Producing THE STRAITS: Penny Chapman and Helen Panckhurst

Penny Chapman

Producers Penny Chapman and Helen Panckhurst have had, in their own words, “a crunchy couple of years”. There have been back-to-back film and television projects, skin-tight deadlines, and the establishment of one of Australia’s premiere content production companies, Matchbox Pictures, which they run alongside Tony Ayres, Helen Bowden and Michael McMahon (who you may know as the AACTA Award-winning producers of The Slap).

But further back than these ‘crunchy years’,  Chapman and Panckhurst have long careers behind them, with a wealth of experience working both individually and together. Chapman was head of Head of TV Drama, then Head of Television at the ABC during the 1990s, during which time she produced Brides of Christ (which she also devised), The Leaving of Liverpool and Blue Murder. Pankhurst’s credits include the landmark seven-part documentary series First Australians (along with Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale) and also the AACTA Award-winning feature documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert, which she produced along with directors Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond.

Helen Panckhurst

This dynamic duo’s history of working together stretches back to 2002 when Chapman and Panckhurst collaborated on the AFI Award-winning ABC telemovie The Road to Coorain. Since then, their joint projects have included the SBS drama series RAN – Remote Area Nurse (starring Susie Porter) and two seasons of acclaimed (AFI and AACTA Award-winning) children’s historical drama series My Place. Right now however, they’re hoping that audiences are tuning in to their latest labour of love: the exotic and sometimes brutal crime series The Straits.  Following the Montebello clan, a family of smugglers operating in the picturesque landscape and turquoise waters of Australia’s Far North Queensland and Torres Strait, The Straits features a (sadly untypical) racially diverse cast of actors including Aaron Fa’Aso, Brian Cox, Rena Owen, Jim Bani, Firass Dirani, Suzannah Bayes-Morton and Emma Lung.

The story was conceived by Aaron Fa’Aso, and developed by Louis Nowra, with screenplays written by an accomplished team comprising Nick Parsons, Blake Ayshford, Kristen Dunphy and Jaime Brown. Directors Peter Andrikidis, Rachel Ward and Rowan Woods each directed episodes of the ten-part series, currently screening on ABC1 on Thursday evenings at 8.30pm.

In this interview below, we talk to Penny Chapman and Helen Panckhurst about the challenges of creating a rich story from scratch, and of making what is undoubtedly one of 2012’s key Australian drama series. They talk about the trials and joys of shooting outside Australia’s major filmmaking centres, and offer some insights into why the Matchbox collective is making such terrific screen content right now.

AFI: Congratulations on The Straits. It’s a refreshing look at a part of Australia that we haven’t seen in much of our drama – that tropical beauty of Far North Queensland. Why do you think it’s been such an underrepresented landscape?

Rena Owen, who plays matriarch Kitty Montebello, on location for THE STRAITS, with producer Penny Chapman.

Helen Panckhurst:  Part of the issue is that the filmmaking community is generally in other parts of the country. We became really excited back in 2004 when we were up in the Torres Strait, working on Penny’s production of RAN – Remote Area Nurse, and we realised at that point what extraordinary stories and talent there was up there. It was at that point we decided to actively pursue stories that were set up there and work with people up there. We formed a company with Aaron Fa’Aso who plays Noel, and who was one of the leads in RAN, to actively develop ideas. The Straits is the first one that we’ve got up. We have other projects in development as well, and hopefully there’ll be more.

AFI: Exactly when and where was the shoot of The Straits?

Penny Chapman: We started on June 14 and finished on September 17, so it was 14 weeks. It was predominantly shot in Cairns, and we also went up to the Torres Strait for the last part of the shoot.

AFI: Were there particular challenges in terms of lack of filmmaking infrastructure in these locations?

Helen Panckhurst: Yes, that’s right, we had to take up almost all the crew. We found some fantastic people in Cairns who had either come from other shows or who had worked up there in that area, but cast-wise we took a lot of our cast up. We also found some wonderful inexperienced actors from that part of the country – there is extraordinary talent up there.

AFI: The landscape is just so beautiful, it’s like going on a tropical holiday to watch it.

