It's billed as one of the biggest, most exciting new productions in local telly history. Joanna Hunkin goes inside The Cult to find out what the fuss is all about.

Two words echo throughout The Cult's North Shore studio: ambitious and innovative. Ask anyone on the bustling set what they think of the series they're working on and you are guaranteed the same answer. It's ambitious. It's innovative. And, judging by the nervous grins on their faces as they talk about it, it's pretty exciting. A little bit risky, even.

From cast members to the production crew, anticipation runs high. All seem certain they are a part of something special. Something ground-breaking.

The multimillion-dollar production, commissioned by TVNZ and funded by New Zealand on Air, certainly seems ambitious. Produced by Great Southern Television, the series will be the company's first primetime drama series - a psychological thriller with an over-arching meta-story.

Put simply, it's New Zealand's answer to Lost.

Except The Cult doesn't aim to confuse. Nor will there be any polar bears or smoke monsters. Rather, it is meant to challenge the audience in a uniquely New Zealand way.

Executive producer Rachel Gardner says the series is built on suspense and mystery, targeted at a sophisticated audience. "The 18 to 39 audience really wants to be challenged, so we've tried to do that and not in gimmicky ways. Not like having a really high-paced thriller like Prison Break but more character-driven, slower-paced ...

"It's a thriller. But I didn't want to just take the American-style thriller template and put it in New Zealand. I didn't feel it would work for New Zealand audiences. It's a New Zealand take on the thriller."

That means plenty of native bush settings, unabashed Kiwi accents and a certain New Zealand sensibility that steers the storyline.

But it is not simply the genre that makes The Cult an ambitious project. Its cast is huge - with more than 10 principal characters - and represents a near who's who of New Zealand acting.

Renato Bartolomei, Scott Wills, Lisa Chappell, Danielle Cormack and Kate Elliot are just some of the familiar faces on set, while American actor Latham Gaines plays the disarming cult leader Edward North.

As for innovation, the series will claim a place in the history books as New Zealand's first television series to be filmed on Red Cameras - digital cameras that replicate the depth of field and aesthetic of 35mm film.

The result is a series that looks a lot more expensive than it really is. Which, combined with an international cast and story, means The Cult has real potential to go global.

So yes, the words ambitious and innovative seem pretty justified.

But just because something has good intentions doesn't mean the finished product will deliver. Except the team behind The Cult are adamant this will.

"Every time I read a script, I can't wait to get the next one," says Elliot, who plays Gina Delaney, an Australian woman whose husband joined the cult three years ago.

"It's a page-turner ... Everybody walks about on set going 'oooh, what's going to happen in 12' and 'Have you read 13?"'

Bartolomei agrees the script is addictive - and satisfying.

"It very cleverly poses questions along the way that you're desperate to find answers to. And those answers do come. The pay-off comes within the series, it's probably only two or three episodes to find out the answers posed in each episode ... It's not like Lost, it doesn't pose questions that never get answered."

And what is written in the script, is what ends up on film, says Will Wallace, who plays the Liberators' (those outside the cult, trying to free their loved ones) hired muscle.

"I've worked on productions before where I've got the first draft and gone 'oh yeah, T-boning a car'. And then by the time you shoot it, it's gone from T-boning a car at an intersection, to you jumping out and beating up a window washer. They just scale it back. But this never gets scaled back."

Even those who were initial sceptics of the project - and there were a few - quickly came around after seeing the production take shape.

Sara Wiseman, who plays Gina's sister-in-law, admits she had her doubts.

"Reading this script, it was unlike anything that I'd seen before. It was extraordinary circumstances. To try to condense that into a New Zealand environment, I was concerned it would get guffawed at.

"But having seen episodes one and two, I'm blown away. By the way it looks, the performances, it's just really believable. Even though it's really heightened circumstances, it is very much a Kiwi response to it. The nuances of it are very Kiwi."

The idea of a malignant cult lurking in New Zealand's bush may seem a little extreme but it was actually sparked by a real life scenario. Executive producer Phil Smith was thinking up story ideas at his Queenstown home one day, when his new neighbours began building a fence. A seven-foot high fence.

