Actor Natalie Dormer explains how working on an independent feature film and Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock encouraged her to take more control behind the camera.
Natalie Dormer’s career to date might be noted for her on-screen appearances in Game of Thrones and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but she’s also had a long-standing if less noted interest off-screen too.
It was back in 2009 that the UK actor started co-writing indie feature In Darkness with her then other half Anthony Byrne, when by her own admission she was going through “a moment of frustration” with her career over the roles she was being offered.
Fast-forward a decade or so and Dormer now has a production deal with global giant Fremantle designed to allow her to fulfil her ambitions behind the camera but also steer her career in front of it too.
“I want to push myself as a storyteller, both as an actor and behind the camera,” she says. “But as an actor I feel the only way to not be offered the same role I’ve done before is to grab the reins myself a little bit. Then once you’ve shown people you have that skill, it begets itself and hopefully the snowball starts going down the hill.”
While working on thriller In Darkness, which took six years “to draft, re-draft, finance and produce,” Dormer was also acting in shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, and CBS’s Elementary, plus movie The Professor & the Madman. And it was during this period that she had the “privilege of standing next to ‘monitor village’ and working closely with directors and producers.”
“There were five or six years where I really started to think about storytelling beyond the acting talent remit and my appetite got whetted, I got a taste for it and the team camaraderie,” she says.
“I learned so much in the years of development [on In Darkness] and then the post-production process and the promotion of that,” Dormer continues, adding that the lower budget nature of the show also meant she gained experience of attracting off-screen talent without the ability to pay top dollar.
“Everyone is on a job like that out of a passion to make a statement for themselves of some sort in terms of their creative discipline.
“I learned so much that it made me hungry to continue the process. I felt part of the team, and it was really invigorating being part of that core of producers, directors and lead writers. It’s addictive – how can we improve this story?”
It has also made Dormer a much better actor, she says, because she was privy to conversations that are normally kept from on-screen ears. “I went to dinners not with actors but with editors and producers so I was surreptitiously amassing an entire skill set without even realising it.”
Dormer, who most recently starred in Foxtel and Amazon drama Picnic at Hanging Rock, adds that “without sounding wanky” she has “a natural instinct for storytelling” that also propelled her career in its current direction.
“I realised that as well as wanting to hold the harness over my own career because of the frustration with the roles I was being offered, I also got a real kick out of finding stories, pitching them, finding colleagues – and that brings me up to where I am.”
Precisely, that is a first-look production deal with Fremantle to create a slate of projects, with Dormer already working with the prodco on Vivling, a series based on the life of Gone with the Wind star Vivien Leigh.
“At a basic level I have a first-look deal with Fremantle but they also give me financial support and an infrastructure to feel supported as I develop my slate,” she says, adding that the relationship developed during filming for the prodco’s drama Picnic at Hanging Rock.
“We shot In Darkness in 2016 and I had a producer credit on that, and I had this ground-shifting experience of shooting my own indie film. Quickly after that I went onto set [on The Professor & the Madman] with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and they’d both directed so I spoke to them. Then I went to do Picnic at Hanging Rock in Australia and hung out with a lot of people who were doing it and had done it – I was trying to find my centre and confidence.”
Dormer admits to experiencing “some teething problems” on the Aussie show, partly because “it was such an ambitious and wonderful project” but the experience drew her together with Fremantle’s exec VP, creative director of global drama Christian Vesper.
“The amazing Christian Vesper came out to Australia to speak to me and [showrunner/director] Larysa Kondracki to help smooth out those early teething problems,” she explains. “Through him and I having conversations, we realised we were simpatico. The Fremantle ethos at the moment is being a place where talent has a home. They’re nurturing those talent deals in a way that America is more used to than we are on this side of the pond, although we are going that way.
“Fremantle has a strong desire to nurture those creative relationships,” she adds, with this ultimately leading to the deal revealed late in 2018. Dormer was already working with Fremantle on Vivling, which also has UK production company Mainstreet Pictures attached. The story will explore Leigh’s marriage to Laurence Olivier and her Academy Award-winning performances in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, plus themes of equality, abuses of power and mental health.
Acclaimed screenwriter Stewart Harcourt (Maigret, Churchill’s Secret) is on board and reportedly has access to a wealth of archive material alongside Kendra Bean’s book Vivien Leigh – An Intimate Portrait. Fremantle will hold the global distribution rights to the series, with Dormer serving as producer as well as starring.
So will Dormer’s Fremantle deal enable her to pick and choose which roles she would like to play? “Some stories might have a nice small cameo role I could play,” she explains, “and Viv is specifically a vehicle to show an acting range. On a few of the other projects, I don’t know yet. Possibly no – I’m hoping to be so busy that it won’t be possible to do them all.”
What’s clearer is that Vivling will join the growing number of shows with a strong female protagonist, a trend that is finally now making its mark. “When you turn on the TV, there are all these female-protagonist shows. It is the golden era of TV and we’re on the crest of a wave with the three-dimensional female protagonist upon us. It’s long overdue.”