Penny Chapman: It is, isn’t it? And for overseas audiences especially, seeing a crime drama set against that world – that colour and that fabulous landscape – is just wonderful. It was a big big plus for us, being able to shoot somewhere like that.

AFI: Where did the financial backing come from?

Helen Panckhurst: A large part came from the ABC. They put a lot of financial backing into this production. They really loved the script. Also from Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Screen Tasmania – because Blue Rocket who are a Tasmanian based website developer, has worked on the website, and the other big one was Screen Queensland – they put an enormous amount into it.

Penny Chapman: DCD Rights put up the distribution advance. They’re an overseas distributor. They are in the process of starting to sell it. They’re marketing the series in territories apart from Australia and New Zealand.

Helen Panckhurst: Usually for a television series in Australia, we need to have an overseas distributor in place, and usually they pay an advance against what they think they will earn from selling the program, and that goes in as part of the production budget. We just can’t finance it fully without doing that. Then that company will recoup that advance from the sales they make.

AFI: How big an advantage is it to have an internationally recognised actor like Brian Cox [who plays the crooked patriarch Harry Montebello] in the cast, in terms of international sales?

Helen Panckhurst: Casting often makes a difference for overseas people – seeing people that they recognise. Sometimes it can be an Australian actor, and we always try to find Australian actors who have the sort of profile that will help overseas sales. But in the case of The Straits, none of the Australian actors we thought would have played that part superbly were available, so we looked overseas. But it is true that these days recognisable cast are an an important element.

Scottish actor Brian Cox plays the charismatic Montebello patriarch with a cockney accent. Cox pictured centre, with onscreen sons, Marou (Jim Bani) and Gary (Firass Dirani). Image via http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/the-straits/3802532

AFI: Is the budget on record?

Helen Panckhurst: No, we’re not talking about the budget level. What we will say is that it was very challenging. It’s a low budget Australian drama. Extremely challenging.

Penny Chapman: Well it’s not low budget by Australian terms. It is a normal mini-series budget, but it’s low budget by international standards.

Helen Panckhurst: I think it’s still low budget by Australian terms, because on a per hour basis we were doing a production at the budget level that you’d normally have available to shoot it in a capital city. Istead, we were doing it somewhere where we had to take up almost all our cast and crew, and we also had a lot of special effects and stunts and so on.

Penny Chapman: It was probably logistically the most difficult production we’ve ever undertaken, would you agree Helen?

Helen Panckhurst: Totally!

AFI: Did you ever think you might not be able to pull it off?

Helen Panckhurst: We had our moments at various times during the shoot when the pressure was really on, and we were just trying to work out how we would do it. We did have to pull things back a lot while we were shooting, and trying to do that without compromising the stories and the script is always really stressful.

Penny Chapman: I believe it was only because we had a gifted and committed crew that it was possible. When you have a really gifted crew who are committed to finding ways of making it happen, they find creative lateral ways of achieving a look or a feel for far less resources than we would have thought possible. And that’s what’s so extraordinary about Australian creatives.

AFI: Can you give us an example of that kind of lateral ingenuity?

Penny Chapman: Well, the art department were confronted with finding and working on the house that appears in the island [scenes]. They had to find this house in Cairns, and our location finder did find a fantastic house, but it was only made effective by the work that the art department did. At that stage they were working under outrageous pressures and they were under-resourced. That art department on an American production would have been three or four times larger than the one we had. They just found ways. They went into the Cairns community and found what they needed – cars, boats…

Helen Panckhurst: We were trying to find a car for Harry, and the art department couldn’t afford to rent or hire a commercial hire car for the period. So we put out a call on radio, and asked if anyone was interested in renting out their car on a day by day basis, in return for seeing it in the show. We had a guy call us and say, ‘I’ve got an old Mercedes, and I’d love to see it in your show!’. He rented it to us for a really reasonable rate.

Another example is how in one episode we needed a lot of cane toads, so rather than breeding them, which is what one would often do, we just asked members of the public to bring us any they had collected, or any they happened to have frozen in their freezers, and people did! There was a lot of that sort of thing.

