A foray into Australian production is an optimistic toe in the water for Netflix, writes Justin Burke
Walking down a sandy track towards the ocean on the northernmost tip of Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island, it would hardly be considered a surprise to stumble upon a mix of gorgeous young Australians and foreigners frolicking in the water.
Even spotting Elsa Pataky — the Spanishborn actress and wife of Australian actor Chris Hemsworth — would not seem out of place given the famous couple’s nearby home town of Byron Bay and well-documented love of the beach.
But were Pataky to declare loudly “a queen who does not enforce her laws is no queen at all” while the group attempted to drown a young man in the surf, the other-worldly nature of the proceedings would be hard to mistake.
Such was the scene when earlier this year Review visited the set of Tidelands, Netflix’s anticipated first original production in this country. The eight-part supernatural drama produced by Brisbane-based Hoodlum Entertainment will premiere simultaneously in 190 countries on December 14.
Naturally, local audiences will be watching keenly to see how Australia is depicted. Segments of the Netflix’s 137 million subscribers who have watched its other supernatural melodramas are all but certain to tune in, and local screen producers will be parsing the series for clues as to how an independent producer in Queensland commanded Netflix’s attention ahead of all others.
At stake for the local industry is whether the streaming behemoth is sufficiently encouraged by its Tidelands experience to spend more of its projected content budget in this country, which according to Goldman Sachs could rise as high as $US22.5 billion ($30.6bn) per annum in years to come. (It currently has just one other original in production in Australia — an as yet untitled project with comedian Chris Lilley — along with multiple co-productions.)
But if Tidelands’ executive producers Nathan Mayfield and Tracey Robertson or their crew are feeling the pressure, it isn’t evident on set this day in July. Many of the crew members wear straw hats and shorts, and some even go shoeless. The beginning of school holidays has resulted in a half-dozen kids being on set, playing Uno or milling about with the actors between filming. Even when the paparazzi turns up from one end of the beach, filming is paused without excessive angst.
Inside a demountable tent filled with tall director’s chairs facing a row of screens marked ECAM, CCAM and so on, everyone is staring at Pataky repeatedly performing her monologue.
Eventually she and the cast all turn towards the ocean, focusing their sightlines on a point where someone (or something) is expected to surface later in post-production. As if on cue, a pair of dolphins leaps out of the water in that very spot, as the main cameras focus on Pataky’s face, which remains regally impassive.
“She’s f..king great,” says someone inside the tent. “Cut.” Hoodlum Entertainment, based a stone’s throw from the Gabba cricket ground in Brisbane, will mark its 20th anniversary next year, though the partnership between Mayfield and Robertson is four years older.
Highlights of their work across that period include the 2012 ABC series The Strange Call, Secrets & Lies, which screened on Ten in 2014, and a US spin-off of the same name that starred Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis. Others include last year’s feature film Australia Day, starring Bryan Brown, and crime drama Harrow starring Ioan Gruffudd, which recently began filming its second season.
Less well known are the company’s multiplatform creations. Its interactive online sites for the long-running British spy thriller Spooks won a BAFTA in 2008, and an Emmy the following year for similar work with the celebrated mystery drama Lost. (Mayfield says they’ve “always thought outside the square” and began thinking about the possibilities of technology to conquer geography well before the advent of streaming video on demand in the early 2000s.)
The Tidelands project started six years ago, and the producers say they knew it was a script that was always going to succeed when the circumstances were right.
“When we were doing Secrets & Lies, we developed such a beautiful relationship with Stephen M. Irwin and Leigh McGrath, and we knew Stephen’s writing DNA tended towards genre and the supernatural,” says Mayfield.
“Very early on in Tidelands’ development, the M-word (mermaids) was transformed into the notion of sirens and all that mythology, and it hasn’t really changed that first strong first draft of episode one.”
Alongside Pataky, the cast also includes Australian actors Charlotte Best, Aaron Jakubenko ( Spartacus), Madeleine Madden ( Pine Gap, Picnic at Hanging Rock) and veteran Peter O’Brien among others. The story revolves around Cal McTeer (Best), a young woman who returns home to the fictional fishing village of Orphelin Bay after a decade in jail. The town is blighted by the drug trade and features a settlement of “hippies” called Tidelanders who are in fact half-human, half-siren.
“We never thought of it as being a local show; we are obviously portraying the geography and norms of Australian culture, but that’s as far as it went,” says Mayfield who, like Robertson, has a home on North Stradbroke Island. “I don’t think we took it to the traditional Australian networks simply because of the ambition of the script; there is no way you would see a genre piece like this on Australian TV. We needed a partner who understood genre storytelling.”
It may surprise some to learn that Netflix’s famed algorithms did not pick Mayfield, Robertson or Tidelands from a dataset, according to Kelly Luegenbiehl, the company’s vice-president of international originals. Speaking to Review from Amsterdam, she says she had worked with them at American network ABC and the
Elsa Pataky in Tidelands; Mattias Inwood and Charlotte Best, below