Based on 2005 hitman mockumentary The Magician, Mr Inbetween stars Scott Ryan as criminal-for-hire Ray Shoesmith: a father, ex-husband, boyfriend and best friend who must juggle his personal commitments with being a contract killer.
In this DQTV interview, Ryan and director Nash Edgerton talk about the long road to Mr Inbetween and their approach to making it like a feature film.
Speaking at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, they also talk about creating the character of Ray and how the story structure lends itself to television.
The six-episode season, written by Ryan and directed by Edgerton, also stars Damon Herriman, Justin Rosniak, Brooke Satchwell, Jackson Tozer, Nicholas Cassim, Chika Yasumura and Matt Nable.
The series debuted in the US on FX and on Foxtel in Australia in September and has been renewed for a second season to air next year.
Mr Inbetween was shot in Australia and produced by Blue-Tongue Films and Jungle Entertainment in association with FX Productions, Screen Australia and Create NSW. Ryan, Edgerton and Jason Burrows are executive producers and Michele Bennett is producer. The series is sold internationally by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.
Click here to read DQ’s interview with director Edgerton.
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.”
The cast of Picnic at Hanging Rock, led by Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer, discuss reimagining Joan Lindsay’s classic novel as a new six-part event series.
All the hallmarks of a classical period drama are present and correct, but do not be deceived by the stately mansion, bonnets and corsets on show in Picnic at Hanging Rock. In fact, this intoxicating six-part series is a thoroughly modern retelling of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel – from the scripts by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison to the predominantly young cast headed by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer and the dazzling directing led by Larysa Kondracki.
After a red-carpet world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, Picnic at Hanging Rock is at last getting its domestic debut on Foxtel’s Showcase channel in Australia this Sunday. Dormer stars as English headmistress Hester Appleyard as the story plunges viewers into the mysterious disappearances of three schoolgirls and their governess on Valentine’s Day 1900.
Exploring the event’s far-reaching impact on the students and staff of Appleyard College and its enigmatic headmistress, theories soon abound, paranoia sets in and long-held secrets surface as the Rock exerts its strange power and the dark stain of the unsolved mystery continues to spread.
The cast also features rising Aussie stars including Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden and Ruby Rees as some of the students. It is produced by FremantleMedia Australia, with broadcasters including Amazon Prime Video in the US, the BBC in the UK, Germany’s Entertain TV, France’s Canal+ and Sky New Zealand already importing the series following deals with distributor FremantleMedia International.
Aware of the revered 1968 film adaptation directed by Peter Weir, Kondracki initially turned down the chance to direct this new version. But friend and Fremantle executive Stefanie Burk passed her Lindsay’s book and asked her to give it a look.
“I had the same reaction that every crew member had too, which was ‘No, no,’ but the second you read it, you said, ‘OK’ – the script goes back to the book and then expands it,” the director says.
“Bea is basically a genius and Alice is super talented,” she says of the writers. “Bea’s unbelievably emotionally specific, thematically specific and very collaborative. She just writes in this beautiful way. The scripts, similar to the book, are open to interpretation and it’s just such a rich playground. We had so much fun – and tears as well.”
Dormer agrees Christian is one of a kind. “She’s a playwright originally and when you read her stage directions, she can communicate a thought or a feeling in a few lines, in a way I haven’t seen a writer achieve before. Joan Lindsay can hint at something in one sentence and Bea’s described it and run with it.
“She and Larysa are both not scared of the spiritual, the transcendental, the absurd, the magical or the dark. It’s strong in tone with this beautiful combination of Alice and the other directors but, fundamentally, producer-wise and creatively, it’s this beautiful hybrid of Bea’s image meets Larysa’s vision.”
Like remaking Sherlock for the BBC or taking a new version of Othello out onto the stage, Dormer believes the time was right to do Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation, describing this version as a “gothic horror” with touches of dark comedy thrown in for good measure. “But really it’s also a huge exploration of what are the formative years of young girls, and a woman [Appleyard] who thinks she knows what women should be and them rebelling against that. In a way, it’s our version of [1988 US movie] Heathers. I have a nutty theory that all the girls are different versions of what Hester could have been.
“There are moments in what Larysa and Bea chose to do that I felt were like The Crucible, the hysteria of female adolescence, the sexual repression of female adolescence – it’s The Virgin Suicides, Heathers and The Crucible in one.”
Rees, who plays Edith, picks up: “When I read the first script, I thought, ‘This isn’t Picnic at Hanging Rock.’ This is so far away from any preconception any Australian – or any person – has about this story. It’s not Picnic as we know it or have ever seen it before.”
