Beards, bellies and bikies: Recreating the Milperra massacre

The next in a string of ‘ripped from the headlines’ drama series, Bikie Wars was shot on location in Sydney’s west in just 42 days. Georgina Pearson is transported back to the ‘80s on the set of Ten’s new crime mini-series.

Behind an unassuming roller door on a quiet street in Sydney’s inner west, director Peter Andrikidis is recreating history. Encore is on the set of Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms, a period drama of sorts, completed in a six-week shoot plagued by non-stop rain.

Stepping inside the makeshift sound stage transports you back to the 1980s. Six motorbikes guard the entrance while an old Holden sedan, riddled with bullet holes, is out the back. This may not be the original 1984 headquarters of bikie gangs the Bandidos or the Comancheros depicted in the series, but it certainly feels like it could be.

Based on the book Brothers in Arms by Lindsay Simpson and Sandra Harvey, the Network Ten production tells the story of, and the lead up to, the fateful Milperra massacre in which rival gangs clashed on the morning of Fathers Day, September 2, 1984. Seven people were killed during a shoot-out including a 14-year old bystander.

Bike Wars fight scene

Funded by Ten, with a cash injection from Screen NSW and Screen Australia, the six-hour mini-series comes from production company Screentime, who earned their dramatic chops with four seasons of Underbelly. Bikie Wars is the latest in a string of ‘ripped from the headlines’ series and it’s a trend that looks set to continue with the Julian Assange telemovie Underground and another Underbelly series based on underworld figure Anthony Perish in production. Like
several of the Underbelly series, many of the characters depicted in Bikie Wars are still alive, which has ramifications for the show’s creators. Producers kept details closely guarded during filming for fear of provoking the clubs. Impartiality was also key. “With any story it is important to humanise the character’s choices and not make a judgement on what is right and wrong – that’s for the audience to gauge,” says Andrikidis.

Yet writer/producer Roger Simpson says it was necessary to take some dramatic licence. He says: “It is an interpretation of the book and it’s fixed to the truth as much as possible, but we had to reduce a large cast and combine a few characters.” Although there is a big-name cast including Underbelly’s Callan Mulvey, Animal Kingdom’s Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, most recently seen in East West 101, and Paper Giant’s Maeve Dermody, it may take the audience some time to recognise them, such is their physical transformation. Andrikidis says: “This was a period of long hair and beards so there was a lot of wig and beard work.” One cast member even gained 20kg for the role, testament to the sought-after nature of the parts. “Every actor in Australia wanted to play these roles. We had lots of auditions coming in from LA and so the cast we assembled are lead actors in their own right,” says Andrikidis.

Recreating the ‘80s
Filming with two Arri Alexa cameras, the 42-day shoot was tight considering the attention to detail required to accurately portray the period and the number of action scenes involving actors riding vintage motorbikes. “This happened in the 1980s when they didn’t wear helmets on motorbikes,” explains Andrikidis.

Another challenge was the weather. “On more than one occasion, we were rained out of a major location. It became a huge safety issue – filming motorbikes travelling at speed, in the rain, with no helmets,” says Simpson. Although the rain caused headaches for production staff, it had another unexpected effect. “It emphasised the atmosphere we were trying to create. It’s a textural component. Some of the most memorable scenes are in the rain,” explains Simpson.

But perhaps the greatest task was creating a 1980s criminal underworld. “Clearing streets and making Sydney look like the 1980s was difficult so we decided to build numerous sets,” says Andrikidis. Acting as writer and producer, the setting impacted Simpson two-fold. He says: “I decided we were making a western but instead of horses we had motorbikes. The outlaw bikie is not unlike the outlaw in western storytelling. The western analogy gave us our look, feel and structure. Instead of the wild west, it’s the inner west.”

The edit
Throughout production, an edit suite ran under the watchful eye of editor Nicole La Macchia. She says: “I was assembling and cutting the rushes the minute they started shooting. It was a tight time frame.”

Editing the Milperra massacre scene, the series denouement, was complicated. “The sheer volume of footage of that scene was enormous. Another difficulty was there is not a lot of evidence about who shot whom. As an editor, your natural instinct in a cut is that somebody shoots a gun then you see somebody being shot. In this instance I wasn’t allowed to link characters to specific shootings,” she says.

Director Peter Andrikidis on set

The score
The score was created by Australian performer Mark Lizotte who came to prominence in the ’80s as Johnny Diesel. “It is the first time he has composed for the screen and it has been extremely successful. The music is one of the strongest elements in the mini-series,” says Simpson.

Andrikidis is happy with the end result. “Mark Lizotte has written an incredible score and Nicole La Macchia brought every best nuance out of my rushes,” he says.

The network is also pleased. Executive producer for Ten, Rick Maier, says: “Brothers in Arms has the lot: brotherhood, loyalty and betrayal. It is a fascinating insight into a culture most of us know nothing about. Our job is to deliver great content for the audience. We are immensely proud of this production.”

This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here.

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