Producing Outback Opal Hunters – featuring Julia Redwood and Darren Chau
In today’s episode, Screenwest Documentary Manager Paul Williams is joined by Julia Redwood (Managing Director at Prospero Productions) and Darren Chau (Director of Content, Production & Channels – Factual at Discovery Australia, New Zealand & Pacific Islands) for a conversation about the new season of Outback Opal Hunters.
Outback Opal Hunters Season 5 premieres Thursday, 8 October 2020 at 7:30pm on Discovery in Australia.
Outback Opal Hunters is produced by Prospero Productions for Discovery with assistance of the State Government of Western Australia, Screenwest and Lotterywest. To date, the series has entertained audiences in more than 100 countries and territories, including the US and the UK.
You’re listening to In Conversation with Screenwest. In today’s episode, Screenwest Documentary Manager, Paul Williams discusses the new season of Outback Opal Hunters with Julia Redwood, Managing Director at Prospero Productions and Darren Chau, Director of Content, Production & Channels – Factual, Discovery Australia, New Zealand & Pacific Islands.
Join us for a conversation on how Outback Opal Hunters filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Prospero’s process in casting the show, what Discovery looks for when commissioning content and the adventures that await in season five. From Screenwest, this is In Conversation.
[What Discovery looks for when commissioning]
So, Darren, I’ll start with you, can you tell me what Discovery looks for when commissioning or programming content?
Yes, well, Discovery, we’re the leaders in real life entertainment globally, some of your listeners may not be aware, but we’ve been investing very heavily in content for many years. In fact, annually, we invest $4 billion in producing content, that’s more than 8,000 hours of original content across a range of genres.
Then locally, we’ve significantly increased our local output over the last few years as well. In fact, across the last five years, I think we’ve increased our local production hours tenfold. This year is our biggest year ever with over 100 hours produced here in Australia.
Now, that’s the most we’ve ever produced in Australia, but also that’s more than any other international broadcaster.
In terms of what we look for with commissions, we’ve really perfected the tough job genre, so shows like Outback Opal Hunters and Aussie Gold Hunters, Railroad Australia, Aussie Salvage Squad, but we also look for other shows, other genres. We’re looking at motoring, we look for mystery science, off the grid shows, blue light.
I think as we continue to diversify our business, we’ll actually expand our slate and the sorts of shows that we’ll start to commission. I think we’ll start to commission more shows that are targeted at females, for example.
One really significant aspect of the shows and what we look for is the casting. We really want engaging characters; we want the characters to lead the storytelling. We feel this is what connects the audience and makes our shows far more immersive.
Then in addition to that, whilst it’s incredibly important that our shows work for our audience locally, we also have an eye to global. We want our shows to travel, we want our shows to be successful overseas.
So that’s really important when we look at what we commission, is we factor that in and we think, “Can this show travel?” Part of that really, is just being realistic about financing.
If a show is more successful, you’re more likely to be able to make more, so that’s probably the other key when we look at commissioning shows, is yes, we want a great concept and we want great characters, but we also want a great finance plan, a clever finance plan.
That’s what Prospero are very good at, actually and that’s really how Outback Opal Hunters came about, was they had a great idea with great characters, but also had a very clever finance plan.
[Filming during COVID-19 Pandemic]
Which is a nice way to introduce Julia Redwood from Prospero. Welcome Julia, thanks for joining us.
A quick question about your seeing these finance plans here at Screenwest, and also your very quick response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which enabled you to keep filming this series, Outback Opal Hunters, really without interruption.
Can you speak to that for me, please?
Yeah, it was important to us, late February, early March, we identified at Prospero that this was going to have a massive impact on production, potentially.
It was key to the business model if we wanted to carry on with the company, was that we had to enable our shooters and directors and crew to be able to get out in the field, because we were just about to start Outback Opal Hunters, we were actually just finishing up on Outback Truckers.
We had about six shoots to go on Truckers and we were just in pre-production on Opals, we were just about to launch actually into production on Opals.
It was critical for the future of the company that we were able to tackle COVID and I think we just saw it early.
We just knew, we had so much at stake, I suppose and so we just looked at it, looked at the possible ramifications, anticipated that the borders would shut, that flights would shut, that our people would not be able to move in and out.
We researched, there wasn’t actually much to be able to research at that stage. No one knew. We couldn’t go to Screen Australia, or yourselves, no one had a plan as to what we’d do in this.
