BBC/TVNZ series The Luminaries is a gold mine for New Zealand

by Don Groves

The largest ever television series based on a New Zealand story to shoot in the country, The Luminaries is providing a significant boost to the local economy.

Eve Hewson and Himesh Patel

Commissioned by BBC Two and Television New Zealand, the six-hour production from Working Title Television, Fremantle and NZ’s Southern Light Films is employing more than 300 cast and crew, the vast majority of whom are Kiwis, for the 17 week shoot.

The bulk of the production budget is being spent in the country, a boon for local businesses and services, taking advantage of the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG).

Directed by Aussie Claire McCarthy (Ophelia, The Waiting City), the adventure drama set on the West Coast of the South Island during the 1860s gold rush, is scripted by Canadian-born, Christchurch-raised novelist Eleanor Catton. The screenplay is based on her 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name.

“It’s the biggest TV series featuring a New Zealand story,” the producer Lisa Chatfield tells Content Café NZ. “It’s a really exciting time for us, with a female director, a female writer and two strong women as the leads. Ellie (Catton) is a very visual writer. I would call the series a reinvention rather than an adaptation. Stories set in the Colonial era are not easy to tell. Because it’s a period piece we have had to build 95% of the sets, including parts of Dunedin and boats. It’s an extraordinary job from the art department.”

Andrew Shaw, TVNZ Deputy Director of Content and GM Acquisitions and International Co-Production, agrees: ”There has not been a TV production of this scale before. We committed to this production after reading the book and discovering that a TV series option had been acquired.

“It is an extraordinary story. The fact that Eleanor Catton had won a Booker Prize was a bonus, as was the news that she would be writing the TV adaptation. We also felt very strongly that this was such an iconic New Zealand tale it had to be one TVNZ shared with our audience. The production team are an incredibly creative and talented group and the cast is outstanding.”

Eve Hewson (Robin Hood, The Knick, Bridge of Spies) stars as defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell, who sailed from Britain to New Zealand to try her luck on the goldfields. A chance encounter with another recent arrival Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) fills with her with great expectations but when the two are separated Anna’s luck begins to change.

Eva Green (Casino Royale, Penny Dreadful, Sin City, A Dame to Kill For) plays scheming entrepreneur Lydia Wells, with Kiwi-born, US-based Marton Csokas (The Equalizer, Lord of the Rings, Into the Badlands) as her lover Francis Carver.

The key cast includes NZ-raised, Australian-based Erik Thomson (800 Words, Storm Boy) as Dick Mannering, a whoremonger and goldfields magnate; NZ-born, LA-based Callan Mulvey (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as George Shepard, a jailer and prosecutor; and Aussie Ewen Leslie (The Cry, Safe Harbour) as Crosbie Wells, Lydia’s husband.

Among the other New Zealand actors are Richard Te Are as Te Rau Tauwhare, who prizes greenstone above gold, Kieran Charnock as Edgar Clinch, who owns the hotel where Anna first resides on moving to Hokitika, Paolo Rotondo, Yoson An, Matt Whelan, Joel Tobeck, Matt Sunderland, Byron Coll , Errol Shand, Gary Young and Mark Mitchinson.

Published in 2013, the novel was the longest (832 pages) to win the Man Booker Prize and Catton, then aged 28, was its youngest ever recipient. Working Title Television UK MD Andrew Woodhead optioned the novel five years ago.

The series qualifies for a cash grant of 40% of Qualifying New Zealand Production Expenditure (QNZPE), which is normally capped at $NZ6 million for local productions. But this production is eligible for an additional funds because it meets the points threshold for the Significant Cultural Benefits Test.

The heads of department include DOP Denson Baker (Ophelia, Victoria) and production designer Felicity Abbott (Ladies in Black, Upgrade), both Kiwi-born.

Shooting began on November 12, there was a short hiatus over Christmas/New Year, and filming will wrap at the end of March. Fremantle is handling international distribution.

Shaw concludes: “We are delighted with what we have read and seen to date and feel very excited about sharing this with the audience.”