‘New Gold Mountain’ shows Corrie Chen a new way forward

Corrie Chen on the set of 'New Gold Mountain'.

Director Corrie Chen has hit a stride in her career where she is able to make projects she really believes in.

Tonight is the premiere of one such example in SBS/Goalpost Television’s New Gold Mountain, with Chen having directed all four episodes.

Set in 1857 Ballarat, the mini-series looks at the gold rush from the perspective of Chinese miners, with the story unravelling around a murder mystery. The stellar ensemble cast includes Yoson An, Alyssa Sutherland, Christopher James Baker, Dan Spielman, Mabel Li, Leonie Whyman, Sam Wang, Rhys Muldoon, Alison Bell, Chris Masters Mah and Travis Cotton.

SBS director of content Marshall Heald has called New Gold Mountain the broadcaster’s “most ambitious drama yet”, with producer Kylie du Fresne noting it draws inspiration from Deadwood. The series is dense in detail in terms of costuming and production design, and boasts a diverse cast of around 65 speaking roles, all in multiple languages, accents and dialects.

As soon as Chen got wind of the series, she was dying to direct it. Not only did the subject matter strike a chord with the Taiwan-born director personally and creatively, but she was ready to a step up career after a solid number of years directing episodic television.

“Through my work, I’ve always explored and wanted to really reclaim and reimagine how we see Asian-Australians on screen. New Gold Mountain; I’m quite familiar with the history. I’ve been to Sovereign Hill a number of times, both as a teenager and also as an adult, because I love the era and it’s the origin story of Chinese-Australians. It presented this opportunity for me to go, ‘Wow, what a way to reimagine the image of the ‘powerless Chinaman’ in the Western landscape’.

“At the same time, I’ve spent a number of years really refining my craft in episodic television, and I really felt I was coming to a stage where I was just raring to go and step into that next phase of my career. Timing wise, it was the perfect collision of circumstances.”

Yosan An and Chris Masters Mah in ‘New Gold Mountain’.

Chen brought to the story, created Peter Cox with writers Yolanda Ramke, Benjamin Law, Greg Waters and Pip Karmel, a vision that was detailed and grounded in authenticity. Nothing in this show is an accident, she argues. Every cut, every frame – even every font – has been thought about.

“At the heart of it, and I really wanted to harness the power of the cultural clash. When I say clash, I don’t mean East versus West. I’m not interested in that. I mean, finding the space in between both cultures to navigate a way through.

“With every creative department; with production design, costuming and music as well as cinematography, we always spoke about how these two cultures related to each other in a playful way, but also in a confrontational way; how do we try and capture duality?”

For Chen, much of the joy of this project lay in her collaboration with the other creatives. New Gold Mountain was originally set to shoot in early 2020, but the delay of the pandemic turned out in some ways to be a blessing, in that it allowed for extra pre-production time. That was used by Chen, the heads of department and the writers to really define the show, to the granular level.

“That is a gift in television. I’d never experienced that kind of process before,” she says.

“I’m really proud of everyone’s work on this show. I didn’t realise how satisfying it would feel. I went to VCA, and I think we get really carried away with the auteur-theory… Absolutely directing is all about leadership. But I think through New Gold Mountain I really learnt leadership means being able to communicate and inspire people to really want to do their best for the show.”

Next up for Chen is another four-part mini in Stan/Matchbox Pictures Bad Behaviour, based on the novel by Rebecca Starford, which follows teenage girls at the wilderness campus of an exclusive girls’ boarding school. Amanda Higgs produces, with the writers Pip Karmel and Magda Wozniak.

That series has also experienced COVID delays, but the director is taking it in her stride.

“Honestly, across the industry, you’ll find that most people are saying when you get extra time with scripts, it’s never a bad thing,” she says.

“That’ll take me well into next year. I feel very grateful to exist in this time right now where I am in the position where I can make things that I really, really believe in.”

Chen is also in talks for a number of other projects, while continuing to develop her debut feature, Empty Empires, which she is co-writing with Penelope Chai.

While she considers herself a director first and foremost, Chen loves the writing process. On her recent projects, she has enjoyed getting involved at early stages, so that she can truly understand writers’ story intention and why decisions have been made. This way, everyone enters production “on the same side”.

“That core team of writer, director, producer – we want to make that really as tight as possible so that there is no creative doubt, because there’s going to be a lot of doubt coming at you from all sides as we go through the making of a show,” she says.

“That was something I feel like I really learnt from Kylie [du Fresne]. I’ve never worked with a producer that was on set with me all the time, but in a way that was so creatively supportive, emotional, and felt like it brought out my best. There’s an intensity to this kind of collaboration. But honestly, I think it’s shown me a new way forward. I can’t imagine working any other way now and I wouldn’t want to.”

New Gold Mountain premieres tonight, October 13, on SBS.