Fireflies: articles

Tanner and Sims

A burning sensation: Libby Tanner and Jeremy Sims.

Bright sparks

Complex, intelligent scripts and a star-studded cast make the ABC’s Fireflies the most keenly anticipated drama in years. Richard Jinman reports.

Duffys Forest is no stranger to bushfires. A sleepy pocket of residential blocks and small farms on Sydney’s northern fringe, it’s almost completely surrounded by the vast green contours of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

This cordon of bushland is picturesque, but potentially lethal, too. On January 10, the suburb’s residents faced an anxious wait as firefighters battled spot fires in the most recent blaze to threaten their community. The fires were brought under control three days later, but at this time of the year, no one can afford to be complacent.

Duffys Forest seems an appropriate place to film Fireflies, a new ABC drama series set in the fictional community of Lost River. Here, firefighting and membership of the Rural Fire Service—the volunteer organisation that boasts 69,000 members in NSW—are an essential part of life. There’s an unwritten rule: if you want to be part of the community, you need to be part of the RFS.

That’s immediately apparent to Lill Yengill (former All Saints star Libby Tanner), who has moved to Lost River with her psychologist husband Perry Luscombe (John Waters) to “have kids, chooks and a flower garden”. Eager to fit in, Lill signs up with the local RFS, led by “Backa” Burke (Jeremy Sims). Backa’s younger brother, Joey (Christopher Morris), and his girlfriend, Fifi Sharp (Nadia Townsend), are also committed members of the brigade, but Backa’s Russian wife, Svettie (Natasha Novak), wants nothing to do with an organisation that distracts her husband from his financial woes and failing marriage.

I arrive on the Fireflies set in Duffys Forest with a sense of anticipation. The firefighting scenes in the 90-minute telemovie that introduces the series are frighteningly realistic, so I’m expecting to see flames and firetrucks. The impact and veracity of the fire scenes are largely due to the involvement of the NSW Rural Fire Service. It trained the Fireflies cast and crew in firefighting techniques and provided the scriptwriters with advice and real-life scenarios. A blaze in a macadamia nut plant in Byron Bay, for example, was the inspiration for a compressed-fuel factory fire in an episode of Fireflies.

The RFS also lent fire trucks and hundreds of its members signed on as extras. When the producers needed to shoot a fire sequence, the RFS organised hazard-reduction burn-offs in the Warringah, Hornsby and Baulkham Hills shires.

Says Sims: “A lot of times when you do fires on television they put gas pipes behind bits of wood—it’s all a bit tame. These guys [the RFS] say, ‘These 10 acres are gone.’ They light it up and suddenly there’s 10 metres of flame in front of you.”

In another confronting scene, the cast practised their firefighting skills by extinguishing a burning gas cylinder in the grounds of the Duffys Forest RFS station. The manoeuvre is known as the Five Man Fog Attack. Morris, an amiable 29-year-old actor from the Gold Coast, who mainly worked in theatre and American telemovies prior to his Fireflies role, reckons it was his scariest moment to date.

“There was this big roaring flame that we had to lean over and turn off,” he says. “We were like, ‘Hey, we’re a bunch of actors; we’re not ready for this.”’

Sadly, the only things blazing on the Fireflies set during my visit are the mid-morning sun and Morris’s fluorescent yellow firefighter’s trousers. The cameras—the series is shot on 16mm film—are inside Lill and Perry’s cabin, a spartan holiday home constructed in a paddock overlooking the national park. It’s a night scene, so the building has been cloaked in heavy black cloth to shut out the light.

John Waters sits alone at a table clutching the remains of a martini. Judging by the empty bottles in front of him, it isn’t his first. When Tanner appears at the door, her hair wet from an imaginary shower, his boozy irritation boils over.

“Nah, I don’t want to hear it,” he snaps. “I’m sick of this…” Waters struggles to his feet and lurches towards the bedroom. The director yells, “Cut!”

An argument between a married couple may not have the adrenaline-pumping quality of a bushfire, but it’s a feisty piece of drama nonetheless. It’s also representative of Fireflies as a whole, which is “80 per cent drama and 20 per cent action,” according to Sims.

That ratio would please the series’ producer, John Edwards, who says Fireflies is character-driven and will live or die on the quality of its drama, not its action scenes.

“It’s a writerly piece; it’s a bit Raymond Carver-ish,” says Edwards, a multiple Logie winner who created two of the nation’s most successful primetime dramas in Police Rescue and The Secret Life of Us. “The writing is the place we start. There are six main characters and six subsidiary characters—if we don’t believe them, we’ve got nothing to say.”

Luckily, this co-production between the ABC, Southern Star and Austar has a big-hitter in the writing department—John O’Brien. His credits include MDA and Water Rats and he oversees a team of seven writers.

