Tag Archives: ABC

Testing times

Operation Buffalo writer and director Peter Duncan tells DQ how he mixed authentic detail with satirical humour to dramatise the true story of British nuclear testing in South Australia.

In Australia in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, British atomic bomb testing took place at Maralinga, a remote region of the outback in South Australia. Seven tests were carried out in total, the first four under the name Operation Buffalo, which now lends itself to the title of a six-part drama that mixes real events with fictional characters.

The series, which debuted in Australia on ABC last night and is distributed by APC, introduces Major Leo Carmichael, an Australian army engineer and Second World War hero charged with keeping the nuclear base running smoothly. But testing the world’s most dangerous weapon is not an easy task with a commanding officer who is not fit for the job; a meteorologist, Dr Eva Lloyd-George, who is starting to ask questions; and a government and press watching their every move. And it soon emerges that the land of Maralinga may not be as uninhabited as it seems.

Peter Duncan
(photo: Toby Burrows)

Operation Buffalo opens with the header, ‘This is a work of historical fiction but a lot of the really bad history actually happened,’ which serves as a nod to co-creator, writer and director Peter Duncan’s approach to developing the series along two tracks: don’t get the historical facts wrong, and keep it entertaining.

Certainly, the characters appear to be more than hapless at times and don’t immediately instil the sort of confidence you would expect from those in charge of testing deadly weapons.

“You could tell this story in a different way. You could tell it in a way that was pretty bleak and depressing,” the Rake creator tells DQ on the phone from his home in Sydney. “There was a sense, at every level, of betrayal of the Australian government by the British government – and by the Australian government of its soldiers and the First People [Aboriginal Australians who lived on land at Maralinga]. But that approach has never been in my nature; it’s not my thing.

“I had done some satire in the past in my movies and it occurred to me this was an act of madness, allowing the UK to bomb Australia, and the way the Australians administered it was pretty appalling. I turned to a film like [Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy] Dr Strangelove and thought, ‘That’s how you tell this story.’ You add personal madness into it, albeit through fictional characters, and create the circumstance for a hero [Leo Carmichael] you just throw problems at in every episode.”

Comparisons can also be made to Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s iconic, sprawling and absurd war novel that was recently adapted as a TV drama.

“That was and remains one of my favourite books. What Heller captured in his book was that madness, that this is crazy,” Duncan says. “It was front of mind. But it was still more Strangelove for me because of the look of it, though it’s not in black and white. There’s something about being out there in the desert that feeds madness.”

Duncan was approached with the idea for the series by Porchlight Films, the prodco led by Vincent Sheehan and Tanya Phegan, who created the series with Duncan. Immediately drawn to the real-life foundations of the story, Duncan wrote a pitch for the ABC, setting out his vision for a show full of laughs and one that wouldn’t be relentlessly sad.

“The ABC probably has 12 million scripts about Maralinga lurking in its filing cabinets, but they liked the fact this would be engaging television and would encourage viewers to keep watching,” he says. “In the end, they commissioned it.”

The story also chimed with Duncan’s personal history. He describes growing up in a political household with his communist grandfather and capitalist mother, who fed him alternative historical perspectives. His mother also passed on her love of spy novels, leading Duncan to develop an interest in the Cold War and espionage.

“As I grew up, I also became much more interested in history and politics generally. And at university, I became much more aware of the real history of Australia, as opposed to the history we were taught at school and the terrible afflictions that had been made to First Australians,” he recalls.

“Operation Buffalo was a perfect marriage for me in terms of this bizarre incident of nuclear bombs being dropped and how it was lied about. It was also obviously something that made me very angry. I was aware of Maralinga but I wasn’t aware of the details – and the more details I learned, the more shocking it became.”

Operation Buffalo stars Jessica De Gouw and Ewen Leslie

Describing satire as his default position, Duncan drew on influences such as Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to keep the story entertaining, without ever losing sight of the responsibility he was shouldering to ensure the show honoured the facts. The blend of those two angles created a “tricky writing process,” involving weekly story and character conferences with Sheehan and Phegan. Duncan also agreed to direct the whole series, which meant production could be planned akin to a long film.

“It’s always the case – some [writing] days were diamonds and some days were turds, but the story just got better and better,” he says. “Thankfully, the cast really embraced the scripts. There wasn’t a huge amount of debate in terms of what needed to be done. And so, directorially, I could sit down with them for as long as possible and make sure we were working on the same project. Given the quality of these actors, once I had that locked in my head, I felt pretty certain that they’d get the job done. And indeed they did.”

Ewen Leslie (The Cry, Safe Harbour) stars as Leo, with Jessica De Gouw (The Secrets She Keeps) as Eva and James Cromwell (LA Confidential, Succession) as military officer Cranky. Behind the scenes, Duncan partnered with production designer Colin Gibson (Mad Max: Fury Road) and cinematographer Martin McGrath (Rake, Les Norton).

Filming took place in several stages, beginning on location in Sydney, which doubled for parts of Adelaide. The show’s military camp was then built at a Sydney reservoir that was also the filming site of Mel Gibson war film Hacksaw Ridge, before the final two-and-a-half weeks were spent deep in the South Australian outback.

“It was glorious. It was so inspiring. There wasn’t a bad angle,” Duncan says. “But it was tough. It was very physical. I have this thing called ‘film memory,’ so when we look back on a shoot I’m saying, ‘Wow, wasn’t that great.’ If you actually dial back into the moments, all I can remember is stress. Film memory makes it more loving and comforting than it really was.

James Cromwell plays military officer Cranky

“It was just a sense of physicality. The other thing about it was I felt a great responsibility, because of the beauty of the land, the history of the land and its attachment to the local Maralinga people, to capture it creatively and ethically in a way that made everyone proud. I was constantly aware of that. It wasn’t a burden, but it was something I was carrying and I think we did the best we could.”

It’s that dedication to the historical context of the series that Duncan was most determined to maintain throughout, the writer noting a lack of public awareness of what happened at Maralinga in the 1950s and his eagerness to shine a light on those events.

“When Vincent and I were in London two years ago, we were talking to producers and agents, and no one knew about this. Then you tell them the story and they say, ‘You’re fucking kidding me?’ The sad thing is, you come back to Australia and not many more people are aware of it,” he says. “It’s a scandal, and it’s good to expose scandal.

“I also think it’s good, particularly at the moment, to question the notion of trust between nations and governments. We went to Afghanistan, a country that my country does not understand in any way, shape or form. We went to their country and we killed thousands of people, and I don’t think the Australian nation understood why we were there. I mourn the lack of debate and the lack of politicians caring to inform the people about the truth of situations.

“This was a situation in which Australian people were lied to,” Duncan adds. “To that extent, I don’t think it’s a unique situation. I hope people are aware of what’s going on in the world. Any reminder to be vigilant and to be careful what you wish for is a good thing.”

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Rules of the Road

Australian ‘outback noir’ series Mystery Road first launched on ABC in 2018, bringing Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to the small screen following feature films Mystery Road and Goldstone.

Season one saw Swan investigate the disappearance of two young farmhands on an outback cattle station, leading him to uncover drug trafficking and a past injustice that threatened the whole town.

Now in season two, Swan arrives in a small coastal community where secrets from the past and present collide to reveal a dangerous enemy.

In this DQTV interview, producer Greer Simpkin and season two director Warwick Thornton discuss how the films inspired the series and how it blends western tropes and the Australian outback to create a unique crime drama.

Mystery Road is produced by Bunya Productions for ABC and distributed internationally by All3Media International.

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Uptown girl

Stumptown showrunner Jason Richman takes DQ inside the making of the ABC series, recalling how the original graphic novel was adapted for television and revealing how Marvel star Cobie Smulders was cast as lead character Dex Parios.

While Cobie Smulders is used to surrounding herself with superheroes as SHIELD agent Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her latest TV character isn’t quite so exceptional.

But that’s what makes Dex Parios, the central character of US drama Stumptown, all the more appealing, according to showrunner Jason Richman.

Dex is a former army veteran turned private investigator whose brash style and disregard for the rules lead her into trouble. Struggling with PTSD after an explosion killed her childhood sweetheart in Afghanistan, burdened by heavy gambling debts and dealing with the responsibility of taking care of her younger brother, Dex teams up with her friend and ex-felon Grey (Jake Johnson) to take on cases the police are unwilling to pursue in Portland, Oregon.

Jason Richman

Season one of the series, which is based on a graphic novel, ran for 18 episodes in the US on the ABC network, narrowly crossing the finishing line before productions were suspended across the country as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced by ABC Studios, it is set to debut on UKTV network Alibi this Wednesday following a deal with distributor Disney Media Distribution.

Richman, who has previously worked on shows such as Mercy Street and Detroit 1-8-7, says the series is a “breath of fresh air” when it comes to US crime dramas, thanks to its female central character and Dex’s relationship with Grey.

“What’s different about this show is deceptively simple,” he tells DQ from his home in LA. “Most of these shows, they’re always centred on a man and the woman’s got all the brains and he gets all the credit, or it’s a conceptual spin on a partnership like that.

“What’s really great about this character, and what I kind of gravitated to, was Dex doesn’t realise she’s good at what she does and feels like a bit of a fraud at first, waiting to be found out. It might be the only thing she’s qualified to do at the end of the day. So in that way, there’s just a lot of deceptively simple attributes to the show that have not been expressed in American detective television.”

Richman hadn’t heard of the Stumptown graphic novel, published in 2009 and named after the nickname given to Portland, until a fellow producer sent it to him. By page three, he was grabbed by the story and, in particular, the character of Dex.

“She just challenged me in so many interesting ways. And even the raw, naked humanity of the character, I found very interesting,” he explains. “She didn’t have a superpower. As a matter of fact, she made so many mistakes but always seemed to fail forward. And that became the premise of the character. I added some characters, I added some attributes to her world and blew it up a little bit [for television]. It wasn’t really set up to be a TV show as a graphic novel, but it was a great jumping-off point.

Cobie Smulders as Dex Parios

“The graphic novels had a bunch of different cases; they weren’t really set up to work for a TV hour like we were going to do them. That element had to be worked on a little bit. I made some of the relationships stronger, I changed gender for some of the characters, but I tried to hold on to as much as I could in reverence to the work and also because there are good-quality, really interesting characters there. I’m very gratified that Greg Rucka, who co-created the graphic novel, was so pleased with the outcome, which is always nice to hear.”

Central to the success of the show has been Marvel and How I Met Your Mother star Smulders in the lead role as Dex, a character struggling with the trauma of her past but  often displaying a funny side too.

“In the casting process, it was really hard to find somebody who could do all the levels [of Dex’s character],” Richman says. “We found people who could do some of them, and different people could do different levels. It was very difficult to find somebody who could do them all. The pilot script went out and Cobie responded and she came in and we cast her right away.

New Girl’s Jake Johnson also stars

“It became very clear, almost instantaneously, that she’s just the perfect person to play this part. You rarely experience this. She just elevated everything, took it off the page and brought her own spin to it. She has just great instincts, and the character has become as much as hers as it is mine.

“And because Cobie is very funny, very creative and very inventive, and has a keen awareness of where the boundaries of this character are, she can come to me and say, ‘This isn’t feeling right’ or, ‘I’d like to do this.’ We have a discussion about it, then we often come to a solution, and this has been a really great evolution between us.”

