Tag Archives: Les Norton

World building

As television drama transports viewers to new worlds, both historical and fantastical, the role of the production designer has never been more important. DQ finds out more about the job from those doing it on shows in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers, the number of TV dramas in production has skyrocketed. With this, niche genres that would have been ignored by mainstream broadcasters are being exploited by these new services, keen to bring fans of these previously underserved stories together, wherever they are in the world.

As a consequence, it has fallen to production designers to flex their creative muscles and bring these stories to life, from a horror series in which a haunted house is a central character (The Haunting of Hill House) to a futuristic sci-fi show in which human bodies are interchangeable and death is no longer permanent (Altered Carbon).

Sam Hobbs has worked on Australian series including Janet King and The Kettering Incident, and most recently sent modern-day Sydney back to the 1980s for ABC drama Les Norton. Based on the novels by Robert G Barratt, the show follows country boy Les who arrives in the city on the run from his past and winds up as a bouncer at an illegal casino.

Hobbs says the role of the production designer is to create the dramatic world of the series, both in terms of its time period and by establishing the rules to which that world adheres. “With Les Norton, the first thing I tried to facilitate was a discussion of the zeitgeist of that period. There was a huge sense of optimism and that anything was possible, despite the radical changes to Australian society, but it happened in conjunction with a sense of fairness. That’s the background. It was a really dynamic time.”

Australian drama Les Norton is set in the 1980s

Hobbs took inspiration from research that included photography by Rennie Ellis, before designing the 160 sets and locations that would be used across the 10-part series. Casino and brothel sets epitomised the decadence of the period with a rococo, theatrical design, while conversations with the producers, directors and cinematographers also brought elements of nostalgic melancholy to the style and tone.

Equally important was avoiding clichés of the period by ensuring the series, from producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment, focused on the characters, who just happened to exist in the 1980s.

“We did some building to give us some studio sets to go to but then we were pretty much on the road building sets into real dwellings or onto real exteriors the whole way through,” Hobbs says. “It’s a pretty crazy schedule. It was 10 one-hour episodes we knocked off in a very short period of time.”

An increasing challenge facing productions is cast availability. For Les Norton, stars Rebel Wilson and David Wenham needed to shoot their scenes in a short timeframe, which for the art department meant having all 10 episodes prepared by the time the cameras were ready to roll.

“That’s quite a new shift in terms of TV production – that casts are now driving schedules to a degree,” Hobbs notes. “We accept that’s the way it’s going to be in the future because it’s great to have big names like Rebel and David, but it certainly makes it challenging for us.”

Perpetual Grace Ltd is a stew of ‘film noir, western and timelessness’

Locations included Sydney’s real Kings Cross district, where the story is set, as well as Bondi, which Hobbs describes as an “extraordinarily beautiful place.” But the show’s style stands in stark contrast to Foxtel’s mystery drama The Kettering Incident (2016), in which Elizabeth Debicki played a woman on a journey to discovering the truth about her past.

With the show set in Tasmania, “we travelled to lots of interesting locations to put that world together,” Hobbs says. “It was a very conscious effort to create a deeply melancholic universe where those characters were essentially trapped at the end of the world. Once we had that broad idea, we were really punching with all those set and location decisions to find that palette and tone. It’s a similar process. Every project throws up its own logic. Every project has its driving spirit.”

On Perpetual Grace Ltd, that spirit came directly from the tone and sensibility of the scripts, overseen by co-showrunners Steve Conrad (Patriot) and Bruce Terris. Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the western noir stars Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as a grifter who attempts to prey on Pastor Byron Brown (Sir Ben Kingsley), who turns out to be far more dangerous than he suspects.

Having loved Patriot, which ran for two seasons on Amazon, production designer Laura Fox was familiar with writer/director Conrad’s “visual vibe,” which also flows through Perpetual Grace. “The similarity is he’s got an artistic style. It’s not hardcore realism,” she explains. “Our show is really a stew of film noir, western and timelessness. And, of course, the vistas of Santa Fe help define it. It has an interesting graphic quality we try to achieve with some shots. There’s some camerawork that’s visually striking.”

