Australian series Stateless is described as an “urgent and compelling” drama that follows four people caught up in an immigration system that profoundly changes their lives.
Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie and Fayssal Bazzi star as four disparate people whose lives converge at an inshore detention centre in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere, in a story that examines how people around the world are affected by an immigration system struggling to cope.
In this DQTV interview, co-creator, co-star and exec producer Cate Blanchett and Alastair McKinnon, MD of producer Matchbox Pictures, shine a light on the story at the centre of the six-part series and reveal why it speaks not only to Australia but countries around the world.
They also discuss the challenges of financing a series with such topical themes and why dramas can push subjects like this further than documentaries might be able to.
Stateless is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Dirty Films for ABC Australia and distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution. Netflix airs the series worldwide.
The cast of Australian drama Stateless recall the emotional journey on which they embarked for this story of four disparate characters who find themselves in a detention centre.
Pitched as a powerful and timely series, six-part drama Stateless uses a star-studded cast to tell a story about four strangers whose lives collide at an immigration detention centre in the middle of the Australian desert.
Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays free-spirited flight attendant Sofie, whose life begins to unravel after being seduced by a self-improvement group’s charismatic leaders, played by Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Dominic West (The Affair). When she quits her job, she later turns up at Barton Immigration Detention Centre claiming to be Eva Hoffman.
Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad) portrays Cam, who is struggling to provide for his young family until he signs up to work at the centre as a guard, though he finds his attitude is at odds with his co-workers who treat the detainees like criminals, testing his morality and his conscience.
Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi, The Commons) is fleeing persecution with his wife and two daughters, seeking safe passage to Australia. When he is separated from them by people smugglers as they try to board a boat heading to their destination, Ameer is next seen arriving on the shores of Christmas Island, where he is transferred to Barton before learning what has become of his family.
Then there’s ambitious bureaucrat Clare (Asher Keddie, The Cry), who is appointed as the new general manager at Barton in response to the growing media scrutiny surrounding the centre. She soon discovers she is completely unprepared for the challenges ahead, particularly when she discovers Eva is actually an Australian.
Strahovski first heard about the part of Sofie when she was contacted over email by series co-creator and executive producer Blanchett, who then relayed her personal passion for the issues confronted by Stateless and the story itself in a subsequent phone call.
“I ended up reading the scripts and falling in love with how they were written and how beautifully these stories were told,” the actor says. “The relatability factor is something that’s especially important for a script like this, because it is such a sensitive and dividing issue, especially for Australians. I think it’s so lovely to have so many storylines that are so relatable, littered through this one big piece.”
The multiple perspectives and relatable characters were also key to drawing both Courtney and Keddie to the series.
Cam, says Courtney, might have been a more functional character in another story. “But his unravelling over the course of the series is truly heartbreaking,” he says. “When I got to read some of the scripts and see where things were going, I leapt at the opportunity to take that challenge on and to represent someone who’s in a community of people where this sort of thing is devastating – the welfare of the guards, the lack of support, lack of funding, lack of training. That was something that I found kind of fascinating and wanted to learn more about.”
Keddie picks up: “Quite often as an actor, you’ll have a handful of really good, solid reads of a film or TV series that you’re making, and then really have to knuckle down into the work of your own character. When I was working on this, each night that we were filming, I would just keep reading the other journeys, Cam’s in particular. You get so immersed in the guards’ story. It’s such a wonderful perspective to have.
“When I first read the script, to be perfectly honest, I felt mildly frightened by the idea of playing a bureaucrat and someone who had been working in government for 20 years. My ignorance played into that fear as well – I’m not a political animal. I probably am much more now that I’ve made this show. I’m nowhere near as lethargic as I used to be.
“However, the attraction was also because I knew next to nothing about the complexity of the situation. I thought it was a really interesting time to explore in Australia because I don’t think Australians knew what the hell was going on when it was happening. It sits in the recent past, but it’s so present now and it’s so timely because it’s happening all over the world. It’s a discussion that’s more relevant now than it ever has been.”
