in the project – which explores the fallout from the disappearance of the girls and teacher – but FMA’s relationship with Foxtel, for which it produces the female-prison drama Wentworth, helped cement the deal. Foxtel greenlit the show after Screen Australia approved its production investment in September 2016. Although that was before any cast had been attached, there was an understanding that a marquee name would be hired to play Mrs Appleyard.
The producers also wanted a female lead director who had experience in big-budget storytelling and would be able to attract a big-name cast. Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, suggested Canadian filmmaker Kondracki, based on her work on such shows as Better Call Saul, Legion and The Americans.
Kondracki is a fan of both the book and Weir’s film, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian cinema since she did her Master of Fine Arts graduate degree at Columbia University. “What [writers] Bea and Alice have done so beautifully in the scripts is to capture a kind of novelistic quality,” she says. “Our task was to create a world that you want to spend time and linger in and get to know these characters. We have tried very hard to root all the ideas in the book, especially Joan Lindsay’s interesting take on the understanding of time and its impact on civilisation.”
Fellow director Rymer, who spent some years in the US directing episodes of series such as Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Hannibal (which he also exec produced), Longmire, American Horror Story and The Killing, was planning to come back to Australia to set up a TV series when his agent sent him the script. “My first instinct was, ‘Why would you want to do that, a remake for TV?’” he says. “Peter Weir’s film was powerful and worked very well. What were we going to add to it?”
Five or 10 pages, in however, Rymer says he found the script “very intriguing – not what I expected to read.” He also suggested bringing on board Brotchie, who was hired after the Australian Directors’ Guild (ADG) objected to Kondracki on the grounds that she did not meet the net employment benefit test set by the country’s immigration department and questioned why an Australian female director was not employed. When Brotchie signed on, the ADG withdrew its complaint. Subsequently, funding agency Screen Australia affirmed it would change its guidelines to rule out financing Australian television projects, excluding coproductions, if a foreign director is attached.
The LA-based, Melbourne native Brotchie had directed two episodes of Girl Boss, a 13-part Netflix comedy inspired by the true story of Sophia Amoruso, a digital entrepreneur who founded the fashion e-commerce site Nasty Gal.
“I read the novel as a teenager and loved it, and I loved Peter Weir’s film,” she says of Hanging Rock. “The idea of being part of such an iconic Australian show was thrilling. On Girl Boss I was working on a similar budget level with a fantastic team and all the big toys. It’s the same skill set.”
Before signing on, Brotchie spoke to Porter via Skype, and arrived in Sydney a week before shooting was due to start to meet Kondracki on the set. Porter was impressed with Brotchie’s expertise in tackling her first drama after directing the Australian ABC comedies Lowdown and This is Littleton, observing: “She certainly held her own and has delivered a really lovely episode.”
Rymer concurs: “She got a lot of nuance and intimacy out of the actors, her shooting style was strong and simple and she knew what she wanted. Her biggest challenge was that she would plan very meticulously and then everything would be up in the air.”
Among the directors and producers, there was a 95% consensus on casting, according to Rymer. The process was complicated by the fact multiple other high-profile shows were casting at the same time and several actors dropped out due to scheduling problems, but they got the cast they wanted.
Kondracki directed the first three episodes, Brotchie helmed episode four and Rymer picked up five and six, although occasionally each worked on the others’ blocks.
In Weir’s film, Mrs Appleyard was played by the then middle-aged Welsh-born actor Rachel Roberts, so Dormer is a generational change. However, Porter says: “We did not deliberately go young. What we wanted was someone who had command and strength, and Natalie has that in spades.” The timing was also fortuitous because Dormer was looking for her next major role after playing Margaery Tyrell in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
McGahan, who plays the teacher who vanishes with the girls, marvelled at Dormer’s performance: “She makes incredibly complex choices and can execute them with no problem. Her craft is so exact. She had these complex monologues addressing the students, which required a lot of camera angles and very long days. Without a complaint, she would repeat these monologues flawlessly over and over again and would never drop a line. When the camera started to roll she was completely transformed, impenetrable.”
Similarly, Stone was impressed with the way Dormer brought out her character’s “truly chilling, quiet velocity.” The New York-based actress, who was born in Sydney, was keen to find another Aussie project after playing a cop in Deep Water, Blackfella Films’ miniseries commissioned by Oz pubcaster SBS.
For her audition tape she stuffed her lower jaw with toilet paper and adopted a nasal tone to impersonate Miss Lumley, a character who lacks authority, is unable to communicate with her fellow teachers and is not respected by the students. Then when she arrived on set she expected to be able to use prosthetics, but was told the budget did not stretch that far, so she used paper towels. Her performance starts out as comical but at the end will likely elicit tears from viewers, according to Porter.
Madeleine Madden’s casting as student Marion Quade marks another departure from the book and movie as the series’ only Indigenous character. “Marion prides herself on her intelligence and is really aware of the social prejudices of the era,” says the 20-year-old, whose credits include Tomorrow, When the War Began and the Indigenous series Redfern Now and Ready for This.
“Her father is white and her mother is Aboriginal. She is put into the school to be hidden away. This makes her aware of challenges that are unique to her and do not apply to the other girls.” As a further twist, Marion has a romantic relationship with one of the women in the college.
The logistics of filming in and around the labyrinth of Hanging Rock, which is 70km north-west of Melbourne, and numerous other locations in the state of Victoria and around the city, proved challenging for cast and crew, including director of cinematography Garry Phillips, production designer Jo Ford and costume designer Edie Kurzer.
Porter says: “It’s been physically a really, really demanding shoot. We’ve been out in the bush and we spent a full week at the rock, with three units filming up there at one point. No wonder Peter Weir was 23 when he made the film, because you have to be a mountain goat, going up and down that rock.”
Kondracki devised a novel plan to elicit ideas from the cast and crew, offering a bottle of wine in return for innovative suggestions that ended up on screen. The best involved creating a “curtain” of water for one scene filmed on the top of the rock, which entailed several crew members lugging 1,000 gallons of water in buckets up the 106 metre-high rock.
Each director had a different filmmaking style, which was embraced by the actors. McGahan describes Kondracki as “a radical, a fire; with her, you get all this adrenaline,” Rymer as a consummate professional and visionary and Brotchie as an actor’s director who involved herself in all the choices the actors made. The partnership with Amazon Prime Video also enabled the producers to increase the shooting schedule to 13 weeks and to extend the second unit’s workload.
Weir’s film famously ended without revealing what happened to the missing teacher and two of the girls (one returned, but had no memory of the event). The series, launching down under in 2018, canvasses various possibilities: were they kidnapped? Did they escape? Did they go into a time warp? Were they abducted by aliens?
Rymer says: “We put a lot of emphasis on character, who these girls were and what they wanted. Hopefully what we say is more interesting than what happens to them, and we preserve the mystery. Hopefully viewers will be at the water cooler arguing vehemently about what happened to the girls.”
More broadly, Kondracki adds: “For me, the show is not about what happened to the girls as much as why they wanted to climb the rock in the first place.”
Go behind the scenes on Top of the Lake: China Girl, which sees Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie join director Jane Campion and star Elisabeth Moss for the sequel to the 2013 original crime mystery.
It seems more likely that casting directors would be beating a path to Nicole Kidman’s door, as opposed to the Oscar-winning actor pitching for roles herself. But such was her desire to play a role in Top of the Lake: China Girl that she visited co-creator Jane Campion and requested a part in the show a whole year before production was due to begin.
The director was keen to accommodate Kidman, with whom she had first worked on 1996 romantic drama The Portrait of a Lady, but there was a problem: the character she had in mind was a side player.
Kidman, who admits she was a huge fan of the first season of Top of the Lake, accepted nonetheless but then Campion and Gerard Lee, the co-writer of the six-part sequel, decided to expand her character, Julia Edwards, who in the story adopted the daughter of the central character, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss).
As revealed in the 2013 original, Robin gave up her daughter Mary after being the victim of a rape at the age of 16. The set-up sees a battle of the mothers between Robin and Julia, who is having an affair with a female French teacher.
Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in the Kings Cross red light district that houses a brothel.
Speaking in the Bondi Pavilion overlooking Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Campion says of Kidman: “It’s really fun for her to play a character when she can really stretch herself emotionally and humorously. When you are tall and good-looking like she is, you can get trapped in that beauty. It was lovely to work with her again because she is so damned good, an extraordinary actor.”
Campion directed the first and fifth episodes of the drama, produced by See-Saw Films’ Libby Sharpe and Philippa Campbell for the UK’s BBC2, SundanceTV and Australia’s Foxtel and BBC First, while Ariel Kleiman handled the other four instalments. The series has already launched in the UK and down under but will debut on September 10 in the US.
The main plot follows Robin as she investigates the murder of an Asian girl whose body washes up inside a suitcase on Bondi Beach – an investigation that takes her into the city’s darkest recesses and to the secrets of her own heart. British actor Gwendoline Christie plays Constable Miranda Hilmarson, who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin.
For the role of Mary, Campion cast her daughter Alice Englert, who has an impressive list of credits including the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Channel 4’s New Worlds and the movies Ginger & Rosa and Beautiful Creatures. Campion explains: “The character is a little bit younger than she is but Alice has the depth and the experience to carry off quite a difficult role.”
However, she asked Kleiman to direct most of the scenes involving Mary. Englert suspects that’s because those were the times when she had to wear fewer clothes and her character faced difficult, complicated situations. “I viewed the first season as a fan,” says the 22-year-old actor. “The women’s camp [in season one] was huge because, prior to the making the series, the producers were nervous as they didn’t know if viewers would like it; people really liked it. It meant a lot to me to be able to feel so emotional and not feel manipulated by a drama.
“Season two is very romantic in a way. There are some great and complicated love stories and there is the true romance of human connection.”
Englert relished the chance to work with Kidman – praising her generosity, kindness and engaging presence – as well as Moss and Christie. “Lizzie [Moss] is inspiring as a leading lady,” she says. “You feel confident when she is there, and Gwendoline is such a beautiful, adorable human being.”
Campion cast Christie after receiving an email from the actor explaining that she had been a fan of the director since she saw An Angel at My Table on television when she was 12, adding that she had watched the first season of Top of the Lake four times. Christie also emphasised she is very tall, pale-skinned and has whitish hair – the very characteristics Campion needed for her character.
Christie had initially sent the email to a friend to gain her advice, asking her not to forward it to the director if she thought it made her look foolish. The friend promptly sent it to Campion nevertheless, with Christie doubtful it would result in her getting the role.
But when Christie and Campion met, the deal was sealed. “She has so much humanity, it’s like a baby elephant coming into the room,” Campion says of the actor.
Englert has an interesting perspective on why her mother has shifted her focus to TV drama after a lengthy career directing features including The Piano, Bright Star, Holy Smoke and In the Cut. “She found doing the press for films so difficult and she wanted the opportunity to tell a story like a novel and to have freedom in doing that,” she explains. “TV is giving people that freedom.”