In the writers room, Richman started by creating Dex’s character trajectory through the series, building an arc for her that spoke to her PTSD experience. At the beginning of the series, he describes her as “lost” and directionless, with the unique relationship between Dex and her brother being her only tie to any sense of a normal life.

“Then I wanted her to fall ass-backwards into this line of work,” he says of her becoming a PI. “I thought it would be much more interesting if she did something she was never planning on doing – something that she just got pushed into reluctantly. If she had her way, she wouldn’t do it at all.

“Then, over the course of the season, what she would find is that she’s actually good at it, despite her reluctance and despite herself. The whole thing gave her a sense of meaning and purpose. That’s where we starte,d and we just drew a roadmap from the beginning to the end of season one.”

Episodic cases she takes on are further used as a backdoor to explaining one element of Dex’s character, which evolved as writing on the first season progressed. “That’s the great Darwinian process of television that’s really fun,” Richman adds. “When you’re making it, you’re seeing what’s working and you’re always building upon the things that are working. It helps you tell the version of the story that’s most creatively satisfying to you, and you only discover that along the way.”

Smulders on set with director and exec producer James Griffiths

Fans of comedy sketch show Portlandia – which starred Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and ran for eight seasons – will recognise several locations and the type of quirky, off-beat characters that populated the IFC series. Stumptown also aims to tap into the unique sensibilities of the city, with part of the pilot shot there and in Vancouver. The rest of the drama was then largely shot in LA, aside from some establishing and exterior scenes.

“It’s a little off-centre. It’s a really interesting place,” Richman says. “Portlanders are very serious about certain things. You walk into any restaurant in Portland and, whatever they do, they want to do it better than anybody. There’s also a certain type of frontier spirit. There’s a very inventive, survivor spirit, but also a great sense of humour. It’s not a place that takes itself overly seriously, which is kind of fun. There’s a very deep connection to Native American culture, and we certainly explore that in our show with a character who comes from that world.

“That’s a unique aspect of the show that doesn’t exist much on broadcast television. From a production point of view, we shoot a lot of establishing shots and a lot of exteriors in Portland. We try to infuse Portland as much as we can visually and also from the character point of view, by trying to find people who are a little off-centre in a way that feels true to the place.”

Making a series for broadcast television is always a battle against time, with seasons running to as many as 24 episodes. For any showrunner, that means juggling scriptwriting duties in the writing room with on-set production and post-production.

The 18-episode first season of the Portland set series aired on ABC

“Every show has its own ecosystem and dynamic, so you’re trying to wrap your head around that. For a show in its first season, there’s always a bit of catching up to do while you’re figuring out how to make it, because every show is different,” he says.

“The challenge is being up against the clock constantly, but we have a naturally talented crew that functions very well on this show. Then getting the scripts right is a time thing. It’s a crush every time, but that’s the game, it really is. There’s no way around it; you have a target, your show’s going on the air, you’re going to shoot something. It’s just a hustle. It’s one very long sprint.”

While he awaits word on a second season amid the ongoing production shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Richman says international viewers now tuning into Stumptown can expect a very human story wrapped inside a series that does its best to break the traditional rules of the detective genre.

“What’s so nice about Dex Parios, the heroine of this story is she’s a lot like us. She’s just constantly failing forward, and there’s something kind of refreshing about that,” he adds. “You don’t have to be a superhero. You just have to keep going at it. And that persistence and someone who doesn’t come at it with the ego of knowing that she’s right every time is refreshing.”

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United Stateless

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.”

Cate Blanchett as Pat in Stateless

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.

Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie, who ends up in a detention centre after escaping a cult

“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.”

Fayssal Bazzi (left) plays Afghan refugee Ameer, while Claude Jabbour is Farid

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.

Dominic West as Gordon, husband of Blanchett’s Pat

“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.

Jai Courtney also features, portraying detention centre guard Cam

“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.

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Making the law

Inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr, ABC legal drama For Life follows prisoner Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock), who becomes a lawyer litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.

In this DQTV interview, executive producers Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson and Doug Robinson talk about their journey to bring Wright Jr’s story to the small screen and why they decided to take it to a broadcast network instead of creating a “gritty” series more suited to a cable channel.

Jackson also explains why he compares the series to US hip-hop group Run-DMC and how his own TV and film career mirrors his musical success.

For Life is coproduced by Sony Pictures Television, ABC Studios, Doug Robinson Productions and G-Unit Film & Television for ABC.

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Higher ground

British actor Freddie Highmore made his name in feature films and as a young Norman Bates in Psycho prequel series Bates Motel. He explains why his starring role in ABC medical drama The Good Doctor is his biggest challenge yet.

At the age of just 27, Freddie Highmore is already an industry veteran with a slew of box-office hits and two decades of work under his belt. But it’s his latest role, as genius surgeon Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor, which is winning him some of the biggest plaudits of his career thus far.

The British actor plays the shy autistic savant – who can’t look people in the eye but is able to come up with ingenious ways around complex medical problems – with an authentic delicacy and passion that has helped make the show a huge hit around the world.

Freddie Highmore in The Good Doctor

“Shaun is probably the most challenging character I have ever played,” says Highmore, who first found fame in feature films Finding Neverland and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. “There was an awareness from the start that this was a story we wanted to do correctly and not mess up, because it feels like it has a wider importance rather than just being a television show in its own right.

“We have a full-time consultant on board to help us with the autism side of Shaun’s character, but autism is just one aspect of what defines Shaun. We have taken care to portray autism authentically while also being aware that he can never represent everyone who is on the spectrum.

“We are telling this one unique, individual story but, at the same time, the letters I get from people with autism saying how the show has inspired them are the most meaningful things about the job.”

The Good Doctor is based on the Korean medical drama of the same name, the international potential of which was first identified by Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), who also stars in the show as Dr Jackson Han. Kim struggled to find a home for the format until Sony Pictures Television expressed an interest and brought David Shore, creator of House, on board. It was subsequently ordered to series by US network ABC in 2017.

Highmore, who demonstrated his full range in thriller Bates Motel, a five-season prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror Pyscho, was an obvious choice to play the lead in The Good Doctor, and the actor admits he relishes taking on challenging roles. “I am always drawn to interesting characters, and Shaun is unlike anything we have seen before on television,” he says. “I like that he offers up a different version of masculinity. He’s not an alpha male.”

The actor, who in the flesh is an interesting mix of shyness and confidence, has always wanted to be more than just the leading man – and having directed and written episodes for Bates Motel, he does the same again for The Good Doctor, in addition to serving as a producer.

Highmore’s Shaun Murphy is a genius autistic surgeon

“When you spend eight months of a year on a project and devote so much of your time trying to make the show as good as you possibly can, it feels natural to want to contribute in other ways,” Highmore says. “I’ve enjoyed being involved on different levels and getting to write and direct as well as produce. It’s exciting to be able to have the chance to influence something of the wider process and also getting to learn from David Shore.”

Highmore wrote the opener of season two and directed the 15th episode. He says that, for his colleagues, there is an easy way to tell where Freddie the actor ends and Freddie the director starts – he changes accents.

“Apparently I direct in a British accent,” laughs the Londoner, who interrupted his Hollywood career to do a degree at Cambridge University. “Normally when I’m on set, I try and stay in an American accent as much as possible. But the British one comes to me naturally when I’m directing.”

Highmore has spent much of the past eight years in Vancouver – the filming location for both Bates Motel and The Good Doctor – and is already preparing for more time in a city he regards as his second home after a third season of the latter drama was commissioned before the second had even finished airing. Season three is due to launch next week.

“A lot of the crew on The Good Doctor also worked with me on Bates Motel, so I have shorthand with them,” he says. “And because the cast is supportive and we have got to know each other so well after an intense few months, I know they all want me to succeed, and that really helps me. I feel very grounded in Vancouver because I know it so well.”

The actor previously starred in Psycho prequel series Bates Motel

Highmore admits he can’t reveal much about what will happen in the third season, not least because he and the fellow writers are yet to sit down and discuss it. As well as working with a team of researchers to come up with interesting medical stories for Shaun and his colleagues to solve, the production can also look to David Renault, one of the team’s writers and a former doctor, to ensure the medical and the personal merge just as they would in real life.

“As with all good dramas that have a story of the week, the balance is about finding an interesting and dramatic plot that will reflect more widely on the characters people like,” says Highmore. “This means you can investigate your characters on a deeper, higher-stakes level, but it’s important that doesn’t feel gratuitous or forced. Because it’s in a medical setting, where so much of it is about life and death, you are pushing people – the patients and the surgeons – to the extremes of what humans are pushed to. Because it’s happening on a daily basis, that makes for an interesting exploration of character.”

While it will be more of the same in season three – Shaun and his fellow surgeons battling difficult medical problems while navigating their often-problematic personal lives – viewers are gradually learning more about Shaun. For Highmore, the character’s quiet and gradual evolution is one of the highlights of making the show, partly because it’s in contrast to the madness happening around him.

“What I love about the show is that while Shaun necessarily evolves and changes as an individual, that is not done in a melodramatic way,” the actor adds. “We end season two on an emotional high; Shaun is happy because he has asked someone out and she has said yes. It reminds us that the interesting, happy, fun, joyful moments in life aren’t necessarily the extreme ones you can get in the life-and-death situations of surgery but, ultimately, in the small wins we all experience.”

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Conversation starter

Ahead of the world premiere of Total Control, star and executive producer Rachel Griffiths takes DQ inside the themes and issues behind the Australian political drama.

It might be considered pure folly to contemplate writing a political drama in today’s unpredictable and tempestuous climate. But in Australian series Total Control (formerly known as Black Bitch), issues of race and gender are placed front and centre in a show that has been more than 20 years in the making.

The story introduces Indigenous woman Alex Irving (played by Deborah Mailman), who becomes a national hero when she drags a woman to safety from a gunman. She quickly comes to the attention of embattled prime minister Rachel Anderson who, besieged by infighting, opposition attacks and bad press, overrides her party to draft Alex into the Senate.

However, the political novice soon finds herself at odds with the PM, who might have a hidden motive, the party and the entire government machine. Determined to be more than a political stunt and intent on making a difference, Alex realises she will have to bring down the system from the inside.

The ABC series was co-created by actor Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding, Six Feet Under), who plays the prime minister. She says the idea – and the provocative initial title – first came to her when she was 27 and has been evolving ever since, inspired by two real-life events.

Actor and executive producer Rachel Griffiths flanked by star Deborah Mailman (left) and director Rachel Perkins

The first concerned an Aboriginal woman she met while working on a documentary, who was involved in a native land title claim but received abuse for her cause and had ‘black bitch’ graffitied on her house. The second involved another Indigenous woman, an elite athlete called Nova Peris, who was encouraged to stand for election to the senate and similarly received torrents of racial abuse.

Griffiths describes herself as a “kind of big constitutional and parliamentary process wonk,” and she clearly has an extensive knowledge of and interest in politics in Australia and around the world. She has closely followed US politics since living and working there, and more recently she has been keeping an eye on the UK since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The actor also studied gender issues and representation at university and has examined the role of women in government.

