All Saints: articles

Walking with the wounded

The people behind All Saints have taken to heart Hollywood studio boss Samuel Goldwyn's prescription that a movie should "begin with an earthquake and work its way towards a climax".

The quote might be apocryphal, but the advice has been taken: When the show returns for its fifth season on Tuesday, the two-part opener will indeed begin with an earthquake. After that, it's disaster, blood, guts, bravery and, horror of horrors, the end of the road for one regular cast member.

Yes, indeed, someone shuffles off this mortal coil after the earthquake derails a train, which then crashes in a tunnel. And that's when we say goodbye and RIP to… sorry, but that was one of the conditions we agreed to before Channel Seven let us on to the set—no names, no pack drill or we'll drop a railway carriage on you. And they had plenty of them to go around on location in the cavernous corrugated iron sheds at the Everleigh rail yards in Sydney, where shooting began last October.

There, in the cold dark, despite the bright sunshine outside, the All Saints crew had created a tangle of wreckage complete with tilted and torn train carriages. The shooting schedule for that day read:

Interior—train carriage #1 day.

The train in a tunnel/

Crashes/ Lights flicker/ Bodies strewn/

Mangled mess.

This is not, you may surmise, your usual television soap episode. It is All Saints' bid to continue the ratings success it saw towards the end of the fourth season when it pulled in an average of more than two million in the five capital cities when the serial rapist was finally exposed.

The challenges of making an action-packed special, says producer Di Drew, were "a quantum leap of at least three to four times the ask of a normal episode". And that includes the cost, which is normally around $200,000 an episode.

Drew, who was an All Saints director herself in the early days, says her first reaction when the writing team came to her with the train crash scenario was: "Gosh, that's going to be challenging from a production cost point of view."

At that point, though, the Earth hadn't moved: "That came later as a result of me going to State Rail to ask if there was any way they could help us because to get what you saw out there—trains and derailment and all the rest—I needed their support.

"Naturally they were concerned about their profile and standing in community and they said that as long as the tragedy is of natural causes we can probably help you—that's when we came up with the earth temor."

But why begin a new season with a blockbuster special that feels so much like a traditional finale? Says Drew: "If you've got a show as successful as this has been and you want to keep it successful you've got to keep rising to challenges. "It does feel like a finale, yes, but I think the philosophy behind it was to say here we are, back bigger and stronger and better than ever. There's no point having a big end to a year and everyone goes: 'Oh, well, what's to come? They've peaked, there's nowhere to go.'

"This is saying: 'Here we are guys, we've got you by the throat and we'll take you even further."'

It is an odd sensation to arrive at the set for breakfast at 6.45am to find the canteen area full of the walking wounded. These are the people who, for about $17 an hour, provide the non-speaking parts, the people in the background, of any television show.There are elderly men with great bloody gashes on their heads and young boys with glistening, open wounds tucking heartily into bacon and eggs. The make-up department has already been hard at work. One of the runners, Greg "Kiwi" Holm, is receiving orders from the director and assistant directors to get things moving for the first scene of the day, a mass evacuation of the tunnel in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

The set has been built in one of the old repair yards and is a combination of flimsy wooden facades and heavy black drapes that creates a startlingly real facsimile of a train tunnel.

Nick LaMond, an extra who is dressed as a policeman, says the main talent you have to have in his job is patience. LaMond, who had arrived in Australia only a week previously from his home in Cape Town, South Africa, had only gone to an extras agency at 4.30 the previous afternoon: "I've done some work like this back home," he says as we wait for the scene to begin. "I enjoy it but you really do have to be patient. It's good for a lot of standing around. But, hey, nobody likes cops anyway."

Unlike the extras, the rest of the crew is engaged in a seemingly endless round of checks, assessments of sound and vision, camera angles, make-up touch-ups; standing with the extras is like being in the calm, clear eye of a hurricane.

Finally they are ready to shoot the scene. Director Peter Fisk is outside the set, watching everything on the three monitors that capture the different camera angles. The smoke machine belches, there are sparks flying as a workman uses a cutting tool on the mangled train wreckage and the injured, dazed passengers begin appearing out of the gloom like zombies in the Night of the Living Dead.

In the organised chaos, ambos, policemen and orange-suited SES workers dash here and there among the wounded. They dash here and there again as a minor aspect of the scene is changed, and then again, and again.

And then the director appears and jokes: "That's a scene. Let's stop before it gets any better."

Beth Porter, the make-up supervisor, and her team then enter like bees around a hive, darting in to tidy up the actors, to make that head cut glisten. On pouches around their waists are the manifold tools of their trade, including huge swathes of Polaroid pictures of actors and extras for continuity purposes.

