The Hollowmen: articles


Power players ... (from left) Lachy Hulme, Neil Melville and Rob Sitch in the highest office.

Capital punishment

In the nation's capital, behind the smiling politicians and organised mayhem of parliamentary debate, sits a group of grey-suited, faceless artisans who shape public policy. They are, according to the new satirical comedy The Hollowmen, "unafraid, uncompromising, unelected".

Of those three tags, "unelected" is the most significant. Rob Sitch, who co-wrote and co-produced the series with long-time collaborators Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, says it stemmed from the idea that we elect our members of parliament but not the machinery that comes with them.

Produced by Working Dog for the ABC, The Hollowmen stars Sitch, Cilauro, Lachy Hulme, Neil Melville, Merrick Watts and David James. It is set in an internal thinktank, "the Central Policy Unit", which develops long-term government policy. Tonally it echoes Frontline, Working Dog's much-loved 1994 satire of commercial current affairs. Its true genesis, however, lies in a documentary Cilauro produced in 1996, The Campaign, which followed Paul Keating and his media entourage on the election trail.

Sitch says they revisited the idea about eight years ago when they considered making a series about an independent politician. "But after lots of research, all we kept pointing out as we plotted the idea is how removed from power someone like that had become," he says.

"The points we were wanting to make kept gravitating towards the prime minister's office and, in a way, away from elected officials."

Contemporary politics, Sitch says, is somewhat at odds with the power structure implied in the constitution. "Politics has become so efficient and professional in so many ways ... it's run more like a corporation - a CEO, a board and lots of internal feedback."

The title, he says, does not come from the T.S. Eliot poem, although lines such as "shape without form, shade without colour/paralysed force, gesture without motion" seem to fit the theme of Canberra's shallow, faceless policy makers. "I only found about [the poem] a few years ago," Sitch says, "and I nodded sagely and looked it up on Google."

In fact the title comes from another abandoned television idea, about a man whose words were entirely at odds with what is truly meant - a familiar calling card in the world of politics. "It didn't go anywhere but we loved the name, and it sums up the point we're making," Sitch says.

A hallmark of the series is its use of handheld cameras, a technique pioneered to some extent in Frontline. The series is filmed by Cilauro and an assistant cameraman and directed by Sitch. As with Frontline, the handheld technique is not overplayed. "I think a lot of things which are shot handheld are constantly pointing out they're handheld," Sitch says. "They're saying to the audience, 'Don't forget we're handheld', whereas Santo's style is much gentler than that. Sometimes you forget it is handheld when you watch it back."

Cilauro describes the working process as one of constant reworking and rewriting. "The idea goes through so many different stages and quite a bit of evolution," he says. "You improve it after the read-through and when you're actually shooting it can be either fixed up by performance or fixing up a few lines but it can also be fixed up by shooting it in the right way. The editing stage is yet another draft. I think that's at the very essence of why we pick up a camera and shoot it ourselves."

A key element to the Working Dog process is that the writers (Cilauro, Sitch and Gleisner) remain in the editing room throughout the post-production process. It makes sense, Sitch says, when you consider filming and editing are simply another part of the writing process. "There is hardly a comedy which isn't done on that model now, with everyone in the editing room and I think there is a good reason comedians jumped all over that," he says. "There are lots of ways things can fall off the track and in editing you can put them back on track."

On set, the most striking aspect of the production, apart from the beige colour scheme, is the detail. Key sets, including the PM's office, have been duplicated from their real-life counterparts. A case, Cilauro says, of getting the little things right so the big things will follow. "We've always been sticklers for that stuff," he says. "If the reality doesn't work, then the believability in the characters won't work and if you don't believe in the characters, the jokes won't work and then the observations won't work.

"It's a house of cards. Once you get the believability of the situation and people right, the observations and jokes flow from that."

In The Hollowmen, the prime minister is never named nor is his party identified. It's neutrality of a sort but the show can hardly be accused of fence sitting - at times, its examination of policy machinations is scathing.

"The point can be marginalised if you make it about one party," Sitch says. "I don't think that will stop a lot of people pointing in one direction or the other. Our point is that a lot of the left and right is a very clever distraction from the fact that the political class have remade our politics.

"We were thinking about it a lot last year when the election was in play and one of the nice things we discovered is that it doesn't matter who won. Once a good technique pops up, both sides are onto it."

Cilauro says the change of government was a "nice coincidence" but agrees with Sitch that the show should not be seen to be about a particular party. "The way things have evolved over the past 10 years, this show could be set in the immediate past or future - there is no difference," he says.

"With Frontline, it wasn't a ground-breaking discovery that TV stations were more interested in ratings than the stories they did but people looked at it and went, 'We're not the only ones who think that.' These people had been sprung by all of us."

If one of the measures of Frontline's success was the reaction it got from thin-skinned current affairs producers, surely ruffled feathers in Canberra will be the measure of The Hollowmen's success. Cilauro and Sitch aren't so sure.

"It's like the Mafia - they quite enjoy being the centre of attention," Cilauro says. "You don't think the guys in Underbelly weren't rapt to have a show about them? I think there are few idealists in there who might get angry but it is a comedy, it is a distortion of things, we are exaggerating at the facts - that's just how a joke works."

Sitch agrees: "One of the things about Frontline is that when we put it to air, a lot of current affairs people said, 'What's the problem? It's worse than that.' I think there is a better chance someone [in Canberra] will get a laugh out of it. It's still a comedy and one of the things I have discovered about them, on the highest level, is their gallows humour."

The Hollowmen begins on ABC1 on Wednesday at 9.30pm.

Michael Idato
July 7, 2008
Sydney Morning Herald