When Wakefield premiered on the ABC this month, it was the culmination of a nearly decade-long journey for creator and showrunner Kristen Dunphy.
Finding a home for the mental health-focused series was only half the battle for its creative team as they were forced to navigate a COVID-19 shutdown across international and state borders. Dunphy and executive producer Chloe Rickard, COO Jungle Entertainment, talk to IF about what it meant to finally complete the project.
Introspection resulting from self-isolation is hardly a new phenomenon.
But how does it factor into the portrayal of a fictional character?
In the case of Wakefield, COVID-19 protocol may have given lead actor Rudi Dharmalingam some of the emotional triggers necessary to step into the role of Nikhil Katira, a psychiatric nurse whose sanity begins to unravel while working at the titular facility.
Before he could resume filming the miniseries following the COVID-19 lockdown, Dharmalingam first had to complete quarantine, having returned to set from his home in the UK.
According to creator and showrunner, Kristen Dunphy, the experience offered a pathway to prepare for the show’s more intense scenes.
“He’s going to a pretty dark place for the latter half of the series and he went into isolation at a time when he needed to prepare for that journey emotionally,” she told IF.
“He was saying, ‘Look this is really ideal, in a way, because I’m cut off from everybody and I need to go into myself to find this performance’.”
“Personally, he could relate to the material, as a lot of the actors could.”
Separating real life from fiction has been part of the creative process for Dunphy, who began working on the drama in 2012, just three years after she herself was hospitalised in a psychiatric facility.
Set in the Blue Mountains, Wakefield explores the fine line between sanity and madness through the perspectives of staff and patients at a facility where it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other.
Nik is introduced as the sanest person in a pretty crazy place, before being confronted by a dark secret from his past when a song gets stuck in his head.
Sam Meikle is also a showrunner with Dunphy and both wrote alongside Joan Sauers and Cathy Strickland.
The creative team is rounded out series producers Shay Spencer and Ally Henville, and directors Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt.
Dunphy decided to write the eight-part drama after being awarded the $25,000 Foxtel Fellowship at the 2012 AWGIE Awards.
While the prize set the project in motion, it was always going to be a tough sell.
“The idea was you could do pilot episodes or a passion project that you always wanted to do and then Foxtel would have first dibs on that,” she said.
“I created the show a few years after my last hospital admission but the show took so long.
“First I had to pitch it, and who wants to buy a show about mental illness?
“It was an extremely unpopular subject and it probably still is, but it was certainly hard to sell back then.”
In 2013, Dunphy took six months off work to develop the idea, interviewing psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists, patients to create a bible, from which a version of the concept was presented to Foxtel.
The pay-TV network ended up passing on the series, meaning she was free to pitch the idea elsewhere.
Her search for a production company eventually led her to Jungle Entertainment, which contributed to development funding for the project in 2016.
With a slate that includes A Moody Christmas, No Activity, and Here Come the Habibs, a drama about mental health may not seem like a natural choice for the company.
However, Jungle Entertainment partner and chief operating officer Chloe Rickard, who executive produced Wakefield along with Dunphy, Meikle, and her business partner Jason Burrows, said they were immediately drawn to the show’s ability to “walk a line between humour and pathos”.
“That tonal approach was really key to making a show about this subject matter,” she told IF.
“More broadly, Jungle’s style is to make shows that do use humour and levity, and this show delivers on that balance between humour and pathos.”
The lighter moments of the series come courtesy of a cast that includes established comedians Sam Simmons and Felicity Ward, while also featuring the likes of Harriet Dyer, Geraldine Hakewill, Mandy McElhinney, Ryan Corr, Harry Greenwood, Pacharo Mzembe, and Bessie Holland.
Dunphy said a key part of her approach to crafting the characters was maintaining a “slightly dark humour” which helped give a new perspective on the situation.
“Being in a psych ward is tragic,” she said.
“Having been there myself, I certainly needed time between me and the experience to be able to view it from a different perspective.“
“Humour does come from different perspectives; you have the same situation and you are looking at it from different points of view.
“It may be tragic for one person and humourous for another, so the show really is about different perspectives and how you never really know what is going on inside someone’s head.”
Five years after it was conceived, Wakefield was given a road to screens, with the ABC committing to the development of the project, which also received a major production investment from Screen Australia and support from Screen NSW.
It would be far from a smooth journey, however, with a worldwide pandemic playing havoc with the filming process, which began in January last year.
The sudden onset of COVID-19 meant the cast ended being split across three countries midway through the ten-week shoot, with Ward and Dharmalingam to the UK, while Nadie Kammallaweera, who plays Nik’s mother Jeshna, travelled back to Sri Lanka.
Rickard said the shutdown was felt at each level of the production.
“We got shut down and had to let go of a very large workforce,” she said.
“We then had to raise more finance, and in some instances, rewrite the script because elements were no longer available to us.”
After completing the “very difficult” process to get the trio back on set, the production was forced to navigate Victoria’s second lockdown, which was announced just prior to the scheduled resumption of filming on August 3.
All members of the cast eventually made it back to set with the exception of Kym Gyngell, whose character Zelco Radulovic was reimagined as Baz Madden, played by Colin Friels.
Dunphy paid tribute to the actors involved for returning to the series despite other job offers.
“It was an incredibly difficult shoot,” she said.
“We didn’t have a big budget and then to have COVID hit in the middle of it, which was not only devastating but also extremely expensive to shut down and restart.
“We had the most wonderful cast and crew who were very loyal to the show.
“I knew they were doing something different and they all wanted it to work and they worked incredibly hard.”
The disruption, while costly, did come with a silver lining.
“One advantage of the COVID shutdown was being able to start assembling the first three episodes and begin post-production during that shutdown,” said Dunphy.
“We had huge holes we hadn’t shot but, not forgetting this is a really unusual show, we had the advantage of being able to assemble episodes one and two without the flashbacks and some of the material.
“We were able to have a really good discussion and review what we had done, which went on to inform in a small way how we moved forward.
“It was a rare opportunity for us to stop and look at what we had done, review, and adjust, which most shows never get.”
The final product is now available for all to see, with Wakefield arriving on ABC iview at the beginning of this month and now screening weekly on free-to-air.
Rickard said early feedback had indicated audiences could relate to the characters.
“I think because the show is written in silos, we’ve really given an opportunity for the audience to walk in the characters shoes,” she said.
“I feel like that really bold creative decision pays off in so far as the audience gets to fall in love with the characters because they are able to spend so much time with them in chunks that are quite meaningful.
“People seem to find the character they can relate to.”
Wakefield airs Sundays on the ABC at 8.30pm.