“Back in the day when I first had these ideas, this was a parliamentary thriller with intrinsic themes of race and gender,” she says. “I had the title and it was about an Indigenous senator who is helicoptered into the senate and brings down a government. That was my pitch, and it’s only gotten more relative. Our Conservative party here has barely increased its female reach, particularly in pre-selection [of candidates], and when women have been helicoptered in – able women with life experience over the apparatchik machines – they’re not always welcome at the table. So that’s all where it came from.”

Griffiths initially thought Total Control might be a feature film and pitched it to various people with that in mind. Eventually it landed with Blackfella Films, Australia’s “key Indigenous content creators,” responsible for films and series including Redfern Now and Deep Water.

“When I pitched it to [Blackfella co-MD] Darren Dale, they had aspirations to do a show with Indigenous leads set in the political arena,” she recalls. “It’s not something they had done before. Australia generally hasn’t really done political shows that are quite biographical. But when I pitched it, it was very much on fertile ground. It has a female lead and the title gave it a tonal pitch that was very different. Darren just loved it and he pitched it to our national broadcaster and they loved it. And here we are.”

The series is inspired by two real-life events concerning racism against Indigenous women in Australia

Griffiths says her character is motivated by a genuine desire to see change and bring about a more diverse political party, rather than simply using Alex’s appointment as a cynical ploy to remove some of the heat from her own position.

“But she’s definitely embattled by a rising right flank and is trying to head that off and surround herself by allies she feels she can rely on,” the actor explains, noting that the series also explores some of the double standards women politicians are held to.

“We show that in the constant sense that she is not legitimate, and that entitled men who are intellectually inferior to her feel that she is doing their job,” she continues. “She doesn’t come from a place of self-promotion. Women often get there through the much harder work of building consensus and bringing people along with you.”

In contrast, Alex is fighting against a parliamentary system that she discovers is slow and often painful, with big changes taking a long time. Griffiths highlights this by recalling the Australian parliament’s decision not to legislate for marriage equality but instead hold a plebiscite in the form of a voluntary national postal survey that gave Australians a say on the issue. When 61.6% of respondents supported a change to the law, a cross-party bill was subsequently passed in December 2017.

Examples such as this, as well as the instability of having five prime ministers in less than a decade, are touched on throughout the series. “But underneath that, it’s quite an impassioned plea for democracies to become more reflective of the societies they represent, to be careful with fast change, to be careful of the power of the personality-driven outsider, and it’s a cautionary tale to people spitting out the dummy when they don’t get their way first time around,” says Griffiths, who last year starred in crime drama Dead Lucky.

Griffiths with producer Miranda Dear (left) and Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale

Viewers will walk in Alex’s shoes through the drama, witnessing the political experience from her perspective as Indigenous issues such as status and land rights are also explored. “I’m definitely the antagonist,” says Griffiths. “We observe the octopuses I’m wrestling with, but it’s [Alex’s] heart, her life, her journey from outsider to insider. That’s what makes it so powerful.

“I just think it’s so exciting and relevant and interesting and goes beyond any political tropes like a [Netflix series] House of Cards. Not that that wasn’t an absolutely wonderful show, but that was done so well – we’re not making our version. This is about the underrepresented, the historically disenfranchised and badly done-by.”

Playing Alex is Mailman, the award-winning actor whose credits include Offspring, The Sapphires, Jack Irish and Mystery Road.

“She has won more actor awards down here than any other actor next to Judy Davis [Husbands and Wives, Mystery Road] and has never had a lead,” says Griffiths. “It’s such a thrill that she finally had a role that illustrates not only her tremendous breadth of talent but also using the fact that she’s one of our most likeable actors. When you have an actor you just love, people are more prepared to emotionally go further and cross into worlds with that particular actor than they thought they would go through.

“She’s got an extraordinary range but also this intimate lovability. You just love her; you feel what she’s feeling and you go with her through all her mistakes and challenges. She’s pretty extraordinary.”

Director Rachel Perkins on set

Behind the camera is director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Mystery Road, Redfern Now), co-MD of Blackfella Films, who Griffiths describes as one of Australia’s most important Indigenous storytellers. Her father, Charlie Perkins, is an Indigenous statesman, “a true legend and national treasure,” so she was able to bring her own experience of Australian politics to the six-part series, which is distributed by Keshet International worldwide and in partnership with Endeavor Content in the US.

“It’s a world she knows. I think it’s almost impossible to quantify that,” Griffiths explains. “There’s nobody else who would have understood the bridge between the worlds and the balancing act that you do as an Indigenous woman director in a very male and very white-dominated industry down here. Visually, she understands the landscape and the contrast between coming from the warmth of the country into these cool Canberra, putrid, mechanistic environments.”

Filming took place in Queensland and the capital Canberra, where scenes were shot in public areas around government buildings, while some studio sets were also built in Sydney.

Coming off the back of directing feature film Ride Like a Girl, Griffiths has immersed herself in making the series, both in front of and behind the camera in her dual role as actor and executive producer. “I’ve been very involved in breaking what the show would look like, character arcs and what we’re trying to say,” she says. “I had great access to members of parliament and senators. Many women were quite open about their stories. We had a wonderful early story room with a lot of different people coming in and talking, which was just fabulous. And now we’re just starting to do that again for season two.”

With the series premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, talk of a second season is premature, but Griffiths imagines a three-season arc to the story. “I’m sure it’ll start a conversation, or a few conversations,” she adds. “It hasn’t been designed to be a social-impact service. It’s just speaking to the zeitgeist as a conversation of the time. Democracy is never something we can take for granted, and people are really awakening to that.”

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Doing more with Les

Australian literary hero Les Norton comes to television in an adaptation of the cult books by Robert G Barrett. DQ hears how the source material has been updated for modern audiences while recreating the style and character of 1980s Sydney.

While the 1980s might not seem that long ago to some, seeing the decade recreated on the small screen for upcoming Australian drama Les Norton makes it clear just how different things were back then.

Whether it’s the music, the hairstyles, the fashion or the bold neon lighting, the era is recreated perfectly for this 10-part series. For younger viewers, it’s a period drama, but to everyone else, it’s a nostalgic look back on an era that serves as the backdrop for an adaptation of Robert G Barrett’s novels.

Morgan O’Neill on set

National broadcaster the ABC, producer Roadshow Rough Diamond and distributor Sonar Entertainment have partnered on the series, which introduces fish-out-of-water ‘country bloke’ Les Norton to Sydney’s Kings Cross district in 1985. On the run from a troubled past, he lands a job as a bouncer and fixer at a notorious illegal casino, becoming seduced by the city’s illicit charms and dragged into a web of underground criminality.

Alexander Bertrand (Australian Gangster) takes the title role in this “irreverent love letter to Sydney and the mid-80s,” while Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect) and David Wenham (Romper Stomper) go head-to-head in a battle for control of the city as brothel queen Doreen Bognor and gentleman criminal Price Galese.

The Les Norton books have been wildly popular in Australia since the first novel, You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids, which lends its name to the pilot episode, was published in 1985. In fact, they are described as the most read books in the Australian Defence Force and the most borrowed books in the New South Wales prison system.

When DQ speaks to creator Morgan O’Neill and producer John Edwards, the series is halfway through its 10-week production, with a view to a launching down under later this year. O’Neill reveals that three units have been filming simultaneously – one fishing off Sydney’s Manly Point, another “pulling up lobsters and cocaine” off the Bondi Beach peninsular and third unit body-surfing into the Bondi sands.

“We’ve got bits outstanding because, for economic reasons, we have to shoot Rebel’s scenes all together and David’s all together,” Edwards explains. “It’s been a little tricky but we’re ploughing ahead now. We’re having a pretty great time. We’re really enjoying it a lot. It’s a great, fun show.”

Edwards describes redheaded Les as “a bit like a Crocodile Dundee,” the laid back, charming hero of the eponymous 1986 movie. “He was a smart character who was an innocent in a dirty world. That’s what we’ve got,” he notes. “A lot of it is metaphorical but it’s a great deal of fun and, hopefully, it’s going to translate more broadly, just as Crocodile Dundee did at that time.”

O’Neill, who has written six of the 10 episodes, is the creative force behind the adaptation, describing Barrett’s books as iconic “pub literature.” He had read them many years ago and, together with producer John Schwarz, decided to develop them for television.

Alexander Bertrand (left) plays the titular character in Les Norton

Based in LA, O’Neill brought Sonar on board before taking the project to the ABC, where head of drama Sally Riley is a fan of the novels. Roadshow Rough Diamond then joined as the producer.

In line with the novels, early footage of the series doesn’t hold back, with language as colourful as many of the costumes. But O’Neill admits some of the source material doesn’t stand up to contemporary scrutiny, so he had to find a way to balance the virtues of the author’s work with contemporary society.

“The show is set in 1985 and that was a very different time in Australia,” O’Neill says. “It was a time where there was a sense of irreverence Australians have become renowned for – a laconic sense of humour and social mores. As the years have gone on, Australia has shifted a bit from that. We’ve become a little more brittle and a little more quick to find offence. One of the endearing charms of the source material is it harkens back to a time when we weren’t so quick to be offended and we felt there was social value in treating people fairly but treating them in a way that wasn’t self-serious.”

Barrett, he continues, described himself as an “equal opportunities shit-stirrer. No one escaped his wrath. If you’re up for ridicule, he would gently ridicule you in a way that was part of the charm of Australia in a bygone era. But I’m not talking about racism, homophobia or sexism. In the source material, there was some of that and we’ve worked very hard to make sure our retelling of these stories is absent of anything that is egregious in that regard.”

John Edwards

Part of that approach was to introduce a narrator to the series. But rather than simply describing events or driving them forward, it comes from the perspective of someone today looking back on events as they happened.

“Morgan has really lifted and elevated the material in lots of ways,” Edwards says. “There’s a real fondness for the 80s but there’s a real commentary on the 80s as well. It’s a really interesting show to work on. It’s great fun and you get to look at a period of recent history, a bit like Life on Mars did and have a licence to play with some of the social changes. It really is a great joy to be doing.”

The series also introduces more women in leading roles than the books offered, creating new characters and switching the gender of others. As an example, Les’s flatmate Wozza has become Lozza (played by Kate Box), who is just as voracious, carnal, debauched and foulmouthed as the original character. “Kate’s absolutely made it her own and I look at it now and think, ‘How could you ever imagine that character not as a woman?’ She brings a sense of sexual politics into it that a male flatmate couldn’t,” O’Neill says.

The series echoes the structure of Barrett’s novels, which were largely made up of short stories. Episodes are self-contained, though O’Neill has introduced some “collective tissue” to string them all together. That meant creating an antagonist in the form of Wilson’s character. “The material lends itself to adaptation but it’s required a lot of original material to stitch it together into compelling episodic TV,” he says.

O’Neill had already written two episodes by the time the writers room was opened, providing a blueprint for the show’s style and tone that could be used in addition to the source material. The writers ranged in age and gender, providing a useful means of ensuring Barrett’s novels could be held up for critique as well as inspiration.

“What I love is the slightly different tonal interpretations of the other writers’ episodes,” he says. “They definitely don’t feel like my episodes, in a good way. There are elements where you have to make sure the tone has an overall consistency, but the mistake in those situations is to assume they all need to sound the same. Because they’re capers and because they’re almost standalone, they’re allowed to feel different and, hopefully, that will be part of the thrill of the show.”

