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» Serial Thriller
by David Wroe

June 8, 2000

Let's face it, serial killers are interesting. Take Ed Kemper, the "co-ed killer", who had an IQ of 145 and was eventually arrested only because he gave himself up. Having killed his grandparents when he was 14, he was released from a prison hospital at 21 and immediately started killing again. The day he was judged by a panel of psychiatrists to be no longer a threat to himself or others, he had driven to the psychiatric interview with a severed head in the boot of his car.

Interesting, perhaps, in a perverse way, but hardly entertaining. To make Ed's story entertaining, you'd need creepy music, a slick director and a stylish, beautiful forensic psychiatrist like Jane Halifax.

And judging by the film location at St Vincent's Hospital, where a new Halifax f.p. is being shot, you also need boundless patience to spend half an afternoon shooting a 45-second scene, the logistical skills of a field marshal and a watchmaker's attention to detail.

The first thing that comes to mind is that this doesn't seem scary at all. It's impossible to get an idea of how such a painstaking, tiring and often boring process will, with some editing and sound, be turned into a seamlessly suspenseful drama.

The simple rule is that the more effort they put into the show at this stage, the more the finished product looks effortless.

"I'm absolutely buggered, I've got to admit," says Halifax star Rebecca Gibney when the 12 weeks of filming three back-to-back episodes (which, incidentally, is extremely quick and efficient for quality drama) are finally over. "Friday night there were matchsticks holding my eyes open."

"The hard thing about being an actor is that when you get tired you'll give a bland performance. I'll be sooo pissed off I had to do so much in one day, because I look back on it and think if I wasn't so tired I could have done it that much better."

The woman who does make-up is more worried about keeping track of the leaps back and forth in time. Because scenes aren't necessarily filmed in chronological order, she wanders around with a huge bunch of polaroids of Gibney attached to her belt so that Jane Halifax won't pass from one room to another and suddenly appear with darker lipstick and different earrings.

By the time everyone's finally ready, Gibney has spent more than an hour having her make-up done in a trailer on Nicholson Street next to the Exhibition Gardens, while lights are adjusted and hospital staff placated in whispered voices.

Ironically, this is probably closer to what being a forensic psychiatrist is really like. While shrinks have often told Gibney they think the show is fantastic, nothing is as exciting, simple or dramatic as television, and Gibney is the first to admit that the more glamorous parts of the job tend to take centre stage.

"In every episode, there's a psychopath or a serial killer," she laughs. "I mean, there's not that many running around Australia at the moment."

There are probably about three forensic psychiatrists in the world who have seen as many serial killers as Jane Halifax. But they're the ones we'd all like to meet. Like the killers themselves, they hold a fascination for people because of the inexplicable nature of the things they encounter each day.

"I guess when I first took on the role of Jane Halifax, I developed a morbid fascination with serial killers and psychopaths," Gibney says.

"I started reading John Douglas, who was a profiler with the FBI. And it was fascinating the way that, from finding a body with its breasts cut off and a piece of hair missing, and a ring shoved on the finger, he could say, 'Well, that's a 35-year-old unemployed man who lives in Michigan with his mother and keeps his car clean.'"

On the set, they do run-through after run-through, before putting on lights (doing another run-through), and cranking up the camera (and doing another run-through). They do three takes then they do the whole thing again from different angles.

In between, there's not much to do other than joke and clown around. Amazingly, Gibney seems to dissolve back into Jane Halifax every time the clapper claps his board.

"I can slide into her so easily now because I've been playing the character for six years," she says.

With all the tedium of keeping up with the mechanics and logistics of the film shoot, it's a wonder the cast and crew can keep sight of the things that make the show tick: suspense, atmosphere, the moods and fears of the characters.

"I psych myself up when I get up in the morning [for] the scenes where there's something really dramatic going on.

"There are days when you can sense it and you know it's been lit to create atmosphere, and it's scary when you're doing it, particularly when you're being chased. I was hyperventilating half the time, because you're running around thinking, 'I've got a killer after me'.

"Then I watch it back when it's edited together and I think, 'Oh God, of course. That's what we were making. At the time, you do forget. You're going along, doing your job and you've got everyone around you and you're mucking around and you're talking about what happened on the news today and la la la.

"And then, right, action! You do it, and then you forget about that and you move on to the next scene."

Part of the skill of a good director she says, is in ensuring the actors maintain a sense of where their character has been, where she's heading, what kind of mood she's in. In fact it's the director's vision that is really the key to good drama, especially when it comes to creating suspense, which relies on holding back the frights rather than dishing them out with buckets of blood. But the best actors, the most stylish directors and the slickest post-production window dressing is nothing, she says, without a good script with well-rounded characters and interesting, plausible storylines.

"That's reality. I've spoken to a couple of forensic psychiatrists and a lot of psychiatrists in general, and it does affect them. Their jobs do affect them.

"I saw a friend who's a psychiatrist on Saturday night. He's one of our advisers, and he said, 'I wish we all looked like you and we had your apartment and your money'. I said, 'That's why we call it drama, not reality.'"

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