by Debi Enker
June 12, 2003
A new Australian miniseries tackles the inner struggles of the modern man. Debi Enker visited the set.
ON a crisp August afternoon, Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving are hard at work in the kitchen of a terrace house in Fitzroy. As cafe owner Annie, the single mother of two precocious daughters, Griffiths is warily welcoming Weaving’s dissolute rock guitarist, Martin, into her home and her life. She’s putting him through a family dinner where he’s being grilled by the girls about his chequered past and the nature of his intentions towards their mother.
The kitchen is crowded with lights, microphones, cameras and cables, a tangle of equipment and people jostling for position in the confined space. First assistant director Jamie Leslie calls for quiet and Griffiths moves into action: slicing bread, dishing up vegetable curry, pouring drinks, chatting with her girls and sizing-up her male guest, who’s uncomfortable but trying to play it cool. With each take, which involves some complicated choreography of talk and movement between the actors, Griffiths and Weaving provide something subtly different for director Brendan Maher and editor Uri Mizrahi to work with when they come to the cutting room.
Weaving’s Martin has clearly seen better days. Once a rock-band legend famed for having the fastest fingers in the land, he’s now an embittered bad boy with impossibly high expectations of himself and others. He wears a black leather jacket as if he was born to it and strums a guitar to mask his discomfort as he attempts to cope with the kids’ brazen interrogation.
Meanwhile, Griffiths moves through a spectrum of subtly shifting responses: tense, relaxed, flirtatious, warm, nervous, shy, guarded. The skill and sensitivity with which the pair play off each other, and the chemistry that they create, is electrifying.
The quality of their work is replicated throughout After the Deluge, a $6.4 million miniseries which boasts an extraordinary cast and an equally impressive array of talent behind the scenes. Written by Andrew Knight (SeaChange, The Fast Lane, Kangaroo Palace), it is a compassionate, witty, emotionally complex and profoundly moving story of men and their battles: in war, on the domestic front, in the corporate world and in their romantic relationships.
At the heart of the four-hour drama are Cliff Kirby, an elderly man stricken by Alzheimer’s disease, and the three estranged sons who are drawn together by his illness. Sophisticated and audacious in its depiction of Cliff’s disease, Deluge has the old man melting into his memories as they unfold around him, past and present merging in the same image. We’re allowed to see that his recollections are lucid, and that they buffet him in ways that none of the other characters can comprehend. It’s at once an inspired depiction of the vagaries of the disease and a reflection on the way in which it separates a sufferer from the world around.
The cast reads like a wish list of Australian actors, for, in addition to being a story about embattled men, Deluge is graced with vibrant, full-blooded female characters and an array of deftly drawn minor roles. Ray Barrett stars as the stricken father, a violin virtuoso in his youth, a World War II veteran, now a man engulfed by his traumatic history. Aden Young plays young Cliff.
Weaving, David Wenham and Samuel Johnson are the adult sons: musician Martin, architect Alex and solicitor Toby. Catherine McClements, Essie Davis, Kate Beahan, Tara Morice and Griffiths are their wives or prospective partners. Vince Colosimo, Marta Dusseldorp, Robert Grubb, Simon Burke and Bob Franklin appear in smaller roles.
"Direction with these guys is just trying not to get in the way," says award-winning director Brendan Maher (The Road from Coorain). "My role with people like this is just to create a good environment for them to do good work. Make sure that the set is a comfortable place to be in, make sure I’m giving them feedback. At their level, the choices are always interesting and sound, and it’s probably about giving them feedback on how it fits into the overall piece. This script is so finely tuned, you don’t need big discussions."
It’s the quality of Knight’s script, which he honed over years with SeaChange collaborator Deb Cox, that has people rhapsodising and is credited with attracting such a stand-out cast. "Andrew wrote this beautiful thing and people came to it," says Maher. "There’s not a huge number of great scripts around for actors; when they read good scripts, they come to the work."
While Knight mumbles modestly, "I don’t know if in my life I’ll ever get a constellation of stars like this again," co-producer Richard Keddie notes, "Actors love good words: the words were the hook. There’s a lot of dignity and humility in the people who worked on Deluge. They did take small parts, like Vince Colosimo taking a role of the size he did (as Cliff’s carer in the nursing home), but what he added was extraordinary."
Keddie and co-producer Andrew Wiseman spent 10 months casting and they remember "great creative tension" around the table, long discussions with Knight, Cox and Maher about the right choices. "There were often disagreements," says Keddie, "which is fantastic. No decision was taken lightly."
One particularly pleasing decision was the one to keep the cast Australian, not to import a big-name actor to help sell the project internationally. Even before Knight had written the script, David Wenham agreed to play Alex, the husband and father who, without realising it, has sacrificed his family life to the demands of his corporate existence. Hugo Weaving signed on after reading it, happy to do something more intimate after months of work in front of a blue-screen on the Matrix movies. "Hugo said he would’ve paid me to do the role," Knight says with evident pleasure. Griffiths was younger than her character was originally imagined and she worked with Knight to flesh out Annie’s past, investing her with a limp and a turbulent history that shaped her don’t-mess-with-me disposition.
Ray Barrett was preparing to leave his home of many years in Spain and return to Australia to be closer to his own sons when Maher asked him to consider the role that he now describes as "a gift". Cliff has long been a damaged man and his bitterness and profound sense of loss have infected his family, although an especially poignant part of his story is that his sons never know it. "I think it’s pretty powerful and it’s truthful," observes Maher. "Sadly, many men go to their graves and their children don’t know who they are."
