Dylan River on the set of 'Mystery Road Origin'. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

By his own admission, Dylan River had “big boots to fill” in directing the ABC’s upcoming Mystery Road: Origin.

He joins a line of respected Indigenous directors to have worked on the franchise, from its creator Ivan Sen, who made the original film and sequel Goldstone, to Rachel Perkins who shot season one, and Wayne Blair and Warwick Thornton, River’s father, who helmed the second.

If that wasn’t enough pressure, River knew he was handling a property with an ardent fanbase (of which he was part of), and that he’d be taking it in a direction it hadn’t gone in before – that is, back in time.

Produced by Bunya Productions’ David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin, Mystery Road: Origin is set in the late ’90s, and introduces us to a young Constable Jay Swan, played this time by Mark Coles Smith.

We meet Swan as he returns from the city to work in the police station in the town he grew up in – the fictional Jardine, population 1,000 (the shoot took place in Western Australia’s Coolgardie).

While in town, Jay is confronted by a series of random and violent robberies perpetrated by a masked gang. He’s also navigating his relationship with his estranged father Jack (Kelton Pell), and meets the woman who will change his life forever, Mary (played here by All My Friends Are Racist star Tuuli Narkle). 

The cast also includes including Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Henshall, Lisa Flanagan, Clarence Ryan, Steve Bisley, Caroline Brazier, Hayley McElhinney, Serene Yunupingu, Leonie Whyman, Salme Geransar, Nina Young, Jayden Popik and Grace Chow.

For all the pressure, Mystery Road: Origin offered River – who helms all six episodes – the chance to sink his teeth as a director into long-form narrative, following his AACTA-winning short-form series Robbie Hood and shorts such as Buckskin and Nulla Nulla.

The fact it was an origin tale also made him feel as though he could bring something fresh, and imbue it with his own experiences growing up in a small town. In addition to directing, he joined the writers room with Blake Ayshford, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford, and Timothy Lee.

“There isn’t a book of Mystery Road, and so going to an origin story, we had the freedom to make the story that as a fan, I thought it would be,” he tells IF.

For River, it was important that the series start with a Jay Swan unfamiliar to the audience, who across the episodes, slowly becomes closer the character as portrayed by Aaron Pedersen in the rest of the franchise.

“Our initial conversations with Mark Coles Smith were: How can we do it differently?”

“That’s quite important for me, because you can now watch this series not having seen any Mystery Road and enjoy it equally as much as if you’re a fan.”

Mark Coles Smith as Jay Swan in ‘Mystery Road Origin’ (Photo: David Dare Parker).

In the actor, River found a deep thinker, who didn’t want to just follow the script, but add his own touches.

“That’s really special. That’s how I like to work as well. The script for me is just a sort of working draft as we go to set – in the location, we can change it and that’s okay.”

That’s not say Coles Smith didn’t feel the pressure, or similarly Clarke as Mary.

“We didn’t really discuss it per se, studying the films and the series, but I feel like they both did their homework because they came to set embodying the mannerisms, the speech and the way both of those characters.”

“These two had a lot of pressure because they’re the only two characters in the series that are established before.”

Helping in that was Tasma Walton, who stars Mary in the original film and first two series, and served here River’s director’s attachment. Given her intimacy with the material, she was someone to bounce off for Narkle and was a dramaturg of sorts for the less experienced actors.

“TV’s so fast and furious that I wish I had more time for actors some days. But having someone like Tasma as my colleague, just to help with the nerves and stuff of the less experienced cast, was really great.”

Lensing Mystery Road was another person with family ties to the series, cinematographer Tyson Perkins, Rachel Perkins’ nephew. His sister Madeleine Madden also starred in season one.

DOP Tyson Perkins and director Dylan River on the set of ‘Mystery Road Origin’. (Photo: David Dare Parker)

Perkins and River are long-time friends, and worked together previously on Robbie Hood. As an accomplished cinematographer himself, having shot projects like The Beach (for which he won another AACTA), A Sunburnt Christmas, Australian Dream and We Don’t Need A Map, River appreciates that Perkins can elevate his own vision for a scene.

“Being a blackfella as well, he brings a certain understanding, which is really great for me. He’s really good with story. Yes, he does beautiful images but I think that for him, first and foremost is telling a really good story. I really respect that.”

Out of the Sydney Film Festival screenings, where all six eps were played in a marathon session, River is hopeful the series will resonate heading into TX on Sunday.

He believes Cole Smith has made Jay Swan his own.

“If you look at the ABC social media posts to do with the series, a lot of them are 50+ year old women saying, ‘I love Aaron Pedersen, he’s not in the series’ and talking to each other going ‘He’s not in the series, Why isn’t he in it?’

“I feel like they’re all heartbroken… There’s other comments like, ‘Aaron is quite nice on the eyes’. But I feel once they see Mark Coles Smith in this role, there’ll be new Mark Coles Smith fan pages in the same way there is for Aaron.”

As for what’s next, River has multiple features in the pipeline, and is looking at another series where he will direct all episodes. He’s also keen to move into more comedy.

“A lot of my short films and other things I’ve done are in a dark comedy space, and that’s where I feel quite comfortable.”

Mystery Road: Origin premieres on ABC TV 8.30pm Sunday 8.30pm, with all episodes available to then binge on ABC iview.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great direction congratulations! Enjoyed Mark as Jay he a job well done. Tuuli did a very nice Mary well done. The cinematographer was thoughtful interesting territory.

  2. Congratulations to Dylan River, Mark Coles Smith, Tuuli Narkle and the entire cast and crew, for creating an evocative and well acted show that can hold its own anywhere in the world. I look forward to seeing the future work of these talented artists.

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