Never underestimate the intern. That’s one take-home message from Cleverman, the six part drama series that premieres at the Berlinale Film Festival before its ABC TV debut later this year. By Caroline Baum.
Already generating local anticipation and international buzz, with US rights acquired by the Sundance Channel, Cleverman represents a new chapter in Indigenous storytelling on screen.
The intern in question is producer Ryan Griffen, who had an internship at Goalpost Pictures working on the second season of children’s series Lockie Leonard. One day at lunch he happened to mention an idea he had to create an Indigenous superhero for his young son – something to compete with the ninjas and imported pop culture heroes, which would also connect him to his own culture.
Suddenly, Griffen had everyone’s attention.
As Goalpost producer Rosemary Blight recalls: “We hear so many ideas that never go any further but this one stuck. It was fresh and utterly unique for us and for the world.”
Blight says they had already built a relationship and level of trust with Griffen, who also worked on productions such as The Sapphires.
Cleverman was originally pitched to ABC as a children’s show, but as the writers developed the story, Griffen noticed their intended audience age kept moving up and up.
“We gradually realised that the stories we wanted to tell were too dark for children. They had a lot of death in them,” Griffen says. “So we took it to Sally Riley, the head of the ABC Indigenous Department and she got it instantly. She knew I wanted to do a genre piece and has been a champion ever since.”
Blight says the ABC showed true strength in their support, adding: “Australia has no real experience of genre TV, so the fact that the ABC Indigenous Department embraced this is pretty radical for free-to-air. That is a real demonstration of courage.”
She says the same thing happened with Screen Australia.
“When we came to them for production funding it was not a traditional TV ask,” she says.
“Let’s face it, this was a high-risk venture. But they are still supporting us all the way, making appointments for Ryan to meet media in Berlin.
“They have been true partners in taking Cleverman to the world. And it didn’t hurt that the project sold to the Sundance Channel three days after shooting finished.”
Riley chimes in that credit must also be given to German distributor Red Arrow for the “wonderful job they have done on sales.”
Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason is looking forward to the next step in Cleverman’s journey – getting it out to audiences.
Aside from a release on ABC TV later this year, Cleverman has been selected for the Berlin International Film Festival this Feburary, where it will screen in the Berlinale Special Series, as well as the industry-only Drama Series Days in the European Film Market (EFM).
“Cleverman is really breaking new ground, and we’re excited to see how audiences respond,” he says.
“We’re really proud to have been able to help bring the incredible wealth of Indigenous talent to the fore over the past ten years and play a part in helping make projects like this possible. We believe that Cleverman is of particular note as it represents new possibilities for bringing Indigenous stories and storytellers into the broader spectrum of Australian screen culture. It’s wonderful that Ryan has been able to bring elements of cultural heritage into this project, using it as a springboard into a fresh and exciting new kind of futuristic drama.”
The process of gathering up stories from traditional communities took Griffen over five years, requiring delicate diplomacy and cultural sensitivity to protocols in communities across NSW, from his home town of Gunnedah to the Northern Rivers and the Northern Territory. “I started out by trying to explain what we were attempting by saying ‘Imagine if we had our own Harry Potter,’ while we were playing cards or just sitting yarning in a riverbed.”
Harvesting stories from elders, Griffen found that there were recurring identities that cropped up across the country: a “Cleverman”, invested with special knowledge, and figures known as Hairymen or Hairies.
“They were diverse. Some were tall, some were angry, but each place I went, I would hear about them. So we took something that was within 60,000 years of storytelling and made it universal,” Griffen says.
“But I had to be very respectful of boundaries, secret business, and not change stories without consultation. Even if it was just a detail like how a Hairy walks, speaks or moves. ’
The next stage was the taking of all the material that Ryan had collected and transforming it into a story.
Blight recalls there being lots of questions in the writing room.
“The team (two Indigenous writers and two non-Indigenous) had to find a way to take the stories into the future and be entertaining because this is not anthropology, it’s drama,” she says.
“It felt like knitting, it was so complicated. It was certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever been involved with. But the difficulties pushed the creativity, made everything think more deeply.”
Thinking back, Griffen found the hardest thing was getting an ancient culture to follow the structure of a Western style narrative.
“Another challenge came in deciding what language the Hairies would speak,’ says Griffen.
“We have people who speak Klingon or Elvish but no Indigenous languages, and those languages are dying with the older aunties and uncles.”
He says viewers in Australia and the US will be given tools to go and discover more about this via links made available on the ABC and Sundance channels.
“We hope that will make people want to learn, because as we lose language, we lose stories.”
For Riley, Cleverman is the latest iteration of nurturing Indigenous talent through landmark series such as Redfern Now and The Gods of Wheat Street. But the scale of the project required an additional risk on backing new talent.
“We had such a big cast, we had to find so many actors and look after them through a three-month shoot, which requires a lot of stamina and harmony. It was great that they had actors like Leah Purcell and Wayne Blair directing, and experienced actors like Deborah Mailman working alongside them, because they offered a much-needed support system.”
As far as the scripts, Riley was very clear that “I did not want to put too many boundaries and parameters around the project, so that it could go where it needs to. We would worry about the classification and the time slot later. If you are going to take a gamble, you might as well take a very big one.”
Riley hopes Cleverman taps into a younger audience and says fans should be prepared to be in it “for the long haul”.
“We’ve only just begun to mine the stories that are possible in the Cleverman world,” she says.
“There’s so much more to show about our culture as a living, breathing, evolving thing. The show navigates between the spirit world and the real world, while front-and-centre being a great, action-packed ride.”