And Lisa McCune was his only choice.
After 25 years of making successful children’s television (Wicked Science, Thunderstone, Ocean Girl, H:20 Just Add Water to name a few), Reef Doctors would represent a shift to primetime family viewing. It’s not a genre that has been seen much in Australia of late, although Merlin was a big success on TEN whilst UK audiences also co-view shows like Doctor Who and Primeval as families.
“It was going to be a medical drama, with high-octane action, we had a pedigree for being able to shoot two-camera film. It’s nearly $14m (budget) and it was not easy to figure out how to pitch it to a network,” Shiff explains.
“It’s not a children’s show and it’s not a primetime show with the normal primetime trigger points.
“TEN was very quick to see that Merlin had worked, but it really came together when I met Lisa in a car-park at Movie World.
“I’d known Lisa for 20 years and would always give her DVDs for her kids to watch and I’d say ‘I wish we could find a project to collaborate on.’
“It needed a star. I could only think of Lisa doing this.”
Shiff maintains that McCune’s versatility and experience with action scenes on Sea Patrol made her an ideal choice for the central role of Dr Sam Stewart running the remote Hope Island Clinic.
“This is a woman around whom all the planets revolve. She’s got to be the working professional doctor, she’s got to be the mother in a challenged personal life, she’s got to be a romantic intersect as a woman in her 30s moving forward, she’s got to be passionate and she’s got to be hands-on. I did not want to double her (with a stunt). They can’t sit in their trailer while somebody does the stunts,” he says.
“I sat Lisa on the couch in my office and gave her the best pitch I could come up with during her lunch break, and she got it straight away.”
For McCune the series offered an opportunity to expand into an Associate Producer role.
“When Lisa sat in the plotting meetings she brought the confidence of an actress who is a storyliner, the knowledge as a mother who watches with her kids and where those boundaries are, and an incredible 3D sense of ‘where the camera is,'” says Shiff.
“She was an incredible asset from a creative and filming point of view. She sees detail that I miss. She goes on set and acts as the actress but when they’re doing another lighting set-up she’s already figured out (changes are needed). She rings me at 9:30 at night and says ‘We should probably add a line about that to expand that storyline because of something that happened yesterday.’
“You don’t get that in American lead drama because the script is ‘locked’ but I like the organic way that if there’s a waterfall on the river let’s shoot the waterfall.”
Shiff’s childrens series are known for their action and fantasy and a frequent love of Queensland backdrops. Several of those elements are largely reflected in Reef Doctors and it was the element of danger that attracted him to the concept over the procedural element, normally required to drive primetime television.
“I thought venom, dangerous ‘bitey’ things, irukandjis on the reef because we’re out there diving, this is scary!” he recalls.
“A medical drama would be a bit confronting but the very first show I trained on after Swinburne director’s course was Carson’s Law where I was a consult lawyer. Hector Crawford took me on.
“Hector said ‘We don’t really need any more producers but we need a lawyer because Don Dunstan is retiring from advising Carson’s Law.’
“So I started as a legal advisor and thought it would be quite challenging to bring in medical advisors for this series. I’d also done a wildlife series so I have an interest in zoology and the science of venom.
“There are a lot of great American shows I’m engaged in but would I want to write, develop, produce them? Not necessarily. I like doing things that have a slight fanciful edge to them and I’m not always comfortable in the other genre.”
The series also features Rohan Nichol, Matt Day, Richard Brancatisano, Andrew Ryan, Tasneem Roc, Rod Mullinar, Kristof Piechocki, newcomers Justin Holborow and Chloe Bayliss plus German actress Susan Hoecke.
German broadcaster ZDF, which has been a long-term investor in Shiff’s productions, is expected to play the series later this year. A delay in launching the series on TEN, and the challenges of premiering in a challenging 6:30 Sunday timeslot, doesn’t faze Shiff, who sees the series as fitting into a global picture in a changing TV landscape.
“I think the decision was made quite rightly to delay transmission until they could re-group and re-launch TEN which they’re doing,” he insists.
“I think the world is turning more and more into content viewing so I’m not really hung up on timeslots. To be honest I think the timeslot days are finishing. Timeshifting is the norm.
“The audience will find the content. Australia may not be in step with the rest of the world just yet, but come back in a year and we will more and more line-up with the rest of the world that’s show-driven.
“If an audience embraces it and finds it, then I think the analytics of timeslots are an ending game. They’re not the future.
“It’s quintessentially Australian so my belief is it will be successful. And my belief is that it will be equally successful, notwithstanding the fact it’s quintessentially Australian, internationally. That’s happened before with movies and will and can happen with television.”
Graduates of the Jonathan M. Shiff productions have since gone on to US roles, including Phoebe Tonkin, Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries, The Originals), Luke Mitchell (The Tomorrow People) and actor-turned-director Jeffery Walker is now in demand directing for shows such as Jack Irish and Bones.
After 25 years of producing high-end children’s TV, I can’t help but wonder why it’s taken Shiff so long to make the leap into primetime.
“Without being disparaging of all Australian drama, because I don’t want to make sweeping statements, I found it was unimaginative, there was a ‘dumbing down’ process of some Australian drama in the last few years,” he explains.
“I actually thought it would be boring to go and do that. I’m not really attracted to doing a police series. That may change as I get older.”
But he is already hinting at youth-driven content for a US market.
“I’m attracted by the CW genre, somewhere between adult and children’s. Not necessarily family viewing.
“I’m looking at developing new series that are effectively primetime American series aimed at a youth network.”
Wherever the genres and the territories lead, Shiff is adamant he will remain a storyteller even if his heart has always been in children’s television.
“Maybe I’ll grow up. Some people say it’s the ‘Peter Pan syndrome.’”
Reef Doctors airs 6:30pm Sunday on TEN.