Underbelly: articles

Damian Walshe-Howling

Damian Walshe-Howling plays Andrew "Benji" Veniamin in Underbelly.

Delicate line of true crime

Nine's Underbelly weaves a precarious path between fact, fiction and the law, writes Debi Enker.

AT A nondescript oval in suburban Strathmore, the horror of it really hits you. Kids in footy gear tear about, yelling and kicking balls as a biting wind whips around. Under a spindly tent at the sidelines, sausages sizzle on a portable barbecue, overseen by the kind of hardy parents who come out every Saturday throughout winter to support their kids' Auskick activities.

This unexceptional scene, which would sit comfortably in many Australian suburbs, has been staged for Underbelly, a $10.4 million series made by Screentime for the Nine Network. It's here, at Cross Keys Reserve, that an outrage occurred. On 21 June 2003, Jason Moran and Pasquale Barbaro were shot dead in a van parked near the oval as another savage chapter in Melbourne's gangland war exploded. The double murder pushed a festering underworld turf battle into the glaring light. Although the body count had been steadily rising for years, this was a turning point. Crims had been knocking each other off in darker, more private places; now their activities blasted into public view. The executions took place in broad daylight, with children in the back of the Moran van and families all around.

When you stand on the scrubby grass at the Cross Keys oval, watching a television crew painstakingly recreate the events, the reality of it chills to the bone. Even with fake blood, prop shotguns, special-effects explosions and actors rehearsing their moves, it's horrifying. There's no intrigue, mystery or glamour here, just shock and grief, fear and tears.

But like much of what's depicted in the 13-part series, which was based on the book Leadbelly by Age journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule, it has an eerie familiarity. Those who lived in Melbourne through the fight for power, money and domination of the drug trade that raged from the mid-'90s have seen the headlines and followed the stories. We know the names — Alphonse Gangitano, Carl Williams, Mick Gatto, Tony Mokbel — and recognise the places now indelibly marked by their association with the violence that erupted there: the rampage at the Sports Bar, the shooting in a Lygon Street restaurant, murder scenes scattered from Sunshine to Sunbury, Coburg to Kew.

Underbelly chronicles the cycle of violence that played out in Melbourne from the 1995 murder of Gregory Workman to the 2004 arrest of Carl Williams. The series sits in that strange TV space also occupied last year by Bastard Boys and previously by Blue Murder (1995). It's a place between fact and fiction, where a drama depicts real people and recreates actual events but also involves writers, actors and TV storytelling. Here, many of the characters represent real people, and others — notably the police — are fictional composites.

It's a legal minefield. The events depicted are relatively recent; court cases relating to them are still being heard; charges pertaining to some of the crimes have yet to be laid; some of the players are still around and their perspective on events might differ markedly from that of the production.

Indeed, cast members had been so intensively drilled in the need to keep a lid on their comments that even a request such as "Describe your character" was regarded with something approaching alarm. Actors didn't do interviews about Underbelly without a producer or publicist in attendance in case they inadvertently said something about a character or a piece of the plot that could prove problematic.

Navigating a course between fact and fiction is a delicate operation, but one familiar to producer and writer Greg Haddrick. He has traversed similar territory before, when Screentime made its true-crime telemovies, The Society Murders (2006) and My Husband, My Killer (2001).

Haddrick's sense of connection to the people depicted in Underbelly is apparent. He has worked on the project since midway through 2006, and, as one of its writers, along with Peter Gawler and Felicity Packard, he's well acquainted with the chronology and the characters. When he mentions the players, he doesn't talk about Gangitano, Condello or Veniamin; it's Alphonse, Mario and Benji.

He pitched the project to Nine's head of drama, Jo Horsburgh, at precisely the time the then CEO, Eddie McGuire, was championing the same idea for the network. Haddrick saw it as unique TV material: "It's a story about ambition, revenge, ego, fear, avarice, greed, all of the major sins, compressed into seven or eight years where there is a body of society which has become cancerous, and it's about how that cancer was stopped."

Before and after the project got the green light, he talked to members of the Purana Taskforce responsible for investigating the gang wars. He dealt with lawyers and legal requirements "every step of the way", from early script drafts to final cuts. He's mindful of the tightrope Underbelly must negotiate: "The big challenge is to walk that middle ground where you are being true to the people you're depicting and also meeting broadcasters' requirements for entertaining drama.

"There's a constant tension between needing to structure an episode so that a viewer finds it a satisfying hour of drama and yet the people you are depicting will say 'That's pretty accurate'. They'll never be able to say, 'That's absolutely spot-on', because real life is not all that dramatic. So you've got to find ways to condense some things, where you're true to who that person is, but not necessarily to what they specifically did to get from A to B." How do you reconstruct a conversation between two brothers who have since died, or depict what happened at the scene of a shooting that had no witnesses?

This is drama, not documentary, and the requirements can differ. "We have bent reality in a few places," Haddrick admits. "But we tried to be — and I think we succeeded — behaviourally accurate at points where we haven't been factually accurate."

What the writers have also endeavoured to do is adopt something of a humanist view. As in The Sopranos and GoodFellas, there's a recognition that criminals are also fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and lovers, that they have their reasons, their pride, their loyalties and their codes of behaviour — however bent — and that some of their women were perhaps wilfully ignorant of the nature of their activities, while others might have been attracted by them. "A domestic theme runs through this," says Haddrick. "They were in many ways supporting a family, supporting a lifestyle, just like we all are."

