Changi: articles

Humor v. horror

The call goes out for "More sweat". A handful of women from the make-up department, wielding plastic spray bottles filled with a mixture of water and canola oil, descend on the vegetable garden and squirt the actors with greasy liquid.

The cast, who have been shooting the ABC miniseries, Changi, for six weeks, are accustomed to such affronts to their complexions. They're playing prisoners of war in the six-part series written by John Doyle and, as they recreate life in the Selerang barracks of the World War II Japanese prison camp, the canola sprays have rarely been far away.

In the suburb of Ingleside, just off the main road that winds up to Sydney's northern beaches, a scene from the fifth episode is being shot.

Now four years into their captivity, the prisoners, suffering the effects of ill-health and deprivation, are working under the impassive gaze of the guards.

Between takes, the six key cast members - Matthew Newton, Anthony Hayes, Leon Ford, Mark Priestley, Stephen Curry and Matthew Whittet - sit together in the sunshine, having a smoke, chatting haltingly to their Japanese co-stars and joining impromptu singalongs of TV show themes.

Today, it's Diff'rent Strokes, but Curry says that the extensive repertoire runs to a range of "classics, like Hey Dad, Family Ties and Growing Pains".

There's a feeling of casual camaraderie on the set, presided over by director Kate Woods (Looking for Alibrandi, The Farm). That seems appropriate, given the series' thesis that the nature of the Australians - their resourcefulness, mateship and, above all, humor - helped them to survive the brutality, boredom and starvation of incarceration.

"The word Changi has such a resonance in the community," observes Doyle.

"It conjures up all sorts of horrific experiences, the imagery we have of it, of skeletal blokes, many without limbs, with grins on their faces. It was those images that made it incredibly interesting to me and I wanted to know about the spirit of those blokes."

About five minutes away, up on a hill in a disused quarry, sits the imposing reconstruction of the prison camp's exteriors, the facades of three large buildings representing the barracks and the camp commander's office. It's eerily quiet today, with the rising sun flag blowing in the breeze, the vintage jeeps standing idle. At the foot of the hill, Doyle is sitting at a trestle table under a big tent - where the crew of 70 and 12 extras have recently eaten lunch - and talking about the script that he's nursed for five years, an ambitious drama-comedy-musical that he calls an "adventure of the innocents".

Listening to him discuss the development of this cherished project is a slightly surreal experience because Doyle sounds a lot like his voluble alter ego, "Rampaging" Roy Slaven. For 16 years, on radio and TV, Roy, an earnestly sincere expression on his face, has specialised in proffering the most outrageous pronouncements. His blustering partner, H.G. Nelson, is full of table-thumping bombast, but Roy is serious and considered as he describes the "Battered Sav" and "Hello Boys" positions adopted by gymnasts, or why a bit of biffo is a good thing for the AFL. So, as Doyle reflects on the challenge of getting the tone right for the mini-series, and considers the problem of the upward inflection in current Australian speech patterns, initially the temptation is to suspect he might be joshing.

"The bane of my life at the moment is rising inflections," he muses. "As far as I can tell, rising inflections started to come into the language about 20 years ago and I think it's come from New Zealand. It comes from insecurity. In the '40s, nobody spoke like that, so there's been a bit of the imposition of the year 2000's inflections on the '40s dialogue, but, by and large, we're sitting on top of it."

Getting the tone right, being true to the spirit of the times, is one of the primary concerns of those working on Changi, including producer Bill Hughes (A Fortunate Life, Janus, The Farm) and director of photography Joseph Pickering (The Farm, Grass Roots).

"It does run the risk of satisfying the few and antagonising the many because a documentary style wasn't an option," Doyle explains. "It wasn't possible to explore the more graphic aspects of prison life: it was impossible to have skeletal actors with ulcers that were eating through to the bone. The central theme I was interested in exploring was why the Australians survived in disproportionately high numbers. And it was humor that kept them alive: they responded to violence with humor, and the Japanese responded to humor with more violence. And so you had this escalating thrust and parry between the two, and that's the kernel of what I'm trying to do: to stand humor beside horror, juxtapose the two and have them frequently intersect.

