An Australian drama is breaking new ground with its cast and musical influences. DQ visits the set of The Secret Daughter.
Screentime CEO Rory Callaghan was watching House of Hancock, a miniseries about the troubled family dynasty of the late Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock, last year when he had an inspired idea for a TV drama.
Callaghan was impressed by scenes in the Nine Network drama that showed Hancock (Sam Neill) with Hilda Kickett (Leah Purcell), an Aboriginal woman who, in 2012, alleged DNA tests proved Hancock was her father, the result of an affair with a cook.
Wondering what might have happened to a woman like that, Callaghan came up with the idea of a series about an Aboriginal pub singer called Billie who claims to be the secret daughter of a wealthy publican. He had only one person in mind for the lead: Jessica Mauboy (pictured above), the singer-songwriter and actor who first came to fame as the runner-up in Australian Idol in 2006.
Darwin-born Mauboy had already proved her acting chops in Rachel Perkins’ 2009 feature Bran Nue Dae when she became part of the ensemble cast of The Sapphires, Wayne Blair’s 2012 movie based on Tony Briggs’ play about four young Indigenous singers who entertained the US troops in Vietnam.
Callaghan met with Mauboy and her agent David Champion, she responded enthusiastically and, after months of script development, the Seven Network commissioned The Secret Daughter. The ground-breaking series is the first to feature an Indigenous actress in the lead and the first in Australia to weave the musical elements – a mix of original songs and covers – into the narrative.
“I loved the character, the riskiness, the danger, the mystery of it. That’s what attracted me. It was an exciting and bold script,” says Mauboy. “Billie is bold, she’s open-minded, has a kind heart and puts others before herself.”
It took Screentime executives some months to secure Seven’s support and to arrange financing from Screen Australia and state agency Screen NSW. Screentime parent Banijay put up a distribution advance for the international sales rights and the producers used the 20% producer tax offset.
Seven head of drama Julie McGauran says: “It all starts with story, and the original pitch felt fresh and different. Then you add Jessica Mauboy to the mix, so the big attraction was the combination of story and her incredible talent. Like every Seven drama, we had to ensure The Secret Daughter ticked all the boxes – broad appeal, good humour and a fantastic ensemble cast led by Jessica, David Field and Colin Friels. It’s a heartfelt and joyful drama full of warmth, humour and music.”
The timing was propitious because Mauboy was lined up to feature in the network’s coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, which in turn served as a launch pad for the series. It debuts on Wednesday, October 3.
Screentime head of drama Greg Haddrick, also the script producer and one of the show’s writers, says: “The network is committing millions of dollars and you have to prove your credentials before they are willing to commit those funds. This was stylistically new ground. On the one hand, it is bold and exciting; on the other, it was a little scary. We had to show enough evolution of the idea to prove that it would be fresh and new and exciting. The network came on board after reading the scripts of the first four episodes.”
According to a recent Screen Australia report, the average production budget across 16 Australian TV dramas produced in the past four years – including Cleverman, The Code, The Principal, Rake, Top of the Lake, Deadline Gallipoli, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, The Slap, Secrets & Lies and seasons one and two of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – was A$1.4m (US$1.05m) per hour. The federal agency contributes up to 40% of budgets, of which A$500,000 is a grant.
McGauran, drama consultant John Holmes and network script executive Louise Bowes worked closely with the producers on development, casting and scripts, and gave regular feedback on the rushes.
Mauboy plays Billie Carter, a part-time country pub singer who spends much of her time looking after her father Gus (David Field), who can’t stay out of trouble. Colin Friels plays Jack Norton, a self-made millionaire publican who is stricken with cancer and goes to Billie’s town to look for his long-lost daughter, born from an affair 26 years ago.
Billie and Jack spend one night talking under the stars, telling each other their dreams and regrets. The next morning Jack dies in a helicopter crash. His youngest son Jamie (Matt Levett) turns up, meets Billie and there is an instantaneous mutual attraction. That gets complicated when Jamie starts to believe Billie may be the daughter his dad was looking for.
To save Gus from town crook Bruno (Salvatore Coco), Billie poses as the secret daughter and drives to Sydney with Jamie. Rachel Gordon plays Susan, the ambitious, ruthless and younger wife of Jack Norton, and Bonnie Sveen is Billie’s best friend Layla.
At the outset, Callaghan and Haddrick spent several days brainstorming with multiple writers, including Justin Monjo, to flesh out the characters and main plot points. Subsequently Monjo wrote the first two episodes, Haddrick wrote two and Keith Thompson and Bowes each penned one.
“We chose writers who Rory or I had worked with and who we felt would suit the show,” explains Haddrick, speaking on the multi-level set in a converted north Sydney office building. “Yes, it’s a relationship show, but it’s operating in more traditional areas than standard, middle-class relationship shows. There is a lot of class imbalance, there is the music element and we weave the music into the drama in a fresh way. It took a few months to work through all that.