Sullivan, who plays Miranda, admits that following Weir’s film was intimidating, as the characters in Lindsay’s book already exist on screen. But this new version, she says, takes viewers on an emotional journey, sending them back and forth through the events.
“It’s like a psychological twisted tale, and we’re not children. We don’t need answers,” the actor notes. “Finding these characters was such a gift and it’s quite weird how it is such a contemporary piece. It has an energy that’s really exciting. My character is definitely a woman who is aching and so frustrated because she’s definitely born in the wrong time.”
Bringing some international flavour to proceedings are Harrison Gilbertson, who plays Englishman Michael Fitzhubert, and Lola Bessis, who stars as French schoolmistress Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers.
“It’s interesting because Harrison’s character is from England and mine is from France, and all the other girls have been sent to this school by their families from all around Australia and the world,” Bessis explains. “So we’re all like a very close family. At the beginning, Dianne is just a good employee and does what she’s told to do. She’s very thankful to Mrs Appleyard for giving her a job but, little by little, she toughens up and learns to be herself and have her own opinions of things and emancipates herself a lot.”
Shooting took place in Melbourne and in locations across Victoria, as well as at the real Hanging Rock, a spiritual place considered sacred by native aboriginal communities. The week before filming there, however, the cast and crew were all struck by illness.
“At one point, one of our main actors was missing every day,” recalls Kondracki. “In the middle of a scene, they’d just fall ill. And this was a great testament to the crew. I remember one of our gaffers in the bushes vomiting and then coming back, and when I asked if he wanted to go home, he just replied that he’d lost a few pounds. Nobody gave up and, at the end, there was a crime scene-level clean-up. The point is we were going to the rock the following week and everyone was thinking this was the rock saying, ‘If you think this week’s bad…’”
Sullivan describes filming at the rock as “amazing, exhausting, disorientating,” while Dormer adds: “In the end, there was no acting required as a British actor coming to Hanging Rock and being overwhelmed by the energy and awe-inspiring power and landscape of it. It has an energy.”
Having played Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones for five seasons of the HBO series, Dormer admits she wasn’t looking for a role in another period drama. “I didn’t want to get into a corset again but I was intrigued by the beauty and the psychology of this,” she reveals. “It really grabbed me. And Larysa wrote me this beautiful letter basically saying no one else can play this role as well as you.”
“Which is true,” the director interjects.
Dormer continues: “Hester Appleyard could very easily be a villain. And Larysa gave me this great pitch: ‘You can find the vulnerability, the weakness and the sadness in her that will make the audience empathise as well. You will make her an anti-heroine as opposed to a villain.’ She said, ‘I know you can do that.’ I was like, that’s a tough specification with that character. We found we had a shorthand quite quickly. There’s something about this relationship; we’re both very candid people, we’re both very straight-talking.
“There’s a David Lynchian, Lewis Carollian dark surreality to our Picnic, mainly given by Larysa’s camera choices, that to me is just so bold, fresh and exciting and it just gives it this signature feel. That’s when you know you’ve got something special, when you can’t describe a show and say it’s a bit like ‘this meets this’. If you can’t do the hybrid pitch, you know you’ve got something distinctive.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the latest in a wave of adaptations of Australian novels and films, from Mystery Road and Romper Stomper to Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright. But regardless of its source, the cast believe this series will make its mark around the world.
Sullivan, who also starred in Romper Stomper, admits she was hesitant before signing up to both series. “But both of them are a beautiful way to map how far we’ve come and how we are still weirdly dealing with the same issues that girls in the 1900s were. Instead of corsets, we now have waist trainers from the Kardashians. It’s all still being resold. The immigration of Asian culture in Australia back then is now Islamic culture coming in, and we’re having the exact same conversation 25 years later.”
Rees adds: “Australia is not always seen to be a country that can create art that holds its own, and I think this version of Picnic at Hanging Rock will put us on the world map in the way the film did when Peter Weir made it.
“Australia has been doing remakes of old stories for a long time. It’s just now becoming mainstream. It’s fabulous because if the original story has enough content that we can retell it in every century, then why not do it? So many things in the series are still 100% applicable today, which is scary. That’s not a good thing that we’re still discussing problems for women who were alive and well in the 1900s in 2018. That’s a negative – and this show just drives a stake into the heart of that.”
