True grit: Chris Dudman on the making of Harry

  • Production
  • May 20, 2013
  • Ben Fahy
True grit: Chris Dudman on the making of Harry

It’s not unusual for commercial directors to pursue other interests to keep the creative fires burning. But doing a TV series is fairly rare, says Robber’s Dog's Chris Dudman, who helped write, direct and edit TV3's new critically-acclaimed drama Harry.

After two episodes, Dudman says he’s rapt with the way the show has been received, with a glowing review on National Radio last week, a good review in the Herald by Paul Casserly and plenty of positive commentary online, including some Twitter love from John Campbell, who, along with a few others, was fulsome in his praise of the new six-part show. 

  • Have a gander at the show here

Critical acclaim and good ratings are two very different beasts, however, as evidenced by the performance of The Blue Rose. But Harry, which screens at 9.30pm on Wednesday, won its timeslot on launch with a 23 percent share of the 25-54 audience (vs. 18.8 percent for TV One and 22.1 percent for TV2) and an average audience of 133,500 people in this demo (130,500 watching on TV3 and 3,000 on TV3+1).

It went into the Sons of Anarchy timeslot and premiered above that show's average. And at the end of last week, it was the third most popular video on-demand show for MediaWorks (behind The X Factor and Home and Away) with 11,790 streams. However, TVNZ put it up against the new superhero show Arrow on TV2 last week. 

The show is funded to the tune of $3.5 million through New Zealand on Air’s platinum fund and Dudman says it's been a labour of love for all involved.

“It’s been a long hard slog and from inception it’s been a good two-and-a-half years. After it got the go ahead last January we [Oscar Kightley and producer Steven O'Meagher] sat down and started writing it, before going into production in June last year ... It’s consumed my life for a whole year."

But now that it’s out and garnering praise, he says it was all worth it.

That praise—and particularly the ratings—is also comforting for the funding body and the network, he says.

“They’re always holding their breath until it rates,” he says. “TV3 took a punt on me. And so did the producer. I hadn’t done drama for TV before." 

He does have an impressive body of work, however, having been nominated for an Oscar for his art school graduation short 'Blackwater Summer' and collecting armfuls of awards and accolades over the years. 

He says it is also fairly unusual for a director to be involved in the writing of a show. And in this case, he says he worked with the producers on the story and then took control of the look, feel, music and sound (Peter Berger directed two of the middle episodes because it was too much for Dudman to do it all and some of those shots have been spliced together with Dudman's episodes after some script rejigging). 

"Creatively I have seen the project all the way through," he says. 

He says he didn’t know Kightley, a renowned joker who was keen to expand his repertoire and try his hand at a more serious role, and he admits getting Sam Neill on board was something of a coup, as it was the first time he had acted in a New Zealand television show (to fit into his schedule, they delayed the shoot for two weeks). 

“He was in London and we had a chat on Skype. I was like ‘oh my God, it’s Sam Neill.’ But he knew Oscar. He’d done a little thing for Bro Town and he was a fan of the first Sione’s Wedding. We told him we wanted to do something different on the TV landscape and we needed someone who had that authority over Harry. It’s a relief to hear that the viewers think that we've managed to do that. As a director, it was exciting, but daunting to have him there. But he’s been great for the publicity of the show.”

All up, he says the crew shot for ten hours a day and ended up with about eight minutes of screen time per day. In a New Zealand feature film, he estimates that amount of shooting time would result in three minutes of screen time per day, so "it was really demanding and really hard to craft".

"But we said 'let’s make poverty our virtue'. So we shot everything in hand and decided to go with this found doco style approach. We really made a rod for our back by having such a big cast and travelling all around Auckland to shoot. We were very ambitious." 

He says there’s a different type of pressure as a commercial director and while there are still time constraints, there are more people to please and that means the process is much longer.

"You only move on when everybody’s happy to move on. The machine is much bigger." 

As far as influences go, Dudman says they did have some shows in the back of their minds, like The Wire, Cracker and Prime Suspect, although the thinking was for this show to be more character-based than genre-specific. He says it would be a struggle to get a show like The Wire on network television in New Zealand, as it’s so demanding in terms of keeping the audience, so practicalities also influenced the direction of the show.

“You really need to work towards the ad breaks and that’s something we learned a lot about as we wrote and edited the show. We just wanted to make really good TV and we strived to do that. There were moments when we were staring into the abyss. It’s not perfect. And I think we can do better. So I hope we can build on that. At various points along the way we have discussed what we would do differently if we were given another chance. But I'm not counting my chickens." 

A number of other production companies, such as The Sweet Shop, Curious and Flying Fish are also backing long-form content, either by supporting their directors or getting into distribution. But while he says a lot of people making commercials do have ambitions to do other short films, music videos or features, not many think about doing TV.

"It’s like the poor cousin," he says. 

In saying that, he says some would argue this is the golden age of television, with expensive, beautifully produced and massively popular shows being screened on cable channels like HBO or AMC in the US (and, increasingly, Netflix). New Zealand productions are a different kettle of fish, of course, and he says this one also ran on the smell of an oily rag, but as a director he says these long-form skills are increasingly able to be translated into content with a commercial context. 

“The proliferation of websites and the demand for online content is going to grow. We’ve always supported [directors] doing other projects because creatively it’s a great thing for them to do.”

And if Harry is anything to go by, the viewers and critics seem to agree. 

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