Just as he did with the spy genre in Patriot, Conrad has disrupted traditional ideas of the western genre in Perpetual Grace, which was commissioned by US cable channel Epix. Fox’s tasks included creating a saloon bar at the centre of the show’s location that mixes modern design with the traditional cowboys who frequent it. Similarly, officers from the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency drive modern trucks, while other characters have vintage cars. “So there’s a timelessness to it that disrupts the genre. It all works together in our world but there’s nowhere you’d see it exactly like that in an old western or in a modern setting,” says Fox, whose credits include films Alex Cross and 500 Days of Summer.

Filmed on studio sets, the interiors of the titular mansion in Sanditon were inspired by Bond movie Thunderball

As ever, Fox’s work begins with the scripts, the characters and speaking to the creators and directors, before working out how to use the main shooting locations. “It started with Steve and we all collaborated around his big vision and then brought new ideas to him and let it build from there,” she says. “We were talking to each other and making sure we were all living in the same world and not deviating too much.”

When a deserted prison didn’t match the look of the show, Fox transformed an old stable into the show’s jail. She also built elements of a NASA test site, a barber shop and a funeral home. “We were always trying to push the edge out of reality,” she says of the MGM-produced series. “You knew where you were but you hadn’t seen it before. It’s constantly that struggle between what is in Santa Fe and what we can push to fit our show.

“Every job I do, they start by saying, ‘We’re not going to build anything,’ and then you always end up building a lot of stuff. But it felt to me less like we couldn’t find it [the right location] and more like it needed to be from another world. I don’t think what we built exists.”

For ITV period drama Sanditon (pictured top), production designer Grant Montgomery built an entire town. Produced by Red Planet Pictures and distributed by BBC Studios, the series was inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies (War & Peace). It tells the story of a developing Regency seaside town at the forefront of the great social and economic changes of the age.

Grant Montgomery

Production took place across 21 weeks, with filming largely based at The Bottleyard Studios in Bristol, England, where Montgomery oversaw a massive building project to create a slice of 1819 England. “The challenge was to create a seaside resort that pretty well doesn’t really exist,” he says. “We went down to [English coastal town] Lyme Regis but we couldn’t shut it down over the summer. That wasn’t going to work. We then decided that the best way forward was to build it, and I took my inspiration from Boardwalk Empire in the sense of how to stitch it together so it looked like it was next to the sea, which it’s not because it’s built in a car park in Bristol.”

Montgomery highlights one of the opening shots of the series, filmed using a drone, that reveals an overhead view of the town opening out on to a beach and the sea beyond. It was created by matching footage from the set with a beach the production team found. Green-screen technology was used to create the impression streets from the set led out to the sand.

The quarter-of-a-mile-long set also doubled for London, meaning it could be redressed to present different locations, while the design allowed for different camera angles to make the lot seem larger than it actually was.

Some exteriors were filmed on location, with 17th century mansion Dyrham Park doubling for Sanditon House, while all interiors were filmed on studio sets, owing to the fact that period properties owned by heritage charity the National Trust restrict the use of candles. It was here that Montgomery really pushed the boundaries of period drama, revealing that the black marble design of the grand house is based on interiors from James Bond movie Thunderball.

“We had a very tight schedule because we had a delivery day, so everything was set in stone. We built all the sets in 10 weeks – that’s a mountain to climb – but we tried to push it as much as we possibly could so it didn’t become pastel-coloured,” Montgomery says, adding that 35 Jane Austen ‘Easter eggs’ have been placed around the set for avid fans of the novelist to identify. “I had the Jane Austen Society there. They got them but some of them are pretty obscure jokes.”

In longform TV, Montgomery argues half the attraction for viewers is the chance to spend time with characters in another world. “They want to explore it with you and the more time that’s given to it, the better it becomes,” he says. “That’s part of the richness of TV drama.”

The Handmaid’s Tale takes its lead from Margaret Atwood’s book

By common agreement, Davies has played fast and loose with Austen’s novel to create a sexed-up period drama that is accentuated by Montgomery’s design. But when it comes to books and films that have a particularly strong sense of style, adaptations tend to be more faithful.

