The camera crew filming the unorthodox entrance of Peregrine Fisher (Geraldine Hakewell) into the Adventuresses’ Club in “Just Murdered,” the pilot episode of Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries. (source: Every Cloud Productions)
Every Cloud Productions’ Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries (a spin-off of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), which made its US debut in April on Acorn TV’s streaming service, is like the television equivalent of light summer reading, especially for connoisseurs of the mystery-thriller genre. Set in Melbourne, Australia, circa 1964, the show combines visual style, suspense, clever writing, breezy humor, and even a dash of romance with a traditional “will they or won’t they” relationship between the title character, private detective Peregrine Fisher (Geraldine Hakewell), and police detective James Steed (Joel Jackson).
No small credit for the series’ visual style belongs to director Fiona Banks, the show’s “set-up director” (i.e., the series’ first director, who establishes the tone and style of the show). A former editor, Banks helmed the first and last episodes of the first season (“Just Murdered” and “Seasoned Murder”). Banks has worked on major drama series for all of Australia’s television networks. In the process, she’s won two Australian Directors Guild’s Best Director Awards (Best Direction in a TV Drama for Wentworth and Best Direction in Children’s Drama for Mustangs FC). She is currently working on the US ABC series Reef Break.
Director Fiona Banks (source: IMDB)
In answer to my question about whether her direction for Ms. Fisher was influenced by the films and TV shows of the 60s, Banks responded, “I looked at a lot of television shows for inspiration, but, in the end, it was some of the classic Audrey Hepburn romantic comedies, such as Charade, Roman Holiday, and How to Steal a Million, that resonated most for me. I really wanted to aim for a sense of light and scale that can be hard to achieve in this kind of limited budget period television, and we tried to keep the frame as wide and generous as possible. The Adventuresses’ Club was our nod of utter respect to the original series, so DOP Kathy Chambers and I decided to reflect a darker, moodier earlier century world here.
“I have used storyboards in my work, but I confess I am extremely low-tech in my approach! I only use them when constructing extremely complex stunt sequences, and have a storyboard artist draw them by hand… as I am the world’s worst artist. I take lots of photographs on location in pre-production, and those exact frames surprisingly often end up on the screen. I think my background as an editor allows me to visualize frames and story sequences quite easily, and whilst I always prepare and block scenes, but like to be flexible to the possibility of a better idea popping up on the day of the shoot.
“Working with the actors is now my principal joy in the whole directing process. Initially, fresh out of the edit suite, I confess I was more than slightly terrified of the very idea of actually expressing my thoughts to these amazingly talented and courageous individuals. I went and did some acting classes to attempt to understand their process better, and just ended up terrifying myself even more! But, experience in both directing and life, has finally made me trust my emotional response to material and performance, and just talk things through. It seems to work for me.”
Banks has found working on Ms. Fisher to be a very rewarding experience. “As set-up director, I was thrilled to be able to have a voice in the casting of the show, and was really extremely proud of the cast we assembled. Geri [Hakewell] was an utter standout from the very first, and she set the bar extremely high. Joel [Jackson] was her perfect partner in crime, and they also just both happen to compete for the title of the most delightful actors I have ever worked with. Catherine [McClements, who plays Birdie Birnside], Toby [Truslove, Samuel Birnside], Louisa [Mignone, Violetta Fellini], Greg [Stone, Chief Inspector Percy Sparrow], and Katie [Robertson, Constable Connor] formed a creative, collaborative clutch around them that was a huge pleasure and privilege to witness.
“The crew… well I had worked with most of them before, and they were all there because they are incredibly good at what they do. Kathy Chambers and I had worked together on Wentworth, and she bought many of her crew from there. Ben Bangay, our talented production designer, has a passion for mid-century design, and is one of the best, most emotionally intelligent and tireless designers I have collaborated with. Other heads of department, such as Lynn Wheeler, and our brilliant editors, Ben Joss and Phil Watts, were also old comrades-in-arms. The costume designer Maria Pattison was a new face to me, but did a great job. Pretty cool bunch to play with!”
As mentioned in the previous article, the Ms. Fisher series reflects the growing involvement of women in the traditionally male-dominated television industry, something Banks is gratified by. “Being the sole female director on a television show is something that I have experienced more often than I would like to say over the years. Thankfully, I think those days are now behind us, although full parity is still a very long way off for women directors. And things are obviously much worse in the features world.
“After having my third daughter, I took a number of years out from directing, and seriously questioned whether I would ever be able restart my career. A couple of very supportive male producers encouraged me back. So, my personal experience is that it is a good time to be a female director, and I have had the opportunity to work on some of the very top tier programs made here in the last few years. But I’m very well aware that I am in an absolute minority having this experience. And the industry has a very, very long way to go in ensuring the range of directors working and telling our stories are fully representative of our richly diverse world.”
Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries requires music that can alternate between moments of suspense and danger as well as lighter, more upbeat (and occasionally romantic) melodies typical of the era to support the show’s comedic tone as well. To fulfill those requirements, the series employs not one, but three talented, award-winning composers who work in tandem.
