When Paulo Duarte is found dead from a gunshot wound in the Spanish port of Vigo, nobody is convinced by his apparent suicide.
As his sister Teresa (Victoria Guerra) begins to investigate his death, she decides to move from Lisbon and accept a job in the company her brother was working for in an attempt to get to the truth, leading to the uncovering of an arms-trafficking network between Europe and Africa that is somehow linked to Mauro Galdón (Monti Castiñeiras), Teresa’s godfather.
In this DQTV interview, Portguese actor Guerra talks about the story at the heart of Spanish-Portuguese coproduction Agua Seca (Dry Land) and why she was keen to play Teresa, who she describes as a strong woman with a free spirit.
She also discusses the intensity of the filming schedule on the series, which is presented in Galician and Portuguese, and her experience working with director Toño Lopez.
Dry Water is produced by Portocabo and SP-i for TVG and RTP, and distributed by DCD Rights.
Based on Michael Robotham’s novel, The Secrets She Keeps stars Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Agatha, a supermarket worker who becomes obsessed by ‘mummy blogger’ Meghan’s idyllic lifestyle.
When she discovers both are pregnant and due at the same time, Agatha strikes up the courage to talk to Meghan (Jessica De Gouw, Underground). But while they share much in common, it soon emerges that Meghan’s life isn’t as happy as it seems, while both are harbouring explosive secrets.
In this DQTV interview, Carmichael talks about moving on from period drama Downton Abbey, her first role in television, and how she relished the chance to play a character poles apart from Lady Edith – someone quick to anger, impatient and complex.
She also talks about her research process for the role and the intensive work demanded of actors in high-stakes drama series.
The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Lingo Pictures for Network Ten, and distributed by DCD Rights.
Downton Abbey star Laura Carmichael heads down under to star in psychological thriller The Secrets She Keeps. The actor and Helen Bowden, producer, tell DQ about adapting Michael Rowbotham’s novel and filming in Sydney.
After six seasons starring as Lady Edith in the global phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, Laura Carmichael recently returned to the character she first played in 2010 when writer Julian Fellowes transplanted the period drama to the big screen.
But in her next role, she’s leaving the Crawley family far behind by travelling down under to star in domestic noir The Secrets She Keeps, based on Michael Robotham’s bestselling novel.
The six-part thriller sees Carmichael play a pregnant woman called Agatha, who believes Meghan Shaughnessy (Jessica De Gouw, Underground), a mother whose parenting blog Agatha reads obsessively, has the perfect life. When she discovers Meghan is pregnant again and they are both due at similar times, Agatha builds up the courage to speak to her.
While these two women are very different – Meghan lives a comfortable life, Agatha less so – they do have one thing in common: they each hold explosive secrets.
Made by Lingo Pictures for Australia’s Network Ten, The Secrets She Keeps is produced by Helen Bowden and Paul Watters, with Rick Maier and Jason Stephens exec producing. DCD Rights is the international distributor of the show.
Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin partnered on the scripts, while Catherine Millar and Jennifer Leacey shared directing duties.
Here, Carmichael and then Bowden talk about the central characters and the relationship between them, adapting Robotham’s book and filming in Sydney.
Laura, what drew you to the project?
I loved the script and I was instantly intrigued by Agatha. It felt unlike anything I had seen before.
Had you been interested in working in Australia and how did the experience differ from working in the UK?
I had just been on holiday to Sydney around Christmas time and had fallen in love with the city. I felt like I must have sent out some vibes of wanting to return, as a few months later the project came to my agent. I loved how it didn’t feel that different being on an Aussie set compared with the UK; it’s a sort of universal language, I guess. Although the catering in Oz is another level – absolutely delicious every day – which can’t always be said of the UK!
Were you familiar with Robotham’s novel?
I hadn’t read the book before doing the project but read it when I got the part. He’s a wonderful writer, I couldn’t put it down.
Why did Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin’s scripts stand out to you?
