Sam Worthington, who stars in and also co-produced the Fox series Deadline Gallipoli, is one of many Hollywood actors taking a step away from the big screen and heading to the small screen. Here, his seasoned co-producer, Penny Chapman, talks about the power of a good script to attract talent, war journalism, the burgeoning Australian TV industry, and what it was like filming Deadline Gallipoli in South Australia.
There are a lot of ways to tell the ANZAC story for a historical drama – why have you chosen the perspective of war correspondents for Deadline Gallipoli?
The idea was brought to me by Sam Worthington and John Schwarz, his partner in Full Clip; they’ve got a company in LA. To be honest, I wasn’t looking to do a Gallipoli story. I thought every which way had been covered. But they brought the idea of the journalist’s story and I thought, ‘there’s an interesting young man’s take on the Gallipoli legend’. Then I read a really marvellous book by a guy called Phillip Knightley called The First Casualty, in which he looked at the role of the war correspondent as hero propagandist and myth-maker.
I thought this was a fantastic story about truth and war and how we make palatable the horror of war. And with the story of disobedience that some of those journalists engaged in … the way it brought about an early evacuation of the Peninsular in a disastrous campaign before more men suffered from exposure and died in their thousands over the winter. I just thought it was a fantastic story.
Deadline Gallipoli has a very strong cast. What do you think was the main attraction for them?
The main attraction was absolutely the scripts. We assembled four of Australia’s best writers: Jacquelin Perske (Love My Way, Little Fish), Cate Shortland (The Slap, Somersault, Devil’s Playground), Shaun Grant (Snowtown) and Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrow When The War Began). They worked for many, many months on honing this story and they were very much a team. They came up with simply brilliant scripts and it was those scripts that attracted absolutely easily the cast.
The writing team behind the series come from diverse backgrounds/portfolios of work – what was the process like pulling them and the story together?
It took quite some time and it took a great deal of generosity on each of their parts. They were incredibly generous with each other and they looked to the extraordinary particular talents of each one of them to build richness into their own episodes.
It really was a great experience in creative collaboration and they are very different. Stuart Beattie brought a marvellous muscular approach to the structure of it; he was the one who kept whipping us in to trying to avoid seeing ourselves as historians. He really, really, really encouraged us to start thinking from the inside out of these stories, rather than the outside in, and that was a really big contribution on his part.
How does the story evolve over the four-part series?
Well it starts with Charles Bean, the Australian correspondent in Cairo trying desperately to get accreditation to go to the front. As far as the Brits are concerned, the Australian journalists can just stay in Cairo and report it from Cairo.
The thing to remember about World War I was that the British High Command loathed war correspondents, and for the first year of the war they made sure that no war correspondents got anywhere near the front. Kitchener kept arresting those who got anywhere near and slamming them in jail. Churchill had a really poor opinion; “this war is going to be conducted in fog and that’s not a place for a journalist”. But it was the Americans who put pressure on the Brits to ease up a bit and let a few journalists in there.
So it starts with the race to the Cove by three journalists. Charles Bean, who’s the Australian journalist … is loathed by the men that he wants to be embedded with. His story is very much about getting back his mojo with the fighting Australian soldiers. Then there is the British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who’s an old campaigner and who is going there in order to make some money. He’s a strategist, he’s smart as anything, he’s a big mouth; the Brass loathe him because he’s highly opinionated. Then there’s Phillip Schuler, the Australian photographer and the son of the editor of The Age, who was pipped at the post for the role of Australian war correspondent by Charles Bean and makes his own way there.
So each of them has a journey to go on; each quite a different journey in their role of having to parley this war. The thing is they were there to actually get recruitment happening, really. And as the war goes on they realise that it’s all well and good to not put out a whole lot of details that might have an impact on the security of your troops, but when you’re being prevented from telling the world just what a disastrous campaign this is and when your articles are designed to bring more men to the war front so they can be sent in waves to be slaughtered, that’s when you start to have a bit of an existential crisis about what you’re doing here.
So it began as sending the journalists over there to write, in essence, propaganda?
Oh, that is absolutely what the British saw as the journalist’s role, and indeed that is what the newspaper proprietors during World War I brought in to. To be honest, that’s what a great many of the war correspondents, certainly on the Western Front, knew – with some shame on some of their parts – that they were doing. They were the first embedded journalists, really, and they were embedded in the way that journalists were absolutely embedded in the second Iraq war.
Going through this process, was this a real eye-opener for you about the ANZAC story?
Yes, it was. It was, I hate to say it, exhilarating to discover just how relevant that part of the Gallipoli story and the World War I story is to what is going down today. I mean, you think about Edward Snowden, you think about Wikileaks, and you realise that this story is in a very, very similar vein.
It’s all about our right as a public to get information, and the clever ways in which it is withheld from us in times of war, for good or bad.
