Australian series Stateless is described as an “urgent and compelling” drama that follows four people caught up in an immigration system that profoundly changes their lives.
Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie and Fayssal Bazzi star as four disparate people whose lives converge at an inshore detention centre in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere, in a story that examines how people around the world are affected by an immigration system struggling to cope.
In this DQTV interview, co-creator, co-star and exec producer Cate Blanchett and Alastair McKinnon, MD of producer Matchbox Pictures, shine a light on the story at the centre of the six-part series and reveal why it speaks not only to Australia but countries around the world.
They also discuss the challenges of financing a series with such topical themes and why dramas can push subjects like this further than documentaries might be able to.
Stateless is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Dirty Films for ABC Australia and distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution. Netflix airs the series worldwide.
Hollywood star Cate Blanchett discusses the six-year journey to bring Australian drama Stateless to the screen and explains why more broadcasters need to open up to this type of ‘elephant in the room’ storytelling.
In a screen career spanning 30 years, two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett has so far avoided the scrum of film stars, writers and directors moving from film to the small screen in the age of streaming platforms. That’s about to change.
In April, she will be seen starring in 1970s-set Miss America on US platform Hulu. But before then, she brings a “passion project” to TV in the shape of Stateless, a six-part drama she co-created, executive produces and also co-stars in alongside Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), Jai Courtney (Suicide Squad), Asher Keddie (The Cry), Fayssal Bazzi (The Commons), Marta Dusseldorp (A Place to Call Home) and Dominic West (The Affair).
“About six years ago, it started in my kitchen,” Blanchett says, speaking on stage at Content London at the end of last year. “I was talking to an old school friend of mine, Elise McCredie, about a story I was really just gripped by that I’d heard in 2008 about a German-Australian citizen, Cornelia Rau, an air hostess who, through a series of mishaps, ended up in an on-shore detention centre in Australia.
“She fell through the cracks of the mental health system, the immigration system and the criminal justice system. This story stayed with me. I thought, ‘Is this a film?’ I’m not interested in biopics; I’ve made enough of them. We talked for hours, not just about this particular story but as a jumping-off point to use the story as a metaphor for a system gone mad.”
They then brought screenwriter and director Tony Ayres (Nowhere Boys, Glitch), who was then at Matchbox Pictures and now runs Tony Ayres Productions, into the conversation and started developing the idea as a series. “Now here we are six years later. It’s definitely a passion project – it hasn’t been easy,” the Australian actor continues. “At its heart, it deals with a refugee story, but it’s about four quite different people. And when we hit on that format of having four very different lives, we thought it was a really combustible idea.”
The four main characters, whose lives intersect at a detention centre in the Australian desert, are an air hostess with mental health problems who escapes from a cult, an Afghan refugee saving his family, an Australian father escaping a dead-end job, and a bureaucrat trying to contain a national scandal. Each is struggling to deal with an immigration system that is struggling itself.
Co-created by Blanchett, McCredie and Ayres, Stateless is written by showrunner McCredie and Belinda Chayko and directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse. The series is produced by Matchbox Pictures and Dirty Films for Australia’s ABC, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
In TV terms, six years developing a single project is entirely realistic, but Blanchett says it took particular perseverance to see this story into production.
“As soon as you mentioned the word refugee, doors closed – quite literally for refugees, but also the doors of various television executives. They would say, ‘Hmm, interesting, brave,’ and then that’s about as far as the conversation goes,” Blanchett reveals.
“But we kept returning to it because every six months we’d go deeper into the story and find that there were more resonances. Where the power of the story really lies is, with each passing month and passing year, it became increasingly relevant. What Tony kept talking about was that, as much as it deals with fractured lives, it also, more importantly and more profoundly, talks about a system that’s gone mad.
“I look around the world and, no matter what country I’m in, what country I’m reading about, I’m thinking, ‘This system is not working.’ Anyone who comes into contact with a system, whether it be a political system, immigration system, mental health system or criminal justice system, it is quite mad. And when you get close to madness, whether it’s personally or systematically, it removes us from our best selves.
“That’s a place that we have deeply found ourselves, certainly in the West, but I think globally, and that is kind of the umbrella this human story sits under. In a way, it couldn’t be a better time for this story to be to be told.”
Alastair McKinnon, MD of NBCU-owned Matchbox, came to the project in an unusual way in that he was working at ABC’s drama department when Cate and Tony first pitched Stateless to the broadcaster.
“If Cate Blanchett comes in to pitch something to your network, you have to fight every urge to just scream ‘Yes!’ But it was more of a conversation. It was a four-parter then, and we were talking about some of the challenges of financing four parts and how it had a different structure in terms of the characters’ perspectives and the way the story was told,” McKinnon recalls. “We kept talking and we talked about it being six [episodes]. We were totally on board at that point.”
The conversation then turned to financing a project with a challenging subject matter that couldn’t be pitched with just one line. Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation contributed to the budget, with NBCU picking up international rights to the series. McKinnon then moved to Matchbox. “I’ve been able to be on that journey from the beginning on the broadcaster side all the way through to the company side, so it’s been a real treat,” he enthuses.
Jeff Wachtel, president of NBCUniversal International Studios, agrees with Blanchett that a project deemed to be ‘worthy’ is an “anathema” to some networks. So with ABC already backing the series, he was keen to add his support.
“It was the fact that someone in Australia had already said yes, it was Cate in her advocacy, and then a lot for me, personally, is the script,” he explains. “I’m in awe of great writers. That ability to capture concept and language and emotion together is just spectacular. The execution and the writing was so wonderful, and then we brought in wonderful directors.”