They were such page-turners. I loved that they felt so truthful, which makes the show at times terrifying and the next moment heartbreaking.
How would you describe Agatha?
She is tough, volatile, headstrong, burdened and impulsive.
Why does she idealise Meghan’s life?
To Agatha, Meghan has it all – the perfect life with the perfect family. She wants what Meghan has.
How did you prepare for the role?
The main thing for me was to piece together Agatha’s past, to timeline her life and experiences and sort of spend time in that headspace.
What was life like on set?
We did have rehearsals, which is always so helpful. It was a busy shoot with lots to contend with, so it was good to have some time set aside to talk things through. Both our brilliant directors, Catherine and Jennifer, were so wonderful at preparing us for the shoot.
Why do you think are audiences drawn to psychological thrillers?
They’re exhilarating. To be kept guessing as an audience is always more interesting than having things spelled out for you, and I love trying to find those thriller beats.
How does the series keep viewers on edge through the six episodes?
I hope the feeling you’ll get is that you’re never sure what Agatha is going to do next.
Helen, how did you acquire the rights to the novel?
Lingo’s literary scout, Shona Martyn [formerly of Harper Collins Australia], mentioned during a conversation one day that Michael Robotham, whose wildly successful books are all set in the UK, was Australian. She said that despite the gritty settings of his thrillers, he lived and worked on Sydney’s sunny Northern Beaches. I needed no further encouragement to read all his books and go up there to meet him.
I had no doubt we could re-set The Secrets She Keeps in Sydney, and Michael agreed. He was flattered by my enthusiasm but wary of handing the rights over to someone he didn’t know. He’d been a bit burned over one of his earlier novels. Fortunately, he is a close friend of both Christos Tsiolkas, who wrote The Slap, and Marele Day who wrote Lambs of God, two books I have produced for the screen. They each gave me a great rap, having loved the process and the resulting shows, so we were quickly in business.
How did you conceive it as a TV drama?
Honestly, it didn’t take a huge amount of work to conceive Secrets as a drama series. The book is superbly plotted. Once you start reading, you really can’t put it down; and it’s complex, so the six episodes just seemed to fall out of the pages. The characters, particularly Agatha, are also deeply compelling. I’ve done lots of adaptations and this one lent itself to the process very easily.
What are the keys to adapting a psychological thriller for TV?
In making a thriller, you enter into a pact with the viewers to keep them on the edge of their seats, to dish out the adrenaline, the voyeurism, the paranoia. We have definitely tried to do that, but you also want the viewers to be embedded in the worlds and the worries of the characters, to care for them and believe in them.
The challenge is to toggle between those two modes in a way that can’t be seen or felt but which draws you ever more deeply into the story. In The Secrets She Keeps, we are trying to also talk about the social fabric and the corrosive effect narcissism and greed are having on our lives.
We are trying to draw out the real connection between these two women, these two mothers, who seem on the surface to be inhabiting different universes. For me, that is the key – to say something worthwhile at the same time as completely surprising and entertaining your audience.
Have any plot points or characters been added or removed in the adaptation process?
Class is central to this story, yet Australia likes to think of itself as a relatively classless society. The truth is a lot more complicated. Social class might be more disguised than it is in the UK, but it is certainly there. Setting Secrets in Sydney meant making a myriad of subtle but important changes to reflect this authentically.
In addition, the novel is perhaps more interested in Agatha and her actions than in ‘yummy mummy’ Meghan. We wanted a true dual narrative, so we built more complexity into Meghan’s work and marriage to give her more of an inner life.
We also wanted the two women to have some key things in common, despite the class divide, so we made Meghan the product of a blended family as well. Meghan and Agatha were both unhappy growing up with stepfathers. This fuels their willingness to take drastic action to protect their own children.
What makes the series stand out as a domestic noir and how did you achieve this?
