I planned a breezy backstory about a gentle, warm wind of an Australian Story about beloved he-might-be-a-Kiwi-but-we-think-of-him-as-our-own actor Sam Neill.
This was the opening sentence: “It was a tough job going to film with Sam Neill at his New Zealand vineyards, but, as the cliche goes, someone had to do it.”
But looking back over the last two months I recognise that doing anything during the coronavirus crisis is far from normal.
We started this story before coronavirus became a pandemic and ended production with most of the population in isolation.
The fear and anxiety that gripped me along the way seemed to be also gripping the nation.
Australia knows Sam Neill as the actor who came to fame as a young man in the 1979 film My Brilliant Career and has graced our screens for the last 40 years.
We planned to also tell the story of his lesser-known passion for winemaking.
“Come and film at the vineyards when it’s green and lush,” he had said when we were making plans to visit late last year.
In February, pre-lockdown, cameraman Simon Winter and I met Sam Neill at his favourite café in historic Clyde, Central Otago.
“We all need to have coffee,” he had stated plaintively.
And there he was, pulling into town behind the wheel of his Mr-Bean-issue 1960 Austin A40.
One look at the car and we knew we had to rig a go-pro and get the drone up to capture him pootling across the scenic bridge over the Clutha River.
But after coffee.
In the courtyard of Oliver’s café, no-one looked twice at the rumpled farmer reading his beloved Otago Daily Times at table 7.
Round here he is just another winemaker.
There’s no fuss, no entourage and no star ego.
We spent the few days there anxiously watching the weather and ducking out in the breaks to film Sam around the vines.
He was patient and full of forbearance, taking us up the hill to film with his comically photogenic pig Angelica and over to the dam to call for his beloved duck Charlie Pickering.
Sam’s menagerie of farm animals have become Twitter and Instagram stars in their own right.
It was like meeting royalty when Charlie Pickering came waddling up that bank.
Neill took us over to his fourth vineyard, The Last Chance, so named as it’s the most southern place grapes are grown anywhere in the world.
There was only a chance that the Austin would make it up the hill where we intended to film Sam as master of his domain on a rock overlooking the vines.
What I love about this position of producer on Australian Story is it defies any boundary of job description.
And if your job that day involves pushing Sam Neill’s car up a boggy hill, then get the job done.
Sam was patient and helpful.
Like the old documentary-maker he is, he knew what we were trying for and made good suggestions about locations and camera angles.
It was obvious how strongly connected he was to his land.
“I think my first responsibility is to look after my land in a way that leaves it better than when I found it,” he said.
“I’d like to think these vineyards will be going in 100, 200, 300 years — they’ll be famous and I’ll be long gone and long forgotten.”
Back in Sydney a week or two later, we filmed the main interview and after a day listening to Sam Neill my face ached from trying not to laugh out loud.
Nobody told me how dry, witty and funny he is.
A couple of half days filming here and there and then he was off to Marrakesh to film a sci-fi movie.
“You might be able to do some picks-ups when he comes back,” we were told, but then he would be heading off to London to film Jurassic World: Dominion, a reprise of his star turn as palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant in the original Jurassic Park blockbuster.
Instead, COVID-19 invaded Australia in its relentless march across the world.
Sam Neill beat a hasty retreat from Morocco and endured two weeks of isolation in his Sydney apartment.
He posted a Twitter video of his achievement one day of washing all his sneakers.
Meanwhile, I was shot-listing and trying to script.
The office over a few days started to empty out and it became clear that we all had to start working from home.
I downloaded everything onto a trusty hard drive and set up in a bedroom in Sydney.
We were due to do some more filming with Sam, but even after he had cleared his quarantine period, he was unsure about filming with us and we were unsure whether we should be filming with him.
I cancelled plans and regrouped on structure and script, working out what sequences of overlay we could live without.
Meanwhile, editor Ian Harley set up an edit suite in his home that could cope with hours of footage we’d shot, variously formatted archival footage, graphics and music.
From a distance it seemed like he was taking it in his stride, but certain things were taking longer to do and I could hear the frustration in his voice.
By the week of March 15, COVID-19 cases were steadily ramping up in most states.
I was trying to write and structure the complex mosaic that is an Australian Story script.
That week, it was made harder as the notifications of rising COVID-19 cases and news stories of disasters unfolding in Italian, Spanish and New York hospital wards flashed across the screen.
By Sunday, March 22, ABC News alerts were announcing various lockdowns around the country.
I rang my sister and brother-in-law on their Gundagai farm.
They didn’t hesitate.
“Come down here.”
I gathered up my 86-year-old mother who, truth be told, although a fabulous person on most accounts, had never been great at walking within society’s structures.
Set up in a bedroom far from the madding but now isolated crowds, 40 minutes out of Gundagai, I could finally relax and concentrate on the job at hand, trying to keep the script ahead of gun editor Ian Harley in his now home edit suite in Cherrybrook, Sydney.
“I can hardly hear the soundtrack for the noise of the birds out the window,” he laughed on the phone.
We’d call to talk through something but end up sharing our mutual shock at how quickly the world was changing as shops and businesses closed and heartbreaking unemployment lines grew outside Centrelink offices.
To deal with the anxiety I stopped watching the news cycle obsessively and also kept up with Sam’s funny Twitter and Instagram posts from his isolation in Sydney, or with his partner Laura Tingle — ABC 7.30’s chief political correspondent and Sam’s connection to the Canberra bubble.
Ian would upload a cut of the program and send us the link and executive producer Caitlin Shea in Brisbane and series producer Rebecca Latham from Sydney would send their feedback.
I hesitate to suggest Ian might have been happy having the usually meddling producer at arm’s length instead of sitting in his edit suite.
For the last pick-up interview with Sam, Canberra-based cinematographer Greg Nelson drove to Sydney and set up to film from a distance on a flat roof on the apartment block next to Sam’s.
Instead of me next to the camera he positioned an iPad with a feed of me set up in my bedroom and a Bluetooth speaker near Sam so he could hear my questions.
It was an incredibly complicated way to do an interview, but it’s the new way of filmmaking and newsgathering in the time of coroanvirus.
Sam talked about posting to social media and reflected on the times we are living through, again, a reassuring gentle presence asking us to give new things a go and obey the rules of social isolation.
And so, in a way, the subject of my story showed me the way through it.
With a gentle message reassuring us that it will all be OK, and that we will get through it together.
Filming a story on Sam Neill during a pandemic was an unexpectedly difficult but also delightful job.
I’m glad I got to do it.