“We have the characters in Billie’s band to begin with, so you see the band playing some covers. You then see her in her normal life but, rather than break into a song like characters do in a musical, she often picks up on what is around her, phrases people say, sounds she hears in the street or from the pub. Before you know it, she is singing a few lines. Sometimes the emotional situation she finds herself in either sparks a memory of a song that was playing at a similar time earlier in her life, or it goes to a cover song, which actually informs the moment her character is thinking about. Her life is music, so that is the way she processes her emotions.”
The directors are Leah Purcell (lead director), Geoff Bennett and Paul Moloney. “The challenge for the directors is to keep an essentially dramatic storyline set up around loss and sorrow, but to maintain a sense of lightness and fun. It is a very delicate balancing act,” adds Haddrick.
The song-selection process entailed close collaboration between Mauboy, music producer Louis Schoorl – a Dutch-born songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – Mauboy’s record label Sony Music, Screentime and Seven. Schoorl first worked with Mauboy when he co-wrote the song Gotcha with her and Ilan Kidron from Irish/Australian group The Potbelleez for The Sapphires soundtrack.
Most of the initial ideas for the songs came from the show’s creators and writers, the production team at Screentime, Mauboy, Sony Music and Seven. These suggestions were then evaluated and chosen by the network, Mauboy, Schoorl and Sony Music. There were at least two options for each scene because the cover songs had to be approved by the original songwriters and their publishers.
Using songs to drive the narrative differentiates The Secret Daughter from recent Australian music-based dramas such as Shine Australia’s Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door and the same prodco’s INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, both for the Seven Network.
“Jess is such a joy to work with,” says Schoorl. “The second she walks in the door you get a smile on your face from her brilliant energy. She’s motivated, hardworking, generous, fun and super talented. These sessions are always different; sometimes we start jamming on some beats I made, or sit behind the piano. Other times we listen to music that inspires us. Sometimes she walks in with a melody idea or a lyrical concept. We’ve done sessions with just the two of us, and we’ve worked on many with other co-writers involved. Either way we will find our way through many changes and unused ideas to a coherent song.”
The three original songs featured are Risk It, co-written by songwriting/production duo DNA; Closer, a collaboration between Emma Birdsall and Schoorl; and Home to Me (Mauboy, Birdsall and Schoorl).
Among more than a dozen covers performed by Mauboy are Rihanna’s Diamonds, Ed Sheeran’s Photograph, The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go and I Fought the Law, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love and Aussie artist Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees. Sony Music Enterprises Australia will release an album of music featured on the series.
While most of the music was pre-recorded, other songs were filmed live on set. “(Mauboy’s) voice and rhythm are so good that it works perfectly,” producer Karl Zwicky says. “Finding the time for her to write and record the music as well as being in nearly every scene is a stretch. Most actors would not dream of stretching themselves like this. It’s great working with Jess because she is so warm and giving.”
Asked about the importance of ensuring Australian dramas have international appeal, Zwicky says: “It is not the first thing we think about but it is going to look distinctive. Jess is a star. Having a lead actor who is Indigenous in a mainstream show on a commercial network is a new thing.”
Mauboy greatly enjoyed the experience of working in her first TV series, observing: “I learned so much from the directors, writers and the DOP. It excited me to do more television in the future.”
The network and producers are hopeful the show will resonate strongly enough to warrant a second season. McGauran says: “When we go into production on any show, it’s our job to do everything we can to ensure the audience will want another series.”
Haddrick concurs: “It’s designed to be a returning series. We hope that as the network sees completed episodes coming through, it will commit to script development for another series.”
Since Callaghan took the helm of Screentime last year after co-founder Bob Campbell was elevated to executive chairman, the former Shine Australia and Endemol Southern Star executive is increasing the focus on drama, hiring former Shine and Endemol colleague Kerrie Mainwaring as head of scripted production.
The firm coproduced the Wolf Creek TV series with Emu Creek Pictures, the production company from Greg McLean, who created the horror movies on which the show is based. Commissioned by Australian streaming service Stan, Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt (also the antagonist in the films) and Lucy Fry (11.22.63, Vampire Academy). It attracted a cumulative audience of more than 500,000, putting it among the most watched shows on the platform, which is co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media. The show has been acquired by Fox in the UK and Pop TV in the US. Meanwhile, the third season of Screentime’s Janet King, a legal drama starring Marta Dusseldorp, is in production for pubcaster ABC.
Callaghan says: “Dramas need to pass the truth test. If you have two or three unbelievable things happening, viewers just give up. That’s one of the reasons fantasy does not work here. We like our drama to be very real. Jessica liked the idea that it was going to be real and she had to play a character that had done some dodgy things in the past but was fundamentally honest and a good person. She went into it with gusto, spending hours and hours practicing, and the result is a really good, assured piece from a young, confident woman.”
Screentime parent Banijay merged with Zodiak Media earlier this year and the enlarged group has more expertise in producing and selling drama, which Callaghan sees as a plus for Screentime.
Zodiak Rights CEO Tim Mutimer and head of scripted Caroline Torrance are “extremely excited about the show; they have nothing like this,” Callaghan says. “The Secret Daughter has romance, humour, open skies and wide spaces. The day after this goes out in Australia, it will have a big (ratings) number beside it and the international buyers will have a look at it.”