Inclusivity across the board is improving, she adds, but there remains a long way to go. The hope for Dormer is that she can attract some of that talent – both known and yet to be discovered – to develop projects that reflect the passion of those working on them.
“We all like money,” she jokes, “but what I can bring to this Fremantle situation is that I know what can attract creatives to a project, and that isn’t necessarily anything to do with a bank balance.
“People have points to make about what they can do, and it’s not just actors. Across the board, directors, producers and writers get pigeon-holed just as much as acting talent.”
With almost a decade of experience both in front of and behind the camera, Dormer is now looking to use her first-hand experience to change that.
A host of female characters are rewriting the rules for women on television. DQ explores how they are being brought to the small screen to front series ranging from contemporary crime dramas and thrillers to period and historical series.
There have been some great female characters in scripted TV down the years – the likes of Cagney & Lacey, DI Jane Tennison and Buffy ‘the Vampire Slayer’ Summers all spring to mind. But there’s no question that the last few years have seen the range and quality of roles for women expand dramatically. Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Borgen, Orphan Black, GLOW and UnReal are just a few shows that have rewritten the rules when it comes to gender on TV.
For FremantleMedia director of global drama Sarah Doole, this is a sign the TV industry is finally catching up with audience tastes. “Research shows women are in charge of the remote control until 21.30, but most of the iconic dramas you can think of focus on middle-aged white men,” she says. “So what we are seeing is a new world order that reflects audience demands.”
Doole says FremantleMedia’s production slate is addressing this in various ways: “You can see it in Hard Sun, where Agyness Deyn [playing DI Elaine Renko] is not your normal heroine. She is capable of motherly tenderness but also incredible violence. She’s an androgynous, modern character that reaches a new, younger audience. And in Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Friend, we focus on the intricacies of female friendship – issues that women don’t usually see on television.”
Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler says the improved gender balance is also linked to greater representation of women behind the camera. While there have always been a few female role models like Lynda La Plante, “a lot of women of my generation who started out as script editors have now reached positions where they are running companies or making commissioning decisions,” Shindler says. “The result has been more shows with complex and interesting women.”
Red shows with memorable female leads include Happy Valley (starring Sarah Lancashire), Trust Me (starring new Doctor Who lead Jodie Whittaker, pictured above) and Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp). The idea for the latter came from Jones and Sally Lindsay, with Jones keen for more female roles “that weren’t wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to et cetera.” The series was then scripted by Sally Wainwright, with a directorial team skewed towards women. “It was a ground-breaking show,” says Shindler, “because so much of it was based around the camera pointing at women characters and them talking to each other.”
Inevitably, a lot of recent female-centric shows revolve around cops (Happy Valley, The Fall, Vera). But there are a growing number of shows that explore women in atypical social roles and contexts. After The Night Manager, for example, The Ink Factory is working on another John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl. In this thriller, says The Ink Factory’s Simon Cornwell, Florence Pugh portrays female spy Charlie, “an engaging, nuanced and rewarding character, with strong agency and purpose.” Cornwell, who is le Carré’s son, adds: “For me, creating roles for women that do not conform to male-defined stereotypes is more interesting.”
The mythology of the spy genre has historically been male-dominated, but Cornwell believes The Little Drummer Girl highlights the fact that women have always played a key role in espionage: “Charlie is, I hope, completely authentic as a character. She’s also not ‘atypical’ because there have been and continue to be real women involved in espionage. I think the show highlights the presence of women who were involved but possibly overlooked or not acknowledged.”
Of course, there are some shows where women play roles not at all intended to be grounded in realism. But the prevailing view is this is fine as long as the characters behave authentically within their version of reality world. A compelling example of this is Wynnona Earp, Syfy’s popular series about the granddaughter of legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp, whose mission in life is to dispatch demonic cowboys who have returned from the dead.
Wynonna started life as a comic book character in 1993, at which point she was a textbook example of comic-geek male erotic fantasy. But for the TV series, says IDW Entertainment CEO David Ozer, “we’ve pivoted completely, as we have also done in the modern versions of the comic books. This is a show led by empowered female characters that also has a strong LGBT component, centred around Wynonna’s sister Waverley.”
The success of this pivot is largely down to the show’s female showrunner Emily Andras and star Melanie Scrofano, says Ozer. “Between them, they’ve created a really relatable character who is more than just a female gunslinger. You can see the female voice of the show running through all the storylines – including the relationship between Wynonna and her sister. In fact, when Melanie got pregnant just before the start of shooting season two, Emily managed to take that and weave it into the existing storylines without missing a beat.”
This isn’t to suggest men can’t write empowered female characters. Neil Cross has done it in Hard Sun and Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley likewise in Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, whose female characters include a working mother (a lawyer), a rebellious teenager, an AI expert and a bunch of highly advanced androids, known as synths. Mia and Niska, synths played by Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington respectively, go on journeys that deal starkly with issues around female sexual exploitation, empowerment and awakening.
