Mcleod's Daughters: articles

Women take the reins

The cattle droving scene must be filmed before the rain hits. A voice yells "There will be no rehearsal" and there is a pause before another chips in "Cattle don't rehearse". Several takes are done before storm clouds move in, announcing the impending deluge. Another voice yells "Prepare for rain" and the military operation begins. Crew members cover cameras and lights with plastic, a huge umbrella goes over the tea and coffee trolley stocked with winter necessities—vitamin C, echinacea and instant soup—and the cast make a dash for cover. It's time to break for lunch.

Such are the realities of filming a series entirely on location. The weather can be your friend and foe, animals aren't particularly good at taking directions, let alone rehearsing, and there is no studio to protect you from the elements. But the rural setting, with all its riches and constraints, is the essence of Channel Nine's 22-part family drama, McLeod's Daughters.

The story unfolds around the Drovers Run cattle station in South Australia, run by half-sisters Claire and Tess McLeod, played by Lisa Chappell (Shortland Street) and Bridie Carter (Above the Law), and their all-female workforce.

The series is based on Nine's highest-rating telemovie of all time, which screened in May 1996 and starred Kym Wilson, Tammy McIntosh and Jack Thompson as their father, Jack.

McLeod's Daughters stands out for several reasons: five women are in the lead roles, it is shot entirely on location and it is the first Australian drama series being shot on a wide-screen high-definition digital TV format.

The series is the brainchild of  producer Posie Graeme-Evans (a co-creator of the children's show Hi-5) and her partner, co-producer Andrew Blaxland, who run Millennium Pictures.

Graeme-Evans is larger than life. She exudes passion and creativity. Her mind gallops like a horse in the highland. She says the telemovie was always meant to be a pilot for either a series, or a series of movies, "but the times turned against us".

"It's driven us crazy," Graeme-Evans says. "We've been working on this since 1992 and something that's really big and out of the ordinary—which I think McLeod's has always been—they're the hardest asks of all because you're asking the network to take a really big punt and that's scary."

To say that she is a touch nervous is an understatement. "There is a lot of pressure on us, a lot of pressure on us, a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure on everyone," she says.

Graeme-Evans wanted to create a rural series with a predominantly female cast so she could explore the lives and aspirations of modern Australian women, drawing her inspirations from the SA landscape, blue skies and R.M. Williams hats.

The series is filmed on a 55-hectare farm on the outskirts of Gawler, one hour north of Adelaide. The  property's 145-year-old homestead was used in the telemovie and Nine felt the success of making  the series hinged on filming on a working farm, so it bought the property in 1999—before the series received the green light in  2000.

The story begins when Tess inherits half of Drovers Run after Jack's death and returns to the property after nearly 20 years of city life to sell her share to Claire. Then the ripples begin.

Joining Chappell and Carter in the lead roles are Sonia Todd as the housekeeper Meg Fountain, Rachael Carpani as her daughter, Jodi, and Jessica Napier as "Jill of all trades" Becky Howard.

The leading men, played by Aaron Jeffery and Myles Pollard, are brothers Alex and Nick Ryan, who live on the neighboring property Killarney. Their father, Harry, is played by Marshall Napier (Jessica's father).

New Zealand-born Chappell, who admits being a "city chick", looks very much the outback girl in her country gear playing Claire.

"She's this amazing woman who has no idea she's an amazing woman,'' Chappell says. "She sees herself as just a bit of a bloke and she can do a man's job as well as a man.

"The moment Tess walks in, her whole life changes in so many profound ways." Chappell says Claire and Tess "are like chalk and cheese, but the longer you get to know them, I think they have quite a bit in common".

The word around the set is that Jeffery jokes about being "the male in the chick-flick sandwich". When asked about his assessment, he laughs. "Who said that? That's my quote."

Jeffery, who describes Alex "as the quintessential Australian larrikin outback character", is quite content taking a back seat to the women.

"It's awesome that the women have the lead roles," Jeffery says. "It's good for me because the stuff I do will stand out because I'm one of the main male characters."

The filming schedule runs from April to October and with it Graeme-Evans has aimed to bring big-screen qualities to television; the series is shot on Super 16mm film and it is lit like a feature film by using available sources of natural light. "We're doing all this in six days, on film and on location—the biggest ask of all."

The series has three directors: Donald Crombie (Selkie, Caddie) Kay Pavlou (love is a four letter word) and Chris Martin-Jones (The Saddle Club).  The production designer, Tony Cronin (Shine, Innocence), worked on the telemovie.

When asked about the challenges of filming 22 episodes on location, Graeme-Evans retorts: "Have you ever worked with pigs? To get complex action with animals is one of the biggest challenges we have to face because you never know what you're going to get."

Blaxland illustrates the point with a script that calls for a bull to snort and charge. "Try to persuade a bull do that on cue," he says.

Playing a pivotal role in the production is wrangler Bill Willoughby—the "Aussie cowboy"—who supplies horses and livestock, and manages the action scenes.

Willoughby has worked in films for 20 years as a wrangler or stunt double on major Australian movies, such as Breaker Morant, Gallipoli, The Man from Snowy River and Phar Lap.

If someone was made for the job, it was him. "I was born and reared on outback stations—back of Bourke, so to speak. I never saw a set of traffic lights until I was 16," he says in his Aussie drawl.

Willoughby taught the cast their farming skills, such as riding horses, shearing, mustering and drenching, and worked closely with Chappell to build a relationship with her character's dog, Roy.

Graeme-Evans and Blaxland set up Millennium Television to produce McLeod's Daughters, which is a co-production with Nine Films and Television and produced with assistance from the South Australian Film Corporation. The series has been bought by the prestigious American Hallmark network, which has a local channel on Foxtel, and will give Graeme-Evans the big audience she craves.

When asked if her series is a chick flick, she bursts out laughing. "At its heart it's big, romantic, escapist, hopefully funny, hopefully sexy in a way that's amusing, adroit.

"It is driven by women in the same way Sex and the City is driven by women? The blokes in Sex and the City inform what happens with the women so I'd be devastated if we didn't get a male audience as well. I genuinely want the broadest audience we can lay our hands on. I want them all. I just want to make them laugh and cry."

McLeod's Daughters premieres on Wednesday on Channel Nine at 7.30pm

Suzanne Carbone travelled to South Australia courtesy of Channel Nine

By Suzanne Carbone
Thursday 2 August 2001
The Age