Based on a true story, the crime at the heart of The Secrets She Keeps is not the standard thriller fare of murder or rape. The story is set almost entirely in two very distinct domestic spheres and tells of an unlikely friendship, how each woman has a secret and the lengths to which she will go to keep it. We hope the audience will be totally carried along by the twists and turns of the story, and there are many nods to the thriller genre, but there is also a truthful exploration of these worlds, these marriages and the protagonists’ hopes for the future.
How did you identify the writers and what do they bring to the project?
Sarah Walker [lead writer] and Jonathan Gavin were obvious choices for us. They have both written smart, accessible, female-skewing dramas. We thought they’d make a terrific combination. It was also fascinating to have Michael Robotham in the writers room while two such able writers dissected the novel and rebuilt it for television. He found it surprisingly thrilling.
Where was the series filmed and how did you use locations in the story?
We filmed in Sydney, where trains run from one side of the city to the other, taking Agatha from her grimy flat in the down-at-heel western suburbs, across the glittering harbour, to Meghan’s world of the spacious, leafy Northern suburbs.
They meet in the local supermarket where Agatha works, a remnant of gentrification, barely hanging on in the face of competition from the big supermarket chains up the road. Meghan’s mothers’ group meets in the gorgeous local park for lattes and yoga, their prams like an expensive flock of enormous birds. It’s where Agatha, newly confident of Meghan’s friendship, tries awkwardly to join in.
Agatha has a consolation place in a deep green glen in Tunks Park, dominated by a post-war bridge high above it, while her mother lives in Katoomba in a modest house that backs onto the spectacular escarpment of the Blue Mountains.
We are trying to show the myriad aspects of Sydney, not just the ridiculous beauty the world usually sees.
What challenges did you face in production and how did you overcome them?
In Australia, we shoot about seven minutes of drama a day to meet our budgets. Trying to make world-class fiction at that speed is terrifying – there’s no room for error. Our best weapon is preparation. Lingo believes in resourcing development as well as possible, supporting our writers and directors ahead of the shoot, to ensure we can all make the most of every precious minute once production begins. I think Laura was shocked at the pace to begin with, but she got into the swing of it and went on the ride.
My Life is Murder star Lucy Lawless, famed for starring in Xena: Warrior Princess, tells DQ about her first lead role in an Australian drama and putting an entertaining spin on the evergreen crime genre.
At home in New Zealand, Lucy Lawless is busy planting trees. Her family are the newest owners of a tree farm and she is currently spending her time digging up the ground or discussing tractors – work that sits comfortably alongside her profile as an environmental campaigner and activist.
It’s a welcome change of pace for the actor, who is best known for playing the lead in fantasy drama Xena: Warrior Princess, having spent five busy months across the Tasman Sea earlier this year filming 10-part Australian crime drama My Life is Murder.
From her first talks about the project with producer Claire Tonkin to wrapping the production, 18 months passed by in a blur. The series subsequently debuted down under on Network Ten in July before its US launch on streamer Acorn TV. It arrives on UKTV’s Alibi channel next week.
The show was made at an “unbelievable” pace, Lawless tells DQ on the phone from New Zealand. “For me, it’s unheard of because at that point [of the first meeting], we didn’t even have a script. It was just an agreement with two women going, ‘Let’s do this.’
“Then it went into development hell and eventually all the blockages cleared. We found the right writer and he was forced to write it in just 10 weeks, and then we were off to the races. It was just a magical, serendipitous thing that I would hate to do again under such rushed circumstances, but sometimes that’s how things come together.
“To come up with the idea, sell the idea, put together the production team and get it written and produced, it was remarkable. That’s all credit to Claire, [producer] Elisa Argenzio and [head writer] Tim Pye. I hitched my wagon to some really great horses.”
If it hadn’t been for the persistence of Tonkin – who was then producer CJZ’s head of drama development and is now its head of drama – Lawless might never have taken on the role of Alexa Crowe, a former police detective who is reluctantly coaxed back into investigation work to help her former colleagues solve some of their trickier cases.
