How to Direct the Undead in the Australian Bush

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How to Direct the Undead in the Australian Bush

Thursday August 31, 2017 Written by Suzi Taylor

Last time we met Sergeant James Hayes, his prosaic country life was complicated somewhat when he happened upon seven naked souls clawing their way out of their graves. Oh, and one of them was his late wife Kate. Series one of ABC's Glitch propelled us into the sergeant's knotty moral universe, as he attempted to juggle his two wives (one recent, one deceased), whilst battling to figure out why the seven had returned and what the dickens he should do with them all. 

In the wake of its multi-award-winning first series, Glitch is back next month as a Netflix/ABC co-production. Smith Journal caught up with series director Emma Freeman on how she went about making a zombie series in the bush. 

Glitch 2

Despite the subject matter and premise, Glitch feels more like a grounded drama than your average zombie affair. How did you achieve that?

When I first read the scripts I thought: this could be a really heightened thriller or I could take a naturalistic approach. I wanted to push the genre elements aside and really earth the performances as much as I could, whilst still playing with those thriller elements. I wanted to believe every moment so I’d put myself in each situation. What if my grandma turned up? How would I feel? It was that very human emotion and connection that interested me.

Then it was a matter of creating the right space for those performances. For me as a director, my aim is to separate the machine and the business of filmmaking from the actors’ environment. I’m there to serve them and to get the best performance from them. We made sure the shot choice supports what the actors were doing, so they never felt like they were being forced into doing something and not connecting to the material. That’s when the work really sings, when you can create that space. 

It sounds like you're a far cry from the stereotypical director then...

You grow up with the idea that the director is someone who shouts. I have totally the opposite approach. I want to be available and present and be creatively free. And I want an environment for the cast to be free to create as well. I think when people are putting themselves on the line to perform for you – I mean it’s such a privilege for me to have this front row experience – then the least I can do is be generous of spirit as well.

Talk us through your creative preparation for this series; what does your production office look like?

I spent a lot of time in pre-production exploring the main ideas of the visual style. If you see my office at ABC, I collect imagery, it’s the best way of communicating the lighting, the framing, the feel. That could be filmic references but equally it could be illustrations, photographs. I send everyone hundreds of images of the look I’m after for the show.

We developed that even further in series two, we pushed the darkness, the heat, ramping it all up a level. There’s also more tension in the camera – there are very few shots that aren’t moving.

Glitch 1

The Australian bush features as an important character in the series. Could you tell us about your creative decisions around the setting?

When I initially started talking to the producers, we thought it could be wintery pine trees, more of a North American/European gothic feel. But then I became really interested in the role of the Australian bush in this story. How it could be beautiful, harsh, hot, suppressive land, full of insects and overwhelming. The role of the landscape shifts throughout the series; it can be equally comforting and menacing and isolating.

The thing I also love in the series is heat. I got great inspiration from Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, even the role of animals, how nature responds to events. We built that into the soundscape too. In Craig Carter’s sound design you can hear the animals, birds, insects, the environment shifting.  

You’ve been directing TV, including Offspring, Puberty Blues and Love My Way, for over 15 years now. How have you changed over that time?

I’ve directed nearly 100 hours of drama now, so my confidence has grown. I understand what I like, what I don’t like. I’ve become so in-tune with the process of filmmaking and my passion and love for it continues to grow as well.

I can approach my work with more vulnerability now, being open to learning and open to failing. That means I’m working from a place that feels a lot more fulfilling I guess.

What has directing taught you about life? 

It goes to that idea of being present. Truthful. Available. Grounded. And being curious. For me, engaging in the world is a big part of being a director, of observing people, talking to people.

I feel like work and life are one thing. Being a director and living in the world is the one thing; I don’t really think I have a job, I am who I am, all the time.

Series two of Glitch starts on Netflix and ABC on Thursday September 14th and on Thursday November 28th internationally on Netflix. If you missed series one, the good folks at ABC iview are making it available from tonight, Thursday August 31st, so there’s time to catch up.