The series also stars Pitch Perfect’s Rebel Wilson (right)

O’Neill (Drift, Solo) is also on directing duties, taking on the fourth block behind lead director Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), David Caesar (Dead Lucky) and Fadia Abboud (Australian Gangster). He says a lot of the style behind Les Norton is inspired by early Guy Ritchie films such as Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, with a love of vernacular and the quirky relationships between offbeat men.

On set, O’Neill remains amazed by the number of people who stop to take in the 1980s dressing around Sydney, with old phone boxes and cars turning up in streets across the city. “There are certain things – objects, sounds and songs – that are provocative of a different period, and it’s a really powerful medium to play in. I wanted to make sure we leant into that but, at the same time, we were conscious of producing something that wasn’t a pastiche of 1985,” he says. “It’s merely the context, it’s not the joke. There’s hopefully enough humour in the show to go around. I didn’t want it to be a show about endless mullets and Hypercolor T-shirts.”

As well as selling the series overseas, Sonar was heavily involved in casting Les Norton, bringing together international names in Wilson and Wenham and pairing them with new talent. Bertrand, says president of global distribution and coproduction David Ellender, is a rising star, while the show also boasts Pallavi Sharda, already a big name in India and Australia, who starred in US network ABC’s recent drama pilot Triangle. She plays Georgie Burman, the whip-smart casino manager who was George in the novels.

“Being in LA, you’re very aware of the Australian and New Zealand talent both in front and behind the camera, either in TV or film,” Ellender says. “When you’re doing 10 episodes or fewer, movie stars like Rebel or David can’t attach themselves to a series as they do on network TV, with 22 episodes for five, six or seven years. No theatrical actor would do those sorts of deals. But today, if it’s between six and 10 episodes, maybe for two or three seasons, then people are very open to doing it, particularly if they can go home. Rebel lives in LA but wants to go back to Australia when she can. It’s a great opportunity for actors to do something back at home.”

David Ellender

Sonar’s recent projects include Tom Hardy’s Taboo and German wartime drama Das Boot, both of which are returning for second seasons. Like those series, Les Norton stands out from the plethora of other television series for its style and originality, according to Ellender.

“I was very intrigued by this character going to the big city and falling in with the wrong crowd,” he says. “It was the way Morgan pitched it to me, and I thought the character was one we’ve not really seen for quite some time out of Australia. It seemed to be a really fun crime drama.

“Maybe three or five years ago, Les Norton wouldn’t have been made. But because the way we’re viewing programming today, people are able to make things like this today.”

More than 30 years since Les Norton landed in print, O’Neill says this fish-out-of-water story still resonates, and he’s confident the series can entertain a broad audience.

“There’s a lack of self-seriousness about our show, which I think is going to be a breath of fresh air. That’s certainly our intention,” he says. “We take what we do incredibly seriously, but the tone of the show is quite the opposite. It’s light-hearted and irreverent, and hopefully incredibly cheeky and very funny. For my reading of the way Australians are viewed around the world, that’s partly what we’re known for. I hope there’s an appetite for that.”

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Scaling new Heights

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.

The Heights was co-created by showrunner Warren Clarke (second from right)

“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 show focuses on a wide range of characters living in a tower block, including the Jafari family

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.”

The Davies family, another group living in the tower

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.”

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Mind the Gap

The creators of Screentime miniseries Pine Gap reveal how they recreated the eponymous Australian/US defence base and explain why it makes the perfect backdrop for drama.

Australian writer-producers Greg Haddrick and Felicity Packard knew they would face at least one major challenge when they pitched a miniseries set at the Pine Gap defence facility in the Outback to US and international broadcasters.

The problem? That few Americans are even aware of the existence of the joint US/Australian base, let alone its pivotal role in collecting and sharing intelligence on sensitive matters including terrorism, arms control and targets for missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.

But Netflix was an obvious choice as the copro partner with Australian pubcaster the ABC for Pine Gap, a six-part spy thriller produced by Banijay-owned Screentime Australia that launched on October 14.

Haddrick and Packard hatched the idea when ABC executives asked what they planned to do after ANZAC Girls, a 2014 miniseries that centred on the Australian and New Zealand nurses who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front in the First World War. As showrunner, Haddrick thought Pine Gap would be a great setting for a thriller that deals with the growing tensions between China, the US and Australia, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Packard, who lives in Oz capital Canberra, knew a lot of people who had worked at the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), a government foreign intelligence-collection agency.

Funded by the ABC, they started developing the screenplay with producer Lisa Scott, a long-time collaborator. David Rosenberg, an American who lives in Australia and worked on the operations floor at Pine Gap for years, provided plenty of non-classified information.

L-R: Pine Gap writers Greg Haddrick and Felicity Packard with producer Lisa Scott

Based on her conversations with Rosenberg and former ASD personnel, Packard was keen to explore the complexity of relationships involving people in the intelligence services who are not allowed to discuss their job with their partner.

“Greg and I were entranced by the idea that you fall in love with somebody from a different country, you have both signed secrecy agreements and you have a fundamental loyalty to your own country,” says Packard. “What if you can’t tell your partner everything? And what if you work on the base but you partner doesn’t and you can’t talk about your work at all? What sort of stress does that level of secrecy place on relationships?”

Given the scale of the production, which involved location shooting in the Northern Territory and the construction of the vast operations floor in the Adelaide studios managed by the South Australian Film Corp, the producers knew they needed a copro partner.

Elizabeth Bradley, Netflix’s former VP of content, was a fan of the duo’s previous work including ANZAC Girls, Janet King, Cloudstreet and the Underbelly crime franchise. She contacted Haddrick to ask if he had any projects he thought might interest the streaming platform, so he sent her the first two scripts. That was followed by three long phone conversations as Haddrick explained the role of the base and how intelligence is shared between the two countries. He also mapped out the personal stories of the Americans and Aussies who work at the base and the issues of trust, loyalty and betrayal. Netflix signed on a year ago and the first two episodes will have their world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival this October.

“There was a lot of interest in the idea from many American end-users. It was a matter of finding the right partner who was willing to take a risk on a show being made 12,000 miles away,” says Haddrick, who has since left Screentime, where he spent 17 years as head of drama, to launch his own banner, Rainfall Creations. ‘Rainfall’ was the CIA’s code name for Pine Gap.

The defence base-set series stars Parker Sawyers as Gus alongside Tess Haubrich as Jasmina

Mat King, an Aussie director who helmed three seasons of Law & Order: UK and episodes of Doctor Who and DCI Banks, was entrusted with all six episodes. King, who grew up in Adelaide and was aware of the Pine Gap base, worked with Packard and Haddrick on Underbelly: Razor in 2011 and had been keen to collaborate with them again. “I had to pitch my vision of the show to Netflix; they were happy and approved me as the director,” King says. “The biggest part of my pitch is that I saw this as a six-hour film with six chapters.”

In casting, Netflix execs made it clear they did not necessarily want marquee names, asking the producers to cast a wide net to ensure they got the right actors. The US-born, UK-based Parker Sawyers plays Gus Thompson, the US mission director, who is forced to question where his allegiance lies when he begins a romance with Jasmina Delic (Tess Haubrich), the Australian communications intelligence team leader.

Sawyers, who earned rave reviews for his turn as a young Barack Obama in 2016 movie Southside with You, relished playing a character whose skin colour is incidental and a story that has nothing to do with the issue of race. His main challenge was learning 66 pages of dialogue, much of it in the lingo of the intelligence world. He had worked for the Republican governor of Indiana, as a model and for a lobbying firm in London before deciding, aged 28, to pursue his long-held ambition of becoming an actor.

Steve Toussaint, a Brit of Barbadian descent, plays facility chief Ethan James, a former US Air Force fighter pilot whose job has taken a toll on his personal life. “These people are doing incredibly important jobs; the weight of the world may not be on their shoulders but it’s close to it,” says Toussaint.

The actor, who was a regular in ITV’s Lewis and had recurring roles in Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude and Epix’s Berlin Station, was attracted by the script and by the series’ mixture of physical action and cerebral interplay. He sees the show as highly topical, observing: “It’s about the shifting nature of geopolitics as the US comes to terms with no longer being the dominant superpower due to the emergence of China.”

G Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Rudi, Jacqueline McKenzie as Kath and Steve Toussaint as Ethan

The set of the operations floor was the largest that any of the key creatives had experienced, including 168 computers, a mezzanine level and multiple corridors. The executive offices and a cafeteria were built in a warehouse at the former General Motors factory in suburban Elizabeth. “We could shoot wide shots inside our world, almost interior landscapes, which gave a sense of scale to what was happening in the base,” King says.

FX house KOJO digitally created the Pine Gap facility and plonked it in a valley west of Alice Springs, which was filmed by drones. Geoffrey Hall (ANZAC Girls, Deadline Gallipoli, Wolf Creek) was the DoP. Hall and King adopted a non-traditional approach to TV drama by thoughtfully framing shots and aiming for a cinematic tone.

Knowing that Netflix viewers often binge-watch shows, consuming three or more episodes in one sitting, the producers and King edited the end of each instalment with a hook or a question mark to encourage viewers to continue to the next.

Packard wrote episodes one, four and five, with Haddrick penning the rest. The lengthy development was an advantage. “Starting pre-production with six very advanced scripts does not happen very often in Australian television,” says producer Lisa Scott. “There are many times you rush into production. This time, Felicity and Greg wrote double-digit drafts of episodes one and two.

“Producing is hard and it’s only getting harder because you have to stretch the dollars as far as you can, and you put everything on screen. There is no right way to do what we do. A lot of what we do is subjective. Netflix’s financial support enabled us to realise the vision that Greg and Felicity wanted from day one. When we started with Netflix, we wanted to prove that Australian producers could produce world-class entertainment – and hopefully we have done that.”

While the climactic episode resolves the key plotlines, Haddrick says: “There are enough tantalising loose ends that it could easily go to a second season. Viewers can look forward to a fast-paced, gripping and compelling story told in an environment that really hasn’t been explored before. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done.”

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Starting over

Castle star Nathan Fillion and showrunner Alexi Hawley reunite in ABC drama The Rookie. They tell DQ about creating a series that aims to break the formula of network cop series.

After playing the starring role in crime drama Castle for eight years, Nathan Fillion could have been forgiven for hesitating before signing up for another potentially long-running procedural.

Yet the actor had no second thoughts when he was offered the chance to reunite with former Castle showrunner Alexi Hawley and the ABC network on The Rookie. So sure was he that this show had all the elements of a hit series that, for the first time ever, he signed up before a script had been written.

“I’m an actor, I want to tell stories. And I’m in a really fortunate position where I can tell stories to millions of people, potentially internationally,” the actor says. “I’ve worked with Alexi before and I absolutely adore this guy. He tells great stories. I love the way he handles himself, I love his work ethic and I love the workplace environment he creates. So it was a no-brainer.

“We pitched the idea of this show and the elements to a number of networks, but ABC jumped on it. The odd part was there was no script. Now the scripts are here and we can watch it evolve. These characters have faces and voices. It’s been a fascinating process.”

