Making Better Man

Better ManBetter Man, SBS’s first commissioned drama in four years premieres this Thursday and tells the story of Vietnamese Australian Van Nguyen whose execution in Singapore for trafficking drugs in 2005 divided Australia.  In an article that first featured in Encore, Robin Hicks visits the set. 

Filming has finished for the day in a dowdy office block at the back of a church, just opposite a drug rehab centre, on Gipps Street in Richmond, Melbourne. The crew are visibly drained.

They have just wrapped the most heart-wrenching scene in a true-life tragedy. Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese Australian, is awaiting execution in Singapore’s Changi prison after being caught smuggling heroin, a crime he committed to help his debt-laden family. He is not allowed to see his loved ones before he is hanged the next day. But the authorities have made a final concession for the 25-year-old who the Australian press dubbed “the baby on death row”. They let him touch the hands of his mother and two brothers through a hole the size of a tissue box cut into the wall of the prison visiting room. “Apart from the guards, it was the first human contact Van had in the three years since his arrest in 2002,” says Remy Hii, the young Malaysian-born Australian actor who plays Nguyen. “The thought of saying goodbye to your mum is something everyone can relate to emotionally. It was a painful scene. Half of the crew were in tears.” The scene took six takes to get right.

Playing the role of the doomed young Australian was a “huge responsibility” says Hii, since Nguyen’s mother and brother are still alive, and it’s only eight years since he died. “Most of the time actors retelling real-life stories are asked to play people who died long ago. This is not like playing Kerry Packer in Howzat. This is a raw issue that is still very painful to a lot of people, and needs to be treated sensitively.”

Nguyen’s mother Kim declined to be involved in the production, saying it was still too soon after her son’s death.

Research for the script came from interviews with the lawyers who tried to downgrade Nguyen’s charge from trafficking to possession (Melbourne barrister Julian McMahon is played by David Wenham and lawyer Lex Lasry by Bryan Brown; Claudia Karvan plays McMahon’s wife) and Van’s ex-girlfriend Rachel as well as his friends.

Finding the right actors – two similar looking 20-something Asian Australian boys – to take on the roles of Nguyen and his brother Khoa (played by Jordan Rodrigues) was the hardest part of the production, and took several months of auditioning, testing and retesting 40 actors.

“The drama of the show comes out of Van. Remy’s role is critical to make the series work,” says Stephen Corvini of Bravado Productions whose last big project was ABC docu-drama Devil’s Dust. Better Man is produced by Bravado in association with FremantleMedia Australia.

This is not the first time the story of Van Nguyen has been told. The ABC covered it in the hour-long documentary Just Punishment in 2006, shot from 2004 up until his death, which came despite appeals for clemency from the Australian government, civil liberties groups, lawyers and a large section of the Australian public.

“The doco reinforced what a powerful human interest story this is. But it was insufficiently captured in one hour, just as Van’s story was only superficially covered in the press,” says Corvini.

Better Man is a two-part mini series directed by Vietnam-born writer, director, actor and teacher Khoa Do, brother of comedian Anh Do, who – like Van and Khoa Nguyen – came to Australia as refugees. “Khoa adds authenticity and quality to the production with his family background and his award-winning accomplishments in the local film industry,” says Tony Iffland, director of television and online content at SBS.

It is the first drama commissioned by SBS in four years. Although Corvini won’t reveal the production budget, some of it has come from the $158m in government funding SBS received in 2012. Screen Australia and Film Victoria have also chipped in funds. Corvini says: “Everyone has been trying to raise the bar of Australian drama. Better Man is written cinematically and shot very cinematically. And as with all drama budgets at the moment, it has been difficult to finance the series. We’ve squeezed every last dollar to make it look ambitious.”

The series was made with a core actor ensemble of eight, a crew of around 40 and hundreds of extras. Though the story spans three countries – Cambodia, where Van picks up the drugs, Singapore, where he was arrested, and Melbourne, where the family is living – it is shot only in Melbourne and Ho Chi Minh City.

The Singapore street scenes, the courtroom and Changi Prison were recreated in Melbourne. The bustling, dusty streets of Phnom Penh were remade in Ho Chi Minh City, where government officials helped shut down roads and direct traffic.

The shoot spanned six weeks in  Melbourne plus six days in Vietnam, following seven weeks of pre-production. A tight shooting schedule didn’t make things easy, says Do. “You get a certain energy from jumping in at the deep end and rehearsing on the run. But every cast member has a different way of working, and I’d liked to have had more time to work out the strengths and weaknesses of each cast member.”

When the series was first announced, it was slated to be a four parter however it was decided after shooting wrapped that it would work well airing as two movie-length features instead.

Corvini says: “Creatively, what’s tricky is that the protagonists are lost off screen for the second part of the drama. It’s difficult to plot a series with that constraint.”

ARRI Alexa cameras were used in Melbourne and the Red Epic camera in Vietnam. Post production was completed through Blue Post South Melbourne with audio post calling on Scott Findlay Sound Productions. Chroma Media South Melbourne provided a small amount of SFX.

So, who will watch Better Man, and how will it rate? SBS won’t reveal its hopes for the show, but plenty rides on the production for a network struggling to compete for viewers with its commercial rivals. SBS typically draws less than five per cent share of Australian TV audiences, and even the hit docu-drama Go Back To Where You Came From only just made the top 10 most-watched shows in the country on the night, with 752,000 tuning in to watch the first episode of the second series. SBS will be hoping that Better Man – which, as Iffland puts, is “a story that only SBS would tell” – generates the sort of social media chat-factor that helped make Go Back To Where You Came From so popular.

Do says that while SBS audiences “tend to be lower than other networks”, Better Man could prove to be a ratings winner. “It’s a filmic series that doesn’t look like a regular TV show. And with its intense subject matter and diverse cast – from Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines as well as Australia – it has the potential to bring in new audiences.”

Corvini says Better Man will appeal to a broad demographic, but will resonate particularly with people in their late teens and early 20s as it delivers a cautionary tale. “Lots of young people take drugs in countries where there are serious ramifications if they’re caught. Van could be your brother or sister. We all make mistakes when we’re young. This is a case of there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

The director and producer are both careful to avoid politicising Better Man, and play down the show’s opposition to the death penalty, which was much debated in Australia at the time of Nguyen’s death.

“Better Man is an Australian story with social justice and human rights implications. But underlying all of this, it’s a story about family and someone cut down in his prime,” says Corvini.

However, he adds: “The Singaporean government has been looking at reforming its capital punishment laws, and if this series makes any sort of difference that would be fantastic. But realistically, it’s just four hours of television.”

Do says the most obvious theme in Better Man is capital punishment and whether it has a place in the modern world. He says: “We have a young man of Vietnamese descent who falls on tough times, and commits a crime to help his family. He is ultimately executed for his crime, and many people will watch and wonder how just his death is.”

“Singapore has some of the toughest laws in the world for people caught with drugs. But in Van’s case, there were mitigating circumstances and you have to question the validity of his sentence. The laws are too severe, and I hope Better Man has an impact beyond entertainment value.”

But for now the priority is attracting an audience both here and abroad and after early talks at the television market MIP TV in April, SBS says they have already received interest in the series.

Better Man airs on SBS on July 25 and August 1. 

Issue 23This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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