In developing the series, McCredie carried out “meticulous” research, while Blanchett’s own work with United Nations refugee agency UNHCR meant she had had personal experience of meeting resettled refugees and asylum seekers.
“The whole story really came to life when we alighted on an article about a trauma specialist who had gone to Papa New Guinea, where the offshore processing of asylum seekers and refugees continues to take place,” she says. “He went in to deal with the PTSD – not of the detainees, but of the guards. We thought it was fascinating and horrifying that he had never seen such profound, sustained, systemic PTSD in any group of people – and he had [witnessed the impact of] so many different incursions globally.”
This idea led to Courtney’s character, Cam, winning a job as a guard at the detention centre that also becomes home to Strahovski’s Sofie, who lands there after escaping a cult led by a married couple (Blanchett and West). Bazzi plays refugee Ameer, while Keddie’s bureaucrat Clare is trying to break a glass ceiling and comes in to manage the media attention attracted by the centre.
“Ameer was a teacher in Afghanistan, but realises it’s not the safest place for him and his family so they have to flee,” Bazzi says of his character. “When we first meet Ameer in episode one, he and his family are on an island country trying to get to Australia by boat, and drama ensues. So you follow his journey trying to make it to Australia and then what happens in detention and how that unfolds.”
The actor had to learn to speak Dari, a form of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, for lines exchanged between Ameer, his wife and their two children. “Luckily for me, the beautiful girl playing my oldest daughter, her father is a Dari teacher and translator,” he reveals. “Because she was only 15 when we started, when we were filming he came everywhere with us, so I had my teacher with me at all times.”
Blanchett describes the casting process as a “call to arms” for actors who wanted to be part of something she refers to as “elephant in the room” programming – that which tackles a subject people might not want to talk about.
“This wasn’t a big-paying job, but Dominic [West], for instance, we spoke and he was totally there,” she says. “It’s a sense of, ‘Finally we can we can talk about this,’ because I do think the world is having a massive, massive problem with nuance and with grey areas, but that is the place the drama actually exists.
“When you do ‘elephant in the room’ programming, it does create conversation, and that’s what drama really should do. I love zombies; I love vampires. The Walking Dead’s one of my all-time favourite series. My husband [writer and director Andrew Carlton] philosophises about the power and the metaphor of The Walking Dead. A really good series [gets] people talking and asking questions and, in the end, that’s what I think what Stateless does.”
While it might have seemed logical for Blanchett to star as Sofie, the actor says she’s happy to “die on page nine” in a great role as part of an interesting project.
“That’s never been my process and probably an easy route for this would have been for me to play the Sofie character, but it didn’t seem right – particularly when Yvonne came into the mix,” she continues. “She was just absolutely right for the role. I wasn’t hiding, weeping in the toilet saying, ‘Why?’
“But, equally, I was very happy to put my money where my mouth was and be in it if it helped shepherd it in. So playing Pat, who’s the surrogate mother in this in the same way that Dominic’s character is the surrogate father for Sofie, was great. It was really pleasurable. When my husband and I were running the Sydney Theatre Company, it was a great joy for me to produce the work of others because the world knows how much talent there is in Australia.”
Filming took place in Port Augusta, north of Adelaide in South Australia, where there was once a real detention centre. The crew weren’t allowed to use the now disused centre, however, so had to built one from scratch, with VFX providing extensions beyond what was physically built.
“Adelaide is where a lot of refugees had been resettled. The majority of the extras we got had, at one point, been in a detention centre or refugee centre around the world,” Bazzi says.
“On my first day on set, I was greeted by all the Afghan elders who did a ceremony for me and welcomed me as their representative for this story. It was such a beautiful experience to meet all these amazing people and see what it meant to them to have representation, and to show that people do care about the hardships they’ve been through. Finally, they can they can share that with the world.”
Sadly, as Blanchett alludes, these hardships are continuing today, which is why dramas such as Stateless are needed to confront the ‘elephant in the room.’ Maybe after Stateless, more broadcasters will be willing to take similar risks to bring these stories to the screen.
Warren Clarke, showrunner of Australian ensemble drama The Heights, discusses the making of this series set in a housing tower and the challenges of launching a serial drama.
Is there a more challenging type of show to create than a serial drama, with numerous characters and storylines to introduce while ensuring they feel familiar and relatable to viewers from the outset?
That was the unenviable task facing Warren Clarke, co-creator and showrunner of Australian series The Heights. The 30-part, 30-minute drama transports viewers to the fictional inner-city neighbourhood of Arcadia Heights, exploring the relationships between the residents of the Arcadia social housing tower and the people who live in the rapidly gentrifying community that surrounds it.
Humorous, thoughtful and entertaining, the series is also driven by a diverse group of characters who tackle a range of social issues that face many Australians today. The ensemble cast includes Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires), Marcus Graham (Secret City) and Roz Hammond (Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell).
From the first episode, which launches on pubcaster the ABC tomorrow, all manner of subjects from birth, death and everything in between are dramatised as the series aims to hit the ground running, as if placing cameras into the homes and workplaces of people who are just going about their daily lives, without the drawn-out introductions and exposition seen in many long-running dramas gone by.
“You don’t want it to feel like a pilot episode. It’s that old thing of starting with episode two,” Clarke says. “It’s coming at you pretty hard and fast. We wanted it to be an episode that captures everything the show is about. It’s about love and loss, birth and death, families, and struggle and triumph, as we all face day to day.