Elisabeth Williams has worked on two such projects, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo, both of which are produced by MGM. With both shows’ source material having already defined the look of the unique worlds in which they take place, did Williams have any room left to create something fresh?

“There has to be a certain respect for the original material, because these shows are basically an homage to both Margaret Atwood’s book and the Coen Brothers’ original film,” Williams says of working on seasons two and three of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and season three of FX’s Fargo, respectively. “If you steer far from it, you’re doing something wrong and that’s not the intention. So there’s definitely a desire to stay as close to the original as possible but also to add your own touch.

“For The Handmaid’s Tale in season three, I had the chance to pull away from what had been done in seasons one and two and make the world a little more my own. In Fargo, each season is set in a different time period so the style automatically changes, but still respects the Coen Brothers’ style. That’s the whole point.”

Williams describes her role as translating the showrunner’s vision into something visible, while adding her own style to create a sense of the location and even the characters’ personalities. On Fargo, she takes her lead from showrunner Noah Hawley, who for each season writes a 100-page series bible from which each head of department can work.

Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley writes a 100-page series bible ahead of each season

“So I was able to start some research and begin imagining the sets before I even got the scripts,” says Williams of the Calgary-based show. “All of the decisions are made with Noah, so for the first two months of prep it was just the two of us. We did a lot of it by phone; we would send each other some pictures and some images and I was able to come up with the look of the show.”

In contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is filmed in Toronto, is more collaborative, with showrunner Bruce Miller spending a greater proportion of his time in the writers room. “What he says is, ‘I hire you guys because you’re best at what you do. I’m not going to tell you what to do.’ So it’s wonderful,” Williams says of working on the dystopian drama. “I was on my own at the beginning but I know what the style of the show is, so it’s not like I can stray that far. But it’s always the same process: it’s the script, research, concept boards, mood boards, looking for locations and then off we go.”

Season three featured a two-storey home belonging to Commander Lawrence (played by The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford). “We wanted to build one house so the actors and camera could move freely from one floor to the other,” Williams recalls. But since studio space is at such a premium in Toronto, owing to the sheer number of productions shot there, the crew wasn’t able to find a space big enough and was forced to split the set in half, with the ground floor and first floor side by side in the same studio.

While the process behind production design may have not changed dramatically in recent years, Williams believes the pace at which they need to work is increasing. “I feel like what we deliver are feature-quality TV shows, but the time you have to prep a feature is the same as the time you have to prep 13 episodes of TV,” she explains. “The scripts trickle in so it’s extremely demanding, in terms of time management, to deliver quality. TV is no longer TV the way we knew it 10 or 15 years ago. The quality is higher.”

Meanwhile, Hobbs says the key challenge for designers is to be clever with the way scripts are visualised and to avoid being derivative. “Scandinavian noir was a thing that kept swimming around and everyone just thought, ‘Well, if we do a Scandi noir visual style, that’ll be cool.’ But I found that really annoying,” he says. “Ultimately, you can keep doing great work as long as you think freshly about the material. Don’t look to other TV shows or movies. You can be inspired by them but not copy them. That’s the challenge, because we’re all watching so much stuff now. Ultimately, it’s got to come from the story and the words on the page.”

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Doing more with Les

Australian literary hero Les Norton comes to television in an adaptation of the cult books by Robert G Barrett. DQ hears how the source material has been updated for modern audiences while recreating the style and character of 1980s Sydney.

While the 1980s might not seem that long ago to some, seeing the decade recreated on the small screen for upcoming Australian drama Les Norton makes it clear just how different things were back then.

Whether it’s the music, the hairstyles, the fashion or the bold neon lighting, the era is recreated perfectly for this 10-part series. For younger viewers, it’s a period drama, but to everyone else, it’s a nostalgic look back on an era that serves as the backdrop for an adaptation of Robert G Barrett’s novels.