It was so unusual, so we had to make it up ourselves really, and through diligence and hard work and consulting with the right government agencies and bodies we came up with our own COVID-19 plan.
What we did was it was very clear that isolation, that quarantine was going to be important.
So, when we flew people into these areas, such as we fly into Dubbo to access Lightning Ridge, we fly into Coober Pedy to access Coober Pedy and we have to fly up to Queensland and then drive to get to places as remote as Opalton.
What we did was we knew that we had to fly those people in and then we isolated them in a hotel, we quarantined them for two weeks, made sure they were safe, and then they could go out into the field.
But it also meant, because it’s documentary, that we were also monitoring our contributors and making sure that we knew where they were going.
Some people were traveling between Adelaide, for instance, and Coober Pedy, and we had to monitor them. We were asking them for their honesty to say, “Look, if you’re feeling unwell, you need tell us because we will need to then isolate our people.”
It’s through honesty, trust, and just being absolutely diligent and really hammering it home to our own crew where most people would think, “Oh, I just got to get out to the field, I just got to keep working, pushing through that cold.”
It was like, “No, this is a whole new ball game now, lads. Even a sore throat, particularly throat, you put your hand up, say “Look, I’m not feeling 100%” and then we literally would isolate them until they either felt better or indeed for two weeks.
Fortunately, we’ve avoided any infection, no one from our crew or our contributors have actually come down, thank goodness.
We just got ahead of the curve really and it gave us comfort as a company, it gave our staff comfort and I hope it also gave the contributors comfort that we were doing everything we possibly could.
It wasn’t in our interest to either hurt anybody, of course, but it would’ve shut production down, literally the company would have gone to the wall.
[How COVID-19 Affected Discovery]
Thanks, Julia. Darren, can you talk to how COVID has affected Discovery?
We understand that it’s had a major impact on the bottom line of advertising revenue, but in a broader sense, how has it affected the pipeline of productions internationally that you’re dealing with?
Yeah, look, we’ve been affected a few different ways. I should just start just as a broadcaster and from an office perspective.
Luckily, we had very good systems set up prior to the pandemic for staff to work remotely, so we were able to very quickly mobilise everyone to work from home, and this has actually worked quite well. I suspect when we come out of this, we’ll probably have a few changes to the way we operate.
But in terms of, I guess, all media companies globally, there’s been a pause in productions, and we rely very heavily on our US output in particular.
There were some scary times as I sort of worked through Easter, trying to map out the next couple of years.
But on the very positive side is we went into this year planning our biggest year ever of local production and fortunately we’ve been able to keep every single hour filming.
In fact, in some cases we’ve worked ahead and started filming future seasons, ahead of when we would have otherwise. But this is all really due to the nature of our filming logistics. Also, the fact that we’re very fortunate that we’re in one of the industries still allowed to operate.
But yeah, look, as Julia said, we sort of were very quick and agile when the pandemic first broke, we moved crews into regional locations, quarantined them and created production bubbles.
But the other important part of this as well is that safety is absolutely paramount.
We’ve worked very closely with all our production companies, production partners, to ensure that safe procedures are in place as well as detailed risk assessments.
We were meeting constantly, getting updates constantly and Prospero were fantastic in this regard.
[Casting Outback Opal Hunters]
Fantastic, Darren. Julia let’s talk a little bit about casting. Increasingly these shows are commissioned as much on cast as concept.
You’ve got some fantastic casts in Outback Opal Hunters. I’m a particular fan of Rod and Les and their devil may care attitude and the way they sort of go about it is fantastic.
Can you talk about your casting process, how you find such wonderful characters and your ongoing casting across seasons to keep the show fresh?
Well, thanks Paul. I know Rod and Les are favourites to lots of people. They are the real deal, genuine guys that wear their hearts on their sleeve; you couldn’t really cast them better there. They fell into our lap, those two chaps, actually.
We were casting, but they saw the show, certainly Rod had seen the show, and what a lot of people are driven, a lot of people say, “Why do they go on the show? Why do they bother? They’re exposing themselves to potential ridicule, to inquiry, to breach of their privacy.”
And a lot of them really want to show the world and often, sometimes even their families and friends, how hard it is to extract opal from the ground, and the challenge.
We also had this with Outback Truckers, a lot of the drivers are just proud of what they do, and they really love to show it off. That was very much Rod’s point of view.
He really wanted to show people the challenges of his world and it’s that characteristic that we’re always looking for, those people that are sort of free of judgment and they don’t really care what people think about them and that really allows them to be themselves.
