LILLE, France — An aboriginal boy disappears without an initial trace from his pick-up van on a cattle ranch in North-West Australia. The local police sergeant, Emma James (Judy Davis), calls in a detective, the brusque Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), to investigate.
As Swan drives to meet the local ranch owner, the camera shoots his car from way up high, the desert taking on the arresting colors – pink, white, a few seemingly-doodled black lines – of an abstract painting.
The multiple establishing shots of the local town, with a large aboriginal community, reveal a singular world unknown to most viewers. They also hint at a larger point: the reason for the disappearance seems related to a a bigger social picture. Swan, already the lead character of two highly admired feature films from Ivan Sen, both times played by Pedersen, begins to peel away at the secrets, crimes and miscarriage of justice in present and past in the town. “In solving the mystery of the missing boys, Jay and Emma – and the town – will learn a hard lesson – you have to be truthful about your past to understand your present, and to have any sort of future,” the series’ synopsis runs.Variety talked to director Rachel Perkins and producer Greer Simpkin about the six-hour series, sold by All3Media Intl., which competes at France’s 2018 Series Mania.
In Ep. 1, many characters are hiding something; Jay Swan, his pill-popping daughter, the local bar girl her association with the shady backpacker Reese, and Emma seems reticent about her brother. In a missing mystery, this is an invite the audience to surmise the township as a whole will be hiding something – or many things.
Rachel Perkins: I love offering the audience the opportunity to follow many threads in an opening episode. All of them could lead down a variety of paths, which the audience anticipates, considers and weighs up. The balance is holding back foreshadowing, but giving enough clues that the resolution, when it comes is not a complete surprise, but is emotionally satisfying. The audience in this genre is detective, trying to figure out the suspects. The more questions at the opening of the story, the better.
The first episode has a strong sense of an extraordinary setting: You also seem to be hinting, however, at the fact that there’s a bigger picture, which Jay will go on to discover….
The more successful television in the mystery genre provides intrigue but also a strong sense of place. Be it “Fargo,” “True Detective” or “The Bridge,” all these series provide an immersive experience into a distinctive world. We went to great lengths to shoot our series in some of the remotest and most spectacular landscape in Australia. This landscape also has a deep history, of black and white conflict which we mine to give greater layers. It is a universal story of colonization, which is the undercurrent of what on its surface seems to be a cop show, but also has something to say about our country, our history and a future where two cultures must exist together and reconcile their past.
Is “Mystery Road” Outback Noir? In its aesthetics, tropes. You seem to be hinting at this, by finding Outback equivalent to genre tropes…Again, could you comment?
The ‘outback’ is not only a description of a place beyond the city, but it is also a way of life. It is where rules are broken, where people go to hide. There is a wildness to the outback that we embraced in the making of “Mystery Road.” But we also embrace the tropes of the genre; the male cop, the loner. There is no femme fatale that he falls for, but an older women, his equal, who challenges him in a battle of wills that is the dynamic centre of our story. We hope that fans of the noir genre will find appeal in our show as it draws on well established traditions, but we also hope they enjoy the journey as we dig deeper to bring layers of history, race and feminism to the form.
The series is described as a TV spin-off from two highly successful movies, also made by Bunya productions. Why the spin off?
Greer Simpkin: It has been a long time since there has been an outback cop character on Australian television but now that we have the character of Jay Swan from the movies it made perfect sense that we create a TV series about him. One of the things that excited us about Jay Swan was the complicating factor that he is Indigenous and caught between two worlds, which add layers and deeper meaning to his storyline. With a TV series we have the opportunity to tell a story over six hours rather than two. That is a great challenge – to delve deeper into the characters stories, expand on themes and (we hope) give the audience an exciting binge-worthy mystery.
Given “Mystery Road’s” immediate audience is ABC, a national broadcaster, is there anything which could be in the films but not the series, which you had to hold back on?
Simpkin: We certainly limited the amount of violence and profanity and made it more character-based. Rather than ‘holding back’, I would say it was more a case of tailoring the series to the audience – both the ABC audience in Australia but also for an international audience. We were keen to make a relatable and accessible series that has universal themes but is told through the prism of an extraordinary landscape and a world that is not often seen in television drama.
One of the most attractive lures of “Mystery Road” is the central pairing of Aaron Petersen and Judy Davis, two highly admired performers, Could you describe the characters, and also how you directed such highly experienced actors?
Perkins: I approach working with actors as a collaboration. Aaron’s character was well established in the previous films. Judy’s character had to be built. We worked on the scripts extensively with Judy and Aaron and writers in the story room. This was the engine of the project and once we were aligned, it was mostly a matter of ensuring they were comfortable on set to do what they do best. It was a privilege to work along side them.