Morgan O’Neill on set

National broadcaster the ABC, producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment have partnered on the series, which introduces fish-out-of-water ‘country bloke’ Les Norton to Sydney’s Kings Cross district in 1985. On the run from a troubled past, he lands a job as a bouncer and fixer at a notorious illegal casino, becoming seduced by the city’s illicit charms and dragged into a web of underground criminality.

Alexander Bertrand (Australian Gangster) takes the title role in this “irreverent love letter to Sydney and the mid-80s,” while Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) and David Wenham (Romper Stomper) go head-to-head in a battle for control of the city as brothel queen Doreen Bognor and gentleman criminal Price Galese.

The Les Norton books have been wildly popular in Australia since the first novel, You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids, which lends its name to the pilot episode, was published in 1985. In fact, they are described as the most read books in the Australian Defence Force and the most borrowed books in the New South Wales prison system.

When DQ speaks to creator Morgan O’Neill and producer John Edwards, the series is halfway through its 10-week production, with a view to a launching down under later this year. O’Neill reveals that three units have been filming simultaneously – one fishing off Sydney’s Manly Point, another “pulling up lobsters and cocaine” off the Bondi Beach peninsular and third unit body-surfing into the Bondi sands.

“We’ve got bits outstanding because, for economic reasons, we have to shoot Rebel’s scenes all together and David’s all together,” Edwards explains. “It’s been a little tricky but we’re ploughing ahead now. We’re having a pretty great time. We’re really enjoying it a lot. It’s a great, fun show.”

Edwards describes redheaded Les as “a bit like a Crocodile Dundee,” the laid back, charming hero of the eponymous 1986 movie. “He was a smart character who was an innocent in a dirty world. That’s what we’ve got,” he notes. “A lot of it is metaphorical but it’s a great deal of fun and, hopefully, it’s going to translate more broadly, just as Crocodile Dundee did at that time.”

O’Neill, who has written six of the 10 episodes, is the creative force behind the adaptation, describing Barrett’s books as iconic “pub literature.” He had read them many years ago and, together with producer John Schwarz, decided to develop them for television.

Alexander Bertrand (left) plays the titular character in Les Norton

Based in LA, O’Neill brought Sonar on board before taking the project to the ABC, where head of drama Sally Riley is a fan of the novels. Roadshow Rough Diamond then joined as the producer.

In line with the novels, early footage of the series doesn’t hold back, with language as colourful as many of the costumes. But O’Neill admits some of the source material doesn’t stand up to contemporary scrutiny, so he had to find a way to balance the virtues of the author’s work with contemporary society.

“The show is set in 1985 and that was a very different time in Australia,” O’Neill says. “It was a time where there was a sense of irreverence Australians have become renowned for – a laconic sense of humour and social mores. As the years have gone on, Australia has shifted a bit from that. We’ve become a little more brittle and a little more quick to find offence. One of the endearing charms of the source material is it harkens back to a time when we weren’t so quick to be offended and we felt there was social value in treating people fairly but treating them in a way that wasn’t self-serious.”

Barrett, he continues, described himself as an “equal opportunities shit-stirrer. No one escaped his wrath. If you’re up for ridicule, he would gently ridicule you in a way that was part of the charm of Australia in a bygone era. But I’m not talking about racism, homophobia or sexism. In the source material, there was some of that and we’ve worked very hard to make sure our retelling of these stories is absent of anything that is egregious in that regard.”

John Edwards

Part of that approach was to introduce a narrator to the series. But rather than simply describing events or driving them forward, it comes from the perspective of someone today looking back on events as they happened.

“Morgan has really lifted and elevated the material in lots of ways,” Edwards says. “There’s a real fondness for the 80s but there’s a real commentary on the 80s as well. It’s a really interesting show to work on. It’s great fun and you get to look at a period of recent history, a bit like Life on Mars did and have a licence to play with some of the social changes. It really is a great joy to be doing.”

The series also introduces more women in leading roles than the books offered, creating new characters and switching the gender of others. As an example, Les’s flatmate Wozza has become Lozza (played by Kate Box), who is just as voracious, carnal, debauched and foulmouthed as the original character. “Kate’s absolutely made it her own and I look at it now and think, ‘How could you ever imagine that character not as a woman?’ She brings a sense of sexual politics into it that a male flatmate couldn’t,” O’Neill says.

