Tag Archives: Tracey Robertson

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.

tagged in: , , , ,

The doctor will see you now

Harrow, Disney-owned ABC Studios International’s first scripted series, is a fresh twist on a well-worked genre. Don Groves chats to the creative team and star Ioan Gruffudd.

Four years ago, Australian screenwriter Stephen M Irwin and writer/producer Leigh McGrath had an idea for a procedural crime series centred on a brilliant yet unorthodox forensic pathologist.

Both loved classic, character-driven forensic shows like Quincy, which ran on US network NBC from 1976 to 1983 and starred Jack Klugman as an LA County medical examiner.

But they knew they needed an original angle to differentiate their show from myriad other procedurals and came up with this twist: the protagonist, Dr Daniel Harrow, committed a murder years ago, and thus much of the suspense hinges on how, why and when the crime occurred.

“It’s a ‘whydunit’ as opposed to a whodunit, where the character solves murders as well as using his skill to cover up his own crime,” says McGrath, a former story editor on Thames Television’s long-running UK cop show The Bill.

Irwin, who at the time had just scripted murder mystery Secrets & Lies for Brisbane- and now LA-based prodco Hoodlum, wrote the pilot script on spec and he and McGrath created a pitch document, with the show taking its name from the lead character’s surname.

Harrow stars Ioan Gruffudd as Daniel Harrow, a forensic pathologist

The problem was that Hoodlum had zero experience in the crime procedural genre. “It was a big idea and it was not an easy fit in Australia or overseas, so the first challenge was getting people to read the script,” says Tracey Robertson, who founded Hoodlum with Nathan Mayfield in 1998.

Sally Riley, who had been appointed head of scripted production at Oz pubcaster the ABC in May 2016, liked the idea but could not immediately see where a show like Harrow would fit in the schedule.

Fortune was in their favour, however, when Robertson and Mayfield met with Keli Lee, the London-based MD of international content and talent at Disney’s ABC Studios International.

Lee was executive VP of talent and casting at ABC Entertainment Group when ABC greenlit the US remake of Secrets & Lies, which was co-written by Irwin and executive produced by Barbie Kligman, Robertson and Mayfield.

Lee was impressed with the Harrow script and the treatments for all 10 episodes, and within a couple of weeks commissioned the show, the studio’s first scripted series. Soon after, the ABC’s Riley came on board.

“Nathan and Tracey were absolute terriers who, by hard graft rather than good luck, got the script to the right people at the right time,” says Irwin, who wrote eight episodes and co-wrote another with Lucas Taylor, the script editor, while McGrath penned one.

Gruffudd as Harrow alongside Anna Lise Phillips, who plays his ex-wife Stephanie

The producers drew up a list of actors from Australia, the US and the UK to play the lead. Lee pushed for Welsh-born Ioan Gruffudd, whom she had known since he starred as a 200-year-old man attempting to find a key to unlock the curse of his immortality in the series Forever, which ran on ABC in 2014 and 2015.

After reading the pilot script, the LA-based Gruffudd spoke via Skype one Sunday morning Australian time with Irwin, who was at home in Brisbane. “I knew we’d found our guy, someone who could be a little bit acerbic, funny, gruff and likeable and could carry quite a lot of medical information,” Irwin says. “He also needed to have the gravitas that suggests the character might have done something quite bad for a reason to be revealed.”

Asked what differentiates Harrow from multiple other crime procedurals, Robertson says: “Some tend to just be all plot while others are all character and no plot. We have created great, well-defined characters in Harrow himself and the people around him, while each episode deals with a crime of the week. There are no cardboard cut-out stereotypes.” The drama premiered on ABC Australia in March, with Disney Media Distribution licensing the US and international rights.

To ensure the series had a large-scale, cinematic look, the producers hired directors who either had feature film experience or had worked in the TV murder-mystery genre. Kate Dennis, whose credits include the Australian original and US remake of Secrets & Lies, plus CSI: Cyber for CBS, AMC’s Turn and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she was Emmy nominated, was the setup director and directed one episode.