Composer Burkhard Dallwitz (source: Every Cloud Productions)
One of Australia’s leading screen composers, Golden Globe winner Burkhard Dallwitz is a veteran of over 30 years of both feature films (The Truman Show, The Way Back) and television drama (Underbelly, Wolf Creek, Pine Gap). Brett Aplin is an AFI and Australian Screen Music Award-winning screen composer who has worked on numerous feature films (James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D), TV documentaries (Todd Sampson’s Body Hack) and over 80 episodes of children’s television (Mako Mermaids, The Bureau of Magical Things.) Dmitri Golovko has over a decade of experience creating music and sound for feature films, such as Red Hill and The Hitman’s Bodyguard (additional music), TV series, commercials, and video games. I was able to interview Dallwitz in addition to getting some input from Aplin and Golovko as well.
I started by asking Dallwitz how the composers approach doing music for Ms. Fisher. Do they get feedback from the producers, directors, or writers as to what they’re looking for or do they go with their own instincts? “Early in the process we discussed the ‘sound’ of the series with the producers, editors and directors,” he said, “and it was decided that we didn’t need to slavishly emulate 60s scores, but that a more modern approach with 60s and other broad retro influences would work well. Most of all it had to be fun, so Daniel Pemberton’s fabulous scores for such films as Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels were a touchstone as were nods to 60s era James Bond scores among others. Temporary music was chosen by the editors to reflect this and so, when we started scoring, everyone was on the same page. From there, we trusted our own instincts and used our experience to craft a score suited to the style and era, and to support the narrative. The performances, scripts, and production design were so great in Ms Fisher that it wasn’t hard to be inspired. From there, we received feedback from the producers and directors and made improvements until we were all happy with the final result.”
As for the challenges in creating music for a show like Ms. Fisher compared to other series the composers have worked on, Dallwitz told me, “Much of the language and craft of film scoring is shared in common with all types of productions; the music has to be sympathetic with the film, support the storytelling, and serve the vision of the filmmakers. The 60s setting, however, was unique and, while it did provide some challenges, these were all enjoyable! The period setting allowed us to play in a different sandbox, using instruments and instrumentation associated with the era that we wouldn’t normally get to work with on a more ‘conventional’ score. Many screen composers enjoy the challenge of an unusual score and this was certainly the case on Ms Fisher.”
With a 60s setting, it’s virtually obligatory to use recordings from the era to augment that setting and Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries doesn’t disappoint in that department. (US audiences will find it interesting to hear Australian covers of some familiar 60s rock standards.) I asked Dallwitz who decides when and where to use existing recordings in the show’s scores. “Actually, this is usually a decision made by the directors and producers in conjunction with music supervisors,” he explained. “They decide which parts of the film should accompanied by licensed music, and we score the rest. Beyond this, the decisions relating to the actual tracks chosen can often come down to costs, as licensing well known recordings can be hideously expensive.”
When I asked whose work among film and TV composers has influenced them, I got three different and fascinating responses from the composers. “I very much admire the work of Thomas Newman, David Buckley, and Jeff Beal,” Dallwitz said. “For me it’s hard to go past John Williams,” Aplin responded, “It saddens me a little that one of the current trends of modern film scoring has been a move away from melody and themes. Perhaps I’m a little old fashioned but John Williams is the master of thematic scores.” And Golovko’s answer was, “My biggest film music influences have been the works of Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, as well as Johan Johansson and Daniel Pemberton.”
Thanks to advancements in technology, film and television composers no longer have to rely solely on studio musicians to play their scores and can now play the music themselves. “Apart from recording live electric and acoustic guitars, courtesy of the brilliant Dave Herzog, the rest of the scores for Ms Fisher were performed by each of us utilising a vast array of sampled instrument libraries and synths,” Dallwitz told me. “My studio set-up consists of Cubase 9.5 and Pro Tools HD running on two Mac Pro’s. Pro Tools acts as the master running QT and connected to an Avid C24 that has a template mirroring Cubase’ composing template, all connected via Focusrite Rednet 5. Main monitoring is via Focal SM9’s and Genelec (SAM 8331A).”
“While I used to use Logic back before Apple discontinued the PC version, I too now use Cubase,” seconded Aplin. “Sampled instruments are largely hosted in Vienna Ensemble Pro across my Windows 7 Master PC and a second slave PC. While every job is different and may require different sample libraries, VSL’s excellent woodwinds libraries, Sonic Couture’s Vibraphone, the Cinematic Studio Series Strings and Brass not to mention Jazz drum kits from VSL and Addictive Drums sure got a workout on Ms Fisher.”
“My main DAW [digital audio workstation] of choice is also Cubase,” added Golovko. “However I have worked in the past with FL Studio, but mainly to create software synth patches as opposed to composition. I have an array of libraries as well as some of my own sounds I’ve recorded over the years; some of which I used in the score for Ms Fisher. While I performed guitar on some of my Ms Fisher cues, the majority of the score was created and performed using various instrument libraries.”
As of this writing, no decision has been made whether Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries will be renewed for a second season. Fans of the original Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, however, can look forward to the 1920s sleuth making her feature film debut in Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears, which will be given a limited theatrical release before having its streaming release on Acorn TV. The exact dates of those releases haven’t been announced yet.