Creator Ryan Griffen walks us through the densely layered world of Cleverman, brimming with creatures, culture and suspense. By Caris Bizzaca.
Cleverman is not the kind of series you can easily put into a box.
Set in the near future, it paints a world where Dreaming creatures called Hairypeople have emerged from hiding, only to be herded up and transported to a sectioned off area of the city. And within this time of discord, the Cleverman calls on another Dreaming creature to set things right – just not in the way many would have thought.
On one level people might find Cleverman a commentary on the global refugee crisis, or reminiscent of the holocaust or the Stolen Generation. For others it could be a unique sci-fi dystopia, an Indigenous superhero tale, or perhaps it’s an education on the Dreaming.
But what is undebatable, is how this is an entirely original and gripping drama.
Produced by Rosemary Blight from Goalpost Pictures, the six-part drama is directed by Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, and is set to premiere on ABC on June 2.
Before you catch it on TV or on iview, here’s a closer look at the world you’re about to enter.
The idea came to Griffen while playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with his son. The pair were dressed up and fighting with spatulas when Griffen realised he wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero his son could connect to – something that ticked that pop culture box, but also taught him about his own culture.
“I wanted to combine the two so he could be in the backyard, playing a Cleverman or one of the creatures. And just to give him the strength to own who he is,” Griffen says.
It’s not surprising then, that Cleverman started out as a kid’s show, which Griffen pitched to Goalpost Pictures. But the more they delved into the Dreaming stories the more they realized how brutal and dark they were – not really suitable for kid’s telly. Slowly the age bracket creeped up and up until it became an adult drama.
“That’s where it really fit and it’s where we could take the politics into a whole new level.”
It was taken to the ABC Indigenous Department, where Sally Riley, instantly ‘got’ it. The rest is history.
It might be the title of the six-part series, but including the Cleverman character was something Griffen and the writers toyed with for a long time. An important part of the Australia Aboriginal culture, it is often a man of power in the clan and there are many types of Cleverman, which vary depending on the Aboriginal country.
“The Cleverman is a very culturally sensitive thing. There’s some people who just do not want to talk about it,” Griffen says.
“For most of the places we spoke to, it’s men’s business and only the men can talk about it, so the question was how we can adapt that?”
What they did was create a Cleverman (played by Hunter Page-Lochard) who is inspired by the Clevermen in Aboriginal culture.
“The one thing that stays true between the two is that a Cleverman is a conduit between reality and the Dreaming. He is someone who is spiritually connected to both worlds and that’s something we stay true to with the show. The major gift of our superhero is that he can see things others can’t.”
Cleverman deals with two creatures from Aboriginal culture – the Hairymen (also known as Hairypeople or Hairies) and the Namorrodor.
“The Hairypeople were the biggest ones,” Griffen says, because they are so universal across Aboriginal culture.
“There are different hairy stories throughout Australia and they differ in each country. You have some who are a tall, some are short, some are aggressive, some are friendly. We got to sort of pick which ones will fit for us and create the Hairies for our show.”
They were designed by Bangarra Dance Company producer designer Jacob Nash and brought to life by acclaimed NZ-based WETA Workshop, famous for their work on The Lord of the Rings and District 9.
In Cleverman, the Hairies have lived alongside humans all along, but are only just beginning to show themselves. They live for more than 200 years and have increased strength and health. While some, called ‘shavers’, remove their hair and learn English to blend into society, there are also the ‘non-shavers’ who speak traditional language and are covered in hair from head to toe.
The other creature in Cleverman is the Namorrodor. Depicted in canvas paintings, rock art and stories, Griffen says it’s quite scary.
“It’s a creature that comes out at night to hunt the sick, the elderly and children. Basically all the people you want to protect the most, that’s what it targets,” he says.
It’s way of killing? Ripping out your heart.
It sounds nasty, but appealed to Griffen particularly because it tied in with some of the sci-fi elements he was looking for.
“So for me, it was actually a nice creature because it really hit the genre beats for us, but we could still stay true to the culture at the same time.”
One of the first questions Griffen says he was asked, was whether they would create a language for the Hairies.
Instead they decided the Hairypeople would speak the ancient language of Gumbaynggirr, from Australia’s east coast, which was taught to the actors in those roles.
“I think for us, here is an opportunity to put our (Aboriginal) language onscreen on a bigger scale. We have people out there speaking Elvish and Klingon fluently and they’re made-up languages. Meanwhile our languages are dying in this country.”
Griffen hopes by putting Aboriginal languages in a universal show such as Cleverman (which premiered at Berlinale in February and has already been bought in the US by Sundance Channel), people might want to learn more.
“It helps keep the language alive and that was a major part of Cleverman for us,” he says.
Griffen is asked whether he hopes to be approached one day by a fan who speaks to him in Gumbaynggirr.
“Absolutely,” he says, adding this kind of interest will also feed back into the communities who gave them permission to use the language or stories.
Cleverman sits within the sci-fi genre that Griffen loves, but the challenge was making those tropes work alongside ancient cultural stories.
“The hardest thing is making sure that you stick to Aboriginal protocols in this sci-fi world,” he says.
“Trying to have 60,000 years of storytelling in a modern world and keeping it right at the same time.”
It’s one of the reasons the four-year development process was so long, because it was essential that they consult with communities and gain permission to tell Dreaming stories.
To tell the story of the Namarrodor for example, Griffen travelled to the heart of the Northern Territory, to Katherine, and spent four hours sitting in a riverbed discussing it with an elder. He says it was a privilege to hear the story there and get permission to tell it for the screen.
To see for yourself, tune into Cleverman when it premieres on ABC at 9.30pm on June 2, or catch it on iview.