Dennis, who was booked to direct an episode of Netflix comic book-based drama Marvel’s Jessica Jones when Robertson offered her the gig, was initially reluctant. “I told Tracey that me and procedurals are probably not a good mix, but I read the script and thought this one was different and out of the box,” she says. “It’s very character-driven and there is the mystery of the man at its core. I was very attracted to it.”

Dennis created the look and style of the show with Robert Humphreys, who was the DOP on the first five episodes (Simon Chapman shot the remainder). During three weeks’ hectic prep, she wrote a detailed series bible for her fellow directors that set out numerous cinematographic rules, including often having the camera behind Harrow or raking past close to his face; shooting through foreground objects and shifting shadows of water or patterns on windows and other reflective surfaces; basing the colour palette on the human iris; and making Brisbane itself a character.

Harrow began airing on Australia’s ABC in March

Tony Krawitz (The Kettering Incident), Tony Tilse (Wolf Creek, Underbelly), Daniel Nettheim (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) and Peter Salmon (Wanted, Rake) each handled two episodes, while Catriona McKenzie (The Warriors) did one.

Nettheim had long wanted to work with Robertson and Mayfield again after directing the duo’s first ever production, Fat Cow Motel, an interactive comedy drama that screened on the ABC in 2002. He watched footage of the first five episodes before directing the final two instalments. “My prerogative was to honour the earlier work and to try to bring something fresh so I was not repeating the same ideas,” he says.

“The show has a unique tone because of the level of humour. What I really enjoyed from some of the earlier episodes was seeing what an actor like Darren Gilshenan can bring to those comedy parts and how well that sits with the grimmer parts of the investigation.”

To round out the cast, the producers did a lot of chemistry tests, pairing various actors with Gruffudd. Robertson found that process so productive that she intends to use it for all future productions, including supernatural crime drama Tidelands, Netflix’s first original Australian series, which was also written by Irwin and is shooting in Queensland this year.

Ella Newton is Harrow’s estranged teenage daughter, Fern, while Anna Lise Phillips plays his ex-wife, Stephanie. Robyn Malcolm is Maxine, Harrow’s often exasperated boss, and Darren Gilshenan is Dr Lyle Fairley, a resentful colleague who keeps butting heads with Harrow.

Remy Hii portrays Simon, a forensic pathologist who is completing his studies and is a protégé of Dr Harrow. “The two have an odd-couple relationship as friends and colleagues,” Hii says. “Playing opposite Ioan was a lot of fun because he has such an incredible range. At my first audition, we did chemistry reads together and there was an immediate connection.

The drama was created by Stephen M Irwin and Leigh McGrath

“A lot of the subject matter is dark because we are in a morgue for much of the series and we deal with death but the scripts are so witty and they pop off the page. All the characters are larger than life, but so relatable.”

Hii, who appears in every episode, adds: “It was a heavy workload and lightning fast – that is Australian TV. You prepare to the eyeballs and, at the same time, you are prepared to drop much of your homework in order to get it done. You never know what challenges will be thrown your way. It was a blessing working with six of Australia’s top directors – people with so many different processes, styles, visual flair and experiences.”

Mirrah Foulkes plays scenes-of-crime officer Sergeant Soraya Dass, a former detective who has moved to Brisbane from Melbourne and works with Detective Senior Sergeant Bryon Nichols (Damien Garvey). Dass develops a romantic relationship with Harrow but has her own dark secrets, says Foulkes.

Foulkes had taken time out from acting to write the screenplay for Judy & Punch – a feature she will also direct, which reimagines the puppet show Punch & Judy – when Robertson asked her to audition in early 2017. She found the short prep time challenging, noting: “My favourite part of the process is rehearsals and eking out all the interesting things that are going on in the writing. You don’t have time for that in Australian television. The best-case scenario in a show like Harrow is you get a quick catch-up with the directors and touch base on some key moments in each episode, some key emotional beats. It was incredibly hard and fast, and I enjoyed it. The scripts were hugely ambitious and the shoots were really tricky.”

