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Behind the scenes of the Australian Story program on actor Sam Neill

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I planned a windy backstory on a soft, warm wind from an Australian story about the beloved he-could-be-a-kiwi but we think of him as our own actor Sam Neill.

It was the opening sentence: “It was hard work to go film with Sam Neill in his New Zealand vineyards, but, as the picture says, someone had to do it.”

But looking back over the past two months, I recognize that doing anything during the coronavirus crisis is far from normal.

We started this story before the coronavirus became a pandemic and ended production with most of the population isolated.

The fear and anxiety that gripped me along the way also seemed to grip the nation.

Australia knows Sam Neill as the actor who became famous as a young man in the 1979 film My Bright Career and has graced our screens for the past 40 years.

Black and white photo of Davis and Neill in a movie scene looking at each other with love.
Sam Neill and Judy Davis in the 1979 film My brilliant career.((Provided)

We also planned to tell the story of his lesser-known passion for winemaking.

“Come and film in the vineyards when they are green and lush,” he said during our visit project at the end of last year.

In February, before the lockdown, cameraman Simon Winter and I met Sam Neill at his favorite cafe in historic Clyde, in central Otago.

“We must all have coffee,” he said plaintively.

And there he was, arriving in town driving his 1960 Austin-A40 from Mr-Bean.

One glance at the car and we knew we had to rig a go-pro and mount the drone to capture it crossing the picturesque bridge over the Clutha River.

But after coffee.

A man wearing sunglasses stands with his arms crossed, while leaning on a car, next to his grandson
Take a pit stop along the way with her grandson, Caleb.((Provided: Sam Neill)

In Oliver’s cafe courtyard, no one has watched the crumpled farmer read his beloved Otago Daily Times twice on the blackboard.

Here he is just another winemaker.

There is no noise, no surroundings and no ego star.

In the cellar, as the rain got closer, we kept hearing those words that every filmmaker hates, you should have been here yesterday, it hasn’t rained for a month.

We spent the few days there worriedly watching the weather and retiring during breaks to film Sam around the vines.

He was patient and patient, taking us up the hill to film with his photogenic comic pig Angelica and to the roadblock to call his beloved duck Charlie Pickering.

Actor Sam Neill holds a duck
Neill enjoys the chance to be at home in his vineyards in central Otago with his favorite duck, Charlie Pickering.((Australian history: Vanessa Gorman)

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Sam’s farm animal menagerie has become a full-fledged Twitter and Instagram star.

It was like meeting kings when Charlie Pickering came to waddle this bank.

Neill took us to his fourth vineyard, The Last Chance, so named because it is the southernmost place where grapes are grown all over the world.

There was only one chance that the Austin would manage to climb the hill where we intended to film Sam as master of his domain on a rock overlooking the vineyards.

Two women pushing an old Austin car on a hill.
A helping hand to push Sam Neill’s car into the shooting position.((Australian history)

What I like about this producer position on Australian Story is that he defies any job description limit.

And if your job that day is pushing Sam Neill’s car up a swampy hill, then get the job done.

Sam was patient and helpful.

Like the old documentary filmmaker he was, he knew what we were trying to do and made good suggestions on camera locations and angles.

It was obvious how close he was to his land.

“I think my first responsibility is to take care of my land in a way that leaves it better than when I found it,” he said.

“I would like to think that these vineyards will go in 100, 200, 300 years, they will be famous and I will be long gone and forgotten for a long time.

Cameraman filming Neill looking at a mobile phone with the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the background.
Cameraman Quentin Davis filming Neill in Sydney.((Australian history)

Back in Sydney a week or two later, we filmed the main interview and after a day of listening to Sam Neill, my face was hurting trying not to laugh out loud.

No one told me how dry, witty and funny he was.

A few half-days of shooting here and there, then he left for Marrakech to shoot a science fiction film.