“Viewers want to see characters in situ. I don’t think we need introductions the way perhaps we traditionally did in television. They’re just so savvy and know the medium so well. The curtain has been pulled back on television and storytelling so much. It’s actually really liberating as a writer because they meet you more than halfway, and that lets you just dive into the story.”
Clarke conceived the idea behind The Heights with ABC executive producer Que Minh Luu when they worked together in development roles at producer Matchbox Pictures (The Slap, Barracuda), with the pair often discussing the kind of television they wanted to make and what format it might take.
“Certainly in Australia at the time, there was a huge conversation in our industry about opportunities for emerging diverse voices and pushing the bar a little bit in terms of what we were seeing on television,” Clarke recalls. “That led to the idea of an ongoing series with a story that would always have a sense of tension. We looked at the idea of gentrification, which is a global issue that immediately speaks to ideas of the wealth divide, divided politics, separation and difference.”
The notion that there is a universality in the experiences and challenges we all face, no matter our background, religion or politics, would go on to shape the series, with a housing tower at its centre – a space where families and other groups of people from all walks of life naturally become neighbours.
“It is reflective of the world we live in, and that was what we always tried to drive towards,” Clarke says. “These are the streets we know and the stories we see. That applies to us and that will apply to a broader audience. We didn’t necessarily want to tell culturally specific stories. Characters are completely informed by a cultural point of view but while tapping into that universality. I hope that’s what pulls audiences in; that they connect to those characters no matter what community they might represent.”
The Heights is produced by Matchbox and For Pete’s Sake Productions, with NBCUniversal International Distribution handling worldwide sales. As the showrunner, Clarke was tasked with managing the logistics of the series as well as the creative side, and he believes it’s important for a series to have a “creative conduit” through which all decisions pass.
In the writers room, “it was a learning process that evolved as we went,” he says. “The key really was to have a team that could service the series as a whole,” Clarke adds, pointing to script editors Hannah Carroll Chapman, Romina Accurso, Peter Mattessi and Megan Palinkas, who ensured the multiple stories stayed on the right path.
“Then it is a question of bringing your writers in to break story and plot episodes. Sometimes you might have a writer who wants to write one of the episodes because they’ll have a point of view and an authenticity to inform that story, so you want to encourage that as much as possible. Writers rooms can sometimes be challenging, particularly when we plotted at pace, but I was predominantly in the room for the whole day, every day, to ask those questions – is this our show? Is this how our show tells this story?
“By and large, any new show is particularly tough. It has its really high moments and really low moments, but it has been a positive experience. A lot of people have come away feeling like they’ve created something that feels true to them and there’s an interesting voice there that people want to see.”
With filming taking place in Perth, Western Australia, the creative team were conscious of not locating the series in a specific part of the country. “It is Anywhere, Australia,” Clarke says. “You want the sense that Arcadia Heights could be your local neighbourhood.”
Once production was underway in the city, it unfolded at a rapid pace, employing nearly 100 local crew and 93 actors across speaking and extra roles. Two episodes were shot per week, with four days in the studio and then two crews working simultaneously on location on Fridays, effectively creating six shooting days in a five-day period.
Scenes were filmed with at least three, and sometimes four, cameras on operators’ shoulders, meaning they could be flexible and mobile to get as much coverage as possible and move on to the next scene without too many retakes. This, in turn, informs a gritty visual style with noticeable camera movements.
“Jim Frater, the DOP, has such a great instinct for capturing the truth of any given moment,” Clarke says of the shooting process. “It may not be a wide [shot] and two singles, it might be a close-up of someone’s hand or the empty space in a room. He’s a very visual storyteller. And because you have all the cameras in there at once, you’ve got an incredible amount of coverage. The advantage of that is that it keeps the performances agile and interesting, and you empower the acting. The actors were able to let the drama inform their performance, which would then inform how the cameras captured it.
“As we witnessed across the shoot, the camera team learned the nuances of those actors and those characters and were able to anticipate them. In many ways, it feels like a really quick shoot. If we’d shot it traditionally, it probably would have been more challenging. But because we had a visual style that allowed us to be really fluid, we could move quickly. There was definitely energy in the series, which was great to see.”
Undoubtedly the initial challenge was writing the series, once the creative team had settled on exactly what kind of show they wanted to make. When that was agreed, Clarke describes a feeling of empowerment among the writing team, which then helped them push the boundaries of traditional serial dramas.
“We were constantly trying to push and push, and the crew were so embracing of the idea of ‘let’s just knock it out of the park.’ They wanted to push as hard as us; they just believed in the show so much and that created challenges, like how much can we film in a day,” he says. “Yet they never faltered, they never complained or begrudged the idea of trying to make a great show. Everybody came to work to make a great show and was committed to doing the best work they could, which carried the show through those tricky days.”
Clarke admits that in many ways, the television landscape is saturated by content. But for creators, that presents an opportunity to tell more varied and diverse stories.
“In a world that’s challenging and where big questions are being asked politically and socially, there’s great appeal for a show that engages with its audience and isn’t afraid of those issues but also has a sense of human spirit,” he adds. “This is also a show that could bring family viewing together and I do think there’s room for that in the current television landscape. I’m like anyone, I like the gritty stuff too but there’s room for us all.”
Commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS, miniseries Safe Harbour offers a fresh perspective on the global refugee crisis. DQ sits down with the on- and off-screen talent behind the show to find out more about this ‘very cinematic’ piece of television.
