Sydney Morning Herald
By Debi Enker
June 10, 2003
Ten’s mini-series After the Deluge features possibly the strongest line-up of local talent ever assembled for a TV project. Debi Enker visited the set.
On a crisp August afternoon, Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving are at work in the kitchen of a terrace in Fitzroy. As cafe owner Annie, the single mother of two daughters, Griffiths is warily welcoming Weaving’s dissolute rock guitarist, Martin, into her life. She’s putting him through a family dinner where the girls grill him about his intentions.The kitchen is crowded with lights, microphones and cameras. Griffiths moves into action: dishing up curry, pouring drinks, chatting with her girls and sizing-up her guest, who’s trying to play it cool. With each take, Griffiths and Weaving provide something subtly different for director Brendan Maher and editor Uri Mizrahi to work with.Weaving’s Martin has seen better days. Once a rock legend, he’s now an embittered bad boy. He wears a black leather jacket and strums a guitar to mask his discomfort.
Griffiths moves through a spectrum of responses: tense, relaxed, flirtatious, warm, nervous, guarded. The skill and sensitivity with which the two play off one another is electrifying.
The quality of their work is replicated throughout After the Deluge, Ten’s $6.4 million mini-series, which boasts extraordinary talent on both sides of the camera. Written by Andrew Knight (SeaChange), it is a profoundly moving story of men and their battles: in war, at home, at work and in love.
At the heart of the four-hour drama are Cliff Kirby (Ray Barrett), an elderly man stricken by Alzheimers, and his three estranged sons, drawn together by his illness. As the old man melts into his memories, past and present merge in the same image. It’s an inspired depiction of the disease and the way it separates sufferers from the world around them.
The cast reads like a wish list of Australian actors. Weaving, David Wenham and Samuel Johnson play the sons – musician Martin, architect Alex and solicitor Toby – with Aden Young as the young Cliff. Griffiths, Catherine McClements, Essie Davis and Kate Beahan play their wives or prospective partners. Vince Colosimo, Tara Morice, 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 Maher, an award-winning director (The Road from Coorain). "My role with people like this is just to create a good environment for them to do good work. 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 is credited with attracting such a stand-out cast. "When [actors] read good scripts, they come to the work," Maher says.
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, "There’s a lot of dignity and humility in the people who worked on Deluge.
Keddie and co-producer Andrew Wiseman spent 10 months casting in consultation with Knight, Cox and Maher. "There were often disagreements," Keddie says, "which is fantastic. No decision was taken lightly."
One decision was to keep the cast Australian. Even before Knight had written the script, Wenham agreed to play Alex, the son who has sacrificed family life for his career. Weaving signed on after reading the script. "Hugo said he would’ve paid me to do the role," Knight says with 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.
Barrett, 76, was preparing to move from his home in Spain and return to Australia to be closer to his own sons when Maher asked him to consider the role. Barrett’s initial reaction, he says, was "I don’t want to do any more", but Maher persisted. "I read it and I couldn’t wait to do it," Barrett says. "Cliff is the most demanding part I’ve ever been given and the most rewarding. Andrew Knight is a genius."
Maher says "it was really important that we had an actor who was in the age range, that you could see life 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 is one of men fighting on different fronts.
"There are few, if any, men in the piece who have any control over their lives," Maher says. That is one of the reasons he was drawn to the project and why Knight wanted to write it in the first place. Deluge is about fathers and sons, husbands and lovers, and what Knight calls their "baggage", with the drama driven by emotions rather than an action-packed plot.
"I tried to write it like music," Knight says, "a faster bit here, a slower bit here; we’re in this mood, we’ll move to this mood now."
Central to the creation of that mood were composer Cezary Skubiszewski’s score and the contributions of production designer Jo Ford and director of photography Geoff Burton. Ford’s rich palette of browns fits the feel of Melbourne in winter.
The mini-series was shot over 11 weeks at 60 locations around Melbourne, with Ford and Maher opting for busy backgrounds. "We thought that it was an incredibly complex story and heavily textured, but it also had to be told very simply," Maher says. "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."
While Maher and Ford were choosing locations, Burton "was looking for a motif for the series", Maher explains. "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 was crucial to Knight, who acknowledges the story is partly autobiographical. "I wanted to bring in as many men’s stories as I knew and bunch mine together with other people’s."
After the Deluge started life at the ABC, where it was seen by then head of drama Sue Masters as an obvious companion piece to Simone de Beauvoir’s Babies, Cox’s 1997 mini-series 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 some concerns about Deluge screening on a commercial network that has for years been wooing a youth audience, there is praise for Masters for backing the project: "It is terrific that a commercial network will put real money and resources behind this style of drama," Wiseman says.
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," Wiseman says.
With After the Deluge, there’s hope on the screen and behind the scenes. There’s deep admiration for Knight’s highly original work and pride in the way it has been realised.
"The reason it worked was because everyone loved the show, loved the script and cared about it," Keddie says. "If we’d had a really lousy script for an American telemovie, no way you would’ve achieved half of what we achieved."
After the Deluge begins on Ten on Sunday at 8.30pm and concludes on Monday.