Campion, Moss and Emile Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films who executive produces with Campion, first discussed the idea of a sequel to Top of the Lake when they dined in a Japanese restaurant during filming of the first season in Queenstown, New Zealand.
“We started talking about a lot of what-ifs, like what if they moved to Thailand?” Campion recalls. “It’s such hard work that you don’t want to do it to yourself again, but I started to think [of a follow-up]. We did not know the show would be as successful as it has been. There seemed to be an appetite for a boutique, event-type series like that, so that was really encouraging.
“There are a lot of people who are not going out to see films but they are enjoying more challenging television or wanting smart television. Every now and again a film will break through, but that’s so rare for mid-budget or low-budget features. It’s more relaxing doing TV series.”
After Top of the Lake screened to critical acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin festivals and was nominated for seven primetime Emmys (it won the gong for Outstanding Cinematography) and for Bafta, Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild of America awards, financing the sequel proved relatively easy.
BBC2, SundanceTV, BBC First and Foxtel were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development. SundanceTV brought in Hulu to replace Netflix, which had the second-window rights to the original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.
As happened with the first season, Lucy Richer, senior BBC commissioning editor for drama, and Sundance reps met with the creative team before production started for a week-long brainstorming session, reviewing the scripts and discussing ways to improve them.
Sherman says: “What allows shows like these to be made is to have broadcasters that want to be involved in something that gets the highest level of publicity and awards focus, rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people. That different focus results in different sorts of shows being made.
“The series was always intended as a one-season show. But we all fell in love with the characters and started thinking, ‘What next for them? Is there a future?’ Some ideas were thrown around at the end of making the first season. We all went back to our lives, but we kept needling Jane slowly but surely over the years, and getting Jane and Gerard [Lee, co-writer] together to see if creative sparks would fly and stories would emerge.
“Philippa [Campbell] spent some time with them in Jane’s hut in New Zealand and thankfully they engaged. It all comes from the creative centre. This series is the tableau that allows Jane and Gerard to paint and really explore what they find fascinating about contemporary society.”
Moss is currently one of TV’s hottest talents, having starred in AMC’s Mad Men and, most recently, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she has been nominated for an Emmy. But she had to be convinced that the sequel would be even more challenging than the original, observing: “When Jane asked me to do this season, I said, ‘Yes, but it has to be more challenging than the first’ – otherwise why do it and why watch it? I told Jane, ‘Go deeper, go darker.’ I wanted Robin to be really fucked up. Everything is ratcheted up from 10 to 100.
“It was slightly less scary than the first season but this one is so much more challenging for Robin and for me, material-wise and emotionally. This is a classic example of expecting the audience to be intelligent and not dumbing something down for them, as well as allowing the show to have its own tone and mood, which are unlike anything else.
“That bloomed fully in the first season and the audience loved it. In season two it goes deeper into that tone and those directions. It’s that Jane Campion thing where it’s dark and creepy but also grossly hilarious at times.”
Campion told Christie she had written the role of Miranda for her, but Moss doubted she would be available. Moss only discovered Christie had signed on after they met by chance in London one month before production was due to start. At the time, both felt too awkward to ask each other if she was on board, so Moss emailed Campion, who confirmed they would work together.
In a clear case of mutual admiration, Moss says of her co-star: “She is a spectacular actress. She is so great for the role and I knew she would bring something that nobody else could. It’s been an eye-opening, illuminating and inspiring performance that I have had the pleasure of watching for the past four-and-a-half months.”
Christie said of her first experience of working in Australia: “We have moved out of traditional comfort zones to get the best out of each other and to achieve something a little less ordinary.”
The Game of Thrones star, who also plays Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, enjoyed the opportunity to work on a contemporary, real-world story, noting: “The show gives us a very interesting perception of the realities of human behaviour and a very piercing and profound look at what it is to be human in all of its strangeness and banality.
“Jane’s work is so much about reality. Something they achieved so brilliantly in season one was dealing with the extraordinary in terms of subject matter, drama and relationships, but in a way that felt so real. That was magical to me and that’s what I wanted to explore.”
Both Moss and Christie were full of praise for Kleiman, who makes his TV debut after directing several shorts and the 2015 feature Partisan, a bleak thriller that starred Vincent Cassel and Jeremy Chabriel.
“What he might lack in experience he makes up for in vision, passion, his precision of what he wants and his willingness to communicate with you and for you to take it in turns of where you push it,” Christie says. “Also, he shares a similar kind of sense of humour to Jane, which is why this relationship works in terms of directing styles.”
On the differences between the original Top of the Lake and the sequel, Sherman says: “It has the same DNA underneath, with a different expression. The second season is more internal, a really sophisticated character and relationship story with a great crime story pulled through it. Having a new cinematographer in Germain McMicking gives it a distinctive feel, elegance and a lit quality that is different to the first season.”
Lee and Campion first met at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the early 1980s, going on to co-write her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Lee likens their relationship to that between brother and sister.
Campion clearly enjoyed filming at the beach, Sydney’s nightclubs, red-light district Kings Cross and other locations in the Eastern suburbs. Pointing to the Pacific Ocean, she says: “Forget the lake, we’ve got a whole ocean here.”
Asked if she and Lee have left the door open for a third edition, Campion is unequivocal: “We have.”
The biggest hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wasn’t a film at all. Now, ahead of the show’s television debut, Top of the Lake: China Girl producer Emile Sherman tells DQ about reuniting with writer Jane Campion.
Emile Sherman and Jane Campion were pretty confident they had a winner in the sequel to Top of the Lake when they got the thumbs up at the first screening for its commissioning broadcasters, which include the BBC, SundanceTV and Foxtel.
But it wasn’t until Top of the Lake: China Girl had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim, alongside the first two hours of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series for Showtime, that they knew for sure.
“It was a gamble because Cannes is that prestige-level festival and as a TV series you are an outsider to all those films,” says Sherman, the co-founder of See-Saw Films, which co-executive produced the six-hour miniseries with Campion.
“We just didn’t know how it was going to be received. It is always incredibly exciting and nerve-wracking to launch your baby into the world. We felt Cannes was a wonderful opportunity and platform to position the TV series as the highest quality and to differentiate it from so many of the TV series around the world.”
Typifying the rave reviews, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the sequel co-scripted by Campion and Gerard Lee “bristles with the same kind of sexual, psychological and sociopolitical frankness that the original served up, but with a different feel based on the often grungy urban Sydney settings.”
Variety’s Brett Lang hailed a twisty mystery that will keep audiences guessing until the final credits roll, another knockout turn by Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin and stellar work from Nicole Kidman as a mother dealing with a volatile teenage daughter.
Campion directed episodes one and five and, in his TV debut, Aussie Ariel Kleiman directed the other four. The producers hired Kleiman after being impressed with his short films and his first feature, Partisan.
Sherman describes deciding on the co-director as the show’s biggest creative choice, involving a search for likely prospects in Australia, the US, the UK and parts of Europe.
“We needed a director who respected and understood the tone of the series. It is slightly heightened in some ways but for Jane it is not heightened because that is how she views the world. Ariel understands that and he also brings out the humour in the story; he has that Australian/European sense of the absurd but always grounding everything in the truth.”
Sherman was keen to do a follow-up while the first season was shooting in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2012. But Campion decided she would only revisit Top of the Lake if she and Lee could come up with a compelling idea. That emerged from brainstorming sessions at the director’s holiday home in New Zealand, also attended by producer Philippa Campbell.
BBC2 in the UK, US cable channel SundanceTV and BBC First/Foxtel in Australia were all keen for a sequel and Arte again took the French and German rights. As the primary commissioner, the BBC financed the development, with BBC Worldwide again distributing. SundanceTV then brought in Hulu, which will start streaming the show the day after its Sundance premiere, replacing Netflix, which had the second window to the 2013 original in the US. Hulu’s contribution enabled the producers to slightly raise the budget and thus to pay higher fees to the talent.
“Broadcasters want to be involved in shows that get the highest level of publicity and awards focus rather than doing things that are necessarily just going to appeal to the largest number of people,” Sherman says.
The plot follows Moss’s Griffin as she returns to Sydney and tries to rebuild her life after the events of season one. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer – until she discovers “China Girl” didn’t die alone.
Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie (pictured top alongside Moss) plays Miranda, a fellow cop who has an uneasy relationship with Griffin. Kidman plays Julia Edwards, who adopted Griffin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert), whom she gave up at birth after being the victim of a gang rape when she was 15, as chronicled in the first season. Swedish actor David Dencik plays Mary’s much older boyfriend Puss, who owns a building in Kings Cross that houses a brothel.
Sherman rates the length of the shoot (16 weeks), the number of takes, the cinematography, the lighting and design as comparable to the highest levels of the movies he’s worked on.
Campion adds: “The attraction for Gerard and me was to make something entertaining and enjoyable, which is also the way we see the world and the things that scare us and the things we find moving. It’s about our lives, parenting, reproduction, IVF, kids, being mothers and fathers…”
Lee interjects: “And we’re passing it off as a detective story so people will watch it.”
Would Sherman like to do a third chapter? “I would, but I am being patient,” he says. “Jane always toys with a range of ideas and, at a certain point, she and Gerard decide if there is something they are really excited about telling.”
True-life stories of the famous and infamous continue to win commissions in Australia – but for how long? DQ investigates.
Australian TV dramas inspired by real people, living and dead, have been consistently popular with audiences over the past four or five years – but is that boom about to bust?
Although four biographically based miniseries are in the can or due to go into production this year, and another has already gone to air, some producers and broadcasters believe the cycle is exhausting itself. Others still see plenty of potential for the genre.
“The biopic genre is tired and the subject matter is running thin,” says Endemol Shine Australia (ESA) CEO Mark Fennessy, whose firm produced the top-rating minis Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS, Catching Milat and Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door for the Seven Network and Brock for Network Ten.
“In recent times we’ve seen a definite trend towards more contemporary subjects where the primary audience has an emotional connection – often to their younger days,” Fennessy continues. “As often happens in Australia, everyone quickly jumps on the bandwagon and so it’s largely eating itself now.”
Australia’s Nine Network has ridden the true-life wave with CJZ’s House of Hancock, Southern Star Entertainment’s Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War and, less successfully, the FremantleMedia Australia (FMA) telepic Schapelle, about the conviction of Schapelle Coby for drug trafficking – which came off second best against the INXS mini. Later this year Nine will launch CJZ’s House of Bond, the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond, the flamboyant English immigrant who helped engineer Australia’s famous America’s Cup yacht race victory, bought the Nine network from Kerry Packer and was later declared bankrupt, convicted of fraud
“The challenge with biopics is to find a subject matter with broad audience appeal, a riveting story and contemporary relevance,” says Andy Ryan, Nine’s co-head of drama. “But there is definitely a limit to the genre.”
CJZ MD Nick Murray contends shows such as House of Bond go much further than linear biopics. “It’s the rise and fall of the house of Bond – the influence of both wives, the business advisors and Bond’s ability to talk or con people and banks into doing what he wanted. What on earth motivated them all?” he says.