Though the stories of the four main characters appear quite singular, they do collide as the story progresses, with the emotional and mental toll on each becoming increasingly clear.
“It just humanises the people behind it,” Courtney explains. “It doesn’t take a stance necessarily on policy or anything like that. We’re not telling the audience to feel a certain way. It’s just putting faces to those stories that otherwise people might just think of as statistics.”
Keddie adds: “It’s so complex, but the way it comes together later in the project is that all four perspectives really marry beautifully. It’s incredibly moving.”
Talk to West, meanwhile, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s starring in a different show. While episode one largely focuses on Ameer’s journey to reach Australia and introduces Cam, the story also reveals how Sofie becomes infatuated by GOPA (‘Growing One’s Potential Achievement’) and its husband-and-wife leaders Gordon and Pat. Despite the initial singing, dancing and eye-catching outfits, it soon becomes clear Sofie has become hypnotised by a cult. Then matters take a decidedly dark turn, forcing her to flee the group and ultimately land at Barton with a mysterious new identity.
West came to the project at the last minute, having received a message from Blanchett while he was filming the final season of The Affair in Montauk, at the tip of New York’s Long Island peninsula.
“I hadn’t met her before and she said, ‘Come and do this thing.’ I thought, ‘I’d love to do anything with Cate Blanchett, that’s marvellous,’” he says. “Then she told me a little bit about it. It seemed a very intriguing project. I went out to Adelaide and I was done in 10 days. So it was quite easy, really.
“It was interesting what she said to me when we first spoke, saying that in her glittering, amazing career – and we’re sort of the same age – now she’s keen to spend her life doing important things that contribute in some way to the debate of the big issues. That really struck me as a wonderful thing to be thinking of and something that I need to think about.”
West describes Gordon as a “psycho” and “a deeply mediocre man who’s given immense celebrity and credibility by his disciples, and there’s a lot of those people around.”
He continues: “It’s amazing how much influence you can have on people’s lives if you say, ‘there, there’ and make them feel wanted and needed. We all need that, we love being told that, and manipulative people like him are able to tap into that.”
The actor, who also starred in HBO’s seminal crime drama The Wire, agrees the beginning of the story disarms viewers about what’s to come. “That’s what great drama does, particularly episodic drama,” he says.
“Mainly because of the outfits and the ludicrousness of it, it was funny because Gordon and Pat did remind me and Cate of our experiences of drama school and the sort of nonsense that people talked. It was very reminiscent of that. So I felt I knew it very well. But mainly because of what Cate and I were wearing and the comedic elements of it, I was a bit worried we were doing this comedy in the middle of this huge tragedy. It’s still a bit like that, but it does work.”
Elise McCredie, who co-created the series with Blanchett and Tony Ayres, says the idea was to bring people into the show “by stealth,” because it’s not initially what you might expect from a story about an immigration detention centre. “We get you in with an all-singing, all-dancing Dominic and Cate,” she jokes.
McCredie (Jack Irish, Nowhere Boys) and Blanchett went to school and university together, and it was in Blanchett’s kitchen in 2014 that they first talked about the themes and ideas behind Stateless, which is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Blanchett’s Dirty Films.
“I’d been writing a lot for TV and so we just started talking about ideas and things that we might do together,” she says. “Immigration detention was a very hot topic at the time in Australia and it was a very political. So we both felt very passionate about it. We were talking about whether, as dramatists, storytellers and artists, we could contribute to the debate around that issue without being didactic. Once we settled on a bit of an idea, we brought in Tony and then we started to workshop further.”
McCredie says they never intended for the series to be “gritty or realist,” instead imagining it as colourful and with a whimsical quality. She wrote four episodes, with Belinda Chayko (Safe Harbour) writing two, while the pair spent almost four years on and off developing the story with Ayers (Glitch, Clickbait).
The series was originally going to comprise just four episodes, but extending it to six provided time to develop the characters more fully.
“When it was four episodes, it went like the clappers but you didn’t feel as much,” Ayres notes. “When we put a little bit more space in, particularly for both Cam and Clare, it helped with the emotional effect of the show. It’s like a relationship drama set in a detention centre.”
