Behind the camera on ABC miniseries ‘Riot’ with Cinematographer Martin McGrath ACS

With two-time Milli Award-winning Cinematographer Martin McGrath ACS (Muriel’s Wedding) behind the camera, ABC telemovie Riot shines a spotlight on key events in Australia’s gay and lesbian civil rights movement of the 1970s.

By James Cunningham.

Back in 1978, when attempts to decriminalise homosexuality in Australia had stalled, a small group of activists decided to make one final attempt to celebrate who they were. 

Led by former union boss, Lance Gowland, the group obtain a permit and, on a freezing winter’s night, they cloaked themselves in fancy dress, joined hands and paraded down Sydney’s Oxford Street. Now, in 2018, it’s the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. ABC miniseries Riot doesn’t just tell the story of that very first parade, it also carefully and skilfully examines the controversial events surrounding it. 

On Saturday, 24 June 1978 at 10pm, their parade was met with unexpected, and some would rightly say excessive, police violence. The activists had no idea that angry and intolerant police officers lay in wait. The courage the activists found that night in the face of adversity to stand up for who they were would go on to rally a nation, inspire a generation of gay and lesbian Australians and pave the way for equality. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced plans for the national postal-vote on same-sex marriage in August last year, while filming was underway on Riot.

Behind-the-scenes on ABC telemovie 'Riot' -PHOTO Maria Boyadgis
Behind-the-scenes on ABC telemovie ‘Riot’ – PHOTO Maria Boyadgis

Director Jeffrey Walker was adamant from the outset that Riot would not feel like a nostalgic biopic, nor be tonally light, because what was at stake was enormous. Riot came to cinematographer Martin McGrath ACS through his previous association with Walker and Producer Joanna Werner. 

The trio had worked together on Dance Academy (2017) and Riot was McGrath’s tenth project with Walker. “They both have a strong work ethic and are efficient workers and thinkers,” says McGrath. “No time is wasted and yet there is great calm. It’s surprising to hear myself say that after seeing what was achieved in only twenty days.

Shooting a 105 minute feature film made for television in only twenty days was no small undertaking. “After seeing the production schedule I guess anyone would have been forgiven for heading for the exit,” says McGrath. “Given the trust that existed amongst the core group of creatives I knew that anything was possible, even if it seemed impossible.” Each day of filming was carefully assessed for its achievability before the “blow torch was applied”, says McGrath, to make each day’s workload achievable.

McGrath explains that planning, using one’s time efficiently, setting targets and time limits to your day brings its own energy. “It keeps you sharp and reactive,” he says. “It also throws up unexpected little gems.

As far as achieving an overall vision is concerned, the twenty-day telemovie is a particularly challenging beast,” says McGrath. “You can guarantee there will not be enough money to fully reach expectations, but you have to aim for the best and work with the best. It’s a different mindset and one that suits my methods.

A great deal of discussion in pre-production regarding the visual style of Riot specifically focused on the huge nighttime scenes in King’s Cross. During production the riot begins at King’s Cross before seamlessly moving to mocked-up store fronts filmed at Fox Studios in Moore Park. “Pete Baxter (Production Designer) and his team worked miracles making this happen. Colour and the direction of light was a big part of making this blend better as a sequence,” says McGrath.

Baxter recalls, “Jeffrey and Martin’s idea to avoid a clichéd warm colours approach was something that really appealed to me, and after my initial conversations with them I started researching, and a lot of the imagery I saw from the period had a really different feel to what usually gets portrayed of the 1970s. These images did have a blue hue, everyone was in their duffel coats; it had a much more ‘English vibe’ than what is usually presented of the era, which is an ‘American vibe’. 

Walker explains, “Architecturally and structurally, Oxford Street is exactly the same, so we generated the first part of the Mardi Gras on Oxford Street, then segued back to the Fox Studios set, where we built facades of the period. 

Even doing a general shot of Taylor Square was tricky for the production, that would end up painting certain things out in CGI. “That took a lot of preparation,” says Walker. “The Darlinghurst Police Station building, even though it’s no longer a police station, is identical to what it was forty years ago. The El Alamein Fountain is the same; so we had to be very specific with how we photographed them, but the core, iconic architectural elements of those spaces, thankfully, have been retained. 

Shutting down Kings Cross was also no easy feat, however Location Manager Chris Reynolds and his team secured the necessary permission. When Werner arrived on set, “with 200 extras, all linking arms and chanting at the police; it was inspiring. It felt like we were part of a movement. That’s what we want the sense of the film to be, that we’re witnessing the struggle and the real-life people who were part of this movement. 