Interestingly, season three of the show also has a strong female contingent behind the camera, in terms of writers, directors, producer (Vicki Delow) and exec producer (Emma Kingsman-Lloyd). Delow calls it “good female representation, which maybe you wouldn’t have seen five years ago. And that certainly leads to some interesting debates about the female characters and the way they might be expected to behave.”
Kingsman-Lloyd says “there is probably a bit more of a female voice in this season.” Particularly influential, she adds, has been the input of director Jill Robertson, whose recent credits include Harlots. “There’s still a real shortage of female directors in action-based series,” she says, “but Jill is an extraordinary talent who directed the first two episodes of the new season.”
The idea of authenticity within a heightened reality scenario also underpins the Nordic success story Black Widows, made in Finland but sold around the world. In this show, three women in abusive relationships decide to take change of their lives by murdering their husbands. A big challenge with the show, says producer Roope Lehtinen, was “making it so that people rooted for the women even after they’d killed their husbands. I think we achieved that by not dwelling too long on the murder scene, making the guys really disgusting and also giving the show a tone that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
The ensemble nature of the show (something that is still more typical of female-led than male-led drama) meant it was possible to explore the shifting dynamics of the relationships between the women, but also how they reacted individually to what they had done. “They each have their own distinct voice,” says Lehtinen, “including one of them who is not quite as moral as her two friends. It’s important that female characters can have the same anti-hero flavour as we are used to with men.”
Most producers and showrunners agree that female characters need to be messy and complicated, not sanitised or sanctified. “Complicated, messed-up women are the only kind of women I know,” says Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of Lifetime’s hit series UnReal, which tells the story of two manipulative ratings-seeking female producers running a salacious dating show. “Real, relatable women have a strong appeal to TV audiences.”
Rukeyser says the show also stands out “because it’s still rare to see women at work outside of detective series. And I think it’s taken on a new significance during the last year. There may have been a sense that some of the issues around gender equality weren’t that relevant anymore, but now the whole debate about equal pay for men and women has exploded.”
Ellie Beaumont, co-creator (with Drew Proffitt) of Australian crime drama Dead Lucky, also favours shows that depict flawed women: “Our central character in Dead Lucky [a detective played by Rachel Griffiths] has a strong sense of social justice but she also has a temper and speaks before thinking. The best characters – of either gender – are always flawed.”
One interesting way of addressing the gender imbalance in TV drama has been to portray early-to-mid-20th century female characters challenging social stereotypes, such as in Bomb Girls, Ku’damm 56 and Call the Midwife. Susann Billberg, a producer at Sweden’s Jarowskij, identifies similar themes in Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant), a period family saga that her company produces in collaboration with SVT, Viaplay and Film i Väst.
“The series explores the Swedish class system from the late 1940s and how these barriers began to break down,” she says. “It shines a light on the different female perspectives and their involvement in helping society progress. Nina is headstrong and determined to break class norms by building a nightclub. Then there is waitress and single mother Maggan who champions women’s rights in the workplace.” Another female powerhouse, adds Billberg, is Helga, the family matriarch played by Suzanne Reuter.
From Canada, Frankie Drake Mysteries is another period show, set in the 1920s, that depicts a woman defying stereotypes, this time as a private eye. Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury and executive producer of the show, says: “At its heart, Frankie Drake Mysteries is about female empowerment. Frankie is a woman living life on her own terms, building a career of her own design and empowering other women along the way. We wanted to explore this era and its challenges through the lives of a group of women working together to solve crimes.”
Canada “is in a good place right now in terms of producing series with women in lead roles,” says Jennings, whose company also produced vampire web series Carmilla. “There is a focused effort to ensure women are taking their place behind the camera, and this helps inform the stories.”
But how do producers approach gender in earlier period drama, where the assumption might be that women were treated as second-class citizens? Take a show like Versailles, for example. “It is true that Versailles was an arena created by Louis XIV to impose his absolute power,” says Aude Albano, an executive producer from Versailles prodco CAPA Drama, “and 17th century France was generally ruled by men. But women also used to play an essential role in that environment and it was important to us to depict and highlight it in the show. It was not our intention to make a feminist show, but it was our intention to use what we found fascinating in history and bring a modern look.”
One way into this subject was the fact that Louis was raised by a very strong woman, Anne of Austria. “The relationship Louis had with his mother had a clear impact on his attraction to strong and smart women, such as Madame de Montespan or Madame de Maintenon,” says Albano. “This gave us the scope to create strong, complex and singular female characters, each one of them coming with their drives, their flaws, their ambitions.”
Another option with period drama is to go so far back in history that there is little guidance on the gender roles. In Sky series Britannia, the creative team constructed a vision of a gender-balanced Britain fighting against a tyrannical Rome. “The little we know of those times was mostly written by the Romans,” says James Richardson, co-founder of producer Vertigo Films, “and they were a patriarchal, quasi-fascistic state. But there is evidence that ancient Britain was a more egalitarian society with female queens and warriors. That gave us something to play with.”
