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.”