My so-called life

By Jacqueline Smith

Charles Mesure (left) and Miriama McDowell in  This Is Not My Life . Photo / Supplied
Charles Mesure (left) and Miriama McDowell in This Is Not My Life . Photo / Supplied

Charles Mesure might have died on Tuesday, his Detective Sergeant Zane Gerard going down to a broken bottle wielded by Cheryl West. But the busy actor will soon awake in a living nightmare.

In new local mystery-thriller This is Not My Life, Mesure plays Alec Ross, a guy who wakes to a perfect family, in a perfect house, in the perfect seaside suburb of Waimoana, with a perfect job. But, as the title suggests, he doesn't remember any of it. He feels he is being forced to live someone else's life but Waimoana won't let him leave.

Mesure says the role is the most difficult he has ever played.

"I've never done a role like this. Say you are doing Hamlet, you can read the play and find out how it ends, and you know everything about the character [as] it's all there in the text. I have never played a character who doesn't know who he is or doesn't know the world he is in."

The 13-part series is written by Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan of Go Girls and Outrageous Fortune.

Directing duties have been shared by Robert Sarkies (Out of the Blue, Scarfies) and Peter Salmon. The series also stars local faces Tandi Wright, Miriama McDowell and veteran John Bach as the possible villain behind Ross' amnesia.

Sarkies says they pulled off some tricks to get Mesure into his character's mindset. The actor saw scripts only shortly before shooting an episode, so like his character - and the audience - he really had no idea what was driving the story.

"We wanted to slap him about the face and stop him from acting. So the very first day of rehearsal, he had just come up from filming [Maori TV kids' drama] Kaitangata Twitch in the South Island. He landed and the first thing we did was blindfold him and kidnap him. We took him in a car for a drive and put him in an unfamiliar place, telling him someone in the place was looking for him and following him. So he spent the first two hours of his time on This Is Not My Life being completely paranoid, walking around our studio being in character, or finding the character through a contrived but realistic experience," Sarkies explains.

Waimoana, the fictional suburb of the near future is set in the manicured rich-list getaway of Omaha Beach, near Matakana. The colossal concrete and glass holiday homes, owned by the likes of Prime Minister John Key and fashion designer Trelise Cooper, are set against a bare skyline as trees and shrubs haven't had a chance to fill out the gaps.

Sarkies says it turned out to be everything the team could have wished for when trying to create a futuristic local drama on a New Zealand On Air budget of $6.8 million. "Am I allowed to say Omaha is just the weirdest place I've ever been? To be fair on the people, they were great and it was a great place to film, but in terms of the feeling that the place gave me - I'm someone who lives in Wellington but is from Dunedin - it was like I was walking in the future. It felt,to my film-maker's eye anyway, like creepy perfection," he says.

Curiously, Sarkies' acclaimed last feature Out of the Blue, about David Gray's gun rampage in 1990, was also set in a supposedly idyllic seaside spot.

Parallels don't stop at the similarly named coastal locations - This Is Not My Life and Out of the Blue have a similar crew and cast. Matt Sunderland, who played David Gray, has a cameo role as a villain and Wright was also in the film which, like TINML, was also made by production company Desert Road.

"I definitely had a few deja vu moments wandering around with a camera through the streets of Omaha filming Matt Sunderland looking creepy. I thought, 'are we making Out of the Blue of the future?' The answer is 'no'," Sarkies laughs.

He explains the Aramoana depicted in Out of the Blue was the seaside village of New Zealand's past. The Waimoana depicted in This Is Not My Life could be the suburban village perhaps of the future: overly designed, overly contrived, overly perfect; however, placed within a similar beautiful paradise.

The show does draw comparisons to 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show and 1967 television series The Prisoner and its remakes, but Sarkies says they were such obvious points of reference he and Salmon didn't want to go anywhere near the two.

"What is interesting about this show is that it's a new old idea. There's familiarity, which is great for television, but we tried to start again with a fresh palette."

Sarkies did however manage to slip a self-indulgent television reference into the opening credits. A shot of Mesure running away from the camera in slow motion with his jacket flapping pays homage to a huge poster of Steve Austin's The Six Million Dollar Man that hung in his bedroom as a kid.

"I always wanted to do a show where I could show a guy running in slow motion with his jacket flapping about." The series spent a long time in post-production as digital special effects were needed to add the characters' futuristic computers and hand-held devices to scenes.

Don McGlashan's eerie soundtrack was the finishing touch - Sarkies says it keys the audience into where ordinary domestic situations may be turning sinister. "When you don't think your wife is your wife and you suspect that she might be working for the enemy, then that domestic argument becomes laced with tension, because from a domestic argument, you could potentially be killed," he explains.

Lang adds that the overwhelmingly white subdivision - and the stark hospital set, which was housed in Glenfield - should help reverse the viewers' understanding that darkness represents a sense of foreboding. They wanted to make something light and bright appear scary.

Yes, the series is a sharp turn away from the comedy-dramas she and Strawhan have written in recent years, but Lang believes New Zealand viewers are ready for another dose of local mystery-drama.

This Is Not My Life is set around relationships, and may allude to a mid-life crisis, but the plot is designed to reveal itself like the layers of an onion.

"We had high aspirations for this. We wanted it to feel different. We wanted to do the best job we could, because the script deserved that." Sarkies says.

For the British-born, Australian-raised Mesure, This Is Not My Life represents a rare leading man role. Not that he's been lacking work at home in New Zealand or on his occasional stints in the US where he joined the cast of alien invasion series V. His V character, Kyle Hobbes, is wanted as the most dangerous terrorist on the earth. "He is another one in my long line of hard bastards, a tough customer," Mesure says of the role.

Superficially there are similarities between both series - they are both set in the not-too-distant future and there's a science fiction element to the storytelling, even if the characters are polar opposites.

"Yeah, in many ways, the worlds of the show are similar. It's in a futuristic science fiction reality where different things can happen than in your average dramas, like Outrageous Fortune or Shortland Street."

His final episodes on Outrageous Fortune overlapped with Kaitangata Twitch - which saw him commuting regularly between the North and South Islands; and the latter overlapped with This Is Not My Life. That down, he went off to film V in Vancouver.

"So yeah, I didn't know what city I was in or what character I was playing or anything. That feeling of dislocation probably informed This Is Not My Life. "In a funny way it helped me to play that role."

- NZ Herald

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