This opened up powerful roles for the likes of Zoe Wanamaker, who plays the ferocious Queen of the Regnis tribe Antedia, and Kelly Reilly, the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii tribe. There’s also a key role for Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays Cait, a teenage girl whose family are murdered by the Romans just as she is coming of age. “I don’t like the notion of ‘strong’ female characters, but what [writers] Jez and Tom Butterworth gave Britannia was interesting women – funny, fierce, complicated, messed up – front and centre of the story,” Richardson adds.
Worthington Cox’s role is a reminder that teenagers and young women are rarely portrayed in a meaningful way in mainstream TV drama. Shows that tackle this gap include Clique, The Girlfriend Experience and upcoming series Hanna, written by David Farr and based on the movie of the same name.
Hanna is an NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) and Working Title Television production for Amazon. A high-concept thriller that differs in tone from the Joe Wright-directed movie of the same name, it follows the journey of an extraordinary young girl, accompanied by her battle-hardened father, as she evades the relentless pursuit of a female CIA agent. “What makes it especially interesting,” says NBCUIS executive VP of scripted programming JoAnn Alfano, “is that it is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who, for the past 15 years, has been raised in isolation in the remote forests of northern Poland. She’s extraordinary, but what she wants most of all is to be normal. Pitching the character at this age is important to the show because she’s finding out what it is to be a woman. And, at the same time, she’s learning how to have a mind of her own.”
Of course, the debate about gender has intensified in the last year as a result of the numerous sexual abuse and harassment scandals that have gripped the media sector. The Ink Factory’s Cornwell says: “Initiatives like #MeToo, and the questions raised by our sudden recognition of behaviours in our industry that have been endemic and profoundly inappropriate, are forcing us to examine not just our actions but the social norms that have led to those behaviours or created an environment in which they could flourish. We need to address the way we have been perpetuating or internalising problematic gender constructs and behaviours through the worlds we create.”
Shindler raises a salient point, which is that the new gender balance on TV isn’t just about what women do on screen, but what they don’t do: “In Red shows, rape is never a story – and we don’t depict dead female bodies. We made a decision in our TV dramas not to portray women in our dramas as victims.”
The cast of Picnic at Hanging Rock, led by Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer, discuss reimagining Joan Lindsay’s classic novel as a new six-part event series.
All the hallmarks of a classical period drama are present and correct, but do not be deceived by the stately mansion, bonnets and corsets on show in Picnic at Hanging Rock. In fact, this intoxicating six-part series is a thoroughly modern retelling of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel – from the scripts by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison to the predominantly young cast headed by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer and the dazzling directing led by Larysa Kondracki.
After a red-carpet world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, Picnic at Hanging Rock is at last getting its domestic debut on Foxtel’s Showcase channel in Australia this Sunday. Dormer stars as English headmistress Hester Appleyard as the story plunges viewers into the mysterious disappearances of three schoolgirls and their governess on Valentine’s Day 1900.
Exploring the event’s far-reaching impact on the students and staff of Appleyard College and its enigmatic headmistress, theories soon abound, paranoia sets in and long-held secrets surface as the Rock exerts its strange power and the dark stain of the unsolved mystery continues to spread.
The cast also features rising Aussie stars including Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving, Madeleine Madden and Ruby Rees as some of the students. It is produced by FremantleMedia Australia, with broadcasters including Amazon Prime Video in the US, the BBC in the UK, Germany’s Entertain TV, France’s Canal+ and Sky New Zealand already importing the series following deals with distributor FremantleMedia International.
Aware of the revered 1968 film adaptation directed by Peter Weir, Kondracki initially turned down the chance to direct this new version. But friend and Fremantle executive Stefanie Burk passed her Lindsay’s book and asked her to give it a look.
“I had the same reaction that every crew member had too, which was ‘No, no,’ but the second you read it, you said, ‘OK’ – the script goes back to the book and then expands it,” the director says.
“Bea is basically a genius and Alice is super talented,” she says of the writers. “Bea’s unbelievably emotionally specific, thematically specific and very collaborative. She just writes in this beautiful way. The scripts, similar to the book, are open to interpretation and it’s just such a rich playground. We had so much fun – and tears as well.”
Dormer agrees Christian is one of a kind. “She’s a playwright originally and when you read her stage directions, she can communicate a thought or a feeling in a few lines, in a way I haven’t seen a writer achieve before. Joan Lindsay can hint at something in one sentence and Bea’s described it and run with it.
“She and Larysa are both not scared of the spiritual, the transcendental, the absurd, the magical or the dark. It’s strong in tone with this beautiful combination of Alice and the other directors but, fundamentally, producer-wise and creatively, it’s this beautiful hybrid of Bea’s image meets Larysa’s vision.”
