Emma Freeman, Joanna Werner on starry Matchbox miniseries Secret City

For director Emma Freeman, one of the most exciting things about filming the new political thriller miniseries Secret City was the opportunity to film locations that have never before been seen on-screen.

“We shot some beautiful scenes out in the PM’s courtyard”, she recalls. 

“Peta Credlin was there and she came out and took some selfies with Sacha Horler, who was very much inspired by Peta Credlin for her character.”

Secret City – which was adapted from former journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’ novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code – premiered on Foxtel on June 5 and will shortly be released on DVD.

Matchbox Pictures produced the six-part miniseries, which underwent an extended period of development. 

One of the key changes made to the original text involved swapping the gender of the journalist protagonist, Harry Dunkley.

Played by Anna Torv, Secret City’s Harriet Dunkley is a reporter who becomes enmeshed in a web of conspiracy when she uncovers an apparent link between a China-US power tussle and a body found on the Canberra foreshore.

The opportunity to make something in the vein of the political thriller was one of the key features that drew Freeman and producer Joanna Werner to the project. 

“When Matchbox came to talk to me about a political thriller”, recalls Werner, who has worked extensively on shows targeted to the teen market such as Dance Academy, “there was absolutely no way that I wouldn’t want to be involved with it.”

“We don’t really do genre in Australia”, says Freeman. Secret City “felt like an opportunity to do something different.”

Freeman thinks this reluctance to engage with genre could be changing, and cites Goalpost Pictures’ Cleverman and Glitch (which she also directed for Matchbox), as well as the Canberra-set political thriller The Code, produced by Playmaker Media.

Werner agrees that there are signs that bolder decisions are being made when it comes to producing Australian TV content, attributing this trend in part to online streaming services such as Stan. 

“When you look at No Activity and Wolf Creek, I can’t imagine them really being made for another broadcaster.”

“Certainly looking at things that are being pitched to me or have been presented to me, it seems like writers and creators are feeling confident to pitch new things. Not necessarily something that would go to a Channel 7 or a 9, but something that might have a bit of an edge.”

The ambitious nature of Secret City helped to secure the impressive ensemble cast, says Freeman.

“We got the cast based on the scripts, but also on the incredible reputation that [Matchbox’s] Penny Chapman has.” 

Alongside Torv, Secret City stars Jacki Weaver as the Attorney-General and Alan Dale as the PM. 

“I couldn’t have asked for a more talented and incredible line-up”, says Werner. “It’s an incredibly impressive [cast].”

Freeman agrees. “I think that they read the scripts and could see the potential. The characters were so interesting and it was challenging.”

Werner believes that Secret City has respect for the viewer. “It’s a smart audience that we’re writing to. We don’t necessarily explain every step; there are some gaps that you will need to fill in yourselves.”

In this respect, she likens the miniseries to the US House of Cards – although Werner is also keen to point out what is specifically Australian about Secret City, such as the Canberra setting. 

She recalls finding the idea of shooting something in the capital appealing: “It just feels like such an underutilised and really interesting city.”

Throughout the shoot, Werner took advantage of the connections that Uhlmann and Lewis formed during their time working in the press gallery. 

Uhlmann in particular helped to secure access to Parliament House, as well as permission to shoot in front of ASIO. 

“We filmed in the press gallery and in Chris Uhlmann’s offices and in his studio,” Werner says. “That access and that authenticity were really important.”

Ultimately, Werner is optimistic that the uniquely Australian setting will help to sell Secret City overseas. 

“I think that culturally specific shows have proven to do really well internationally”, she says, citing the example of Scandi-noirs such as The Bridge and The Killing.

‘I’m hoping that the cultural specificity that Secret City has – being uniquely Australian, set in Canberra, about Australia’s place as a political power – I’m hoping that will be of interest internationally.”

Credit: IF Magazine

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