Ryan concurs: “House of Bond is very much like the man himself – colourful, outrageous and always entertaining. Bond’s life was a roller coaster of excitement and emotion, and we think we’ve captured that in the drama.”
Rebecca Heap, head of programming and digital at Australian pubcaster the ABC, sees a bright future for drama based on real people: “Audiences love Australian stories, and bios have the ability to capture our imagination on two levels – telling the story of the subject and the story of our society at that point in time. There will continue to be room for well-written and well-executed stories about extraordinary Australians, both famous and infamous.”
The ABC has commissioned The Easybeats from Sony-owned Playmaker Media, the saga of five young immigrants who met in a Sydney migrant hostel in 1964 and went on to create Australia’s first truly international rock group. On paper, the project may have seemed more suited to a commercial network, but Heap says: “The Easybeats is a great Australian success story with a killer soundtrack. What’s not to love? It maps the beginning of a new Australian identity, one that places us on the world music stage and celebrates the role of diversity in getting us there, making it a perfect fit for
FMA director of drama Jo Porter says: “We are in the midst of a cycle of biopics that reflects the appetite of audiences to celebrate significant individuals who have helped define how Australians feel about themselves both locally and globally. We would consider another biopic; the challenge is they need to also have international audience resonance to get the support of distribution.”
Porter oversaw the production of Hoges (pictured top), the saga of Paul Hogan, the former Sydney Harbour Bridge worker who found fame and fortune as the host of his own TV show and as the creator and star of the Crocodile Dundee movies. The two-parter, which featured Josh Lawson as Hogan, Ryan Corr as his manager/on-air sidekick John ‘Strop’ Cornell and Justine Clarke as Noelene Hogan, screened on Seven in February, winning its 21.00 and 20.30 timeslots, each drawing a consolidated audience of 1.5 million – but the broadcaster was hoping for more. “I don’t put the numbers in the fail category, more the underwhelming category. You can’t win them all,” says Angus Ross, Seven’s director of network programming.
Distributor FremantleMedia International is an investor in Hoges and will sell the project internationally. Porter says: “We’re so pleased international buyers who loved our larrikin hero in Crocodile Dundee will have the chance to see the story behind the man.”
Perhaps reflecting a limited pool of subjects, Nine originally intended to commission minis on Hogan (from ESA) and Olivia Newton-John (Screentime), but Seven got in first on both occasions.
Seven’s Newton-John drama is produced by FMA and directed by Shawn Seet. It stars Delta Goodrem as the actor and singer who blazed a trail in Hollywood as the star of Grease and Xanadu, recording five number-one hits and winning four Grammy Awards.
“We are delighted with the strength of Shawn Seet’s creative vision and realisation of this story. It’s fantastic to celebrate a female Australian legend,” says Porter.
Seven has also commissioned Banijay-owned Screentime to produce Warnie, which will explore the paradox of former champion cricketer Shane Warne, widely regarded as the most admired, criticised and publicised Australian sportsman of the modern era.
Matt Ford (creator of Playmaker Media’s ABC drama Hiding) is writing the scripts and Kerrie Mainwaring will produce with investment from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
“Warnie’s story is not only the story of one of the world’s greatest cricketers but his off-field antics have kept tabloids in business for years. He is so compelling on and off the field, you can’t look away,” Ross says.
In a similar vein, true-crime dramas have long been reliable ratings performers, most notably Screentime’s Underbelly franchise, which started on Nine in 2008. The latest iteration, Underbelly Files: Chopper, will tell the story of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of Australia’s most notorious gangsters. Read, whose exploits were dramatised in the 2000 Australian movie Chopper, starring Eric Bana, died from liver cancer in 2013, aged 58.
ESA, meanwhile, has produced Blue Murder: Killer Cop, which stars Richard Roxburgh as notorious former detective Roger Rogerson, now serving a life sentence for the murder of a drug dealer. A sequel to Blue Murder, which aired on the ABC in 1995, it will premiere on Seven this autumn.
Toni Collette, Matt Nable, Dan Wyllie, Emma Booth, Justin Smith, Damian Walshe-Howling, Steve Le Marquand, Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Jeffery co-star in the show. It has been directed by Michael Jenkins and executive produced by John Edwards, who collaborated on the original series.
Ross says: “The powerful performances will give a no-holds-barred look at the downfall of Roger Rogerson. It is not for the faint-hearted.”
Opinions are divided over whether producers need the co-operation of their subjects – an issue that flared when billionaire Gina Rinehart sued Nine and CJZ, claiming the 2015 drama House of Hancock defamed her.
The programme focused on the feud between the late Lang Hancock (played by Sam Neill), his wife Rose Lacson (Peta Sergeant) and his daughter Gina (Mandy McElhinney).
The case was settled out of court in February, with Nine agreeing not to rebroadcast or stream the show and the broadcaster and producers publicly apologising to Rinehart and her family for any hurt or offence caused by the broadcast and its promotion.
Despite that, Murray says: “Personally, I think these stories are told better without the co-operation of the subjects. Imagine how different House of Hancock would have been if Gina Rinehart had script approval.”
CJZ head of drama Paul Bennett adds: “We do a huge amount of research on these productions and talk to as many people as we can, including the subjects if they are open to it. However, it is not essential at all to have their co-operation; in fact, having them on board has the potential to skew the process, as it can tend to make the piece more of a love letter to the subject rather than a more honest and probing investigation of their lives and what makes them tick.”
Newton-John was supportive of FMA’s mini, while Hoges’ producers obtained permission from Hogan and Cornell to recreate scenes from their TV shows and films. Both savvy businessmen, they own all rights to their content.
ESA’s Fennessy says: “If the subject is still living, it’s absolutely preferable to have their endorsement and support. If the subject is deceased, it’s just as important to have such from immediate family or the estate.”
While subjects who are internationally known are an advantage for producers in securing international distribution, this isn’t critical to the funding process. According to Ross, having a name who can help offshore sales is a bonus but that does not make or break the viability of a project, based on the current funding model.
However, Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne notes that bios’ international potential hinges on their relevance to international audiences.
Crime sagas such as Catching Milat often travel more successfully than generic stories, she says, while Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door struggled because Allen is not widely known outside Australia, despite his 1981 Academy Award for the theme song to the movie Arthur, his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli and the Broadway hit The Boy from Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman.
While biopics have the potential to be big hits at home and abroad, finding a star name or story worthy of the television treatment is the key to success – but the reliance on public awareness or curiosity over the topic may also prove to be the limitation for the genre.
Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly is bringing his brand of edgy and original content to the small screen with dramas including Barracuda and new series The Warriors.
Earlier this year, prolific Australian producer, director, writer and distributor Robert Connolly directed Barracuda, the saga of a gay 17-year-old Greek/Australian who dreams of winning swimming medals at the Olympics.
Now he is producing The Warriors, an eight-part comedy-drama about another 17-year-old – this time an indigenous lad who is drafted to play for an Australian rules football team in Melbourne. The show, to air in 2017, is being made in collaboration with a 100% indigenous team of writers and directors.
Both projects were commissioned by Aussie public broadcaster ABC, typifying the growing willingness of free-to-air broadcasters to embrace edgy, original and adventurous content.
The Warriors is the first TV venture from Connolly’s feature-film prodco Arenamedia. Likening the show’s tone to HBO’s Entourage, he says: “It’s a mischievous, cheeky comedy-drama that deals with a bunch of young Australian rules football players living in a shared house in the lead-up to the first game of the season.”
Newcomer Gordan Churchill plays Maki, the number-one draft pick who relocates from a remote indigenous community to Melbourne to play the game he loves. The series also introduces Nelson Baker and Ben Knight as mischievous teammates Zane and Scottie, while Reece Milne (Home & Away) plays Doc, the experienced captain tasked with showing the players the ropes.
Tasia Zalar (Wentworth, The Straits) portrays Zane’s sister Ava, who joins the boys to try out for the women’s league; Lisa McCune is the team’s communications manager who fighs a losing battle to keep the boys out of trouble; Vince Colosimo is the coach responsible for getting the lowly team back in contention for the finals; and John Howard plays the club president.
Entertainment One has the Australian and international rights to the series, while funding agencies Screen Australia and Film Victoria are among the investors. “You would think a show about Australian rules football might not have international legs but, with such diverse content screening across cable and online platforms, people are really enjoying finding edgy stuff that is on the fringes, which is exciting,” says Connolly. “They are looking for distinctive programming that can stand out among all the content on these platforms.”
Connolly and writer Tony Briggs (The Sapphires) came up with the concept, which draws on Briggs’ background as a professional sprinter.
ABC director of TV Richard Finlayson credits Sally Riley, the pubcaster’s head of scripted production and former head of indigenous, with backing shows such as The Warriors and Cleverman. The latter was acquired by SundanceTV in the US, which has commissioned a second season of the drama, produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures. The show melds Aboriginal mythology and a dystopian near-future.
“It would have been difficult to imagine you could mount a production with 100% indigenous talent over the last decade,” Finlayson says. “Programmes like Cleverman and now The Warriors show how far Sally, with the help of many others, has been able to bring the industry. It’s great being able to find those kinds of tropes that contemporary audiences can really relate to. I like the idea of Rob bringing to life the whole canvas of Aussies rules football and the role indigenous players have in that environment.”
With scripts written by Briggs, Jon Bell (Cleverman, The Gods of Wheat Street, Redfern Now) and emerging writer Tracey Rigney, The Warriors is directed by Catriona McKenzie, Adrian Wills, Steven McGregor and Bec Cole. Arenamedia’s Liz Kearney and John Harvey are the producers.
Barracuda, meanwhile, was produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures. It is based on a Christos Tsiolkas novel set in Melbourne in 1996 and follows Danny Kelly (played by newcomer Elias Anton) as he begins a high-school scholarship to pursue his dream of becoming an elite swimmer.
Trained by Hungarian coach Frank Torma (Matt Nable), Danny aims to compete in the school championships but is resented as a “wog” upstart by swimming squad members Martin Taylor (Benjamin Kindon), Wilco (Andrew Creer), Scooter (Rhys Mitchell) and Tsitsas (Joe Clocek).
Victoria Haralabidou and Jeremy Lindsay Taylor play Danny’s supportive parents and Rachel Griffiths is Martin’s snobbish mother Samantha.
The drama turned out to be prescient, with the Australian swimming team underperforming at this summer’s Rio Olympics, winning only three gold, four silver and three bronze medals.
Ten years ago, Connolly surmises, a project like Barracuda probably would have been made as a theatrical feature, but TV is now the natural outlet for such fare. “Middle-ground, well-made drama does not have a home in cinemas anymore,” he says. “If you want to make a feature film now, it either has to be to massive, ambitious and high budget to compete in that world, or smaller, bolder and distinctive cinema.”
Produced by Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs, Barracuda deals with myriad themes including class, sexuality and the pressure to perform in an elite sport. NBCUniversal International is now launching international sales of the miniseries at Mipcom.
