Rolland Pike loves a challenge – just as well because the Melbourne set decorator transformed his home town into Africa for a major new film, working closely with a Chinese director who speaks very little English. Rolland explains how he teamed up with Production Designer Jeff Thorpe to work on The Whistleblower, a Chinese-Australian co-production due out later this year.
How you describe the film?
It’s an action adventure buddy flick, with elements of thriller and industrial espionage.
How did you get involved?
There was a Chinese production designer – Oscar nominee Chung Man Yee – attached to the project. Jeff Thorpe was hired as supervising art director in Australia to work with Chung Man who was on other projects and couldn’t dedicate as much time to The Whistleblower as required. So he told Jeff to take the role of production designer. I’d been already hired as a set decorator on Jeff’s recommendation and in effect ended up working for Jeff rather than Chung Man.
How do you prepare for a film shoot that is set in a number of countries?
The film is set in Australia but also in Malawi, Africa with a short sequence in China, which they shot in China. The first thing we did was work out how to make sure the audience knew what place they were in all the time. So with Jeff we worked out colour themes for the different countries. Malawi, we imported some fabrics, rugs and furniture from there – both online and through an importer we found in Australia.
What were some of the tricks to creating Malawi in Melbourne?
Jeff designed facades we could place over existing buildings to feel like Malawi. In the city of Mzuzu in particular which we were recreating, it’s very simple architecture. Everything gets aged and weather beaten over there, so they paint everything with bright colours. So we had to be creative, hiding our more complex architecture with the simpler, colourful African styles
One of our biggest sets was in the western suburb of Footscray where we had to build a Malawi café including the interiors and street scape around it. It was in a little street where we had a paved area, and we literally plonked our café on top of it. One day there was nothing, and the next day we had a whole café. It got craned in three or four pieces from Docklands Studios, taken on low loader and then taken out over powerlines into position in the middle of Footscray. For the interior of the café – because coffee is quite big in Malawi – we made up coffee company names and made wall finishes out of stencilled coffee bags to create some textures.
The other environments we had to do were a pier on Lake Malawi which we shot down at Beaumaris and a boat harbour at Williamstown. Lake Malawi is a huge expanse of water, so Port Phillip Bay almost substituted for it, except for when the sun was not out – Lake Malawi looks a little bit bluer, but they can fix that in post!
The greens department did a huge amount with sands and dirt – we sourced red sand out of Mildura and as soon as you put that on the street it doesn’t feel like Australia any more. The other thing that brings a set to life is the extras, and with the big scenes they got lots of amazing African extras – you put 200 of them in a set and you really believe you’re somewhere else.
And the African extras from what I gather really enjoyed being part of the whole thing?
Oh yeah, we were getting wonderful compliments from some of them like: “oh my goodness it’s just like home.”
You also shot in the outer eastern suburb of Dandenong?
That was mainly a bus station and a market place in one day of filming, getting lots of vehicles on to the street and buses and a lots of extras. I suppose we dressed about five or six shopfronts and a big marketplace.
You had to dress the old Hazelwood power station (in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley)?
Yeah, that’s probably one of the biggest interior locations I’ve worked in – that main shed is nearly a kilometre long. Hazelwood had started to be decommissioned when we first went there. Our first job was to clean it so it didn’t look derelict, and try to work out ways of bringing it up to a more contemporary look. We had lots of portable lights which we dressed on camera. The lighting guys did massive rigs in the ceiling, and special effects smoked it up. So with beams of light it had an interesting ambience and looked like it was underground. There was a chase sequence that led to one of the best sets that Jeff built which was an area underground and then we cut to our Docklands studio set which had a long tunnel. Jeff designed everything so the elements could swap around for different sequences and it was a huge amount of dressing. Working out the lighting was complicated – we had under floor lighting and water on the set and flooding and dripping.
And there were scenes in suburban Melbourne?
Yeah, we had to do a family house which we shot in bayside Brighton over eight or nine days. We did about six rooms in the house and the front and back garden. It was an existing house which we altered and completely redressed.
In the end it was a massive set count; I think from memory it was over 70 sets we did, set in three countries, sometimes doing three sets a day, which is not very common on a feature film. There was a lot of action so there was a lot of short scenes. I think it will be a visual treat: Australia, Africa, China; interior, exterior; upper class, lower class; night, day.
Was this the first Chinese production you’d worked on?
I’ve worked a few times out of China but this was the first time I’d worked so closely with more than just the art department on a production from China. I found this film to be a very positive experience. The Chinese crew were collaborative, respectful and appreciated our input.
How closely did you work with the director Xiaolu Xue?
Xiaolu didn’t (speak English) but had an amazing assistant (Grace Gao) who acted as translator. So although I couldn’t speak to the director in English, I felt like I had a really good relationship with her. I would speak with her nearly every day about something and her assistant was amazing. Generally things weren’t getting lost in translation which can happen when you speak different tongues. They were nice people and that makes a big difference; that tone does flow through the whole production.
You have a long C.V. – how did you get started?
I started my career at Crawford Productions and anyone who’s anyone in Melbourne has probably worked there at some stage. The Sullivan’s, Carson’s Law, The Flying Doctors, going way back! My whole career’s been based in Victoria although I’ve worked abroad and elsewhere in Australia. The Pacific (filmed at Docklands Studios) led me to getting an Emmy Award for Set Decoration, so that was thanks partly to the Studios of course. Other productions I’ve worked on at Docklands include Killer Elite, Frankenstein and The Leftovers.
Have you enjoyed working at Docklands Studios.
The great thing about Docklands is it’s right in the middle of the city and it’s easy to get to freeways. We normally have enough space to do prop storage there, which is often a problem at other sites because you don’t always get to store all your gear near where you are. We had a massive vehicles department on The Whistleblower and they took over the whole back area – 30 or 40 vehicles all under cover.
What’s next for you?
We’ll just have to see what the wind blows in. Part of the fun and fear in this business is you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve had phone calls on a Thursday night to be in Shanghai on a Monday morning, so stuff can happen very quickly.
The Whistleblower is the largest Australian-Chinese official co-production in Victoria’s history, spending more than $40 million in the state’s economy. Helmed by co-producers Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Greg Basser (Concussion, Goosebumps), and director Xue Xiaolu (Together) it stars lead actor Jiayin Lei as Mark Ma, a Chinese expat working in Australia for a mining company. After a fatal accident he discovers that new technology developed by the company may be a health risk. In search of the truth, he investigates a web of conspiracies. Filming took place in late 2018 at Docklands Studios Melbourne and on location around the state, including the Melbourne suburbs of Dandenong, Footscray and Werribee, and the Victorian towns of Geelong and Hazelwood.