If they’re constantly checking themselves and worrying about how others are going to perceive them, then the genuine them doesn’t come through.
The casting’s always a big challenge, it’s very, very important and increasingly, and we’ve learnt loads from this process from Discovery really pushing us in this area.
It’s really, I think we have dividends for the show, and that is people who can articulate what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and not just from the technical point of view, but from the emotional point of view.
You can actually really dive deep inside themselves and say, “This is really hard, this is really challenging for me at this moment in time. If I don’t succeed here, I’m in big trouble” and that’s quite difficult for a lot of people to really analyse their thoughts and emotions.
We push them and prod them and make them go there, so you’d really try to find people that are willing to go there with you.
That’s hard when you first meet somebody because you don’t really know if they’re going to really express themselves fully. A lot of it’s on instinct, a lot of it is the good judgment skill of the casting producers that we’ve sent out into the field.
We do find some of these opal hunters from social media, we put out posts, but to be honest, often they’re off the grid, they don’t have Wi-Fi and they’re not great social media people.
We literally have to get boots on the ground and start meeting people, going to these towns, talking to people who would like to be on the show, “Do you know anyone who would like to be on the show who wouldn’t normally put their hand up?”
It’s about really just getting out there and meeting people. It’s a relatively small world, so it’s a small group of people that tend to be opal hunters, so they tend to know each other.
It’s quite a lonely, remote, isolated world, so you’ve got to really get under the skin of the society and meet them and hopefully, they like the show, and if they like the show, they may well be willing to come on it.
But people are fairly modest most of the time and they don’t really often push themselves forward, so you really have to get out there and meet them and entice them to be on the show.
[The Relationship between Broadcasters and Production Companies]
Look, a show like Opal Hunters doesn’t get into returnable status for no reason. I suppose this is a question that’s part for you, Julia, and part for you Darren, as well, to talk about the success of your relationship as a broadcasting platform and as a production company, how you make that work and how you see the roles of each other in the success in that relationship?
Yes, well, look, I must say Discovery, we’ve increased our slate tenfold in the last five years and I think the starting point for that in many ways was working with Prospero.
In my first year at Discovery, we launched a show called Railroad Australia and the show had phenomenal success. It was the number one factual series across Foxtel, the numbers were huge, six figure numbers in pay TV is massive.
That was the beginning of it, and really it was because of the success of that show, working with Prospero that we had the confidence to continue to expand our slate and make more shows.
We did the second season of Railroad and then moved on to Outback Opal hunters with Julia and Prospero as well.
I think Prospero, an exceptionally efficient team, they just get the job done and they’re real experts in the tough jobs space they’re real leaders in this market.
Once you’ve found a production company that can deliver and work with you and collaborate, then you want to hang on to them and you want to foster that relationship.
We are very particular about the shows we make at Discovery and the way in which we make them. It is a collaboration, and so companies that can’t really understand what we’re trying to do, we just don’t work with them again.
The companies who are open-minded, who bring all their expertise to the table, but then are also open to listening and working in the way that we like to work, well, that’s the great collaboration that can occur.
Then, as we’ve seen over these last few years, the great success comes with that as well, both locally and globally.
Look, we can’t understate the significance of Prospero’s ability to continue to produce shows and film during this pandemic, it was huge.
As Julia mentioned before, shows like Outback Opal Hunters is incredibly complex because we shoot it across three or four states. The second lockdown occurred, it was a real nightmare, but Prospero were fantastic in this regard.
Then, absolutely the other thing too, is I just want to reiterate the characters. I just love the characters in Outback Opal Hunters and when I think about the original pitch, I was grabbed from the very first casting reel. A character that’s been across the series called Duff and his crew, I think that was the first casting reel I saw in the pitch and I just loved them.
Opal is really hard to find, really hard. I would never want to do it, but I’m totally captivated by these characters trying to do it.
I think when you’re not finding opal (and I always want heaps of opal to be found every episode) but the truth is that it is really hard. When it’s hard to find opal, you want the audience to be totally engaged, and in love with these characters to follow that journey.
It can’t just be about the opal and I think Prospero have been fantastic in the casting of these characters and the way that we’ve worked together to evolve their stories over time.
That’s high praise indeed. Julia, getting you to talk to that as well, how do you manage the requirements of a company like Discovery with your own creative objectives for a show like Opal Hunters?
Just wanted to say that I love you, Darren.
