Starting Fires

Starting Fires

By Michael Pickard
March 3, 2023


Marta Dusseldorp’s relocation to Tasmania provided the inspiration for her starring role in Bay of Fires, a series she also co-created. She discusses her move into production and collaborating behind the scenes on the eight-part drama.

A household name down under, Australian actor Marta Dusseldorp is also recognisable around the world thanks to starring roles in dramas such as Janet King, Rake and A Place to Call Home.

Now, through her own label Archipelago Productions, she has stepped behind the camera for the first time as the co-creator and producer of Bay of Fires. Dusseldorp also plays the lead in the Tasmania-set dark comedy-thriller, which was commissioned by local broadcaster the ABC.

Described as Ozark meets Fargo and Schitt’s Creek, the eight-part series tells the story of Stella Heikkinen (Dusseldorp), a single mother of two who is suddenly forced to flee the city and relocate to a small, remote community. But it’s not the kind of place they put on postcards – it is instead rife with simmering feuds, crime and, sometimes, murder.

The series has been in the making for a number of years and marks Dusseldorp’s first move into production – an ambition she has held for some time after “stealthily” becoming
more involved off camera in shows she has starred in. Bay of Fires is her first “baby.”

“I’ve done a lot of series that have gone for a very long time – A Place to Call Home went for six seasons, Janet King for three, with Crownies before it, and Jack Irish for over nine years,” she says. “So I’ve become very close to the creators [of those shows] and there’s been a lot of mutual respect on both sides, and I got the confidence to believe I could make a character better or more interesting and multi-layered, especially as a woman.”

With Bay of Fires – coproduced by Archipelago and Fremantle, which is also distributing the series internationally – Dusseldorp hoped to create something that hadn’t been seen before in Australia. “We wanted to give it a different edge, a riskier edge, and by setting it on the west coast of Tasmania, we found the most alien landscape you can imagine,” she says. But convincing her partners that filming could be completed in an isolated location proved to be her biggest challenge.

“There are a lot of secret places in Tasmania no one’s ever seen before. We were lucky enough to have the community’s trust and respect, and in my journey as a producer, I just believed there were enough people I’d worked with long enough who I could trust to do what they needed to do, and they trusted me to do what I needed to do. Now on the other side of it, I’m really proud and very grateful for people’s belief, so I can’t wait to do it all again. I’m a little bit addicted now.”

The story emerged from Dusseldorp’s real-life relocation to Tasmania during the pandemic. She describes the island, which lies 150 miles south of mainland Australia, as “the most extraordinary place in the world, full of secrets and incredible landscapes.”

Dusseldorp then pitched co-creators and writers Andrew Knight (Jack Irish) and Max Dann (Sportswood) a story about a woman who’s thrown out of her life and finds herself having to hide in a place that’s full of mystery, where no one, including Stella, is quite who they appear to be.

“It’s a bit of a slow burn in the sense that it’s not until episode five you completely understand what Stella’s gotten herself into,” Dusseldorp says, “and she slowly trips herself up enough that she becomes like them and has to find out who she was right at the beginning. That was a nod to Covid really, when we all had to sit by ourselves and look at who we are.”

In Bay of Fires, Marta Dusseldorp plays Stella, a character she describes as a reluctant hero

Stella epitomises Dusseldorp’s favourite type of protagonist – the reluctant hero – as she is thrown around by so many events that she must eventually find her feet and take control. “But we didn’t want her to become a superhero, or someone she wasn’t in the beginning,” the actor notes. “With Stella, I got tired of playing women who were always in relationships with men and that being the main thing about them. I love being a mum myself, so I did want Stella to have a relationship with her children and for that to be core to the story, but not for it to define her.

“Stella’s journey is rocky, it’s unfortunate. She finds love along the way and teaches her kids she would die for them. These are all things I aspire to.”

