Tag Archives: Jeffrey Walker

Commons Knowledge

Playmaker Media’s The Commons portrays a world of the near future that grapples with the moral dilemmas thrown up by climate change and biotechnology advances. Don Groves finds out more from the show’s stars and creative team.

Screenwriter/showrunner Shelley Birse frets about the future of the planet and the prospect of millions of people being displaced by bushfires, cyclones, rising seas and years of drought.

That not-too-distant scenario is the setting for The Commons, an eight-part, character-driven thriller Birse has created for Australian streamer Stan, produced by Sony-owned Playmaker Media. For the series, Birse has overlayed the themes of global warming and environmental damage with her concerns about biotechnology and fertility procedures.

Joanne Froggatt leads The Commons’ cast

Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt stars as Eadie Boulay, a gifted neuropsychologist who spends her days putting broken people back together. Desperate for a child, she considers using a radical IVF technique despite the misgivings of her husband Lloyd (David Lyons), a vector biologist. After pioneering a treatment that enables patients to rid themselves of traumatic memories or strong fears, Eadie volunteers to do national service to help the residents of the resettlement centre, where people are assessed on a points system. Those who pass are admitted to the city; the others are banished.

Ryan Corr plays Lloyd’s best friend Shay, an experimental biologist who is working with Lloyd to find a solution to combat the deadly Chagas disease. Brit Rupert Penry-Jones (Black Sails) is Eadie’s brother Dom, a disaster capitalist whose company supplies essentials such as generators, food, water and medical supplies.

The cast also includes Damon Herriman (Perpetual Grace Ltd, Mindhunter) as a trigger-happy border security officer, John Waters (Mystery Road) as Lloyd and Shay’s boss, Simone McAullay (Broadchurch) as Eadie’s sister-in-law and Fayssal Bazzi (Stateless) as the resettlement centre’s pastor.

The set-up director Jeffrey Walker (Lambs of God, Riot), who directed four episodes, had long wanted to work with Birse and Playmaker Media. “The scripts were really beautiful and Shelley had created a really wonderful, intriguing world that spoke to me. I was also excited by the fact we could attract a great level of talent in front of the camera,” he says. “It combines the intimate and the epic. At its core, it’s about the relationships between these characters and their journeys, with the highest possible stakes.”

Damon Herriman plays a trigger-happy border security officer

Jennifer Leacey (The Secrets She Keeps, The Wrong Girl) and Rowan Woods (Rake, The Kettering Incident) each directed two further episodes. The producer is Diane Haddon, whose credits include Reckoning, Friday on My Mind, The Code and Hiding, all for Playmaker Media. Birse penned four episodes, Michael Miller (Mustangs FC, Cleverman) wrote two and Matt Ford (House Husbands, Hiding) and Matt Cameron (Secret City, Jack Irish) each did one.

Birse came up with the concept after she finished The Code, the political thriller she created, produced by Playmaker Media, which ran for two seasons on pubcaster the ABC. Federal agency Screen Australia gave the prodco an Enterprise People grant, which enabled her to spend a year developing projects.

As part of that initiative in 2017, she was mentored by US-based writer Graham Yost (creator of FX’s Justified and The Americans) and producer/writer Fred Golan (Sneaky Pete, Justified). Yost and Golan had worked on a US remake of The Code with Birse’s help and wrote a pilot produced by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for Fox, which did not proceed.

Playmaker Media and Screen Australia encouraged Birse to come up with an Australian drama that would have international resonance and she pitched The Commons. The concept was inspired partly by her experience living in a small community on the remote New South Wales mid-north coast, an area regularly affected by flooding and power outages. “I hooked on the idea that it is a weird time to be alive when we face existential threats from climate change and from technology,” she says. “I promised it would be a very human take on some big issues and, in times of crisis, that can bring out the very best of people.”

Playmaker co-founders David Maher and David Taylor put the deal together with Stan and SPT, co-financed by Screen Australia, state agency Create NSW and the 20% TV producer offset. “It’s our most ambitious drama to date, both creatively and budget-wise,” Maher says. “Set in Sydney a few years in the future, it’s a world of super storms, the increased displacement of climate refugees, brownouts, gated, air-conditioned communities, privacy–infringing IT monitoring, advances in neuroscience and eugenics, and computers that are smarter than we are. It’s a grounded series that does not stray into sci-fi fantasy; it’s a hand-reach from where we are now.

Black Sails star Rupert Penry-Jones plays Eadie’s brother Dom

“Amid this degree of foreboding, we are trying to inject some hope and balance on the way we live with the way the world is going. As Shelley likes to say, we’re all boomers or doomers. Before the Titanic goes down, she asks, ‘Are you preparing for the flood?’”

