I Spry: dramatising history

Encore visited the set of the ABC espionage drama-documentary I Spry. Director Peter Butt, producer Anna Grieve, wardrobe designer Beverley Freeman and DOP Calvin Gardiner spoke to Aravind Balasubramaniam about the research that went into recreating the feel of the 1950s, and the importance of revisiting those shadowy parts of the country’s history that have got lost over time.

Historian and award-winning filmmaker Peter Butt’s latest production for the ABC, I Spry, is the dramatised documentary on perhaps Australia’s greatest spy Sir Charles Chambers Fowell Spry and his time in office. Spry was appointed by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, at the heat of the Cold War in the 1950s, as director-general of the ASIO [Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation]. He is played by stage and film actor Tony Llewellyn-Jones.

Peter Butt, who has familiarised himself well with the place of espionage and intelligence in Australian history has also produced other documentaries on the subject such as Lies, Spies & Olympics and Fortress Australia. But the impetus behind I Spry was only realised in the recent past.

“A lot of my films have dealt with government and top secret documents that have been released after many years, and for some of the stories I’ve had to delve into ASIO documents to give me an insight into intelligence and espionage in Australia. About four to five years ago, I thought about doing a series on ASIO and that didn’t come about for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, I thought it was still a subject worth pursuing”, said Butt.

The release of several world commision papers in the mid 1970s about the ASIO’s early years, and in particularly transcripts of an interview with Charles Spry, the head of the ASIO at the time put things into perspective. “ASIO’s boss Charles Spry was the centre of the story and ruled ASIO with an iron fist. Every operation was under his control and only a few people knew the reasons behind the investigations”, commented Butt, “I started looking for documents that were related to him, the ones that he signed, the ones he wrote, his memos, his relationship with the government and leaders of position. Then we started to get a real picture of political intrigue that had never been told before”.

Many Australians are familiar with the 1954 defection of Soviet Embassy official Vladimir Petrov, which was the high point for ASIO in the mid-fifties. Since then, not much has been voiced on the behind the scenes politics and espionage – especially those involving Australians and not just the KGB.

Butt stated that,“What we’ve discovered is that ASIO and particularly Charles Spry had a great influence on politics that reverberates. The Labour Party that exists today is the antithesis of the Labour Party that existed during the Petrov defection. You can see how Labour has had to evolve to survive as a major party, to get away from those times. I don’t want to give away too many secrets but it really gets to the heart of Australian politics. It’s still relevant to a modern audience and hopefully they’ll get something completely new.”

According to Butt, the idea is to give reality a more engaging appeal for a television audience. Inter-cutting between actual footage from the time and the staged scenes is one way of doing it. “We force the audience to make the jump between the actor and the real character and that’s exciting when it works. In this production, we do have archive footage and I just wanted to embellish that with our own footage, so it goes halfway between the two: the archive material that was shot on 16mm and the Red One camera footage, so we’ve got this stuff that can be in colour or black and white”.

Several scenes required an air of authenticity. The filming of the Russian Social Club which entertained a number of socialites, was recreated within the walls of the Petersham Town Hall, but the need for actual Russians to be present was thought to provide something more genuine. “ Hordes of extras, hand-picked Russian faces and selected Russian music made the whole club visual and political. It’s really interesting to go into subterranean Sydney and you’d find these people enjoying themselves. And the Russians are a people of mystery and culture”.

Cinematographer Calvin Gardner added that “We’ve had a great lead cast of skilled professional actors, but amongst that we have got, not only Peter’s lovely volunteer friends who keep coming back again, but also non-trained actors.  A lot of them came from the Russian community and some from the Russian local theatre groups in Sydney.

Peter did a lot of research on the people that get a part to play in this. Even though they might not say anything or do anything, having Russians as background extras means that there’s an authenticity they bring to the part that I don’t have to work too hard to create.”

“It’s just an organic thing that’s inside them, that affects their reactions and nuances like the way they react to the music. They are tolerant of me, trying to get that little bit extra by making them more appropriate for the camera, but the heart and soul of it, is that they are real people playing real people”, added Butt.

The proposed launch of the National History Curriculum in 2012 may foster the development of dramatised documentaries that focus on Australian history. “We are promoting our film definitely to the education sector because we think it’s absolutely critical that we get it out as far as possible. If an overseas audience is interested, we’d be rapt, it’s not as if we see it exclusively for us”, said Anna Grieve.

I Spry comprises of 40 characters and a crew of 20. Butt explained that depending on the type of shoot, additional help was sought. “It’s not a big crew as far as a drama is concerned. It’s the same crew we had on The Prime Minister is Missing, so it’s a nice family environment that is very closely knit.”

“We work well together which is really important on something like this because the story is the important part. Everyone wants to contribute and make it better. Some days we have a crew of up to 25 people. We’ve got cars and locations and it becomes quite an enterprise for what is a hour-long documentary!”