“You may be able to pick up a few pickups when he returns,” we were told, but he would then travel to London to film Jurassic World: Dominion, a resumption of his role as paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant in the original Jurassic Park blockbuster.

A photo from the 90s film Jurassic Park showing actor Sam Neill holding a flare in the rain
Sam Neill plays Alan Grant in the 1993 film Jurassic Park.((Provided: IMDB, Universal Pictures)

Instead, COVID-19 invaded Australia in its relentless march around the world.

Sam Neill beat a hasty retreat from Morocco and suffered two weeks of isolation in his apartment in Sydney.

He posted a video on Twitter of his success in washing all his sneakers one day.

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During this time, I was filming and I was trying to script.

The office started emptying for a few days and it became clear that we all had to start working from home.

I downloaded everything to a reliable hard drive and settled in a room in Sydney.

We had to do a little more filming with Sam, but even after he finished his quarantine period, he wasn’t sure if he was filming with us and we didn’t know if we should film with him.

I canceled the plans and regrouped on the structure and the script, working on the overlapping sequences without which we could live.

Meanwhile, editor Ian Harley installed a montage suite in his home that could handle hours of footage we had shot, archive footage, graphics and music in different formats.

From a distance it seemed like he was taking it in stride, but some things were taking longer to do and I could hear the frustration in his voice.

Harley selfie with computer screens in the background.
Editor-in-chief Ian Harley at work on a pop-up montage suite at home.((Provided)

During the week of March 15, COVID-19 cases increased steadily in most states.

I was trying to write and structure the complex mosaic which is an Australian script.

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That week, it was made more difficult as notifications of increases in COVID-19 cases and news of disasters unfolding in Italian, Spanish and New York hospital departments crossed the screen.

On Sunday March 22, ABC News alerts announced various closings across the country.

I called my sister and my brother-in-law on their farm in Gundagai.

They did not hesitate.

“Come here.”

I gathered my 86-year-old mother who, truth be told, although fabulous on most accounts, had never been very good at walking in the structures of society.

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Settled in a room away from the mad but now isolated crowd, 40 minutes from Gundagai, I could finally relax and focus on the job at hand, trying to keep the script in mind of gun editor Ian Harley in his now Cherrybrook publishing house, Sydney.

“I can barely hear the sound of birds coming out of the window,” he laughed on the phone.

We called to talk about something, but ended up sharing our mutual shock at the speed with which the world is changing as stores and businesses close and heartbreaking unemployment lines develop outside of Centrelink offices.

To cope with the anxiety, I stopped obsessively watching the news cycle and I also followed Sam’s funny Twitter and Instagram messages since his isolation in Sydney, or with his partner Laura Tingle Chief Political Correspondent for ABC 7.30 and Sam’s connection to the Canberra bubble.

Ian would download a cut from the program and send the link to us and executive producer Caitlin Shea in Brisbane and series producer Rebecca Latham from Sydney would send their comments.

I hesitate to suggest that Ian could have been happy to have the producer usually mixing at arm’s length instead of sitting in his editing suite.

Sam Neill smiling
Interview with Sam Neill locked out.((ABC News: Greg Nelson)

For the last interview with Sam, Canberra director of photography Greg Nelson traveled to Sydney and set up to film from a distance on a flat roof of the building next to Sam.

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Instead of me next to the camera, he positioned an iPad with a stream of me installed in my room and a Bluetooth speaker near Sam so he could hear my questions.

It was an incredibly complicated way to do an interview, but it’s the new way of filming and gathering information in the era of coroanvirus.

Sam spoke about the social media post and reflected on the moments we are going through, again, a gentle and reassuring presence asking us to try new things and obey the rules of social isolation.

And so, in a way, the subject of my story showed me the way.

With a sweet message reassuring us that everything will be fine and that we will cross it together.

Filming a story about Sam Neill during a pandemic was surprisingly difficult but also delicious work.

I’m glad I could do it.

Watch His Brilliant Careers on Australian Story on iview and Youtube.

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