On Location: Underbelly, A Tale of Two Cities

With the success of Underbelly and a bottomless source of true crime stories, a second series was inevitable. Peter Galvin visited the set in an Encore exclusive.

Launched at the beginning of 2008 ratings season with a massive and expensive publicity push by the Nine Network, Underbelly became, says its makers, one of the most successful TV series ever produced in Australia. It’s not just the high ratings it brought for the  Nine Network; the series has been a DVD blockbuster for Roadshow Entertainment selling more than 350,000 units.

“We’ve broken all retail records, and though we don’t have numbers on rentals, we understand it’s done big business there too,” says Screentime’s executive director Bob Campbell. The show, budgeted at $11-13million, has also sold extremely well into foreign  territories.
The network began discussions with Screentime’s Greg Haddrick and executive producer Des Monaghan (Screentime) about a follow up season, soon after Underbelly finished its run. By mid-year Haddrick says, he had begun work with Felicity Packard and Peter  Gawler, season one’s writers, outlining and scripting, with a forth writer, Kris Mrksa (Carla Cametti PD) joining the team for season two.
The first series was based on the book Leadbelly, by true crime writers Andrew Rule and John Silvester; a dramatic interpretation of the notorious Melbourne gang war of the 1990s. The new series, which began shooting on October 15 in Sydney, is set twenty years  earlier, in the late 70s.
When Encore visited the set in December Haddrick, who is coproducing the show once more with Brenda Pam, explained that the this season is neither a sequel nor a prequel to the events and plotting of season 1. In fact, the Underbelly title is more like a branding or franchise, or perhaps a genre: “The aim is to create the same tone and the same style, [and to achieve that] we’ve applied the same process – all four writers were involved in the outlining and planning, and we all read each of the drafts as they came through,” he said.  “When you think of Underbelly, you think of characters like Roberta, Alphonse and Carl and Jason, and we are not bringing them back and nor are we trying to find others like them.”
The key point of distinction between the seasons is in the title: “This is not Underbelly 2 at all…it is called: Underbelly, A Tale of Two Cities.” This refers to a rivalry between crime syndicates and individuals based in Sydney and Melbourne, and the tussle over control of  rug trafficking in Australia – which by the mid 70s had taken precedence as the key ‘earner’ in the criminal milieu over “old style” rackets like prostitution, stand-over and gambling. Besides the strong violence and graphic sex, Haddrick says there are thematic links  between the two seasons. “We deal with police corruption here, in a way that season one didn’t.” Real life characters and events are once again central to the on-screen action, with the relationship – some would say “mateship” – of two major figures from the country’s  crime history dominating the narrative: alleged crime boss Robert Trimbole (Roy Billing) and convicted murderer Terry Clark (Matt Netwon). Known as Mr. Asia, New Zealandborn Clark controlled a syndicate responsible for importing heroin into Australia, NZ, and  Britain, using a large ensemble of attractive women as couriers. Clark was said to have made a billion dollars from the enterprise.

After the suppression of Underbelly 1 in Victoria this year, due to an outstanding court matter, Haddrick says that the ‘legalling’ process this time around “is even more rigorous, with consultation at every stage from outline through to each cut.” This has not  prevented the writers of A Tale of Two Cities from avoiding difficult material. This season will deal with the disappearance of anti-drugs whistleblower Donald McKay (Andrew McFarlane) – whose blood stained van was found in a parking lot in Griffith (in rural New  South Wales) in July 1977. Still, Haddrick concedes that most of the criminal cases the show dramatises have been long resolved: “But we are looking very carefully for any outstanding matters.”

“There is a certain wonderful unpredictability about the nature of the story telling in Underbelly,” explains director Tony Tilse, during a break in shooting on location in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville; where a bowls club is doubling as the interior of the Double Bay  Bridge Club – an illegal casino, circa 1977-78.
The set-up director on the first season, Tilse is doing five episodes this time, sharing the helming with Shawn Seet (Two Fists One Heart), Grant Brown (Underbelly) and Ken Cameron (Satisfaction/season 2 setup director). “In a true story dramatic things happen in a  way that’s not formulaic and that can give you a lot freedom in your storytelling.”

