Liz Doran and Stevie Cruz-Martin balance rebellion and tenderness in ‘The Tailings’

Tegan Stimson as Jas and Mabel Li as Ruby in 'The Tailings'.

After working as a writer for nearly two decades across projects like Please Like Me, Ready For This, Dance Academy, Molly and The Secret Life of Us, Liz Doran had been curious about producing.

Yet she regards her first producing credit, SBS short-form drama The Tailings, as almost accidental.

Set in Tasmania, the 6 x 10 minute series, which premiered on SBS On Demand this weekend, follows a troubled teen, Jas (Tegan Stimson), who launches an investigation into her dad’s death. Her accusations put her into conflict with her new teacher Ruby (Mabel Li), who is trying to make an impression during her first posting.

The script is penned by first-time writer Caitlin Richardson, from Tasmania, to whom Doran was script editor and mentor from the project’s early stages.

During that early development, Doran and then SBS head of scripted drama Sue Masters struck up a conversation about who should produce the project. No sooner had Doran heard the words out of her mouth, she had offered to.

While initially panicked, she put one foot in front of the other. That led to the show getting up, working with 2Jon’s Richard Kelly and Roar Film’s Stephen Thomas, and to her forming her own company, Good Lark Productions.

For Doran, one of the key drawcards Richardson’s script was that it was set in a part of Australia not so often seen on screen – a remote town in regional Tasmania.

“There is a really interesting combination of a community that is supported by mining, but living in one of the most pristine environments in the world. It’s World Heritage around where we shot,” she tells IF.

“I found the tension of these people who are just trying to live, trying to survive, have a job, a community, and a family in this world where the work they’re doing is destroying the world that they’re living in.”

Richardson’s background is as a schoolteacher, with Doran noting this meant her characters had “a reality and a truthfulness.”

In putting together the cast, the team knew they wanted to use a lot of Tassie locals, and that they needed to balance young hands with the more experienced.

Tegan Stimson, who plays Jas, had never acted before. Yet she was the first person cast, basically from audition tape alone.

Of Jas, Doran says: “On the page, she was such a distinctive character. She was so distinctively west coast Tasmanian that we were determined not to use someone who’d had any past experience, because we wanted someone who looked like that character – who was that character.”

It’s also the first screen role for Li, a NIDA graduate, who has since gone on to star in another SBS drama, the upcoming New Gold Mountain.

They are joined by Kris McQuade, who plays Jas’ grandmother, and Shaun Martindale, who plays her dad.

All six eps have been helmed by Stevie Cruz-Martin, whose debut feature Pulsewhich won the Busan Bank award in 2017 – had previously really impressed Doran.

There were many directors in contention for the project, but Cruz-Martin had a strong vision for the show, a good energy and had worked with a lot of first-time and non-actors previously.

“Stevie put a lot of care and attention into directing all those different levels of performances and levels of experience,” Doran says.

For Cruz-Martin, the script appealed as it balanced “youthful rebellion with feminine tenderness.”

“I was intrigued by looking at women on screen that way,” she tells IF.

“I’m always keen on working with messy, dirty characters who aren’t generic.

“I was also intrigued to shoot something remotely, and work in a regional town. I’d been to Tasmania just the year before, and there was a beautiful chaos there that I was excited to explore on screen as well.”

The show is about women, and Cruz-Martin hopes it reflects it is largely made by women too. Heads of department include cinematographer Ash Barron, editor Grace Eyre, composer Helena Czajka, production designer Alicia Clements, and costume designer Yolanda Peart-Smith.

“I hope it speaks to the youth as well, because I do feel that they’re often standing up and standing strong in the face of adversity. We’re living in such a hard time right now and they’re our real truth tellers,” Cruz-Martin says.

“I’m quite enamoured by their courage to seek answers to these hard questions. I don’t think we give them the benefit of the doubt sometimes.”

The Tailings was originally set to shoot in May 2020, though was delayed due to COVID until October.

While this challenged the budget in that the producers had to apply for more funding, both Doran and Cruz-Martin believe ultimately the longer pre-production helped to benefit the show creatively.

It saw the team move to an entirely on location shoot in Queenstown, rather than shooting interiors in Hobart, in order to create more of a COVID-Safe bubble with cast and crew.

The town of The Tailings is fictional, but Doran says that being based in Queenstown for the entire time helped them really feel they were in that remote, lush, temperate rainforest area and mining town.

“All the things I loved about the story then manifested in this remote location shoot. Even though it was a logistical challenge, it really paid dividends for the way the show looked.”

In crafting the aesthetic for the show, Cruz-Martin resisted pressure to use drones, or to shoot slow-moving landscapes – as has been seen in other shows set in Tasmania. Instead, The Tailings is mostly shot handheld.

“For me, this was a character-driven show and it felt very personal. I wanted you to feel like we were very much in that world with them, rather than coming out and showing you these massive wides.”

“There’s also something that’s quite human-like, I’ve always found, with shooting handheld. It’s a real preference for me.”

It was Cruz-Martin’s first experience working with a broadcaster on an episodic project. After having been told previously she “wasn’t right for TV”, she found the experience taught her how to work fast.

“We didn’t have any overtime on the shoot. It was 10 hours, and the 10 hours of the day also included location changes. So sometimes that was coming down to seven hours of shoot. That’s really tough.

“That’s a big reason why we shot in the way that we shot. I really reduced lighting setups, which is a stylistic approach I like taking anyway. When you get to Tasmania, there’s already a very beautiful light there that you can use.”

As for what’s next, Cruz-Martin intends to keep working with collaborator Daniel Monks, star of Pulse, and Doran is in late stage development on surfing drama Barons for the ABC, for which she leads the writing team.

As for further producing plans, Doran says: “Who knows what the future will bring for Good Lark.

“Hopefully there will be another project that I’ll feel as passionate about and want to produce again.”