The executive had sent Lawless some scripts for the show and though she thought it was a good idea, she put them aside and forgot about them. Then when the actor was in Australia to attend Sydney Pride, Tonkin sought her out again.
“I didn’t think much would come of it but we met and she was just such a pocket dynamo,” says Lawless, a true-crime fan who feasts on the many books and podcasts the genre has to offer. “She presents like a charming wallflower; she’s happy to sit back but she is a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the best possible way. I just saw so much unlimited potential in this woman and thought I was going to nab her for myself.
“I was really intrigued by it. And also, at this time in my life, I don’t want to be selling mayhem and destruction anymore. I’ve done quite a lot of it and I’m very attracted to justice. The world is pretty grim these days, so I want to give people a good time. I want to do something just because it’s fun and gorgeous, and we’re cleaning up the universe in a metaphorical way. It’s a beautiful thing to entertain just for the hell of it.”
Described as a contemporary murder mystery, My Life is Murder is a classic case-of-the-week crime drama featuring Lawless as Alexa, a complex, fearless and charismatic former cop who, despite some setbacks in her private life, can’t put down a good case when her help is called for. Through the series, her investigations take her across a picturesque Melbourne and into the worlds of male escorts, nightclub owners, high-flying business CEOs, celebrity chefs, clairvoyants and cosmetic surgeons.
Produced by CJZ and distributed by DCD Rights, the show marks Lawless’s first Australian lead. She previously had a part in Oz conspiracy thriller The Code and has also starred in US series such as Spartacus, Ash vs Evil Dead, Salem and Parks & Recreation.
“She is a sleuth but she’s a very perverse human being,” Lawless says of Alexa. “She’s not afraid to tell a lie to get to the truth. She’s apt to bend the truth, which is really fun.”
Alexa is assisted through the series by Madison Feliciano, a police data analyst played by Ebony Vagulins, and DI Kieran Hussey (Bernard Curry), who seeks unorthodox Alexa’s help when he becomes stumped by some unusual cases.
The show offers a glimmer of Alexa’s private life by suggesting in the first episode that she is still coming to terms with the death of her husband. But Lawless says the series never becomes maudlin. “You do see her in some quiet moments and when she’s alone, but she’s fortified. She has to rely on herself,” the actor says. “But she learns she’s not an island because these gorgeous people keep forcing themselves into her home and her heart and won’t leave her alone. They bring her back to life.”
Meanwhile, Lawless’s involvement in the project from the outset signals her significant role behind the scenes, with My Life is Murder also providing the star with her first executive producer credit.
She says it’s a “mind-bending” extension to her acting job that was fine in the beginning “but at the end, the wheels have come off and I’m just trying to not trip over my tongue because the words are completely mixed up in my head.”
“It’s a pretty intense acting workload but that’s great. It’s magnificent to be challenged at this time in my career because it could be really boring if all I was doing was acting.”
Lawless is also grateful to take on a character who can live without wearing a corset, having spent six years in Xena’s iconic get-up from 1995 to 2001.
“I just want my character to wear the same trousers,” she jokes. “Give me seven of the same pants; I don’t want to change for one scene and then for another. That is the most irritating part of my job, which is really a pretty good problem to have. But there was a lot of love going around the set, a lot of respect and care. I just couldn’t be happier. I’m very grateful.”
Having spent so much of her career working in the US and at home in New Zealand, where Xena was filmed and which largely follows the industry machinations of the US system, Lawless says she was particularly conscious of learning the ropes on an Australian set.
“Australia is it’s own ball of wax. It’s not like the UK and not like America,” she explains. “The way they structure a production – people have different jobs, and job titles don’t mean the same thing, so it’s about trying to understand the flow of information. Because we were doing it in such a rush, we were scrambling more than we would have liked. But that also gives an energy, and then something fabulous accidentally happens that might not have done had you been in more control.”