The premise sees John Nolan (Fillion) pursue his dream of being an LAPD officer. But as the force’s oldest rookie, he’s met with scepticism from some higher-ups as he faces the challenge of keeping up with both the young cops and the criminals. The series also stars Alyssa Diaz, Richard T Jones, Titus Makin, Mercedes Mason, Melissa O’Neil, Afton Williamson and Eric Winter.

The Rookie stars Nathan Fillion as a middle-aged new recruit to the LAPD

Hawley executive produces with Fillion, Mark Gordon, Michelle Chapman and Jon Steinberg. The series is coproduced by Entertainment One (eOne) and ABC Studios for ABC, with eOne also handling international distribution. The series has already been sold into more than 160 countries.

The Rookie, which debuted last week, is based on the true story of a real-life LA cop who joined the force when he was 42. Fillion says that’s where the series stops borrowing from reality, but as we see in the pilot, it’s not hard to imagine the disdain and mocking Nolan faces taking place in the real world.

“Rookies get hazed, they kick you around a bit to toughen you up,” Fillion says, foreshadowing some of the scrapes in which Nolan will find himself after starting to patrol the LA streets. “I don’t think it’s born out of, ‘I want you to suffer,’ it’s born out of, ‘You have to be tough for this job.’ They’re not there to make it easy on you. They’re there to make sure if this is your calling, being hazed won’t stop you.”

Meanwhile, the very nature of crime series means viewers can expect The Rookie to be inherently dramatic, with the pilot featuring a bank robbery, a wild shootout and scenes of domestic violence. “You only call the police when something has gone terribly wrong,” Fillion points out, “so it’s not an easy job. As a matter of fact, I think it’s probably terrifying.”

But anyone tuning in expecting to see Castle 2.0 is set to be disappointed, as John Nolan is a very different character from author-turned-sleuth Richard Castle. Most obviously, The Rookie is far more grounded in reality, though both series do share elements of humour and comedy.

The show has already been picked up by more than 160 broadcasters around the world

“The Rookie has far more that people can actually relate to – family, trying something new and failing, not being in charge,” Fillion says. “Castle was in charge. Nobody told him what to do; he did what he wanted. There’s a unique freedom in fantasising about that, but John Nolan is not in charge. He’s the bottom. He’s not only a rookie, he’s the oldest rookie.”

The show went straight-to-series at ABC, though like fellow eOne drama Designated Survivor it still passed through the traditional pilot process, with Liz Friedlander directing that initial episode.

As well as Castle, Hawley also has credits from shows including The Following, Body of Proof and State of Affairs. The showrunner says The Rookie stands out, however, because the show is back on the beat of the traditional network cop show, alongside series such as Southland and Blue Bloods.

“To be able to tell stories about Nathan’s character as the oldest rookie, it puts him in a unique position as a character that opens a lot of opportunities storytelling-wise,” Hawley says. “And Nathan is the perfect actor for this. He’s so funny but he’s an everyman in the best possible way. You totally identify with him as someone who realises they’re not going down the path in life they want to be on. It takes a lot of bravery because the risk of failing is high yet the consequences are also high, which makes for great television.

“Sometimes detective shows are called laundry shows because you can do your laundry while you’re watching them – they tell you what’s happening, they show you what’s happening and then they tell you again, so you don’t have to pay attention as much. We really want to be a show you have to pay attention to.”

Hawley admits he likes all parts of a showrunner’s lengthy list of responsibilities, although he concedes there are days when the role can be “overwhelming,” managing both the creative and production sides of the show.

“It’s a challenge every day but, at the same time, I just like it,” says the brother of Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley. “I come from the feature world, writing movies, where you have no power, no control. On the show, writers produce their own episodes. They’re there for prep, production and are involved in post, so it makes you much more invested in your story. As a showrunner, you’re just invested in all of the stories. It rests on your shoulders but, at the same time, there’s plenty of work to go around and you’re a fool if you don’t trust the people you hire to elevate everything and make it better.”

The biggest challenge on The Rookie, he says, was maintaining the standards and scale set out in the pilot. “Often you do a pilot that’s too big or you just can’t replicate it every week but it’s also really important for me to create an ensemble around Nathan that could really support him.”

He adds: “You just have to set yourself up for success because once prep starts the week before shooting, every eight business days you start a new episode. You have to have scripts coming constantly, you have to be creating constantly. You’re editing as fast as you can. You have to set yourself up storytelling-wise. The process is never easy but that’s the challenge.”

Too good to turn down
From a pre-credits bank robbery and a secretive love affair to speeding police cars and a back-alley gun fight, director Liz Friedlander was faced with packing a lot of story into the pilot episode of The Rookie.

Liz Friedlander (left) with Afton Williams and Eric Winter on location

That she did so with buckets of visual flair, including one quick-cut sequence that sets the rookies up for their first day on patrol, is all the more impressive considering she hadn’t planned to helm a new series during the last pilot season.

But a longstanding friendship with showrunner Alexi Hawley – the pair had worked together on Fox cult drama The Following – and credits working for executive producer Mark Gordon meant she was instantly intrigued by the project. “I didn’t want to do a pilot last season, I absolutely wasn’t going to, and then they said, ‘Please read it,’ and the script was great,” Friedlander recalls. “There was a lot of opportunity to build a world that was fun, and between the script, Alexi, Nathan [Fillion] and Mark, the thing I was absolutely not going to do became irresistible.”

Friedlander loved the show’s central theme of starting over, with John Nolan changing direction later in life. She also wanted to make a love letter to LA, the city that serves as her home and the setting for the series, which she describes as a coming-of-age story for rookies facing new experiences for the first time.

The director quickly identified a visual style for the drama, one that mixes iconic and unfamiliar LA locations and makes good use of the body cameras worn by the LAPD officer to give viewers a first-person perspective of the action as it unfolds. Dollies or steadicams were used inside the police station where events are controlled; then in the field with the rookies, handheld cameras were used to reflect the unpredictable nature of life patrolling the streets.

The biggest set piece of the pilot takes place on a gridlocked Hollywood Boulevard, where Nolan confronts a baseball bat-wielding man. Permission was needed to shut the street – often closed to traffic for film premieres and award ceremonies – as well as to use a drone camera, while hundreds of extras were brought in.

“We had five cameras that were constantly rolling. We had maybe 500 extras but by the end of the day, a crowd of tourists had gathered so then we had this amazing free background,” she says. “It just made it look even better. It was exhilarating.”

Friedlander, who returned to The Rookie to shoot a car chase for episode five, is now working on new material, with no plans to do another network pilot in 2019. That is, “until there’s a script, a cast and a showrunner I can’t say no to,” she jokes.

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House call

Lisa Edelstein, the star of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, reunites with House showrunner David Shore as she joins the cast of ABC hospital drama The Good Doctor for its second season. She tells DQ about joining the hit series, playing another medic and becoming a writer.

Lisa Edelstein has starred in The West Wing and Ally McBeal, and most recently fronted Bravo dramedy Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for five seasons. But she’s arguably best known for her long-running role as Dr Lisa Cuddy in House, starring opposite Hugh Laurie in the NBC hospital drama for seven years.

In her latest TV role, Edelstein has reunited with House showrunner David Shore to play another medic in the second season of ABC series The Good Doctor.

The series, which returns to US screens tonight, stars Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) as Dr Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome who joins the prestigious St Bonaventure Hospital’s surgical unit. Edelstein plays Dr Marina Blaize (pictured above).

The cast also includes Richard Schiff as Shaun’s advocate Dr Aaron Glassman, plus Hill Harper, Beau Garrett, Tamlyn Tomita, Nicholas Gonzalez, Antonia Thomas, Chukuma Modu, Will Yun Lee and Fiona Gubelmann. The Good Doctor is produced by Sony Pictures Television, Shore Z and 3 AD and distributed by Sony Pictures Television.

Here, Edelstein tells DQ about joining the show, reuniting with Shore and her aspirations as a writer.

David Shore

Tell us about your character on The Good Doctor, Dr Marina Blaize.
Dr Blaize is a brilliant oncologist who recently got suspended by Dr Aaron Glassman [played by fellow West Wing alum Richard Schiff] for pot use. The only reason she has her job back is because he knows she is the best doctor around to help him deal with his brain tumour. Needless to say, they don’t get off to a great start.

How do you prepare for new roles, and how did you approach this one in particular?
A lot of what David Shore wants from his characters is in the writing. You have to look for the clues, the little gestures, off-hand remarks and opinions, and build a human being from there. In this case, it was really important to me that she not be a rehash of [Edelstein’s House character] Dr Cuddy. So pencil skirts were banned.

Have you had to do much medical research for the role, and will we see you performing operations?
So far I haven’t even put on a lab coat. She is helping [Dr Glassman] deal with his radiation treatments and chemotherapy. I love medicine, so whenever I have to talk about anything technical, I make sure I have a reasonable understanding of what I’m saying. Ultimately, though, I have not gone to med school or been a resident, so I wouldn’t actually try to practice oncology in the real world. If you see my trying to practice oncology in the real world, call the police.

What can you tell us about the storyline you will be involved in?
Richard’s character has a brain tumour and it’s up to me to make sure it’s healed so that they don’t kill him off the show. So Richard better be nice to me!

What was it like being on set with the rest of the cast? Is it easy to join an established series?
Some shows are easier to jump into than others. In this case, it was a breeze. I know half the writing staff from House and half the crew from Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce. Being in Vancouver [where the series is filmed] is like a home away from home. Freddie [Highmore] is so excited about his job and his life that his energy feeds the whole set. And Richard and I go back 20 years. He played my father on Jason Katim’s Relativity, then we worked together on The West Wing. And as an added boost, his wife coached me to striptease for Cuddy’s fantasy pole-dance scene on House.

Lisa Edelstein alongside Hugh Laurie in House

It seems Dr Blaize will upset some people, particularly Dr Glassman. How would you describe their relationship?
They go head-to-head a few times – she  won’t take his baloney. That said, she is an oncologist and is used to dealing with life-and-death matters, including fear and how people cope with it. So she has a good deal of empathy and warmth to back up her toughness.

Why do you think the show proved to be such a hit in season one?
Well, David is a wonderful writer and he gathers incredibly smart writers around him. And Freddie is just a special kind of guy. He is so bright and so warm and clearly loves doing what he is doing. Once you have a showrunner and a lead in place who both feel great about being there, the rest is gravy. I think audiences really respond to that.

And what was the appeal for to join the cast in season two?
Honestly, it just seemed like fun to do another Shore show for a minute.

Why do you think medical dramas have enduring appeal? How does The Good Doctor freshen up this well-trodden genre?
We all have our experiences with illness and death and, no matter how fast we run or how busy we stay, these concerns forever loom over us. Maybe it’s cathartic to see these stories play out. It helps ease the underlying anxiety about our own inevitable deaths to watch a story that has a beginning, middle and end neatly tied up, with characters we enjoy. The Good Doctor includes the element of autism, giving it the added appeal of helping a large audience empathise with a person they might normally dismiss by being inside that person’s unique experience of the world around him.

Edelstein most recently led the cast of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce

What was it like to reunite with House creator David Shore for the series? How would you describe him as a showrunner?
It was super fun to work with David again. When they reached out to me about the part, David and I went for coffee to discuss it. Mostly we cracked jokes. We vaguely talked about how to make sure Blaize was not just Cuddy’s alias. As for how David is as a showrunner, this time we are nowhere near his office, so he can’t control the pronouns as much as he used to. He has to get a plane to complain. It’s like Lord of the Flies – actors are in charge and on the loose. OK, not really. He is a great captain. I just like to tease.

