Underbelly: the golden franchise

Underbelly: The Golden MileIts creators never thought Underbelly would go that far, but now they’re walking their third mile in 80s style. For the new instalment The Golden Mile, ultra-contemporary thinking meets retro styling. Laine Lister got the low down on big hair, bent cops and vintage number plates.

Sometimes, it’s the most insignificant details that are the most telling. A glimpse of modern architecture or a brand of jeans can reveal a lot, and potentially damage the reputation of a drama set in the past.

And then there’s the matter of numberplates, which are easy to get wrong and a favourite thing for people watching the series to check on, says production designer Paddy Reardon.

“We deal with the motor registration boards to make sure but even now, I know that there will be people going through the series and scrutinising any visible number plates to determine whether they are the right period or not,” he says.

“It’s become a bit of a sport,” he adds. Reardon and his creative team have pulled out all the stops to ensure the newest instalment, Underbelly: The Golden Mile, can beat the punters.

Nevertheless, shooting a 1980s period drama in the time of the iPod raises a truckload of logistical challenges.

The creative team set out to achieve a celebration of Sydney’s Kings Cross, which loomed large in the script.

Yet more than half of the clubs and locations depicted in series three are no longer trading. Much of the signage needed to be reproduced, so Reardon and his team referenced historic photographs and spoke to former staff members of the various establishments.

The team built a strong relationship with the Kings Cross traders, but there was an unofficial agreement that they wouldn’t film in the area at night. So for the night scenes Reardon needed to recreate the Cross somewhere other than its main street, Darlinghurst Road.

“We divided Sydney into about 25 zones and looked at every shopping strip within a 30km radius and narrowed it down to four areas,” says Reardon.

After reviewing the areas during night and day and speaking with the traders, he settled on Lane Cove, a suburb on Sydney’s lower north shore.

“At first it might seem like an odd decision – especially for people who live in Sydney – but it’s a street that curves, and because of that it has limited viewpoints from either end, which enabled us to turn the middle of the strip into Kings Cross,” he says.

With a certain amount of artistic licence, plus lighting and the addition of neon, the likeness to Kings Cross was quite astonishing.

Changing the Lane Cove streetscape into Kings Cross – which they did three times – was hard enough without the addition of neon, which is very delicate.

“One of the biggest problems involved health and safety issues was generally you can’t install neon in a temporary style – it has to be within steel enclosures and a certain height from the footpath and basically impenetrable,” he says.

The neon used for The Golden Mile had to be up and down over a period of six hours, so it had to be lightweight, easy to handle and connect, but still look exactly like neon. Reardon re-engineered a more lightweight version with materials borrowed from the boat building and aerospace industries. “It was a good design challenge and something that we didn’t initially consider, but had to resolve very quickly,” he adds.

NEW DECADE, NEW PERSONALITY

Neon was one of the central backbones of the design and brings a certain flavour to The Golden Mile that is unlike the previous two series, as the franchise changes its personality to reflect that of the people whose stories are being told.

“We had all that testosterone in series one with those western suburbs [of Melbourne] boys who didn’t give a damn about anybody,” says producer Peter Gawler.

Series two, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, introduced a different type of criminal in the calculating psychopath Terry Clark, and the avuncular character Robert Trimbole.

The Golden Mile, with its Lebanese gangsters, street level drug dealers and club owners, is reminiscent of series one. It’s the story of bent cops and cool crims who ran the most exciting street in Australia until the Wood Royal Commission cleaned out the ‘Black Empire’ within the NSW Police.

The introduction of the notorious Kings Cross detectives, the down-to-earth bad boys, brings a new element of humour to the series, and is a departure from the first two in many ways. “They give us a police character we’ve never had before,” Gawler says.

There’s another character too.

“Kings Cross is a personality in the show, there’s no doubt about that. The images are there throughout; the neon lights and the glamour and also the seediness of the back streets, it’s so rich in texture,” Gawler says.

Visually, The Golden Mile is more sumptuous than the previous two, due to its richer colour palette.

The costumes add further depth to the series, drawing heavily on 1980s excess.

“You’ve really got to make each series hold its own in that it needs to have its own look,” says costume designer Louise Wakefield, who introduced a more intense colour palette with lots of black and white too.

“We had contrast and shine because of all the night scenes and neon, and I also used those neon colours in the clothing to really hot the screen up,” she adds.

The costumes evolve throughout the series, which spans 11 years, beginning with strong colours and bold shapes in the early episodes and becoming more restrained and simple as the series progresses into the 90s. The decision to fade the palette was also employed to depict the aging characters.