Matchbox Pictures CEO Chris Oliver-Taylor says: “Barracuda has already had significant interest internationally. The story is something many countries can relate to and, with the quality of the writing, acting and of course the direction, we believe Barracuda stands up to any international drama in the market. We expect the series to sell strongly, much like The Slap and our other miniseries Devil’s Playground and Glitch.”
Finlayson continues: “Barracuda is another example of a complicated story about class and race and the sacrifices you make when you dedicate your life to any single cause, through the lens of Olympic swimming. I like the idea of those issues being addressed in a really contemporary and accessible environment. That, to me, is public broadcasting at its best.”
Barracuda was Connolly’s second collaboration with Tsiolkas and his third with Matchbox. He directed The Slap, an adaptation of the author’s novel about the ramifications of a man slapping a child at a party, for the ABC; and Underground: The Julian Assange Story, a telemovie about the WikiLeaks founder starring Alex Williams, Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia, for Network Ten.
With Endemol Australia’s Imogen Banks and John Edwards, he also produced the First World War miniseries Gallipoli for Australia’s Nine Network.
Tsiolkas was involved in Barracuda’s script development but trusted screenwriters Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko to adapt his novel. “Christos came in early, when we were just working out our initial take on the material,” Ayshford says. “That was very nerve-wracking, but he looked at the board on which we had broken the story into episodes and said, ‘You’ve made me very happy.’ Then he told us to ‘smash it apart,’ so I felt it was OK to take some liberties.”
It was the first time working with Chayko for Ayshford, whose credits include Devil’s Playground, the movie Cut Snake, episodes of kids’ shows Nowhere Boys and Tomorrow, When the War Began and dramas The Code, The Straits and Crownies.
Both took part in a three-month script workshop in Melbourne before shooting started. “Belinda is a very talented and bold writer and we just sort of clicked in how we saw the show and what we thought we’d do,” Ayshford says. “I was always going to write the pilot, so she wrote the ending. We read each other’s work and gave feedback so we were on the same page.
“Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs kept us all on the same track. That said, we were each given licence to imagine the scripts as we saw fit, while needing to hit certain shared plot beats.”
The writer says Connolly brought enthusiasm, curiosity and highly original visual ideas to the project, plus a real respect for the writing. “Rob also has a real respect for the audience. He told me he wanted to make a show that people actually wanted to watch,” he says. “Not one they felt they had to watch in a dutiful way but that was genuinely popular. I really respected his desire for a wide audience for what is potentially a bruising and confronting subject, and that sets him apart from many other directors in my experience.”
Ayers first worked with Connolly on The Slap, then the Assange telepic. “Rob is really great with inventing stylish ways to tell stories,” he says. “He has a genius for bringing out the best in people. He is very clear about what he thinks. As a director he is a real captain and he has a muscular visual style that works very well for a show like Barracuda. He has great energy and passion and as a distributor he has a genius for marketing.”
After graduating from the producing course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, Connolly initially pursued a career in live theatre. He produced his first feature – The Boys, a tough drama directed by Rowan Woods – in 1998. Based on a Stephen Sewell stage play, the film starred David Wenham, Toni Collette and Lynette Curran. His first time directing a feature came with 2001’s The Bank, a thriller about corruption in the finance world. This again starred Wenham, along with Anthony LaPaglia and Sibylla Budd.
A political activist, Connolly also directed 2009’s Balibo, which chronicled the investigation of the murder of five Australian journalists and cameramen in East Timor in 1975. This year his distribution company CinemaPlus staged event cinema screenings of Australian director Eva Orner’s documentary Chasing Asylum. The film is a shocking exposé of the mistreatment of asylum seekers in the Australian government’s detention camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the Republic of Nauru.
Connolly cites Australia’s Peter Weir and Poland’s Krzysztof Kieślowski (primarily for Dekalog, the epic miniseries based on the Ten Commandments) as his two major influences.
He rates Weir’s Gallipoli (1980), which he saw while he was in school, as one of his favourite films, in addition to fellow Weir works The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). He also enjoyed the director’s Hollywood forays, Witness (1985) and Fearless (1993).
But Connolly does not strive to be flamboyant, describing his approach as a “forensic examination of aspects of the human condition and how society functions.” While directing the Julian Assange telepic, he learned a lot from Network 10 head of drama Rick Maier on taking a pragmatic approach to capturing a TV audience and dealing with commercial breaks. And unlike some directors who meticulously plan or storyboard each shot, Connolly likes the element of surprise.
“My style has journeyed from a more formal, structured use of the camera in a film like The Bank to attempting to achieve a style where the camera is capturing perceived real events unfolding in front of you rather than constructing them,” he explains. “I have moved away from specific tracking shots and a formal composition to the point where I try to create a dynamic between the camera and what is happening in front of it, as if the camera is capturing something for the first time.
“When I call ‘action’ I hope I have created an environment on the set where I don’t know exactly what’s about to happen. If I am not surprised by what’s happening in front of me, how can I expect the audience to be?”
Ayshford says of Connolly: “I have always liked how Rob makes dramas about the world we actually live in, not ones that ignore the political and social realities of our society. In that way he feels more like a British filmmaker to me, and I love that about his work.
“He wants to make engaging films about real people in real situations. There’s a few I really love: from the danger of The Boys and the outrage of Balibo to the nerd thrills of Underground.”
Seeing an untapped market for Australian children’s films, Connolly directed Paper Planes, which starred Sam Worthington, Ed Oxenbould and Deborah Mailman and was one of the highest grossers of 2015. His next feature will be Blueback, a family film that he’s adapting from Australian author Tim Winton’s eponymous 1997 novella, a fable about a young girl’s passion for saving the Great Barrier Reef and the oceans, and her friendship with a groper fish.
An Australian drama is breaking new ground with its cast and musical influences. DQ visits the set of The Secret Daughter.
Screentime CEO Rory Callaghan was watching House of Hancock, a miniseries about the troubled family dynasty of the late Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock, last year when he had an inspired idea for a TV drama.
Callaghan was impressed by scenes in the Nine Network drama that showed Hancock (Sam Neill) with Hilda Kickett (Leah Purcell), an Aboriginal woman who, in 2012, alleged DNA tests proved Hancock was her father, the result of an affair with a cook.
Wondering what might have happened to a woman like that, Callaghan came up with the idea of a series about an Aboriginal pub singer called Billie who claims to be the secret daughter of a wealthy publican. He had only one person in mind for the lead: Jessica Mauboy (pictured above), the singer-songwriter and actor who first came to fame as the runner-up in Australian Idol in 2006.
Darwin-born Mauboy had already proved her acting chops in Rachel Perkins’ 2009 feature Bran Nue Dae when she became part of the ensemble cast of The Sapphires, Wayne Blair’s 2012 movie based on Tony Briggs’ play about four young Indigenous singers who entertained the US troops in Vietnam.
Callaghan met with Mauboy and her agent David Champion, she responded enthusiastically and, after months of script development, the Seven Network commissioned The Secret Daughter. The ground-breaking series is the first to feature an Indigenous actress in the lead and the first in Australia to weave the musical elements – a mix of original songs and covers – into the narrative.
“I loved the character, the riskiness, the danger, the mystery of it. That’s what attracted me. It was an exciting and bold script,” says Mauboy. “Billie is bold, she’s open-minded, has a kind heart and puts others before herself.”
It took Screentime executives some months to secure Seven’s support and to arrange financing from Screen Australia and state agency Screen NSW. Screentime parent Banijay put up a distribution advance for the international sales rights and the producers used the 20% producer tax offset.
Seven head of drama Julie McGauran says: “It all starts with story, and the original pitch felt fresh and different. Then you add Jessica Mauboy to the mix, so the big attraction was the combination of story and her incredible talent. Like every Seven drama, we had to ensure The Secret Daughter ticked all the boxes – broad appeal, good humour and a fantastic ensemble cast led by Jessica, David Field and Colin Friels. It’s a heartfelt and joyful drama full of warmth, humour and music.”
The timing was propitious because Mauboy was lined up to feature in the network’s coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, which in turn served as a launch pad for the series. It debuts on Wednesday, October 3.
Screentime head of drama Greg Haddrick, also the script producer and one of the show’s writers, says: “The network is committing millions of dollars and you have to prove your credentials before they are willing to commit those funds. This was stylistically new ground. On the one hand, it is bold and exciting; on the other, it was a little scary. We had to show enough evolution of the idea to prove that it would be fresh and new and exciting. The network came on board after reading the scripts of the first four episodes.”
According to a recent Screen Australia report, the average production budget across 16 Australian TV dramas produced in the past four years – including Cleverman, The Code, The Principal, Rake, Top of the Lake, Deadline Gallipoli, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, The Slap, Secrets & Lies and seasons one and two of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – was A$1.4m (US$1.05m) per hour. The federal agency contributes up to 40% of budgets, of which A$500,000 is a grant.
McGauran, drama consultant John Holmes and network script executive Louise Bowes worked closely with the producers on development, casting and scripts, and gave regular feedback on the rushes.
Mauboy plays Billie Carter, a part-time country pub singer who spends much of her time looking after her father Gus (David Field), who can’t stay out of trouble. Colin Friels plays Jack Norton, a self-made millionaire publican who is stricken with cancer and goes to Billie’s town to look for his long-lost daughter, born from an affair 26 years ago.
Billie and Jack spend one night talking under the stars, telling each other their dreams and regrets. The next morning Jack dies in a helicopter crash. His youngest son Jamie (Matt Levett) turns up, meets Billie and there is an instantaneous mutual attraction. That gets complicated when Jamie starts to believe Billie may be the daughter his dad was looking for.
To save Gus from town crook Bruno (Salvatore Coco), Billie poses as the secret daughter and drives to Sydney with Jamie. Rachel Gordon plays Susan, the ambitious, ruthless and younger wife of Jack Norton, and Bonnie Sveen is Billie’s best friend Layla.
At the outset, Callaghan and Haddrick spent several days brainstorming with multiple writers, including Justin Monjo, to flesh out the characters and main plot points. Subsequently Monjo wrote the first two episodes, Haddrick wrote two and Keith Thompson and Bowes each penned one.
“We chose writers who Rory or I had worked with and who we felt would suit the show,” explains Haddrick, speaking on the multi-level set in a converted north Sydney office building. “Yes, it’s a relationship show, but it’s operating in more traditional areas than standard, middle-class relationship shows. There is a lot of class imbalance, there is the music element and we weave the music into the drama in a fresh way. It took a few months to work through all that.
“We have the characters in Billie’s band to begin with, so you see the band playing some covers. You then see her in her normal life but, rather than break into a song like characters do in a musical, she often picks up on what is around her, phrases people say, sounds she hears in the street or from the pub. Before you know it, she is singing a few lines. Sometimes the emotional situation she finds herself in either sparks a memory of a song that was playing at a similar time earlier in her life, or it goes to a cover song, which actually informs the moment her character is thinking about. Her life is music, so that is the way she processes her emotions.”
