Mark Wareham ACS films true story of case against the church, ‘Don’t Tell’

Mark Wareham ACS films the true story of a landmark legal case against the Anglican Church and the sexual abuse survivor in Queensland, who found the courage to speak out. The award-winning Don’t Tell features Jack Thompson, Rachel Griffiths, Susie Porter and Sara West.

Interview by James Cunningham.

AC – Can you tell us a little about this project?

MW – Don’t Tell is a fascinating and important film about a Toowoomba Preparatory School, the Anglican Church and the child sex abuse of an eleven-year-old girl. Based on true events and the resulting legal case that in 2001 changed how Australia handles child abuse claims. This is the story of survivor, Lyndal (Sara West) and the last trial by jury of its kind. It was the catalyst behind the revolutionary Blue Card Childcare System and the role played in bringing about the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, still in the news today. It was truly an honour to be part of a film such as this.

AC – How did you got involved with Don’t Tell?

MW – I had known producer Scott Corfield for about ten years and collaborated with him on the feature film Crooked Business (2008), as well as the short film Full Catch (2011). Corfield telephoned me and mentioned the story behind Don’t Tell. He suggested a meeting with Steve Roche, the Executive Producer and the lawyer that Aden Young’s character is based on in the film. Roche and I sat down for coffee in the beautiful suburb of Palm Beach in Queensland. We immediately hit it off. I enjoyed his company and truly respected his intentions for the film.

The Director, Tori Garrett, and I have a long history of collaboration on television commercials and worked together on Foxtel’s teen-drama series Slide (2011). Garrett’s husband, James Greville, who co-wrote the screenplay is also an old friend. Garrett felt strongly about the subject matter and bought a strong female insight into Lyndal’s character, who was brilliantly portrayed by Sara West. It was a very collaborative working arrangement, which I loved.

Tony (Martin Sacks) and Sue (Susie Porter) in 'Don't Tell' - DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Hannah Roche
Tony (Martin Sacks) and Sue (Susie Porter) in ‘Don’t Tell’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Hannah Roche

AC – What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what camera to use on Don’t Tell? How do you choose technology for your jobs?

MW – The courtroom location in the film had these awesome ceilings, so after first after discussing our aspect ratio we decided to shoot 1.85:1 to take advantage of their height. It became a spherical shoot. When looking at the reference material that the Director had prepared, I was drawn to a particular set of Cooke S4s owned by Cameraquip. Garrett loves S4s so we went with them. We all were in agreement that the ARRI Alexa was going to be the most suitable option for this project . There was a lot of handheld and car work so the Alexa Mini became the perfect choice.

AC – Can you talk about the look of Don’t Tell and what you set out to achieve visually with the film?

MW – Our Production Designer, Ross Wallace, and I had known each other from various television commercials and I had always enjoyed working with him. The Director had prepared very detailed look and style references and we were delighted to find fabulous locations around Ipswich and Toowoomba which matched those references. I remember her saying that she wanted the lighting to be ‘realistic but bold’. Garrett referenced numerous photographers and also films which she found relevant to this story.

I believe in facilitating a director’s vision and usually find myself influenced by their references, and how I can achieve that within the time and budget allowed.  I will alway make suggestions but I try not to get to fixed on them or set on certain decisions. A cinematographer has to be flexible to take advantage of what actors, directors and even locations can present on the day.

We had to be truthful to the story, that was important. We referenced press articles  and films set in the time period. The colour palette continued through to the costume designs of the amazing Paula Ryan (The Hobbit) and make-up by internationally-awarded Shane Thomas (Hacksaw Ridge).

It was a tight budget, a hectic shooting schedule and the film features a large cast with many locations. Lighting on a tight schedule just really requires some good planning in advance. We were both fortunate and blessed to be working with some top Australian talent on Don’t Tell.

Gyton Grantley plays Kevin Guy in 'Don't Tell' - DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Hannah Roche
Gyton Grantley plays Kevin Guy in ‘Don’t Tell’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Hannah Roche

AC – Can you tell us briefly about your crew in the camera department?

MW Don’t Tell was predominately a single-camera shoot with two weeks of B-Camera in the courtroom and in Toowoomba. We were fortunate to be joined by Greg ‘Mango’ Gilbert who I have had the pleasure of working with for over twenty years. He also operated Steadicam.

In addition to that, Jason Hargraves ACS shot some beautiful scenic and establishing photography during the Toowoomba ‘Carnival of Flowers’ six months prior to the shoot. My 1st AC was the terrific Dan Clarke with 2nd AC Jeremy Wheatley. The shoot went really well. Clark and Wheatley were very professional and friendly.

AC – How involved were you in the post-production process on Don’t Tell?

MW – Our dailies were processed by The Post Lounge in Brisbane and we used a fairly standard LUT that we set up in pre-production. There was a small about of CGI in renaming some buildings and some scrub outs that, as Garrett would say, ‘maintain her Libran sense of balance’.

We had some wonderful talent on the grade also with Don’t Tell securing the talents of Olivier Fontenay (Australia, Top of the Lake, Lion) at The Post Lounge in Melbourne, on the DaVinci Resolve. I spent two days with Garrett and Fontenay to set up the overall look of the film. Fontenay brought a beautiful European sensibility to the colour timing. He later told me that he’d cried when he watched the film. More than one person has said that to me now and it’s really humbling.

We just screened Don’t Tell at the Newport Beach Film Festival where the film won the ‘Audience Award for Best Film’. Everything was very enthusiastically received. I should take the time to thank Fontenay for his tremendous work. I had great confidence from our first conversation and was delighted by his consistent artistic and professional quality of work.

Jack Thompson plays Bob Myers in 'Don't Tell' - DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Hannah Roche
Jack Thompson plays Bob Myers in ‘Don’t Tell’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Hannah Roche

AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in the film? Why?

MW – Yes, I really enjoy a lot of our shots on Lyndal’s family’s farm. They were unscripted, meaning they were simply free of dialogue. They are magic. The shots which transition between scenes are shot in beautiful natural light. A lot of directors today, with the cameras, believe that you can get away with natural lighting in a lot of conditions. You have to analyse the classics, the good movies. They all needed lighting because it’s like painting. They let the audience in to the emotions of individual characters in Don’t Tell. That is the magic of cinema.

An important Australian film like this can only ever be brought to the big screen when you have a cast and crew that is completely invested in the story, and that’s exactly what we had with Don’t Tell. I’m incredibly proud of the work everybody put into this heartening true story and am thrilled to be finally showing it to Australian audiences.

AC – Looking back on what you, and the team behind the film, had originally set out to achieve… do you think you succeeded? What might you have done differently?

MW – The benefit of hindsight is a great thing. It is interesting how a film evolves through all the processes, particularly in the edit. Scenes get combined, screen days are taken out, scenes are dropped and beats changed. My usual regret is putting effort in to scenes that just don’t make the cut.

AC – Finally, what are you working on next?

MW – By the time this is published I will be shooting a thriller called The Second directed by Mairi Cameron. Then to the Kimberley to shoot a miniseries called Mystery Road. There are some exciting projects ahead and I am looking forward to the challenges.

One of Australia’s foremost cinematographers, Mark Wareham ACS has a diverse list of film and television credits including Cloudstreet (2011), Redfern Now (2011), Felony (2014), Cleverman (2015) and Jasper Jones (2016).

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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