Detective Jay Swan is assigned to investigating the mysterious disappearance of two men on a remote Outback cattle station. Come behind-the-scenes on the ABC’s compelling Mystery Road series with cinematographer Mark Wareham ACS.
By James Cunningham.
On a desolate dirt patch of iconic Australian desert, under a gloriously illuminated Milky Way, sits a ute. With the engine still running (a clue, perhaps?), the driver or his passenger is nowhere in sight. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) working with local cop Emma James (Two-time Academy Award-nominee Judy Davis) are tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance. As the investigation unravels, a past injustice threatens to rip apart the fabric of the whole community. Finally… superbly crafted, finely acted, Australian crime-drama that we can binge watch.
Cinematographer Mark Wareham ACS (Felony, Don’t Tell, Cleverman) had worked with Mystery Road director Rachel Perkins previously on series Redfern Now (2012-13), telemovie Redfern Now: Promise Me (2015) and feature film Jasper Jones (2017). “Perkins and I have a very collegial working relationship,” says Wareham.
From the beginning, Wareham explains the visual style of the show was dictated by Ivan Sen’s film Mystery Road (2013), and to some extent Goldstone (2016). Sen, who was credited as Director as well as Cinematographer on those films, worked as Executive Producer on the series. “The ABC very much wanted the cinematic feel and style and mood invoked by those films,” says Wareham. “The series was always intended to be a western and the term ‘Outback Noir’ was coined to describe the genre of Sen’s films, juxtaposing his characters against the outback locations.”
The team created mood-boards and reference frames from both Mystery Road and Goldstone, as well as Sen’s original reference for his films, the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC). They also looked at the first series of True Detective (2014, cinematography by Adam Arkapaw ACS) along with Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984, cinematography by Robby Müller NSC BVK), as location was an important character for the show they were creating.
Those lucky enough to have indulged in the series will be aware of the striking use of time-lapse photography in each of the opening title sequences; a different sequence for each episode, and scene one of the first script mentioned the use of time-lapse against the Australian landscape. “Perkins discussed the idea every episode’s title sequence to be ‘bespoke’ and relate to the drama, story or characters’ journey,” explains Wareham. “The reference was the season two of Fargo (2015, cinematography by Dana Gonzales ASC and Craig Wrobleski CSC)”.
The time-lapse photography in Mystery Road beautifully showcases the clarity of a desert night sky, free from light pollution. “We were also inspired by the astrophotography of local Kimberley photographer Ben Broady, who became our full-time Drone Operator,” says Wareham.
Wareham suggested photographer and filmmaker Murray Fredericks who he knew could interpret these sequences, and who had the technical expertise to pull them off in a limited shooting schedule. “We shot some early tests during pre-production which illustrated the potential detail we would be able to attain from the night skies,” he explains.
The international sales agent wanted a DCI 4K (4096×2160) finish to satisfy future delivery requirements and Wareham again took his lead from Sen. He used the RED Weapon Helium as both Ivans films were shot on RED. “I was impressed with the tests I had seen,” he says. “I wanted to capture as much clarity and colour information as the show had a lot of warm tones I was interested in, as well as extreme lighting situations and contrast ranges between costume and skin tones.” Wareham says the 7K data took some management, but in the end he was pleased with the look of the Helium.
“I ended up having a pretty good six week pre-production period, which was very helpful in planning such a visual show,” says Wareham. “Perkins and I were able to create shot lists and photo boards for many of the big set pieces, in addition to having story boards for our opening time-lapse sequences.”
Perkins and Wareham assembled their look book illustrating composition, lighting and colour tones. During pre-production, the team shot test-footage at an outback rodeo. Frames from this test-shoot were included in the team’s look book. They handed those references to Fredericks and Second Unit Cinematographer and Time-lapse Assistant Director Mark Boskell, who liaised with Broady as to when would be the best lunar phase; meaning when the moon would not be so bright as to dim the brilliance of the milky way.
Having one director over the entire six hours of television Wareham was creating imparted the show with a coherent visual style. “We used Peter Pound to storyboard many of our scenes,” explains Wareham. “Many we shot for the series, however others were simply unfeasible when it to came budgeting. Our most important storyboarded scenes were passed to our Second Unit Director, Tov Belling.”
Both the Mystery Road and Goldstone films extensively used drone photography, and the filmmakers were keen to develop this idea to illustrate a vastness of the Australian landscape. “Due to remoteness and cost of travel,” explains Wareham, “we made an early decision to have a full-time Drone Operator as part of our camera department.” This was Ben Broady who used a DJI Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse X5R camera. “In addition to Broady’s equipment, I had my Phantom 4 Pro+ on hand when Broady was off with Second Unit or our Time-lapse Unit. I was able to recce and shoot tests of most of the drone work,” Wareham explains.
The crew faced a television schedule with upwards of six scenes a day. “Our First Assistant Director Greg Spiller is a keen photographer and where possible always scheduled to take as much advantage of the afternoon light,” says Wareham.
Rounding out the cast of Mystery Road alongside Petersen and Davis is a collection of absolutely stellar Australian talent, including Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Colin Friels, Anthony Hayes, Tasma Walton, John Waters, and Ernie Dingo. “It was a great pleasure and honour to work with such a fine group of actors,” says Wareham. “I can’t say it was always simple to solve lighting for two cameras with such a diverse range of skin tones, however Perkins is very understanding when getting this correct. Perkins still thinks in terms of working on film. This is a significant and undervalued skill.”
“I make mention of that sad passing of Jessica Falkholt,” said Wareham, “who all of us on Mystery Road had the pleasure of meeting and working with.” The Cinematographer also wished to acknowledge the support and guidance of the Miriuwung and Gajerrong people of Kununarra, and the Balanggarra of Wynham and the Cockburn Ranges.
Wareham goes on to acknowledge his team. He explains that he knew he needed good backup in the camera department, and was able to assemble an excellent crew including Steadicam and B-Camera Operator Tim Walsh, A-Camera First Assistant Camera Murray Johnston, B-Camera Second Assistant Camera Karina Davies, B-Camera First Assistant Camera Jack Mayo and B-Camera Second Assistant Camera Meredith Lindsay. The crew also benefited from Camera Interns James Morgan, Arthur Hunter and Vincent Carter.
“Music is always a big part of Perkins’ preparation”, explains Wareham. Series Editor Deborah Peart was often on location and would put together assemblies with temp music. Dwaine Hyde at Cutting Edge in Sydney graded Mystery Road on the Baselight. “The look of the show was similar to the dailies and Hyde smoothed out the bumps,” says Wareham, who wanted to capture the vastness and beauty of the east Kimberleys. Perkins always intended for the colours of the landscape to motivate the palette. “I have worked with Hyde many times and again he did an awesome job,” he says.
With landscape acting as a character in the show, coupled with some superbly crafted visual storytelling, the result is a drama that satisfies and exceeds expectation. As the mystery unravels, deep themes are brought to the surface and ensure the series is a complex exploration of Australian identity and history. Apart from simply hoping for another series of this excellent show, one wishes simply for more shows like Mystery Road to appear on our televisions.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.