In relation to the television series “Total Control” you set decorated, how did you find your way into the series?
Total Control (Working Title Black B*tch) is a political Drama. Outwardly it’s about extreme contrasts and polarisation. Race relations, gender politics, city versus country, academia versus life experience, equality under the law, these are some of the themes.
I think the story is also about parallel experience and commonalities, I feel the writers were interested in the individual, and paradoxes and anomalies of peoples lives. I feel the art department approach focused on naturalism, I don’t feel we had any intention of augmenting the drama, it wasn’t our goal to make scenes more squalid or more luxurious. The reality is telling and poetic enough. The period of the show was something only considered very briefly.
Our story has a female Liberal Prime Minister and the key issue of the day is the construction of a US military base in outback Queensland. I can’t see our next Female PM on the horizon at the moment and I don’t think even our current government would be suggesting a new US military facility. These plot points make it feel a little futuristic. The posturing and influence of the United States and China amongst the Pacific Island Nations and how Australia aligns itself is totally an issue of today. The art department treated the story as now, and if it’s a year or two in the future there was no imperative to project that through props and dressing.
The show has two primary settings, Canberra, particularly Parliament House and Winton, Queensland, both as location and setting. The broad open spaces of outback Queensland and the broad open spaces of Canberra, the Parliament building, car parks, airport, malls and bus stations. Much of the architecture and interiors of Winton feel quite spare and tenuous, which makes the place exciting. Much of Canberra has a similar feel, the parliamentary offices of the Reps and Senators, hotel rooms and serviced apartments, homeless people living in cars, none of these elements have a strong feeling of stability or continuity. So the two initial steps were to become genuinely acquainted with the Parliament House Building and its procedures, and also look at some primary reference for domestic interiors in way way regional Queensland.
For most of it’s existence I hadn’t thought a great deal about Parliament House. I visited it with some friends in 1985 while it was under construction. The comment we left in the visitor’s book was “ditch the flagpole”, we must have been sneering anarchists. A few years ago I drove up to the forecourt on a beautiful Canberra day and I was struck by how beautiful the building was, I’m almost embarrassed to say I was hit buy a great sense of pride, the building achieves much of what it was intended to do, it imparts a kind of decency and egalitarianism. Of course much of it is not just functional, it’s banal. The emphasis of craft in the building is very endearing. A lot of it’s fittings are not current taste, the building improves with age and I hope faddish makeovers will be resisted. Australians do tend to remodel or demolish buildings just at the time they are transitioning from unfashionable to timeless.
I spent the first third of my life in Queensland and have great fondness for those very distinctive qualities of QLD domestic architecture and interiors. I felt I should crosscheck my romantic vision by looking at some primary source material. I spent a lot of time touring regional QLD homes on Realestate.com.
Our “Jan’s” house location in Winton, was everything you’d hope it would be, a very regionally specific house. Outwardly a very simple low-slung house, basically a square foot print, with a dramatic pyramid roof. A very strong geometric form. Paradoxically the differentiation between the interior and the exterior is indistinct and variable, you can open it right up or shut it down completely. The house had almost no glass, it’s either open or shut. It has all the rooms associated with respectable convention, bedrooms, living and dinning room, but you feel the role of any room could change at whim or need. You can circulate through the house like it’s a loosely partitioned tent. You don’t feel people are greatly concerned with privacy. Much of the life of the house takes place on the veranda or at the kitchen table.
There is always the question of authenticity and theatrical licence. From the outset Pete Baxter, the production designer knew that we weren’t concerned with replicating the PM’s office. The actual PM’s office is a bit cosy. The PM sits at a beautifully crafted worktable with asymmetrical shelving as a background. Successive PM’s like to express their warm friendly side with homey family touches and love of cricket and football. There are some big salmon pink club chairs for informal chat. Our PM, Rachael Anderson (Rachael Griffiths) would need something a just a little more imperial.
An outback QLD house will often retain the furniture and fittings it acquired at the time it was built. This furniture seems to be a sparer, lighter weight version of something you find in metropolitan areas. The furniture looks like it had to travel a long way and there is also not a lot that’s superfluous. The alternative apparent reality is that the further you head west the larger the TVs and wall units and the more voluptuous the micro-suede sofas. Interiors are often dark and cave like, they are a reprieve from heat, glare, dust and wind. It’s very apparent that the popular home wares available in Longreach are exactly the same as the home wares you might buy in Avalon or Caringbah, decorating fads are universal. For “Jan’s house” we felt we had the licence to lean towards the former. A house that’s practical, a bit playful and regal.
It was probably only these sets where there is a little dramatic licence. Other locations, the detention centre, police stations, council offices, community halls, homeless people’s camps, it didn’t seem appropriate to endeavour to heighten the drama through set dressing.
When you receive the script what is the process you go through to get to the first day of filming?