One of the key creative challenges on this show has been to show

fidelity to Underbelly’s very contemporary visual style – fast moving and  slick – and yet create a mood which is equally “true” to the 70s. “You can’t be a ‘slave’ to the period,” he says. Tilse explains that “period” is not just a matter of physical and cosmetic material that lies within the frame;  it is also down to a ‘mind-set’. “You are very careful about the way characters are to relate to each other and the attitudes they express.”
Paddy Reardon (Noise), production designer for both seasons, says that in style meetings the network strongly desired a “contemporary look” that did not scream “period”. The approach wasn’t to be forensic, or documentary. “The truth is that the 70s are around us  all the time, in TV ads, in graphics, in furniture, in fashion. I decided to pick a path to run alongside the currently accepted model of what the 70s were.” The show is not about replicating the the 70s crime scene in Sydney and Melbourne, with precision, he says. “For  the many gambling scenes – set in Melbourne – amongst the ‘heavies’ of the Painters and Dockers…these originally were set in warehouses [which is true historically].” Reardon, recalling the seedy atmosphere of Rocky (1976) re-located these scenes in boxing gyms; besides, he admits ruefully that he was growing tired of designing action in “big empty spaces.”
Costume designer Louise Wakefield (Underbelly 1), told Encore that the key issue for her department was the fast-paced nature of the storytelling, where sub-plots are quickly cross-cut in each episode. “Every character has to be very distinctive; some characters  recur throughout the series and others only appear a few times.” Like Reardon, Wakefield says she’s picked up on the fact that fashion today “seems quite in love with the era of the late 70s, so she can carefully blend contemporary fashion with vintage. An approach that is necessary by virtue of the enormous volume of costuming required.
The cast, crew and writers all consulted a dossier of material, prepared by researcher Clare McGrath. It included archival TV interviews and news clippings; the writers consulted with operational police who worked on the cases that A Tale of Two Cities depicts. Make  up designer Tess Natoli (Rain Shadow) said: “I also did a lot of research on [stylings] from contemporary magazines.” The single most expensive “hair styling” is for the character of alleged crime boss George Freeman. Actor Peter O’Brien wears a handmade wig of human hair worth thousands of dollars, to create a strong resemblance to the real Freeman. “All the other actors had to grow their hair and have it styled,” says Natoli. “And they had to grow their own moustaches too…hidefinition photography won’t let you get away with anything else.”
Cinematographer Bruce Young (Rush), who was key operator on Underbelly 1, is using three Sony F900R hi-def cameras to lens the series; each is quipped with an on board monitor and there are two hidef monitors. Young said he was employing a variety of camera techniques to establish period; as in the strategic use of long lenses. “It’s like shooting through car windows, with a period dashboard large in the frame”, Young says. “It ‘sells’ the 70s without elaborate construction,” adds Reardon: “We’re finding locations that have a lot of foreground interest and neutral backgrounds.”

The photographic approach varies greatly from episode to episode and director to director., Young said “It’s all coherent, but there’s no “house style”. Lighting is often guided by Reardon’s design, “like the casino in the Marrickville set.” In this scene, Trimbole and  Clark are in an intense discussion that Tilse describes as “conspiratorial”. Reardon’s set consisted of gambling tables sporting roulette and other games of chance. Surrounding this, a ring of small tables, topped with orange lamps, in red shades, low set, so the high lights cast a menacing shadow on the actor’s faces – a feature of the location was back form ceiling tiles the club installed circa 1973. “In that kind of environment I used the practical lights and I defused it,” Young says.
The crew are putting out a fast pace typical of TV production. Tilse did 54 set-ups on his first day; 1st AD Russell Whiteoak says the averageis 35 setups; with at least one location move a day [though Reardon’s locations offer multiple sets; at the time of writing the production had used 45 locations servicing 105 sets across episodes 1-7].

By early after noon the crew broke the Marrickville location and moved ten minutes north to an old boxing gym in Redfern, which was doubling as a Melbourne location – a seedy gambling den where Trimbole meets with another of the series major figures, notorious stand-over man Brian Kane (Tim McCunn). The contrast between the glamorous red and black of the casino and the stark, shabbiness of the gym, says Young, is striking and part of the conscious style of the show. For this scene he shoots the conversation, set a grubby
card table, against large windows.
”I’ve tried to give Melbourne an oily, cool, blue look…its contrasty with a lot of silhouettes,” he says. “Its non-linear storytelling and the scripts move very quickly between Sydney, Melbourne and Griffith.”
Young and Reardon gave each location and story strand a very strong look so the audience can know “where they are and who they are with.” Melbourne is graded cooler; Sydney is ‘yellow’ and ‘tropical’, while Griffith is ‘hotter still’ and dusty. Certain colours in the  design aren’t the exclusive province of a specific city: “Sydney doesn’t “own” red,” he says. “For me Underbelly’s style relies on certain high points jumping up every now and then to keep the audience in…I have red and orange in Melbourne and red and orange in  Sydney, but in the grade the nuance will be different.” Reardon says he applied “three laws” to his design: simplify the visuals, homogenise the colours, and alter the lighting to support the colour.
Like the first season A Tale of Two Cities is epic in scale; there are 300 speaking roles and by the time shooting is scheduled to wrap next year on March 6, the production will boast, according to line producer Elisa Argenzio (Carla Cametti PD), 1300 extras and 125  locations across the budgeted 90 days of shooting.
Haddrick doesn’t really have any theories as to why Underbelly was such a hit with the local audience. Tilse reckons it is due to the fact that since the story is true, punters can accept it in a way they find fictional crime hard to. Haddrick believes audiences have a  fascination with characters “who seem to have the freedom of doing whatever they want to do…but it’s a freedom that comes at an enormous price.”
A Tale of Two Cities, will be bloody and offer up another large body count as season one did: “The possibility of glamorising this life is undercut at every point, because the violence is so graphic.”


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