Elizabeth Debicki in 'The Kettering Incident', for which she picked up Best Lead Actress in a TV Drama at Wednesday's AACTA awards. (Photo credit: Ben King).
How did you connect with Porchlight?
Vincent [Sheehan] had done The Hunter down here, and he'd finished it around the time I returned to Tasmania after god knows how many years. I'd been to Screen Tasmania to talk to them about being home and what I wanted to do. About two weeks later, Vincent finished [The Hunter] and he went in to [Screen Tasmania] and said – look, I really would love to do something else here. Vincent just fell in love with Tasmania, but found it really difficult on The Hunter having no real Tasmanian voice to navigate the privacy of the island. People are quite protective of their way of life. So he really just came up, knocked on my door and said, hey, do you want to talk about collaborating? And it started from there.
Was the series always going to have a female protagonist?
This is my home, I’m from here, and when I met Vincent I was already writing up an idea up for a feature film; trying to capture the emotions I felt about coming back to Tasmania, and realising I didn't actually fit in here anymore. And just feeling very upset about that. So I used it as the basis of a character who became Anna. I thought it was an interesting idea of what we think home is. That need to feel safe and to belong to a community or a tribe, and then to suddenly find that threatened in some way. Because I felt for myself – where will I go, what will I do? My family is here, but it was a very different life I had as a child to the life I had as an adult, like a lot of us. So I wanted to explore that, and in that sense Anna was always going to be a female lead.
Are the locations places you knew growing up?
No, I didn't grow up down there. I first visited Kettering when I was little; my mum took me down there to see a friend. And it just stuck with me. I grew up with a single mother, so we were very poor, and she was from a Ten Bob Pom family, so she didn't really have a lot of friends. So it was difficult for us. We didn't have a stable home for quite a long time. So we went down to Kettering and it's this little harbour town with little houses around the harbour, and I'd never seen anything like it. You can imagine when I saw Sydney Harbour (laughs). I was so young and that was my dream – to live in Kettering. There was a house there with a white picket fence and I looked at it and I just thought, when I grow up I want to live there. So Kettering was always in my heart I suppose. And when we were talking about the supernatural I remembered a story about somebody seeing a UFO down that way, so I said to Vincent let's go down and look around, because in the south-east there's a lot of great locations. And it was not too far from Hobart, which is where we needed to base ourselves. So we went down to Kettering, though it's not actually filmed there; It's a combination of towns really. But I actually grew up on the north-east coast.
Where did the gothic elements come from?
The gothic elements really come from my experiences as a child. I had a pretty tumultuous upbringing and I guess there was always a bit of trauma surrounding my childhood – and instability. My experience when I was younger was moving around Tasmania a lot. For me Tasmania is a gothic place. There’s a lot of history here, and there's a lot of bad history here. I wanted to capture the feeling I get sometimes, a bit like when I lived in Ireland; it's a very similar feeling. And I hadn't seen it on TV before. The way we depict Australia was not my Australia. I was very influenced by living in the UK. I was watching a lot of shows that started to come out that were genre-bending hybrids of, say, crime shows and supernatural [shows]. One of those was Life on Mars. I was fascinated by the way they wove that together to give it a realistic edge, but it had this whole other supernatural side to it. I’ve been working for 20 years as a writer, and I really felt like I wanted to find something different. I've always wanted to do a supernatural film, because I never thought you could do it in TV. I'd been playing around with the genre for quite a while. Vincent was open to it as well. Pulling all those elements together and keeping it grounded was the key – but then allowing it to breathe out into the supernatural realms is something that I delighted in.
Was it a lengthy development process?
It was four years from beginning to end. That’s not bad. Foxtel came on quite early. Working through the aspects of the supernatural, and how it sat with the crime show, was a lengthy process for me. I spent nearly a year just doing the bible and the first draft. The first draft I did in a funny way. It came out quite quickly – I think I knew what I wanted to do and say, and I knew the tone. And that first draft was what really secured a lot of interest. Even though I then went on to do another 10 drafts of that first draft, which is typical. The first year, the first year and a half, was [spent] in trying to get the balance right. We didn’t want it to be all supernatural and it was quite tricky. But from that point it moved along quite quickly.
How did Elizabeth Debicki become attached?
Elizabeth’s name popped up and I didn’t know her. She hadn't done a lot. We were looking at completely different angle for Anna. She’d done Gatsby, which I hadn’t seen. But she came in and, you know, she's just [this] ethereal, stunningly beautiful woman. And she was so elegant, and it was ridiculous not to look at her, and it was ridiculous to think that she was only 23 years old. She was quite younger than my Anna I guess. And to be honest I was worried about her beauty; like I do sometimes with Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman – sometimes I just find myself watching them. And it was a really harrowing role, but her maturity and her fascination with the character won us over. She wanted the role and she was going to fight for it. Foxtel were brilliant. Here they were giving our young female cinematographer Ari [Wegner] a break, and then with Elizabeth – she hadn't done TV and she's relatively new. So they were incredible in challenging the norm by taking new people.