The subject matter meant the show was initially difficult to finance, with support coming from Australian broadcaster the ABC, Screen Australia, the South Australian Film Corporation and distributor NBCUniversal Global Distribution. Netflix will air the series worldwide.
Once production was underway, filming largely took place chronologically in a specially built detention centre set outside of Adelaide, which meant the actors didn’t have any trouble finding the emotion of their characters and the story.
“[The set] may just sound like a space to talk about, but when you’re inside it and surrounded by 100-plus extras, a large majority of whom experienced detention for many years, walking into that each day never became easy. It felt more authentic to me because of the incredible preparation of our writers, directors, producers and art department to create something so oppressive,” Keddie explains.
“Playing the bureaucrat, I had extreme difficulty pushing the emotion down. I had to just try all day to push it down, push it down, push it down. I’m a big sook as well – that didn’t help. But I found that extremely difficult because the stories are so human and so relatable, whether you’re a bureaucrat, a refugee or a guard. They are human stories and they’re extremely complex and moving. So it wasn’t a difficult project to commit to.”
Courtney adds: “It’s going to look inside an issue that is too easy for people not to think about. Because of how well these characters are crafted, it’ll be impossible for people not to relate to it on some level.”
Hollywood star Cate Blanchett discusses the six-year journey to bring Australian drama Stateless to the screen and explains why more broadcasters need to open up to this type of ‘elephant in the room’ storytelling.
In a screen career spanning 30 years, two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett has so far avoided the scrum of film stars, writers and directors moving from film to the small screen in the age of streaming platforms. That’s about to change.
In April, she will be seen starring in 1970s-set Miss America on US platform Hulu. But before then, she brings a “passion project” to TV in the shape of Stateless, a six-part drama she co-created, executive produces and also co-stars in alongside Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad), Asher Keddie (The Cry), Fayssal Bazzi (The Commons), Marta Dusseldorp (A Place to Call Home) and Dominic West (The Affair).
“About six years ago, it started in my kitchen,” Blanchett says, speaking on stage at Content London at the end of last year. “I was talking to an old school friend of mine, Elise McCredie, about a story I was really just gripped by that I’d heard in 2008 about a German-Australian citizen, Cornelia Rau, an air hostess who, through a series of mishaps, ended up in an on-shore detention centre in Australia.
“She fell through the cracks of the mental health system, the immigration system and the criminal justice system. This story stayed with me. I thought, ‘Is this a film?’ I’m not interested in biopics; I’ve made enough of them. We talked for hours, not just about this particular story but as a jumping-off point to use the story as a metaphor for a system gone mad.”
They then brought screenwriter and director Tony Ayres (Nowhere Boys, Glitch), who was then at Matchbox Pictures and now runs Tony Ayres Productions, into the conversation and started developing the idea as a series. “Now here we are six years later. It’s definitely a passion project – it hasn’t been easy,” the Australian actor continues. “At its heart, it deals with a refugee story, but it’s about four quite different people. And when we hit on that format of having four very different lives, we thought it was a really combustible idea.”
The four main characters, whose lives intersect at a detention centre in the Australian desert, are an air hostess with mental health problems who escapes from a cult, an Afghan refugee saving his family, an Australian father escaping a dead-end job, and a bureaucrat trying to contain a national scandal. Each is struggling to deal with an immigration system that is struggling itself.
Co-created by Blanchett, McCredie and Ayres, Stateless is written by showrunner McCredie and Belinda Chayko and directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse. The series is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Dirty Films for Australia’s ABC, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
In TV terms, six years developing a single project is entirely realistic, but Blanchett says it took particular perseverance to see this story into production.
“As soon as you mentioned the word refugee, doors closed – quite literally for refugees, but also the doors of various television executives. They would say, ‘Hmm, interesting, brave,’ and then that’s about as far as the conversation goes,” Blanchett reveals.
