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Old hand back on deck

By Mike O’Connor
February 13, 2007

HAL McElroy stands in the shadows as Lisa McCune, managing to look glamorous in drab khaki overalls, waits for the the director to call “Action!”

Towering over him in the Warner Bros studios at Coomera is the hull of a navy patrol boat, the set on which hinges the next unfolding chapter in the McElroy story.

He’s done a lot, Blue Heelers and Water Rats being the best known of his more recent television work, and now he’s betting that what the viewers out there in couchland really want is a series about the crew of a RAN patrol boat battling people smugglers, illegal fisherman and all manner of evil as it guards our northern borders.

At the head of a production crew of 60, McElroy has just returned from a month off the coast of north Queensland shooting scenes on a navy patrol boat and is in high spirits.

“It’s a 13-part series called Sea Patrol and we’re 13 weeks into a 16-week shoot. We’ve just shot for seven weeks up around Cairns, primarily off Mission Beach, and then we were in Sydney shooting on a de-commissioned patrol boat and now we’re shooting on our sets here at Warner Bros,” he says as we leave McCune and walk back to the demountable sheds that house his production office.

“It’s dangerous up there. You’ve got sea snakes and you’ve got crocodiles, stingers, sharks. The record for the unit boat was 17 shark sightings in a morning. It was scary,” he says, eyes, hands and facial muscles joining forces to make his point.

McElroy look and sounds as if he should be making television. He’s 61 this year but still trim and retains looks that would have easily suited the other side of the camera. He speaks quickly and confidently and years of pitching deals in network boardrooms have honed his charm.

“At one stage, we had 90 actors, 30 boats and a crew of 60 trying to shoot 330 scenes in 35 days. It was a logistical nightmare but we got it done,” he says.

Experience, he adds, helps smooth the way.

“It’s 33 years for me. This is my 23rd or 24th production over those years. I started in film and moved into television 20-odd years ago.”

McElroy acknowledges he exists in a fragile realm but claims to thrive on it.

“They say you’re only as good as your last movie which is wrong. You’re only as good as your next movie, because unless the next one is right and valid and resonates with an audience, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before.

“It’s always been difficult. You’ve got a buyer in the form of a network which in varying degrees resents the need for Australian programming and you’re asking them for a lot of money, so that’s not really the way to have a perfect relationship with a buyer.

“The networks don’t want to be experimental, so in that environment you have to be good and the audience doesn’t give a damn. It just says ‘entertain me!’.”

He says that on average only one in 10 television programs and films are a hit but concedes that the expectation from the networks is that every one will be successful.

“If we’re going to survive, our hit rate has to be better than one in 10 and I guess our rate is about 55 per cent which means, of course, that about half the time we’re wrong.”

The mistake which is too easy to make, he says, is to over-intellectualise the story.

“The moment you start deliberately pushing it down market or pushing it up, you’re in danger of intellectualising it. The best thing is to listen to your instinct and your heart. The moment you get your brain engaged too much you can start to push it in the wrong direction.”

McElroy is self-taught and, I suspect, suspicious of those who are not.

“I left school when I was 16. When I was about 12 I was in a Boy Scout Show called The Gang Show, which was where I was exposed to show business. I went into advertising briefly and at the age of 18 Fred Schepsi ( Six Degrees of Separation) gave me a job.

“At that time, he was an unknown but the moment I got into the film business I knew it was what I wanted to do.

“It’s all self-taught but pretty much in this business it has to be that way.

“You can go to film school, which will teach you a bit of technical stuff, but it doesn’t teach you to listen to an audience. Too many people want to tell their story and then shove it down everybody’s throat.”

Di, McElroy’s wife and partner of 30 years, sits at a desk in the corner pecking at a keyboard and he moves to include her in his remarks.

“One of our strengths is that Di and I do normal things and have three normal kids. Our favourite show is Australia’s Funniest Home Videos. We think it’s funny,” he says, daring me to disagree.

I hate the show with a passion, but nod in dumb agreement.

“All you can do is your best and hope it connects,” he says. “We’re both very strong, confident individuals and Di has helped me to express my feelings clearly and quickly. I’m married to a very intelligent, 40-plus female and I’m a male, so in terms of knowing what appeals to a broad audience, that’s a pretty powerful combination”.

“You can all the ideas in the world in television,” he says, “but unless you’ve got the ability to make it happen in a reasonable time frame to a reasonable schedule and reasonable budget, you might as well throw the idea away”.

McElroy is the leader of his team and it falls to him to deal with the emotional crises encountered by his actors.

“It’s a lonely, dangerous game being an actor,” he says. You’re making thousands of choices and asking: ‘Am I making the right choices? Do I look foolish? Is this going to be okay?’.

“You’ve got to look them in the eye and sit and talk to them and be as close as you physically can. Then you’ve got a chance of connecting. If you try anything else it will fail.”

McElroy exudes energy and I compliment him on it.

“I’ve got a bad back so I swim a kilometre every day of my life. My weakness obliges me to swim and because I swim I’ve got this huge amount of energy”, he says smiling at the paradox.

He says he is confident Sea Patrol will strike a chord with the audience and is preparing to shoot a second series:

“We’re going to start next week writing episode one of the next 13. They’ll be finished by July and hopefully we will be able to start shooting on October 1 this year off Mission Beach again.”

When Sea Patrol goes to air on the Nine network later this year, McElroy will find out whether his gut and his instinct are still tuned in to Mr and Mrs Common Denominator.