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To the rescue

Keith Austin braves an earthquake, a train crash and an awful lot of fake blood on the set of All Saints.

It might be an apocryphal quote, but the people behind All Saints have taken to heart Hollywood studio boss Samuel Goldwyn's prescription that a movie should "begin with an earthquake and work its way towards a climax".

When the show returns for its fifth season tomorrow night, it will indeed begin with an earthquake. After that, it's disaster, blood, guts, bravery and, horror of horrors, the end of the road for one regular cast member.

Yes, indeed, someone shuffles off this mortal coil after the earthquake derails a train which then crashes in a tunnel. And that's when we say goodbye and RIP to… sorry, but that was one of the conditions The Guide agreed to before Channel 7 allowed us onto the set—no names, no pack drill or we'll drop a railway carriage on you.

And they had plenty of them to go around on location in the cavernous corrugated iron sheds at the Eveleigh rail yards in Redfern where shooting began last October. There, in the cold dark, despite the bright sunshine outside, the All Saints crew had created a tangle of wreckage complete with tilted and torn train carriages.

The shooting schedule for that day reads: Interior—train carriage #1 day. The train in a tunnel/crashes/lights flicker/bodies strewn/mangled mess. This is not, you may surmise, your usual television soap episode. It is All Saints' bid to continue the ratings success it saw towards the end of the fourth season when it pulled in an average of more than 2 million viewers in the five capital cities when the serial rapist was finally exposed.

The challenges of making an action-packed special, says producer Di Drew, were "a quantum leap of at three to four times the ask of a normal episode". And that includes the cost, which is normally about $200,000 an episode.

Drew, who was an All Saints director in the early days, says her first reaction when the writing team came to her with the train crash scenario was, "Gosh, that's going to be challenging from a production cost point of view".

At that point, though, the earth hadn't moved: "That came later as a result of me going to State Rail to ask if there was any way they could help us because to get what you saw out there—trains and derailment and all the rest—I needed their support.

"Naturally they were concerned about their profile and standing in community and they said that as long as the tragedy is [the result] of natural causes we can probably help you—that's when we came up with the earth tremor."

But why begin a new season with a blockbuster special that feels so much like a traditional finale? Drew: "If you've got a show as successful as this has been and you want to keep it successful you've got to keep rising to challenges. It does feel like a finale, yes, but I think the philosophy behind it was to say here we are, back bigger and stronger and better than ever… This is saying 'here we are guys, we've got you by the throat and we'll take you even further'."

It is an odd sensation to arrive at the set for breakfast at 6.45am to find the "canteen" area full of the walking wounded. These are the people who, for about $17 an hour, provide the non-speaking parts, the people in the background, of any television show.

There are elderly men with great bloody gashes on their heads and young boys with glistening, open wounds tucking heartily into bacon and eggs. The make-up department has already been hard at work.

One of the runners, Greg "Kiwi" Holm, is receiving orders from the director and assistant directors to get things moving for the first scene of the day, a mass evacuation of the tunnel in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

The set has been built in one of the old repair yards and is a combination of flimsy wooden facades and heavy black drapes to create a startlingly real facsimile of a train tunnel.

Nick LaMond, an extra who is dressed as a policeman, says the main talent you have to have in his job is patience. LaMond, who had arrived in Australia only a week previously from his home in Cape Town, South Africa, had only gone to an extras agency at 4.30pm the previous afternoon: "I've done some work like this back home," he says as we wait for the scene to begin. "I enjoy it but you really do have to be patient. It's good for a lot of standing around. But, hey, nobody likes cops anyway."

Unlike the extras, the rest of the crew is engaged in a seemingly endless round of checks, assessments of sound and vision, camera angles, make-up touch-ups; standing with the extras is like being in the calm, clear eye of a hurricane.

Finally they are ready to shoot the scene. Director Peter Fisk is outside the set, watching everything on the three monitors that capture the different camera angles. The smoke machine belches, there are sparks flying as a workman uses a cutting tool on the mangled train wreckage and the injured, dazed passengers begin appearing out of the gloom like zombies in the Night of the Living Dead.

In the organised chaos, ambos, policemen and orange-suited SES workers dash here and there among the wounded. They dash here and there again as a minor aspect of the scene is changed, and then again, and again. And then the director appears and jokes: "That's a scene. Let's stop before it gets any better."

Beth Porter, the make-up supervisor, and her team then enter like bees around a hive, darting in to tidy up the actors, to make that head cut glisten. On pouches around their waists are the manifold tools of their trade, including—for continuity purposes—huge swathes of Polaroid pictures of actors and extras alike. Extras who will be coming back tomorrow have their photographs taken just before they leave, too; it's not a good look if that gash over the left eye jumps across to the right eye in another scene.

Among those coming back the next day are two 11-year-old boys on school holidays, a couple of students, a Sydney fireman and a nurse unit manager taking long service leave to try to break into the acting profession.

This last "extra" is Leo Domigan, who left home in Mona Vale at 5.15am that morning and is appearing in an amateur production that night. Domigan says he's taking the time off work to "go for it". He says: "I've always wanted to act and don't want to get to a point in my life when I say 'what if I had tried that?'"

Nurse Vivian Mullan, on the other hand, is in it for other reasons. Mullan, 27, from Sans Souci, worked for Ansett for 10 years before being laid off last year and found her hobby turning into a way to pay the bills. That said, she was still adamant that acting—despite appearing as an extra in Water Rats, Home and Away, and previous All Saints episodes—was not her long-term goal: "Most people want to go into acting but I just do it as a hobby. It's much more fun that way. I just love doing it."

At lunch I am admonished for poking around in the spare parts box. "Don't touch the dead heads, please," says a crew member with a growl. The heads, along with a few spare hands, are in a box near the table loaded with plastic containers of stage blood.

In just the first few days of filming they used gallons of blood; it's that sort of show. Now blood, you might think, is blood. But don't you believe it; scratch blood is different from gushing blood. And the stage blood you put in your mouth has a minty taste. This is different from dark, pumping blood, which is sometimes darkened with a bit of coffee. At one point I hear someone exclaim: "Isn't that a great gushing wound?"

There is a bit of excitement later that afternoon when part of a foam and woodchip set collapses on some actors as they play out a scene in a carriage that is supposedly in danger of collapsing. Talk about art imitating life imitating art. Nobody is hurt but director Peter Fisk isn't amused: "I want some professionals in there to rebuild the set; I'm not sending actors into that."

It is a minor hiccup in a day that proceeds without a hint of panic. When I leave late in the afternoon Fisk has moved into the set to organise a bit of panic. He is standing on a milk crate with a filter mask perched on the top of his head (to keep out the dust and smoke special effects) and shouting through a loudhailer.

Finally, here is a scene that recalls the directorial days of yore. But instead of "cue the chariots and part the waves" he is yelling: "Too many people are running to the left of camera… and can we have a puff more smoke down there please, David?

Keith Austin
February 05, 2002
Photos: Narelle Autio