Australian director Nash Edgerton makes his television debut with Mr InBetween, a dark comedy-drama about a hitman juggling his personal and professional lives. He tells DQ about the battle to get the series made, 13 years after the film that inspired it.
When it airs later this year, the debut of Australian dark comedy-drama Mr InBetween will mark the end of a long journey for director Nash Edgerton and writer Scott Ryan.
In 2005 they worked together on The Magician, a mockumentary-style feature about a Melbourne assassin who is both ruthless and caring, played by Ryan, who also wrote and directed the film. Edgerton was a producer.
Thirteen years later, a long-championed television follow-up, Mr InBetween, sees Ryan return as Ray Shoesmith – father, ex-husband, boyfriend, hitman. This time Edgerton is behind the camera.
“We spent years developing scripts,” says Edgerton. “We got close a few times to getting it up within the first few years after the movie. But there weren’t as many avenues in TV at that time, especially in Australia, so it got to a certain point and it didn’t happen.”
One reason why the project kept stalling was Edgerton’s loyalty to Ryan in the face of executives who would have preferred to cast a more recognisable name in the leading role. “I just kept saying, ‘I’m only going to make it if Scott’s going to be in it,’” Edgerton recalls. “Because as far as I was concerned, he was the guy and the reason I was interested in doing it. So I just kept holding out until I got to make it with him. But for me, it was worth the weight to do it with him in that key role and I think the show’s better for it.”
For Edgerton, Scott’s performance in The Magician was one of the highlights of the movie, and he notes that despite the actor/writer’s absence from the screen for more than a decade, Scott could have passed for a seasoned actor on set. “He seems so comfortable in front of the camera. He’s so watchable and enjoyable, to watch him bounce between these two worlds in his life, his personal life and his work life,” he explains.
Scott certainly brings to life the languid, laconic Ray, a man who drifts between his visits to his brother’s home and looking after his daughter to walks in the park with his dog, where he meets potential love interest Ally (Brooke Satchwell). He also finds time to negotiate his day job. One notable incident involves making a man dig his own grave before Ray fires the trigger.
“He’s quite reserved but he has his own clear moral centre – it’s a little left of centre than most people’s but he has a code that he navigates his life by,” Edgerton says of the main character. “He cares about his family and his friends. What’s interesting to me about the show and what drove Scott to do it is he’s read all these books and autobiographies on real-life killers and realised that, as much as that’s their job, they’re still regular people. They still have the same things going on in their lives that anyone else has. It just happens to be that their job is killing people for money.”
Edgerton kept himself busy during the long hiatus between movie and series by directing short films and making his debut Hollywood feature, Gringo, which stars Charlize Theron, David Oyelowo, Amanda Seyfried and the director’s brother Joel, and is out in cinemas today. In fact, Edgerton was shooting Mr InBetween while in post-production on Gringo, providing him with a stark illustration of the differences between making a film and a television series.
“I shot it like a three-hour movie but I edited it like six short films,” he says of the 6×30′ Mr InBetween. “As much as the episodes connect to each other, they’re all still different. The work is contained, they all have their own thing. I actually found that a lot easier to edit than I did the movie because with the movie, you’re trying to sustain almost two hours of a story; but with the TV show, you’re sustaining 25 minutes at a time. Having not done TV before, I wasn’t sure what that was going to feel like but it was somehow more manageable and a quicker process to edit because of that.”
Made for just A$3,000 (US$2,300), The Magician was “super lo-fi,” Edgerton says, describing the film as a buddy movie between Ray and the Italian film student who is holding the camera but whom the audience never sees.
“I wanted the series to feel very natural, light, handheld – I was trying to recapture the feeling the ‘documentary’ gave me, so I was trying to film it that way, just to give more authenticity to the scenes and moments in the show,” he says. “TV is a lot faster [than film]. I had almost 50 days to shoot Gringo, which is one hour and 50 minutes, and then I shot three hours of television in 30 days. So in that way, it was much more of a machine with a much smaller crew but, because I’d never made TV before, I actually blocked it like a movie, so I shot it like a movie. All I’ve made is films and short films, and some music videos, so that was the only way I knew how to make it.”
As well as working behind the camera, Edgerton also had some input during the scriptwriting process, offering suggestions to Ryan. In particular, this manifested itself in terms of Ray’s interactions with his daughter Brittany, which would be based on Edgerton’s conversations with his own daughter, such as a debate over the existence of Santa Claus and Brittany’s insistence that Ray’s friends abide by her swear-jar policy.