The relationship between the production company and any broadcaster is absolutely crucial.
Sometimes you have disagreements, often on the money that they pay, but sometimes even the artistic disagreements. But I think when you get the right relationship for the right series, the right program, and you’re all on the same page and you know what Discovery want or whoever you’re working for and you work with them, that you are a collaboration.
I think if you can approach it in that way, that you’re working together to get the best possible show together, then you will, you’ll work together, and you won’t have those conflicts or resentments or antagonism.
Yes, it’s stressful and it’s hard work, but I think we’ve got fantastic executive producers (Darren and Rob Holloway in the UK) I just know they want the best for the show.
They want the show to return, they’re not being difficult for being difficulty’s sake (not that they are ever difficult) but they’re never giving us comments back just to be difficult. They’re trying to make the best possible show and they know their audience.
In fact, they know their audience better than anybody and you have to respect the knowledge that the broadcaster brings to their own audience as a filmmaker.
We’ve always worked on that premise that we work with the broadcaster without compromising the integrity of the show.
Yeah, when we disagree, really disagree with something, then we’ll going to battle for and stand up for something, but really, you’re all on the same side.
I think once you get the right mix, with your right show, right broadcaster, right production company, your right creative crew, then happy days, you all go in with the same attitude.
But look, I mean, you’d be mad as a production company to burn your bridges with broadcasters. We need them just as much as they need us.
[Performance in Local and International Markets]
Speaking of audiences, Darren, how is Outback Opal Hunters performing in the markets you’re broadcasting into at the moment?
Well, certainly locally it’s in the top two factual series across Foxtel.
It’s a very strong performer on Sky New Zealand as well and it has now as a series aired in over 100 countries and territories worldwide.
Julia mentioned the UK before, so we we’re in partnership with Discovery UK on this project and in the UK, it airs on our big free-to-air channel called Quest and it’s in the top three or four shows on Quest in the UK.
Then, in addition to that, last November, Discovery US picked up the show and premiered it. Now, Discovery in the US is the number one cable channel for men and Outback Opal Hunters airs on Discovery’s number one night of the week.
It premiered in November, it delivered great numbers, it immediately rolled into season two and it’s really changed the perception, I think, or helped change the perception of Australia and certainly the way that we’re regarded.
I think traditionally it’s almost impossible getting content that isn’t US produced on US television, so Outback Opal Hunters on US TV was a huge, huge breakthrough.
Because of that, that sort of allowed us to continue to expand our slate, but also, it’s making a global audience realise just how many fantastic stories are generated out of Australia, and the wonderful engaging characters that we have here.
Whilst we came to increase our slate and continue to invest in local content, we’re also seeing overseas investment coming here as well.
Some of the Discovery US’s biggest franchises have started filming down here, so we have Shark Week, which is a global pop cultural phenomenon, many Shark Week documentaries are now filmed in Australia.
Discovery US’s biggest franchise, Gold Rush, the latest season was filmed in Australia and various other franchises are coming Down Under as well.
This is really off the back of the great work that we’ve been doing here locally, including shows like Outback Opal Hunters.
[Season 5 Sneak Peak]
Fantastic, now Julia, can you maybe give our listeners a sneak peek of what we can expect for the latest series of Opal Hunters.
We’re lucky here at Screenwest in that we get the screeners ahead of audiences, so we’ve been following the trials and tribulations of your characters ahead of schedule, but we’d love to hear from you.
Well, Rod and Les, do make a timely return. I think Les at the end of season three had a very nasty accident and suffered some really serious burns from a welding accident, but he happily returns, so we’re delighted about that.
Very dramatic beginning on episode one, there’s a huge flood, I think Lightning Ridge. I think it’s the biggest rainfall they’ve had for sort of over a hundred years and it all happens very quickly, so it’s a flash flood that opens episode one in very dramatic terms.
We’re always looking for fresh, new, pushing the series. What’s new that we can bring to expand the audience, and Discovery are great as well in really telling us, “This is what we want, we need to see something new, what are we going to see this season?”
It’s always progressing, so we’ve got new teams, we have three new teams, the Opal Whisperers who are based in Queensland and they actually hunt a new Opal that we haven’t seen called the Yowah Nut.
There’s the Bishop, who’s based in Coober Pedy and Coober Pedy makes the return, it wasn’t in the last season and the Bishop, very interesting chap. He’s an Opal Miner, but he’s also a bishop, he’s a former bouncer as well, so he’s a very interesting, colourful character, as you can imagine from Coober Pedy.