Penny Chapman: The script team also became very adept at dancing on a pin. For example, when we started out we had a script where these children, with the exception of Gary, are born to Harry and Kitty. Then we looked at our cast, and realized that Suzannah has a Bougainville background, and that when all is said and done, Aaron and Jimmy don’t look like they were born of the same parents. So we decided that all the siblings would be adopted because the parents, Harry and Kitty, weren’t able to have children of their own. And then it all started look even more interesting – only effectively so because the scriptwriting team chowed down on the script and found a way to turn this into a really interesting part of the story in episode 1. That had marvelous repercussions for the whole drama, really.

AFI: How did you go about assembling the script team?

Jim Bani and Aaron Fa'Aso play brothers who are competing for the right to run the shonky Montebello family business in THE STRAITS. Fa'Aso is also the originator of the idea for the series.

Penny Chapman: We started out with Louis Nowra writing up a whole lot of stories and scenarios, and doing research with Aaron Fa’Aso, and then we brought on writers that we’d worked with before, and whose work we really admired. They were just terrific in the scriptwriting room. They were very generous with each other, but also very demanding of each other to the highest possible standards. It’s an original piece, not an adaptation, so to say that we just tossed it off would be a complete lie because it took a lot of work, a lot of heartache, a lot of grind, a lot of readjustment, and also some pain on the part of the writers, on some occasions. I’m really really proud of those scripts – they’re really extraordinary pieces of work. But they reflect some blood sweat and tears!

AFI: With a team of four writers, does this mean there is a lot of time spent in a room together, nutting things out before they go off and do their own scripts?

Penny Chapman: The way we work is to bring a table of writers together in a brainstorm first of all, to work up the general story of the series. Sometimes that has to be revisited down the track. We had to revisit it on this occasion, because the ABC first of all commissioned six episodes, and then when we were in the early stages of development, they decided that they’d really like ten episodes instead. So we had to readjust that. We had to bring the writers back into the room, do some more research, totally unpick the plot of the whole series and build it into ten episodes, and in fact I think that was all to the good of the series.

The writers are all engaged in talking through what happens in each other’s episodes, because what happens in one episode affects what happens in another. Sometimes you need to adjust something earlier in the script, and the way that works best is if the writers are working together as a tight-knitted team that you can manage, together with script editors and script producers. We had David Ogilvy before he went to the ABC and Tim Pye on board as script producer. I was show runner and Tim was script producer, and I must say having Tim in those last months as we wrestled with the production logistics, was a real boon.

AFI: Does this collaborative team approach work in a similiar way with the directors? You had three directors here. How did they work together?

Helen Panckhurst: The directors on this project came into the process before we had the final scripts done. One of the things we did before we finished all the scripts, was to have a read-through of all ten episodes – this was well before casting was in place. We had actors who came in and did that with us, with the directors there to give their feedback, and also to bond the directors and the writers. We wanted them all to be across exactly what we were doing with these stories and for everyone to be in the same place. That worked really well. Once we were shooting, the directors worked very closely together, particularly Rachel Ward and Rowan Woods. Peter Andrikidis did the first three episodes plus episode 8. He set it up and started the whole thing off, and then Rowan and Rachel came up to Cairns. The way our schedule worked – due to schedule constraints around cast availability and locations – meant  that Rowan and Rachel were working together. It might be Rowan working for four days, and Rachel doing two days, or sometimes they even did half a day each. They were just fabulous the way they managed that situation, which can be very difficult for a director, but they were great. And the cast too – it’s hard for the cast to suddenly move from one director to another, but everyone pulled together and made it work.

AFI: Penny and Helen, how do you two divide up production roles between you? Do you divide up tasks in a typical way on each project, or is it a project by project basis?

Penny Chapman: We each bring different experience. I have a background that is probably more focused on development. Helen brings an experience that is much more focused on production, and we work as closely as we can through the whole process. We’re kind of like a pair of siblings – people often describe us as being like sisters. We’re kind of brutally direct with each other.  When Helen says to me, ‘Penny stop it!’ I know that I’ve been overstepping the mark. But it’s been a really terrific experience working together since way back – The Road from Coorain was our first working experience together.