The directors are Leah Purcell (lead director), Geoff Bennett and Paul Moloney. “The challenge for the directors is to keep an essentially dramatic storyline set up around loss and sorrow, but to maintain a sense of lightness and fun. It is a very delicate balancing act,” adds Haddrick.
The song-selection process entailed close collaboration between Mauboy, music producer Louis Schoorl – a Dutch-born songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – Mauboy’s record label Sony Music, Screentime and Seven. Schoorl first worked with Mauboy when he co-wrote the song Gotcha with her and Ilan Kidron from Irish/Australian group The Potbelleez for The Sapphires soundtrack.
Most of the initial ideas for the songs came from the show’s creators and writers, the production team at Screentime, Mauboy, Sony Music and Seven. These suggestions were then evaluated and chosen by the network, Mauboy, Schoorl and Sony Music. There were at least two options for each scene because the cover songs had to be approved by the original songwriters and their publishers.
Using songs to drive the narrative differentiates The Secret Daughter from recent Australian music-based dramas such as Shine Australia’s Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door and the same prodco’s INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, both for the Seven Network.
“Jess is such a joy to work with,” says Schoorl. “The second she walks in the door you get a smile on your face from her brilliant energy. She’s motivated, hardworking, generous, fun and super talented. These sessions are always different; sometimes we start jamming on some beats I made, or sit behind the piano. Other times we listen to music that inspires us. Sometimes she walks in with a melody idea or a lyrical concept. We’ve done sessions with just the two of us, and we’ve worked on many with other co-writers involved. Either way we will find our way through many changes and unused ideas to a coherent song.”
The three original songs featured are Risk It, co-written by songwriting/production duo DNA; Closer, a collaboration between Emma Birdsall and Schoorl; and Home to Me (Mauboy, Birdsall and Schoorl).
Among more than a dozen covers performed by Mauboy are Rihanna’s Diamonds, Ed Sheeran’s Photograph, The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go and I Fought the Law, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love and Aussie artist Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees. Sony Music Enterprises Australia will release an album of music featured on the series.
While most of the music was pre-recorded, other songs were filmed live on set. “(Mauboy’s) voice and rhythm are so good that it works perfectly,” producer Karl Zwicky says. “Finding the time for her to write and record the music as well as being in nearly every scene is a stretch. Most actors would not dream of stretching themselves like this. It’s great working with Jess because she is so warm and giving.”
Asked about the importance of ensuring Australian dramas have international appeal, Zwicky says: “It is not the first thing we think about but it is going to look distinctive. Jess is a star. Having a lead actor who is Indigenous in a mainstream show on a commercial network is a new thing.”
Mauboy greatly enjoyed the experience of working in her first TV series, observing: “I learned so much from the directors, writers and the DOP. It excited me to do more television in the future.”
The network and producers are hopeful the show will resonate strongly enough to warrant a second season. McGauran says: “When we go into production on any show, it’s our job to do everything we can to ensure the audience will want another series.”
Haddrick concurs: “It’s designed to be a returning series. We hope that as the network sees completed episodes coming through, it will commit to script development for another series.”
Since Callaghan took the helm of Screentime last year after co-founder Bob Campbell was elevated to executive chairman, the former Shine Australia and Endemol Southern Star executive is increasing the focus on drama, hiring former Shine and Endemol colleague Kerrie Mainwaring as head of scripted production.
The firm coproduced the Wolf Creek TV series with Emu Creek Pictures, the production company from Greg McLean, who created the horror movies on which the show is based. Commissioned by Australian streaming service Stan, Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt (also the antagonist in the films) and Lucy Fry (11.22.63, Vampire Academy). It attracted a cumulative audience of more than 500,000, putting it among the most watched shows on the platform, which is co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media. The show has been acquired by Fox in the UK and Pop TV in the US. Meanwhile, the third season of Screentime’s Janet King, a legal drama starring Marta Dusseldorp, is in production for pubcaster ABC.
Callaghan says: “Dramas need to pass the truth test. If you have two or three unbelievable things happening, viewers just give up. That’s one of the reasons fantasy does not work here. We like our drama to be very real. Jessica liked the idea that it was going to be real and she had to play a character that had done some dodgy things in the past but was fundamentally honest and a good person. She went into it with gusto, spending hours and hours practicing, and the result is a really good, assured piece from a young, confident woman.”
Screentime parent Banijay merged with Zodiak Media earlier this year and the enlarged group has more expertise in producing and selling drama, which Callaghan sees as a plus for Screentime.
Zodiak Rights CEO Tim Mutimer and head of scripted Caroline Torrance are “extremely excited about the show; they have nothing like this,” Callaghan says. “The Secret Daughter has romance, humour, open skies and wide spaces. The day after this goes out in Australia, it will have a big (ratings) number beside it and the international buyers will have a look at it.”
The Australian arm of the Endemol Shine Group is ramping up its drama output for broadcasters and emerging platforms, partly in league with indie producers.
High production costs, a relatively small number of buyers in the domestic market, generally modest revenues from international sales – there are a number of reasons why producing Australian drama is not a high-margin business.
Yet the Australian outpost of the recently merged Endemol Shine Group is determined to ramp up its fiction output.
The union of Shine and Endemol down under strengthened the roster of in-house drama producers as John Edwards, Imogen Banks and Mimi Butler transferred from Endemol.
And the production company is also looking to work with third-party producers for the first time.
Lingo Pictures – a prodco launched in July 2015 by Helen Bowden, a co-founder and former MD of NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, and Jason Stephens, who was creative director and director of development at FremantleMedia Australia for 10 years – is developing several projects with Endemol Shine Australia (ESA).
“The combination of Endemol Australia’s successful heritage together with Shine’s young scripted team, in addition to some brilliant new projects with third-party creators, makes for a pretty potent mix,” says Mark Fennessy, who is co-CEO of ESA with his brother Carl.
“The merging of contemporary, talented teams with complementary skill sets and culture really delivers a case of one and one makes three. Drama is an absolute primary focus for us. We’re very much committed to building a diverse and exciting slate comprising both long- and short-form projects for all broadcasters and emerging platforms.”
In November last year, Edwards announced he would depart the company and its predecessor Southern Star Group after 27 years to return to independent production. But he retains his ties with ESA as creative consultant on the sixth season of relationship drama Offspring for Network Ten (produced by Banks) and at least two other projects. One is a miniseries on Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan, which is in development with the Nine Network.
The three Australian free-to-air (FTA) networks have become increasingly risk-averse in their commissioning, relying chiefly on returning dramas and reality shows to stave off competition from Netflix and other streaming services. That conservative mentality is both an opportunity and a challenge for drama producers.
“We are in the midst of real disruption for an already risk-averse market that is fragmenting and yet expanding at the same time – it’s a bit uncertain but it’s certainly exciting. In such an environment, programmers and commissioners are under enormous pressure where there is simply no appetite for failure,” says Fennessy.
“As a result, new commissions become fewer and harder to come by. In such a turbulent environment, content producers and creators are often confined to the equivalent of ‘development purgatory.’”
Drama production budgets have doubled over the past 10 years and now range from A$1m (US$722,000) to A$1.2m an hour, driven by escalating fees for cast, crew, post houses and locations.
That increase is in line with other markets, Fennessy observes, but it does make financing more difficult. “In a crowded market with a finite number of buyers, there is always pressure on funding,” he says. “The licence fee from a broadcaster is proportional to its (55% local) drama quota and only represents one piece of the funding pie required to meet any given project. Producers are always chasing their tail to make the numbers work, which is why it’s important to have a mix of longer-form projects among the miniseries and telemovies.
“If a first-run series of six or eight episodes bites with the audience and the concept is strong enough to open out then it’s potentially an ideal bridge to longform. Miniseries, telemovies and biopics, while great fun to make, are closed-ended, financially limiting for producers and expensive and equally limiting for broadcasters.”
International sales are rarely a pot of gold for Australian dramas. The relatively modest returns from foreign TV sales were revealed for the first time in research released recently by Screen Australia. The highest prices per territory for Screen Australia-supported series and miniseries between January 2013 and October 2015 were A$137,600 per hour for the US, A$99,500 for the UK, A$78,300 for French-speaking markets, A$59,200 for the Netherlands and A$49,800 for Italy.
Further down the table the highest prices reported were A$36,000 for German-speaking markets, A$35,000 for Latin America, A$31,800 for Scandinavia, A$13,700 for Eastern Europe, A$10,000 for pan-Asia and A$9,900 for Japan.
The market for scripted content in the US is challenging but robust in the rest of the world, according to Endemol Shine International (ESI) CEO Cathy Payne.
“The international market for scripted product has never been as buoyant with many new linear and non-linear channels, particularly in the US where the subscription platforms have successfully found an audience for non-US product,” she says.
“At the same time, the market for US scripted product has changed. As new US channels move into scripted, increased competition has seen channels target specific audiences with more US domestic fare and/or US-centric stories. Success in the US market does not guarantee success internationally for much of this product. In addition, international markets have matured and domestic scripted product dominates in a home market.
“So there are more outlets than ever with the caution that the bar is high. We have all seen the migration of theatrical talent behind and on camera to premium television where they can tell longform stories with the freedom of not being locked to multiple-season options or restrictions in areas like episode length. UK scripted continues its renaissance with its well-packaged, innovative storytelling.
“Australian scripted needs to compete in this landscape and, as such, there will be pressure to secure that level of creative and writing talent and to invest in scripts to a higher level. Strong shows from Australia will find homes, in particular genre pieces such as crime, thriller and family saga. We are currently enjoying success with (Seven Productions’) A Place to Call Home.”
In the lead-up to the merger, Carl and Mark Fennessy (pictured in that order above), who had launched Shine Australia in 2009, turned down the offer of running ESA last April. The brothers were considering returning to their roots as independent producers, having founded comedy and factual specialist Crackerjack, which was acquired by FremantleMedia in 2003.
But after Martha Brass, CEO of international operations at Endemol Shine Group, began an international search for a new CEO, the brothers changed their minds. “It was simply a case of not getting there on the first pass,” Fennessy explains. “We had a period to serve out on the existing Shine deal so, amid the process of sourcing replacements, there was sufficient goodwill on both sides to explore a landing point to continue. Beyond that, we’re loyal to our super-talented team, which has been with us for some years, so this was also a consideration.”
Shine Australia’s first venture into drama was INXS: Never Tear Us Apart. The untold story of the pop band, led by the late Michael Hutchence, was made for the Seven Network and exec produced by Mark Fennessy plus former Southern Star executives Rory Callaghan and Kerrie Mainwaring. The two-part miniseries was the most popular drama of 2014 and gave the firm the credibility it was seeking in the drama space.
“The strategy was to start small and earn our stripes,” says Fennessy. “We needed the right projects that would generate enough noise and hopefully success to put us on the map; this was easier to do with shortform miniseries. In achieving that objective, we’ve created a strong foundation on which to build so it’s time to wade into the deeper waters.”