Dusseldorp, Knight and Dann sat together for “days and weeks” discussing the project and went on location recces together, before the ABC quickly backed its development. As they talked, she was keen to stress that no character is ever “just bad” and they all do things for a reason, perhaps relating to how they were brought up or their experiences in life. As a consequence, Dusseldorp insisted that every character had a full backstory that her fellow cast members – including Kerry Fox, Toby Leonard Moore, Rachel House, Yael Stone, Tony Barry and Heather Mitchell – could tap into as part of their preparation.

Another consideration for the creators was landing the show’s balance of drama and dark humour, but Dusseldorp wasn’t worried about finding the right tone. “Andrew will make anything funny,” she says. “He just sprinkles this gold dust and he’ll take the most serious moment and flip it on its head and sumo-wrestle it to the ground and you just go, ‘How did you manage to make me laugh in this really dark moment?’ If anything, I just encouraged him to go as dark as he possibly could because I knew he would bring that beautiful lightness of touch and an ability to make us go from gasping to giggling. It’s a tightrope; we walked it as finely as we could.”

Once production was imminent, shifting back from producer to actor couldn’t have come more naturally to Dusseldorp.

Stella is forced to flee the city and relocate to a small, remote community

“Acting is the pleasure. It’s the easy bit,” she says. “It’s something I’ve always loved and continue to love, so when the camera is about to roll up, the beauty of developing a character is you don’t have to think very hard about where you are because it is in your DNA. I felt that when I played Sarah in A Place to Call Home and Janet in Janet King. I barely looked at the notes; I knew the words instinctively. I never improvise on set; I really am not a fan of that, especially with how hard writers work to get it just right.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a method actor but because I was so enmeshed in it, I was pickled with Stella. She was more me than I was, and I said more of her words than I spoke mine over that time. It was a relief to actually get those words out and have those scenes happen.”

Dusseldorp got to watch the rushes each day, something she had never done before, and she describes post-production as “a whole other level.” “That’s like singing a lullaby to your baby, it’s so beautiful,” she adds. “What an incredible time to just reflect and meditate and go back over and over and over meticulously. It’s been an absolute honour and a privilege.”

Filming the series wasn’t without its difficulties, however, with the show’s location a four-hour drive from the nearest major town and the challenge of tackling roads that were covered in snow and black ice during the show’s winter shooting schedule last year.

“But once you get there, there’s something meditative about it because there’s nowhere else to go,” Dusseldorp says. “There’s no noise, no planes, trains or automobiles. It’s a small community in winter. Nobody was there, so we were it. It was like a circus group. We became incredibly close.”

Dusseldorp previously starred in long-running series A Place to Call Home

However, when a third wave of Covid hit Australia, Dusseldorp was forced to go into hiding – because if she fell ill, the whole production would have to pause. Meanwhile, other members of the team were able to go trekking or rafting. The local police force also took the crew to some previously unreachable locations, such as a cliff edge, where they were able to secure some stunning shots of the landscape.

“We really had the run of the town. But when we wrapped and I was driving away on the last night, I thought to myself, ‘What is the most important thing that has happened to you out of these 16 weeks?’ And I thought, ‘That nobody got hurt.’ I was so relieved, because we played on the edges of some spaces, always safely, but we got to see some remarkable places because we went out on the edge.”

With Bay of Fires due to launch later this year on the ABC, Dusseldorp hopes the show’s use of previously unseen locations, as well as its fluid approach to narrative structure and its distinctive tone, will ensure it stands out to viewers in Australia and around the world.

“The audience can look forward to a good story that has twists and turns but is uniquely Australian,” she says. “We did also make it for an international audience, because we love our stories to travel, but in all the stories I’ve ever told that have sold around the world, it’s because we made it for us in our place and that’s what makes it interesting. We’re really bringing a world heritage area into people’s living rooms and saying, ‘We were allowed access and now you are too.’”

Dusseldorp is now preparing for her next stage role in Women of Troy, which runs this month at Hobart’s Theatre Royal, as well as developing other TV and film projects with Archipelago. “There’s also potential for Bay of Fires to grow and live on, so we’re working towards that as well,” she adds. “And that’ll do.”

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