East West 101: articles

Personal best

"IT was pretty gruelling; unrelenting in the amount to be shot each day, but the reward is being able to work in such a sophisticated way. This is, I think, the best work I've done," director Peter Andrikidis says. A little wearily, he's speaking of season three of the remarkable SBS crime series East West 101, which starts its final group of six episodes next month. "At SBS, you operate with a sense of genuine freedom and creative control," he says. "Unlike with commercial managements, you sit at screenings with SBS heavies and they talk about what they like, rather than what's wrong with what you've done."

Andrikidis directed all 20 episodes in the series, and all were photographed by his long-time friend and collaborator, cinematographer Joe Pickering. Their passion and personality fill every frame. The series was produced by Steve Knapman and writer Kris Wyld, with whom Andrikidis first worked on Wildside, the stunning ABC police procedural series that ran from 1997 to 1999. That's where he began to develop his distinctive aesthetic built around multiple cameras and the use of long, or telephoto, lenses. He enjoys playing with their shallow focus, compressed space, and the narrow angle of view, and like movie directors Tony Scott and Michael Mann, he likes to stack his framing with a kind of painterly flatness.

"Wildside took Peter out of his comfort zone; before he was a shot planner and he had to throw away everything and start again," says Knapman, who produced Wildside. "It was a revelation to him, but the seemingly improvised style was the only way we could get the damn thing shot. That jaggedness was less a stylistic choice than a necessity."

Inventive, energetic, and seemingly tireless on set, Andrikidis has been responsible for some of this country's best TV drama, usually with the hyperactive Pickering behind the lens. But he is oddly self-deprecating when it comes to talking about himself, happier possibly to let his cameras speak. "Peter learned early on that the camera is, ultimately, the crucial link between a filmmaker and the audience; become intimate with camera lenses and you are well on your way to becoming a visually compelling filmmaker," says Knapman.

Think of defining TV series in the last couple of decades and you quickly come to the name Andrikidis. He is arguably our best director. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School in film direction in 1981 and was immediately recruited to Crawford Productions where, like so many in the TV industry, he learned his commercial trade on its factory floor. He moved to the ABC, working as director and producer on the medical drama series GP, which earned him his first AFI Award. It was followed by Wildside, with two of the episodes he directed winning eight AFI Awards. The incisive satire Grass Roots, written by Geoffrey Atherden, was his next series, winning seven AFI Awards, including best direction. And he directed the early defining episodes of the original ground-breaking true crime series Underbelly.

Always restlessly inventive, Andrikidis developed a style for Underbelly in which Melbourne's gangland war was rendered with urgent, violent reality. At times you felt as if you were watching the crim's own home movies from a decade earlier, or police film shot at murder scenes. "Underbelly changed a lot of things, breaking all the rules -- sex, violence and language -- and two million people watched," the director says.

But I think he's right to believe East West 101, which first went to air just over three years ago, is his greatest achievement. This startling third series completes a trilogy of exemplary storytelling and while shot on smaller budgets, is as good as anything out of the famed HBO stable, which includes Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and True Blood. If people discover that it's on -- SBS is never good at blowing its own trumpet -- it will become a series that fans become evangelical about, desperate for others to share the experience.

The first season dramatised the ambiguity inherent in the search for truth, meaning and citizenship in the post-9/11 world. It introduced Muslim detective Zane Malik of the Major Crime Squad, acted with conviction by now heart-throb Don Hany, a hard-boiled hero who has to decide what kind of justice can be accomplished in the ambiguous cultural world of modern Australia. His off-sider is detective Sonny Koa, played by the mesmerising Aaron Fa'aoso. He is the guardian angel on Malik's shoulder. And his boss is the ambitious detective Inspector Patricia Wright, given steely life by Susie Porter.

The second season examined the ethical, political and emotional problems of illegal immigration; the third season explores the ramifications of the so-called war against terror through crimes committed in Australia. What went on during the war in the opium fields of the Chora Valley in Afghanistan and the collateral damage to civilians in Takrit in northern Iraq comes home to the streets of Lakemba and into the crowded malls of Cabramatta.

At the beginning of the first episode Andrikidis and his police advisers stage a violent armed robbery with a show-stopping bravado that leaves you breathless. ("Three or four thousand rounds were fired that day," says Knapman.) Superbly realised on a budget of this size, it's like a scene from an expensive war movie, full of kinetic energy and violent choreography. (Andrikidis says he and Pickering watched Mann's Heat for the visual tone for the heist.)