“But we kept returning to it because every six months we’d go deeper into the story and find that there were more resonances. Where the power of the story really lies is, with each passing month and passing year, it became increasingly relevant. What Tony kept talking about was that, as much as it deals with fractured lives, it also, more importantly and more profoundly, talks about a system that’s gone mad.
“I look around the world and, no matter what country I’m in, what country I’m reading about, I’m thinking, ‘This system is not working.’ Anyone who comes into contact with a system, whether it be a political system, immigration system, mental health system or criminal justice system, it is quite mad. And when you get close to madness, whether it’s personally or systematically, it removes us from our best selves.
“That’s a place that we have deeply found ourselves, certainly in the West, but I think globally, and that is kind of the umbrella this human story sits under. In a way, it couldn’t be a better time for this story to be to be told.”
Alastair McKinnon, MD of NBCU-owned Matchbox, came to the project in an unusual way in that he was working at ABC’s drama department when Cate and Tony first pitched Stateless to the broadcaster.
“If Cate Blanchett comes in to pitch something to your network, you have to fight every urge to just scream ‘Yes!’ But it was more of a conversation. It was a four-parter then, and we were talking about some of the challenges of financing four parts and how it had a different structure in terms of the characters’ perspectives and the way the story was told,” McKinnon recalls. “We kept talking and we talked about it being six [episodes]. We were totally on board at that point.”
The conversation then turned to financing a project with a challenging subject matter that couldn’t be pitched with just one line. Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation contributed to the budget, with NBCU picking up international rights to the series. McKinnon then moved to Matchbox. “I’ve been able to be on that journey from the beginning on the broadcaster side all the way through to the company side, so it’s been a real treat,” he enthuses.
Jeff Wachtel, president of NBCUniversal International Studios, agrees with Blanchett that a project deemed to be ‘worthy’ is an “anathema” to some networks. So with ABC already backing the series, he was keen to add his support.
“It was the fact that someone in Australia had already said yes, it was Cate in her advocacy, and then a lot for me, personally, is the script,” he explains. “I’m in awe of great writers. That ability to capture concept and language and emotion together is just spectacular. The execution and the writing was so wonderful, and then we brought in wonderful directors.”
In developing the series, McCredie carried out “meticulous” research, while Blanchett’s own work with United Nations refugee agency UNHCR meant she had had personal experience of meeting resettled refugees and asylum seekers.
“The whole story really came to life when we alighted on an article about a trauma specialist who had gone to Papa New Guinea, where the offshore processing of asylum seekers and refugees continues to take place,” she says. “He went in to deal with the PTSD – not of the detainees, but of the guards. We thought it was fascinating and horrifying that he had never seen such profound, sustained, systemic PTSD in any group of people – and he had [witnessed the impact of] so many different incursions globally.”
This idea led to Courtney’s character, Cam, winning a job as a guard at the detention centre that also becomes home to Strahovski’s Sofie, who lands there after escaping a cult led by a married couple (Blanchett and West). Bazzi plays refugee Ameer, while Keddie’s bureaucrat Clare is trying to break a glass ceiling and comes in to manage the media attention attracted by the centre.
“Ameer was a teacher in Afghanistan, but realises it’s not the safest place for him and his family so they have to flee,” Bazzi says of his character. “When we first meet Ameer in episode one, he and his family are on an island country trying to get to Australia by boat, and drama ensues. So you follow his journey trying to make it to Australia and then what happens in detention and how that unfolds.”
The actor had to learn to speak Dari, a form of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, for lines exchanged between Ameer, his wife and their two children. “Luckily for me, the beautiful girl playing my oldest daughter, her father is a Dari teacher and translator,” he reveals. “Because she was only 15 when we started, when we were filming he came everywhere with us, so I had my teacher with me at all times.”
Blanchett describes the casting process as a “call to arms” for actors who wanted to be part of something she refers to as “elephant in the room” programming – that which tackles a subject people might not want to talk about.
“This wasn’t a big-paying job, but Dominic [West], for instance, we spoke and he was totally there,” she says. “It’s a sense of, ‘Finally we can we can talk about this,’ because I do think the world is having a massive, massive problem with nuance and with grey areas, but that is the place the drama actually exists.
