Based on Michael Robotham’s novel, The Secrets She Keeps stars Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Agatha, a supermarket worker who becomes obsessed by ‘mummy blogger’ Meghan’s idyllic lifestyle.
When she discovers both are pregnant and due at the same time, Agatha strikes up the courage to talk to Meghan (Jessica De Gouw, Underground). But while they share much in common, it soon emerges that Meghan’s life isn’t as happy as it seems, while both are harbouring explosive secrets.
In this DQTV interview, Carmichael talks about moving on from period drama Downton Abbey, her first role in television, and how she relished the chance to play a character poles apart from Lady Edith – someone quick to anger, impatient and complex.
She also talks about her research process for the role and the intensive work demanded of actors in high-stakes drama series.
The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Lingo Pictures for Network Ten, and distributed by DCD Rights.
Downton Abbey star Laura Carmichael heads down under to star in psychological thriller The Secrets She Keeps. The actor and Helen Bowden, producer, tell DQ about adapting Michael Rowbotham’s novel and filming in Sydney.
After six seasons starring as Lady Edith in the global phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, Laura Carmichael recently returned to the character she first played in 2010 when writer Julian Fellowes transplanted the period drama to the big screen.
But in her next role, she’s leaving the Crawley family far behind by travelling down under to star in domestic noir The Secrets She Keeps, based on Michael Robotham’s bestselling novel.
The six-part thriller sees Carmichael play a pregnant woman called Agatha, who believes Meghan Shaughnessy (Jessica De Gouw, Underground), a mother whose parenting blog Agatha reads obsessively, has the perfect life. When she discovers Meghan is pregnant again and they are both due at similar times, Agatha builds up the courage to speak to her.
While these two women are very different – Meghan lives a comfortable life, Agatha less so – they do have one thing in common: they each hold explosive secrets.
Made by Lingo Pictures for Australia’s Network Ten, The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Helen Bowden and Paul Watters, with Rick Maier and Jason Stephens exec producing. DCD Rights is the international distributor of the show.
Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin partnered on the scripts, while Catherine Millar and Jennifer Leacey shared directing duties.
Here, Carmichael and then Bowden talk about the central characters and the relationship between them, adapting Robotham’s book and filming in Sydney.
Laura, what drew you to the project?
I loved the script and I was instantly intrigued by Agatha. It felt unlike anything I had seen before.
Had you been interested in working in Australia and how did the experience differ from working in the UK?
I had just been on holiday to Sydney around Christmas time and had fallen in love with the city. I felt like I must have sent out some vibes of wanting to return, as a few months later the project came to my agent. I loved how it didn’t feel that different being on an Aussie set compared with the UK; it’s a sort of universal language, I guess. Although the catering in Oz is another level – absolutely delicious every day – which can’t always be said of the UK!
Were you familiar with Robotham’s novel?
I hadn’t read the book before doing the project but read it when I got the part. He’s a wonderful writer, I couldn’t put it down.
Why did Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin’s scripts stand out to you?
They were such page-turners. I loved that they felt so truthful, which makes the show at times terrifying and the next moment heartbreaking.
How would you describe Agatha?
She is tough, volatile, headstrong, burdened and impulsive.
Why does she idealise Meghan’s life?
To Agatha, Meghan has it all – the perfect life with the perfect family. She wants what Meghan has.
How did you prepare for the role?
The main thing for me was to piece together Agatha’s past, to timeline her life and experiences and sort of spend time in that headspace.
What was life like on set?
We did have rehearsals, which is always so helpful. It was a busy shoot with lots to contend with, so it was good to have some time set aside to talk things through. Both our brilliant directors, Catherine and Jennifer, were so wonderful at preparing us for the shoot.
Why do you think are audiences drawn to psychological thrillers?
They’re exhilarating. To be kept guessing as an audience is always more interesting than having things spelled out for you, and I love trying to find those thriller beats.
How does the series keep viewers on edge through the six episodes?
I hope the feeling you’ll get is that you’re never sure what Agatha is going to do next.
