On Location: The Circuit

The Circuit returns for a second season. Peter Galvin travelled to Broome, Western Australia, to see how justice is done in this critically acclaimed drama.

Once a month a magistrate and a team from the Aboriginal legal service make a 2000 km round trip across the Kimberley region of Western Australia, criss-crossing the far north of the state, hearing cases in many of the remote indigenous communities there.

This is the factual basis for the six-part $5million drama series The Circuit. Made by West Australian company Media World Pictures in association with Screen Australia, Screenwest, Lotterywest, Goolarri Media and SBSTV, the first season was produced in 2006 and  aired to much critical acclaim the following year. Shooting on the second season of the series wrapped in Broome, the main location, before Christmas 2008; post-production is based in Perth at Whiz Digital.

Hutchens, who co-created the show with Kelly Lefever, explained to Encore on day 38 of the 45 day shoot that the original inspiration for the show was a documentary about the real circuit court called Here Comes the Judge (Alley Kat, 1999). Hutchens, Lefever and  coproducer Colin South began their own research and found the basis for an unusual legal drama. For a start, he says, 95% of those brought before the court plead guilty. “It’s not a conventional set-up where last minute evidence saves the day’,” he explains. “It is a fairly imperfect system that only works because of the humanity involved; it’s more about managing people in a part social work/part punishment system.”

The show was on the “back burner” for a long time because finding a way to do it “seemed too tough; there are lot of minor characters and it needed to be based in Broome.”

“The landscape is one of the main characters,” explains Steve Jodrell (Satisfaction), who is the lead director this season helming three episodes. He shares directing on the series with James Bogle (two episodes), and Aaron Pedersen (one episode). A key visual of the series is the incongruity of men and women in suits and ties, out in the middle of the desert, in court rooms where it is virtually impossible to escape both the blazing sun and the overwhelming space of the Kimberley [indeed the bush courts don’t have walls at all].  “That tension between black and white law is right there, in the imagery.”

Hutchens adds: “It’s a frontier world and when we were researching it, we saw that image and it summed up the contradictions of the place. You cannot cheat that; we could not have shot it anywhere else.”

“You cannot ‘do’ Broome in Perth,” says co-producer Yvonne Collins (Paper Dolls). “The light and the architecture are different.” Collins, who was also a co-producer on season one, explained that basing the production in Broome – a small regional centre with a base population of 15,000 – was one of the biggest logistical challenges: “Even though there is a lot of production coming out of here, you have to bring pretty much everything up from Perth by expensive road freight,” she says, ruefully. “We have more or less the same  budget, but there have been higher costs due to inflation.”

The plot of The Circuit centres on Drew (Aaron Pedersen) a middleclas Aboriginal lawyer for the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALS) who has to come to terms with the complex ‘nod and wink’ system of the circuit amidst searing cultural problems and  racial conflicts. As Drew learns to work the challenges from colleagues like ALS liaison Sam (Kelton Pell), court clerk Bella (Tammy Clarkson) and magistrate Peter (Gary Sweet), he comes closer to finding his own identity. “In season two Drew learns about family – what it means and how it impacts on him,” explains Hutchens.

Since The Circuit revolves around [mostly] Aboriginal characters and their spiritual lives as well as their professional practice, Hutchens says that the show was conceived in a cooperative spirit. “We had to share the project – and we wanted it to have a legitimate  indigenous voice in terms of the creative process.” Hutchens explains that The Circuit was conceived as a co-production with Broome-based indigenous media company Goolarri. The relationship between black and white making the series has been “ongoing, open,  positive and responsible.”

“Whether it’s a black storyline or a white storyline, the inspiration for it comes from life,” says Dot West, one of the series key writers and head of production at Goolarri. “Whether it is drugs, sexual abuse or anything else, we don’t want to  avoid any subject areas when determining the storylines.”

One complex area for the production is the use of specific indigenous languages. “A particular language could identify a certain tribe; if one of our defendants [in the show] speaks it, we are saying [figuratively] that they are of that community – and that means we are
[obliged] to negotiate with that community.”

The story of The Circuit covers four courts; one for Broome; and three fictional courts in three very different communities: King River Junction, aka The Junction, a predominantly aboriginal town; Newtown, a wealthy mining village with a large white population; and  Jalwarra, a former mission set on the coast. All of these courts are shot in Broome. “That was the biggest problem,” says production designer Sam Hobbs. “All of these places represent different looks and feels of the Kimberley, and in fact the earth is a different colour in  each of these places!” Hobbs also worked with Jodrell on the second unit, shooting transitions and creating the experience of “travelling vast distances.” Costume designer Noel Howell (StormWorld) says that none of the wardrobe was made for the series; he  sourced the costumes in Perth. “The wardrobe is designed to help the audience “read” the location of each court.” For instance, he says the Newtown locals have a “mining look”. Like everything else in the series, all departments worked to create an authentic feel. “It’s  what we get a lot of praise for,” Hutchens says. Director of Photography Danny Batterham explains that the “feeling of constant heat” was another of the key visual cues in creating a sense of place on the series. “It’s a look [and feel] where we are burning out the  backgrounds.” Batterham is shooting two cameras, all the time; a Sony F900 and a HDW 750 and the set ups almost always involve constant movement – either hand held or on a dolly. “The feel has a kind of restless energy to it.”

On the day Encore visited the set, a civic building is doubling for the town hall to hear a death-incustody enquiry. “It has breeze block walls and they gave a sense of lattice, which is a key characteristic for the visuals in our Broome setting; with a strong back light; the characters are in the shadows.”


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