Series Mania: Vicki Madden, Vincent Sheehan on ‘The Kettering Incident’

Tasmanian noir, the first fully-financed drama by Australia’s Foxtel world premieres in Paris

The Kettering Incident
Photo by Ben King/Foxtel

PARIS — Making its world premiere in Competition, Foxtel’s eight-part series “The Kettering Incident” arrived as one of the more rarefied entries at this year’s Series Mania in Paris. Presented by creators Vicki Madden and Vincent Sheehan, the show – described down under as “Tasmanian Gothic” – quickly drew good word of mouth, compared favorably by one U.S. exec to the Australian breakout hit “Top Of The Lake.” Set to screen later this year, the series is the first show to be fully financed by the Australian subscription service Foxtel and tells the story of Anna Macy (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor who returns to her Tasmanian roots after a long time abroad. Back home, in a close-knit logging town, she finds herself caught up in the cases of two girls who mysteriously disappeared in identical circumstances 15 years apart. Here, Madden and Sheehan reveal some of the show’s myriad secrets…

How did you come to create “The Kettering Incident”?

Vincent Sheehan: I’m not from Tasmania but Vicki is, and I’ve had a fascination with the island, the people and the stories there for a long time – and I did make a feature film down there called “The Hunter” [2011]. Then we were introduced by a mutual friend.

Vicki Madden: I’d just come back from overseas. I left Tasmania when I was 18 and went to live in the U.K., and after that I went to Ireland. And while I was in Ireland I got a real yearning to go home – it’s very similar to Tasmania. I arrived back while Vincent was shooting “The Hunter”. Everyone was very excited. Later on, Vincent spoke to Screen Tasmania and said, “Look, I want to do something else here, but I need help. It’s a small island – I can’t break in.” And they said, “Well, it just so happens that a writer has come back from overseas…” At the time I was trying to model a show around [RTE’s] “The Clinic” in Ireland, then Vincent just appeared and said, “Would you like to do something together?” And I said, “Look, I don’t want to do a New Zealand show where it’s all beautiful snow-capped mountains.” For me, Tasmania is all about gothic. It has a very, very dark history, and you feel the history. I wanted to tell that story, because that was my Tasmania, and it just happened to be what Vincent was looking for.

And what was that?

Vincent Sheehan: I was discovering these extraordinary stories and discovering quite extraordinary characters who were telling me these stories. And when I sat down with Vicki the first time, we started to talk – and she was telling me these stories as well. But Vicki was also a television writer of substantial note, so suddenly there was an authenticity to it that was really exciting. And we also had a common interest in a certain type of genre, or cross-genre.

What kind of stories were you hearing?

Vincent Sheehan: Tasmania has a disproportionate number of missing people per population, so there were a lot of very intriguing cases. And there are a number of other strange phenomena down there too.

Vicki Madden: Because Tasmania’s so close to the southern lights, the southern aurora, there’s a lot of activity in the sky. There’s a lot of random weirdness. And I grew up with a Welsh mother who’s deeply superstitious, as a lot of Tasmanians are. And so it’s just accepted, if you like, that if there are lights in the sky it’s a UFO, and everyone’s seen one. There’s that mentality that you maybe find in Wales and Ireland, regarding folklore and mythology, that I grew up with, partly because of my mother but partly because of the environment. My mother and I saw lots of strange things. And then in my teenage years there was a very significant missing persons case that had mysterious, otherworldly connotations. It’s still one of the most talked-about disappearances – it’s still a mystery. So that’s where it began. We gathered all this material. I was telling Vincent about my childhood, and I guess he was thinking, “Wow, this is all really weird…”

Vincent Sheehan: Vicki told me, very early on, a true story about some people in the town she grew up with that was quite compelling – and quite frightening as well. It was a very isolated part of the world where a group of men basically ran the town, and the local cop was ineffective in what they said and did. That kind of small-town world was really intriguing. You don’t get that on the mainland.

Vicki Madden: It’s kind of clannish. The kind of town where heads of families run the place and local cop just gets cows off the road.

How did you arrive at the mini-series format?

Vincent Sheehan: Well, I come from a feature film background, and Vicki has a real grounding in television, both in Australia and the U.K., and we wanted to bring those things together to make cinematic TV. We wanted to do it primarily in the language of the stories we were telling, and they were very much about landscape.

What is the roadmap when you write a series like this, with eight parts of one hour? Is it a one-off, or were you thinking of a series two and three?

Vicki Madden: You always have to, especially in Australia. You always want a long-running series, even if it’s a short run, and you always have to think like that. That’s where my background come in handy – knowing how to set up a show where there’s going to be ongoing stories. What you’ll find in “The Kettering Incident” is that there’s a journey for each character – each character has quite an intense journey. Normally you just have one, and the rest are secondary, but I really wanted to tell the whole town’s story, because the town represents the logging industry, and Tasmania has been on the brink of collapse at several times. Like Ireland, there’s been a mass exodus of young people, and they’re trying desperately to hang onto their industry. But the problem is, logging is becoming more and more difficult because of the laws around the environment, so this little town is sitting on the brink of destruction – and the characters are as well. So they were important to understand, in order to understand the psychology of the town.

How did you approach that?

Vicki Madden: I just really went through each of their stories roughly – what their transgression is and where they might end up – and because I didn’t know where it would end, I had to stagger them a bit. For Anna’s story it was a question of getting her through-line – what she wanted and where it would take her.

Did you always envision a female lead?

Vicki Madden: I always wanted a female lead, and I think Vincent was happy with that.

Vincent Sheehan: It always was. I never questioned it. I also knew that there was a lot of Vicki in Anna from Day One.

In what way?

Vicki Madden: I always used to come  back to Tasmania as a touchstone – birthdays, Christmas. My family’s still there – and every time something went wrong I’d go back there. It was kind of like a security blanket, my home. But after living in Ireland for two years, something must have fundamentally changed. Nothing I could put my finger on. But when I went home – I decided to go home because I was homesick – it just suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t feel like I belonged there any more. And I had a really big crisis! A three-month meltdown, thinking, “Where am I going to live?” It was awful. So I started writing it down, because that’s what writers do – they write all their issues down. And I thought it would an interesting place to start. Because everybody, no matter where they live, has a sense of belonging, or a need to belong. And I thought that would be a great story for Anna, so that character was always going to be female in that sense. I could relate to that character and explore that idea of small towns suddenly becoming quite toxic. Everyone’s desperately looking for something that’s not in that town any more, so they’ve all got secrets and masks.

What were your ambitions for the show?

Vicki Madden: We decided to just go for it. Like, let’s just do something really different. And the effort on our part was to create a script that no one could say they’d seen before. Which was a big risk, and we did have to pull it back a bit. I was very influenced by the Scandi noirs, like “The Killing,” and the way they had separate stories that came together later. So the script did generate a lot of interest – it was different and unique. We didn’t tell anyone where it was going. But that was the beauty of the show. Only Vincent and I knew, and we kept it to ourselves. Partly because of the risk of leaks but also because actors sometimes play out the surprises without realizing, because they know what’s coming next. It was a great process in that way. It was unusual but it made the actors work in the moment.