In fact, it was casting Brittany that Edgerton says was the biggest challenge, but he didn’t have far to look to find the right actor. His brother Joel isn’t the only family member he has directed – now he can also add daughter Chika Yasumura to the list. And it turned out to be “one of the best directing experiences I’ve had,” Edgerton says.
“Leading up to it, I was quite nervous because she won’t clean up her room when I ask her to, so how am I going to direct her? But she turned out to be so great. My younger brother [Joel], I’m used to telling what to do but Chika was a whole other ball game. I’d auditioned 50-something kids and none of them were getting what it needed to be. My wife suggested throwing her in. She’d never acted before and it turned out to be such a great thing to do.”
Mr InBetween has already received positive reviews after it was chosen to be the only non-US series to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Originally commissioned by FX in Australia, it is now set to air on Foxtel’s Showcase channel later this year. It is produced by Blue-Tongue Films and Jungle Entertainment and sold internationally by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.
“I never dreamed of doing TV until Scott presented the idea for this series, so I can’t say I’d never do it again,” Edgerton concludes. “I’d totally do another season with Scott. Ultimatel,y I love filmmaking and storytelling so it’s all about if it’s the right project and if it’s the right medium to do it. I still love making short films but, after Gringo, I want to make another movie.”
Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.
For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.
Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.
To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.
The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.
Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.
Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.
Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.
Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.
The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.
Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.
At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.
The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.
The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.
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.”
As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.
Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.
But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.
From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.
The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.
One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.
Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).
Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.
“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.
“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”
Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”
Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.
“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”
If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.
The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.
With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.
“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”
While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.
“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.
“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”
Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.
“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”
However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.
“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”
Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.
“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”
You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.
“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”
Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”
With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.
Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”
As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.
The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.
The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.
As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.
Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”
There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.
Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”
Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.
So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.
San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.
Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.
At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.
In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.
Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.
Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”
Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.
Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”
There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.
A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.
Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.
One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).
Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”
Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”
Australian television dramas often struggle to compete against US imports in their domestic market. But there are some encouraging signs in terms of titles coming through. One series to watch out for is The Kettering Incident, which debuts on Foxtel on July 4.
Set in Tasmania, the show tells the story of Anna Macy (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who left Kettering when she was 14 years old, shortly after her best friend disappeared when they were playing in the forest. Anna returns 15 years later to find the town is struggling to survive. Then another young girl disappears.
The show was co-created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan. Madden is also part of the writing team, alongside Andrew Knight, Cate Shortland and Louise Fox. Her previous credits include Lynda La Plante’s Trial and Retribution, The Bill and Halifax FP – though what makes this title so interesting that she is from Tasmania. So, in fact, are most of the cast, crew and supporting industry, with an estimated 300 Tasmanians involved.
Overall, the eight-part production has cost A$14m (US$10m), with Tasmania expecting the local economy to benefit by around A$5m. In return for a Tasmanian government contribution there is also an attachment training initiative that has seen trainees work across various production areas, including screenwriting.
While The Kettering Incident is very much an Australia/Tasmania labour of love, there are strong indicators that it will do well internationally. One is that BBC Worldwide is handling international distribution – always a good sign. The other is that it won the Special Jury Prize at the Series Mania festival last month.
Another upcoming Australian show that promises to hit the headlines is Nine Network’s miniseries House of Bond, which stars Ben Mingay as flamboyant fraudster Alan Bond. Currently in production, the show follows the success of last year’s House of Hancock, which was a biopic of iron ore magnate Lang Hancock.
House of Bond is produced by Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, with the assistance of Screen Australia and Screen NSW. The writer is Sarah Smith, originally from Perth. Smith has been in the screenwriting business for more than 20 years as a writer and producer on shows like The Alice, All Saints, McLeod’s Daughters, Canal Road and Sea Patrol. She’s also the co-creator, producer and writer of Wild Boys and Rescue Special Ops as well as co-writer and producer of the telemovie, Dripping In Chocolate.
Her most recent project prior to House of Bond was six-part thriller Winter, a spin-off from the 2014 telemovie The Killing Field. Aired on Seven Network it averaged around one million viewers.
Another Aussie show in the news this week is ABC’s period drama The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which has been commissioned for a fifth season (due to air in 2017).
Starring Craig McLachlan as police surgeon Dr Lucien Blake and Nadine Garner as his devoted housekeeper Jean, the show has been a bit hit for the channel. “We are delighted to commission more Doctor Blake for our audience,” says ABC director of television Richard Finlayson. “Season four has been the most successful to date with an average audience of 1.67 million viewers across TV and iview. Doctor Blake satisfies an appetite for engaging, home grown stories.”