What do you enjoy about appearing in a network procedural such as The Good Doctor? Or do you prefer more serialised dramas?
I have to say I do prefer more serialised dramas and dramedies. I like telling a long, emotional story. Procedurals are… a lot of procedure. But it’s fun and sort of relaxing to be doing this show for a while. The stages are big, the trailers are cosy, the writing is smart, the actors are talented and the audience is super-enthused about the show. It’s all pretty wonderful.

You’re soon to appear in Netflix comedy The Kominsky Method. Do you enjoy bouncing between drama and comedy, and which do you prefer?
I love it all. It used to be that if you were on a sitcom, no one would consider you for a drama and vice versa. I kept having to recover from my last job and insist on the opportunity to switch. But nowadays it’s better. Many dramas are fnny and many comedies are dramatic, and it’s all a big hodgepodge. I like a hodge podge. I don’t want to just do one or the other. The Kominsky Method is like that, too. I get to play a super screwed-up woman, highly manipulative, a total mess. So much fun! And working with Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas is so exciting. They’re both lovely guys, for one, but it’s also one of those moments in your career where you remind yourself to pay attention. These are actors I watched for years and years, and now I’m standing with them, at work. That is a wonderful feeling. It never gets old.

The Good Doctor stars Freddie Highmore as a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome

You’re writing a pilot with Carol Barbee based on ME Thomas’s book Confessions of a Sociopath. What can you tell us about this project and your ambitions for the potential series?
Carol and I have had so much fun creating this character and I really hope we get to realise her on screen. Universal Cable Productions bought the script from us, making it my first experience of selling a script – a great feeling. Now we wait and see where it lands in terms of network or streaming. It’s my first time in the development world. For those who want to try it out, be prepared: it moves in extremely slow motion.

How do you enjoy writing compared with acting, and what stories do you want to tell in the future?
I love to write. Actors do a lot of waiting between jobs, either because there is no job to get or no job ‘right’ to take. It can be deeply frustrating and depressing to have to wait for someone else to give you the go-ahead to create. So nurturing another outlet is incredibly important. Not only that, but becoming an active content creator is really exciting. I can create roles I want to play, roles I want my friends to play and stories I find interesting. It’s all about being proactive.
Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce gave me the opportunity to not only act my face off but to write and direct as well. When the show ended, I didn’t want that expanded creative life to end. So I wrote, directed, produced and starred in a short film, Unzipping, which is currently on the festival circuit. I wrote and directed another short for a Google initiative, out later this year, and wrote the pilot with Carol Barbee. I also did a few indie films – Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets and Phoenix, Oregon – so it’s been a rich, creative year.
As for the future, I have a few more ideas that I’m working on that I’d love to see through. And I look forward to whatever surprise characters that come down the pike. Why pre-plan?

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On patrol

In US network drama The Rookie, Nathan Fillion plays John Nolan, who takes a fresh start in life by pursuing his dream of becoming a LAPD officer.

As the force’s oldest rookie, he’s considered a walking mid-life crisis. But if he can use his life experience, determination and sense of humour to give him an edge, he might just make a success of it.

The series also stars Alyssa Diaz, Richard T Jones, Titus Makin, Mercedes Mason, Melissa O’Neil, Afton Williamson and Eric Winter.

In this DQTV video, former Castle actor Fillion and showrunner Alexi Hawley reveal the origins of the series, which is based on the real-life story of the oldest rookie in the LAPD.

They talk about how Nolan fits in with the ensemble of supporting characters, the central theme of starting over and why they believe the drama will appeal to viewers of all ages.

The pair also detail how they pitched the series to ABC, which handed the show a straight-to-series order.

The Rookie is coproduced by Entertainment One (eOne) and ABC Studios for ABC, and distributed by eOne.

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ABC’s Whiskey chaser

Whiskey Cavalier, due to air on US network ABC in 2019, is described as a high-octane action comedy-drama that follows the adventures of a tough-but-tender FBI agent.

Scott Foley (Scandal) plays Will Chase (codename: Whiskey Cavalier), who is assigned to work with CIA operative Francesca ‘Frankie’ Trowbridge (codename: Fiery Tribune), played by The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan. Together they lead an inter-agency team of flawed, funny and heroic spies who periodically save the world while navigating friendship, romance and office politics.

In this DQTV interview, series creator Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Spin City) reveals why he wanted to build a show around long-time friend Foley and discusses the films that have inspired his love of action comedy.

He also explains how the show balances serialised and episodic elements, and explains why he was convinced to continue filming the show on location in Europe.

Whiskey Cavalier is produced and distributed by Warner Bros Television.

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Double act

From the creators and executive producers of Castle comes crime procedural Take Two, starring Rachel Bilson and Eddie Cibrian.

Bilson (Hart of Dixie) stars as Sam Swift, the former star of a hit cop series who suffers a breakdown and heads to rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she begins to shadow private investigator Eddie Valetik (Cibrian, Rosewood) to research a potential comeback role.

Though Eddie resents babysitting Sam, she uses her acting skills to prove herself surprisingly valuable.

In this DQTV video, Miller and Marlowe talk about how the series mixes a case-of-the-week structure with lightly serialised elements that allow viewers to learn more about the central pair.

They also reveal the international route Take Two took to win a commission and discuss why procedurals are still in fashion despite the rise of serialised storytelling.

In addition, cast members Aliyah O’Brien (Detective Christine Rollins) and Xavier de Guzman (Roberto ‘Berto’ Vasquez) offer their take on their characters and the appeal of the series.

Take Two is produced by Tandem Productions and MilMar Pictures in coproduction with ABC Studios for ABC in the US, Germany’s VOX and France 2. It is distributed by StudioCanal.

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Following procedure

Procedural series were once the bread and butter of US broadcast networks. But international buyers are finding them harder to come by amid the appetite for increasingly serialised storytelling. DQ examines the future of the story-of-the-week format.

For more than a decade, the Monte Carlo Television Festival has recognised the most watched television dramas in the world with its International Audience Award. Last year’s winner was NCIS, which drew 47.1 million viewers worldwide in the previous 12 months.

Since the gong was first handed out in 2006, NCIS has won three times, while CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has scooped the prize on seven occasions. The Mentalist and House also each have a win to their name.

Notice anything they have in common? They’re all US procedurals – story-of-the-week series that follow a team of crack sleuths as they bid to solve a different crime each week. Or in the case of 2009 winner House, an unlikely doctor and his unconventional medical approach, with new patients being admitted into his care in every episode.

The award is proof that US procedurals continue to be popular around the world, even if they’re not as loved as they once were at home. Because while international broadcasters have been crying out for a new influx of these traditional series, the format has been taking on a decidedly serialised evolution over the past few years. Such is the demand overseas that Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France went so far as to commission their own US procedural, hostage drama Gone, in partnership with NBCUniversal.

NCIS is set for a 16th season

“I feel like they’re on life support,” Adam Pettle, showrunner of legal drama Burden of Truth, says of procedurals. “They still attract probably an older audience, while broadcasters are always trying to find a younger demographic, which is the Netflix generation where television is consumed in a very different way and people bulk-watch TV.”

Yet series such as Blue Bloods, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS (renewed for its upcoming 16th season) and its multiple spin-offs, and the ever-expanding Chicago franchise on NBC are just some of the episodic series still pulling in millions of viewers each week, not to mention the older series still drawing eyeballs in repeats and syndication.

Lloyd Segan, showrunner of detective procedural Private Eyes for Canada’s Global and ION TV in the US, describes case-of-the-week dramas as “comfort food” for viewers. “I can come home and put my feet up and watch a show where the characters are family,” he explains. “The storyline has a beginning, middle and end and I feel comfortable not having to worry about mythologies or binge-watching a series.”

With shooting on season three underway, Segan says Private Eyes – which sees Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson team up as private investigators – is “completely procedural.” He continues: “The serialised aspects are the relationships between the main characters but the stories themselves are straight procedural. You could probably programme them in any order you wish. You don’t need a recap. The shows play to themselves. It’s a fantastic, delicious feast for audiences all over the world to enjoy.”

One showrunner who knows more about procedurals than most is Peter Lenkov, who is currently running CBS series MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 (pictured top) and is also behind a pilot remake of Magnum PI for the same network.

MacGyver, recently renewed for a third season, is a reboot of the 1980s show of the same name

“CBS still treads in that pool, they still do those kind of shows and they still do them successfully,” Lenkov says. “I know every season they still develop several traditional procedural series and they try to mix it up with how you get into those worlds and who those characters are.”

However, he adds that the network has been embracing greater serialisation in its case-of-the-week series, supporting character arcs and stories running across multiple episodes.

“That was frowned upon years ago, but is something that the studio and network really welcomes now,” Lenkov says. “My experience there over the last 10 to 15 years has been how much they have embraced serialised arcs within the traditional procedural format.”

Lenkov also has experience on serialised series, having worked on the fourth season of Fox’s real-time thriller 24 in 2004/05. “What we realised when we did that show was, even before bingeing existed, a lot of people were bingeing episodes three or four at a time,” he recalls. “That’s something that really helped changed storytelling on TV.”

Best known for long-running ABC crime procedural Castle, husband-and-wife team Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller will be back on the network this summer with Take Two. The series stars Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) as Sam, the former star of a hit cop series who is fresh out of rehab. Desperate to restart her career, she talks her way into shadowing rough-and-tumble private investigator Eddie (Eddie Cibrian) as part of research for a potential comeback role. She soon draws on her experience as a TV cop to help solve a high-profile case, leading them to team up for future cases.

Andrew W Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller’s Castle starred Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion

Echoing Segan, Miller believes viewers love closed-ended stories because “sometimes you don’t have the time to watch a long serialised drama and you just want to come home and watch a story that has an ending to it. There’s also the aspect of beloved characters in those stories, and that doesn’t go out of fashion either.”

Take Two, like Castle before it, is described as a light-hearted procedural that allows its creators to place just as much focus on the characters’ relationship as the crimes they solve each week.

“Terri and I both come from features so the ability to close out a story in an episode feels very comfortable to us,” Marlowe says. “But we also like big, epic storytelling where you’re telling a novel over 15 episodes. We watch that as well. The nice thing about ‘peak TV’ is there’s room for them all. For us, it isn’t one pushing the other out of the market. It’s just an expanding international palette, to allow room for all sorts of storytelling.”

Different types of storytelling don’t just extend beyond the procedural, but also within the episodic format itself. “There are some procedurals that depend upon different mechanisms of storytelling,” Marlowe continues. “Something like CSI is much more interested in the forensic evidence than it is necessarily the character journey, whereas other procedurals are much more interested in focusing on the character journeys and what their approach to crime-solving is. Even in a procedural format, there are plenty of sub-genres there for the audience.”

Hakan Kousetta, chief operating officer for television at See-Saw Films (Top of the Lake), notes that there has been an increased focus on serialisation but says all of the main US broadcasters are still hunting for “that killer procedural.”

