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The three-year, round-the-world hunt for Wake In Fright

Wake In Fright producer Helen Bowden reveals how tracking down a near 60-year-old document to an archive in Paris was pivotal to making the Network Ten drama.

Kriv Stenders, Helen Bowden and Kristian MoliereKriv Stenders, Helen Bowden and Kristian Moliere on set / Photo credit John Platt

For three years, the fate of the television adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s novel Wake In Fright depended on finding one single piece of paper written in 1963.

For producer Helen Bowden of Lingo Pictures, it all began when producer Kristian Moliere approached her about the idea. She knew their first major hurdle would be securing the rights and so the first stop was speaking to the owners of Kenneth Cook’s Estate – his family – to get permission.

“They said absolutely – they would love it,” Bowden says.

But there was a catch. They would need to find the original option agreement for the 1971 feature film (whose print by this time had been found in a box in Pittsburgh and was restored in 2009).

“If it was a global deal where all the rights in the novel had been given to that company, then we wouldn’t be in a position to make a mini-series,” Bowden said.

And so the Wake In Fright mini-series hung in the balance for three years as they tried to chase down the rights.

“It was a long journey and mainly carried out for me by Pippa Masson who's an agent at Curtis Brown in Sydney,” Bowden said.

“Every few months I would check in with Pippa as she kept digging in various places such as the National Film and Sound Archive trying to track it down.

“Finally she came across correspondence that indicated where this option agreement might be… the book was first published in 1961, but it was optioned for a film in 1963 by Dirk Bogarde and she found a copy of the agreement in the Dirk Bogarde Estate in Paris.

“She persuaded the lawyer in Paris to go into the archives and dig out this piece of paper – the original type written option agreement for the film. And she rang me up and said ‘Helen you are going to be incredibly excited. Not only is it an option that's just for a feature film, but there's a paragraph that excludes the television rights’.

“So that meant we were in business.”

After being in limbo for so long they were suddenly off and running, at breakneck speed.

The two-part mini-series, which stars Sean Keenan and David Wenham and was directed by Kriv Stenders, is set in the Outback of modern-day Australia and fleshes out Cook’s novel, particularly the female characters.

“The process of developing and making Wake In Fright has been incredibly fast,” she says.

“We first sat down with writer Stephen Irwin in late January 2016 and were shooting something like 14 months later.”

She puts that down to a number of factors.

First, was great source material with the book. Second, was Irwin as the screenwriter, who “is very fast and very good with feedback.” Third, was working with Network Ten and Head of Drama Rick Maier.

“He makes very quick decisions. Literally you send him the script in the morning and by the afternoon he’s read it and got his notes. So it means you can really just keep moving.”

Bowden says it makes it a “hell of a lot of fun” and is particularly great approach for a young company like Lingo Pictures, which she started in 2015 with Jason Stephens.

“We went to Content London (in December 2016), and we were talking to British companies about how we’d been going for 18 months and were about to start shooting our first mini-series. And they were just blown away,” she says.

“When we met with Ridley Scott’s company they sort of looked at us plaintively and said, ‘it took us five years to shoot our first thing’.”

Part of their growth is thanks to an early development deal they signed with Endemol Shine.

Bowden says when she left Matchbox Pictures and set up Lingo Pictures with Stephens, who was ex-FremantleMedia Australia, they decided they wanted to have a more independent company.

“We’d both worked for big companies so we thought that would be good. But at the same time we didn’t want to be working out of our own kitchens for the first couple of years.”

So they approached Mark and Carl Fennessy at what was then Shine, soon to be Endemol Shine.

“They set up a development deal, which is quite an unusual thing in Australia, but it’s quite common in the US and is called a POD, or Producer Overhead Deal.

“They set up a development deal, which is quite an unusual thing in Australia.”

“It’s where you sit inside a big company, but you’re not actually owned or employed by them. It’s risk-sharing…

“You’re getting a place to work and your overheads paid and a bit of money. And on their side they’re getting at least a share of projects.”

They signed a two-picture deal with Endemol Shine, and Wake In Fright marks the first of two mini-series they are developing under that.

That deal also means those projects will be sold by Endemol Shine International, whose CEO is Australian Cathy Payne.

“She's one of the best sales agents in the world and she's very excited about Wake In Fright. Cathy thinks it’s got great international appeal,” she says.

“It's got a franchise, so it's known through the novel, which has never been out of print in 50 years and it's known through the film, which is very famous and not long ago the restored version was distributed through the US and a number of European countries.

“And she thinks the Outback setting and the story and the structure are ideal for international sales which is great. That's what Lingo is about.”

Bowden says first and foremost Wake In Fright is made for Network Ten and their contemporary Australian audience.

“However from a business perspective and personal interest, making things that will travel is also a priority… Really it's the only way to make money, because you can make a certain amount out of a project as a fee, but it's not a very good wage and you have to work pretty much full-time to get it. You can't build a business on that basis.

“But a business can be built on revenues coming back. And if you look at the most successful companies that have been built in Australia almost all of them have been built sometimes on the back of only one highly successful exported project.”

Wake In Fright premiere Sunday 8 October at 8.30pm and continues Sunday 15 October on Network Ten and WIN Network.