#wahomegrownhustle – Mystery Road Series 2
Words by Mark Boskell, 1st Assistant Director
Reflecting on the many challenges of shooting Series 2 of Mystery Road, there is one shoot day that stands out above all, one that provided me with a few sleepless nights, and it came in the first week.
When weighing up big-picture schedule options, I always look for ways to build up to the tough sequences, so that everyone, cast and crew alike, can find their rhythm within the shoot. This time around it was not an option.
To set the scene… it’s 2 months before official pre-production and we’re heading to Lombadina, a small coastal community 200kms north of Broome up the Dampier Peninsula – on Bardi Jawi country. It’s a special place – a colourful, tropical, palm-treed oasis – quiet and welcoming. The community sits nestled in behind kilometres of vast white sand dunes that lead to a long crescent beach and a wide sheltered estuary, home to legendary Kimberley king tides, dense mangroves and salt-water crocodiles.
The purpose of this advance recce is to meet the traditional owners, survey potential locations, and determine if it is even possible to take 80 crew and cast here for an extended stay with limited facilities during school holidays in peak tourist season – we had to commit.
A very specific location was needed for the opening of the series, a day-and-night sequence combining time-lapse and dramatic scenes – leading to the discovery of a headless corpse in the mangroves and the all-important series establishing crime scene.
We head out across the sand dunes for a look. Ten minutes of solid 4WD-ing later and we’re standing on a headland overlooking the estuary. The tide was low – way out in the distance. Pointing to some mangroves about 150m onto the mud flats, Director / DP Warwick Thornton asks if we can go out there for a look. We trudge out, none of us quite prepared for the sticky conditions, leaping over channels of running water, sinking ankle deep in the mud, and step in and under the mangroves. Alert to the fact that this is ideal croc territory, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the traditional owners watch us from the beach…
It is spectacular in here – gnarly old mangrove trees, well over head high, formed a canopy above us. Underfoot, thousands of mangrove roots and thick mud made every step unsteady. This was the spot!
But can we actually shoot here?
This location – for our hero crime scene – is underwater for hours at a time.
We’re about 150m from the high tide mark back on the beach.
It’s salt water croc country.
It’s a tough walk in with all the gear, 2 cameras, maybe dollies, lighting…
It’s the opening sequence of the new series – a crime scene with detailed set dressing, three cast and two and a half pages of dialogue establishing two new main characters.
Is there even enough time at low tide to get in, complete the scene, and get back out?
Let’s find out. Challenge accepted.
At least the Crime Scene is a Day scene…
Cut to two months later. Broome. Pre-production. We’re in a script meeting – Episode One. I still recall the exact moment that Warwick suggests he’d like to change the entire opening sequence to Night – Gulp!
Now we’re tackling all of the same challenges under cover of darkness. Back to the tide charts.
I’ve never studied tide charts so carefully, or dreamt about tides before, but this was no ordinary mission. Incidentally, there isn’t a tide chart for Lombadina, just the casual notion that it’s about an hour later than the Broome times.
The stakes were high. Get the tides and the timing wrong and we stand to lose at least half a days shooting. Knowing that we’re 200km north of Broome and we’re relocating the entire crew – there’s no coming back for pick-ups.
I went back up to Lombadina for a weekend of tide charting. I needed to know hour-by-hour how much this tide moved, not just by the broad highs and lows. I had to see it with my own eyes to properly understand it. I made hourly tide charts for the entire first week of shooting. It was going to be a full-moon week so the tides were big – which is exactly what we needed – the highest highs and the lowest lows – the most shooting time available. I estimated that we had a maximum of 4 hours at any one point when the Crime Scene Set was NOT underwater. Optimistically, if we were well prepared, we could get the scene in this time frame.
Then I needed the right night. For the tide to turn with just enough daylight to dress, pre-light, bump-in and block before dark, without wasting too much of our precious low tide. The aim was to be ready to shoot as soon as it was dark. Night 4 offered the best chance.
Fast forward to the last week of Pre-Production. We make the company move to Lombadina on the very last day of Pre, giving us the weekend before shooting to get our ducks in a row. In the lead-up, a late cast restriction has forced the relocation of a key set build back to Broome and we need to find a new location for Day 2. Unseasonal high winds are also threatening to scupper our marine work for Day 1. Call sheets will be issued on the weekend once a new plan is confirmed.
Then on Saturday, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake strikes off the north-west coast and takes out all communications – phone and internet. Some communities on the peninsula get evacuated due to a tsunami warning. No one knows for sure how this will affect the tides. Getting ready for shoot Day 1 is proving difficult.
Despite all of this, the first few shoot days go well, earthquake evacuation protocols are in place, and Rangers remove a 3.5m resident croc from our mangroves. We’re off and running.
We get to Shoot Day 4 and our big night in the mangroves looms. We’re shooting an afternoon camp scene on the headland above the beach. I still don’t know for sure if I’ve nailed the tide calculations. It’s about 2hrs before the first crew are due to walk out onto the mud flats, and looking out across the creek, the mangroves are still under head-high water. Crew members are already ribbing me (you know who you are…) that there’s no chance the tide is dropping that far in the next 2hrs – you’re dreaming! I’m a little nervous to say the least.
Within an hour the tide is visibly receding and the mud flats begin to show. I think we’re going to be ok. In fact, now I’m a little worried it might be changing too soon. Did I get it wrong?
We finish the camp scene. Croc Spotters are in place. We move out as light-weight as possible – LED battery powered lights, 2 cameras, sliders, just enough gear that should we run out of time, no one leaves empty handed and it’s one quick trip back to the beach.
Out there in the dark, it is undoubtedly amongst the hardest conditions many of the crew have ever filmed in. It is so sticky with mud underfoot that boots are being sucked off feet. The mangroves roots sticking out of the ground are so dense, there’s barely a sure foot-fall to be had. When you lose your footing and grab a mangrove branch, the barnacles shred your fingers and hands. It’s hot, wet, muddy, and then there’s the mosquitoes…
We now have 3hrs left before I estimate the tide will be back upon us. John Walton, Safety Supervisor, calls out a count-down every 15 minutes for the crew to be ready to move, and for no-one to leave empty handed. We count down the shots, any gear that can go back to the beach, gets sent back.
Torches shining out across the bay, we can see the tide rushing in. We get through the scene in good time thanks to an amazing crew and cast prepared to take on an almighty first week challenge. As we cross the mud flats back toward the beach, the tide is literally lapping at our heels, rapidly filling in behind us.
As we near the beach, we stop on the mudflats for one more shot – Jay’s 4WD heroically charging over the sand dunes onto the beach. By the time we get it we’re in ankle deep water.
Back on the beach, the scene is complete, the crew safe and not a minute left to spare. The sense of relief is short-lived though – we still have another scene to shoot up at the camp…
And 48 more shoot days to go. The adventure is only just beginning…
Mystery Road is currently available for streaming on ABC iView: HerePosted on