Sam Neill in Tahiti.
When Sam Neill set out to retrace Captain James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific for a six-part Foxtel documentary, he had sketchy ideas about the 18th Century explorer and his exploits.
By the time he finished shooting The Pacific: In the wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill, he had a far more profound knowledge of the consequences of those expeditions over the past 250 years.
Produced by Essential Media and Entertainment and Frame Up Films, the series directed by Kriv Stenders and Sally Aitken premieres on Foxtel’s History on August 27 at 7.30 pm.
Neill accepted the role of host/narrator with two caveats. He wanted to ensure the documentary took a balanced look at Cook, or as he put it, the “view from both sides of the beach.” And while he wanted to contribute to the production as he virtually put his acting career on hold for the best part of a year, he did not want to shoulder the burden of researching and writing.
The creative team including producers Owen Hughes (also lead writer) and Aline Jacques readily agreed. So each night during the shoot, which spanned nine months with breaks, he would go through the people he would meet and what he would say the following day.
“Sometimes I would rewrite the lines because I took issue with what was being said or to make them sound like it’s me talking rather than a script,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of disagreements but there were times when I had to say, ‘Listen, I have to cop this at the end.'”
He is actually not sure that some of the material he wanted to include made the final cut because his smart TV turned out to be not so smart after he viewed the first three episodes, so he has not seen the rest.
“By the time I finished episode three I found myself very re-involved in it,” he continued. “I am pleased with the tone. A lot of the subject matter is very dark but it’s leavened with some humour and humanity.
“My job was as much to listen as anything because the Cook narrative is very familiar. We’ve had 250 years of Cook celebrations but the story of what Cook’s arrival meant for the people who were already there in the Pacific on the day, and in the years that followed, is less familiar.
“I needed to hear those people and those voices. The inevitable outcome of Cook’s voyages was 250 years of colonisation of the Indigenous peoples with disease, dispossession and destruction of cultures. The list is very long.”
The actor had worked with Stenders on Essential Media and Frame Up Films’ Why Anzac with Sam Neill for the ABC and Maori Television in 2015 so there was almost a short-hand understanding between the two.
When he got the job he received a message from his chum Stephen Fry, who has hosted numerous travelogues. Fry told him: “Dear boy, welcome to the hellish world of GVs (general views or wide shots), like endless walking along beaches.”
He is keen to credit the DOPs Jules O’Loughlin and Mark Broadbent and sound recordist Glen Fitzpatrick. Given the vast amount of footage recorded for the documentary, he is delighted that Foxtel and NZ broadcaster Prime will post the full-length interviews on their websites.