"McLeod's Daughters is the only Australian show set in the countryside": 'McLeod's Daughters' executive producer Susan Bower

While Hallmark has been struggling to make a dent in India one of the shows that is having a decent run is McLeod's Daughters. The show from Australia is women oriented. It deals with five women who run a cattle station, Drover's Run, in the outback of South Australia. In Australia Channel Nine claims that it is the most successful Australian drama series of the past four years with an average of 1.5 million viewers tuning in each Wednesday night.

In India at the moment repeat episodes from the second season are airing in blocks on Sunday mornings. The executive producer of the show Susan Bower came down to India for a holiday. Indiantelevision.com's corespondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with the producer to get a broad perspective on the making of the show and its unique elements:

How did the idea of McLeods Daughters come about?

Well the creator Posie Graeme-Evans read a magazine article a few years ago. This dealt with girls working on an outback station in the Northern territory. They were doing a man’s job in very difficult terrain.

From the piece she had read she came up with the story concept of having two half sisters separated by their parents divorce. They are reunited after 20 years when they inherit a vast outback cattle property. She made a TV movie. Five years later the Nine Network evinced interest in making a television series.

What are the unique elements of the show that separate it from other television serials being made in Australia and elsewhere?

We are just starting our fifth season. We have been the number one Australian drama for at least six months. We are in fact doing better than some of the American shows that are airing in Australia.

It is the only Australian show set in the countryside. It is shot on Super 16mm film, and is the first Australian drama series to be delivered in HDTV format.

McLeod's Daughters is the only Australian show set in the countryside. It is shot on Super 16mm film, and is the first Australian drama series to be delivered in HDTV format.

As a producer what are the rewards of working on a show like this?

There are many rewards for me. One is working hard on something that I am passionate about. Then you go through the process of seeing an idea on paper come alive on a visual medium. The production is very realistic as we don’t shoot in a studio. We shoot on an actual farm. We shoot on a heritage estate, the size of a hobby farm, just one hour north of Adelaide.

We have also managed to incorporate actual horse races on the show. We also do unique things like shooting underwater. Here what happened was that one of the sisters lost something precious in a dam. It had to be retrieved.

How much of research do the actors do in order to portray accurately the lives of rural women?

The script writers do the research. They talk to the local people. Practically every story has come from a vetinerian, a farmer and people who work on the land. People's experiences are an individual thing and they see things in different ways. The writers read rural magazines. We also hold meetings regularly with rural women to stay in touch and be topical and accurate.

At the same time we are conscious of the fact that we are not making a documentary. We are creating drama where the characters are experiencing different emotions. On their part the girls had to learn how to ride horses, shear sheep, fire a rifle and also master the art of cracking the whip.

At the start a number of the cast members had the opportunity to drive cattle on a working cattle property in northern South Australia with horse master Bill Willoughby before joining Bill and his team for the final weeks of intensive rehearsal in pre-production.

"We are conscious of the fact that we are not making a documentary"

Is it a challenge for the team to keep each episode fresh and avoid becoming repetitive?

Yes! This is one of the hardest shows I have worked on. If you have a show set in a hospital or one that deals with the police then each week there will be a murder to solve or a disease to cure.

We don’t have that. We are dealing with the day to day running of a farm and what people go through. So it is a challenge to come up with new ideas and unique situations that don’t feel old.

Could you talk about the different character arcs in the show and is there anybody in particular that you identify with?

Well at the beginning of each season we define the character arcs and outline the different journeys that each character will take. We try to put each character in situations that the viewers can easily identify with.

For instance the people on the farm have their own little differences. However if someone from the outside criticises the way affairs are being run then the farm people come together and put their personal agendas aside. So the theme of unity is very strong.

Recently we gave one of the girls a medical problem. She had a lump in her breast and we had a huge response from viewers. Then you had one of the sisters being brought up in the city and having to shift base to the countryside. She had to learn to adjust to a new way of life. That is something I could identify with. I came from Sydney to a farmhouse to produce the show. It was a big difference.

From the production point of view what are the main challenges involved in delivering the show in HDTV?

The weather! When it rains we go inside. The problem is that you have to make sure that every room has the appropriate lighting. That slows down the process. The clock is thus always ticking.

For instance to celebrate the 50th episode we filmed a wedding. The cast and crew faced a dust storm, 100kmh winds and 40C heat that later fell to just 18C. The storm caused some scenes to be reshot. The wedding service had to move from the veranda to the dining room. Though they are trained the horses don’t always do as they are told. We shoot two episodes simultaneously.

It takes 13 weeks to write the show. We spend 11 days in pre production and another 11 days doing post production work for two hours of content. There are times when both are going on simultaneously. For film you shoot three to five minutes a day. We shoot eight to ten minutes through camera.

There is the fear of going over budget if we don’t get a full days shoot on time. However the crew is very quick and efficient. So far we have not had this problem. In fact due to the technical expertise of the crew you have overseas productions coming here.

We also don’t have a lot of union problems. On the show our DP Roger Dowling has done an excellent job of creating the illusion that the series is being shot on a 20,000 acre property in the Australian bush instead of a small farm.

How did you get your start in television?

EI used to work in hospitals as a nurse for many years. However I have always been fond of telling stories. There was a television show the rural drama A Country Practice which required research.

I did the needful and gradually became hooked. Then I got divorced with two children and I found that nursing couldn't support them. So I started writing for the show and relocated to Sydney. I became a trainee script editor and then went on to producing.

There are similarities and differences in being a nurse and a producer. For both you have to be an administrator. You have to think quick on your feet. You have to solve problems and in a sense you play the role of a mother to people around you.

"It is a fact that very often people like to see their own cultures portrayed on screen"

Today are we seeing more variety in the television shows coming out of Australia compared to five years back?

In the drama sector yes. There is an attempt to go beyond just hospital and police shows. For instance a show has just been given the greenlight by the head of drama at Channel Nine. This is about people who go to a holiday spot and then decide to stay there. She is also looking at a supernatural theme.

In the sitcom genre unfortunately Australian

television executives don’t seem to understand it. Sitcoms take a lot of care. They need variety and Americans have that down to a fine art. Here however the broadcasters don’t feel that sitcoms are worth investing in by hiring quality writers, which are available in Australia in abundance.

That aside the major problem we are facing is that it is cheaper for Australian broadcasters to simply buy shows from the US compared to making local productions. When I started my career there were more television shows coming out of Australia. In fact we recently protested against a trade agreement with America, which would have done a great deal of harm, to the local industry.

Letters were sent and phone calls were made to the concerned authorities stressing the need to protect our inventory. We actually won the battle. It is a fact that very often people like to see their own cultures portrayed on screen. So it is a struggle going on as the economics are in favour of American shows being brought in..

Are you looking at doing co productions with India?

It is funny you should say that. One of the people I am working with has come up with the idea for a television movie. If it gets the nod then it will be shot both in India and Australia.

I cannot wait for this as I have fallen in love with your country. I have spent the past 20 days travelling through Rajasthan. You have a strong and vibrant television and film industry which is being superbly nurtured.

In India as I am sure is the case in a lot of other countries most of the shows that come from abroad are from the US. In fact I think that Mcleods Daughters is the only show in India from abroad that is not American. Could you shed light on why this is so?

The reason why we don’t have more shows airing abroad especially in India is because of the accents. The rural accents in Australia and Britain can be very difficult to follow.

If the viewer has trouble following dialogue then he / she cannot get emotionally involved through tracking the story. People over the world including India see America as being the best place to watch. They also see Hollywood as being an excellent representative of that.

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