Scripting the war

KATE MEAD
Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014
war news

HARD GRAFT: Actor Jason Whyte, who plays Jack Crawford, one of the main reporters.

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Severed limbs are being dropped in muddy puddles. The heavens are opening, via a rain tower sprinkling freezing wet drops onto the men lying below in sludgy masses. Men wearing soldiers' uniforms are milling in the background holding coffee in takeaway cups. "Cut - that was bloody damn good," the director shouts.

We are behind the scenes of War News, Prime's five-part World War I drama, and the shoot tonight is a re-enactment of a dreadful Belgian battle.

The objective was Bellevue Spur in Passchendaele. The day was October 12, 1917. It's a date often referred to as the blackest in New Zealand's military history.

Conditions were unexpectedly horrendous for the troops. Abnormally wet weather and rain-filled bomb craters turned parts of the battlefield into viscous swamps. New Zealand casualties in the conflict against German troops ran into the thousands.

It is also a cold October evening as we watch the re-enactment in Wellington. The severed limbs are fake, the rain is fleeting, and everyone on set has the luxury of going back to a warm home when filming is completed.

War News, it is safe to say, is unlike any World War 1 drama screened in New Zealand. It is a fictional current-affairs show, with each episode narrowing in on a major campaign that involved New Zealanders.

Passchendaele, the third episode, is featured alongside efforts in Gallipoli, the Somme, the Middle East, and Le Quesnoy.

Made by Wellington-based Gibson Group, the series is presented as a news bulletin, with a studio anchor questioning two field correspondents reporting at the coalface of the war.

It relies on the viewer to suspend belief - of course there were no cameras and no journalists in the heart of these battles reporting back to a studio, but even though it is a scripted drama, the historical facts are correct. Damian Fenton, senior historian for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, was adviser to the series.

"Our sort of catchcry for the series is ‘what would happen if you could cover World War One like it happened today'?" says producer Gary Scott.

"When you're talking about something that is 100 years old, for which there's very little moving footage, and there are no living survivors any more to tell the stories, we felt that we could get a lot more value from going down a more dramatic route and staying true to the main themes that people need to understand about the history.

"I've always thought that one of the best ways to make people engage with history on television - rather than try and send them back in time - is to bring the history forward to the present day."

The Passchendaele set is tucked at the back of the Avalon Studios lot. Every now and then a neighbourhood cyclist or runner passes by, staring in at the chaotic scene unfolding.

We watch history being reported as actor Jason Whyte, who plays Jack Crawford, one of the main reporters, crawls in the mud with the soldiers, speaking in hushed tones to Ray Harkness (Mark Mitchinson) in the studio, filling New Zealand viewers in on the actions of their overseas troops. Jack is telling the newsroom how badly this objective is going, that the casualties are huge, and the weather has caused tremendous logistical problems.

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The set, while compact, is quite remarkable. Production designer Nick Riera initially designed a floor plan with tunnels to depict the maze-like battleground.

"When I read the scripts, this one definitely stood out as one of the trickier sets because of the dire situation that these guys were in," says Riera.

"I did a lot of research because this isn't an actual trench like the other wars, it's actually craters in the ground made by the bombs from the Germans on the other side. So [the soldiers] ended up creating these environments inside these different bomb holes and then crawling to each one to try and advance - really brutal stuff."

These craters look like mud pools. They swallow up the extras, some of whom are pretending to be dead. Some are lying semi-submerged and wounded; others are trying to help their fallen mates.

"The thing I found was, as the soldiers advanced in all of these wars, they picked up whatever they could along the way so it was very easy to throw in an old door that had been blown up in a house and it wouldn't look out of place," says Riera.

"To me, the striking thing was total desolation, total discomfort, total misery, and then having the ability to bring in rain towers to intensify that, and then the smoke . . . to try and make it as miserable as possible."

There have been challenges. With budget constraints, the team had to be creative with their location choices.

Gallipoli was shot at Red Rocks. The Sinai and Palestine deserts are actually on the Wainuiomata coast, and the trenches of the Somme are at Paekakariki's Queen Elizabeth II Park.

"The reality is we're not working on a Hollywood film, and we can't just throw money at our problems," says Scott.

"Essentially we've found good solutions and make-dos, as you always do in New Zealand production, and by the time the art department have done their magic and we've covered a few things in smoke and hid a few things in sunshine and taken a few things out in post-production, I think it'll be pretty convincing."

Director Mike Smith agrees.

"One of the concerns is that because of the nature of the show, the conceit of the show has to have a level of realism about it, because we're saying these guys are actually there. We wanted to make sure that we could make it realistic enough so the idea is communicated to the audience."

Sometimes this realism came as a happy accident. Scott recalls filming the Gallipoli episode at a Seatoun wharf that was dressed to look like Watson's Pier at Anzac Cove.

"What happened at Gallipoli was [that] the final departure [was] on a very still moonlit night, and we had a very still moonlit night in Wellington harbour. It was beautiful, and it was very Mediterranean," he says.

"We were all sitting on the beach doing our work in the warm summer evening, feeling quite happy with the world - not like Gallipoli at all."

Prime Presents: War News, Sunday 22 June, 8.30pm.

- Sunday Star Times

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