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Shadow Trackers : not your typical ghost-hunting series

Writer/director Dena Curtis on the sometimes spooky, always fascinating ride that was investigating traditional spirits for NITV series Shadow Trackers.

Zac James & Hunter Page-Lochard in Shadow Trackers

During the shoot for Shadow Trackers, writer/director Dena Curtis was staying in a houseboat on South Australia’s Murray River investigating a water creature called the Muldjewangk. As night descended, she, the small crew, and presenters Hunter Page-Lochard (Cleverman) and Zac James (8MMM), geared up with cameras and flashlights to search for evidence of this half-man-half-fish.

“On the boat it was fine. But the moment we stepped onto land it was just a whole different feeling. The things that happened there were quite creepy,” Curtis, who also co-produced the series, says.

It was an experience that left her “rattled” and is captured in episode 2 of Screen Australia-supported Shadow Trackers, which airs on NITV on Thursday 3 November at 8.30pm.

Page-Lochard and James went out on their own as they always did, with Curtis, researcher/co-writer Rhea Stephenson, the cameraman and sound person trailing not far behind.

“I would always say ‘don’t go any further than this’ because with the gear and the sound, we could only go so far… But it was a bit nerve-racking, making sure they were safe and came back in one piece,” she says.

While not giving everything that happened away, at one point, Curtis heard a growling noise from where James was walking.

“It was just the most unsettling feeling,” Curtis says.

In the tapes you can hear James calling out about the noise. He could hear it too. But yet, from all six cameras they were working with (two GoPros apiece for Page-Lochard and James, an infrared camera and main camera) and the professional sound equipment, only James’ chest camera managed to pick up the growl.

What happened next, to Page-Lochard was just as eerie. But we won’t spoil the surprise.

Shadow Trackers isn’t your typical ghost-hunting series.

The idea came about through a Screen Australia Indigenous factual television series workshop Curtis participated in during 2014.

“I was thinking ‘what’s factual, entertaining and hasn’t been done before?’,” she says.

“And I came up with the idea of a ghost-hunting series that explores traditional spirit stories and urban legends. It’s about entertaining audiences, but also putting a new spin on old stories and drawing people into a part of our culture that you don’t really stop to think about.”

With development money from Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department, Curtis and Stephenson began honing the idea and very quickly James and Page-Lochard emerged as the perfect fit for the presenters of the series. The pair bring a sense of levity and curiosity to Shadow Trackers that keeps it fun, even when they in the midst of an eerie investigation.

“I had worked with Zac on 8MMM,” Curtis says. “And so I’d known about his interest in the genre, and his connection to country and spirits… we knew of Hunter and he had very similar interests so we approached him too…

“The really great thing was they both understood what we were trying to get out of the series… so even though they were scared of the stories, they were really respectful in terms of listening to people telling these stories and learning more about them.”

A close call for the duo whilst filming Shadow Trackers

Each of the four episodes focuses on a different traditional spirit or legend, which were determined largely by the strength of the story and the costs to travel there.

“Then during the filming process –and even in development – we always followed protocol,” she says.

“So being welcomed to country, being with people who are from that country, and not going anywhere we weren’t supposed to.”

All up, it was a four week shoot, filmed in two blocks with a week off in the middle.

First up, they travelled to Queensland’s Beaudesert in search of the bunyip-like creature The Il-Bogan (Ep 1); then to the Kimberley in Western Australia and the township of Fitzroy Crossing, where the spirits of Devil Highway in Bunuba country are (Ep 3).

In the next block, they travelled to Ngarrindjeri land in South Australia for their encounter with the water creature the Muldjewangk (Ep 2) and capped it off with a trip to Darwin to investigate the Larrakia Nation’s most-revered urban legend: the Poinciana woman (Ep 4).

“Spirit stories are different to ghost stories – they are around to teach us something. They all serve a purpose in our culture and I guess that’s why I wanted to explore them,” she says. (Read more about some of these stories here.)

Her take-away from Shadow Trackers is seeing just how strong Indigenous culture, heritage and spiritual connection to country is.

“It’s never gone away. There are generations that talk about these stories. It shows how important it is to be respectful to country and the role that these spirit stories play within each culture and in each nation.”

Shadow Trackers airs Thursdays at 8.30pm on NITV. It was co-produced by Veronica Fury, Principal of WildBear Entertainment.