While the costumes play an important role in the series – and no doubt provide a bit of fun for reminiscent viewers – Wakefield was wary about injecting too much 80s boldness in the wardrobe.

“If you make it too fashionable or too truthful it can interrupt the drama.

“The scripts are so dense and there is a lot of information, so the audience needs to stay with the story and costuming can help rather than distract viewers,” she explains.

Another important visual departure from the previous series is the introduction of a Canon 50D stills camera on set.

Between filming, director Tony Tilse (episodes 1-4 and 10-13) explained the effect of stitching still images into a live action scene.

“It can take about six or seven frames per second and we’ll be using it as part of the dramatic style.

“Those frames tend to ‘pop’ colour-wise and really give it a vibrant look, and it’s also used like flashes of memory,” he says.

However, in the typical Underbelly flavour, the stylistic use of slow motion is once again employed.

ART IMITATES CRIME

Audiences should also expect the signature no holds barred approach to exposing the seediness of the late 20th century Australian drug trade; there is plenty of sex, violence and language in The Golden Mile.

There’s also the element of lesser-known actors cast in the lead roles with a sprinkling of Australian television royalty, as has been the case previously. This year Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Peter O’Brien, Dieter Brummer and Sigrid Thornton play key roles alongside newcomers Emma Booth (as Kim Hollingsworth) and Firass Dirani (John Ibrahim).

“Having a new cast is fantastic. It gives the audience a completely new experience.

“But hopefully [that experience comes] with some of the same values, so they feel like they’re watching the same franchise,” says Gawler.

The creative team has remained steady throughout the series with executive producers Des Monahan, Greg Haddrick (a writer on the series) and Jo Horsburgh, producers Elisa Argenzio and Gawler (also a series writer) returning alongside writers Felicity Packard and Kris Mrksa. Two (of the previous four) Underbelly directors, Tilse and Shawn Seet (episodes 5-9), have also returned for The Golden Mile.

Producer Elisa Argenzio explains: “that’s the way we’ve set this series up to accommodate two directors and we’ve approached it so we have greater blocks [of four and five episodes].

“It was about amortising our requirement for locations too,” she says, adding that filming took place in 250 locations, over 83 days; a massive undertaking for a medium-sized crew of 60 with 300 cast and 1200 extras.

“The schedules aren’t for the faint-hearted, they are extraordinarily packed in what we have to achieve in a day… it’s because of [the seasoned core team] that we can achieve our schedule,” she says.

Having a successful franchise was unexpected. “We seriously didn’t think there was any more in it than one series. We felt that we were very fortunate to do series one, it was an accident of fate really,” says Gawler.

The accident of fate occurred when former Nine chief executive Eddie McGuire stepped into the role of head of the network. McGuire, with his journalist background and extensive connections in the Australian Football Rules world, was familiar with a number of players of series one.

“Would it have happened if Eddie hadn’t been CEO at the time and pushing [the series]? I doubt it,” says Gawler.

With the financial backing of Nine, (and confirmed scheduling) Gawler and his team at Screentime were eager to ensure all involved had a similar vision for how the story should be told.

“We said to [Nine], we can do this two ways; we can pull the teeth out of this drama and do this safe – a broad commercial drama for a mainstream audience – or we can do this the way we think it should be done and reflect reality, which means language, sex, violence,” he explains.

Before production on the first series had wrapped, McGuire vacated the CEO seat and the baton was passed to his successor, David Gyngell, who had previously held the role.

“The word came back [from Gyngell], he thought it was fantastic and said ‘I’m going to launch the New Year with this’.

“It was then, that we started thinking about a second series… and what the series was about more broadly,” he says.

The production team soon realised the ‘franchise’ of Underbelly would chart the way organised crime in Australia has changed in the late 20th century, specifically with the influence of drugs and its effect on society.

An essential element of that is police corruption, which the third series delves heavily into.

That theme would potentially continue into a fourth series, which is already in the pipeline.

And so it’s back to the drawing board for Gawler and his team, to ensure that next February will bring yet another Australian crime story to the small screen. Perhaps it will be the opportunity for the franchise to move to a new city unless, of course, the production can find the right incentive to stay in NSW.

“Wherever there’s a story, Screentime will go there,” said Argenzio. “This story is inherently and essentially Sydney, but there are a few on the table that can go anywhere now.

“But at the end of the day, a state’s financial commitment to the industry is always going to sway, and it will always have an impact in the decision making.”

The Golden Mile is currently airing on Nine.

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