Helen, how did you acquire the rights to the novel?
Lingo’s literary scout, Shona Martyn [formerly of Harper Collins Australia], mentioned during a conversation one day that Michael Robotham, whose wildly successful books are all set in the UK, was Australian. She said that despite the gritty settings of his thrillers, he lived and worked on Sydney’s sunny Northern Beaches. I needed no further encouragement to read all his books and go up there to meet him.
I had no doubt we could re-set The Secrets She Keeps in Sydney, and Michael agreed. He was flattered by my enthusiasm but wary of handing the rights over to someone he didn’t know. He’d been a bit burned over one of his earlier novels. Fortunately, he is a close friend of both Christos Tsiolkas, who wrote The Slap, and Marele Day who wrote Lambs of God, two books I have produced for the screen. They each gave me a great rap, having loved the process and the resulting shows, so we were quickly in business.
How did you conceive it as a TV drama?
Honestly, it didn’t take a huge amount of work to conceive Secrets as a drama series. The book is superbly plotted. Once you start reading, you really can’t put it down; and it’s complex, so the six episodes just seemed to fall out of the pages. The characters, particularly Agatha, are also deeply compelling. I’ve done lots of adaptations and this one lent itself to the process very easily.
What are the keys to adapting a psychological thriller for TV?
In making a thriller, you enter into a pact with the viewers to keep them on the edge of their seats, to dish out the adrenaline, the voyeurism, the paranoia. We have definitely tried to do that, but you also want the viewers to be embedded in the worlds and the worries of the characters, to care for them and believe in them.
The challenge is to toggle between those two modes in a way that can’t be seen or felt but which draws you ever more deeply into the story. In The Secrets She Keeps, we are trying to also talk about the social fabric and the corrosive effect narcissism and greed are having on our lives.
We are trying to draw out the real connection between these two women, these two mothers, who seem on the surface to be inhabiting different universes. For me, that is the key – to say something worthwhile at the same time as completely surprising and entertaining your audience.
Have any plot points or characters been added or removed in the adaptation process?
Class is central to this story, yet Australia likes to think of itself as a relatively classless society. The truth is a lot more complicated. Social class might be more disguised than it is in the UK, but it is certainly there. Setting Secrets in Sydney meant making a myriad of subtle but important changes to reflect this authentically.
In addition, the novel is perhaps more interested in Agatha and her actions than in ‘yummy mummy’ Meghan. We wanted a true dual narrative, so we built more complexity into Meghan’s work and marriage to give her more of an inner life.
We also wanted the two women to have some key things in common, despite the class divide, so we made Meghan the product of a blended family as well. Meghan and Agatha were both unhappy growing up with stepfathers. This fuels their willingness to take drastic action to protect their own children.
What makes the series stand out as a domestic noir and how did you achieve this?
Based on a true story, the crime at the heart of The Secrets She Keeps is not the standard thriller fare of murder or rape. The story is set almost entirely in two very distinct domestic spheres and tells of an unlikely friendship, how each woman has a secret and the lengths to which she will go to keep it. We hope the audience will be totally carried along by the twists and turns of the story, and there are many nods to the thriller genre, but there is also a truthful exploration of these worlds, these marriages and the protagonists’ hopes for the future.
How did you identify the writers and what do they bring to the project?
Sarah Walker [lead writer] and Jonathan Gavin were obvious choices for us. They have both written smart, accessible, female-skewing dramas. We thought they’d make a terrific combination. It was also fascinating to have Michael Robotham in the writers room while two such able writers dissected the novel and rebuilt it for television. He found it surprisingly thrilling.
Where was the series filmed and how did you use locations in the story?
We filmed in Sydney, where trains run from one side of the city to the other, taking Agatha from her grimy flat in the down-at-heel western suburbs, across the glittering harbour, to Meghan’s world of the spacious, leafy Northern suburbs.
They meet in the local supermarket where Agatha works, a remnant of gentrification, barely hanging on in the face of competition from the big supermarket chains up the road. Meghan’s mothers’ group meets in the gorgeous local park for lattes and yoga, their prams like an expensive flock of enormous birds. It’s where Agatha, newly confident of Meghan’s friendship, tries awkwardly to join in.