Four men are killed and $36 million stolen in a military-style operation. One of the dead, a balaclava-wearing robber, is Middle Eastern, a mysterious figure with international connections. Was the theft committed by terrorists to fund an act of terror in Australia, or the deadly act of professional crooks? But the shoot-out also has devastating consequences for Malik when his wife and son are involved in a car accident on the same day. Like the rest of the series this season is constructed around delicious circles within circles and any appearance of rational order is transformed into a labyrinth of deceit that entraps its victims.

From the start East West 101 has been a highly ingenious version of the traditional detective story, juxtaposing the procedural pursuit of criminals by the cops with the highly personal need for vengeance and retribution by its protagonist. And it is set, and brilliantly realised, against the fear that exists between East and West, as Malik searches for a sense of authenticity and finally redemption.

I can't think of any show across three series that has taken as many risks as this epic production with story, casting or aesthetics. Certainly no crime series has been such a guilty pleasure for viewers.

The series looks like a big-budget action feature film but the experience of viewing it is like reading a big political novel with a profound cultural subtext, disguised as a police procedural. This third series cuts through the recent acrimonious, sometimes rather rancid, debate on Muslim immigration to the humanity and commonality of those who have settled here. It's good, too, even denser in concept and more fiercely cinematic than the first two series, playing with the conventions of cop shows and continually questioning some aspect of law, justice or the way society is run.

The problems of guilt and complicity, of menace and victimisation, are never absent in East West's almost nightmarish landscape, composed all of angularities and shadows in Andrikidis's inspired direction. (It's no accident that another visual reference is Ingmar Berman's Wild Strawberries, with its expressionistic dream sequences and flashbacks.) It's a setting that exudes negative, antagonistic force. In this landscape Malik is a kind of mythic hero (Knapman loves his classical allusions), like the last just man whose integrity is also his alienation.

The writing is minimalist (the first episode is by Michael Miller), engineered to surprise viewers rather than spoon feed them, and Andrikidis had to realise scripts that are unusually layered with character. "Never let the audience get ahead of you is my big thing," he says. He has a gift for directing scenes in such a manner that, however exaggerated the basic premise, the more literal and exact are the proceedings that flow from it. Andrikidis is so on top of his material it's impossible to double-guess him. He surprises you with his set-ups and the way he positions his cameras, and also with his choice of lenses and the style of coverage.

His cameras enter the consciousness of the characters, often on Pickering's shoulder and inside the action, like another character. They zoom and frantically swing as if carried by the police or those trying to escape them. At other times Andrikidis uses static wide shots, the camera subjectively hovering to imply tension, shock and especially grief.

Then there is the distinctive voyeuristic tracking coverage for what he calls the "who is watching whom" sequences. But he's good, too, at insisting at times on remaining cool and composed. Some scenes hover on the verge of abstraction and are quite formally beautiful.

As in the earlier series, Andrikidis finds his locations in glassy, impersonal offices, dank suburban streets, electrical sub stations and sordid railway sidings, discovering "beauty in the unplanned architectural mess that is Sydney". Again there is that distinctly Islamic tinge to the mis-en-scene, pictorially using mosques, streets of veiled women, Muslim bookshops and prayer sessions. It's an Australia we never see on TV elsewhere.

The son of a Greek father and an Australian mother, Andrikidis went straight from high school to film school at 17 (a short film he made for his HSC art course gained him admission). "My grandparents lived in the house until they passed away, Greeks who went to Egypt during the war and lost everything and came here with one suitcase, so it was a pretty hectic upbringing," he says, wincing slightly.

He's proud of the fact East West is the series that most accurately represents the face of this country, with the mixed races evident on most city streets. Much of the show was shot in the suburb of Auburn, the most multicultural area in Sydney.

"When we shot in the streets people left their houses and gave us cakes and celebrated with us; it was like a street party it was so supportive." Andrikidis always argues for different faces when he works on commercial TV; that casting needs what he calls "defined" faces. "And the only way to do that -- like the British and the Americans do -- is to have people of different backgrounds. It should be an easy ask because not everyone is blue-eyed and blond with shiny white teeth."

He believes less creative interference from the commercial networks is the key to the future of local TV drama. Not that he's particularly optimistic. "I don't think I could work in that atmosphere again, certainly not as much as I used to, especially when it comes to treating stories realistically."

But his East West producer, himself disillusioned with commercial TV, has the last word. "Peter likes being on set. He doesn't like being in a room thinking about stuff; he wants to be out doing it," Knapman says. "He's very practical in that way. He wants to keep working and he does."

East West 101, season three, starts Wednesday, April 20, 8.30pm.

By Graeme Blundell
March 12, 2011
The Australian