Extras who will be coming back tomorrow have their photographs taken just before they leave, too; it's not a good look if that gash over the left eye jumps across to the right eye in another scene.

Among those coming back the next day are a couple of 11-year-old boys on school holidays, a couple of students, a Sydney fireman and a nurse unit manager taking long-service leave to try to break into acting.

This last extra is Leo Domigan, who left home at 5.15am and is appearing in an amateur production that night. Domigan says he's taking the time off work to "go for it".

"I've always wanted to act and don't want to get to a point in my life when I say 'What if I had tried that?'," he says.

"Nurse" Vivian Mullan, on the other hand, is in it for other reasons. Mullan, 27, worked for Ansett for 10 years before being laid off last year and found her hobby turning into a way to pay the bills. That said, she was still adamant that acting—despite appearing as an extra in Water Rats, Home and Away, and previous All Saints episodes—was not her long-term goal: "Most people want to go into acting but I just do it as a hobby. It's much more fun that way. I just love doing it."

At lunch I am admonished for poking around in the spare parts box. "Don't touch the dead heads, please," a crew member growls.

The heads, along with a few spare hands, are in a box near the table loaded with plastic containers of blood. In just the first few days of filming they used gallons of blood; it's that sort of show.

Now blood, you might think, is blood. But don't you believe it; scratch blood is different from gushing blood. And the stage blood you put in your mouth has a minty taste. This is different from dark pumping blood, which is sometimes darkened with a bit of coffee. At one point I hear someone exclaim: "Isn't that a great gushing wound?"

There is a bit of excitement later that afternoon when part of a foam and woodchip set collapses on some actors as they play out a scene in a carriage that is supposedly in danger of collapsing. Talk about life imitating art imitating life.

Nobody is hurt but Peter Fisk isn't amused: "I want some professionals in there to rebuild the set; I'm not sending actors into that," he says.

It is a minor hiccup in a day that proceeds without a hint of panic. When I leave late in the afternoon Fisk has moved into the set to organise a bit of panic. He is standing on a milk crate with a filter mask perched on the top of his head (to keep out the dust and smoke special effects) and is shouting through a loudhailer.

Finally, here is a scene that recalls the directorial days of yore. But instead of "cue the chariots and part the waves" he is yelling: "Too many people are running to the left of camera …and can we have a puff more smoke down there please, David?"

All Saints returns to Channel Seven on Tuesday at 8.30pm

The road to gory glory

There is little dignity in being a television show extra. The changing room is an area of the canteen roped off with large green plastic sheet where you get changed into the clothes they provide. Then they attack you with coal soaked in water and a pair of scissors. Within minutes you are transformed from suave reporter-about-town to panhandler extraordinaire.

It looks like I've been dragged through a train wreck backwards and emerging dirty and torn but without so much as a scratch. This isn't good enough, so it's off to make-up where you get to sit in a swivel chair in front of those mirrors surrounded by light bulbs. Superstar or what?

Next to me a middle-aged gentleman in shorts smiles as he gets a nasty-looking gash welded to the bridge of his nose, cotton buds shoved up his nostrils and a river of blood tipped down his left leg.

On the other side, Channel Seven PR man Jason Volbeda—who has joined me in this foray into the ranks of the walking wounded—is complaining that his shirt has been torn open around his waist. "Worried about the old love handles, eh?"

Turning back to the mirror I am confronted by a bloke with a nasty head wound and a long gash on the arm that looks like it's collected all the gravel from a stately home's driveway.

It is remarkably lifelike given that it consists of painted-on latex rubber and crushed-up Coco Pops. If the worse comes to the worst and the day gets too boring, I can always eat it.

On set I am paired up with another extra dressed as an emergency nurse in a green jumpsuit. But not before another make-up woman stops me with the words "you look like a gusher" and proceeds to squirt what feels like a litre of fake blood down a collarbone wound.

It's cold, sticky and it looks great. When the assistant director shouts "Action!" and my ambulance angel supports me as we stagger out of the tunnel I suddenly develop a limp. This is method acting at its finest.

By the afternoon the blood has started to stick to both clothes and hair and I find myself lying on a stretcher being attended by two "doctors". We are only in the background of the scene but have to go through the motions; this consists of me lying still and my fellow extras taking my pulse or whatever else medicos do in that situation. It helps that they're both health professionals in the real world.

I play the part of a part-comatose patient to the hilt by nearly falling asleep. Yes, it's that exciting being one of the lying-on-your-back wounded.

The hardest part of the day? Performing for the cameras? Waiting around interminably? No, it's getting the latex off the hairs on your arms. Ouch!

By Keith Austin
The Age
January 31, 2002