Matchbox Pictures and For Pete’s Sake Productions push new talent on ‘The Heights’

The cast of ‘The Heights’. 

With the exception of flagship serials Home and Away and Neighbours, for the last few years, long-form adult drama has all but disappeared from our screens, replaced by high budget, short-run shows.

With that has also come a reduced number of training opportunities for emerging writers and directors, something that producers, writers and directors alike have lamented.

Given the landscape, it was somewhat of a surprise to see the ABC announce last June that it had commissioned a 30 x 30” serial drama in The Heights.

Produced by Matchbox Pictures and For Pete’s Sake Productions, The Heights is set in the fictional suburb of Arcadia Heights and explores the relationships, work lives and everyday challenges of six families living in a social housing tower and the rapidly gentrifying inner-city community that surrounds it.

The diverse ensemble cast includes Marcus Graham, Shari Sebbens, Roz Hammond, Fiona Press, Dan Paris, Calen Tassone, Saskia Hampele, Phoenix Raei, Yazeed Daher, and newcomers Bridie McKim, Mitchell Bourke, Koa Kuen, Cara McCarthy and Carina Hoang. Kelton Pell, Briallen Clarke and Bernie Davis will also be series regulars.

The show was developed in-house at Matchbox Pictures by Warren Clarke and Que Minh Luu. Clarke is the showrunner and Peta Astbury-Bulsara the producer. Luu has since moved to the ABC but is executive producer for the broadcaster together with head of drama, comedy and Indigenous Sally Riley.

According to both Clarke and Luu, providing an opportunity for emerging talent to work alongside experienced hands was an overt strategy in the show’s 30-episode design.

“We were very conscious of the decision that we were creating something that was long-running and had the potential to grow… to provide opportunities [for new talent] and to be a real fixture in the Australian television landscape,” Clarke tells IF over the phone from set.

(L-R): Peta Astbury-Bulsara (producer), Warren Clarke (co-creator) and Que Minh Luu (co-creator, seated). (Photo: Bohdan Warchomij)

James Bogle, Darlene Johnson, Renee Webster and the late Andrew Prowse were the directors of the series, written by Hannah Carroll Chapman, Romina Accurso, Peter Mattessi, Megan Palinkas, Nick King, Clare Atkins, Niki Aken, Dot West, Magda Wozniak, Mithila Gupta, Tracey Defty-Rashid and first-time TV writers Larissa Behrendt, Miley Tunnecliffe, Katie Beckett and Melissa Lee Speyer. It was also Webster’s first time directing TV drama, having worked on shorts and TVCs previously.

Clarke believes what sold The Heights to the ABC was the strength of the story pitch. The driving force behind the show was to reflects all realities of inner-city life, and that demonstrate where people continue to have points of community, despite diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

“At that point in time, we were looking at a world that felt like it was pulling itself apart a little bit. People were becoming more isolated in their politics and their opinions. We talked a lot about well, ‘Where are the places where we’re not isolated, and where does the community still exist?’” Clarke says.

Luu saw rich dramatic territory to explore within the idea of gentrification – both how it affects a place’s original residents and the “middle class guilt” of those that move in.

She believes The Heights fits within the ABC’s charter in that it reflects a diversity of lived experience within Australian communities.

“We do a lot of heightened, high concept shows and comedies. This show is offering something really different, which is something really relatable, comforting and familiar. It’s positively geared.”

Perth and production

Production for The Heights was located in Perth, predominantly on set at ABC Studios. Supported by Screenwest, it was a welcome boon to the WA industry, with the producers employing nearly 100 local crew, and casting 93 speaking and extra roles from the state.

Perth is home for Clarke, so he had an insight into the opportunities and the want on the ground to make a show of this scale. “There’s a fantastic studio here at the ABC and all our edit suites are upstairs, so we can basically do everything as a one-stop-shop.”

Contrary to the idea that a majority of crew might need to be flown in for a production of this scale, only a few seats were taken by interstate players, with producers determined to find talent on the ground.

Luu says: “We had a very limited amount of travel budget to allocate to people traveling from interstate. The majority of the crew is from Perth. A lot of the actors are from Perth. There’s been a really, really strong commitment to keep it local.

“Also the flipside side to that is: how are you meant to grow the talent pool if you don’t provide opportunities in situ?”