Stan was Playmaker’s first choice after the Nine Entertainment-owned streamer commissioned Bloom, which premiered in January 2019. The supernatural romance-mystery-horror created by Glen Dolman, which starred Bryan Brown, Jacki Weaver, Ryan Corr and Phoebe Tonkin, performed so strongly that Stan ordered a second season, which is now in production.

“It’s unlike anything else that has come out of Australia,” says Nick Forward, Stan’s chief content officer, who gave The Commons the greenlight after reading an outline and the scripts for the first two episodes. “As it’s set in Sydney, it has an Australian feel but is global in its ambition. It has sci-fi elements but is a very personal and emotional drama. The themes it deals with are very universal.”

David Lyons as Lloyd (left) and Ryan Corr as Shay

Last autumn, Birse spent three weeks in LA with Yost and Golan fleshing out ideas for each episode. A big fan of Birse, Yost says: “Her characters are so real and humane and funny and doing the best they can and not always succeeding. I love these characters and want to see what happens to them. I think it will appeal to some of the people who watch The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s When They See Us.”

It’s the first Australian-filmed project for the LA-based Lyons since he appeared alongside Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Topher Grace in James Vanderbilt’s 2015 movie Truth. “I had been a fan of Shelley since The Code,” says Lyons, whose credits include the Netflix series Seven Seconds, NBC’s Game of Silence, Revolution and The Cape.

“At the heart of the show is my character’s relationship with Eadie in a terrifying world that is, as Shelley says, a ‘wince into the future.’ Jo Froggatt is such an immaculate actress, matched by her willingness to give on all fronts. She is the perfect number one on the call sheet because she dictates the state of play. I’m hoping The Commons will have a few years in it; I will come back in a heartbeat.”

Lyons relished the opportunity to work with the series’ directors for the first time. He was especially impressed when he saw Leacey had tears in her eyes as she watched a close-up of Froggatt on a monitor during an emotional scene with him. He also marvelled at Leacey’s habit of giving notes in a whisper to each actor, which he says ensured each gave a fresh take, not knowing what to expect.

One of Australia’s most in-demand actors, Corr was attracted to playing a cynical and obnoxious scientist who doesn’t much care for people but is determined to come up with ways to save humanity. “This was uncharted territory for me,” says the actor, whose credits include Bloom, Lingo Pictures’ upcoming Network 10 drama The Secrets She Keeps and Matchbox Pictures’ SBS miniseries Hungry Ghosts. “It’s the first series, particularly, out of this country that tackles subjects like climate change, refugees and immigration policies. The title refers to the commonalities we all need to survive like food, shelter, water and love.”

The show was created for Australian streamer Stan

Corr was aware of Lyons’ work but was blown away by his performance, observing: “He is maybe the greatest actor I’ve ever worked with. That came out of left field. He’s such an intellectual performer and clever dude; he’s willing to challenge you to go in a different direction.”

Playmaker Media’s Maher first flagged the project to veteran production designer Tim Ferrier (Reckoning, Bite Club, Friday on My Mind) 18 months ago, before it was financed. “I got very excited about it from the conception,” Ferrier says. “I love the scripts, which are so dense and layered. It’s so nice to work on something with this quality of writing; the standard of writing in Australia is not always amazing.”

Ferrier enjoyed helping create the world Birse imagined, including a ‘Green Cathedral,’ which is a respite centre for trauma victims; an underground laboratory where Lloyd and Shay are developing a solution for the virus; and Dom Boulay’s high-tech apartment in a gated community.

In a rapidly changing world, socially, politically and environmentally, the key question is this: will Ferrier’s creations remain a figment of his and Birse’s imagination, or will The Commons prove to be a dark foreboding of times to come?

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Raising Lambs

Lambs of God, a four-part miniseries commissioned by Australia’s Foxtel, introduces three eccentric nuns who live on a secluded and remote island.

When their peaceful way of life is interrupted by an ambitious young priest on a mission from the church, they are forced to take matters into their own hands in a tale of faith, love and redemption.

Based on the book of the same name by Marele Day, it stars Essie Davis (The White Princess), Sam Reid (Prime Suspect 1973), Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World) and Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale).

In this DQTV interview, writer Sarah Lambert and director Jeffrey Walker talk about their partnership working on the series. Lambert also talks about how she adapted Day’s novel for the screen, while Walker discusses how he threw off the shackles that sometimes limit directors to turn his ambitious vision for the series into reality.

Lambs of God is produced by Lingo Pictures and Endemol Shine Australia for Foxtel and distributed by Sky Vision.

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Direct action

DQ speaks to a number of television directors about their latest work and how their role behind the camera is evolving, from working closely with writers to penning and even acting in the shows themselves.

While film is the director’s medium, television has always been writer-led. But times are changing – and in today’s booming drama landscape, the role of the director is evolving far beyond the hired gun that was once brought in to helm single or multiple episodes of a series.