Momentum built in 2015 as the company created two of the year’s most watched dramas, both produced by Mainwaring. Catching Milat, the saga of the police investigation that led to the arrest of Sydney serial killer Ivan Milat, aired on Seven and drew 2.55 million viewers.
For the same network, Peter Allen – Not the Boy Next Door, which starred newcomer Joel Jackson as the singer/songwriter from New South Wales who was the first Australian to win an Oscar (for Arthur’s Theme) as well as a Grammy (I Honestly Love You, sung by Olivia Newton-John), attracted 2.23 million.
ESI sold INXS: Never Tear Us Apart to more than 121 countries, including the US (Showtime), France (MTV), Benelux (AMC/Sundance Channels), pan-Asia (AMC/Sundance Channels), Africa/South Africa (MNet), Latin America (DirecTV), Globosat (Brazil), Sweden (SVT), Spain (Telefonica) and Bell Media in Canada for SVoD.
ESI closed deals for Catching Milat in 83 countries, including pan-Latin America (A&E), Italy (Discovery), Poland (ITI Neovision), France (NBCUniversal and NRJ) and Japan (NHK).
Network Ten’s first drama commission for ESA was Brock, a telemovie starring Matthew Le Nevez as Peter Brock, the Australian motor racing champion who was plagued by self-doubt. He died in 2006, aged 61, when his car hit a tree during a rally in Western Australia.
Asked why Ten was attracted to the project, the broadcaster’s head of drama Rick Maier says: “It’s a great story, and a great production team. Australians love heroes and underdogs. Brock was both. To use a bad analogy, he really did start a long way back on the grid – he was not entitled to be as successful as he was. Nor was he Peter Perfect. Yet he still went on to become arguably the greatest driver we have ever seen.
“The idea had been pitched before, but not with this level of significant production talent attached. Kerrie Mainwaring produced, Adam Todd and Justin Monjo were the writers and Geoff Bennett directed. In this genre, that’s pretty much the A-team. Shine (now ESA) has always put the money on screen.”
Alice Bell and Shirley Barrett have been added to the writing team for Offspring, joining returning writers Jonathan Gavin, Leon Ford and Christine Bartlett. “Imogen is one of the best,” Maier says. “John, as he puts it, is a great alchemist and he’s done it again by assembling such a talented team. There is a genuine excitement both in the writers room and among the cast.”
Banks and Edwards produced The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, for pubcaster ABC. Scripted by Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, the six-part drama starred Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Daniel Henshall, Celia Pacquola, Sophie Lowe and Alexander England.
The tale of adultery and scandal involving three enmeshed families across three generations screened on Sunday nights and resonated strongly with the targeted 35- to 49-year-olds, but less so with older viewers.
“We did appear to lose a segment of the 50-plus audience who traditionally watch the ABC on Sunday nights. However, that does not tell the whole story and definitely does not capture the incredible popularity of The Beautiful Lie on (catch-up platform) iview,” says ABC TV head of programming Brendan Dahill.
“With almost one million plays, it was one of the most popular series on iview in 2015, which points to a very different way that viewers are now choosing to consume their drama. We know that for years drama has been the most time-shifted genre and now, with the convenience of iview, that ability to watch a show when you want and also to choose exactly how many episodes of it you watch has been heightened.”
Edwards has long been critical of the Australian FTA broadcasters’ increasing focus on telepics, miniseries and short-run series. Speaking at Screen Producers Australia’s annual conference in November last year, he likened the state of the Australian TV drama production industry to a “stagnant billabong,” marked by fewer series, the same writers, inflated costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and an increasing reliance on subsidy.
“All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared,” he said. He lamented the demise of 40- and 22-part series and said 13-parters are almost an anachronism.
Ten’s Maier welcomed Edwards’ speech and believes some sections of the media misunderstood his message. “He was being inclusive, not laying blame,” he says. “His last three series were shortform, so he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no doubt TV drama is in an incredibly competitive space, and attention spans ain’t what they used to be in the binge-viewing landscape.
“I don’t necessarily agree longform is the answer because viewing tastes appear to have changed so much, but I do agree the training ground for emerging writers, producers and directors needs attention. Neighbours and Home and Away play their part, but the next rung of the ladder is missing or at least significantly harder to attain.
“John has always led the way with blooding new writers, directors and producers and he’s done that with 13-part series. It is obviously much harder with a shorter run. When it comes to costs, our dramas are expensive relative to those from other countries. If we can bring the costs down, we will be more competitive and more ideas can be developed.”
ABC exec Dahill adds: “John’s speech was great and touched on many areas that we as an industry should be discussing more often. Australian talent is rightly being recognised as world class and thus being courted by broadcasters and producers from all over the world – from actors and writers to directors and producers. You can also see that global recognition in the recent acquisition of many Aussie drama producers by big internationals. The downside is that this is leading to a drain on the current talent pool here at home.
“We are focused on our audience and their tastes. We live in a global marketplace and internationally there has definitely been a drift, driven by Netflix/premium US cable and Nordic noir, towards eight-part, high-impact and highly serialised drama and away from the longer-running and more soapy drama.”
Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.
In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.
Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.
Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.
The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.
Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.
Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”
Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.
ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.
Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.
Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.
The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.
And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.
“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.
“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”
The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.
“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.
“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”
Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.
At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.
Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.
Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”
However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”
ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.
The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.
“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.
“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.
“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.
“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”
Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”
Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.
“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”
Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.
Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.
One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.
Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”
By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.
Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.
Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.
The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.
Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”
On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”
Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”
She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”
Australian prodco Essential – behind such shows as Rake and Jack Irish – is spreading its wings internationally. DQ looks at the company’s story so far and gets the inside track on its forthcoming content.
Australia’s Essential Media and Entertainment is going global. The prodco is developing a raft of dramas intended as coproductions with international broadcasters and distributors.
The list of potential partners is impressive – Ian Collie, partner and head of drama at the firm, is discussing numerous projects with the BBC, Channel 4, Lifetime, Sundance Channel, StudioCanal and other broadcasters and distributors.
“We are developing drama projects that are international in scope and would or could work more for those markets than for home broadcasters,” he says.
The plan is to expand the company’s slate from locally commissioned dramas such as Jack Irish (top) and Rake (both for Australian pubcaster ABC) and The Principal (for SBS).
The internationally targeted slate includes Trust and Arc of Fire. The former has Rake’s Richard Roxburgh attached to star as a charismatic cult leader, a former corporate high flyer who creates a grassroots movement of followers who are perceived as a threat to the established order.
Sarah Lambert (creator of Playmaker Media’s Love Child) came up with the concept and will write it alongside Blake Ayshford (Devil’s Playground, The Code, Nowhere Boys) and Kris Mrksa (Glitch, The Slap, Janet King).
Arc of Fire is being developed by Australian author Peter Temple (who wrote the Jack Irish novels and The Broken Shore, the latter adapted as a telemovie by Essential for the ABC) and Mrksa. It’s an international manhunt thriller set in a world where everyone is under surveillance, based on Temple’s novel In the Evil Day.
Two other projects being pitched to international broadcasters are Eden, an eco-thriller surrounding a biotech company in Tasmania, created by Brisbane-based writer Anthony Mullins and Collie; and Open Heart, a psychological thriller about organ transplantation, on which Collie is collaborating with producers Vicki Sugars and Claudia Karvan.
“Although the demand for TV drama in Australia is high, somewhat paradoxically it is harder to get shows away,” Collie says. “Broadcasters like the ABC and SBS are experiencing budgetary cutbacks, as are the federal and state financing agencies, and there are more players in the drama arena, so competition for slots is fierce.
“In essence we are reverse-engineering the process by going to an international player first with our stories and wonderful array of talent often attached, getting those players to drive the development and editorial, and then maybe later looking for an Australian co-financing partner, whether that be a terrestrial broadcaster or a subscription VoD platform.”
Essential’s scripted push in the US is headed by Simonne Overend, an Aussie who has worked for RGM Artist Group, the ABC, BBC4, Disney, Roadshow, Film Victoria and United International Pictures.
Overend, the Los Angeles-based VP of drama development, is working with Monumental Pictures’ Alison Owen and actress Natascha McElhone (Solaris) on a contemporary miniseries inspired by the classic novel Little Women. Scripted by Jordan Roberts (Disney’s Big Hero 6), the show will follow four sisters during a military scandal as their family loses its fortune and finds itself at odds with the conservative and traditional society.
The project was developed by Owen, director Julie Anne Robinson and Overend before McElhone came on board as a producer and the lead actress. The producers are looking for a pilot commission after the ABC network let its option lapse.
Essential’s exports to the US have not been without problems. The US remake of Rake wasn’t renewed last year when the legal drama’s ratings on Fox plummeted after the premiere drew 7.1 million viewers.
Peter Duncan, who co-created the original with Roxburgh, created the 12-episode US series, which was produced by Essential Media and Fedora Entertainment in association with Sony Pictures Television.
With the benefit of hindsight, Collie believes broadcast network viewers struggled to warm to Keegan Deane, the sleazy criminal lawyer played by Greg Kinnear, because the character had few redeeming qualities. He thinks the show would have been more suited to a cable network whose viewers have an appetite for edgier fare.
Duncan, who served as the showrunner with Pete Tolan, says “there were too many voices” involved in the production, typified by a casting meeting he attended where 23 people sat around the table.
Meanwhile, the Fox network opted not to proceed with a Jack Irish remake after ordering the script for a pilot adapted from Essential’s trio of telepics, which starred Guy Pearce as a former criminal lawyer turned private investigator and debt collector.
From that experience, Collie came to one conclusion: “We need to take a stronger role in driving US versions of our shows. The script for Jack Irish lacked spark and wit and freshness; it was a bit predictable.”
The plan now is to focus on the six-part Jack Irish series, which again stars Pearce with Marta Dusseldorp as Linda, Jack’s ex-wife, and is due to start shooting in August.
“That will give us a better template from which we can renew our efforts for a remake,” says Collie, a former lawyer who co-founded Essential in 2005 with Chris Hilton and Sonja Armstrong. Head of children’s entertainment Carmel Travers became a partner in 2009.
The series will introduce a love interest for Irish and see Linda, a journalist, sent to the Philippines on an assignment. Andrew Knight, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios wrote the scripts, while the directors are Mark Joffe (House of Hancock, A Place to Call Home), Daniel Nettheim (Glue, Line of Duty) and Jonathan Teplitzky (Broadchurch). Knight is producing with Collie.
ABC head of drama Carole Sklan says: “The tele-features had huge appeal for our audience and did such tremendous work in reaching a broader viewership that we spoke with Ian about the possibility of Guy Pearce coming back for an extended run.
“We were thrilled that Guy enjoyed the collaboration so much and that he was able to take the time from his career in Hollywood. The world of Jack Irish – the pubs, clubs and horse racing – features an ensemble of such colourful regular characters that it lends itself to a returning drama series. The show is so distinctively Australian in what it says and how it says it. It showcases so many fabulous Australian talents in writing, directing, acting and production that this was the perfect opportunity to continue to deliver to the audience more of this idiosyncratic crime drama.”