Then also in Coober Pedy, a team of three who’ve got families, mouths to feed who are called the Black Lighters.
With them, not only have they got this very interesting story of three guys hunting for Opal in a new area for them, they have this machine that’s called a noodling machine.
Noodling basically is looking for scraps of opal in previously mined dirt, scavenging really. Their noodling machine is $100,000, a mobile opal processing machine, which they’ve nicknamed Opalzilla.
We’ll also be seeing new mining techniques, new opal, new teams and we also, I think I’m allowed to say this, but I don’t know, but they’re on mute so they can’t interrupt me, we will actually have the biggest opal find ever on the show from a single black opal nobby, as they’re called. I won’t tell you who actually finds it though, how about that?
[What do you love about documentary?]
Well, we’ll have to keep watching to discover that.
I suppose sort of rounding up now, just a personal question for you both. Not necessarily how you got into the factual documentary game, but what it is you love most about documentaries?
I’ll start with you Darren.
It’s a good question. Well, my background actually wasn’t in the factual space. I come very much from working in entertainment, comedy, scripted, so it’s been wonderful to immerse myself in the world of documentaries.
I think documentaries can just personally satisfy a curiosity or interest that I have in something and sometimes satisfy curiosity or interest that I didn’t even realise I had.
But I think coming from my background, I think what’s interesting about documentaries and what I love about them, and increasingly so, is that when you think about all the things that scripted shows and films do, documentaries can do all of that: high drama, plot twist, comedy, tragedy. Documentaries can do all of that, except that it’s real, that’s the big difference.
Also, I think documentaries can really take you deep inside a world that you otherwise wouldn’t get to experience in real life.
There’s no way I would take up opal mining, but I love watching it, I’m totally engaged, I’m captivated.
Opals are so mysterious, what these characters do is truly inspiring. I really have fallen in love with the genre completely and I think now it’s really having its moment in the spotlight, finally.
Indeed, and Julia, as a producer of several hundreds of hours of content, what keeps you keen, what keeps you in love with the form?
Actually, my background, similarly wasn’t journalism or documentary filmmaking, it was actually the theatre.
What drew me to filmmaking and to documentary was how the real can actually be even more extraordinary than the fiction. It’s how we live, and it gives meaning for life.
What I’ve always found just the most fascinating is one, the privilege of ordinary people allowing us into their lives and allowing us to film them and project their stories, but how their stories enable us to really work out what we are, who we are and why we’re here.
They give us clues into how to live, and that’s, I guess, art in general, but documentaries really by being in the real, in the now, have an extraordinary opportunity and ability in very dramatic ways to really engage us and give us clues about what it means to be a human being.
I mean, I know we’re making a series about opal hunters, but it’s really about people’s endeavour to really just survive, to put food on the table, to have ambition, to have dreams, the big picture stuff.
It’s quite fundamental human emotions that we’re actually dealing with, it’s raw and it all plays out obviously in the opal fields, but that can be anywhere. It can be on the gold fields or it could be in a truck.
It doesn’t have to be even hugely dramatic, but it pushes these people.
They’re in very extreme environments, they’re on the edge all the time, financially, physically, and we see the human form, the human being in extremeness.
That’s what I love about these extreme jobs, that you can really demonstrate what it means to be a human being right on the edge, and that to me, that’s drama, that’s dramatic and that’s what we constantly are striving to achieve in our structure, but also in entertainment form.
[How to watch Outback Opal Hunters Season 5]
Well, thank you both so much for joining me, I suppose, just in finishing up when and where Australian audiences can see the new season of Outback Opal Hunters?
Yes, the new season of Outback Opal Hunters launches on the Discovery Channel on Thursday, October 8th, at 7:30 PM. It will be available on Foxtel and on Fetch as well.
Fantastic, well I hope all the hunters get, as they say, on the colour and have a very successful season.
Thanks Darren and thanks Julia, for joining us on this podcast, I really appreciate your time.
Thanks, Paul, it was a pleasure and great to speak to you too, Julia.
And you, Darren.
This has been In Conversation with Screenwest featuring Paul Williams, Julia Redwood, and Darren Chau.
This podcast was brought to you by Screenwest. Screenwest, wishes to thank Lotterywest for their continuing support of the WA Screen industry.
Today’s episode was edited by XB Studios with music by Andrew Wright and produced by Alex Biddle and Paul Williams for Screenwest.
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