A scene from ABC telemovie 'Riot' - DOP Martin McGrath ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers
A scene from ABC telemovie ‘Riot’ – DOP Martin McGrath ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

The Cinematographer also worked at storyboarding sequences as a way into discussions, “I’m happy to sketch out scenes in my own crazy style then use the process to tie down variables.” Walker and McGrath took their visual cues from stills photographs as well as the precious little footage that survives from the era. 

Hand-held was always the go-to mode for us and I am very comfortable in that world,” explains McGrath. “Each take is a lot different to the last and great things fall into your lap. There are risks too that the action described will not be pointed out clearly enough in the chaos of the moment.

During filming, he explains, McGrath relies on an outstanding core group of crew. “Juntra Santitharakan, my First Assistant Camera, is a very ‘zen’ person and never flustered,” says McGrath. “She just works through the problems and rarely gets a rehearsal, wide open on anamorphics! 

Aaron Walker was my Key Grip, pushed the dolly and never stopped working and planning and of course there was Gaffer Ben Dugard and his lighting team,” he says. “I cannot stress enough how you could not even think about a show like this in twenty days with out these quality key people.

McGrath chose to shoot Riot with the Panasonic VariCam, after also using the camera on Dance Academy. Walker had brought the VariCam to that production after using it on his first film Ali’s Wedding with Cinematographer Don McAlpine ACS ASC. 

McGrath says the VariCam’s take on colour is both new and exciting. “I’m always looking for something different, and for me this camera has a broader colour space and greater ability to resolve a great range of mixed colour,” he says. “The dynamic range is massive and low-light capabilities unequalled.

While filming Dance Academy with the VariCam McGrath lit a scene with a gas heater and a projector lamp utilising the camera’s 5000 ISO capabilities. On Riot, the Cinematographer was able to shoot in tight alleyways with precious little light. “The entire ‘riot sequence’ is shot at 5000 ISO, wide open on the lens the whole way,” McGrath explains. “Then edge lights , just conventional HMI par lamps and the odd M18, were spotted and used to create hot spots. 

This assisted the Cinematographer to give an impression that there might be more people in the shadows, and that there were more rioters than the production had money for. If McGrath had a larger budget on Riot, he says he might have lit the scenes in King’s Cross very differently, potentially setting a trail of usable soft light as a base then placing edge lights at intervals to pick out various groups. “As it was,” he says, “I worked with Dugard to create zones, areas where the light intensified. Between those zones the ambient street lights became the base light level.

Sometimes I would be down in the melee filming, wondering how to communicate to the Gaffer that the lamp was a bit too hot,” McGrath says. “However we ended up working the action against the light creating some wonderful flares for the Cooke anamorphics.

Every minute counts on a tight budget,” he explains, “and to be able to look at a dimly lit city alleyway and know you can offer the Director any angle because you already have something on the chip is a great freedom.

Xavier Samuel (Jim) in 'Riot' - DOP Martin McGrath ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers
Xavier Samuel (Jim) in ‘Riot’ – DOP Martin McGrath ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

Freedom is a key theme running through Riot. As the opening slide in the telemovie states; the programme is based on the history of the first Mardi Gras. Lance Gowland (Damon Herriman) is a devoted activist. With the system against them and an ever-present adversity, including police brutality, legislative persecution and social shunning, Gowland and his fellow activists decide to come out fighting in a celebration of their diversity.

AACTA and Logie Award-winning actor Damon Herriman was the first and only choice for the key creative team for portraying this complex man. Herriman was a child actor in the classic Australian television series The Sullivans (1976-1983), and has appeared in numerous roles in the United States in productions such as Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Other actors featured are Xavier Samuels, Kate Box as teacher Marg McMann, Jessica De Gouw as Robyn Plaister and Josh Quong Tart as Ron Austin. 

Protesting can be a form of celebration, and celebration can be a means to protest. Herriman believes that most people will be surprised at what they see in Riot. “I don’t think too many people know what the first one was like,” says Herriman. “It was obviously very different to what it is now. But it’s a story that should be told”.

In telling that story, McGrath acknowledges Haskell Wexler ASC’s Medium Cool (1969) as one of his influences for Riot’s visual style. Medium Cool, both directed and shot by Wexler was notable for its use of cinéma vérité-style documentary filmmaking techniques, as well as for combining fictional and non-fictional content.

Also an influence for McGrath on Riot were documentaries from the 1970s such as the counterculture era documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), by Albert and David Maysles. “These are filmmakers that used their cameras in a fluid style, responded to the action and embraced the rich colours their stocks offered them,” says McGrath. “The VariCam, to me, feels like another ‘filmstock’. Another set of colours on the palette that I can turn to. 

In keeping with this approach, Walker, McGrath and the producers didn’t want to employ conventional coverage for every scene. Walker, who has worked extensively in television, thought that this was an opportunity to break that mould, by approaching the ensemble scenes as long, dynamic shots with seamless, sometimes overlapping dialogues. 