Helen Panckhurst and Penny Chapman at the 2010 Samsung AFI Awards, where MY PLACE, SERIES 1 was a winner.

Helen Panckhurst: We do work with other people as well, and also by ourselves, but when it’s a production like this which is quite complex, it’s actually quite hard to have one person doing it all by themselves. It’s actually quite helpful to have two people managing it, and we do tend to a natural division which occurs. But if one of us has to go away for some reason during the shoot – which happened quite a bit on this one, where one of us had to go off to do something else for a week or a few days – the other one can just pick it up. It doesn’t create problems. We can step into each other’s shoes completely. It’s been a great working relationship so far.

AFI: Matchbox has had a great year this year. A lot of people would be curious as to how that team operates – you two, along with Tony Ayres, Michael McMahon and Helen Bowden. Is there a big table in your boardroom where you sit around talking and brainstorming about the projects you’re going to do together? Do you see a lot of each other?

Penny Chapman: We do see a lot of each other. We’re all very close to each other, even though Tony and Michael are in Melbourne and Helen [Bowden] and Helen [Panckhurst] and I are in Sydney. But never a day goes by that one of us isn’t talking to the other about what we need to do with the next stage of development of a show, or who we are going to get to write this or that. We promised each other when we first set up shop together that we would all be very, very honest with each other, and that we would be ‘strong interrogators’ of each other and each other’s work – because we want this company to do high quality work, and we also want it to be successful financially as well.  We want it to be very market savvy, and so we hold regular content meetings. We have content brainstorms over a day or two, for example, when we feel we need to work up dramas for the commercial networks, or new documentary series – which is what we’re looking for at the moment. So we’re always talking to each other about content.

Now that we’ve got Chris Oliver-Taylor on board as our managing director, the grand thing about that is that he is a person of extraordinary strategic acumen when it comes to running a media company, and he’s restructured us and got us much better able to be focused on content. Up to the time that he arrived, Michael McMahon and Helen Bowden, and to a certain extent Helen Pankhurst, were all doing a lot of work on the administration and finance of the company, and they are now able to be much more able to be involved in actually pushing programs forward.  Michael is now doing Next Stop Hollywood, Helen is about to embark on a couple of things. More and more, we’re able to focus on the actual content.

AFI: The fun stuff!

Helen Panckhurst: The fun stuff indeed!

AFI: Is it difficult to keep your focus when you’re working on multiple projects? Just looking at the list of productions you’ve done in the past year, you must have been working on many things simultaneously or is that a misapprehension?

Helen Panckhurst: I think that’s true. While we were in production on The Straits I had one other active project and Penny had two, so that was a really tricky period.

Penny Chapman: And that wasn’t projects in development, that was projects in actual production – as well as other things we were working on.

Helen Panckhurst and Penny Chapman at the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards Luncheon in Sydney, January 2012. Photo: Belinda Rolland.

Helen Panckhurst: We’ve had a couple of really crunchy years, especially with Matchbox starting up, and the five of us having to fast-track everything and keep it on track. Now we’re at the point where we’re getting a development team together and we’re actively looking for two more development people, which is fantastic because the hard thing of course, when you’re in production, is trying to keep other things being developed. A development team is crucial to that. We’ve made Penny the creative director – focused on the development team, and that is going to make an enormous difference for all of us, having that support.

AFI: It seems like these are exciting times for you – you both did very well at the recent AACTA Awards. Congratulations! [Penny Chapman collected an AACTA Award for Best Children’s Television Series – My Place, Series 2; and Helen Panckhurst, along with Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond, won an AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary – Mrs Carey’s Concert.]

Helen Panckhurst:  They’re lovely statuettes aren’t they? We love them! They’re beautiful. I’m actually going to give mine back to Bob and Sophie for Mrs Carey’s Concert, because I think they deserve it. But I borrowed it for a week.

AFI: Best of luck with The Straits and your future projects! Thanks for your time.

The Straits  is currently screening on ABC1 on Thursday evenings at 8.30pm. Visit the series website for great behind-the-scenes video content and extras.

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