The rise of serialised drama, in particular, has had an effect on those behind the camera, and many directors now equate making such shows to completing an eight- or 10-part movie in a single stint, with one person at the helm throughout.

In many cases, drama directors also have a hand in creating, writing and producing shows, with involvement stretching from the initial conception of a story until the final episode has been locked and delivered to a network.

“The role of directors in television is changing like it is across the board, probably for everybody,” says Jeffrey Walker, who steered four-part Australian miniseries Lambs of God. “At the heart of it, it’s just because television is getting better and better. I can do episodic television shows where you might be given episode 213 and it’s good luck and there you are. Then on this one, I was on it for a year. They’re both television, but Lambs of God is at the highest end being made in Australia in terms of budget and ambition.

Jeffrey Walker (left) on location for Lambs of God

“The greater involvement means it’s a nicer journey to go on, because you’re seeing this thing go from our first chats about what it is to the sounding and the grade. Going on that journey certainly gives you more ownership, but it also [means the project] has to speak to you a lot more as a director than if you were the gun for hire.”

Lambs of God, produced by Lingo Pictures for Foxtel and distributed by Sky Vision, is described as a gothic and gripping tale about a trio of nuns living on an isolated island. But the three Sisters of St Agnes – played by Ann Dowd, Essie Davis and Jessica Barden – must defend their very existence when a young priest with a hidden agenda arrives at their dilapidated monastery.

Walker spent a few days with writer Sarah Lambert going through her scripts, which are based on the book by Marele Day. “The scripts are beautiful, as good as reading any great literature, and that was the great appeal of doing it, before thinking about the visuals and how on Earth were we going to achieve them,” he says.

“By the time I signed on, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to achieve it. But the first job was philosophically getting in step with Sarah. Production is like a crazy, wild beast that takes over. But certainly the biggest part, and one of the most enjoyable parts, was sitting down and hearing what was a very personal story told by Sarah, even though it was an adaptation. It was very much from the heart, and I could just ask her everything about it.”

Lambs of God focuses on a trio of nuns living on an isolated island

Walker’s biggest challenge on the series was bringing the world of the Sisters of St Agnes to life alongside production designer Chris Kennedy (Lion) and cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet). But once that was settled, “we could turn up in this place and then completely dismiss the beautiful production design and all the work that had gone into it to fully focus on what was at the heart of the scene and those characters at that time,” the director says.

“Being in the heads of the characters, which came from our early discussions, dictated where our camera needed to be. We wanted to be right in that world with them. It has a traditional cinematic approach; it’s not handheld or gritty. It was all lit with candles, with extremely fast lenses and cameras. The actors found it more intimate and real.”

On the other side of the world, British director Gurinder Chadha made her name with films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Viceroy’s House. She has now co-created, written and directed Beecham House, a six-part drama for ITV set in Delhi at the turn of the 19th century.

Gurinder Chadha

“I wouldn’t say TV is any less a director’s voice than film, particularly these days,” she says. “What I’ve ended up doing is shooting six one-hour movies, because that’s what I’m used to; I’m used to shooting movies. So in each episode, it has great scale. It feels like a movie. I’ve scored it like a movie and the questions it asks are big. You are getting the movie experience over six hours on TV.”

Produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, Beecham House stars Tom Bateman as John Beecham, a former soldier who buys the eponymous property to start a new life with his family. Though haunted by his past, he is inspired to become an honourable member of the region’s trading community.

“I’ve made nine movies and this was my first longform series. It’s a beast,” Chadha says. “It was hard to keep all those storylines and performances in my head, and to keep the continuity for all those actors in my head. I found it quite hard and unruly.

“Having said that, I ended up having to do very little ADR [automated dialog replacement] or reworking, so I was obviously doing something right. What I found hardest was making sure every character’s story was compelling enough to warrant a space – because when you read them in the script, it’s one thing, but when you shoot them, it’s another.”

It was only through “distilling, cutting and shredding” during the editing process that Chadha found the heart of the series, which she admits ended up being slightly different from what she had initially imagined. “It’s very moving in places, very touching in places, and there it is,” she adds. “People who have seen it have cried. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so profound, so I’m delighted.”

Period drama Beecham House is set in Delhi at the turn of the 19th century

Moving away from English-language drama, Dejate Llevar (Perfect Life) marks the first television series written and directed by Spanish actor Leticia Dolera. She has previously written comedy Bloguera en Construcción and starred in a number of film and TV shows such as Bajo Sospecha (Under Suspicion) and Mad Dogs.

Perfect Life follows three women – María, Cris and Esther – who are each looking to achieve their dream existence but find that things don’t always go according to plan. The show, from Movistar+ and distributed by Beta Film, debuted at French event Canneseries in April, where it was named best series and also received the special performance prize.