McGrath’s favourite scene in Riot is unsurprisingly the riot itself. “I was a news cameraman in that era,” he explains. “In fact, you will see a cameraman during the riot sequences with his CP-16 Camera and battery light. That would have been me in the day. Though in reality, I was Melbourne-based and nowhere near this particular altercation.

Walker, as well as McGrath, demonstrates his skills as a talented director during these riot sequences, skilled at maintaining a consistent tone and bringing cast and crew together to sustain both mood and style. “The director has a great eye for a spectacle and made these scenes happen right in front of me,” says McGrath. “I just went for it in the old fashioned way. Just you and the ‘happening’, now or never. Wow, now I’m even using language from the 1970s!

There is a wonderful language in Greg Waters’ screenplay of Riot, which explores the gay rights movement in Australia, but also depicts the inevitable romantic relationship sub-plot. Jim (Xavier Samuels) runs a free medical clinic for the poor. Liking what he sees, Gowland (Herriman) hovers on the street one evening waiting for him. When Jim asks what Gowland wants, he responds: “Peace in Palestine, an end to uranium mining, and justice for Aborigines. But you know, I’ll settle for dinner.

Filmmaking of this intensity requires a great deal of trust across the board,” says McGrath. “The joy of knowing I am completely supported by both director and producer gives me enormous confidence, and equally, knowing they have done their job to a world top standard, every time, is a wonderful feeling.

Xavier Samuel (Jim) and Damon Herriman (Lance) in 'Riot' - DOP Martin McGrath ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers
Xavier Samuel (Jim) and Damon Herriman (Lance) in ‘Riot’ – DOP Martin McGrath ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

Post-production was another stage where McGrath felt confident he was in good hands. “Walker works a lot with Geoffrey Lamb, (Riot’s Editor) and he knows the rhythm of the cut,” says McGrath. “I’ve worked with both Walker and Lamb a lot and know what they like as well. You get attuned to one another.

Trish Cahill was Colourist on Riot who, apart from being one of Australia’s most experienced film technicians with over sixty films to her name, humbly carved McGrath’s images into gems. “It’s got to the point now with grading that I’m usually the one saying: Enough!”, says the Cinematographer. 

Cahill’s eye, however, is remarkable,” says McGrath. “She knows how to blend the colour subtleties and won’t rest until it all settles properly. There were challenges aplenty. Back alleys in the cross, sodium vapour street lamps, battling with new intrusive LED lamps in Sydney, then a warmly lit pub interior.” McGrath’s VariCam seemed to love all this and didn’t seem to take an attitude to the odd casts of colour, “Just gathers them all in for Trish to deal with later. Very reassuring.

The timing of the series probably couldn’t be better. Australia voted 62% in favour to change the Marriage Act to allow for same-sex couples to marry, and this was enacted by Parliament on 7 December, 2017.

McGrath’s Producer, Joanna Werner, adds “This is a huge part of our national history that a lot of people don’t know about. We take for granted that the Mardi Gras is a wonderful celebration and it’s so accepted, but it came from such a passionate, striving and violent beginning in an era in which people had to fight for their right to celebrate their identity. 

The only regret,” McGrath proclaims, “is that we don’t get to make more shows like this. Stories that highlight the smaller struggles along the path of our history as a country. The impact of this ‘small’ demonstration is still being played out today. These are stories worth telling. It’s an education in other people’s struggles and goes toward us being more tolerant as a nation.

The ABC moved from their development support of the project into production support without hesitation. Werner says, “The ABC have been with us from day one, through development and production, being on set, watching rushes, and were consistently supportive of the project.” Joining the ABC in financing Riot were government agency investors Screen Australia and Create NSW. 

Werner and her team at Werner Film Productions, the courageous ABC, and our Director Jeffery Walker ably assisted by Wade Savage were the knowledgeable grownups who brought all the elements together beginning with Greg Waters’ script,” says McGrath. “Looking back, I can’t think of a thing I would change. A terrific cast and simply the best crew.

McGrath is currently in production on Rachel Griffiths’ directorial debut Ride like a Girl about Michell Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. “It tracks the rise of Payne as a jockey through to her Melbourne Cup win in 2015,” he says. “A huge challenge and another job for the VariCams!

Lemac Melbourne have been looking after McGrath on Ride like a Girl and are “doing their best to cope with our ridiculous demands,” he says. “They put up with a lot.

Martin McGrath is a multi-award winning cinematographer earning two Milli Awards for ‘Australian Cinematographer of the Year’, in 1994 for ‘Seventh Floor’ and 2003 for ‘Swimming Upstream’.

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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