Our pre-production period for myself and the dressers was quite good for a small television production. I think we may have even gained an additional week through a production delay. We knew first up that Rachael Perkins would direct all the episodes and that it would be shot like a film, all six episodes shot at once. Hopefully we were going to shoot locations out. This was the case. There were many unknowns, the breath of the story was there but the scripts continued to evolve right through the preproduction period. Winton had been settled on as our town, but exactly which house remained open ended for quite a while. Access to the Parliament Houses, Old and New was huge question, both if and when. The shooting schedule had to remain fluid.
From the first week we knew we will be furnishing a PM’s office and that it would be a set. Pete had completed concept illustrations. We knew we would be furnishing and detailing a senator’s office and a number of minister’s offices and The Party Room. It was thought that these maybe a location, but in any case, would require complete refurnishing. Pete had drawn some concepts illustrations for flatage to make the Senate Chamber in Old Parliament House better replicate the current chamber. As Old parliament house is a museum we knew it was missing some key items that would be required to make it look like the current working chambers. There were many location surveys during the first weeks. It was a little difficult to decide which to attend. Some you know may be the only opportunity to see them prior to dressing, but you may also be spending a lot of time visiting locations that won’t play. We could immediately start collecting reference images for Parliament house and reference images of Queensland house interiors. It was really interesting to see how the PM and various members of Parliament actually inhabit their offices.
Anna De Meyrick and Suzy Sykes started with me in week two. They got familiar with the scripts and we could discus the character’s backstories. The scripts were not big on backstories but there were enough clues. Alex (Deborah Mailman) is part of an Aboriginal community and part of the township of Winton. She’s been in the Army, she’s been on the shire council, has a job in community health. Alex has a son and at some point has returned to live with her widowed mother Jan (Trisha Morton-Thomas) in the family home, and they are a family interested in politics and the broader world. I started to draw up hypothetical dressing lists and started to puts cost next these. The buyers could immediately start on the items we knew we are going to have to have. Computers, televisions, monitors, desk lamps and desk dressings, stuff for homeless people and memorial shrines, street furniture, bed linin, coffins and flags.
We knew artwork was a very important issue, so we were immediately seeking interesting, clearable artwork that would be available to us. Product placements could be sort. “Black Bitch” got a mixed response, even if people didn’t want to help their curiosity was peaked. Product clearances were required, we needed to pursue clearance for both the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Flags. As minor locations became known, we dealt with the realities, prac lighting, window treatments, covering mirrors. We could also start to build a palate of furniture that actually exists and that there was a reasonable probably we could secure, we could put together a good collection of images to put before Pete and Rachael, and also start rejecting stuff we were never going to get.
Beyond that, my recollection of this project is that it rolled along very quickly and everything was in the air. Primary focus was on what’s a definite and keeping abreast of what could come where in the schedule. Once it was decided to build sets we could start looking at carpet, door furniture and window treatments, and as soon as the sets were drawn, have actual numbers and meterages and crosscheck lead times. I could draw meaningful dressing plans, stick the plans on the wall and highlight items once they’d been resolved. So I think by the first day of shoot we had a schedule for the first two weeks, it would be restaurants, cafes, bars and car parks around Sydney. Also a minor redress of one of our producers houses a character house. The main issue was clearing or substituting artworks. All these locations required input from the dressing team.
What were the biggest challengers on this project?
As I’ve mentioned, gaining permission to shoot in New Parliament House caused enormous disruption. The Office of the Speaker continually delayed the decision before giving an emphatic “no!” At which point Locations is desperately seeking a substitute. Eventually, through fantastic work by the producers, the production was given a window of opportunity to shoot in Parliament House. Until that was established it meant there was no really meaningful schedule.
This job had all the familiar issues of smaller budget television. Tight space, tight staffing levels, nothing to spare in terms of money, large distances to cover. Everyone is physically hands-on, up ladders and driving the trucks.
Parliament house has a colour palate that doesn’t particularly align with current fashion. The earthy pastel pink and mint green are very important elements to include. Matching timbers is frustrating, Parliament house has very distinctive use of timber, items you ‘d think may work with it and together don’t work at all.
Shopping was the toughest part of this job. There are so few places on the ground in Sydney to go and look at stockpiles of second hand office furniture or any furniture. The chances of finding something your genuinely excited about is pretty miniscule. One good item may even just cause more frustration because it’s useless on it’s own. Most suppliers of new furniture are terribly repetitive, they all stock the same items or their stock is so kookily zany and of the here and now it’s of no use to our story. Most hire companies only stock black or white or ghastly. Hiring from retailers quickly becomes unviable when you need things for more than a day or two and needs to be held over a weekend or two. We were choosing much more stuff of the internet that’s traveling internationally, for the most part it works, but you’re buying a lot sight unseen.