Agatha has a consolation place in a deep green glen in Tunks Park, dominated by a post-war bridge high above it, while her mother lives in Katoomba in a modest house that backs onto the spectacular escarpment of the Blue Mountains.
We are trying to show the myriad aspects of Sydney, not just the ridiculous beauty the world usually sees.
What challenges did you face in production and how did you overcome them?
In Australia, we shoot about seven minutes of drama a day to meet our budgets. Trying to make world-class fiction at that speed is terrifying – there’s no room for error. Our best weapon is preparation. Lingo believes in resourcing development as well as possible, supporting our writers and directors ahead of the shoot, to ensure we can all make the most of every precious minute once production begins. I think Laura was shocked at the pace to begin with, but she got into the swing of it and went on the ride.
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.
Kenneth Cook’s classic 1961 novel Wake in Fright has been reimagined for Australia’s Network Ten. DQ talks to producers Helen Bowden and Kristian Moliere and director Kriv Stenders about updating the seminal horror story for a modern audience.
More than 300 miles from Adelaide, the nearest major city, Broken Hill is an isolated mining town located deep in the Australian outback. Nevertheless, the town and its desolate surroundings have become popular locations for film and television crews looking to capture its beautiful but harsh and treacherous desert landscapes.
Scenes from the Mad Max films, Mission: Impossible 2 and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have all been shot there, as have TV series such as The Code and telemovie Murder in the Outback.
However, Broken Hill is arguably best known as the setting for Wake in Fright, Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel and subsequent 1971 film adaptation, both considered classics in their own right. Now, more than 50 years after it was first published, the book has been updated for Network Ten as a four-hour miniseries, which will debut in two parts starting this Sunday.
Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant, who is returning to Sydney after a year teaching at a one-classroom school in the outback. Shortly after hitting the road, he collides with a kangaroo and finds himself marooned in a small mining town, awaiting repairs on his car.
With little to do but drink beer, John is seduced into a raucous illegal coin game. After a short, exhilarating winning streak, he loses everything, triggering a dangerous series of events that render John a broken and desperate man.
Led by Sean Keenan as John, the cast also includes David Wenham, Alex Dimitriades, Caren Pistorius, Gary Sweet, Robyn Malcolm, Lee Jones, Anna Samson, Hannah Frederiksen and Jada Alberts.
The miniseries marks the first television drama from Lingo Pictures, set up by Helen Bowden and Jason Stephens. Bowden and Kristian Moliere (The Babadook) produce the show, which is written by Stephen M Irwin (Harrow, Tidelands). The director is Kriv Stenders (Kill Me Three Times).
The project was first mooted five years ago when Stenders and Moliere spoke about adapting Cook’s novel for television. “I just thought it was the most extraordinary book I’d read about Australia and thought immediately it would be great to do something as big as the landscape, on a broader canvas than a film,” Moliere recalls. “So I always pictured it as a series, and I spoke to Kriv about it. He’d seen the film and recalled it as truly extraordinary. He jumped on the idea.”
Bowden, best known for The Slap and Devil’s Playground, then joined the production, though the matter of identifying who owned the rights to the novel proved a stumbling block that took two years to overcome. The effort was worth it, however, as Stenders says they were clear in their intention not to reproduce the film but to make something that could live alongside it.
“Our whole strategy was to go back to the source novel and start from scratch,” Stenders says. “That was really the plan. Once we realised we could get the rights, we were off and running.”
Bowden picks up: “It was a somewhat scary proposition but a bold one. I just thought we had to do it. The book itself is an absolute page-turner. It’s like a very good film script to begin with. To turn it into four hours, we needed to open out parts of the book but it was very exciting.”
Rather than setting the story in the period in which it was first conceived, this reimagining of Wake in Fright takes place in contemporary Australia as the production team sought to use Cook’s novel as a way of looking at traditional mining towns such as Broken Hill in the 21st century.