The series co-creator and showrunner is December Media’s George Adams, who added: “December Media is elated to be returning to 1960s Ballarat once again to bring our loyal audience more tales of murder, mystery, mayhem and a wee bit of love with Blake, Jean and all our favourite characters.”
So far the show has racked up a total of 36 episodes and draws on quite a large writing team. One key figure has been Stuart Page, who wrote seven episodes in the first series and has been heavily involved in the following three series.
Other episode writers have included Chelsea Cassio, Chris Corbett, Tim Pye, Jane Allen, Peter McTighe, Marcia Gardner, Michael Harvey, Pino Amenta, Roger Monk, Jeff Truman, Paul Oliver, Paul Jenner and Sarah Lambert.
Of these, British writer McTighe is perhaps the best known, having written for several UK and Australia productions including EastEnders, Neighbours, Crownies and Nowhere Boys. He was also handed the task of reinventing Prisoner Cell Block H as Wentworth, a show that has proven to be a major hit. (Stuart Page also cropped up as a writer on Wentworth in season three.)
Elsewhere in the world of TV drama, Syfy in the US has ordered a pilot for a prequel to Superman from David S Goyer. Called Krypton, the show will explore the home of Superman before it is destroyed. Goyer, who has become the go-to guy for superhero stories in recent years, wrote the pilot with Ian Goldberg. Goyer’s other credits include The Dark Knight movies and Man of Steel.
Another interesting story brewing this week is that The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) wants a bigger share of the operating profits that it says Hollywood’s major media studios made last year. Those profits, which the WGA claims doubled in the last decade, are largely attributable to the content created by guild members, according to the organisation’s leadership. According to the WGA, the guild’s health plan is now running in the red and the average incomes of film and series TV writers have decreased while the Hollywood studios’ profits have risen.
The significance of this is that the last confrontation between the WGA and the studios resulted in a huge writers’ strike in 2007/08, with 12,000 writers laying down their pens for three months. Reports at the time suggested that the strike cost the economy of LA anywhere between US$500m and US$1.5bn. Nothing will happen straightaway but it will be worth watching negotiations towards a new contract over the coming year.
Viewers are doing time with two dramas set inside women’s prisons, but is there room for both Wentworth and Orange is the New Black?
There was a splash of colour in the Outstanding Drama Series category when the nominees for the 67th Emmy Awards were announced last week.
Orange is the New Black (OITNB, main image) will face competition from Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards and Mad Men for the prize, which will be handed out on September 20.
Previously considered a comedy – it was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at last year’s Emmys – the Netflix series was pushed into the drama category when the Television Academy defined episodic comedies as shows with a running time of 30 minutes or less. Each episode of OITNB runs for 60 minutes.
But while its running time may set it apart from other comedies, its comedic tones and storylines are exactly what set it apart from other dramas, particularly those it’s up against for this year’s award.
OITNB creator Jenji Kohan said as much when reacting to news of the show’s drama nomination: “We’re proud to be the misfits who don’t fit in – comedy, drama, nobody knows what to do with us … and we like it that way. No matter what you call us, we’re honoured to be recognised by the Academy with this nomination. On behalf of the entire cast, the writers, producers and crew, and so many others that work tirelessly on this show, this is really cool and we thank you.”
It is also its comedy roots that set OITNB apart from the other women’s prison-set drama currently on television. Wentworth, which airs in Australia on Foxtel’s SoHo network and is also in its third season, is described as a modern adaptation of the iconic Prisoner series, which originally aired from 1979 to 1986.
This reboot – which debuted in May 2013, just two months before season one of OITNB landed on Netflix – is set in Wentworth Correctional Centre, with each episode focusing on a different character and how they cope in a women’s prison living under warring criminals fighting for supremacy over the inmates.
Similarly, OITNB also uses individual episodes to focus on inmates’ backstories as groups of criminals fight over who rules the wings of Litchfield Penitentiary.
But that’s where the similarities end, at least according to Wentworth star Danielle Cormack, who also points to the American series’ comedic undertones as a reason why there’s room on the television landscape for two series delving into the world of women’s prisons.
Speaking ahead of launch of the third season of Wentworth on the UK’s Channel 5, Cormack said: “I love Orange is the New Black. I think it’s been the best thing for our show as well, so I say that with a lot of gratitude towards great television now but also in a very selfish way.
