Larry Heath caught up with producer Helen Bowden (The Slap) while at Sydney Film Festival to talk about the new Foxtel TV series Devil’s Playground. The six-part series, which will premiere in September, sees its first two episodes screen at the Festival tonight. They talk about the direction the series has taken, operating as a sequel of sorts of the 1976 film The Devil’s Playground by Fred Schepisi.
Let’s talk about the series. It’s a six part that will be screening later in the year and we’re getting a preview of it here at the Sydney Film Festival. What does it mean to you having it played on the big screen? It’s quite a different way to kick off a television series.
I think it’s fantastic and I’m so happy that Foxtel agreed to do it, it’s generous of them and a great thing for the series as well. It certainly seems to be generating quite a bit of interest. We’re so lucky these days in shooting where images can look really wonderful and the sound can be very wonderful, for the cinema as well as the television.
That’s right. I only saw it on the small screen but it still looked great there.
I’m glad. It was the same cinematographer, Andy Commis, that I had on Underground: The Julian Assange Story and The Slap. He’s done a beautiful job.
The cast for this is incredible. How did you bring them together?
We had our fantastic casting director Kirsty McGregor who cast Animal Kingdom, so she was the main driver behind it. We also had Simon Burke, who’s the lead in the series and was the lead in the original Devil’s Playground film. Obviously he’s very respected in the acting community and a lot of people were keen to work on it with him. Rachel Ward, of course, was a big drawcard. We would never have got Jack Thompson, for example, but for the fact that he and Rachel are great friends. Once you get some cast on board, it gathers momentum as it goes along. So we just incredibly lucky. It was amazing to get Don Hany, who only became available when it got close to the shooting. He just threw himself into and told me how much he enjoyed playing that totally different character.
You mentioned Simon Burke being the centrepiece of the story, taking us into the late 80s from the original film. Was it difficult to convince him to come back and reprise the role?
It was actually Simon’s idea. He played Tom in Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground in 1976 and he was 13 years old. It’s semi-autobiographical of Fred’s life because he’d been to a Catholic boarding school where he was training to become a priest but he met a girl and realised he wasn’t cut out for it and ran away. It was Simon’s first major role and it had a huge impact on his life. He went to Melbourne where he was looked after by Fred and his late wife Rhonda and he had this extraordinary experience working on the film. It kicked off his whole career as an actor. So one day he was having dinner with Brian Walsh, who’s head of Foxtel, and they were talking and Simon said that he had always wondered what happened to Tom. So Brian said that he should come up with a pitch. And of course it was perfect timing for a film about the Catholic church. But it’s very tangential, because all we know of Tom is about him as a thirteen-year old boy with a lot of character who runs away. He could have become anything . We presume he didn’t become a priest, so what else could he have become? Where would he be? It was a very open slate, but we settled on this idea that he’s a psychiatrist and is invited by the church to counsel priests, therefore becoming a kind of everyman going behind the scenes of the church.
Did Fred (Schepisi) have any direction on the script?
He didn’t, he was incredibly generous and gracious about saying we could do the series. He’d only recently seen the series when I saw him last night and he was so lovely about it. He said he loved it and was surprised at how good it was.
I was going to ask how the mini-series came out of the feature film but you said it was the result of Simon’s conversation with the director of Foxtel.
Yes, that’s right. With Brian Walsh. It’s great to have a six-hour canvas to tell that story over. We all know the stories in the press at the moment about what’s gone on in the Catholic church and it’s your duty as a storyteller to not go for the obvious answers. About why these things happened, how they happened within the church, how these people who joined the church to do good ended up protecting the church and not the vulnerable. Then there are the less obvious answers as to why these things came about, and it’s this that the series set out to explore. We can’t really pull any punches unless we can understand the complexities of human behaviour. Until then we won’t get anywhere and won’t change anything.
Can you tell us when the series will be playing on Foxtel?
I believe it’ll be on Showcase in September.
And are the episodes all finished?
Yes they’re all finished. The first two episodes that played at the Sydney Film Festival actually had their first premier at Series Mania which is a festival in Paris. Simon went to that about six weeks ago and it’s an amazing showcase that all the top television shows from around the world go to. We were lucky that The Slap went there when it was first finished as well.
Hopefully when it goes to something like Series Mania it means we get to see it exported around the world as well.
Yes, there was huge interest there. Obviously the Catholic church is a subject dear to the hearts of the French people so there was a lot of fascination about what the church is like in Australia and whether we have the same issues here as they do.
Devil’s Playground screens its first two episodes at Sydney Film Festival tonight (Details HERE). It will screen in its entirety (all six episodes) this September on Showcase on Foxtel.