The role of Anna must have been tricky to play.
I didn’t want her to be the romantic lead or a heroine. I wanted her to be an anti-hero. I wanted her to be really troubled and I wanted her to have no help and work everything out for herself. Elizabeth and I would meet once a week and have really in-depth talks, not just about the script but about the emotion of the character and how she sees the world, and why she is like she is. She’s a very isolated character, [and] she's a very damaged character. But she's also very strong and determined to work things out for herself. But everything’s against her. So often I would write the character into a corner, and wonder how the hell I was going to get her out of it, because I hadn’t really given her any crutches. So as a writer for me that was a challenge as well. It was such a challenging character, [and] that drew Elizabeth and I together I suppose. Her character was drawn on my experiences as a child. We would end up talking a lot about my childhood and growing up.
How was it shooting in Tasmania?
We were very mindful that people were going to be a bit suspicious of what we were doing. It was a fairly big unit that we had. We had my experience of growing up here but we did need the cooperation of people. The crew were told that if they got into a conversation [to say] that the creator was a Tasmanian. That opened doors a little bit. But especially talking about logging as a backdrop, that was a bit tricky and we had a lot of discussions with the crew about how to approach that, even though we don't make comment on it. What Foxtel was drawn to was the fact that we were talking about a town that was being affected by the closing down of logging. They felt they hadn't seen that before. And that was my experience growing up; not with logging but with mining. Seeing families break down because of the industry.
I read that you didn't give actors the full scripts.
I was quite surprised when I was in the UK about how private the scripts were. They give actors and directors time to prepare but they don't give them a long time with scripts, mainly because of confidentiality and leaks. And because of these new short-run series, they're all one big story, so if you do get a leak it can do a lot of damage. Especially as this is a mystery. Early on we did talk to specific directors about a couple of plot points, and we were horrified quite early to find that word had spread around the cast and crew quite quickly. We just felt that [it] was going to get out. So I said, you know what, I'm finding this process really difficult anyway, because I'm still trying to work out how this plays out and if I have to keep changing it because leaks come out… so I'm not going to tell anybody where the script's going. And I've always been a fan of it anyway, because there's something really magical when you have actors not knowing where they're going: when they get their scripts they have to work it out for themselves. They have nothing else to go on, they don't know anything except what's in front of them. Which is a bit like life, in a way.
The Tasmanian landscape is a character in itself in the series.
I was very influenced by the Scandi-noirs like The Killing, The Bridge. That’s why I wanted to shoot it in Tasmania, because I remember as a child the brooding Gothic landscape and how I felt against it. So if you see the script, it's very much [about] the landscape almost challenging the characters. For example [in] the choice of car that I chose for Anna; I was very particular about her having a European car. Because I wanted that car to be at odds with the landscape; and I wanted people psychologically to see that that car wasn’t really fit to be driving in that landscape. I had quite a battle to get the car, because people were asking why she had a European car. But it’s different, like Anna; [it] stands out against the landscape. Or the two little girls riding in the forest, and we'd go up to a really big wide shot to show the smallness of the children. They were all aspects of the script that were there to tell the story of Tasmania. Where we were was a formidable part of the mystery. Because when Vincent and I started talking, I said to him [that] I was very interested in people that go missing, and Tasmania has a quite high percentage of people per capita [who go missing]. It is a landscape that makes you alter the way you live down here.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography really contributes to that sense of place.
When we first spoke to Ari, I talked to her about that. I always wanted to start with the candle sticks that we see in the opening shot, because again that's something I saw when I was little and was so overawed by them. They are so beautiful, so breathtakingly beautiful, but they're also so formidable, and that’s what I wanted. We've got snow-capped mountains and stunning greenery down here, but that for me was more Top of the Lake – it was more New Zealand. It’s not the Tasmania I wanted to see. I wanted a gothic, dark terrain that was formidable for this girl and this story to sit in. And a lot of it was dangerous. The crew and Ari had to be out in boats filming that rock face and climbing over mountains and down into valleys all against a brutal winter, so I didn’t make life easy for anybody (laughs).
Are there plans for further seasons?
In TV you always think about what series two and three and four and five [would] look like, because that's the business of TV. So yeah, there’s a very satisfying end point for this, but there's still a lot of questions left open to go forward if we do. So we'll just have to see what Foxtel think.