“When you do ‘elephant in the room’ programming, it does create conversation, and that’s what drama really should do. I love zombies; I love vampires. The Walking Dead’s one of my all-time favourite series. My husband [writer and director Andrew Carlton] philosophises about the power and the metaphor of The Walking Dead. A really good series [gets] people talking and asking questions and, in the end, that’s what I think what Stateless does.”
While it might have seemed logical for Blanchett to star as Sofie, the actor says she’s happy to “die on page nine” in a great role as part of an interesting project.
“That’s never been my process and probably an easy route for this would have been for me to play the Sofie character, but it didn’t seem right – particularly when Yvonne came into the mix,” she continues. “She was just absolutely right for the role. I wasn’t hiding, weeping in the toilet saying, ‘Why?’
“But, equally, I was very happy to put my money where my mouth was and be in it if it helped shepherd it in. So playing Pat, who’s the surrogate mother in this in the same way that Dominic’s character is the surrogate father for Sofie, was great. It was really pleasurable. When my husband and I were running the Sydney Theatre Company, it was a great joy for me to produce the work of others because the world knows how much talent there is in Australia.”
Filming took place in Port Augusta, north of Adelaide in South Australia, where there was once a real detention centre. The crew weren’t allowed to use the now disused centre, however, so had to built one from scratch, with VFX providing extensions beyond what was physically built.
“Adelaide is where a lot of refugees had been resettled. The majority of the extras we got had, at one point, been in a detention centre or refugee centre around the world,” Bazzi says.
“On my first day on set, I was greeted by all the Afghan elders who did a ceremony for me and welcomed me as their representative for this story. It was such a beautiful experience to meet all these amazing people and see what it meant to them to have representation, and to show that people do care about the hardships they’ve been through. Finally, they can they can share that with the world.”
Sadly, as Blanchett alludes, these hardships are continuing today, which is why dramas such as Stateless are needed to confront the ‘elephant in the room.’ Maybe after Stateless, more broadcasters will be willing to take similar risks to bring these stories to the screen.
Dozens of Aussie screenwriters will be dusting off their computer keyboards following the news that Screen Australia has greenlit A$640,000 (US$474,241) of development funding for 23 films and television series.
The project that has caught the attention of the international media is Stateless, which will be directed by Oscar-winning actor Cate Blanchett. Described by Screen Australia as Blanchett’s “first venture into high-end TV,” it tells the true story of Cornelia Rau, a young German-Australian who escaped a frightening cult, only to be trapped in a bizarre labyrinth of psychiatric and legal systems.
NBCUniversal-owned production company Matchbox Pictures will produce Stateless, which is based on a screenplay written by Elise McCredie. McCredie has a long and varied track record as an actress, but her first big hit as a writer was Nowhere Boys, a teen series that was also produced by Matchbox.
First airing on ABC3 in 2013, the show was successful enough to secure a renewal and to be adapted as a feature film (Book of Shadows). Sold internationally by NBCUniversal, it has also aired in the UK and Canada.
The other projects backed by Screen Australia include works from Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, Richard Roxburgh, Marieke Hardy, Jan Chapman, Stephan Elliott and Bondi Hipsters’ Nicholas Boshier. However, the only other high-end television drama to secure Screen Australia funding this month is Trust – a drama based on a journalist’s mission to expose a shadowy movement cloaked in conspiracy theories and deception.
Trust’s writing team consists of Sarah Lambert, Blake Ayshford and Kris Mrksa. Lambert’s standout credit to date is Love Child, a critical and ratings success for Channel 9 and Playmaker in 2014.
Ayshford has written episodes for a number of shows including The Beautiful Lie, Nowhere Boys, Devil’s Playground, The Code and Crownies, while Mrksa’s credits include Underbelly, The Slap and Glitch.
The latter is a six-parter that started airing on ABC1 this month. Pursuing a familiar theme, it focuses on a policeman who is called to his local cemetery in the middle of the night after six people have inexplicably risen from the dead in perfect health.
