David Wenham: “Top of the Lake is ABC’s loss”

David Wenham was "embarrassed" when the ABC withdrew funding from Jane Campion's miniseries, coming to UKTV.

TopOfTheLake_06EXCLUSIVE: When the ABC withdrew its investment funding in Jane Campion’s New Zealand mystery Top of the Lake, David Wenham admits he was ’embarrassed.’

The ABC pulled its funding after the casting of Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as an Australian detective, but Pay TV channel UKTV stepped in and now has the Australian premiere of the miniseries later this month.

Wenham told TV Tonight, “Most of the money came from the BBC and Sundance Channel. The only actor from the BBC’s part of the world is a Scottish actor and they have no crew on it whatsoever. Sundance, who put in the other major component, have two Americans, no crew.

“Australia, who put in the smaller amount of money, have two of the four leads, with Australians and New Zealanders as most of the support cast, and probably 80% of the crew.

“I’ve got to be honest, I was a little bit embarrassed when they decided to pull out over 1 cast member.”

Top of the Lake is an epic production, produced by Philippa Campbell, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman. It represents Campion’s first work for the small screen since 1990.

Also cast in the series are Peter Mullan, Tom Wright, Holly Hunter, Robyn Malcolm and Jay Ryan. The six part series will screen in the US on Sundance Channel and in the UK on the BBC.

“This is a major project and, one would imagine, a piece to see through the year. Wouldn’t you want to do everything you could do actually secure that project?” Wenham asked.

“It was ABC’s loss and BBC and UKTV’s gain –who have invested here in Australia.

“If it was just an Australian production I could understand. But the fact was it was a smaller piece of pie coming from Australia was smaller than the BBC and Sundance component.”

But there are also rumours ABC could enjoy a later Free to Air broadcast. Update: UKTV has 2 years exclusivity.

Co-directing with Campion is Garth Davis (Love My Way). Filming took place in New Zealand across 5 months.

“It’s all shot in and around Queenstown which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I loved being there,” he said.

“The landscape is so dramatic. It’s one of the most important characters in the film, actually.

“It’s a really wonderful, evocative, very moody story about a 12 year old protagonist who is discovered by the edge of a lake one day and we find out she’s pregnant and then she disappears.

“So a search goes on for her and why she ended up like that. It’s a really terrific piece.

“Elisabeth Moss plays a detective and her expertise is in cases with children. I play the head of the station where the police force is based and I also happen to be a detective. So it’s the two of us who lead the investigation.”

So how does Moss fare with her all-important Australian accent? Wenham says very well and is clearly a big supporter of her work.

“She worked very closely with a voice coach who was fantastic. But ‘Lizzie’ is amazing. She’s an incredible actress. She is one of the most watchable people that I have ever come across on screen,” he said.

“Sometimes you work with someone and you’re not quite aware but then you see the footage and you think ‘Oh my God.’

“It’s not just what she brings. She has the capacity to be able to do things imperceptively but then the camera certainly picks it up. It’s amazing –there’s not many people with that ability.”

Top of the Lake premieres 8:30pm Sunday March 24 on UKTV.

11 Responses

  1. The ABC is massively underfunded, it does not have the cash to invest in original content that has no connection to Australia. Now if the ABC had a massive pot of gold lying around then it wouldn’t hurt.

  2. I support the ABC’s position on this. This production was shot in New Zealand and is a New Zealand story. UKTV came in but it has claimed all its investment as part of its compulsory 10% drama spend on “Australian production” and this production rather dubiously qualifies. A bigger question is why Screen Australia invested in this production given its cultural charter. And an even bigger question is why New Zealand On Air, the NZ government’s subsidy agency did not. The whole production was driven by BBC2. Good on the ABC for only supporting productions which reflect Australia cultural life and sticking to its charter. Such a charter doesn’t prevent the ABC supporting a drama which shoots anywhere but if it has little cultural nexus to Australia then it shouldn’t be in it.

  3. @nicks
    Moss is a star and will generate interest and publicity. But there are numerous examples of American actors attempting Australian accents that have been dreadful and destroyed productions. It was a risk.

    Reportedly she did a great job and the show is great. But the ABC could not have known that at the time.

  4. As a fully unionised workplace the ABC obviously supports the MEAA policy that US actors should not be allowed to play Australian characters depriving Australian actors of jobs.

    At the time the MEAA was engaged in a battle gain control in the NZ film and TV industry and battle with Jackson who was refusing to bargain with them. The NZ Government has since retaliated by declaring all film staff as casual workers.

  5. Typical ABC. No vision what so ever and just bloody hard to work with.

    From the press i’ve read, most producers who are worth their salt experience the same frustrations with the ABC.

  6. Bit hypocritical of the ABC, surely? They were more than happy to have a non- Australian actress (Sophie Okonedo – I may have misspelled that) play an Australian character in The Slap.

  7. The more you write about this project,the more anxious I am to see it.You might have figured Abc would have regarded Moss’s inclusion as a huge plus..she is an actress who,at least in Mad men,is just hard to take your eyes off .

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