Like remaking Sherlock for the BBC or taking a new version of Othello out onto the stage, Dormer believes the time was right to do Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation, describing this version as a “gothic horror” with touches of dark comedy thrown in for good measure. “But really it’s also a huge exploration of what are the formative years of young girls, and a woman [Appleyard] who thinks she knows what women should be and them rebelling against that. In a way, it’s our version of [1988 US movie] Heathers. I have a nutty theory that all the girls are different versions of what Hester could have been.
“There are moments in what Larysa and Bea chose to do that I felt were like The Crucible, the hysteria of female adolescence, the sexual repression of female adolescence – it’s The Virgin Suicides, Heathers and The Crucible in one.”
Rees, who plays Edith, picks up: “When I read the first script, I thought, ‘This isn’t Picnic at Hanging Rock.’ This is so far away from any preconception any Australian – or any person – has about this story. It’s not Picnic as we know it or have ever seen it before.”
Sullivan, who plays Miranda, admits that following Weir’s film was intimidating, as the characters in Lindsay’s book already exist on screen. But this new version, she says, takes viewers on an emotional journey, sending them back and forth through the events.
“It’s like a psychological twisted tale, and we’re not children. We don’t need answers,” the actor notes. “Finding these characters was such a gift and it’s quite weird how it is such a contemporary piece. It has an energy that’s really exciting. My character is definitely a woman who is aching and so frustrated because she’s definitely born in the wrong time.”
Bringing some international flavour to proceedings are Harrison Gilbertson, who plays Englishman Michael Fitzhubert, and Lola Bessis, who stars as French schoolmistress Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers.
“It’s interesting because Harrison’s character is from England and mine is from France, and all the other girls have been sent to this school by their families from all around Australia and the world,” Bessis explains. “So we’re all like a very close family. At the beginning, Dianne is just a good employee and does what she’s told to do. She’s very thankful to Mrs Appleyard for giving her a job but, little by little, she toughens up and learns to be herself and have her own opinions of things and emancipates herself a lot.”
Shooting took place in Melbourne and in locations across Victoria, as well as at the real Hanging Rock, a spiritual place considered sacred by native aboriginal communities. The week before filming there, however, the cast and crew were all struck by illness.
“At one point, one of our main actors was missing every day,” recalls Kondracki. “In the middle of a scene, they’d just fall ill. And this was a great testament to the crew. I remember one of our gaffers in the bushes vomiting and then coming back, and when I asked if he wanted to go home, he just replied that he’d lost a few pounds. Nobody gave up and, at the end, there was a crime scene-level clean-up. The point is we were going to the rock the following week and everyone was thinking this was the rock saying, ‘If you think this week’s bad…’”
Sullivan describes filming at the rock as “amazing, exhausting, disorientating,” while Dormer adds: “In the end, there was no acting required as a British actor coming to Hanging Rock and being overwhelmed by the energy and awe-inspiring power and landscape of it. It has an energy.”
Having played Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones for five seasons of the HBO series, Dormer admits she wasn’t looking for a role in another period drama. “I didn’t want to get into a corset again but I was intrigued by the beauty and the psychology of this,” she reveals. “It really grabbed me. And Larysa wrote me this beautiful letter basically saying no one else can play this role as well as you.”
“Which is true,” the director interjects.
Dormer continues: “Hester Appleyard could very easily be a villain. And Larysa gave me this great pitch: ‘You can find the vulnerability, the weakness and the sadness in her that will make the audience empathise as well. You will make her an anti-heroine as opposed to a villain.’ She said, ‘I know you can do that.’ I was like, that’s a tough specification with that character. We found we had a shorthand quite quickly. There’s something about this relationship; we’re both very candid people, we’re both very straight-talking.
“There’s a David Lynchian, Lewis Carollian dark surreality to our Picnic, mainly given by Larysa’s camera choices, that to me is just so bold, fresh and exciting and it just gives it this signature feel. That’s when you know you’ve got something special, when you can’t describe a show and say it’s a bit like ‘this meets this’. If you can’t do the hybrid pitch, you know you’ve got something distinctive.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock is the latest in a wave of adaptations of Australian novels and films, from Mystery Road and Romper Stomper to Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright. But regardless of its source, the cast believe this series will make its mark around the world.
Sullivan, who also starred in Romper Stomper, admits she was hesitant before signing up to both series. “But both of them are a beautiful way to map how far we’ve come and how we are still weirdly dealing with the same issues that girls in the 1900s were. Instead of corsets, we now have waist trainers from the Kardashians. It’s all still being resold. The immigration of Asian culture in Australia back then is now Islamic culture coming in, and we’re having the exact same conversation 25 years later.”
Rees adds: “Australia is not always seen to be a country that can create art that holds its own, and I think this version of Picnic at Hanging Rock will put us on the world map in the way the film did when Peter Weir made it.
“Australia has been doing remakes of old stories for a long time. It’s just now becoming mainstream. It’s fabulous because if the original story has enough content that we can retell it in every century, then why not do it? So many things in the series are still 100% applicable today, which is scary. That’s not a good thing that we’re still discussing problems for women who were alive and well in the 1900s in 2018. That’s a negative – and this show just drives a stake into the heart of that.”