Nerida Moore, senior development executive at Screen Australia, said: “The titles we’ve announced reflect a really exciting slate of projects and associated talent. They’re very individual in approach and each will have its own unique creative journey ahead. The recent changes to our Story Development Guidelines reflect our appreciation for the individual creative process and the ongoing need for flexibility in the ways we offer support. We look forward to seeing more innovation and imagination as these projects flourish.”
Elsewhere, Endemol Shine Studios has acquired the English-language reversion rights to Follow the Money, a new thriller from Danmarks Radio (DR) that is set in the world of economic crime. The deal follows an earlier adaptation success for DR’s The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen) and comes despite the fact that Follow the Money doesn’t air in Denmark until January 2016.
The original series was created by Jeppe Gjervig Gram, one of the three writers on Borgen, writing a total of 14 out of the 30 episodes. His partners on Borgen were Adam Price, who recently co-founded production company SAM, and Tobias Lindholm.
“This is yet another compelling series from DR, and we’re looking forward to developing it for the American audience in partnership with the very talented team at Anonymous Content,” said Charlie Corwin, co-chairman and co-CEO of Endemol Shine North America.
Meanwhile, HBO has announced that its upcoming miniseries Show Me a Hero will debut on August 16. Starring Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi, the show is set in the 1980s and tells the story of a young mayor of a mid-sized American city who is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighbourhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyses the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.
Written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Show Me a Hero is based on a non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin that explores the issue of racial segregation in Yonkers, in the state of New York.
Simon said: “The story appeals to me not merely as political history, but because the question in Yonkers in 1987 was the same one that we face today. Are all of us – those with and those without, white, black or brown – are we all sharing some portion of the same national experience? Or is the American Dream something other than that?”
The director is Paul Haggis (Crash), who says: “Frankly, I have long desired to be a part of anything David Simon does. If he had asked me to direct a history of footwear, that’s what we would be discussing now. Luckily, it was a part of our history that intrigued me, largely because it isn’t history at all, but an exploration of issues that remain at the core of the American narrative.”
In last week’s Hit & Miss, we looked at some of the titles that have garnered a high number of Emmy nominations. Today, we are giving a shout out to the writers nominated.
In Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, the contenders are Joshua Brand (The Americans), Gordon Smith (Better Call Saul), David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Weiner alone (for Mad Men again).
The sentimentalist vote would surely favour Weiner, to mark the end of Mad Men. But he will be hard pushed to see off Game of Thrones, which is nominated for the final episode of season five (Mother’s Mercy).
In Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, the nominees include John Ridley (American Crime), Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Glois and Horton Foote (Bessie), Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Hello Ladies), Hugo Blick (The Honorable Woman), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) and Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall).
Despite the dearth of women in these two line-ups, Anderson has a good chance of winning. An industry veteran, she boasts credits ranging from The Wonder Years and How to Make an American Quilt to Mad Men.
She gave an interesting interview to HBO recently in which she discussed the challenges of adapting Olive Kitteridge from its source novel by Elizabeth Strout. “It took a long time for me to solve this as an adaptation,” she said. “Because HBO’s work is known for its edginess, we talked about how we make this very brilliant novel about older people in a small town in Maine sexy. What will make this different? What will give this edge?
“I tried an outline where we started backwards and we went back in time, and it didn’t work. Then I tried it starting with the suicide scene. It’s just three minutes of screen time that assure the audience that something really drastic is going to happen down the line. When you add stakes like that, everybody can just friggin’ relax and I can tell the story. I can just unwind it. You need that in television and you need that in a miniseries.”
At the other end of the spectrum with regard to female characterisation, actress Lucy Lawless has played down speculation that her iconic series Xena: Warrior Princess is undergoing a reboot at NBC. Sam Raimi was reported to be involved but Lawless later described it as a “rumour.”
She Tweeted: “Sorry, friends! News of a #Xena reboot is just a rumour. I’d love it to happen one day but it’s still in the wishful thinking stage.”