Funding has primarily come from Screen Australia’s National Documentary program and the history initiative within the ABC. Both bodies have been involved in the production of this film, with the public broadcaster taking on the distribution rights.

Butt explains,”we retain under the new system, a percentage copyright, but its not a 100 percent. We’re not going to make money back from this, the enterprise is purely for the Australian audience. We’re not out there to water it down for the rest of the world because the rest of the world wouldn’t be interested. We’re making this for Australian audiences with the highest quality in mind with the best budget we could receive and I think we’ve achieved that”.

“The ABC has invested in the film with archives”, said Grieve, “For a documentary, it’s a good budget in my view, but the challenge was that everyone had to chip in, Peter had to do a lot of the homework before we even came to filming. He’s had to drive around Sydney, finding sites. We’ve also found locations on realestate.com.au, and had to film in the space of time before a house was sold”.


Location hunting was also aided by the fact that the documentary centred on history, rather than a regular commercial production. People were also inclined to allow the crew to use their properties for the shoot, due to the existing reputation of Peter and Anna’s previous productions such as The Prime Minister is Missing and Dr. Bogel and Mrs. Chandler.

“Because we’re a documentary film on a documentary budget also with a drama element, we’ve had to have fixed rental rates throughout. We’ve have succesfully negotiated our way through, without paying one person  more than another-kudos to our briliant production manager, Sam Thompson, who’s worked a lot with the production co-ordinator”.


I Spry goes through the 40s to the early 70s, totalling up to over a 100 costume changes. This resulted in an immense amount of research going specifically into the wardrobe design of the period documentary. “Peter and I talked about what the look was for old Sydney and I know from working with him we always have a certain style which is a little edgy and a little rough”, said Beverley Freeman, “We looked at what people really looked like in Sydney and from there I’ve carried on”.

Most of the wardrobe research was based and conducted in Australia. Internet libraries, family photographs and actual footage of people from the 1950s provided an additional insight. Stylistically, there have been comparisons to US show Mad Men, but Freeman begs to differ, “Our look is real, that’s what I’d say. Their look is real too, but they’re two entirely different finished products and I don’t think you can compare them. You’re looking at a soap where everything is bright and colourful and everyone is absolutely perfect, when looking at something from Hollywood. Whereas when you look at what we are doing here, it is reality: people have warts; people don’t have a fabulous figure. We are looking at people who are short, tall, fat, thin everything, I look at everybody across the scale and try to figure how they really were at that time.

“I was forced to get the original patterns and dresses and make them. Figures of today are not the figures of women from the 40s, 50s 60s and 70s, 40s in particular. Mainly because they don’t have 22 inch waists or aren’t five foot eight unless they are models. In dealing with reality, you have to make dresses fit the person and still give them the figure of women from that era”.

“Beverly Freeman goes to amazing length to costume the people, not only accurately for the period but also making them cinematically interesting. Because that’s the secret with these sorts of programs, not only are you telling the stories about what really happened, you’ve got to make it interesting television”, commented Butt.



The use of the Red One camera and the 60mm was crucial in replicating the 50s cinematically.

“It’s a big story and the Red camera will give a more drama feel that people are used to as opposed to just the video ‘35mm depth of field’. The workflow is being developed so that it can be relatively simple for Peter if we give him the pro-resolution files. The process is simple and the quality is great. The alternative from Red isn’t necessarily film, but HD and this is preferrable to that. Peter’s been using the 16mm for the last three or four documentaries, and we’ve got some old film stock that we actually age to get grain”, said Gardiner.

“We actually wanted the stock to have a high base density, so that the grain really comes out. Then, we intercut the stock with old newsreel  from that era and process it on an old telecine. In doing so, the resulting grainy look is quite represenatative of the news reel footage of that era.”

The Canon 7D, stills camera was used in shots containing low light. “The Canon 7D has a smaller sensor than the previous 5D model and also because of the 24, 25 FPS meant that the processing phase was made easier.

“Also, rather than putting a generator on a bus and lighting it all up, which was virtually impossible on the budget we’ve got, we decided to shoot it on the 7D with a small steady cam because the bus was very bouncy. There’s a new steadycam pilot, and from what we’ve seen it was a very successful solution for the problem. We’ve also used it for an interior scene in a car at night with very limited lighting, taking advantage of any ambient light outside”, added Gardiner.

Getting that 50s look was the crux of the entire operation and was integral in cementing the story and making it somwhat of a reality for todays audience to also engage with. But what classifies as a 50s look on screen?

“My interpretation from the 50s is highly saturated, high contrast colour. Some people’s representation of it is from the faded movies of the time which are very faded-that is a soft contrast, low colour saturation look. It’s almost open to any sort of interpretation. We wanted to get a different look to this. Colourgrade wise this was achieved by moving towards the reds rather than  the common yellow sepia tones. Rather than go for the 50s as a look back at the 50s, we want the audience to be involved in the 50s.”


I Spry screens on Novemeber 4th at 9:25pm on ABC 1.


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