They’re employing a US scriptwriting model—the one Edwards used to create The Secret Life of Us—which gives writers more control over their work. Instead of surrendering early drafts to a script editor and moving on to the next job, the writers are involved right up to the shoot. The final step is a six-hour “tone meeting”, which tries to ensure the writer’s original intentions—or “the minutiae of what you don’t want cocked up”, as Edwards puts it—are still intact.

Fireflies, which has already been dubbed “SeaChange meets Police Rescue”, will screen on the ABC in the 7.30pm Saturday slot. Sims wishes it was 8.30pm to allow a bit more “f---ing and fighting”, but Edwards insists the early hour has not forced the writers to pull any punches.

“We’ve not restrained anything,” he says. “We’re just making the show. It’s a night the ABC can win and they’re going after it. When they showed Monarch of the Glen it got a million people and that’s a big deal for the ABC.”

Sims says he was drawn to Fireflies by the quality of the writing (as well as the concentrated six-month shooting schedule that leaves him free to pursue theatre work). He believes it’s the complexity and moral ambiguity of the characters that give the show its edge.

Fireflies carries the tagline “everyday heroes”, but this isn’t an attempt to mythologise firefighters or find quirky humour in their exploits. The main characters are all flawed. Backa, for example, uses the RFS as an escape from his crumbling marriage and business. Sitting in a fire truck, racing towards a fire, he feels in charge and in control, sensations absent from the rest of his life. Joey has got Fifi pregnant but can barely afford to support a family; Perry is trying to balance the demands of Lill and his ex-wife. Svettie feels angry and hopelessly alienated—the unloved foreigner marooned in a hostile backwater.

Sims relishes the fact his character isn’t the stereotypical “bloke from the bush” celebrated in endless television commercials. “Backa is an Australian male,” he says. “He comes from a country town, but he went to university and he’s lived in Sydney. He’s travelled. He’s not a bumpkin, he’s an intelligent, opinionated Australian male with all of the anxieties and issues that go with that.”

He also acknowledges that the RFS is the place Backa goes to dodge his responsibilities. “Most Australian men spend half their lives running away from their responsibilities,” he says. “The RFS is his garden shed. That makes it anti-heroic, which I like. He’s fighting the fire, but really he should be at home fighting a different fire.”

Tanner, in her first television appearance since relinquishing the Logie-winning role of Bron in All Saints last year, agrees it’s all about the writing. “It’s not formulaic or all spelled out,” she says. “We [the actors] have to work a bit more. You don’t just read it and know exactly what’s going on. It’s much more interesting for an actor to play the scene rather than just be a talking head.”

The NSW Rural Fire Service says it is delighted with the series, despite its warts-and-all approach. It got involved about two years ago, when O’Brien called its media officer, Cameron Wade, to get some background information. NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Phil Koperberg decided someone had to ensure the organisation’s “policies and procedures” were followed during filming and Wade got the job. He says the RFS has always accepted it would not be a sugar-coated portrait.

“We have to be realistic,” Wade says. “There has to be relationship problems and there are arguments and disagreements in the brigade. One of the things that Svettie says is, ‘There’s always another bloody fire, another meeting and another training session.’ When we showed that scene to the volunteers they all recognised it as the truth.”

Not surprisingly, Wade agrees with the series’ premise that the RFS is the glue that holds many rural communities together. “We’ve got 2400 brigades covering 90 per cent of NSW,” he says. “That’s 1200 towns and villages. People have moved into a new community and told us that the RFS is what’s holding it together.”

The organisation hopes the series will help recruitment, particularly in rural areas. “The city brigades are quite full, but we do need members in the country,” Wade says. “It should also promote an understanding of what we ask volunteers to do.”

Sitting at his desk in the Fireflies production office in Artarmon, Edwards can barely contain his excitement about the new series. He has a theory that the glut of reality television has “attuned people’s bullshit meters”—in other words, viewers are less willing to accept the rather artificial plot conventions that characterised much TV drama in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He hopes the gutsy realism of Fireflies will satisfy this new mood.

But he admits it’s a gamble. He has no idea if the series will win the hearts and minds of an ABC audience accustomed to lighter material such as Monarch of the Glen.

“I’m terrified a lot of the traditional ABC audience will think we’re too edgy,” he says. “It’s sharper than what’s been done in this timeslot in the past. It’s sexier [than they’re used to]. It’s a lot darker than SeaChange and we don’t have any larger-than-life comic characters. It doesn’t refer to any traditional models of Australian television.”

Fireflies begins on Saturday on the ABC at 7.30pm.

By Richard Jinman
February 4, 2004
Sydney Morning Herald