“Broken Hill is still very isolated,” Bowden explains. “There are large parts of Australia that don’t have mobile coverage and it’s this mythical place. We had to find more creative ways to make sure there was no way John Grant could leave. But also, closer analysis showed us that a lot of the reasons he can’t leave are down to his own poor decisions, which are all very understandable but not good – they lead him further down the rabbit hole and not out of it.
Moliere adds: “On a surface level, it’s a fantastic yarn and that’s why it’s stood the test of time. Ultimately, it talks about something to do with the Australian psyche, the culture of ‘mateship’ and the toxic elements of the drinking culture we have here. And some of those things have not changed. We like to think we’ve changed and become more sophisticated, but those Australian characters are still as relevant as they were in the 60s. It still feels remarkably fresh and has something to say about Australia.”
Stenders agrees that themes explored in the novel remain relevant, believing that issues such as binge-drinking, mental health and economic hardships are as applicable today as they were in 1961.
“These mining towns that experience these incredible booms and busts are very traumatic, very tragic places,” he says. “In a way, the mirror we put up against the book reflected very brightly back at us because the issues in the book in 1961 and the film in 1971 are still very much there and very present, especially mental health, suicide… all these things the film and the book looked at are still very vivid and present issues.”
The director hadn’t read the book before picking up the project but admits he is “in awe” of the film, which he first saw on an old VHS tape. For the miniseries, he tapped into the huge number of films previously shot in the outback. “We really wanted to capture the clawing heat and the existential isolation of those kinds of towns,” he explains. “Broken Hill itself, where we shot, is a very evocative place. It’s very visual, very cinematic and the landscape around it is quite extraordinary. As a visualist, that landscape is a gift. There are amazing colours already there for you to draw from, so it was very much about tapping into the reservoir of colour, texture and visual history of the outback and plugging into that.”
Also making an appearance in the miniseries is one Broken Hill resident who also featured in the film. “She was saying when the film was screened for Broken Hill residents back in the 70s, it was greeted with horror and a lot of people that gave facilities and locations were almost turned upon by the community,” Moliere reveals. “Now Wake in Fright is very much part of their tourist culture, so they’ve very much embraced it and what it has meant to the region. We had nothing but help from the local community. They bent over backwards to accommodate us across the board. Mining towns have really matured in the last 50 years and they’re much more sophisticated places than they were back then.”
The producers, Stenders and writer Irwin hammered out the storyline over 10 days spent together in a writers room, giving Irwin the fuel he needed to then pen the scripts. Filming then took place in Broken Hill and Sydney across five weeks in March and April this year.
Stenders admits the shooting schedule proved to be the biggest challenge for the production, as they sought to get as much out of the limited time they had available in each location. However, having worked across film and television, he now sees no difference working in the two mediums.
“Television has been in the golden age now for 10 years so [film and TV] are completely blurred,” he says. “I don’t differentiate between one and the other. In fact, television is spearheading creative storytelling in a way cinema can’t just because the apparatus of film financing and getting things made. I still love films but, in an ironic way, telling a story over a long period of time is more cinematic.”
Fuelled by fellow outback-set show Wolf Creek, zombie drama Glitch and many more exports, Australian drama is now making a big impact on international audiences. Endemol Shine International will be shopping Wake in Fright around the world.
Bowden admits it’s an “exciting time, both in the number of things people want to make and in the ambition. Given everything’s so global, we’re all watching everything and thinking, ‘That’s how good we have to be.’”
“You’ve seen the reaction to Top of the Lake in Cannes and other [Australian] series that have been screened in Berlin and at other festivals,” Moliere adds, noting that the biggest hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was a television series. “Romper Stomper has been picked up by SundanceTV and they’ve also been involved with Cleverman. Netflix has announced another new series [called Tidelands, also written by Irwin] so it’s a global television market and we’ve made some series that have really popped. There’s still more to come with Picnic at Hanging Rock and others. It’s a good time to be telling stories in Australian television because they’re being embraced internationally.”