The series echoes the structure of Barrett’s novels, which were largely made up of short stories. Episodes are self-contained, though O’Neill has introduced some “collective tissue” to string them all together. That meant creating an antagonist in the form of Wilson’s character. “The material lends itself to adaptation but it’s required a lot of original material to stitch it together into compelling episodic TV,” he says.

O’Neill had already written two episodes by the time the writers room was opened, providing a blueprint for the show’s style and tone that could be used in addition to the source material. The writers ranged in age and gender, providing a useful means of ensuring Barrett’s novels could be held up for critique as well as inspiration.

“What I love is the slightly different tonal interpretations of the other writers’ episodes,” he says. “They definitely don’t feel like my episodes, in a good way. There are elements where you have to make sure the tone has an overall consistency, but the mistake in those situations is to assume they all need to sound the same. Because they’re capers and because they’re almost standalone, they’re allowed to feel different and, hopefully, that will be part of the thrill of the show.”

The series also stars Pitch Perfect’s Rebel Wilson (right)

O’Neill (Drift, Solo) is also on directing duties, taking on the fourth block behind lead director Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), David Caesar (Dead Lucky) and Fadia Abboud (Australian Gangster). He says a lot of the style behind Les Norton is inspired by early Guy Ritchie films such as Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, with a love of vernacular and the quirky relationships between offbeat men.

On set, O’Neill remains amazed by the number of people who stop to take in the 1980s dressing around Sydney, with old phone boxes and cars turning up in streets across the city. “There are certain things – objects, sounds and songs – that are provocative of a different period, and it’s a really powerful medium to play in. I wanted to make sure we leant into that but, at the same time, we were conscious of producing something that wasn’t a pastiche of 1985,” he says. “It’s merely the context, it’s not the joke. There’s hopefully enough humour in the show to go around. I didn’t want it to be a show about endless mullets and Hypercolor T-shirts.”

As well as selling the series overseas, Sonar was heavily involved in casting Les Norton, bringing together international names in Wilson and Wenham and pairing them with new talent. Bertrand, says president of global distribution and coproduction David Ellender, is a rising star, while the show also boasts Pallavi Sharda, already a big name in India and Australia, who starred in US network ABC’s recent drama pilot Triangle. She plays Georgie Burman, the whip-smart casino manager who was George in the novels.

“Being in LA, you’re very aware of the Australian and New Zealand talent both in front and behind the camera, either in TV or film,” Ellender says. “When you’re doing 10 episodes or fewer, movie stars like Rebel or David can’t attach themselves to a series as they do on network TV, with 22 episodes for five, six or seven years. No theatrical actor would do those sorts of deals. But today, if it’s between six and 10 episodes, maybe for two or three seasons, then people are very open to doing it, particularly if they can go home. Rebel lives in LA but wants to go back to Australia when she can. It’s a great opportunity for actors to do something back at home.”

David Ellender

Sonar’s recent projects include Tom Hardy’s Taboo and German wartime drama Das Boot, both of which are returning for second seasons. Like those series, Les Norton stands out from the plethora of other television series for its style and originality, according to Ellender.

“I was very intrigued by this character going to the big city and falling in with the wrong crowd,” he says. “It was the way Morgan pitched it to me, and I thought the character was one we’ve not really seen for quite some time out of Australia. It seemed to be a really fun crime drama.

“Maybe three or five years ago, Les Norton wouldn’t have been made. But because the way we’re viewing programming today, people are able to make things like this today.”

More than 30 years since Les Norton landed in print, O’Neill says this fish-out-of-water story still resonates, and he’s confident the series can entertain a broad audience.

“There’s a lack of self-seriousness about our show, which I think is going to be a breath of fresh air. That’s certainly our intention,” he says. “We take what we do incredibly seriously, but the tone of the show is quite the opposite. It’s light-hearted and irreverent, and hopefully incredibly cheeky and very funny. For my reading of the way Australians are viewed around the world, that’s partly what we’re known for. I hope there’s an appetite for that.”

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