The Australian ABC drama Mystery Road has been the biggest drama hit for the ABC since The Doctor Blake Mysteries.
Produced by Bunya Productions, the series received 11 nominations at the AACTA Awards. Together with the Bunya movie Sweet Country, the producers received a total of 21 nominations. The success ratio was exceptional with nine wins at the awards.
Mediaweek recently interviewed Bunya co-founder and producer David Jowsey to hear about the Mystery Road trilogy – two movies and a six-part drama series – and asked how ever did they afford that fabulous cast. When Judy Davis signed on (her previous role earned an Emmy nomination) others wanted to work with one of Australia’s finest on a rare Australian TV appearance.
The signs were good quickly that a big crowd was waiting for Mystery Road. The Australian drama series debuted with an overnight metro audience of 800,000. The producers were pleasantly surprised, with Jowsey telling Mediaweek at the time they were worried the show might be swamped with the Barnaby Joyce interview that evening on Sunday Night.
Mystery Road has been around for some time, with Bunya Productions making two movies based around the character of Jay Swan.
“Swan is an outback cop, an indigenous cop, something that we thought was really lacking on Australian TV,” Jowsey told Mediaweek.
“It seemed a natural thing to do. We have an amazing outback and amazing landscapes and the idea of an outback cop really works. There have been outback cops in the past – some people may remember Boney from many years ago.
“The two movies were Mystery Road and Goldstone. One is a sequel to the other and Aaron Pedersen plays the outback cop. We knew it was a great character and we were confident it could stand a series.”
Jowsey said he hoped the success of the TV series would mean that people return to the movies to check them out. But he understands the reality of the marketplace. “The truth is TV is where you get the biggest audience. If you really want to engage with the Australian public, television is where you do that. We understand that most movies – and there are exceptions of course for things like Red Dog – have very modest audiences when compared to TV numbers.”
When asked if anyone other than Pedersen reprised a role from the movies in the television series, Jowsey said: “No. Most people get killed or die. The idea for the outback cop is that each new instalment is in a new place. There is a new crime in a new town and the cop’s character is the classic high plains drifter who shows up and is a catalyst for change or uncovering crime.”
Two characters that did survive from the movie were Swan’s family – wife Mary (played by Tasma Walton) and daughter Crystal (played by Madeleine Madden).
The two movies were directed by one of the partners in Bunya Productions, Ivan Sen. The productions all feature stunning images of outback Australia and some memorable overhead filming. “Ivan uses what we call outback noir, which feature massive landscapes. Often they are filmed in the ‘magic hour’ just before the sun is setting when you get a silhouette on the horizon line which is extraordinarily beautiful.”
Jowsey explained that Bunya Productions was not a huge company. “But we are prolific – making a movie a year. Last year we had quite a successful movie called Sweet Country, which won some big international prizes and took about $2m at the Australian box office.
“We also made Jasper Jones which is based on the bestselling Australian novel. And of course also Mystery Road and Goldstone.”
Expect to see more from Bunya Productions on the small screen. “The thing about television is once you have a success you want to do more of it. Hopefully we might grow a little bit into the television space.”
Part of the business model for Mystery Road was planned around international sales. “We have a very good, large English distributor, All 3 Media, who put up a lot of money, maybe even the most money ever put up for an Australian TV show. We are expecting a number of large international sales in big markets, which is terrific.”
There is a lot to admire about Mystery Road, the cast being another of the attractions. Not only does Judy Davis not do a lot of Australian TV, she doesn’t do a lot of TV full stop. Jowsey pointed out her previous role to Mystery Road was in Feud, which earned her an Emmy nomination, playing Hedda Hopper.
“We wanted Judy, but we never thought we would get her. When we approached her we were lucky that she really admired Aaron Pedersen, and we subsequently found out she admired our director Rachel Perkins. Once Judy agreed to come on it allowed us to attract much of the other cast. People were thinking that if we had Judy Davis then there must be something [good] going on there.”
As to how much of the TV series budget went to the cast, Jowsey said: “The thing was that we were in a very remote location. We had a good budget for the cast because we had a big cast. And we had to travel them a number of times to remote places. It is very expensive to get a lot of people to the very top of north-west West Australia. To get there we were flying into Kununurra.”
The shoot lasted for 10 weeks. On the production process, Jowsey said: “Because we knew how to make movies, but hadn’t really had a lot of experience in TV drama production, we made it like a movie.”