Many of the cast are new faces, which both Clarke and Luu attribute to the diversity of the characters.

“As we all know, for diverse actors there aren’t always a huge amount of opportunities. You do have to look hard to source those actors and find that talent. That has resulted in a lot of green talent, which are of course bolstered by our more experienced actors like Shari Sebbens and Marcus Graham,” Clarke says.

Further, women make up more than 50 per cent of the show’s heads of department and crew.

The Heights’ authentic portrayal of inner-city Australian life was one of the things that drew producer Astbury-Bulsara to the project. Emulating that off screen was a key goal for her, though she says there was never a “gender target” per se. It came about organically; all crew were employed as they were the best pick for the job.

“I knew the calibre of people here in WA and what would be required to make this series. I knew we could do it with gender parity across the crew.”

The Heights has borrowed from soap production models and story flow, and has hired many writers with backgrounds on Home and Away and Neighbours.

However, Luu says they are not calling The Heights a soap, and have been keen to separate the show visually.

The team’s initial reference in teams of aesthetic was the vérité Steadicam style of Friday Night Lights. It was predominantly shot on four cameras – a decision that also allowed for full coverage while also meeting the demands of shooting 8-10 minutes per day.

“The idea here was that the audience will have the sense that the deeply human moments on screen are something truthful that is being captured, not staged, with the upside being this style would also mean that we would be able to move quickly, i.e. no long set up time for dollies,” Astbury-Bulsara says.

As the show was being written there was ongoing dialogue between Astbury-Bulsara and Clarke to ensure writing was kept budget without the story world being constrained.

With shoot spanning just 17 weeks, the producer was determined to create efficiencies in the production methodology without reducing production value on screen. She describes the production of the show as “contained”. A vast majority was filmed within the studios, with the 12 key interior locations designed by production designer Emma Fletcher, and all outside locations were shot as close to base as possible. Other efficiencies made in the way actors were contracted, the number in the ensemble, lighting and crew sizes.

Post-production was also completed as much as possible during filming – when the shoot wrapped on October 1 last year, all bar six episodes had picture locked.

New voices and relatable stories

When it came to the scripting, Clarke says providing new scribes with their first television credit alongside structured support from more experienced members of the team was a key focus.

In addition to writing their own episodes and being involved in the plotting of others, each of the new writers observed other rooms and were mentored by story producer Clare Atkins, who also provided additional rounds of notes.

“By the time they were sending their scripts into the network, they’d had a couple of runs at it and they were bolstered up,” Clarke says.

The Heights was Melissa Lee Speyer’s first screen credit, and she ranks her experience in the writers room as very supportive, noting there was plenty of opportunity to contribute, get feedback and learn from the other writers.

“There just really aren’t very many opportunities for first-time writers to get their first credits now in Australia with series being shorter-run nowadays,” she says.

“This was a totally different way of operating which allowed a first-time writer to not only get the kind of side-by-side training they need to develop to deliver their first draft, but also the number of episodes meant that they could take that on four first-time writers, not just one.”

The philosophy of supporting new talent with old hands was continued throughout production, with a mixture of experience levels within each department.

Astbury-Bulsara says: “If at the end of the series – and we hope there will be more than one series – if we’ve got people who are going off and working on other things and not coming back, whilst we would have to bring in new people, we’ve really done our job. Everyone throughout the production feels very passionately about that.”

As well as providing new opportunity for emerging creatives, Luu says a long-running format seemed to be the best platform to tell a range of authentic stories with the requisite amount of depth.

She says the writers have nailed the tone of the show, making something that is realistic but fun to watch. “We really wanted to have this show that was honest about the fact that life could be difficult, but even in those circumstances there’s still room to laugh and find joy and have fun. A really simple idea, but the tone of that is really difficult to capture and the writers have done such a great job.”

She hopes audiences will relate to the everyday, three-dimensional portrayals of people’s lives.  “I come from a family of former refugees; my family were boat people. What we rarely saw were authentic characters onscreen that spoke to us and our experience as Australians.”

NBCUniversal Distribution is handling international sales. Clarke says shooting in sunny Perth gives the show an Australian appeal that will hopefully play well overseas.

‘The Heights’ premieres on the ABC this Friday February 22. 

This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #175 October-November. Subscribe here.