But the great thing about this is, and I won’t give away the story, but it is a race at the end to see whether Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Keith Murdoch, who joins this trio in the second half of the series, can effectively insert themselves into the campaign and make a change to its outcome.
So they really did set a precedence for today’s war correspondents?
They certainly did, absolutely, and they were an exception. Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Keith Murdoch were an exception to what was happening among war correspondents in World War I. They’re an exemplar of, I guess, what it takes to be effectively disobedient when it’s required.
The story of Deadline Gallipoli covers many countries – Turkey, the UK and Australia. Why did you choose to shoot it all in South Australia?
To be honest, I don’t think we would have managed it anywhere else in Australia. South Australia has such an astonishing array of locations. It was possible for us to do Cairo; it was possible for us to do London brilliantly because of all the extraordinary buildings in Adelaide (of course, visual effects and computer-generated imagery help this these days).
The Fleurieu Peninsular is a limestone coast, very much like the limestone coast of the Dardanelles of Gallipoli, and so we stitched together the world of Gallipoli Cove, Crithea to the south of Gallipoli, and the world of the trenches, the dugouts.
Up and down the Fleurieu Peninsular – from Second Valley through to Myponga through to Maslins Beach, the McClaren Vale gun club, the Tatachilla Quarry, up through various of the other beaches, Noarlunga – we’ve managed to find brilliant locations that very evocatively sell the world of the Dardanelles.
How much has our modern lifestyle impacted on these areas when you’re creating a historical series like this?
Well, we’ve had to be very, very careful about the environmental protection of the coastline. So we worked closely with the people from the department of environment and also the local Indigenous people and the local council. They gave us clear guidelines as to where we could step and where we couldn’t, so we weren’t able to build dugouts all over the Maslins cliffs, because it is too delicate an environment; we just had to be as clever as we could about stitching these worlds together.
You go into a quarry and you build your dugouts and you can blow the bejesus out of them, and we had very good special-effects teams and a our visual-effects team – well, if you’ve got a row of houses up the top of one end of the beach you can paint those out. It’s all a matter of kind of creative stitching.
How have you utilised the Adelaide Studios?
They have been an incredible production facility. The production offices here are excellent, probably the best in the country in my experience, and the people here are just brilliant.
So we’ve built inside the studios; we’ve built ship interiors, we’ve built dugout interiors, we’ve put in tents to do tent interiors. They’re an exceptional facility.
And what about South Australian crews – have you been able to use them in key creative roles?
Yes. Our director of photography (Geoff Hall) is from South Australia. Geoff shot Red Dog, Chopper; he is an astonishingly good DoP and we were very fortunate that he was here.
Our head of lighting, our head of grips, our head of the make-up department (Fiona Rees-Jones). Marriot Kerr is our wardrobe designer; she is second to none. And our casting people, Angela Heesom’s Casting company – they have found us really marvellous actors in this town. I am in awe of the extras that we ended up getting; the best extras I’ve ever worked with.
The ANZAC story is a very Australian story. What is its appeal for overseas markets and audiences?
What we’ve been trying do is to create a story where you don’t have to understand the first thing about Gallipoli legend. You don’t have to have brought into the Gallipoli legend. You can watch it without any knowledge of what it means to us as Australians. So in and of itself, it’s just a damn fine story about journalists who go to cover a war.
What is the timeframe for the production?
We will go straight in to post-production now. We’ll edit it and then we’ll deliver it at the end of the year to Foxtel and to our international distributors, NBC Universal. It will go to air some time before or around ANZAC Day next year.
It will probably go later in the other territories. It doesn’t have to be watched in the context of ANZAC Day.
Over recent years we have seen more and more A-List actors taking on television roles over film roles. Why do you think actors are gravitating to the small screen?
The small screen has burgeoned as a business and I guess Home Box Office led the way with a series of extraordinarily clever and wonderful dramas. You know television is the new black. I know at the Edinburgh (Television) Festival coming up, our managing director is on a panel where I think the theme is “television is the new film”.
Talented writers and show runners have looked at the opportunities in television to create great narratives and really great worlds. And you’ve got some exceptionally talented people going in and working in that territory. As Salman Rushdie said: “Television series are the new novel.”
People are able to watch it in a completely different way; you can either watch it go to air or you can download and watch the whole thing. Our viewing patterns have changed so much over the last five years it’s quite a revolution. So it’s really exciting to find the world’s best talents not only in performing, but also in directing and in writing, turning their attention to the small screen.
What has Sam Worthington’s role been in the production of the series?
He came to a few early meetings with the writers and he’s been reading the scripts as we’ve been going along, and his partner has been giving us comments on the scripts. They were mates with Stuart Beattie and they suggested that Beattie came on board and I was only too delighted. They encouraged that part of the marriage, which was great, and it’s been a real joy to work with them.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on The Lead.
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