“I just wanted to write and talk about what matters to me and the women around me, the issues that concern us,” Dolera says. “Perfection for women, especially, is very stressful. It’s an ideal that’s very hard to maintain. Through the show, I explore different aspects of that supposed perfection – the superwoman role model, a woman who’s a great mum, wife, lover and friend.

“I talk about how stressful that can be and how sometimes, even if you are that superwoman, something can be missing – that’s Cris. Then, through Esther, I wanted to talk about what success is and how hard it can be to accept you cannot be successful. Maria, who I play, is a control freak. She’s obsessed with the idea of the family. She has to confront this need to control, because you cannot control life. She has to understand new models of family.”

Leticia Dolera’s Perfect Life

Dolera admits writing, directing and acting in the same project is “very intense,” but she believes each discipline is part of the same process – telling the story. “You can tell the story from the script, from directing or by giving a real voice to the characters,” she says. “I find it natural because I’ve been acting for 15 years and had the need to tell my own stories. Finally, I’m talking about things I know – I talk about women my age.”

In practical terms on set, Dolera would use a stand-in actor to prepare a scene before taking her place in front of the camera once the setup was complete. “Sometimes I would go to check what I’d recorded, but not often because the time it takes to check a take is the time it takes to do another take,” she says. “So sometimes I prefer to do another take rather than check it.”

In Israeli drama Asylum City, meanwhile, a violent attack on an activist supporting asylum seekers’ rights has far-reaching consequences, with the series focusing on clandestine migrants in Tel Aviv and those who help them.

Director Eitan Tzur co-created the show with writer Uzi Weil and author Liad Shoham, who wrote the book on which the drama is based. “I was influenced very much by [seminal HBO drama] The Wire to do a cop show or a thriller that deals with political and social issues,” he explains.

Eitan Tzur on the Asylum City set

“Then, when [Shoham] came to the offices of our production company July August, he invited us to make a series. We started to develop it and it took between four and six years for us to find a broadcaster and widen the plot.”

That broadcaster was Yes TV, whose sales arm Yes Studios distributes the drama worldwide. Asylum City marked the first time Tzur had been involved in creating a series, and he was adamant that the show pushed beyond the book’s thriller style to focus more on the political story at its heart.

“Here, the most important thing was realism. Even though it’s a thriller, I tried not to use scary music too much and the shooting was not suspenseful. It’s basic, clear, realistic,” the director says.

“Sometimes I wanted a documentary feel, because the series features a lot of places in south Tel Aviv where normal people live. I wanted to show the difference between the background of where they live and where lawyers live in the north of the city in nice apartments, to show the differences in environment and locations.”

Swedish-French coproduction Midnight Sun

Acknowledging that Israeli drama budgets are small compared with those of other major drama hotspots, Tzur says careful planing in the pre-production period is crucial to make the most of the available funds.

“As a director, I’m usually much more interested in working with actors and having a good cameraman who will allow me to concentrate on directing,” he adds. “Especially in TV, it’s much more important to concentrate on directing and having time with the actors. I’m less concerned with the shooting after I’ve decided on the general look of the scene.”

Måns Mårlind

Over in Sweden, Måns Mårlind is well established as both a writer and a director, having worked on local dramas such as Sjätte Dagen, Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and Midnight Sun, a copro between Sweden’s SVT and Canal+ in France. His latest series, Shadowplay, is a Berlin-set historical thriller in which an American cop arrives in Germany to help set up a police force in the aftermath of the Second World War. The cast includes Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), Michael C Hall (Dexter) and Logan Marshall-Green (Quarry). The show is produced by Tandem Productions and Bron Studios for Viaplay and ZDF, and distributed by StudioCanal.

“As a writer-director, I divide being both people in one body,” Mårlind says. “Directing is a healthy and good continuation of the writing process; when I write, I try to be as specific in direction as I can. I’m not writing ‘close-up’ and stuff like that, but I want the actor – because I always write for one person – to understand what I’m doing.

“As a writer, the big plus when you direct a scene that doesn’t work is that the actors can look at you and say, ‘This doesn’t work.’ Then you can throw them a new line, remove four lines or decide to have no dialogue at all.”

Echoing Tzur, Mårlind focuses on the actors. “They are everything. If you don’t connect with the actors, you have nothing,” he says. Once the plot is laid out and the characters are fully formed, he says his key responsibility is to “help the actors all the time to go where, hopefully, they have a problem reaching, pushing them all the way.”

Beecham House’s Chadha is already planning further seasons of the series, and the appeal of tackling other long, more detailed stories on television, as opposed to 90-minute films, has led her to enter development on other dramas.

“I think in today’s world, we all enjoy longform TV. I certainly do,” she concludes. “We’re all binge-viewing, watching drama like we did movies. So for me, it was a great experience making this.”

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