Television held its own at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world as an array of talent and some stunning new shows landed in Germany for Berlinale’s fourth annual Drama Series Days. DQ was in town to find out more.
For those in the television industry, the chance to rub shoulders with A-list movie stars might once have seemed a pipe dream. But for anyone who attended the Berlin International Film Festival this week, that dream was very much a reality.
Now in its fourth year, Berlinale’s Drama Series Days has established itself as one of the premier television events around the world as the German capital rolls out the red carpet for stars of the big screen – and small.
To find yourself caught up in a maelstrom of photographers’ flash bulbs and screaming and cheering fans might not be an unusual event at a film festival. But to then peer over the barriers and find the stars of Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock posing for the cameras is proof that television is now assured of the same reverence as cinema. And for good reason. The talent the industry is able to attract is of a level never seen before in terms of movie stars signing up for longer-form storytelling. The productions themselves are also worthy of acclaim, with the word ‘cinematic’ a staple adjective regularly dished out to describe the scale of dramas now on screen.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, which will air on Foxtel in Australia later this year and is distributed by FremantleMedia, is a case in point. Game of Thrones alum Natalie Dormer turns in a standout performance as Hester Appleyard, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that faces tragedy when three pupils disappear during a picnic at the titular rock. The series also pops with colour and visual flair thanks to director Larysa Kondracki, making it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter Weir’s celebrated 1975 film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel, which also serves as the source of the television reimagining.
The six-part miniseries – there will be no sequel that goes beyond the book, delegates in Berlin were told – was one of seven screenings that took place as part of the Berlinale Series programme, highlighting some of the biggest new dramas from around the world.
Others included Israeli psychological thriller Sleeping Bears, written and directed by Keren Magalit (Yellow Peppers, The A Word), and Bad Banks. The latter is described as a six-part Machiavellian thriller set in the ruthless world of international finance and the stock market. Produced by Letterbox Filmproduktion and Iris Production for ZDF (Germany) and Arte (France), it has already been picked up by HBO Europe, Walter Presents UK, RTÉ in Ireland, Sundance TV Iberia and RTP in Portugal ahead of its debut next month.
Two new Scandinavian dramas were also selected. Heimebane (Home Ground) tackles gender issues as a female football coach becomes the first woman to take charge of a men’s team in the Norwegian premier league. Already commissioned for a second season by NRK, it stars Ane Dahl Torp and former footballer John Carew, well known to fans in Europe after playing for sides including Valencia and Aston Villa, as well as the Norway national team.
Meanwhile, amid talk of Scandi broadcasters losing interest in what the rest of the world calls Nordic noir, one show is set to push new boundaries at Danish net DR. Known for its original series including Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen and Broen (The Bridge), DR’s forthcoming drama Liberty stands out as something totally different for the channel. It also marks a rare book adaptation to land on the network.
Based on Jakob Ejersbo’s novel, it follows a group of Scandinavian expats living and working in Tanzania, and explores themes of corruption, identity, morals and friendship. Hollywood actor Connie Nielsen joined fellow cast members including Carsten Bjørnlund plus creator Asger Leth and director Mikael Marcimain on the red carpet in Berlin.
The Berlinale official selection was completed by two new US series, showcasing the vast range of storytelling television now affords. The Looming Tower, debuting next month on US streamer Hulu and showcased in Berlin by European partner Amazon, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Lawrence Wright. The story traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA at that time may have set the path for tragedy on 9/11.
Stars Jeff Daniels, Ali Soufan, Peter Sarsgaard and showrunner Dan Futterman (pictured top) were in Germany to promote the show, which injects reality into a Homeland-style political thriller.
At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Terror, AMC’s take on the true story of the crews of two British Royal Navy ships that attempt to discover the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s. This isn’t just another historical drama, however. Faced with treacherous conditions, limited resources and a fear of the unknown, the crew members are pushed to the brink of extinction as they face all kinds of dangers, from both human and otherworldly sources.
The mix of horror and the supernatural, coupled with the eerie Arctic landscapes, certainly makes this show one to watch, with co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh promising to reward viewers through the 10-part series, which features Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Tobias Menzies (Outlander) among the ensemble cast.
The strength of the drama on show this week in Berlin and the number of small-screen stars descending upon the city were proof of television’s strength at an event usually revered as one of the most prestigious film festivals on the international circuit. With more film talent on both sides of the camera now championing the opportunities offered by longform storytelling, and the chance to develop characters across more than a two-hour period, coupled with television’s new openness to genre and plot, expect to see television play an even greater role in at Berlinale in 2019.
Shooting a reimagining of the iconic Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was challenging but highly rewarding for cast and crew. DQ reports from the set of the six-part drama.
Primly dressed as a schoolteacher, Yael Stone is standing in front of a classroom of young girls in a historic building in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, speaking gravely about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Playing religious studies teacher Dora Lumley, she draws a comparison between Jesus’ place of entombment and the caves of Hanging Rock, from where three students and a teacher had mysteriously disappeared a few days earlier, on Valentine’s Day 1900.