For Martin Sacks, who plays lawyer and loan shark Mario Condello, that perspective added an appealing dimension. "I loved the normalcy of it," he enthuses. "The activities are day-to-day. They're sitting having cups of coffee, talking about doing things I wouldn't dream of doing, but it's all so casual. Having a barbecue, talking about bumping people off and, 'Do you want another sausage?'."

Sacks says that, for him, the job was about finding "the juice", the essence of his character, and withholding judgement. "It's a trap to play a bad guy like a bad guy," says the actor who played a good cop for years on Blue Heelers and the killer in My Husband, My Killer. "When you're playing a supposedly 'colourful character', you don't play these people as bad people; you play them as real. You make no judgement. The director said to me, 'He believes he's innocent', and that was a key."

Sacks, who scores one of the production's best wardrobes, sees the underworld war as a battle between the old guard and the young turks intent on taking over their turf, and also as a clash of styles. "In a way, Mario and a lot of the older Carlton Crew were classy guys. They ate well, they dressed well, they drove nice cars, they were old school. Mario prided himself on doing things with panache. He loved theatre and drama. He was a smart man, he was articulate. He loved The Godfather movies. They all liked The Sopranos. They thought of themselves as movie stars."

Gyton Grantley, who plays Carl Williams, shares Sacks' view. "It's the old-style crims versus the new boys, the classic Italian-influenced Mafia being challenged and eventually overrun by the new speed-dealing boys from Sunshine. No more Versace suits: now Fubu tracksuits."

Like Sacks, Grantley says that the job requires that you learn to like, or at least appreciate, your character. "You have to understand them to be able to play them, otherwise you're not representing them truthfully: you're presenting an opinion of them."

As leader of "the tracksuit gang", Williams forms what Haddrick calls "the spine" of the series as it charts his rise and fall. In some ways, Underbelly doesn't have a conventional story structure: Gangitano, played by Vince Colosimo, starts out looking like the protagonist, but dies two episodes in. At that stage, Williams is a lowly driver, though Grantley ensures you can see "the gleam of ambition in his eyes and the determination".

With Gangitano's death, others move to centre stage: Les Hill and Callan Mulvey as Jason and Mark Moran, Damian Walshe-Howling as Andrew "Benji" Veniamin, Simon Westaway as Mick Gatto. The police are primarily represented by Rodger Corser as Steve Owen, Caroline Craig as Jacqui James and Frankie J. Holden as Garry Butterworth.

The producers assembled an impressive collection of actors, even though, after a long dry spell for local production, there was some competition. Nine's Canal Road and Sea Patrol, Seven's City Homicide and the US series The Pacific were all casting at the same time last year. "There were a few times we were fighting for the same actors," recalls Haddrick. "But we were lucky because we had people who read the initial outline of the scripts and really wanted to be part of the show."

Haddrick says that Colosimo was the first choice for Gangitano: "We thought of Vince as we were writing it. He looks like Alphonse and was the right age." Others nailed their parts quickly: "As soon as Damian Walshe-Howling walked in and auditioned, we had Benji. Les Hill, Callan Mulvey, Marty Sacks, Kat Stewart as Roberta Williams: as soon as you saw them, you went 'Yeah'. One of the directors, Tony Tilse, suggested Gerard Kennedy for Graham Kinniburgh."

At last week's launch for Underbelly, Eddie McGuire declared that the show marked "the start of the resurgence of the Nine Network". His successor as CEO, David Gyngell, who recently returned to Nine and modestly announced that all he had to do with Underbelly was having the good sense to program it prominently at the start of a new ratings year, called it "the show that is going to put us back on the map".

The speed with which Underbelly has been spirited to air surprised some associated with it; the expectation during production was that it would screen after Easter. It's a sign of just how urgently Nine needs a hit, and how much faith it has in Underbelly, that it's using the series as the centrepiece for the first official ratings week of 2008. Also surprising, though, is the 8.30pm timeslot, as those involved in the production definitely saw it as a 9.30pm "adult" show, given the sex, violence and profanity. As Rodger Corser noted wryly, it's essentially about "sex and death, shootin' and screwin' ". Yet the powers at Nine appear to have decided that a blaze of controversy might do them little harm.

While the network needs a hit, others are also looking to the future and perhaps to Underbelly 2. "We have talked about that," says Haddrick. "A lot of things happened after Carl's arrest: Mick's trial for the death of Benji Veniamin, Mario's death, Mokbel's trial on cocaine charges, his escape from the country midway through that trial, Danielle vanishing. Part of it will depend on what happens with Mokbel: if he's brought back to Australia and charged with a couple of the murders there's been talk about him being charged with, we can't go to air before that trial."

The actors have other ideas. With a grin, Grantley says that jokey on-set talk ran to speculation of how Underbelly 2 might look: "It starts with a big aerial shot over the Mediterranean and comes in to find Tony Mokbel sipping on a macchiato. Carl's busted out of jail, got into a high-powered boat in his Miami Vice jacket, and turns up. I'll be the Prison Break part of it: we're going all Hollywood."

For now, though, Underbelly is very much a Melbourne story.

Underbelly premieres Wednesday at 8.30pm on Nine.

By Debi Enker
February 07, 2008
The Age