Shenae Grimes-Beech (left) and Angela Griffin in US police procedural The Detail, which is based on UK show Scott & Bailey

“It’s to do with shows having characters that are so strong that the audience connects and comes back to them week on week,” he says. “Also, these particular shows contain a puzzle at their heart, which audiences love to engage in solving. In procedurals you are rebooting a new story in the same world each week, with gradual character evolution, whereas in serialised drama you need to create both a world and a set of characters that transform from one episode to the next, while delivering complex plots that hold the series together and hopefully carry your audience through to a satisfying ending.”

Pettle admits the procedural is going through an evolution. “It does still exist but it’s on its way out,” he argues. “I don’t see a younger audience tuning into it. Maybe there’s just not enough story. It’s very linear and incredibly well crafted but I think we’re moving in a different direction. The Good Wife is a procedural format with legal cases of the week but they meld personal and procedural so effortlessly on that show.

“For me as a writer and showrunner, it’s very difficult to plug into something for eight months where you’re not digging deep and writing about real people and exploring the multiple dimensions of different characters. I don’t think I could run a show like NCIS. I wouldn’t be hired to do it. I wouldn’t stay emotionally engaged in it as a creator.”

Pettle, who is also a co-showrunner on The Detail, admits CBC would not have commissioned a serialised drama like Burden of Truth six years ago, at a time when there was more demand for traditional episodic TV. The series, which like Private Eyes and The Detail is distributed by Entertainment One, sees Kristin Kreuk play a lawyer who returns to her hometown and tackle a legal case with social issues at its core.

“There’s still that balance broadcasters want,” Pettle says. “I remember on Saving Hope, which I co-ran for two years and ran on my own for two years, from year to year when we went into CTV at the beginning of the season, it was always like, ‘We want it to be more procedural,’ or, ‘We want it to be more character-driven.’ One year they gave percentages – ‘It can be 40% procedural.’ What’s in fashion is always changing.”

Grey’s Anatomy – ‘a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content’

Pettle’s The Detail co-showrunner Ley Lukins also believes serialised storytelling has come to the forefront thanks to the introduction of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services. “But I do believe there’s still a heavy appetite for case-of-the-week, episodic dramas,” she says. “Grey’s Anatomy is a great example of a show that has both serialised and case-of-the-week content within it. And even with something like Law & Order would still draw an audience today. But to me, and from the conversations I’ve had with people, there’s more of an expectation these days that there is a serialised element to the case of the week. If you marry the professional and the personal well, you can serve both audiences quite well.”

In the case of The Detail, which is based on British crime drama Scott & Bailey, it was US broadcaster ION Television, rather than its Canadian network CTV, that sought more procedural elements in the series. “It’s not to say we didn’t have character and that character wasn’t a major part of it, but it was definitely their wish to have a more case-of-the-week type of series because it does well for them,” Lukins says.

Hybrids such as Blindspot and The Blacklist, which marry deep mythologies with new cases each week, were heavily influenced by serialised US cable dramas, the success of which led broadcast networks to “find their own language” and remain competitive, Marlowe notes.

“There were lots of interesting experiments out there to see what the audience would respond to,” he says. “But what sustains is good storytelling and good characters. If people are engaged in the storytelling and the characters, whether it’s serialised, closed-ended or a hybrid, the audience will show up for it.”

The resurgence of procedurals, coupled with television’s never-ending infatuation with recycling old hits, means shows such as Magnum PI and Cagney & Lacey have been piloted this development season. “What you see right now is a confluence of familiar formats that people know are tried and true but also bringing in the element of IP,” says Marlowe, who believes the biggest challenge facing creators is how to break through the noise. “Some recognisable IP certainly helps.”

Burden of Truth stars Kristin Kreuk

Lenkov says he simply prefers the challenge of mapping out 22 stories a season. “I just like the puzzle aspect of building a plot each week,” he says. “I find that a lot of fun as a writer.”

But when they’re boiled down to their bare bones, procedural series are built on the simple concept of good versus evil, he adds. “If you look at the live numbers of a lot of CBS procedurals, they do really well. It shows you there’s an audience there that still likes that format. When eight million people tune in to watch a show live, that tells you a lot of people still like the genre. They still like the crime procedural. I think it’s alive and well.”

René Balcer, best known for Law & Order and, more recently, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, certainly believes there is still a place for procedural television. As for what such shows might look like in the future, that is less clear. “One can argue that the success of the just-the-facts procedurals of the 1950s, such as Dragnet, was a reaction to the subjective character-driven film noir detective films of the 1940s like The Big Sleep. Audiences liked them because they were new and different. Character-driven procedurals like Hill Street Blues were a reaction to the Dragnets and Adam-12s. And, like audiences, creative content-makers get bored with the status quo, so expect the pendulum to keep swinging.”

However, Mikko Alanne, showrunner of National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, begs to differ. “In broadcast, due to the weekly format, there will likely remain room for them, but I definitely feel audiences are increasingly gravitating toward more character-driven serialised stories,” he says.

With season two of Burden of Truth in development, Pettle says there will be another single case at the show’s heart, which will focus on sharing information and protecting people’s privacy. But, interestingly, he adds there will be more episodic elements.

“It will be a more high-octane season,” he says. “Season one was all in a small town and this season will be split between the city and a small town. There will be more stories – it will still centre around a serialised case but there will be more story and a faster pace.”

Lukins concludes: “I don’t believe procedurals will ever go out of style. In a lot of ways, in shows that might not be considered procedurals per se, there is a case-of-the-week element, it’s just maybe not a cop case or a medical case. But there’s a pattern to be found in anything. And so procedurals may change in terms of how they’re delivered but I do think the formula of the procedural is here to stay.”

As broadcasters around the world continue to seek procedurals for their schedules, it’s hard to argue with Lukin’s assertion. But with today’s showrunners preferring to delve into personality over plot, what shape they may take in future is less clear.

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Dystopian blues

The television landscape is awash with series set in alternative – and not particularly bright – futures. Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the dystopian series on screen, and also finds sci-fi series with a more optimistic outlook.

All-conquering AI, robots that are more human than human, apps that can mimic any possible experience, egomaniacal billionaires searching for eternal life, a world wreathed in perpetual smog, unstoppable viruses, re-animated corpses, Nazi victors in the Second World War and the knock on the door from black-garbed members of the secret police.

Sound familiar?

One would think that in a world with Donald J Trump as US president, Brexit, North Korea, Russia, global warming, cyber warfare and other woes, viewers would be looking for escapist entertainment. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the vision of an even more dire future provides some comfort in the present.

Dystopian drama has become a major TV trend over recent years, and it’s showing no sign of stopping, although there are some signs of possible fatigue, with lacklustre audiences in the UK for SS-GB (BBC1, 2017), Channel 4’s Electric Dreams (2017-18) and the recent Hard Sun (BBC1, 2018).

All had very different themes. SS-GB envisioned a Nazi occupation of the UK, Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on the work of hard sci-fi author Philip K Dick and Hard Sun was a police thriller set in a pre-apocalypse London.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams didn’t perform as well as Channel 4 would have hoped

In terms of the BBC1 dramas, it could be said that the rather bleak material was better suited to sister channel BBC2, while the hit-and-miss nature of portmanteau series such as Electric Dreams are known to sometimes struggle to find audiences – with the obvious exception of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (the former C4 show now at home on Netflix).

In the US, Syfy’s Incorporated (2016-17), a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck production set in a US ruled by corporations folded after one season, as did the channel’s exploitation Death Race homage Blood Drive (2017).

Are we approaching ‘peak dystopia?’ Not just yet. In fact, not by a long chalk.

It must be noted that anticipation was high for the second seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Westworld (HBO), both of which premiered recently and have been well received. Viewers are now eagerly awaiting season three of The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), while Black Mirror goes from strength to strength, with filming on season five beginning recently. And AMC’s future feudal Samurai-style society drama Into the Badlands returned in April for a third run.

Netflix’s Brazilian sci-fi series 3% deals with a world very much divided into the haves and have-nots; after favourable reactions to 2016’s debut run, the drama returned for season two on April 27.

On cable, dystopian series continue to thrive. The 100 (The CW) returned for a fifth season on April 24, The Colony came back for a third run on May 2 and Van Helsing (Syfy) had a third season order in December 2017.

Netflix’s The Rain focuses on a virus carried by precipitation

Netflix’s Altered Carbon (pictured top) launched to mixed reviews this February – there was high praise for the set design and production values but it was also criticised by some as owing too much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) and for objectifying its female characters.

Weeks after Altered Carbon dropped, Netflix also released two dystopian movies – Duncan Jones’s generally slated Mute (which shared a similar visual palate to Altered Carbon) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina)’s well-reviewed Annihilation – which may have been overkill in such a short space of time.

Data from Parrot Analytics suggests the budget-busting Altered Carbon’s patchy performance could make a sophomore season unlikely.

This year will see new dystopian drama on our screens in addition to returning series. Last week, continuing its interest in the genre, Netflix dropped the Danish thriller The Rain, which is being touted by some as its answer to The Walking Dead, except with a distinct young-adult skew.

The show is set after a brutal virus wipes out most of the population, as two young siblings embark on a perilous search for safety.

The fact the virus is spread through precipitation has led some to draw somewhat unfortunate comparisons to Chubby Rain, the fictional ‘film within a film’ in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.

Netflix Brazilian original 3% recently returned for a second season

ABC’s The Crossing, meanwhile, debuted on April 2. The show centres on an influx of refugees in present-day Oregon, but with the twist that they are from a war-torn USA, 180 years in the future.

Starring Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Treme), The Crossing debuted with a modest 5.5 million viewers, with audiences declining for subsequent episodes.

On May 19, HBO will premiere its feature-length version of Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic that depicts a totalitarian society where books are outlawed and burned by ‘firemen.’

Fahrenheit 451 takes its title from the autoignition temperature of paper. The book was last adapted for the screen in 1966 by French auteur filmmaker Francois Truffaut and was his only English-language movie. HBO’s version boasts a stellar cast including Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) and Michael B Jordan (Black Panther). Shannon has previously worked with Fahrenheit 451 director Ramin Bahrani on the award-winning foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014).

On the horizon from Fremantle’s UFA Fiction (Deutschland 83) is Kelvin’s Book, from art-house film writer/director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Hidden). An English-language project, the 10×60′ series tells the story of a group of young people in the not-too-distant future who are “forced to make an emergency landing outside of their home and are confronted with the actual face of their home country for the first time.”

Michael Shannon (left) and Michael B Jordan in Fahrenheit 451

Next year sees the debut of Amazon Prime Video/Liberty Global’s London-set series The Feed, which “centres on the family of the man who invented an omnipresent technology called The Feed. Implanted into nearly everyone’s brain, The Feed enables people to share information, emotions and memories instantly. But when things start to go wrong and users become murderous, they struggle to control the monster they have unleashed.”

Guy Burnet, Nina Toussaint White, David Thewlis and Michelle Fairley will star in the psychological thriller, which will be distributed by All3Media International.

One new project that many spectators now believe may never make it to the screen is HBO’s Confederate, as creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (Game of Thrones) are now on board the Star Wars franchise – and the show’s concept of a continuing Southern slave-owning state has proved highly controversial in the current US political climate.