“Don’t be a doubter, like Thomas. Believe in Jesus and the dead will rise again,” intones the actress, best known as inmate Lorna Morello in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. That prompts one girl to cry out: “They’ll come back here even after they’re dead!”
After numerous takes, each flawlessly delivered by Stone, director Larysa Kondracki calls cut on a pivotal scene in Picnic at Hanging Rock, FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s six-part reimagining of Joan Lindsay’s iconic 1967 novel, which previously inspired Peter Weir’s classic 1975 movie.
Amazon Prime Video came aboard as the US partner to the drama commissioned by Australia’s Foxtel in a deal trumpeted as the biggest ever for an Australian series in the US, surpassing SundanceTV’s investment in Top of the Lake: China Girl. Sales to several other key territories are pending, negotiated by FremantleMedia International.
While the budget is under wraps, another investor, state agency Film Victoria, estimated the production would inject more than A$11m (US$8.8m) into the local economy.
Directed by Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie and scripted by Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, the high-end production is the first of a number of adaptations of Australian novels planned by FMA.
Jo Porter, FMA director of drama and one of the show’s executive producers, says: “It’s our first internationally facing drama production made in Australia. We want to make projects on home ground using Australian creative talent. We have optioned a few other books. Picnic is the first of what we hope will be many more of these ambitious projects.”
The cast is headed by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer as Mrs Appleyard, an English widow who moves to Australia and creates the Appleyard College for Young Ladies. Lola Bessis (Cassandra, Swim Little Fish Swim) plays Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, mistress of French conversation, music and dance. Anna McGahan (The Doctor Blake Mysteries, The Kettering Incident) is Miss Greta McCraw, mistress of geography and mathematics, and Sibylla Budd (Tomorrow When the War Began, Winners & Losers) is Mrs Valange, mistress of art and literature.
In the key roles of students are Lily Sullivan, Madeleine Madden, Samara Weaving, Ruby Rees and newcomer Inez Curro. The top-notch male cast includes Don Hany, Harrison Gilbertson, James Hoare, Marcus Graham, Mark Coles Smith, Jonny Pasvolsky and Philip Quast.
The idea to revisit Lindsay’s novel germinated internally at FMA and the rights were secured from Barbara Mobbs, literary agent for Lindsay’s estate. Fremantle developed the project with Christian, who wrote the series bible and the first episode, and Addison.
“Bea [Christian] is a deep thinker with a beautiful sensitivity,“ Porter tells DQ on the classroom set at the heritage-listed Wattle Park Chalet, which was built in 1928. “She has a unique way of seeing the world and the human psyche. Her writing is quite lyrical, at times strange and wonderful, with a contemporary feel which is such an organic fit with Joan Lindsay herself.”
Several broadcasters were interested in the project – which explores the fallout from the disappearance of the girls and teacher – but FMA’s relationship with Foxtel, for which it produces the female-prison drama Wentworth, helped cement the deal. Foxtel greenlit the show after Screen Australia approved its production investment in September 2016. Although that was before any cast had been attached, there was an understanding that a marquee name would be hired to play Mrs Appleyard.
The producers also wanted a female lead director who had experience in big-budget storytelling and would be able to attract a big-name cast. Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, suggested Canadian filmmaker Kondracki, based on her work on such shows as Better Call Saul, Legion and The Americans.
Kondracki is a fan of both the book and Weir’s film, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian cinema since she did her Master of Fine Arts graduate degree at Columbia University. “What [writers] Bea and Alice have done so beautifully in the scripts is to capture a kind of novelistic quality,” she says. “Our task was to create a world that you want to spend time and linger in and get to know these characters. We have tried very hard to root all the ideas in the book, especially Joan Lindsay’s interesting take on the understanding of time and its impact on civilisation.”
Fellow director Rymer, who spent some years in the US directing episodes of series such as Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Hannibal (which he also exec produced), Longmire, American Horror Story and The Killing, was planning to come back to Australia to set up a TV series when his agent sent him the script. “My first instinct was, ‘Why would you want to do that, a remake for TV?’” he says. “Peter Weir’s film was powerful and worked very well. What were we going to add to it?”
Five or 10 pages, in however, Rymer says he found the script “very intriguing – not what I expected to read.” He also suggested bringing on board Brotchie, who was hired after the Australian Directors’ Guild (ADG) objected to Kondracki on the grounds that she did not meet the net employment benefit test set by the country’s immigration department and questioned why an Australian female director was not employed. When Brotchie signed on, the ADG withdrew its complaint. Subsequently, funding agency Screen Australia affirmed it would change its guidelines to rule out financing Australian television projects, excluding coproductions, if a foreign director is attached.
The LA-based, Melbourne native Brotchie had directed two episodes of Girl Boss, a 13-part Netflix comedy inspired by the true story of Sophia Amoruso, a digital entrepreneur who founded the fashion e-commerce site Nasty Gal.