Production of the fourth series of Rake, meanwhile, is due to start in Sydney on September 28. “The great challenge is to keep surprising even more and to keep the audience on their toes,” says Duncan.
From Essential’s origins as a producer of factual, which is still a mainstay of its business, the company has significantly expanded its drama slate, which started with Rake in 2010. One recent deal saw Stan, the subscription VoD platform co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media, which launched in January, announce a development deal with Essential for Enemies of the State.
The six-part political drama is based on a controversial Australian High Court judge and attorney-general, the late Lionel Murphy, whose life was marked by assassination threats, scandal, police spies and charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice, of which he was acquitted.
The project is being developed by Collie with Duncan and writers Tony Jones (host of the ABC’s current-affairs show Q&A) and Robert Connolly (Paper Planes). Duncan says his research for the show uncovered many aspects of Murphy’s life that were “ridiculously bizarre and fascinating.”
The commissioning of local content on Stan is overseen by Nine Network’s drama heads Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney plus Stan director of content and product Nick Forward. Ryan says he was attracted to the Murphy project as “an epic, Shakespearian tragedy of a man.” Asked to define a Stan show, he says: “Daring, noisy, high quality and something that feels exclusive – above and beyond what you will see on free-to-air TV. We are not subject to the same constraints as FTA, which is liberating for producers and programmers.”
Stan is looking for international co-financiers for both Enemies of the State and a TV series based on Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek horror movies, produced by Screentime and Mclean’s Emu Creek Pictures. “There is a huge amount of interest from overseas producers, distributors and broadcasters in Australian drama,” Ryan says.
Meanwhile, the inspiration for Trust goes back some years to when creator Sarah Lambert was working in the US on a documentary about a quasi-scientific cult that was banned in France but had set up a base in Canada.
“What struck me the most during the filming was how bright and relatively normal their followers appeared to be, despite devoting their lives to a leader who professed to have been taken by aliens, tithing their incomes to him and buying into a pretty out-there philosophy,” she says.
“My fascination with what drives people to lose themselves in these groups has continued and, after years of collecting articles, reading books and watching docs on the subject, it seemed to me that there was so much great material to base a drama series on.
“But I wanted to take a very different approach, something that hadn’t been done before. So I started developing an idea and wrote up a three-page concept. Around that time, Ian Collie and I were looking for projects to work on together and I pitched the show. It turns out Ian has a similar fascination for the subject matter – we started batting the concept around, and out of it came Trust.”
Also on Essential’s development slate is Future Boy, a 6×30’ sitcom being developed with the assistance of state agency Screen NSW. The creator is Tristram Baumber, whose self-funded comedy series The Cleanists screened in 2013 on the UK-based cable channel Showcase. Baumber also created Timothy, a comedy special that aired on the ABC last October as part of a seven-day initiative in support of Mental Health Week.
Future Boy follows a 22-year-old party girl living in a shared house who finds her hedonistic lifestyle turned upside down when her 45-year-old son from the future turns up. Essential’s scripted development producer Rachael Turk, who is producing, likens the show to a cross between The Big Bang Theory and Girls.
Collie sees a favourable climate for producing drama for Australian and international broadcasters, despite budget cuts to the ABC and SBS and limited opportunities at the financially struggling Network Ten. The Seven Network, he acknowledges, is a “harder nut to crack” because much of its content comes from Seven Productions.
“TV drama is healthy and, with more players like Stan in the market, we see more openings for drama,” Collie continues. “We always look for projects that have broad international appeal. For example, The Principal is in the crime genre and should be able to travel. Formats can sell more widely than finished programmes.
“The Principal covers issues such as equality of education, tolerance, masculinity and violence, father-and-son relationships and diverse ethnic groups of Muslims, Pacific Islanders and Asians. Thematically it should resonate widely.”
Alex Dimitriades plays the title character in the series, produced by Collie, which revolves around a high school in Sydney’s tough, multicultural south west. The principal’s attempts at reform are making headway until a 17-year-old student is found dead on the school grounds. The screenplay is by Kristen Dunphy and Alice Addison, based on an idea by Collie, Turk and, later, Dunphy, inspired by several real-life principals of Sydney schools.
Director Kriv Stenders (who directed Red Dog and is now preparing sequel Blue Dog) relished the chance to work on his first TV drama. “Ian approached me last year and we developed the scripts with the writers,” he says. “I found working in TV is a far more fluid and democratic process and more creatively liberating than films. TV drama is essentially a longform movie.”
SBS executive producer of drama Sue Masters says: “Ian Collie is assuredly one of the world’s most outstanding producers so when he presented to us a drama inspired by the inspirational-teacher genre coupled with a murder mystery especially designed for an SBS broadcast, we were instantly engaged. Ian inspires and attracts first-class talent both in front of the camera and behind the scenes
“Kriv Stenders has used the stark, minimalist architecture of a high school to underpin a high-octane murder mystery that is both compelling and deeply appealing. He wanted to create an Australian ‘suburban noir look and feel,’ which is very on-brand for SBS with acquisitions such as The Bridge and The Killing and more recent international dramas that are yet to hit our screens.”
In February Essential opened an office in Queensland headed by screenwriter Roger Monk as a scripted development producer, funded by state agency Screen Queensland’s Enterprise program, which is also supporting Ludo Studio, Bunya Productions, Matchbox Pictures, Two Little Indians and Hoodlum.
Monk, whose credits include Matchbox Pictures’ Nowhere Boys, December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Every Cloud Productions’ East of Everything, is working with Essential’s Collie and Travers to source Queensland-originated stories and storytellers, develop and foster existing relationships with Queensland practitioners and provide a conduit to emerging talent.
Children’s head Travers is co-developing Camp Crazy with Brisbane-based Carbon Media, a teen comedy drama series set in northern Queensland that will follow the adventures of six misfit teens who are thrown together in a remote destination to solve the ultimate mystery.
On the feature film front, Collie is developing King of Thieves, a caper movie based on the true story of the infamous Australian ‘Kangaroo Gang,’ which fleeced millions of pounds worth of jewellery, fine clothes, linen and white goods from department stores in London in the 1960s and 1970s. It will be a coproduction with Trademark Films’ David Parfitt, whose credits include My Week with Marilyn, The Madness of King George, Shakespeare in Love and TV’s Parade’s End.
The script is by Andrew Knight (who co-wrote Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner and multiple episodes of Rake) and journalist Adam Shand, who authored the book King of Thieves: The Adventures of Arthur Delaney and the Kangaroo Gang. Federal funding agency Screen Australia has supported the development.
With Ruby Films’ Alison Owen, Collie produced Saving Mr Banks for the Walt Disney Co., which raked in US$83m in the US and US$112m at cinemas worldwide.
Collie believes a key part of Essential’s success in drama lies in collaborations with a group of talented producers and writers including Duncan, Roxburgh, Knight, Ayshford, Dunphy, Mrksa, Cameron, Addison, Lambert, Claudia Karvan and Liz Doran. “We like to work with people who have similar cultural sensibilities,” he says. “We give a lot of autonomy to our writers.”
That respect is warmly reciprocated by the creative community. “I think you only have to look at Essential’s shows to understand their approach to drama,” says Lambert. “Rake, Jack Irish, The Broken Shore and The Principal. They make shows that they would want to watch. They never talk down to their audiences. It’s sophisticated storytelling that’s brave, funny and smart. They’re not afraid to tackle complex subject matter and high-concept ideas. They’re really supportive of writers taking risks, always encouraging you to push the boundaries to produce your best work.
“Ian’s a great producer. He’s funny and smart and has strong story instincts. He’s very experienced and a real pleasure to work alongside. He’s attracted a brilliant development team around him who are a passionate and inspiring bunch. The bottom line is Essential is doing exciting work both here and overseas and it’s nice to be working with them – not to mention a lot of fun.”
Duncan’s association with Collie goes back to 2004 when he directed the ABC telemovie Hell Has Harbour Views, which starred Matt Day, Lisa McCune and Dusseldorp and was Collie’s first drama production.
When Duncan and Roxburgh came up with the idea for Rake, based on a brilliant but troubled guy whom Roxburgh knew at university, they turned to Collie, who by then had co-founded Essential. “We have both learnt a lot over the past 11 years,” says Duncan. “It’s so important to have the right people in front of and behind the camera. At Essential is a very fair and friendly group of people. When you go there you don’t feel you are dancing with the devil, which I could say about others.”
A former executive director of the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the Australian Directors Guild, Collie has a long list of factual credits including Australia on Trial, Whatever: The Science of Teens, The Making of Modern Australia, Rogue Nation, The Catalpa Rescue, A Case for the Coroner, Art House, The Shadow of Mary Poppins and The Original Mermaid.
Knight, another frequent collaborator, says: “Ian has a great creative eye and he trusts creative people. We do most of our deals with a handshake. We have never had a financial argument or a big creative argument.”
Broadcasters are similarly glowing in their assessment of Collie and his team. SBS’s Masters says: “As a former lawyer, for Ian there is no detail of the production that is too unimportant. However, his love for storytelling propels him to push the envelope creatively and he has unstoppable energy and vision in nurturing and showcasing the talents of the team he puts in place for a production.
“Moreover, he is not called ‘Jolly Collie’ without reason. Despite huge work stresses, Ian maximises every working moment to celebrate the craft with fun and enjoyment. On all of his productions, Ian draws the most inspiring and multi-award-winning team because he personifies what is the very best of the collaborative film and television industry.”
Nine’s Ryan observes: “Ian made a big impression with Rake and Jack Irish. He assembles talented people around him, which is the key to successful projects and a sustainable business.”
Sklan of ABC is similarly full of praise: “Ian and the Essential team are highly supportive of some of our most creative voices in television. Ian’s real skill is identifying highly creative and intelligent people and generating a process where they can do their best work.
“On Rake they’ve enabled creator, writer, producer and director Peter Duncan to express his vision across the life cycle of the project, and supported Peter, Richard Roxburgh and Andrew Knight in bringing us a highly entertaining television series that often dazzles with its wit and inventiveness.
“Ian’s personable nature is part of his very collegial approach to developing and producing drama. Drama is a complex, difficult and time-consuming art form – there are so many elements to get right. Ian is a highly effective problem solver. Being able to have positive and fruitful discussions at each stage is really critical to making the best programmes, and Ian is always a joy to work with for everyone involved.”
Playmaker, the latest addition to Sony Pictures TV’s international production empire, is on a hot streak in its home market. Co-founders David Taylor and David Maher tell DQ what they’re doing right.
There is no better time to be producing Australian TV drama for both local and international networks than right now, according to Playmaker Media co-founders David Taylor and David Maher.
The former Fox Television Studios Australia production executives cashed in on the worldwide boom in demand for quality drama by selling their Sydney-based prodco to Sony Pictures Television (SPT) in December.
The deal, which will see Taylor and Maher remain at the helm of the banner they founded in 2009, gives their company access to SPT’s worldwide distribution machine and increased funds for development.