FX has recently ordered a pilot of Y: The Last Man, set in a world with only one surviving male – with strong production credentials from co-showrunners Michael Green (Logan, Bladerunner 2049, American Gods) and Aida Mashaka Croal (Turn, Luke Cage).

Israeli VoD service/cablenet HOT TV will debut Autonomies this year, which imagines the present-day country divided by a wall into two Jewish states – secular in Tel Aviv and ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem.

And to round off the dystopian shows in development, Amazon recently announced a series based on William Gibson’s The Peripheral, set in a bleak not-too-distant future (and beyond), with the Westworld team of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan as showrunners.

Seth McFarlane’s The Orville serves up more lighthearted sci-fi fare

Syfy’s 2015 miniseries adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End must take the prize for one of the most downbeat endings ever – concluding as it does in the total destruction of the Earth, after the planet’s mutated psychic children have been subsumed into an all-powerful alien ‘overmind.’

But lest we fall into total despair, it should be recognised that there are actually a few sci-fi TV dramas that depict a future that isn’t unrelentingly grim.

The Star Trek franchise is notable for showing an optimistic view of the times to come, with mankind becoming a force for good in the galaxy after (with notable exceptions such as Harry Mudd) curbing its greed and war-mongering.

Seth McFarlane’s affectionate Trek tribute The Orville (Fox) also has rosier take on the future, whileNetflix’s Lost in Space reboot has a not-entirely-pessimistic vision of humanity in the 21st century.

Hulu/Ch4’s upcoming Beau Willimon-scripted Martian colony drama The First (starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone) appears to promise a relatively upbeat approach, or at least one that’s not tipped totally in the direction of dystopian misery.

The long-running Stargate SG1 and its spin-offs portrayed a universe that was inhabited by at least a few alien species willing to befriend mankind rather than instantly vaporise Earth.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who (BBC1) generally takes a more upbeat road, as befits its family audience. Although end-of-the-world scenarios and alien domination feature frequently, the Doctor usually conveys a positive attitude, occasionally (in some incarnations) to the point of what some may deem mania.

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Road trip

Mystery Road is the latest Australian feature film to hit the small screen. Series director Rachel Perkins discusses working with stars Judy Davis, Aaron Pedersen and the stunning Western Australian landscape in a show that blends cop drama and outback noir.

Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek, Romper Stomper – in the last few years, Australian drama has revisited some of the country’s most famous feature films and novels to bring new series to TV that are either sequels or reimagined interpretations of the original versions.

Now comes Mystery Road, a spin-off from Ivan Sen’s award-winning feature films Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016). The six-part series, which will air this year on the ABC, sees Detective Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pedersen) assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farm hands on an outback cattle station. One is a local Indigenous footy hero, and the other a backpacker. Working with local cop Emma James (Judy Davis), Jay’s investigation uncovers a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community.

“I’d long been an admirer of Ivan’s work so I was very excited about doing something that was a homage to that but then extended the idea further,” director Rachel Perkins says. “Having an opportunity to expand on the original film and make this noir outback cop show that dealt with both race relations and history was a really interesting crossover for me.”

Rachel Perkins

Produced by Bunya Productions and distributed by All3Media International, Mystery Road was filmed on location in Wyndham, the northernmost town in Western Australia. The harsh landscape meant Perkins was able to take the show’s characters and turn up the heat on them, literally, in this small community where everybody knows each other’s business.

“It was so hot shooting in Wyndham, 40°C most days, but the landscape is this incredible backdrop,” she says. “It really is an outback town; it’s almost like a frontier town and it has all of those qualities television has when it’s really great these days. It’s not just the story you’re interested in but the world. So we looked at series like Fargo and True Detective and looked at where they were set and how they really conjured the places. We wanted to set this story in a place that was very distinctive. So far, people have been amazed by the setting and that’s been part of people enjoying the series, that experience of the Australian outback in its most incredible form.”

The location was also appropriate for its history of racial conflict, a theme that bubbles beneath the surface of Mystery Road. “It’s not a cop show, it’s not just really about two missing boys. It’s about black and white Australians and how the simmering tension of history sits under our relationship,” Perkins adds.

Fronting the show alongside Pedersen is Hollywood star Judy Davis, who recently appeared in FX series Feud. The actor’s familial history with the region meant she had a deep understanding of, and interest in, the story. “I try not to think too much about how incredibly talented she is because otherwise it might be overwhelming,” Perkins says of Davis. “But I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator. She was really terrific and I’m not sure what I’ll ever do now because I’ll want her in every role.”

Best known for films and documentaries such as Jasper Jones, Bran Neu Dae and First Australians, plus TV series like Redfern Now, Perkins says she enjoys telling stories across a range of genres. “But I’ve particularly loved working on Mystery Road because it’s a genre piece, it’s a TV cop drama but it has all this interesting, rich historical context, shot in one of the most shootable places in Australia,” she adds. “The landscape was so extraordinary. And with people I loved working with, so it’s very special to me. Having helmed all six episodes, it was wonderful to work across a canvas that was so large, and to be able to see the story through the whole evolution and its various chapters was such a privilege. I feel very lucky.”

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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.”

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Medical marvels

Australian medical drama Pulse highlights some of the challenges facing hospitals down under. Stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda discuss the series’ real-life origins and overcoming diversity and gender imbalance on screen.

For Australian actors Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda, the chance to appear in medical drama Pulse marked something of a homecoming.

LA-based van der Boom has been on screen in the US in shows such as NBC’s Game of Silence and CBS procedural Hawaii Five-O. Sharda, meanwhile, has starred on the big screen in films such as Oscar-nominated Lion and Bollywood productions Begum Jaan, Hawaizaada, Besharam and Heroine.

But they both returned down under for the eight-part ABC series, based on the true story of a transplant patient who was inspired to become a doctor. Van der Boom plays Frankie, a high-flying financial analyst who was given a second chance at life following a kidney transplant and, inspired by the man who saved her life, she trains to become a doctor at a major teaching hospital.

Pallavi Sharda as Tanya Kalahari

The series, produced by Clandestine Beyond in association with Beyond Entertainment and distributed by ABC Commercial, also highlights many real-world issues facing hospitals in Australia as the medical staff confront the political, personal and professional realities of working in an ailing system. In fact, as preparation, van der Boom watched UK factual series Hospital, which she says featured similar problems such as bed shortages, lack of places for medical students and the issue of suicide among trainee doctors.

“[The profession] is still very male-orientated so we’re dealing with a lot of that,” she continues. “In terms of patients, we’re dealing with the morals around what it is to be an old person with a pacemaker and when they want to turn it off, and a female refugee who doesn’t have her papers, so can we operate on her and [what if] she gets deported? It has all those huge questions, like whether or not a gay partner can come in over a sister when someone’s in a life-or-death situation. So all of that is global. I was really proud of our writers; they really crammed it full of cutting-edge questions.”

Sharda plays Tanya Kalahari, a “maverick” doctor senior to van der Boom’s Frankie, leading to some compelling head-to-head battles on the hospital ward.

“She’s someone who has worked really hard but is fighting the fact that her father is the head of medical and is trying to prove herself, as opposed to being someone who may be there through nepotism,” she explains.

More appealing to Sharda, however, was the fact she felt this was a part in an Australian show – created by Kris Wyld, Michael Miller and Mel Hill – she could really “dig her teeth into.”

“It was really interesting because, being an Indian-origin Australian actor, it’s a pioneering cast in terms of the representation of people from different ethnic backgrounds and different sexual orientations, and [it looks at] very cutting-edge issues we need to explore now,” she explains. “I hadn’t had access to writing like that before or been given a script to read where I thought, ‘That seems like an authentic character I believe in.’

“The funny thing is an Indian doctor is a stereotype in itself, but here we are all playing doctors. It was really nice to be in the mainstream in this show and the ‘us and them’ was really broken down. Australia has been a little bit slower [to tackle on-screen diversity], only because our waves of immigration have worked very differently.”

With a lack of Asian stars on screen, Sharda looked up to talent such as British stars Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar and director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham). Now she says Australia is opening up more to diversity.

Claire van der Boom alongside Owen Teale, aka Game of Thrones’ Alliser Thorne

“I had to go to India to become an actor to a certain degree, because those opportunities definitely weren’t there in Australia seven or eight years ago,” she notes. “I don’t begrudge the industry for that, but it takes time and every industry has it’s teething process with these things.

“The same is true with any industry. Bollywood is pretty homogenous in it’s own representation of what being Indian means. It just talks about north Indian culture, for example. So it’s not that one is better than the other. For me, it’s nice to work in Australia because I’m Australian.”

As a renal resident at City West Public Hospital, Frankie must hide the fact that she is not only a transplant doctor but a transplant patient too, a fact she fears could destroy her career if discovered.

That overarching plot line, coupled with the true story behind the drama, meant van der Boom learned an incredible amount about dialysis and kidney diseases during the course of production, leading her to become very passionate about the subject of transplants and donor registration.

“Australia has some of the worst transplant rates in the world and a lot of people die waiting,” the actor says. “Particularly if you’re a young person who gets a kidney disease, it’s a life sentence, in a way, because it’s about eight years for a transplant. People don’t realise you can walk into a hospital and give a kidney. If you’re a recipient of a kidney from a living donor, it lasts twice as long as a deceased person’s, so there really are incredible options in science people aren’t really talking about.”

Pulse tells the true story of a transplant patient who becomes a doctor

As well as greater diversity on screen, van der Boom and Sharda also recognise the greater opportunities now for female actors in television, particularly in leading roles.

“We’re starting to see less of ‘woman, smart and beautiful’ in a script,” van der Boom explains. “Now it’s just ‘woman.’ Thank God that’s changing, but on this show, it just wasn’t important in the audition and the first couple of scripts I got. It was such a relief to find the love life was the fourth most important thing. We don’t have to talk about it, it just bubbles to the surface. We hope there’s more of that.”

Sharda picks up: “I do feel this convergence on so many levels of so many things I’ve been mentally fighting since I was a younger actor. This year I had a film released in India called Begum, in which I played a sex worker. It was about 11 women fighting for their house at the time of partition, where the British drew a line between India and Pakistan and pissed off.

“Our histories have been told in a certain way for so long, and all the storytelling I’ve been a part of in the last year-and-a-half has made me consider the history I’m a part of and how that storytelling has occurred, and the role I can play going forward.

“If we’re looking at what’s going on in Hollywood, Bollywood wasn’t even there. Then I saw this sea change and a global consciousness shift in the last couple of years. I feel really pleased that, at a global level, everyone’s thinking about those things.”

Van der Boom now hopes to return to Australia at least once a year to work on projects that are “quintessentially Australian,” while Sharda is writing a book about her cross-cultural experiences, reflecting on the ideas of dual identity and representation in a multi-cultural society. But the screen remains her priority, noting that it’s not the medium but the story that is now the most important thing when it comes to choosing acting roles.

“We’ve moved beyond ‘film versus television,’ with such great television being made,” she adds. “With Netflix, Amazon and all these people coming into India and making original content, the quality and production values have gone up, so it’s just more about the scope of storytelling for me. I’m an Indian dancer so one thing I want to do more is concentrate on live work. I feel like I’ve ignored that in the last few years. Anything I can do that is fusion and bringing cultures together, it doesn’t matter what the medium is.”

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