Actors from a Middle Eastern background are usually cast in Australian TV shows for one of two reasons, according to director Glendyn Ivin – “To make us laugh or make us scared.”
Ivin seized the chance to avoid those caricatures when he was hired to direct Safe Harbour, a four-hour psychological thriller commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS.
Produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, the miniseries tackles the controversial topic of asylum seekers and the moral dilemmas they pose to governments, societies and individuals, particularly in the West.
The plot follows five vacationing Australians who set sail on a yacht bound for Indonesia. En route they encounter a broken-down fishing boat full of desperate asylum seekers.
Despite concerns that the Aussies could face charges of people-smuggling, they agree to tow the stricken vessel back to Australia, but by the next morning it has vanished. Five years later they meet some of the refugees and discover someone had cut the tow rope, resulting in the loss of seven lives.
The relatively unknown Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas play Zahra and Ismail, an Iraqi couple whose nine-year-old daughter dies after the vessel sinks. Robert Rabiah is Ismail’s brother Bilal.
“When we were casting we had a lot of people come out of the woodwork who were great actors, often from the theatre,” Ivin says. “They saw this as an opportunity to explore Iraqi or Arabic characters who were neither good nor bad: they were very human. In the show, we don’t explore characters in terms of their race, religion or politics; we explore characters purely as human beings. It’s paid off because their performances are so rich and so beautiful.”
Australian-born Chamoun, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon during its civil war, made her screen debut in the SBS series Kick in 2007 and more recently appeared in December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Sticky Pictures’ Ronny Chieng: International Student, both for pubcaster the ABC.
“Nicole came in and did this screen test that had me in tears. It was in Arabic but there was a guttural panic and sadness behind what she was doing; the words seemed to force themselves out of her throat in a way I wasn’t expecting,” Ivin says. “She did something I’d never seen an actor do before in a screen test. She requested that she did not talk beforehand; she just wanted to come in and do the scene and then we would talk afterwards. When she arrived in the room, she was in a heightened emotional space. She delivered it twice, and then through tears we began the more familiar casting small talk. She is an incredibly passionate actor who puts everything on the line.”
Chamoun says of her audition: “I felt compelled and so connected to the story and this character I was not leaving that room without [getting the part].”
Of Zahra, she says: “She is a strong, hard-working woman, the glue in the family who is trying to keep everyone together when everyone around her is crumbling. She takes on the weight of everyone’s problems and comes out fighting. I don’t know if I would have been as strong and determined. It was gut-wrenching for me but this could have been real and has happened to many, many people.”
After a lot of hard work and perseverance, Chamoun’s star is rising: she also plays a Muslim university student who gets embroiled in race riots in Melbourne in Roadshow Rough Diamond’s Romper Stomper, an original series commissioned by streaming service Stan that debuted in Australia on January 1, 2018.
Ivin was similarly impressed with the performances of Shammas, an experienced stage actor whose screen credits include Screentime’s Underbelly and ABC comedy At Home with Julia, and Rabiah (Screentime’s Fat Tony & Co, Matchbox Pictures movie Ali’s Wedding).
The producers secured marquee names to play the Aussie holidaymakers. Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Rake) plays Ryan, the boat’s captain, with Phoebe Tonkin (The Originals, The Vampire Diaries) as his sister Olivia and Leeanna Walsman (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Cleverman) as his wife Bree.
Joel Jackson (The Wrong Girl, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door) is Damien, Olivia’s boyfriend who disappears after the incident on the water and reappears at a group reunion five years later. Jacqueline McKenzie (Love Child, Hiding) is the fifth passenger, a lawyer named Helen.
Filmed over six weeks in Brisbane and off the Queensland coast, Safe Harbour is co-funded by Screen Australia, Screen Queensland, SBS and NBCUniversal International Distribution, which has international rights. The series is due to premiere on SBS next Wednesday.
The concept was one of 300-plus ideas that flooded in after Matchbox Pictures opened an office in Brisbane in 2015 with the support of Screen Queensland and issued a general call-out for stories. Matchbox development executive and producer Stephen Corvini says the two-page treatment from neophyte writers Phil Enchelmaier and Simon Kennedy for the project, then titled Asylum, was the standout.
Corvini held a brainstorming session in Brisbane with Enchelmaier, Kennedy and experienced writers Beatrix Christian and Anthony Mullins, who runs Matchbox’s Brisbane office. Christian subsequently dropped out to co-write FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s Picnic at Hanging Rock for Foxtel, so Belinda Chayko and Kris Wyld came aboard and a series bible was written. Wyld then moved on to create and co-write medical drama Pulse for the ABC and Matt Cameron was hired.
Chayko had worked with Cameron on Matchbox’s miniseries Secret City for Foxtel and the prodco’s drama series Old School, which starred Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, for the ABC.
Corvini subsequently pitched the project to SBS head of drama Sue Masters, who readily agreed to fund the script development. After four scripts had been written, SBS gave the greenlight and Screen Australia and Screen Queensland provided production funding.
The international relevance of the subject was a big plus, as Corvini explains: “Shows that travel are very important to the company and, as storytellers, we want our stories to travel. We absolutely want to be successful in the domestic market foremost, and with NBCUniversal distributing they have a say in what we produce and give us some indication of how a show like this will perform internationally.”
Masters says: “We’re inordinately proud of the show. The fact it is a psychological thriller was very exciting. The great beauty of the SBS charter is that we won’t make anything that is unimportant. The challenge is always to make it engaging, compelling, fresh and bold. Four-part, one-hour series are dense and quite difficult.”