When Lawless says she’s fascinated by crime and justice, she really means it. Not satiated with books and podcasts, she can often be found in a courtroom watching events unfold, whether in New Zealand or while working abroad. The actor has attended hearings in New York and Louisiana, and even went to the bail hearing of Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire sex offender.
“All human beings really like the idea of justice and finding the bad guy or girl. That’s just a human desire to protect the innocent and find justice for them,” she says. “What you learn about is the community you’re in. It’s largely about socioeconomics and how incidents of violence touch normal people’s lives. You learn about what poverty and abuse does to people.”
My Life is Murder treads a lighter path, however, with Lawless promising “the funnest romp through secret worlds.” She continues: “We go into these worlds that are opaque for most of us and get inside and solve a tasty little murder mystery in that juicy world.”
Between planting trees on her new farm and continual talk of a Xena reboot – “It would be fun to reprise it in some way. It ain’t dead yet” – the actor is also looking ahead to a potential season two of My Life is Murder. “I’m certainly thinking about it and always sending off bad ideas to the head writer,” she adds. “It’s on my mind.”
Juan Ignacio Sabatini, the director and executive producer of Chilean drama Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood, tells DQ about the story’s real-life origins and explains how the series pushes the crime genre in a new direction.
Set in the 1990s, Inspector Rojas: In Cold Blood is based on a real-life police investigation that took place in Chile.
In the eight-part series, the disappearance of 12 young girls from the commune of Alto Hospicio, in the north of the South American country, triggers an investigation by police captain César Rojas (Francisco Melo, pictured above) to solve the mystery of their whereabouts.
With a small town and its inhabitants struck by the tragedy, the investigators try to find the culprit as the killer wanders in search of lonely adolescents, surrounded by the sands of the driest desert in the world and unable to stop his impulses.
The crime drama is produced by Villano for Chilean broadcaster Mega, with DCD Rights distributing the series internationally.
Here, Villano’s Juan Ignacio Sabatini, who directs and exec produces the series, reveals more about the titular character and how the show came together.
Tell us about the story of Inspector Rojas.
This is basically a story about discrimination and classism, about gender violence, coloured by the horror of the actions of a sick mind that was allowed to move with total freedom thanks to the negligence of local authorities unable to control their own impulses. Then, Inspector Rojas comes into the story. He’s a foreigner finding himself in hostile territory where he’ll fight little by little to settle his own demons and to get justice.
Where did the idea originate?
Back in 2015 I was hired by TVN to make a miniseries based on a book by Rodrigo Fluxa. The book was about Daniel Zamudio, a young man who suffered a brutal attack and subsequently passed away. This paved the way for a huge social movement in Chile, which lead to the first gender equality law in the country.
During the scriptwriting process, Rodrigo approached me and mentioned he was about to submit some editorial about Julio Perez Silva, the psychopath from Alto Hospicio, which was going to be part of a publication called Los Malos, which would be collated into a series about people in Latin America who represent the worst of humanity. After reading the draft, I realised it fulfilled the criteria for an amazing police thriller, so we started working with Rodrigo and Enrique immediately.
How was the series developed with the broadcaster?
The relationship with Mega was great and it was hugely beneficial to the project. The biggest point of debate was finding a comprise for the series’ staging, bearing in mind that Mega is a free-to-air network.
Jeff Rush, the script doctor hired by Mega, proved crucial. The discussion eventually turned to the focus of the story and how it should move forward while keeping the interest of the audience – and to make it work for the viewers of both free-to-air TV and OTT.
Who is Inspector Rojas? How does he stand out from other police officers?
Rojas has a complex past and had a difficult childhood, which saw him move between foster homes and adoption centres before joining the police force. He is an orphan who took this job in the police force because he was looking for containment. He wanted to find somewhere he could fight justice and find the inner peace he didn’t have during his early years.