“Having two successful prison dramas on TV at the same time that have a very different take on prison life, I think they work very well off each other. Orange is the New Black explores the minutiae of prison life in an American way and society in America with much more of a comedic bent and Wentworth, I think, explores the greater, more dramatic arcs. There’s these sweeping, broad statements about being top dog, about corrupt governors and everything, and it’s much more dramatic and people say more gritty.”
Cormack, who plays top dog Bea Smith in the FremantleMedia Australia-produced series, adds: “But I think they serve each other really well. Wentworth wouldn’t have had the overseas attention if Orange is the New Black hadn’t played first off, and perhaps vice versa.
“So I’m really happy to walk side by side with Orange is the New Black and I applaud their storytelling. I find their take on prison life extraordinary because it’s taught me about other aspects of what it means to be incarcerated, and most of the crew that I work with have done extensive research about what it’s like to be locked away for long periods of time with other people and our take on it is very different.
“So cheers to all the people who have created Orange is the New Black. I love the show.”
With OITNB available on all Netflix platforms around the world, Wentworth has also proved extremely popular on international screens. Since its launch, it has aired in 88 countries, including France, Japan, Poland, Brazil, Canada, Korea and Sweden.
Furthermore, the series has been the subject of two foreign-language adaptations – Celblok H in the Netherlands, which has aired for two seasons on SBS 6, and Block B – Unter Arrest on Germany’s RTL.
Despite their similarities, there’s plenty to separate OITNB and Wentworth, and with fourth seasons for both already locked up, audiences can look forward to spending more time behind bars with these two series.
For fans of TV drama living down under, things are about to get very interesting indeed.
Pay TV platform Foxtel this week announced plans to “create the best in Australia” by doubling its investment in original content, including factual, lifestyle and entertainment programming by 2018.
The key point, however, came when it was revealed that in each of the next three years, Foxtel will commission at least five major drama series. Currently it averages two every 12 months.
And while other programming genres will get a boost in funding, the budget for scripted content, including comedy, will be tripled.
Viewers of prison drama Wentworth will be well aware of Foxtel’s push into local drama. The series, which debuted on the SoHo channel in 2013, is described as a contemporary reimagining of the classic drama Prisoner and has proved such a success that a fourth season was ordered earlier this year.
Other homegrown commissions include A Place to Call Home and The Kettering Incident. The former, created by Bevan Lee, is a 1950s period piece that follows one woman’s journey to heal her soul and a privileged family rocked by scandal. After two seasons, a landmark deal between Foxtel and Seven Productions last year saw a further two runs commissioned, with season three due to launch on SoHo later this year.
The Kettering Incident, created by Victoria Madden and Vincent Sheehan, is an eight-part mystery thriller that sees a woman uncover terrifying secrets hidden in her town as she investigates a missing person case. Uniquely, it is also the first major TV drama to be filmed entirely in Tasmania.
Foxtel has already put other news series into development. The first to be announced is Secret City, a political thriller inspired by novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, both co-written by journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlman.
The six-part series, produced by Matchbox Pictures, is set in the Australian capital Canberra where a journalist uncovers a web of interlocked conspiracies that are putting innocent lives – including her own – in danger. The cast includes Anna Torv (Fringe), Damon Herriman, and Dan Wyllie, and it is set to air in 2016.
Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh said Secret City “is further commitment by Foxtel to explore bold and interesting ideas for the screen and commission unique Australian storytelling to complement the best of the international series. We keep looking for inspiring and intelligent scripts and we think we’ve found one again with Secret City.”
The news of Foxtel’s original-content investment echoes similar plans by Sky in the UK. In 2011, its CEO Jeremy Darroch unveiled ambitions to invest more than £600m (US$944m) a year in fresh British programming by 2014 – an increase of 50% on its 2011 budget. This led to new dramas including The Tunnel and Penny Dreadful, while Darroch has since vowed that Sky will continue to raise its game towards £1bn a year.
However, whereas Sky’s plan was a proactive bid to attract more viewers who weren’t interested in its movie or sport channels, Foxtel’s own drama investment could not have come at a more critical time for its business. US VoD giant Netflix stepped up its international expansion earlier this year by landing in Australia, hoping to attract subscribers to its own original drama series and, in turn, possibly denting Foxtel’s numbers, while other online players including Stan are also up and running.
With drama series now commonly promoted as the flagship content for a television network or platform, the quality – and quantity – of shows is only going up, fuelled by extra investment. This growing competition, across free and pay TV and online, is great news for viewers, who can look forward to hours of new programmes – providing they are willing to pay for it.