Murray Whelan Series: articles

Free Whelan

As Shane Maloney’s mild-mannered political flack, Murray Whelan, comes to life on screen, Debi Enker speaks to the film makers who made it happen.

David Wenham’s head is poking through the rusty tin roof of a modest weatherboard house in Newport. It’s a hot, cloudless November day in Melbourne and the scene being shot for the telemovie Stiff requires rain. Immediately above Wenham’s protruding head, special effects man Peter Stubbs is standing on the sloping roof holding a rain machine, or rather an inventive, lower-budget equivalent: a t-bar of metal pipe with a couple of sprinklers attached to the ends. After a quick consultation with director of photography Laszlo Baranyai and director John Clarke, Stubbs positions himself so that he doesn’t cast a shadow over the shot and, on cue, drenches Wenham.

Clarke says that Wenham (SeaChange, Gettin’ Square, Van Helsing) is “a brilliant actor: he could read the alphabet well”. Here, he’s playing Murray Whelan, the hero of a handful of estimable novels by Melbourne writer Shane Maloney and the star of what it is hoped will be a series of telemovies.

The scene represents something of a typical situation in the life of Murray Whelan, Victorian Labor Party flak, go-to guy for Ethnic Affairs minister Angelo Agnelli (Mick Molloy), estranged husband of Wendy (Robyn Butler), father of Red (Julian O’Donnell) and owner of a home that has been perfunctorily renovated. An ostensibly simple task—sticking insulation batts in the roof—has unexpectedly taken a nasty turn and become much more complicated.

Murray is now stuck in a hole in the roof. Even after he’s extricated himself, gashing his face in the process, and shoved the fish fingers in the oven for tea, this is still the lull before the storm. Soon, given the prevailing weather conditions, the ramshackle state of his house and marriage, and his messy job, the roof will fall in, literally and metaphorically. And Murray will have inadvertently triggered the events that caused the collapse.

“He’s a magnet for chaos but he still floats through his world and his life with a strange ease,” observes Wenham, a long-standing fan of Maloney’s books who indicated his interest in the TV adaptation as soon as he was approached by Clarke and his fellow producers, Jay Cassells, Stephen Luby, Sam Neill and Mark Ruse. Having folded fliers and accompanied his dad to local Labor Party meetings in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville as a boy, the in-demand actor believes that he shares some common ground with Murray.

Now he also shares a notable accessory: the white plastic shopping bag that Murray carries in the telemovies and which Clarke says Wenham brought to the character. Despite his work for a government minister, Murray’s not a briefcase kind of guy. He’s not well organised, not especially ambitious and not particularly concerned with appearances. In fact, his scruffy state regularly causes the unwary to underestimate his prowess. For Murray can be a keen reader of people. He’s resilient and not easily deterred. He might look like a pushover, but he’s virtually indestructible. Behind that mild-mannered exterior lies super-hero-like survivability.

He is also, Wenham notes, a decent bloke: “Murray is a good man and I think that’s the best thing that you could possibly say about anybody, that they are a good person. His heart is in the right place, although at some stages his views are rather politically incorrect. But he is an idealist, a man with a conscience and a slightly shambolic character.”

But he’s a protagonist things happen to: “He doesn’t propel the key plot points, he reacts to them,” Wenham observes. “He’s not a detective, he’s not a gumshoe, he’s not a police person. In the first novel, he’s a low-ranking political adviser for the local member, who just happens to stumble across a dead body and a bit of intrigue. That happens each time, which I think is a wonderful way to get into this style of television.”

In Stiff, the body is found in the freezer of a meatworks. Murray’s mission, a wild goose chase for his minister, subsequently grows to involve the blue-blood owner of the meatworks, some of its staff, miscellaneous members of the Turkish community and a purple Valiant. Meanwhile he’s also coping, not especially gracefully, with the care of his son.

In Maloney’s novels, Murray floats, rather than manoeuvres, his way up the Labor Party ranks, steadily improving his standing without harbouring any apparent desire to better his position. Along the way, he’s regularly battered about, often underestimated and eventually triumphant, even though his looping path to a resolution sees him spending quite a while wondering what’s going on and who’s responsible for it.

Clarke, who adapted Stiff and The Brush Off for television, as well as directing Stiff, says that Maloney writes “crime fiction by stealth”: there’s a death and an investigation, but it’s really a pretext to enable the observation of other things. Those things might include the changing social and architectural landscapes of Melbourne, the relations between corporate captains and political players, the machinations of government.

As Murray moves from the shops of Sydney Road to the leafy precincts of the Botanic Gardens and the art gallery, his interior monologues and stray musings fill and flavour Maloney’s books with a distinctive comic and sardonic tone. Which makes adapting them for the screen a challenge.

“Shane is a very astute observer and he’s got a good eye for history,” says Clarke. “In the books, Murray will go into a building and push the lift button and, while we wait for the lift to clang shut four storeys up and tootle down, Shane will give you kind of an archaeological dig of the social history of the building. There are a couple of things happening there. One of them is that you’re getting the social history of the building; the other is that you are privy to what’s going on in the head of the protagonist. There’s a kind of intimacy being established between you as a reader and Murray.