SBS adopted the four-hour drama template with FMA’s Better Man, which Corvini produced, followed by Essential Media and Entertainment’s The Principal, Blackfella Films’ Deep Water, Easy Tiger/Carver Films’ Sunshine and, also premiering in 2018, Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky.
“It’s creatively challenging – you feel like a start-up company every time you do one of these four-hours because they are all different. But we feel it is an efficient use of our money, and it’s important to have some marquee stars so that our projects can stand out,” Masters adds.
Chayko wrote episodes one and four and co-wrote episode three with Enchelmaier. Cameron did episode two. The plotting was a collaborative process involving all the writers plus Kennedy, Mullins and Corvini.
“The most difficult challenge in the writing was to get the delicate emotional balance of the characters right, particularly the Australians,” says Chayko. “The more we got into their stories and acknowledged the depth of their feelings once they realised what the consequences had been, that’s when it felt like it was all really coming together.”
Chayko sees one virtue of four-part dramas as the ability to tell stories that in the past might have been the subject of theatrical features.
Ivin, who directed Seven Types of Ambiguity and the US cable series Hunters for Matchbox as well as numerous other dramas including The Beautiful Lie, Gallipoli and Puberty Blues, heard about the project on the grapevine.
“It’s the first time in a long time that a project made me think, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I was jealous when I heard someone talking about it,” he admits. “Then I got a call from Matchbox when I had been day-dreaming about the project. I had been doing a run of commercials so I was really happy to jump back into longform drama. I see TV as the new cinema. This is four hours, one director and we’ve treated it as one film. It’s a piece of very cinematic television and the kind of thing I aspire to make.”
The director adds that the ambiguity of the moral dilemma at the heart of the story was the key to the drama. “I did not want it to be a for-or-against story,” he says. “We’re talking about the issue of asylum seekers, which could be anywhere in the world. From the outset, this felt like a way of contributing to and discussing this really important issue without it becoming a piece of advocacy.
“We as an audience expect a lot more from TV drama than in the past. As a director, the stories I’ve been drawn to in television, I know that if I had made them as feature films they would not have had the audiences they had on TV.”
Tonkin jumped at the chance to come back to Australia to work on a grounded drama after spending years on the heightened-reality milieu of The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. The actor relished tackling her character’s arc from being a hopeful, happy young woman to someone who, five years later, harbours a lot of anger, guilt and sadness.
Working for the first time with veterans McKenzie, Leslie and Walsman, Tonkin says she was a bit intimidated initially but felt comfortable after the first day and enjoyed the collaborative effort. “It was incredibly inspiring to work with all those actors; I probably learned more than I did in the past 10 years,” she says.
Ivin notes: “[Tonkin] proved herself to be a much greater actor than we had been aware of. I think people will see her differently from now on because she delivers a stellar performance.”
Similarly, McKenzie marvelled at Tonkin’s temperament and technique as she persevered filming a scene in dying light after a camera malfunction, observing: “Phoebe is at the top of her game in the US and it was lovely to see her back in Australia doing a fabulously dramatic role that she could get her teeth into.”
McKenzie describes her character as an embittered, driven and ambitious woman who is nearly unhinged after the tragedy at sea. Thereafter, she sets out to save her soul.
Like most of the cast and crew, Leslie found the week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane challenging, especially playing the boat’s captain with zero maritime expertise. He was cracking Jaws and Waterworld jokes before venturing out to sea but quickly desisted.
Leslie was attracted to the project because all the characters are complex and make bad decisions over the course of the four episodes, and by the chance to work with Ivin for the first time, having followed the director’s career since 2003 short film Cracker Bag. He also enjoyed teaming up again with Jackson after they collaborated on the Foxtel-commissioned First World War miniseries Deadline Gallipoli.
“What I really liked about Safe Harbour was that it’s very much a personal story about the inter-connected relationships, as opposed to being a political story,” Leslie says. “Because of the subject, people viewing at home are going to bring their own politics to it. But the show doesn’t make any attempt to push any agenda. I would not want to watch if it did. It sets up a very complicated dilemma and lets it play out as both sides make questionable decisions that have repercussions.”
Ivin is full of praise for the work of first-time cinematographer Sam Chiplin, who had been the B camera operator on The Beautiful Lie, a reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks for the ABC. Before that, Chiplin was a director’s assistant at TVC production house Exit Films, where Ivin met him.
“He created an amazing aesthetic on the show,” says the director, adding that he had only seen that level of enthusiasm and attitude in two other people: Australian DoPs Greig Fraser, whose movie credits include Lion, Mary Magdalene, Rogue One and Foxcatcher, and Adam Arkapaw, who shot the first series of Top of the Lake, True Detective and features including Assassin’s Creed and The Light Between Oceans.
Executive producer Debbie Lee, who is Matchbox’s director of scripted development, says the show is based on a key premise: what would viewers do if they were confronted with the moral dilemma the Aussies faced? “It is complicated and there is no simple answer to what is a unifying dramatic question,” Lee says. “It’s about the fantastic characters created by the writing team and their own dilemmas.”
Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly is bringing his brand of edgy and original content to the small screen with dramas including Barracuda and new series The Warriors.
Earlier this year, prolific Australian producer, director, writer and distributor Robert Connolly directed Barracuda, the saga of a gay 17-year-old Greek/Australian who dreams of winning swimming medals at the Olympics.