Days (and quite a few evenings on Anna’s part and weekends on mine) was spent trawling Gumtree and Marketplace. You’re up to page 150 and you don’t love any of it or maybe we’ve had one fantastic bit of luck. It’s nerve racking, do you pull the plug and just make something that you have found work or get back on the road? With Gumtree purchases, one is so often dealing with nutty people, complex payment issues, huge distances, limited opportunities to collect and view.
Painting brand new leather office furniture was a new experience for me on this job, it really did work fantastically well. It’s amazing, almost interesting how much furniture you have to reject to furnish a house for a family in isolated rural Queensland.
I’ll make a loose observation that contemporary drama on tighter budgets is a lot more frustrating than period drama. Contemporary settings are just so much more nuanced, every item has to be considered for the character, what it means or how it might be perceived by the director and producers and by the audience. Period dramas allow for a little more generalization.
Who made up the Art department team on “Total Control” and how did you work with them?
We worked as a tight unit in a tight space so there was a constant dialogue between everybody in the department. Pete Baxter was production designer and Loretta Cosgrove the Art Director. Working directly with me were Anna De Meyrick as senior buyer and Suzy Sykes as junior buyer. We were sitting at desks facing each other so it’s constant chat and we all knew what’s been covered at anytime, we can listen in on each others fraught phone calls. For the most part working out between ourselves who needs to be where. Kylie Mather was coordinator. Probably the bulk of my dialogue with Kylie was about where Alastair McCulloch, our runner will be and what ground he’ll be able to cover, the daily who’s on what. Artwork clearances were handled by me and past to Kylie to log. All product clearance was handled by Kylie and Michael Leon, the Property Master. Michael and I always knew what each of us were covering. Michael and Nadia King the graphic designer face each other across desks and did regular skipping workouts together on the driveway outside our office. Pete and Loretta were able to make a case to construct sets (thank god we didn’t have to dress locations for our office sets) so Tony Drew came on as set designer. We had a fantastic paid intern Brittany Worboys. She has great practical skills with a passion for prop making and finishing. Bill Goodes was our vehicle wrangler. Only a reduced crew travelled to Queensland and in some departments there was a change of crew for Queensland. Fortunately, Sam Boffa was our standby the whole way through and Steve Tomic came on as dresser in Winton.
What does the department space look like?
A bit small. Anna, Suzy and myself in a fairly tight room. Our walls are covered in reference pics of homeless people, parliamentary offices and the chambers, interiors of Queensland houses and stuff we had physically sourced. We had some really interesting images of the Queen which unfortunately we couldn’t really justify paying copyright fees to actually use. Michael and Nadia shared the adjoining space. A significant amount of Michaels work was researching and producing very authentic looking parliamentary documents. The look of these paperwork props provides a highly cohesive link between our various physical locations, Old and New Parliament house and our built sets.
This was also a quite a graphics heavy job, including a lot of cop cars and construction company signage and vehicles. Pete, Loretta, Kyle and Alastair shared the larger space along with a continuously changing cast, vehicles coord. Set designer, addition graphic designer, Beth Garswood, and Sam Boffa and his assistant Cassidy Holland during his pre-production time. Behind Loretta was a very busily evolving white board and a wonder wall of the leaders of the Liberal party from Menzies onwards, a bit of a red herring really.
There was an extensive montage wall of Pete’s colour palate imagery. Concept images of the PM’s office. Also concept drawings to merge the new and old parliament house senate chambers. Unfortunately, time and heritage considerations didn’t allow for this work to take place.
Our storage area was a typical Fox Studios unit/suite. Costume storage was in with us. Michael had his workshop and shelving area. Set Dec’s space was constantly in flux. As the schedule became apparent we could stack stuff for the later sets towards the back, which isn’t ideal as it’s not great for visualizing how your dressings are coming together.
Once it was decided to build the parliamentary officers we soon had access to The ABC Studio at Artarmon so all related furnishings could be shifted over or delivered directly there. Although we were shooting scenes out we were reluctant to discard anything. I’m not sure exactly why but on a low budget and limited space productions, we seem to have an excess of unfortunate purchases, maybe it’s just that they weigh much more heavily on your mind, and again moving them on is something you don’t want to face up to until you are sure they are definitely completely useless.
We knew fairly early on that Winton would be the final part of the shoot. Purely for time management reasons we hadn’t actually purchased much for Winton until our departure date was looming. Marty Williams came on as a buyer to get together the furnishing for “Jan’s House”. So that piled in on us over a few days, and was just as quickly meticulously packed into our travelling container. We needed to see everything we’d selected because the size of the container meant we’d have to edit as we packed and also include any requests from Pete who was already on the ground in Winton.
Finishing off the shoot in Winton was a delight. Everybody seemed to love being there and the town seemed delighted to have us. For the Art department, it’s exploring and scavenging and interacting with the townsfolk. Most problems were resolved within a few blocks of the office, because that all there is.