Step Dave: Stepping behind the scenes

By Nick Grant

Nick Grant finds out the secrets of a new local show.

Director Michael Hurst with Sia Trokenheim and Jono Kenyon on the set of Step Dave.
Director Michael Hurst with Sia Trokenheim and Jono Kenyon on the set of Step Dave.

When visiting the set of a TV show it's standard practice to be issued with a minder who must ensure you don't make a nuisance of yourself. It's a wise precaution, given the intrinsically discombobulating nature of being surrounded by familiar faces you have to remind yourself are actors you recognise from the telly and not your close personal friends.

Having a nosey around the set of Step Dave - the new TV2 dramedy about a romance between lanky 24-year-old lothario Dave (Jono Kenyon) and 39-year-old mother-of-three Cara (Sia Trokenheim) - is an even more surreal experience than usual in this respect. That's because said minder is Fern Sutherland, who appeared in the late, lamented Almighty Johnsons. As Dawn, PR assistant to Anders (Dean O'Gorman), she gave such a persuasive performance that production company South Pacific Pictures subsequently headhunted her for its publicity department.

Turns out this was a canny hire. Sutherland is an excellent, informative guide, partly due to having worked with all the crew, including Michael Hurst, who's directing three of Step Dave's 13 episodes.

"He's one of the most energetic, forward-moving people to work with on the planet," she says of Hurst. "He energises everyone on set, which is great when the crew has started to suffer from the low-level exhaustion that kicks in mid-way through shooting a TV series."

As well as playing a small role on Johnsons, Hurst directed several of that series' episodes, and last year he and Sutherland were cast-mates in the play Tribes.

She talks about how for each performance he'd come straight to the theatre from the set of Spartacus, which he was directing at time. "I don't know how he did it," she shakes her head admiringly.

Standing amid a throng of technicians and thespians, the diminutive Hurst cuts a distinctive figure. Dressed in a loud-ish shirt, khaki long-shorts and work boots, he manages to radiate both a palpable sense of exuberance and a Zen-like calm.

Step Dave behind the scenes.
Step Dave behind the scenes.

As the crew prepare for the next shot, Hurst strides over to where we're standing. "I've got people doing things, so now I try to wait without tension," he says. It's an essential trick he's learnt during three decades-plus of screen and stage work.

"Today we're shooting a whole lot of plot-accelerating scenes," says Hurst. Emphasis on "a lot": eleven-and-a-half pages have to be shot before knock off, an unusually big ask for a TV show.

A good thing, then, that Hurst has made plenty of fast turnaround television and he's well versed in meeting such demands. Doing so requires a great deal of discipline from all involved, he says, especially the cast, who will generally only get two takes of any given shot.

"But these actors are really smart, so the scenes are there like that," Hurst snaps his fingers. "They only need tweaks."

We watch him at work: a slight adjustment to a camera angle here, a quiet word in the ear of an actor there, and then the camera's rolling. After "cut" is called, Hurst confers with director of photography Marty Smith. "How was that?" "Really great." "Are you being sarcastic?"

Satisfied, Hurst screws up the just-filmed page and tosses it away. "Only this to go," he says with mock weariness as he brandishes a thick sheaf of paper. But first, lunch.

The meal's almost over when Jono Kenyon - the titular Dave - lopes over to our table, and he, Hurst and Sutherland immediately fall into a relaxed, joshing patter.

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"You here to be interviewed as well? Or are you muscling in on my interview?" Hurst demands.

"Yeah, I, yeah - I don't feel like I get enough attention," Kenyon deadpans.

"That's true, you don't," says Hurst. "We say 'leading man' but it's 'leading boy-man' isn't it, really. I should have played his part."

"Typical," laughs Sutherland. "Wants to be in front of the camera as well as behind it."
"I'd have done it really well," Hurst insists. "They could have aged me down, couldn't they?"

"Or perhaps you could've been Dave's long lost twin brother," says Kenyon.

"Or the love interest - I could've played the woman. That'd be a real challenge."

"I think you're great," Sutherland says to Kenyon with a soothing smile.

"He is great," says Hurst.

"Everyone's great," says Kenyon.

Step Dave debuts Tuesday, 8.30pm, on TV2.

- Herald on Sunday

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