"This is not documentary, it's not naturalism. It's an amalgam of stories and we've put them under the one roof. None of these characters existed: no six men endured the things that these six men endure. But hundreds did in different ways. So each incident is a metaphor for events that did occur.

"Those who are looking for naturalism or documentary reportage are going to be disappointed. What I'm interested in is getting not so much the truth of what happened but the truth of the spirit of those who were there. That, to me, was a much more satisfying objective than trying to bring about any actual verisimilitude of what took place."

Doyle has chosen to tell his tale of survival and loss from the perspective of the present day, to look at the past from what he calls "the proscenium of the present characters". His story shifts around in time and it begins as the ageing survivors prepare for one of their regular reunions. Each episode focuses on one of the men's stories, and playing the old mates in the contemporary scenes are Bud Tingwell, Frank Wilson, Terry Norris, Slim de Grey, Bill Kerr and Desmond Kelly. As men prepare for what might be their final gathering, they each recall the wartime experiences that scarred their lives and fused their friendships.

"Memory plays all sorts of tricks with people, so you can accept that the truth of the past is bent slightly. It's a bent naturalism, and it's given a greater truth," says Doyle.

For Bill Hughes, whose reading of the early scripts convinced him that Changi could be "a stunning piece of television", Doyle's ability to lace his drama with comedy is potent and distinctive: "John is telling that story in a way that's palatable. It's difficult in that there are areas of cruelty, horror and pain, psychological and physical. As a documentary, it would be very difficult to watch. John, magically, is telling the same story but using a different spirit to get it across.

"The moment you start to feel utter despair, they break into song and dance and it's a fantasy because it's all the old men's memories. You can do things with memory because memory is selective."

There's a unanimous chorus of approval among Doyle's colleagues for his scriptwriting debut. Kate Woods says Changi is "the best piece of writing I've ever had the privilege of getting my hands on. It's got everything: drama, tragedy, comedy."

Bud Tingwell, who plays the sight-impaired property developer David, the focus of the first episode, describes it as "a dream script", while Matthew Newton, who plays young David, says: "The scripts are just terrific, really well crafted: they're multi-layered, they're funny and they're moving. It's like a beautiful ride. It floats from one to the other, jumps forward and back."

As the story shifts around in time, director Woods and DOP Pickering are working to give each era its own distinctive look, using different film stocks for different periods. Pre-war scenes are also shot with fog filters to suggest a soft, romantic innocence. Pickering has called the scenes at Changi "pretty classical", while the contemporary sequences feature a "baroque style, more fancy, wider lenses".

The miniseries' movement between tones and time periods can make for a richer texture on screen, but behind the scenes, says Hughes, it's "a producer's nightmare".

"It's huge and you can't do it quickly," he sighs. "There are usually eight or nine people in a scene. Every scene at the camp is a big production. There are singing and dancing scenes where you've got 150 people who have to be taught dance routines: it's immense."

Fourteen-hour days have been common, but the cast sing the praises of director Woods ("She's God's gift to actors," says Newton) and relish working on a well-told Australian story. "You go home from work very tired," says Stephen Curry, who's lost more than seven kilos as a result of the strict diet he and his cast mates have been on. They had to trim down for the scenes that take place during their later years at Changi.

"But the good thing is that you're not wondering what the hell you're doing: you know that you're working on something that is fantastic."

Privately, some of those working on this showcase production are concerned that this could be a last hurrah for the ABC, that a project of comparable scale and vision might not be mounted again. The original budget, according to Hughes, was "a little more than $5.5 million, nearly a million dollars an episode". Documents released last month by Communications Minister Richard Alston indicated that Changi ultimately cost $6.7 million.