In this context, Rojas puts up a wall around himself to contain his inner demons, which are conceptually aligned with the hidden demons often found in the most remote of places. The wall begins to crumble just before he embarks on this journey. It is in this place, the driest desert in the world, that Rojas comes up against his ideals of justice, his quest to find it and his past.
Rojas’s need to fight for justice is intrinsically linked with trying to solve his own issues. This inner strength is what makes him stand far above his colleagues.
What does actor Francisco Melo bring to the role?
Francisco Melo is a fantastic actor. He’s had a very successful career and has the right tools to play such a complex part.
Back in 2003, I saw Melo in the theatre in the production of Sarah Kane’s Devastados. The way in which he was able to express pain, and how he was able to show that society’s violence had an impact on him by leveraging a violent sexual behavior, was mesmerising. When this story came into my life, I immediately remembered Melo in that play.
What was Rodrigo Fluxa and Enrique Videla’s writing process?
We have an excellent relationship with Rodrigo and Enrique based on common interests and the space we give each other to talk about our differences.
The interesting thing is we all come from different backgrounds – Rodrigo is a journalist, Enrique is a scriptwriter and playwright and I am a director – but together we’ve managed to achieve amazing results with two series inspired by real events which have created a lot of debate among our audience.
How did they use the true story to inform the show and did how did they balance the real story with dramatising it for television?
We tried to maintain the series’ storyline based on two plots from the real story to shape our story: teenagers lost somewhere in the middle of the desert, authorities that move slowly, people’s indifference and an expert policeman who arrives from Santiago to solve the case.
We used this to shape the characters and the scenes. We took some aspects from the real-life characters and enjoyed freedom to create all the other characters involved in the story and the world they live in.
How would you describe the show’s visual style?
In terms of style and aesthetics, we perceived the story as something developed within the parameters of a police thriller and a modern western, where the impressive landscape becomes an ‘actor’ in the story and builds the atmosphere of the show.
How does this series present a new take on the crime genre?
Beyond it being inspired by a real story and the story of the murderer, the most interesting aspect is the landscape where much of the action takes place – the immensity of the Atacama desert and the contrast this offers. You get to see the wonderful stage that is the desert’s colour scheme and light against a blue sky, which also reveals a devastating truth. There is no life, no water; there’s nothing.
Why are true crime dramas becoming more popular around the world?
I think humans have always had a morbid interest in evil and the different ways in which it manifests. This obsession is exponentially increased when the story is based on true events.
What do you think are the key ingredients to a crime thriller – and have these always been the same?
I think constructing the story and the way in which the clues about crime are revealed is key. Being able to give the audience a structured, yet broken, stream of information is crucial, as it means they are able to conjecture different scenarios as the case unfolds. You have to create characters that have multi-layered personality who are able to connect with viewers. Being able to do this creates a narrative that generates an interest and an emotional response to the story.
Why do you think crime stories continue to resonate with audiences around the world?
I think crime, regardless of its origin, creates a lot of morbid interest. We all want to know who committed the crime and why.
How does the series balance the strength of its characters with the plot?
The plot’s development is constantly challenging for our characters; the drama, the anxiety, the fear that arises as the girls disappear serves to question their ethical and moral structure, stripping them off their essence and challenging their preconceived ideas.
What were the biggest challenges in production?
Filming in the desert was very difficult, as we had to endure extreme weather conditions. It was very hot in the mornings, followed by strong winds and cold temperatures in the afternoon. Staying focused, without becoming complacent about the evil we were depicting, was also challenging.
Why do you think this series proved so popular in Chile – and why might it appeal to international audiences?
Aside from the interest generated in Chile because we were relaying a story inspired by one of the cruellest serial killers of our history, we also touched on very relevant societal issues, such as classism, discrimination and gender violence. All of these generate varying opinions among our audience while also helping our characters to forge an emotional connection with them.
I’m sure the story’s treatment and its geographic setting will continue to captivate people outside of Chile’s borders.