“One of the tasks in an adaptation is to work out how much of the social history of the building you can throw into the film, because it’s not action and the action’s got to run on the spot while you do that. You need to finesse that intimacy between the reader and the writer by providing a kind of intimacy between the film and its viewers. So you need to be able to read Murray’s reactions to people. If Murray’s in a room with four people and there’s one he doesn’t particularly like, we’re going to know which one it is quite early because we read Murray. Murray’s our road to what to think, like in the book, but it operates in a slightly different way. If you wrote an adaptation of the whole book, it would be five hours. You need to make some editing decisions and work out how the relationships best work.”

Despite the fact that so much in Maloney’s books is made up of Murray’s thoughts, there was a desire to avoid a voice-over narration for the telemovies. “When we first started to talk about it, we thought that it would probably be impossible to do these pieces without having a very large amount of voice-over from Murray,” Wenham recalls. “But none of us was keen on having a voice-over. It can often be distracting to the drama. When it works, it’s brilliant, but it hardly ever works. It might work to open and close something, but it can be annoying. If you don’t need a voice-over to assist you, it’s cleaner without.”

As Clarke notes, there’s no great tradition of adapting novels for TV here: “Television in Australia doesn’t frequently, or certainly not habitually, base its programs on novels. In Britain, it’s not uncommon. They do quite a lot of contemporary fiction. They do the crime stuff and they do the costume drama. They do a fair bit of the genre stuff that comes off very good writers.”

Clarke also has no great history with adaptation. “Most of the stuff that I’ve written for film and television has not been an adaptation. You make stuff up. This is terrific because you don’t have to purchase the block of land and put the foundations in and build your house. You just have to go into Shane’s joint and say, ‘This green couch, can you put that over there please? And I think that the carpet needs replacing.’ It’s like interior decorating: the thing is already there.

“But how much you change it is the thing. There are certain scenes in the film, which you would recognise are exactly the way that they are in the book. There are other things in the film that you’ve never seen before… The novel’s not a jail, it’s a springboard. You need to do this in a way that’s not buggering it up, but you can’t do everything that’s in there. The pacing needs to be different, and the minute you cast it, it’s different.”

Clarke says that he adopted an inclusive approach to the adaptation process: “During the writing, I spoke to Shane and I spoke to Jay and Sam and David. I haven’t done it on the dark and lonely work principle. I’ve done it on the ‘Please look at my homework as often as you can’ principle.”

The consultative approach is no surprise. People who have worked with Clarke, on anything from The Games to The Problem with Men, enthuse that he’s collaborative and welcoming of ideas, and his projects seem to hum along, fuelled by a productive work ethic and good humour.

Both Stiff and The Brush Off, which was directed by Neill, were made in scant 20-day shoots, a time frame Clarke observes is tight. Feature films might have double that time. Clarke says that the key to getting it done is hiring the right people, such as production designer Chris Kennedy (Dirty Deeds), costume designer Kitty Stuckey (Kath & Kim), editor Wayne Hyett (The Castle), directors of photography Baranyai and Ellery Ryan, first assistant director Annie Maver and composer Jeremy Smith. Clarke reckons that if he employs the right people, he can basically go and have a cup of tea while they do their stuff. Which isn’t strictly true, but it does offer an insight into his style: get good people and then give them room to work.

For Wenham, who’s in virtually every scene of both telemovies, the speed of production might have created some stress. But he found it stimulating. “I loved it because there was no down-time. Once we were set up, and we knew what the camera was going to do, it was very quick decision-making. There was no time to wander off to the trailer and put on the television and lose touch with the world that you were in before.

“John described it as being like when you were a kid, when you went to a brilliant birthday party and came home exhausted, knowing that that was the best day ever. And that’s what it was like shooting: there really was a wonderful energy on the set. From an acting point of view, it was an extremely liberating experience because it was spontaneous. There wasn’t a ridiculous amount of time to rehearse. A lot of the time in Stiff, the stuff is Take One.”

Wenham also notes that even with the time constraints, both directors allowed their actors latitude. “John and Sam come to directing with an understanding of performance, because they’re actors as well. They understand the process of acting. Both of them were very hands-off. They trusted the actors, and when they did come in with performance notes, they were spot-on … I’ve worked with a few directors who have had acting backgrounds and I love it.”

While the experience of making the first two Murray Whelan telemovies is described as fast and fun, the hope now is that viewers also will find them enjoyable. The idea is that they will form the foundation for a series in the style of Nine’s Halifax f.p, and Ten’s BlackJack and Small Claims.

“Obviously it’s a matter of seeing how the first two go, but that’s the theory. We’d like to do more,” says Mark Ruse.

Ruse also imagines them stretching beyond Maloney’s books. “It takes two years to write a book, but Shane’s probably got 20 storylines in his head. There’s a rich resource there that can be drawn upon, and Shane is more than happy to supply other storylines, or we might come up with some. They could go on forever.”

Behind the scenes, fingers are crossed that Murray Whelan, the Labor Party “spear carrier” of Stiff, will move on to become the honourable member for Melbourne Upper, as he is four books on in Something Fishy, and beyond. The way that Murray’s going in Maloney’s novels, Steve Bracks better watch his back.

By Debi Enker
June 17, 2004
The Age