Now he is producing The Warriors, an eight-part comedy-drama about another 17-year-old – this time an indigenous lad who is drafted to play for an Australian rules football team in Melbourne. The show, to air in 2017, is being made in collaboration with a 100% indigenous team of writers and directors.
Both projects were commissioned by Aussie public broadcaster ABC, typifying the growing willingness of free-to-air broadcasters to embrace edgy, original and adventurous content.
The Warriors is the first TV venture from Connolly’s feature-film prodco Arenamedia. Likening the show’s tone to HBO’s Entourage, he says: “It’s a mischievous, cheeky comedy-drama that deals with a bunch of young Australian rules football players living in a shared house in the lead-up to the first game of the season.”
Newcomer Gordan Churchill plays Maki, the number-one draft pick who relocates from a remote indigenous community to Melbourne to play the game he loves. The series also introduces Nelson Baker and Ben Knight as mischievous teammates Zane and Scottie, while Reece Milne (Home & Away) plays Doc, the experienced captain tasked with showing the players the ropes.
Tasia Zalar (Wentworth, The Straits) portrays Zane’s sister Ava, who joins the boys to try out for the women’s league; Lisa McCune is the team’s communications manager who fighs a losing battle to keep the boys out of trouble; Vince Colosimo is the coach responsible for getting the lowly team back in contention for the finals; and John Howard plays the club president.
Entertainment One has the Australian and international rights to the series, while funding agencies Screen Australia and Film Victoria are among the investors. “You would think a show about Australian rules football might not have international legs but, with such diverse content screening across cable and online platforms, people are really enjoying finding edgy stuff that is on the fringes, which is exciting,” says Connolly. “They are looking for distinctive programming that can stand out among all the content on these platforms.”
Connolly and writer Tony Briggs (The Sapphires) came up with the concept, which draws on Briggs’ background as a professional sprinter.
ABC director of TV Richard Finlayson credits Sally Riley, the pubcaster’s head of scripted production and former head of indigenous, with backing shows such as The Warriors and Cleverman. The latter was acquired by SundanceTV in the US, which has commissioned a second season of the drama, produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures. The show melds Aboriginal mythology and a dystopian near-future.
“It would have been difficult to imagine you could mount a production with 100% indigenous talent over the last decade,” Finlayson says. “Programmes like Cleverman and now The Warriors show how far Sally, with the help of many others, has been able to bring the industry. It’s great being able to find those kinds of tropes that contemporary audiences can really relate to. I like the idea of Rob bringing to life the whole canvas of Aussies rules football and the role indigenous players have in that environment.”
With scripts written by Briggs, Jon Bell (Cleverman, The Gods of Wheat Street, Redfern Now) and emerging writer Tracey Rigney, The Warriors is directed by Catriona McKenzie, Adrian Wills, Steven McGregor and Bec Cole. Arenamedia’s Liz Kearney and John Harvey are the producers.
Barracuda, meanwhile, was produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures. It is based on a Christos Tsiolkas novel set in Melbourne in 1996 and follows Danny Kelly (played by newcomer Elias Anton) as he begins a high-school scholarship to pursue his dream of becoming an elite swimmer.
Trained by Hungarian coach Frank Torma (Matt Nable), Danny aims to compete in the school championships but is resented as a “wog” upstart by swimming squad members Martin Taylor (Benjamin Kindon), Wilco (Andrew Creer), Scooter (Rhys Mitchell) and Tsitsas (Joe Clocek).
Victoria Haralabidou and Jeremy Lindsay Taylor play Danny’s supportive parents and Rachel Griffiths is Martin’s snobbish mother Samantha.
The drama turned out to be prescient, with the Australian swimming team underperforming at this summer’s Rio Olympics, winning only three gold, four silver and three bronze medals.
Ten years ago, Connolly surmises, a project like Barracuda probably would have been made as a theatrical feature, but TV is now the natural outlet for such fare. “Middle-ground, well-made drama does not have a home in cinemas anymore,” he says. “If you want to make a feature film now, it either has to be to massive, ambitious and high budget to compete in that world, or smaller, bolder and distinctive cinema.”
Produced by Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs, Barracuda deals with myriad themes including class, sexuality and the pressure to perform in an elite sport. NBCUniversal International is now launching international sales of the miniseries at Mipcom.
Matchbox Pictures CEO Chris Oliver-Taylor says: “Barracuda has already had significant interest internationally. The story is something many countries can relate to and, with the quality of the writing, acting and of course the direction, we believe Barracuda stands up to any international drama in the market. We expect the series to sell strongly, much like The Slap and our other miniseries Devil’s Playground and Glitch.”
Finlayson continues: “Barracuda is another example of a complicated story about class and race and the sacrifices you make when you dedicate your life to any single cause, through the lens of Olympic swimming. I like the idea of those issues being addressed in a really contemporary and accessible environment. That, to me, is public broadcasting at its best.”
Barracuda was Connolly’s second collaboration with Tsiolkas and his third with Matchbox. He directed The Slap, an adaptation of the author’s novel about the ramifications of a man slapping a child at a party, for the ABC; and Underground: The Julian Assange Story, a telemovie about the WikiLeaks founder starring Alex Williams, Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia, for Network Ten.
With Endemol Australia’s Imogen Banks and John Edwards, he also produced the First World War miniseries Gallipoli for Australia’s Nine Network.