Seventy-six year-old Barrett (Goodbye Paradise, Hotel Sorrento), who’s worked extensively on stage and screen, recalls that his initial reaction to the offer of work was "I don’t want to do any more." But Maher persisted, "And then, of course, the bugger had me," Barrett laughs. "I read it and I couldn’t wait to do it. I’ve done things like Brothers Karamazov, Luther and Macbeth, as well as all the trash. But Cliff is the most demanding part I’ve ever been given and the most rewarding. Andrew Knight is a genius."
Maher believed that "it was really important that we had an actor who was in the age range, that you could see life on his face". After watching Barrett work on Deluge, the director believes that this is the role that "Ray has been working towards for his whole career. There is a huge range of emotion and he’s almost completely still, it’s pretty much the expression on his face."
Knight concurs: "You forget how good Ray is. He’s a proper actor: he’s not someone who’s come to it late and plays old people. He’s got this amazing craft. I couldn’t watch him work: I found it heart-breaking. To get that deadness in your eyes and still get the performance out, that’s staggering."
While old Cliff’s memories shape some of the drama, the story of his sons sees men fighting on different fronts and, according to Maher, struggling. "There are few, if any, men in the piece who have any control over their lives," he says. "The women know what they want, the men are in a state of flux. All the men are going through a period of self-doubt and vulnerability."
Which is one of the reasons that Maher was drawn to the project and one of the reasons that Knight wanted to write it. After the Deluge isn’t about the kind of men we’re accustomed to seeing on television. These men aren’t solving crimes, saving lives in surgery or executing brilliant courtroom manoeuvres. Deluge is about fathers and sons, husbands and lovers, and what Knight calls their "baggage", their professional trials and emotional conflicts.
And the drama is driven by those emotions rather than an action-packed plot. "The whole thing with the story was the emotional thread, to try to climb inside the hearts of these people," explains Keddie. Knight says, "What we tried to do with the script was to make it emotional, so you’ve got a certain mood. I tried to write it like music: a faster bit here, a slower bit here, we’re in this mood, we’ll move to this mood now."
Central to that creation of that mood was composer Cezary Skubiszewski’s precise, potent score and the contributions of production designer Jo Ford (My Brother Jack, The Road from Coorain) and director of photography Geoff Burton (Sunday Too Far Away, Storm Boy). Ford’s colour palette, a rich array of browns, fits the feel of Melbourne in winter.
The miniseries was shot entirely on location and Ford and Maher searched for busy backgrounds. "We thought that it was an incredibly complex story and heavily textured, but it also had to be told very simply," says Maher. "So we gave the backgrounds lots of texture and made our characters stand very clearly in front of those backgrounds in big, block cut-out colours."
Sixty locations were required for the 11-week production, which was filmed around the city: in the bustle of Victoria Street, Abbotsford, the faded grandeur of the George ballroom in St Kilda, which was converted into an army repat hospital, Williamstown piers, houses in Yarraville, Clifton Hill and Caulfield. "We were shooting in Melbourne in winter, so we had very flat, grey skies, which are really beautiful," says Maher. "We chose intimate locations – the Melbourne Wine Room, the Espy and the Birdcage in St Kilda, Don Camillo’s restaurant – and I hope that that connects the characters with the place very well, so you feel that they are real lives. And that’s what Melbourne’s like, I think: it’s less hospitable to the visitor but incredibly comforting to the resident."
While Maher and Ford were choosing locations, Burton "was looking for a motif for the series", says Maher. "Quite often, he uses verandahs, looking out from a shaded area to a bright light. It’s an iconic look in Australian films. Here he found the motif in the idea of light at the end of the tunnel: we looked for rooms that were long and narrow with a strong light at the end of them, so there was a sense of travel, a sense of heading towards the light."
The sense of forward movement, of hope for the future and optimism about the possibility for change was crucial to Knight, who acknowledges that the story is partly autobiographical, though he adds that "I wanted to bring in as many men’s stories as I knew and bunch mine together with other people’s.
"After the Deluge is about men and war, and it’s about different sorts of wars. Feminism has left men in a position where they don’t quite know where they are, and I don’t mean this in a waspish way. There have been lots of television series about men and careers, and they’re largely careers where they get to pull out guns and say, ‘Officer down, take your shot.’ All this crap. It doesn’t equate with anything in my life and it doesn’t equate with any friend of mine’s life. I was desperate to do something that was about the men that I knew, who are a nice of mix of great humour, flaws and good bits and bad bits."
Named after a Jackson Browne song and partly written while Knight was listening to Tom Waits’s San Diego Serenade, After the Deluge started its life at the ABC, imagined by the then-head of drama, Sue Masters, as a companion piece to Simone de Beauvoir’s Babies, Deb Cox’s 1997 miniseries about a group of thirtysomething women. When the project foundered at the ABC during the Shier administration, Masters, who by then had moved to Ten, snapped it up.
While there are clearly some nerves about Deluge screening on the commercial network that has for years campaigned to woo a youth audience, there is also fervent praise for Masters for backing such an ambitious production: "It is terrific that a commercial network will put real money and resources behind this style of drama," says Wiseman.
There are also hopes that Knight’s credentials and the calibre of the cast will attract viewers who might not habitually turn to Ten: "Hopefully, quality will out," says Wiseman. As the producers point out, their previous production for the network, the miniseries My Brother Jack, "worked a treat".
With After the Deluge, there’s hope on the screen and behind the scenes. There’s a deep admiration for Knight’s searching, poignant, witty and highly original work, and a pride in the way in which it has been realised: "The reason it worked was because everyone loved the show, loved the script and cared about it. So they put in," says Keddie. "If we’d had a really lousy script for an American telemovie, no way you would’ve achieved half of what we achieved."