Even so, the series has been the subject of a lot of whittling down. Doyle says his early drafts ran 90 minutes per episode and he had to cut them with script editor Keith Thompson. "It was really hard to say goodbye to scenes that I really loved and to characters that I really loved," says Doyle. "But Keith's experience and counsel have been first-class and I needed that sort of assistance because I'm a novice. I can forget that it's about pictures and pictures are so much more meaningful in television than words. But I'm pleased at the number of words that got through."

Bill Hughes, who was also involved in the paring-down process, recalls that "the early scripts were far too big to produce; they were huge. For instance, Eddie's father is a train driver and we see that because he's wearing a train driver's uniform as he walks into the house. Originally, what we saw was a steam train pulling up at a country station, the people piling off, Eddie's dad getting out and Eddie there, throwing stones at the sign on the station. Fantastic, because that image tells you that that's where he picked up his stone-throwing: at Changi, you see Eddie throwing stones at ducks. But we had to lose some of that texture because that 20-second scene would have taken crew travel, an overnight stay and two days to shoot."

Another option for conveying the nature of a confrontation, without recreating it, is evident in the second episode. "There was a stand-off between the Japanese and the Allies in the early days within the Selerang barracks, where the Allies were asked to sign a form saying that they would not try to escape," says Doyle. "Well, this flew in the face of the Geneva Convention and flew in the face of their orders: you had a duty to escape. So they refused to sign and 15,000 blokes were put out in the sun and stood there for days on end, until the British, I think, decided, oh, yes, well, we will sign this, but it's being signed under duress, which makes it invalid.

"It was impossible for us to convey that kind of confrontation because we don't have 15,000 extras. We don't have the resources to do that. So I chose a metaphor for this particular event, and that is: one bloke refuses to salute and you get a graphic confrontation, until it's resolved in a way that is acceptable to both sides."

In addition to celebrating the resilience, resourcefulness and "tremendously black sense of humor" among the men, Changi is also a tribute to those whose heroism Doyle believes has been overlooked. "They came back. Australia had won the war, Americans were heroes, those who fought in theatres were heroes, but those who were captured without firing a shot, of whom there were many, felt that they hadn't contributed in any way at all. So it was a very low-key welcoming home."

From where it is today, it's hard to believe that Changi started its TV life in the ABC comedy department, as a kind of sitcom: "In its earliest incarnation, what I wanted to do was to do to Japan what Hogan's Heroes had done to Germany," Doyle chuckles. But after a process that he describes as "Byzantine", it's ended up as something quite different.

And while Rampaging Roy can be counted on to have a firm view on any subject, John Doyle seems more inclined to turn things over in his mind and wonder about the whys. Why did Australian prisoners survive the war in disproportionate numbers? Why is it that "as times get bleaker, music gets more romantic?" Why and when did the upward inflection enter the local lexicon?

We'll get the benefit of his mental gymnastics from Sunday night.

Changi premieres on Sunday on the ABC at 8.30pm

Who's Who in Changi

David (Matthew Newton/Bud Tingwell)

Practical and intelligent, he disappoints his well-to-do parents when he enlists and soon after his arrival at the prison camp, experiences the brutality of his captors with near-fatal consequences.

Gordon (Anthony Hayes/Frank Wilson)

Tough and defiant, he's the only one of the main protagonists to have experienced combat before being captured.

Bill (Leon Ford/Terry Norris)

Trusting and highly compassionate, with a fiance back home, he's the academic of the group, who displays a fine mind for mathematics.

Curley (Mark Priestley/Slim de Grey)

Good-natured and fun-loving, Curley crosses Lieutenant Aso (Tsushima Gotaro) and struggles to retain his sanity when the Japanese soldier takes his revenge for a loss of honor.

Eddie (Stephen Curry/Bill Kerr)

Son of a train driver, the larrikin and joker of the group, a natural smart-arse who loves a bet.

Tom (Matthew Whittet/Desmond Kelly)

Sensitive and innocent, an artistic young man who spends his time drawing and playing the piano.

By Debi Enker
October 11, 2001
The Age