“I think what’s really gripping about this series is hearing them talk at length. I was at pains to tell both of them the very obvious things that, ‘This is nothing like a studio political interview. This is a totally different proposition,'” Sarah Ferguson explains.
“People have a performance elements to how they give studio interviews. It’s much more combat. This was not that. Watching them over a long period of time relive these moments was in itself, very intense.”
‘Intense’ is an apt word to describe The Killing Season, Ferguson’s ABC documentary that looks at the forces that shaped Labor during the Kevin Rudd / Julia Gillard leadership years.
Over three episodes she explores the once-strong relationship between the Labor duo with candid, sometimes startling interviews, and penetrating footage that will trigger national headlines. The title evokes the last week of Parliament, when a leader is apparently at their most vulnerable, but it is the two key players here who will unleash the most impact on one another.
Ferguson filmed the former leaders across a series of interviews in Australia and the US. What emerges is a clear picture that each still seeks history to leave them with the upper hand.
“This is one of the most disputed narratives in contemporary Australian political history and will remain so. Obviously there are powerful discrepancies between Hawke and Keating, to a slightly-lesser degree between Howard and Costello,” says Ferguson.
“They both feel strongly that their narrative should be the dominant one. I don’t speak for their motivation but that’s what I understand their presence to be about.”
Episode 1 focusses on Rudd’s rise to the leadership, toppling Kim Beazley, with Gillard as his Deputy. Episode 2 zeroes in on 2010 when Gillard took the job from underneath him and Episode 3 will end with him snatching it back.
“The dominant political narrative here is what happened as a result of the leadership change in 2010, and the end of 2013 he lost the election. We know what happened, so there is a lot less to say from the period of Kevin Rudd’s return.
“This is like a real-life drama and it’s very clear when you consider the whole that when he comes back, that is where the drama ends.
“In a sense everything flows into that leadership change and then everything flows out of it.”
“Fantastic narrative tension”
Ferguson’s extensive interviews allowed her spend plenty of time with her two subjects and to raise arguments that the other had made.
“That creates a fantastic narrative tension, talking about the same things from the same perspective,” she suggests.
“We understood less about Kevin Rudd before we started because Julia Gillard had written a book and given some speeches.
“But the series goes way beyond both of those things. The experience of seeing her talk about him on camera is very intense. Her account is her account, but seeing her reflect on screen about him in that very tough way is quite an experience, in itself.
“I was concerned that Julia Gillard might hold back a bit because it was on camera. It’s usually the case that people are more cautious than they are giving quotes for books or writing their own account. But the opposite was true.”
While she won’t reveal the context, Ferguson says Gillard does make one very surprising admission.
“Gillard does something that I’ve never seen a male political leader do from the UK, the US, Europe to Australian history. She utters the immortal phrase, ‘Yes it was a mistake,'” Ferguson reveals.
“Have we ever heard Howard, Keating, Hawke say “Yes it was a mistake” or anything so substantial? I don’t think so. I think that’s because she’s a woman, she’s capable of admitting mistakes.
“She doesn’t concede much –I’m not suggesting she’s confessing to a whole series of errors of judgement.”
There are also interviews with other Labor figures adding context to the key turning points in the series. The footage is exhaustive, seeking to give the viewer a behind the scenes perspective on the drama. Ferguson credits producer Deb Masters, executive producer Sue Spencer, editors and cameramen for bringing the series to life.
“Gasping at the candour”
“The ‘behind the scenes’ (feel) is what they set out to achieve. After a short period the editor of Episode One said, ‘It feels like we’re watching an Observational Documentary,'” she says.
“This series was not made for the Press Gallery but a wide Australian audience whether you lived here during that period or watched it closely or not at all –you can turn it on and be gripped from start to finish no matter where you are in the political spectrum.
“I think it’s incredibly surprising. I find myself looking at it still, after all these months of being across it, and still gasping at the candour.”
After months painstakingly piecing together the series, Ferguson concedes she is desperate to know how it will be received.
But having undertaken press interviews she anticipates not everybody will view the same material in the same way. Whether The Killing Season improves or impedes its subjects in setting the record straight, remains to be seen.
“Many people have asked me questions where I think they are looking for me to confirm their existing prejudices. And I say, ‘Look at the series. Look at the Television,” she adds.
“Go into this with an open mind as we did, and see if you think the same things afterwards.’”
The Killing Season premieres 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.