“I read the novel as a teenager and loved it, and I loved Peter Weir’s film,” she says of Hanging Rock. “The idea of being part of such an iconic Australian show was thrilling. On Girl Boss I was working on a similar budget level with a fantastic team and all the big toys. It’s the same skill set.”
Before signing on, Brotchie spoke to Porter via Skype, and arrived in Sydney a week before shooting was due to start to meet Kondracki on the set. Porter was impressed with Brotchie’s expertise in tackling her first drama after directing the Australian ABC comedies Lowdown and This is Littleton, observing: “She certainly held her own and has delivered a really lovely episode.”
Rymer concurs: “She got a lot of nuance and intimacy out of the actors, her shooting style was strong and simple and she knew what she wanted. Her biggest challenge was that she would plan very meticulously and then everything would be up in the air.”
Among the directors and producers, there was a 95% consensus on casting, according to Rymer. The process was complicated by the fact multiple other high-profile shows were casting at the same time and several actors dropped out due to scheduling problems, but they got the cast they wanted.
Kondracki directed the first three episodes, Brotchie helmed episode four and Rymer picked up five and six, although occasionally each worked on the others’ blocks.
In Weir’s film, Mrs Appleyard was played by the then middle-aged Welsh-born actor Rachel Roberts, so Dormer is a generational change. However, Porter says: “We did not deliberately go young. What we wanted was someone who had command and strength, and Natalie has that in spades.” The timing was also fortuitous because Dormer was looking for her next major role after playing Margaery Tyrell in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
McGahan, who plays the teacher who vanishes with the girls, marvelled at Dormer’s performance: “She makes incredibly complex choices and can execute them with no problem. Her craft is so exact. She had these complex monologues addressing the students, which required a lot of camera angles and very long days. Without a complaint, she would repeat these monologues flawlessly over and over again and would never drop a line. When the camera started to roll she was completely transformed, impenetrable.”
Similarly, Stone was impressed with the way Dormer brought out her character’s “truly chilling, quiet velocity.” The New York-based actress, who was born in Sydney, was keen to find another Aussie project after playing a cop in Deep Water, Blackfella Films’ miniseries commissioned by Oz pubcaster SBS.
For her audition tape she stuffed her lower jaw with toilet paper and adopted a nasal tone to impersonate Miss Lumley, a character who lacks authority, is unable to communicate with her fellow teachers and is not respected by the students. Then when she arrived on set she expected to be able to use prosthetics, but was told the budget did not stretch that far, so she used paper towels. Her performance starts out as comical but at the end will likely elicit tears from viewers, according to Porter.
Madeleine Madden’s casting as student Marion Quade marks another departure from the book and movie as the series’ only Indigenous character. “Marion prides herself on her intelligence and is really aware of the social prejudices of the era,” says the 20-year-old, whose credits include Tomorrow, When the War Began and the Indigenous series Redfern Now and Ready for This.
“Her father is white and her mother is Aboriginal. She is put into the school to be hidden away. This makes her aware of challenges that are unique to her and do not apply to the other girls.” As a further twist, Marion has a romantic relationship with one of the women in the college.
The logistics of filming in and around the labyrinth of Hanging Rock, which is 70km north-west of Melbourne, and numerous other locations in the state of Victoria and around the city, proved challenging for cast and crew, including director of cinematography Garry Phillips, production designer Jo Ford and costume designer Edie Kurzer.
Porter says: “It’s been physically a really, really demanding shoot. We’ve been out in the bush and we spent a full week at the rock, with three units filming up there at one point. No wonder Peter Weir was 23 when he made the film, because you have to be a mountain goat, going up and down that rock.”
Kondracki devised a novel plan to elicit ideas from the cast and crew, offering a bottle of wine in return for innovative suggestions that ended up on screen. The best involved creating a “curtain” of water for one scene filmed on the top of the rock, which entailed several crew members lugging 1,000 gallons of water in buckets up the 106 metre-high rock.
Each director had a different filmmaking style, which was embraced by the actors. McGahan describes Kondracki as “a radical, a fire; with her, you get all this adrenaline,” Rymer as a consummate professional and visionary and Brotchie as an actor’s director who involved herself in all the choices the actors made. The partnership with Amazon Prime Video also enabled the producers to increase the shooting schedule to 13 weeks and to extend the second unit’s workload.
Weir’s film famously ended without revealing what happened to the missing teacher and two of the girls (one returned, but had no memory of the event). The series, launching down under in 2018, canvasses various possibilities: were they kidnapped? Did they escape? Did they go into a time warp? Were they abducted by aliens?
Rymer says: “We put a lot of emphasis on character, who these girls were and what they wanted. Hopefully what we say is more interesting than what happens to them, and we preserve the mystery. Hopefully viewers will be at the water cooler arguing vehemently about what happened to the girls.”
More broadly, Kondracki adds: “For me, the show is not about what happened to the girls as much as why they wanted to climb the rock in the first place.”