Filming started in Queensland in August 2017. The budget was only slightly higher than the average for an Australian drama but did allow a nine-day schedule for each episode (seven is typical), plus elaborate set builds and hiring well-known actors such as Tony Barry, Ditch Davey, Gary Sweet, Chris Haywood and Dan Ewing for guest roles.

“When you have a big international partner in Disney-ABC, the bar is raised in production values,” Mayfield says. “This is about taking a show that speaks to its Australian audience but is viable and competitive to sell internationally. Disney-ABC brought a wealth of knowledge, information and experience. We got a lot of valuable insights into storylines and character beats.”

Business partners for 21 years, Robertson and Mayfield share every aspect of their jobs, from creative development and physical production through to business affairs, although he is Brisbane-based and she spends most of her time in LA.

“We are a very close-knit team,” Mayfield says. “There is a short-hand and a trust that have been built over two decades. We do butt heads occasionally on creative things when neither of us has the answer, but that is healthy because the best idea wins. We always want to deliver on the promise.”


Gruffudd gravitates to the dark side

Ioan Gruffudd follows his riveting performance as a renowned surgeon accused of date rape in the SundanceTV and ITV series Liar by playing a forensic psychologist who harbours a dark secret in Harrow. DQ gives him a call.

Gruffudd as Mister Fantastic in Fantastic Four (left) and alongside Joanne Froggatt in Liar

It’s no coincidence Ioan Gruffudd is now being cast as damaged characters after playing heroic types in Horatio Hornblower, Black Hawk Down and two Fantastic Four comic book adaptations.

“I’d been dying to play these three-dimensional parts, flawed characters, for such a long time but I’d never really looked old enough or had enough weight and gravitas in my face and experiences before,” the Welsh actor says on the line from Brisbane while shooting the final episodes of Harrow. “I’m meeting these characters in the right time of my life. I’m in my 40s and I am starting to look right for these parts.”

Gruffudd did not expect the critical acclaim that greeted Liar in the UK, the US and Australia, which no doubt persuaded the networks to greenlight a second season from the creators Jack Williams and Harry Williams. The first season of the show saw Gruffudd’s character accused of rape, with viewers left to unravel the truth.

“We knew we were doing something special and good but you just never know, until you go out there into the universe, how people are going to respond,” he says. “I think the purpose of casting me was to put people off the scent, especially in those early episodes, to lull the audience into a false sense of security that this guy could not possibly have done this.”

Gruffudd leapt at the chance to play the title role in Hoodlum Entertainment’s Harrow, drawn to the scripts by Stephen M Irwin and producer Leigh McGrath. He relished the prospect of playing a character he describes as eccentric, slightly curmudgeonly, borderline arrogant and selfish but also funny.

In addition, he was a fan of Hoodlum’s Irwin-scripted Australian series Secrets & Lies, rating Irwin as an exceptional writer. And he was happy to return to Queensland, where he had worked on the films San Andreas and Sanctum.

Harrow also stars Remy Hii, Mirrah Foulkes, Ella Newton, Darren Gilshenan, Anna Lise Phillips and Robyn Malcolm, for whom Gruffudd is full of praise. “I am working with the crème de la crème of Australian actors. They are stars in their own right and could lead a show in their own right,” he says.

Similarly effusive over set-up director Kate Dennis, he says: “Kate blessed the ship and all who sailed in her. She set up the look, the costumes, the production design and the tone. It is unique but there are elements of House, Rake and CSI. It’s funny when it’s supposed to be funny, with office gallows humour, and the next scene could be quite sad and tragic.”

Dennis marvelled at Gruffudd’s ability to tread the fine line between comedy and drama, the ease with which he mastered wads of dialogue laden with medical terms and his ever-cheerful demeanour on set. “He’s a genuinely terrific person to be around and deeply professional,” she says.

Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson adds: “The show has a great sense of humour and deals with the light and the dark really well. Dr Harrow has his own view of the world and is a really lovable character, which Ioan sells to the moon and back.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,

Talking to the dead

Ioan Gruffudd investigates the truth behind a series of mysterious deaths in Australian crime drama Harrow. DQ hears more about the show from Hoodlum producer Tracey Robertson and Sally Riley, head of scripted production at broadcaster the ABC.

Ioan Gruffudd is used to dealing with dead bodies. In US network ABC’s fantasy drama Forever, he played Dr Henry Morgan, an immortal New York medical examiner who uses his knowledge to help solve crimes and seek a way to end his immortality.

Sally Riley

Now he is back on screen as another medical examiner, Dr Daniel Harrow, in a new crime drama commissioned by Australian pubcaster the ABC. The series, called Harrow, follows a brilliant forensic pathologist who can solve cases others can’t. But when a secret from his past threatens his career and family, he needs to use all his genius to keep one crime buried forever.

Described as smart and impatient, a dedicated scientist and a maverick rule-breaker, Harrow knows he’s the best pathologist around and won’t stop until he uncovers the truth about why people have died.

The 10-part series, which debuts this Friday, sees him investigate the suspected suicide of a young girl, the death of a woman killed by a crossbow and the discovery of a human arm found inside a dead crocodile, among others.

Harrow is produced by Hoodlum Entertainment and ABC Studios International, with Disney Media Distribution handling international sales. It was co-created by Stephen M Irwin and Leigh McGrath, who produce with Hoodlum’s Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield.

“We’ve worked with Stephen quite a bit on other projects [including Secrets & Lies] so he’s a really great collaborator of ours,” explains Robertson. “He wanted to write a show that was very character-heavy but also has a story of the week, so it’s a very strong character piece but it’s also a procedural so we solve a crime every week. Dr Daniel Harrow is a forensic pathologist so we visit the stories but we also have a strong story about him when he visits the dark side.”


Harrow marks the first series from ABC Studios International, which is led by Keli Lee, ABC Entertainment’s MD of international content and talent.

“Stephen and Leigh had developed the script independently, so we had the script and also the story arc of where we wanted to go with the show,” Robertson recalls. “We gave it to Keli, who we work with at ABC Studios. We pitched it to her in October 2016, she read it overnight and pretty much we were in production six months later.”

Once ABC Studios was on board, the ABC in Australia quickly followed. The broadcaster paid for the series development and the speed of the project meant production wrapped at the end of last year.

“We’re hoping it will be original enough for us that it will become one of our returning shows that fill a gap for us,” says Sally Riley, the broadcaster’s head of scripted production. “We have an older audience so with this show we’re trying to keep this older audience happy, but with Ioan Gruffudd in there will hopefully bring a younger group as well.

“The thing that attracted me to it was at its heart, it’s a show about a man trying to protect his family and how far you would go to protect your family. It’s got a great tone, it’s quite funny but it also has a dark edge, which is a really hard combination to do well and Stephen Irwin does a great job with that. Ioan cracks it for us. We’re really excited and hopefully we’ll go to another season.”

Harrow stars Ioan Gruffud as a forensic pathologist with a secret

Both Riley and Robertson insist the show will stand out from similar dramas, such as Forever and Dexter, in which a forensics expert is also a compulsive serial killer.

“It does have a bit of a Dexter edge – [Harrow is] a forensic pathologist, we see him cutting up bodies,” Riley explains. “The difference with him is he’s really interested in the dead people; he sits and talks to them. He tries to figure out why they do things, he’s not just chopping them up and finding what the clues are. He’s actually going into their lives and talking to their families and really wants to find out why they’re in this situation.

“They’re usually unique murders that happen in this show so there’s always a twist. Harrow doesn’t always win in the end – he solves the crime but then there’s another twist from the overarching story about the dead body you see.”

Robertson, who is also working with Irwin on Netflix’s first Australian original drama, Tidelands, adds: “As with Stephen’s writing, there’s always an emotional reason why things have happened. It’s not just pulling off the mask and he’s a dark person. There are really strong character traits as to why everything has happened, which I think sets it apart.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,