Pike River: Producer hopes docudrama will promote empathy with families

PRIME

Pike River will screen on Prime TV on Monday, November 21

As the head of Screentime New Zealand, Philly de Lacey has been responsible for some of the most popular dramas and reality series (everything from Siege to Police Ten 7) of the past 15 years.

Now she's combined the company's dual strengths of drama and documentary to create Pike River, a look at the causes and aftermath of the terrible tragedy at the West Coast coal mine in late November 2010.

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Using both scripted drama and documentary-style interviews, Pike River looks at the lead-up to and the aftermath of the ...
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Using both scripted drama and documentary-style interviews, Pike River looks at the lead-up to and the aftermath of the 2010 mining disaster.

How long have you been working on this project and what inspired it?

It's probably been about two years since we started. It was one of the most complex projects that we've ever made, to be honest. There was just such a wealth of information and issues that came out through, not only the Royal Commission, but also our own interviews.

I think that we all felt  we could have probably told a six-hour story, but what we had to do was whittle it down to 90 minutes. Tell a story so that people who weren't intimately involved with what happened with Pike River could kind of understand the background. Give them a big picture of what had gone on over the last 30 years.

Pike River producer Philly de Lacey says docudramas give you the ability to put together compelling action and ...
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Pike River producer Philly de Lacey says docudramas give you the ability to put together compelling action and performances that can tell stories that are emotional with a lot of subtleties and layers and then the real voices kind of punch everything home.

Did you always plan to tell it as a docudrama?

There's been so much on the news and in the news about Pike River so we wanted to try and take a really different approach. Part of that was to try and tell the backstory, of which there's not a lot of archive or information about, and also to try and tell a compelling story that keeps you gripped and engaged – and doesn't feel like a dry, corporate story – as well as having a real voice in it.

We've done a couple of docudramas before and I think they are really interesting. They are really complex to make,  but what they do is give you the ability to put together compelling action and performances that can tell stories that are emotional with a lot of subtleties and layers and then the real voices kind of punch everything home.

Pike River docudrama producer Philly de Lacey.
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Pike River docudrama producer Philly de Lacey.

A lot of people say it makes everything feel really authentic.

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One of the particularly impressive things about Pike River is how you've managed to find actors who are good physical matches for their real-life counterparts – was that something that took a long time to do?

That comes down to having a great casting director. She searched across the breadth of New Zealand to try and find us the right people. We also had an excellent make up and wardrobe department, who helped bring the looks alive for those people.

Roy Billing plays Peter Whittall in the Prime docu-drama Pike River.
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Roy Billing plays Peter Whittall in the Prime docu-drama Pike River.

I had no doubt in my mind right from the outset that I wanted  Roy Billing to be Peter Whittall – that was a very easy match.  What was really interesting for us though with casting this was the youth of a lot of the miners. We got to really explore some new acting talent.

You managed to interview a lot of key people – experts, family members, officials. But was their anyone who wasn't keen to talk?

The thing that was tricky with this was that there are so many people involved.

Bernie Monk lost his son Michael in the Pike River disaster.
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Bernie Monk lost his son Michael in the Pike River disaster.

The researchers and I spent a lot of time going through the hundreds of people we could have interviewed and trying to whittle it down to people that covered certain aspects of the events –people working in the mine at the time, people who had been there in the early period, geologists, contractors.

We interviewed a number of people whose interviews didn't end up in the programme simply because we couldn't fit them.

We knew it was very unlikely that we were going to get comment from the existing Pike River management at the time of the disaster.

We did approach a number of them, some through their legal representatives and we weren't surprised that they declined to be interviewed. It was interesting though, that they did give us some info that actually helped with our research.

Finally, in the course of all your research, was there anything you uncovered that surprised you?

I think that once I got into reading the Royal Commission's report into what happened, I was just completely blown away by the length of time where issues had arisen and things had been going wrong.

For me, sitting in my own little bubble in Auckland, I could appreciate the devastation of anyone losing a child, but I hadn't appreciated why the mining families and relatives were fighting so hard to get their loved ones back.

When you start reading all the history of the mine in that report, you just go – "my god, no wonder the families are still hurting so much". I can now totally appreciate their point-of-view and I think that, for me,  that's the story I wanted to tell the rest of New Zealand.  

Pike River 8.30pm, Monday, Prime TV

 - Stuff

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