Tsiolkas was involved in Barracuda’s script development but trusted screenwriters Blake Ayshford and Belinda Chayko to adapt his novel. “Christos came in early, when we were just working out our initial take on the material,” Ayshford says. “That was very nerve-wracking, but he looked at the board on which we had broken the story into episodes and said, ‘You’ve made me very happy.’ Then he told us to ‘smash it apart,’ so I felt it was OK to take some liberties.”
It was the first time working with Chayko for Ayshford, whose credits include Devil’s Playground, the movie Cut Snake, episodes of kids’ shows Nowhere Boys and Tomorrow, When the War Began and dramas The Code, The Straits and Crownies.
Both took part in a three-month script workshop in Melbourne before shooting started. “Belinda is a very talented and bold writer and we just sort of clicked in how we saw the show and what we thought we’d do,” Ayshford says. “I was always going to write the pilot, so she wrote the ending. We read each other’s work and gave feedback so we were on the same page.
“Tony Ayres and Amanda Higgs kept us all on the same track. That said, we were each given licence to imagine the scripts as we saw fit, while needing to hit certain shared plot beats.”
The writer says Connolly brought enthusiasm, curiosity and highly original visual ideas to the project, plus a real respect for the writing. “Rob also has a real respect for the audience. He told me he wanted to make a show that people actually wanted to watch,” he says. “Not one they felt they had to watch in a dutiful way but that was genuinely popular. I really respected his desire for a wide audience for what is potentially a bruising and confronting subject, and that sets him apart from many other directors in my experience.”
Ayers first worked with Connolly on The Slap, then the Assange telepic. “Rob is really great with inventing stylish ways to tell stories,” he says. “He has a genius for bringing out the best in people. He is very clear about what he thinks. As a director he is a real captain and he has a muscular visual style that works very well for a show like Barracuda. He has great energy and passion and as a distributor he has a genius for marketing.”
After graduating from the producing course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney, Connolly initially pursued a career in live theatre. He produced his first feature – The Boys, a tough drama directed by Rowan Woods – in 1998. Based on a Stephen Sewell stage play, the film starred David Wenham, Toni Collette and Lynette Curran. His first time directing a feature came with 2001’s The Bank, a thriller about corruption in the finance world. This again starred Wenham, along with Anthony LaPaglia and Sibylla Budd.
A political activist, Connolly also directed 2009’s Balibo, which chronicled the investigation of the murder of five Australian journalists and cameramen in East Timor in 1975. This year his distribution company CinemaPlus staged event cinema screenings of Australian director Eva Orner’s documentary Chasing Asylum. The film is a shocking exposé of the mistreatment of asylum seekers in the Australian government’s detention camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the Republic of Nauru.
Connolly cites Australia’s Peter Weir and Poland’s Krzysztof Kieślowski (primarily for Dekalog, the epic miniseries based on the Ten Commandments) as his two major influences.
He rates Weir’s Gallipoli (1980), which he saw while he was in school, as one of his favourite films, in addition to fellow Weir works The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). He also enjoyed the director’s Hollywood forays, Witness (1985) and Fearless (1993).
But Connolly does not strive to be flamboyant, describing his approach as a “forensic examination of aspects of the human condition and how society functions.” While directing the Julian Assange telepic, he learned a lot from Network 10 head of drama Rick Maier on taking a pragmatic approach to capturing a TV audience and dealing with commercial breaks. And unlike some directors who meticulously plan or storyboard each shot, Connolly likes the element of surprise.
“My style has journeyed from a more formal, structured use of the camera in a film like The Bank to attempting to achieve a style where the camera is capturing perceived real events unfolding in front of you rather than constructing them,” he explains. “I have moved away from specific tracking shots and a formal composition to the point where I try to create a dynamic between the camera and what is happening in front of it, as if the camera is capturing something for the first time.
“When I call ‘action’ I hope I have created an environment on the set where I don’t know exactly what’s about to happen. If I am not surprised by what’s happening in front of me, how can I expect the audience to be?”
Ayshford says of Connolly: “I have always liked how Rob makes dramas about the world we actually live in, not ones that ignore the political and social realities of our society. In that way he feels more like a British filmmaker to me, and I love that about his work.
“He wants to make engaging films about real people in real situations. There’s a few I really love: from the danger of The Boys and the outrage of Balibo to the nerd thrills of Underground.”
Seeing an untapped market for Australian children’s films, Connolly directed Paper Planes, which starred Sam Worthington, Ed Oxenbould and Deborah Mailman and was one of the highest grossers of 2015. His next feature will be Blueback, a family film that he’s adapting from Australian author Tim Winton’s eponymous 1997 novella, a fable about a young girl’s passion for saving the Great Barrier Reef and the oceans, and her friendship with a groper fish.
Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.
In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.
Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.
Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.
The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.
Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.
Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”
Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.
ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.
Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.
Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.
The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.
And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.
“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.
“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”
The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.
“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.
“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”
Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.
At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.
Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.
Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”
However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”
ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.
The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.
“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.
“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.
“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.
“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”
Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”
Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.
“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”
Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.
Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.
One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.
Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”
By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.
Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.
Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.
The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.
Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”
On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”
Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”
She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”
Dozens of Aussie screenwriters will be dusting off their computer keyboards following the news that Screen Australia has greenlit A$640,000 (US$474,241) of development funding for 23 films and television series.
The project that has caught the attention of the international media is Stateless, which will be directed by Oscar-winning actor Cate Blanchett. Described by Screen Australia as Blanchett’s “first venture into high-end TV,” it tells the true story of Cornelia Rau, a young German-Australian who escaped a frightening cult, only to be trapped in a bizarre labyrinth of psychiatric and legal systems.
