Jocelyn Moorhouse takes on a brooding mystery in ‘Savage River’

Jocelyn Moorhouse.

In the Aquarius Films and ABC drama Savage River, Jocelyn Moorhouse was offered the kind of mini-series she’d love to watch herself.

The Dressmaker director is an enthusiastic binge watcher of crime mysteries and Scandi-noir – particularly those with great female characters – so the Katherine Langford-led series was right up her alley.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to do one of these, and here it is.’ It’s dark, brooding and really well plotted,” she tells IF.

Now three weeks into pre-production, Savage River was officially announced as part of the ABC’s upfronts today. Production will begin early next year in Melbourne and regional Victoria.

Langford plays Miki Anderson, a young woman who returns to her hometown in rural Victoria after eight years in prison.

She’s determined to finally move on with her life, getting a job in the local meatworks, but the close-knit community of Savage River is not about to let her forget the past that easily.

When a murder rocks the town, Miki immediately becomes the focus of everyone’s suspicion. With the police closing in, she sets out to prove her innocence, uncovering long-buried secrets. 

Surrounding Langford will be an ensemble cast that is yet to be announced.

The story was created by Belinda Bradley and Franz Docherty, working with lead writer Giula Sandler, with Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford producing.

With a her roots in film, Moorhouse started working in TV in 2018 with Wanted before going on to helm episodes of Les Norton, Stateless, Wakefield and Troppo. Here, she will direct the entire show, and she is treating the project like a six hour feature.

“That’s the joy of being able to oversee the whole series, is that I can really put my personal touches on it. It can feel like a real part of me. I have a dark side, so I’m quite happy to let it get under my skin,” she says.

Joining the director are some of the industry’s leading HODs, including cinematographer Don McAlpine, who she worked with on The Dressmaker and Peter Pan, and production designer Jo Ford.

“I’m really encouraging them to be side-by-side with me in helping to create the look of this show. We wanted to have a very special, unique look; like its own little world. Of course it’s based in reality, but we want it to have a haunting quality,” Moorhouse says.

Fielder and Staniford, who have been developing the character-driven project with the ABC for the last three years, tell IF they wanted a single directorial voice, given it is a mystery.

“It was important to us that we have a female director helming the series. We think Jocelyn’s got an amazing visual style, she’s great with actors. We liked the idea of her bringing a cinematic vision to the whole series,” says Staniford.

All are excited to work with Langford, star of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Cursed and Knives Out, on an Australian project.

“She’s very soulful and gutsy, and Miki has to be both of those things,” Moorhouse says.

Darlene Johnson, currently collaborating with Aquarius after being awarded the inaugural Sydney Film Festival/Deutsche Bank First Nations fellowship, is both a director’s and producer’s attachment.

In terms of other projects, Moorhouse is developing a few TV shows of her own, including a black comedy with husband PJ Hogan, similar in feel to Muriel’s Wedding.

“Now that I’ve discovered the joy of this kind of television, I don’t really want to stop. I would love to write as well as direct my own series,” she says.

Still in train is The Variations, a 19th century-set feature drama about German musicians Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, which Moorhouse is developing with Sue Maslin.

The Schumanns mentored the young Brahms, who came to live with them and fell hopelessly in love with Clara, which was unrequited.

“The financing landscape hass changed so radically for film, it’s very hard to get a period film, especially, going. I haven’t given up on it – it’s my baby and I love it. I’ve been thinking of possibly doing it in a mini-series, but I’m not sure because I’ve thought of it as a feature for so many years,” she says.

As for Aquarius Films, it has been prolific throughout the pandemic, having also produced The Unusual Suspects for SBS, ABC children’s series Born to Spy, and Binge drama Love Me, with Warner Bros. Television International Production Australia.

On its development slate is feature film Most Admired Woman, co-produced with Decade Films; the TV series The Subjugate, co-produced with Anonymous Content, TV series The Geography of Friendship, a co-production with Dollhouse Pictures and the comedy drama series Fight Like a Girl adapted from Clementine Ford’s novel.

Major production investment in Savage River comes from Screen Australia, and the project was financed with support from Film Victoria and The Post Lounge.

Dynamic Television has the worldwide distribution rights.