Technically a life enhancement college, the unusual neighbours soon triggered a more sinister train of thought in Smith, who soon had the idea for his next television series.

The commune in The Cult, Two Gardens, is the New Zealand chapter of an international organisation, Momentum - and controversy abounds on set as to whether or not it really is a cult.

Gaines certainly doesn't think so.

"The outside world is the cult, that's my and Edward's perception of the whole thing. What Edward is, is actually a very smart, very educated, very happy guy who went through a bad time. He had an experience and what became important to him was becoming a better person and trying to help other people.

"Cult's kind of a dirty word. It's the name of the show but Edward would never call it that."

And if Edward wouldn't call it that, then neither will Gaines. The actor has an unusual, slightly unsettling, affinity for his role.

"It's so rare as an actor to come across a part and go, 'this is me'. This was really one of those times. He's the scariest kind of bad guy you can possibly play - he's a nice guy."

Not everyone was so enamoured with their role, however. Wills, who plays Edward's righthand man, had no interest in his character to start with.

"Initially, from what I could tell, he was a nutcase killer. And I'm not interested in that," he says bluntly.

"But then I had a conversation with Rachel and they talked to me about it and it became apparent he was a very complex and rich character that would really push me."

Wills, like Gaines, doesn't view the commune as a cult. He sees it as a family who can provide the peace and love that eluded his character in the outside world.

Which brings us to the crux of the series - what defines a cult over a community and who are we, as outsiders, to say it is wrong?

And if it's not wrong, and no laws are being broken, how can you get people out? Who do you go to?

As The Cult explores these issues, it's easy to see the mind-games and mental manipulation that lie in wait. If, as promised, you can keep up and follow them, The Cult may just prove the most innovative series New Zealand has ever produced. Which certainly is ambitious.

What: The Cult - Great Southern Television's first prime time drama series
Where: TV2
When: Premieres Thursday, September 24 at 8:30pm

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CAST MEMBERS - WHO'S WHO
The Cult:
SAUL
Actor: Scott Wills
Background: North's right hand man and the security arm of Two Gardens.

NATHAN LEWIS
Actor: Dwayne Cameron
Background: Ryan's brother and Michael's son, Nathan is schizophrenic and the reason his family fell apart.

CYNTHIA ROSS
Actor: Danielle Cormack
Background: A neurologist and the doctor inside Two Gardens, Cynthia believes she is smarter than modern medicine and incredibly dangerous.

RYAN LEWIS
Actor: Gareth Reeves
Background: Ryan joined Two Gardens after his family fell apart and he became disillusioned with life.

EDWARD NORTH
Actor: Latham Gaines
Background: Two Gardens' American leader, Edward is charming and articulate but ultimately delusional.

ANDY WILLS
Actor: Kip Chapman
Background: Gina's husband and Annabelle's brother, Andy has a history of drug abuse, which drove him to Two Gardens.


The Liberators:
GINA DELANEY
Actor: Kate Elliot
Background: A receptionist from Sydney, whose husband Andy went missing three years ago.

FRANCES SEGER
Actor: Rachel Nash
Background: An introverted artist and Harris' wife, also from England.

HUGO
Actor: Will Wallace
Background: An ex-SAS bodyguard hired by the Liberators to help protect them from the cult.

HARRIS SEGER
Actor: Andy Grainger
Background: A British psychologist, married to Frances, who has travelled to New Zealand to find his adopted daughter, Jenni.

SOPHIE MACINTYRE
Actor: Lisa Chappell
Background: Fit and driven, Sophie is hired by the Liberators to deprogramme members of Two Gardens.

ANNABELLE WILLS
Actor: Sara Wiseman
Background: A GP from Auckland and Gina's sister-in-law. Her brother Andy is inside Two Gardens and Annabelle blames Gina for his demise.

MICHAEL LEWIS
Actor: Renato Bartolomei
Background: An Auckland lawyer whose two sons - Ryan and Nathan - have rejected him and moved to Two Gardens.