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High tide

Netflix’s first original Australian series, Tidelands, is a novel twist on popular mythology. Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield, co-founders of producer Hoodlum Entertainment, tell DQ how the sirens-focused show came together.

When Australian author Stephen M Irwin first met with Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield (pictured above with actor Elsa Pataky), the co-founders of Brisbane-based prodco Hoodlum Entertainment, they suggested a TV series about sirens – mythological creatures who lure sailors to their deaths with their enchanted music and singing.

By happy coincidence, Irwin, whose second novel had just been published, had compiled a sizeable dossier on the mythology of these creatures in various cultures around the world for his next novel, set on an icebreaker in Antarctica. Irwin immediately came up with a fresh angle for Tidelands. The series would focus on a group of young people who are the children of humans and sirens, combined with a young woman who returns to that world after her father dies, hoping to get her hands on the inheritance.

The concept was fleshed out in meetings between Irwin, Robertson, Mayfield and Hoodlum producer/writer Leigh McGrath. “We spent a good few days in a room nutting out the story we wanted to tell, unpacking the world of sirens but with no tails or scales,” Mayfield says. “We knew we were not going to make a monster story or The Little Mermaid. We wanted to get to the emotional heart of the story of the characters who were the bastard offspring of sirens and humans.”

Catriona McKenzie (director) with Brazilian actor Marco Pigossi

That was in 2013, but the Hoodlum partners and Irwin had to put the project on the shelf while they embarked on crime series Secrets & Lies for Australia’s Network Ten, followed by the US remake for the Disney-owned ABC network. Irwin also scripted the Lingo Pictures miniseries Wake in Fright for Ten and Hoodlum’s feature film Australia Day for Foxtel. Then came Harrow, Hoodlum’s crime drama starring Ioan Gruffudd for ABC Studios International and Oz pubcaster the ABC.

In between these projects, Irwin wrote the bible and the first episode of Tidelands, which the LA-based Robertson pitched to Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix VP of international originals, last year.

“I told Kelly the show is about a group of people who live on the outskirts of town, who are disenfranchised and different and crave privacy,” Robertson says. “I felt it was something that is very relevant now. She loved the genre and the fact it is set in the world of mythology and is sexy and fun.”

Within a week, Luegenbiehl had commissioned the show, Netflix’s first original Australian series. The Hoodlum execs had known Luegenbiehl since she worked at the US ABC network, where she acquired the format rights to their first production, comedy mystery drama Fat Cow Motel, in 2004. In 2015 she then commissioned Hoodlum’s first US show, Strange Calls, a remake of the Oz comedy created by Daley Pearson.

For Tidelands, Irwin wrote five of the supernatural thriller’s eight episodes and co-wrote another with emerging writer Chris Squadrito. McGrath penned the other two.

Charlotte Best as Cal McTeer (left) and director Emma Freeman on set

In the biggest role of her career, Charlotte Best (Puberty Blues, Home & Away) plays protagonist Cal McTeer, a street-smart, sexy and sharp-tongued young woman who returns home to the small fishing village of Orphelin Bay after years in juvenile detention for manslaughter. Best was on the shortlist when Robertson had lunch with her US manager, Circle of Confusion’s Charles Mastropietro, who pressed her claim. Best came in for a chemistry test, as did all the key cast, and, according to Robertson, the actor was “mind-blowing.”

The plot centres on Cal as she aims to collect the inheritance of her late father, who led a group of smugglers and had shielded her from the truth of the Tidelanders – the children of the sailors and fishermen lured to their deaths after hearing the sirens’ song. Orphans, they don’t know the identity of their mothers and live in a hippie-style shanty town away from the Orphelin Bay residents.

Another major plotline is the dynamic between Cal, her uncaring mother Rosa (Caroline Brazier) and Adrielle, the self-proclaimed Queen of the Tidelanders. The latter is played by The Fast & The Furious’s Elsa Pataky, who Robertson had wanted for the part from the off.

Aaron Jakubenko (The Shannara Chronicles, Spartacus: War of the Damned) is Augie McTeer, Cal’s fisherman brother, with Peter O’Brien (Glow, Winter) as deckhand Bill Sentelle and Mattias Inwood as Corey Welch, the local cop and Cal’s former flame. Marco Pigossi and Madeleine Madden (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mystery Road) play Tidelanders, and Hunter Page-Lochard (Harrow, Cleverman) is a fisherman/smuggler from Orphelin Bay.

Tidelands marks the English-speaking debut of Brazilian actor Pigossi, who has a multi-title deal with Netflix, including Brazilian original Invisible Cities. Robertson says: “He plays Dylan, which was a difficult role to cast because he is strong, sophisticated and sexy but also subservient to Adrielle. Kelly suggested him, we looked at him and we loved him.”

Exec producers Nathan Mayfield and Tracey Robertson

The first two episodes were directed by New Zealander Toa Fraser, who has helmed instalments of Daredevil and Iron Fist for Netflix and previously collaborated with Jakubenko and Inwood on The Shannara Chronicles. “We just hit it off,” Robertson says of meeting Fraser, who was hired after impressing the producers with his showreel. “He was so passionate about the project. We wanted to work with people who are as excited about it as we are.”

Catriona McKenzie and Daniel Nettheim, who both worked on Harrow, and Emma Freeman each directed two episodes. Robertson had long wanted to work with Freeman and was particularly impressed by her expertise on Glitch, Matchbox Pictures’ supernatural series for the ABC, on which Netflix has been the coproducer on the second and third seasons.

The 16-week shoot happened in and around Brisbane, supported by Screen Queensland, on a healthy budget that matched the ambitions of the producers. “We shot on water, underwater and at night – all those things that cost money,” Robertson says.

The Australian actors spoke in their natural accents and there are references to Brisbane, so it is an identifiably Aussie show, albeit partly set in a hitherto unknown world. There were three DOPs: Katie Milwright (Celeste, The Space Between), Robert Humphreys (Harrow, Secrets & Lies) and Bruce Young (Bite Club, Sunshine). Production designer Matthew Putland and costume designer Tess Schofield also both worked on Harrow.

Tidelands was Hoodlum’s first production not to include recaps at the start of each episode, recognising that many Netflix subscribers binge-view shows, but there are still plenty of cliffhangers. The producers enjoyed the collaboration with Netflix, noting there were no creative disagreements. “Netflix had approval on the casting and gave notes on the script and footage – but no more so than any other studio or broadcaster we’ve worked with,” Mayfield says. “It was never heavy-handed. They brought a lot of currency to the project because there was so much interest around their first original Australian series.”

A writer with a prodigious output, Irwin can churn out as many as 12 pages a day after weeks of plotting and structuring, followed by extensive rewrites. “As they say, the secret of writing is rewriting,” he notes. “We wanted the show to be grounded and gritty – so when people die, they die painful deaths. In many ways, it’s rough and bloody, but it’s also very sensual and sexy.”

Robertson says: “It’s a big new world with a really well thought-out mythology. At its heart, it’s the story of a girl who comes back to her home town and tries to find her place in the world. While she is trying to discover who she is, she finds out the people she thought were her people are not her people, and the story she’d been told about her life is not really the truth. It’s also the story of a triangle of three women – Cal, Rosa and Adrielle – who are trying to find their place and become queen of their domain.”

Hoodlum’s aim for Tidelands, as with all its productions, is for a returning series. “We started with such amazing material that we think we have enough stories for many seasons,” Mayfield adds.

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