Eugénie Sandler P.I: article

TV's latest sleuth, Xaris Miller

Girl gumshoe

They're going to have to move fast. In half an hour, the senior citizens' line-dancing and aerobics classes are scheduled to start in the rooms downstairs at the Northcote Town Hall and, when they do, the sounds of country and disco music will present a problem for the crew working on Eugenie Sandler PI. A scene for the teen-oriented thriller is being shot on the staircase just above the foyer and the thumps of boot-scooting are not the ideal accompaniment for the on-screen action.

But moving fast seems fitting when it comes to this production because the 13-part adventure series with a budget of over $4 million is about a chase and a 15-year-old in peril: it could easily be titled Run Eugenie Run.

Raised as the daughter of private investigator Ray Sandler (Brett Climo), Eugenie (Xaris Miller) has grown up in Australia without knowing the truth about her past. With her devoted, if somewhat unconventional, single dad, she has lived a nomadic lifestyle as a result of his occupation, joking that she collects postcodes the way other girls collect CDs.

She might think she's a reasonably average teenager, but, as we discover early in the first episode, her mysterious history is rooted in the fictional and mist-shrouded Eastern European country of Versovia. And people from the home country, a couple of them noble and others less so, are about to make their presence felt. Some of them want her dead.

Among those in pursuit of Eugenie are shifty-looking detective Matt Gurney (Martin Jacobs), Angela Duvier (Saskia Post), the former governess to the royal family of Versovia, and a couple of flatfoots from the old country, Davorin (Alex Menglet) and Slavomir (Jasper Bagg). The latter pair are strangers in a strange land and their efforts to accomplish their mission in the alien terrain of urban Australia promises some comic relief.

All Eugenie knows is that she's suddenly and inexplicably in danger. After escaping an explosive device planted in her home, she is forced to flee and sets off to piece together the mystery of her family history and to find her father, with the aid of her intrigued classmate, Warwick (Matthew Vennell).

Created and written by David McRobbie (The Wayne Manifesto, See How They Run), the series is being shot on film and entirely on location over 13 weeks around Melbourne: in Oakleigh, Footscray and Altona, making use of disused railway carriages, abandoned warehouses, oppressive concrete walkways and back alleys.

One of the four directors, Ana Kokkinos (Head On, Only the Brave), has helped devise a gritty, distinctive look for the production, all sharp edges and odd angles, bits of slow-motion and jarring jump cuts, which heighten the sense of urgency and disorientation.

Executive producer Ewan Burnett says that the series is pitched at 14 and 15-year-olds, though creating a thriller for that age group, which could also appeal to younger viewers, has its challenges and its limitations. "The ABC is trying to reach an audience that is a little bit older than their normal eight-to-13 demographic with this type of drama," he says. "It's allowed us to be a lot more sophisticated and to have some elements of threat, although we have to be very cautious not to spill into acts of violence. There are also elements of budding romance, but without falling into sexuality. It's a very fine line."

At the heart of the action and playing the plucky heroine is relative newcomer Xaris (pronounced Haris) Miller, a year 11 student at Princes Hill Secondary College and the daughter of a drama teacher. As an eight-year-old, Miller appeared in a student film made by Kokkinos, Antamosi, and though she hasn't acted professionally since then, and doesn't have an agent, the 17-year-old was seen as ideal for Eugenie.

"She has a really wonderful, exotic, almost Eastern look," enthuses Burnett. "She's perfect for the role: an eastern European princess and an Aussie chick."

Although she hasn't yet decided if acting, and particularly television work, is her calling, Miller is pleased that the she was cast in a conscious move away from the homogeneous look of the TV soaps and glossy magazines. "I'm not the blonde stereotype," she says, before heading off to a maths tutorial during the final week of the shoot. "It's really important for younger girls to see that brunettes can get roles in television, that girls with pimples can get roles and that girls who don't have big breasts can get roles in series. Ana made an effort to cast lots of different-looking types of people and not to have that stereotyped magazine look."

For Brett Climo, who started out in television on A Country Practice and is playing his first father role, any trepidation about stepping into the realm of family viewing was quickly assuaged. "I was hesitant about working on something that might be called a kids' show because there's this connotation that its not going to be serious," he says. "But Ana was an attraction to be on board. I'm a huge fan of her film work and this is her first time doing television. The rehearsal period was probably the most extensive and intensive I've ever been through in television. She was so thorough in the character breakdowns and relationships. There is a modern take on the father-daughter relationship that I haven't seen before on television: I think it's unique.

"Visually, it's different too. It's been far more interesting working on this than it has been working on other dramas that are shot pretty much the same way. Whether you're talking about Blue Heelers, All Saints, Water Rats - and I've done them all - there's a formula, a process to their shooting style. This thing is completely left of field and it's really stimulating visually."

By 9.25am, Saskia Post has finished her single scene for the day. She departs amid good-humored cracks from the crew about how tough an actor's life can be. An hour later, Alex Menglet and Jasper Bagg - the former a riot of color in a lime green shirt, grey and yellow striped tie, red patterned waistcoat and beige trousers while his partner is more muted in browns - earn a round of applause from the crew as they complete their final scene for the shoot. By the time the line-dancers start stomping, the remaining cast and crew have moved to a first-floor hallway. There's no time to slow down if they are to get the six minutes and 20 seconds of film required for the day in the can. So Eugenie and Warwick keep running.

By Debi Enker
October 26, 2000
The Age