“We had been talking to Sony for a while. We liked what they had to say and it’s a good opportunity,” Taylor tells DQ, interviewed with his business partner in their offices adjoining Fox Studios.
“The opportunities for producing TV drama have increased exponentially in the past five years,” says Maher. “There has been a tonal shift among the networks, reflecting the great drama being produced in the US and the UK.”
Typifying the Oz broadcasters’ more adventurous spirit, the Playmaker duo doubt that Love Child, the most-watched drama series on Australian TV in 2014, would have been commissioned five years ago.
Set in 1969 at a home for unwed mothers adjacent to a maternity hospital in Sydney’s red-light district Kings Cross, the show was ordered by Nine Network and drew an average national audience of 2.087 million.
Just as the first episodes went to air, the broadcaster committed to a second season, which follows the doctors, midwives and expectant mothers in 1970, launching this year.
“Love Child was definitely a risky commission,” according to Nine’s co-heads of drama Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney. “The lead characters are all deeply flawed and the subject matter of forced adoption is not typical of network drama. It was crucial to get the tone right, and we all worked hard to marry the story material with the exuberance, music and fashion of 1969 Kings Cross. The ratings definitely proved that commercial drama can be adventurous and have mass appeal.”
Maher adds: “The definition of what is commercial has undergone a complete metamorphosis in the past five years.”
Playmaker had entrusted international sales of its shows to DCD Rights, All3Media International, ZDF Enterprises and ITV Studios Global Entertainment since a first-look deal with Fremantle Media Enterprises expired in 2013.
SPT will handle all future Playmaker productions and the format rights to Love Child, which were not included in the deal with All3Media. “Having one point of call for international for the shows we create will be a big advantage,” Taylor says.
While the company’s primary focus has been, and remains, the Australian market, it aims to ensure every project it develops has export potential, both for finished series and as formats.
That strategy looks like paying off for House Husbands, the fourth season of which debuts on Nine in 2015. Producers in France and Italy have bought remake rights to the drama, which looks at the relationships between four stay-at-home dads and their families. The French version will be produced by Paris-based Made in PM while the Italian remake will be produced by Rome-based Publispei. Both companies will adapt scripts from the first season.
The Australian government’s producer offset for TV series, miniseries, telemovies and non-feature documentaries, which gives producers a 20% rebate, is pivotal to the bottom line of prodcos such as Playmaker.
Playmaker’s conspiracy thriller The Code performed strongly enough on pubcaster ABC this year to be renewed for a further six episodes. DirecTV bought US rights to the show, created by Shelley Birse, and it aired on the UK’s BBC4 in October last year.
Filmed in Canberra and the Outback, the drama stars Dan Spielman (An Accidental Soldier, Offspring) as Ned Banks, a young internet journalist desperate for a break. Ashley Zuckerman (The Slap, Rush) plays his troubled hacker brother Jesse. After the siblings post online a blurry video of an Outback accident, they are plunged into the darkest heart of politics, the world of black marketeers and international agencies who monitor and manipulate them.
The second series follows the brothers as they face the prospect of being extradited to the US unless they agree to entrap one of the most elusive players in the darknet, who hosts an online bazaar of illegal weapons, drugs and dangerous ideas.
Created by Matt Ford, Hiding (8 x 60’) which premieres on ABC this year, follows a Gold Coast family who are forced into witness protection and must build a new life in a strange city, knowing that any contact with friends or relatives could lead a killer to their door. The ensemble cast includes James Stewart (Packed to the Rafters), Kate Jenkinson (House Husbands), Lincoln Younes (Tangle), Stephen Curry (The Time of Our Lives), Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Jodi Gordon (Underbelly: Badness), Kim Gyngell (Lowdown), and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner).
All four shows were created by writer-producers who were nurtured by the Screen Australia-funded showrunner development initiative dubbed Scribe. The three-year programme was a potent catalyst for the careers of Drew Proffitt (who co-created House Husbands with Ellie Beaumont), Ford, Birse and Sarah Lambert (Love Child). The initiative was so successful that it continues in 2015 as a self-funded enterprise at Playmaker.
“The unbroken authorial voice is what we strive for, and that guarantees the quality of the end product,” says Taylor. “One person oversees a project from the start to the end so there is a consistency.”
Birse recalls: “I was travelling in the Middle East when Playmaker called to see if I would be interested in joining the first round of their Scribe project. At the time, the Arab Spring was starting to escalate and I was surprised to find Australians playing a pivotal role in getting the truth of what was happening in countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia out to the rest of the world.
“They were helping the voices of ordinary men and women be heard against the express wishes of extraordinarily powerful government and military forces, and they were doing this not with firepower, wealth or strength, but with their brains and their digital prowess. At the same time, the act of whistleblowing was attracting seemingly unprecedented punishment, and to have Australians operating on the world stage in both these areas was story territory too rich to resist.”
Birse sold the concept to Playmaker, playing up the fresh angle of freedom of speech in the digital age, combined with a commitment to prioritise character over plot whenever possible. Taylor, Maher and Birse felt the ambitious project would best suit ABC and did a verbal pitch to the pubcaster’s head of programming Brendan Dahill, head of drama Carole Sklan and commissioning editor David Ogilvy, and got the nod to start developing in earnest.
“What attracted us to the project the Davids pitched with Shelley Birse was the central relationship of the brothers, the complicated bond between the responsible older brother, Ned, and the brilliant Asperger’s brother, Jess,” Sklan explains. “It wasn’t simply a generic political thriller; it had this fascinating, heartfelt relationship at its heart. It was a groundbreaking contemporary thriller with big ideas and enthralling storytelling.
“The series faced tough competition but did particularly well with catch-up viewing on iView. There was also extraordinary critical and audience acclaim for the show.”
As for Hiding, Sklan says: “It was a bold and fresh approach to a crime story and a story of a family under exceptional pressure. It was also a fish-out-of-water story with the crim working undercover in the criminology department of an elite university. Matt [Ford] brought a great deal of verve, humour and astute observation to the drama.”
Birse had been writing scripts for nearly 20 years before she was selected for the Playmaker Scribe initiative. “I felt ready to develop projects of my own, but without the creative and financial support of a production company, it was just too easy for the demands of ‘writing to meet the mortgage’ to consume all my writing time,” she reflects.
“Scribe delivered a dedicated ‘creative breath’ – two days a fortnight carved out to devote purely to development – and was set up to move creators into a producorial role once shows headed towards production. It was in this area that the greatest learning curve took place. Far from pressing send at the end of the scripting process and looking out for a DVD in the mail some months down the track, I was at the table for every creative and logistical discussion for the whole six months of production – from the first day of casting until the final international copies were signed off.
“It was an extraordinary chance to learn on the job, and while there is so much more to learn, the opportunity increased my understanding of the production process tenfold. Perhaps more importantly, it’s made me acutely aware of the costs of failing to bridge the gap between script and production and the importance of keeping writers’ voices present long after the scripts have been finished.
“It’s no mystery that the finest-quality television being made in Australia and overseas has a showrunner at the wheel.”
Maher and Taylor brought complementary skills to the table when they launched Playmaker. Taylor got a part-time job on the studio floor at Channel 7 Sydney when he was 17 while embarking on a communications degree at Macquarie University. He quit uni after deciding TV was more fun and stayed at Seven for five years, rising to first AD on dramas including A Country Practice and Home and Away. He later spent four years at prodco Screentime, working on shows such as Popstars and the Bondi Beach-set drama Breakers.
Maher also did a communications degree at Macquarie, while working part-time for Beyond Films as a script assessor. He spent four years in the UK, initially as a runner with Tiger Aspect on Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley and other programmes, and later as an assistant floor manager at the BBC.
Back in Australia, Maher and Taylor teamed up at Fox Television Studios, where they spent 12 years producing scripted and unscripted programming for Australian and international broadcasters. They served under three regimes: Fox Studios Australia CEO Kim Williams (who later headed paynet Foxtel); David Martin, who was promoted to Fox Television Studios executive VP, production and development in Los Angeles and is now president of Avalon USA; and David Grant, the former FTS president.
While their output ranged from lifestyle, reality and game shows to drama series, serials and telemovies, drama was the Davids’ true passion. Among the shows they remember most fondly are Supernova, a comedy starring Rob Brydon, co-commissioned by the BBC and Australia’s UKTV and coproduced with Hartswood Films, and Crash Palace, a drama set in a Kings Cross backpackers’ hostel for Foxtel’s Fox8.
Their decision to launch Playmaker coincided with a change in strategy by the Fox TV brass in Los Angeles to focus their international efforts primarily on producing drama series in Latin America. It was an amicable parting, typified by the agreement that the pair could take with them their development slate. That led to Playmaker’s maiden productions. Wicked Love: The Maria Korp Story was a telemovie for Nine which starred Rebecca Gibney, based on the true story of a Melbourne woman who was left to die in the boot of a car in 2005.
Commissioned by Fox8, Slide was a multi-platform, 10-part series following five 17-year-olds making their way to adulthood in Brisbane. “The show merged the non-scripted and online worlds and was beautifully executed,” according to Ross Crowley, Foxtel director of programming.
Crowley adds: “Playmaker is one of the production units that understands the differentiation between cable and broadcast network dramas. We need a unique voice and they really get that. They started with a small team, wanting to specialise in shorter-run, more complex works, and they nailed it.”
When they launched Playmaker, neither founder saw it as a gamble. Apart from a ready-made development slate, they were encouraged to go solo by such peers as Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight, Screentime’s Bob Campbell and Endemol Southern Star’s John Edwards.
In their office the long-time colleagues display an amusing banter and repartee, “We bicker about the small stuff,” says Maher. “We don’t disagree about the big stuff.”
Nine’s Ryan and Rooney observe: “The Davids only pitch shows with a strong creative vision, but they are also very receptive to our input at every stage, from development through to production. The success of House Husbands and Love Child proves that local drama can have a unique voice and be commercially successful.”
Sklan concurs: “The Davids bring strong creative ambition and tremendous skill to the work. It’s not only the idea, it’s the creative realisation of the idea. They are wonderful creative collaborators who identify and inspire very talented people to work together to do their best work. They are also incredibly nice, self-deprecating people.”
Birse reflects: “I think part of the strength of the Playmaker team is that they bring a great marriage of pragmatism and possibility to the table. There’s a tremendous sense when you’re talking ideas with them that the sky is the limit, and yet it somehow remains grounded in the reality of how it’s going to get made.
“I think their track record is testament to a broad commercial palette, with Scribe spawning long-running commercial family dramas like House Husbands and Love Child and edgier works like Hiding for the ABC. At the base of all their productions is a commitment to stretch the boundaries wherever possible.
“When the Davids first rang four years ago to talk about wanting to do things differently, I was in Tel Aviv, and the line was pretty crackly. What I heard between that crackling were some half-phrases: ‘develop something you love’, ‘showrunner model’, ‘integrity of authorial voice’. I got off the phone thinking I was hearing things but, four years on, the promises of Scribe on The Code were delivered in full, and then some.”