NBCUniversal-owned production company Matchbox Pictures will produce Stateless, which is based on a screenplay written by Elise McCredie. McCredie has a long and varied track record as an actress, but her first big hit as a writer was Nowhere Boys, a teen series that was also produced by Matchbox.
First airing on ABC3 in 2013, the show was successful enough to secure a renewal and to be adapted as a feature film (Book of Shadows). Sold internationally by NBCUniversal, it has also aired in the UK and Canada.
The other projects backed by Screen Australia include works from Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, Richard Roxburgh, Marieke Hardy, Jan Chapman, Stephan Elliott and Bondi Hipsters’ Nicholas Boshier. However, the only other high-end television drama to secure Screen Australia funding this month is Trust – a drama based on a journalist’s mission to expose a shadowy movement cloaked in conspiracy theories and deception.
Trust’s writing team consists of Sarah Lambert, Blake Ayshford and Kris Mrksa. Lambert’s standout credit to date is Love Child, a critical and ratings success for Channel 9 and Playmaker in 2014.
Ayshford has written episodes for a number of shows including The Beautiful Lie, Nowhere Boys, Devil’s Playground, The Code and Crownies, while Mrksa’s credits include Underbelly, The Slap and Glitch.
The latter is a six-parter that started airing on ABC1 this month. Pursuing a familiar theme, it focuses on a policeman who is called to his local cemetery in the middle of the night after six people have inexplicably risen from the dead in perfect health.
Nerida Moore, senior development executive at Screen Australia, said: “The titles we’ve announced reflect a really exciting slate of projects and associated talent. They’re very individual in approach and each will have its own unique creative journey ahead. The recent changes to our Story Development Guidelines reflect our appreciation for the individual creative process and the ongoing need for flexibility in the ways we offer support. We look forward to seeing more innovation and imagination as these projects flourish.”
Elsewhere, Endemol Shine Studios has acquired the English-language reversion rights to Follow the Money, a new thriller from Danmarks Radio (DR) that is set in the world of economic crime. The deal follows an earlier adaptation success for DR’s The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen) and comes despite the fact that Follow the Money doesn’t air in Denmark until January 2016.
The original series was created by Jeppe Gjervig Gram, one of the three writers on Borgen, writing a total of 14 out of the 30 episodes. His partners on Borgen were Adam Price, who recently co-founded production company SAM, and Tobias Lindholm.
“This is yet another compelling series from DR, and we’re looking forward to developing it for the American audience in partnership with the very talented team at Anonymous Content,” said Charlie Corwin, co-chairman and co-CEO of Endemol Shine North America.
Meanwhile, HBO has announced that its upcoming miniseries Show Me a Hero will debut on August 16. Starring Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi, the show is set in the 1980s and tells the story of a young mayor of a mid-sized American city who is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighbourhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyses the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.
Written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Show Me a Hero is based on a non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin that explores the issue of racial segregation in Yonkers, in the state of New York.
Simon said: “The story appeals to me not merely as political history, but because the question in Yonkers in 1987 was the same one that we face today. Are all of us – those with and those without, white, black or brown – are we all sharing some portion of the same national experience? Or is the American Dream something other than that?”
The director is Paul Haggis (Crash), who says: “Frankly, I have long desired to be a part of anything David Simon does. If he had asked me to direct a history of footwear, that’s what we would be discussing now. Luckily, it was a part of our history that intrigued me, largely because it isn’t history at all, but an exploration of issues that remain at the core of the American narrative.”
In last week’s Hit & Miss, we looked at some of the titles that have garnered a high number of Emmy nominations. Today, we are giving a shout out to the writers nominated.
In Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, the contenders are Joshua Brand (The Americans), Gordon Smith (Better Call Saul), David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Weiner alone (for Mad Men again).
The sentimentalist vote would surely favour Weiner, to mark the end of Mad Men. But he will be hard pushed to see off Game of Thrones, which is nominated for the final episode of season five (Mother’s Mercy).
In Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, the nominees include John Ridley (American Crime), Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Glois and Horton Foote (Bessie), Stephen Merchant, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Hello Ladies), Hugo Blick (The Honorable Woman), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge) and Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall).
Despite the dearth of women in these two line-ups, Anderson has a good chance of winning. An industry veteran, she boasts credits ranging from The Wonder Years and How to Make an American Quilt to Mad Men.
She gave an interesting interview to HBO recently in which she discussed the challenges of adapting Olive Kitteridge from its source novel by Elizabeth Strout. “It took a long time for me to solve this as an adaptation,” she said. “Because HBO’s work is known for its edginess, we talked about how we make this very brilliant novel about older people in a small town in Maine sexy. What will make this different? What will give this edge?
“I tried an outline where we started backwards and we went back in time, and it didn’t work. Then I tried it starting with the suicide scene. It’s just three minutes of screen time that assure the audience that something really drastic is going to happen down the line. When you add stakes like that, everybody can just friggin’ relax and I can tell the story. I can just unwind it. You need that in television and you need that in a miniseries.”
At the other end of the spectrum with regard to female characterisation, actress Lucy Lawless has played down speculation that her iconic series Xena: Warrior Princess is undergoing a reboot at NBC. Sam Raimi was reported to be involved but Lawless later described it as a “rumour.”
She Tweeted: “Sorry, friends! News of a #Xena reboot is just a rumour. I’d love it to happen one day but it’s still in the wishful thinking stage.”