Alex Casey visits the set of The Brokenwood Mysteries and finds more mystery and murder than you can shake a blood bag at.
I couldn’t believe I was staring at my first dead body. He was lying there stiff, a calming shade of pale blue. “That’s going to be me one day,” I thought to myself, brain and stomach turning to mush at this concrete reminder of my own mortality. The rain was beating down on the tin roof above me. I was chilled to the bone and absolutely starving, having only hastily scoffed a mini Cookie Time outside the South Pacific Pictures reception. But at least I was alive, something that a lot of people in Brokenwood can no longer boast. “Cut” the director yelled, and the dead body sat bolt upright, wriggling his toes and stretching his legs. Ah, that’s right. Mortality is but an illusion and we will all, of course, live forever.
People boringly rag on different parts of New Zealand all the time. Hamilton. Palmerston North. Huntly. And yet, almost miraculously, nobody is talking about bloody Brokenwood. Sure it’s fictional, but the town of 5000 is declining about as fast as a car screeching to a halt outside the DEKA sign. Things are so bleak that billboards for the miniseries almost gleefully declare that “small towns can be murder”? Not to be a big ol’ buzzkill here, but in my small hometown there were a LOT of ACTUAL murders. Weirdly, they haven’t adopted it as a tagline just yet.
We’re halfway through The Brokenwood Mysteries season two, and the townspeople are continuing to drop like flies in each episode. The series is a local take on The Midsomer Murders, with each feature-length episode following a new case. Along the way, Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea), Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland) and Sam Breen (Nic Sampson) combine forces to solve the unsolvable – they’re the Earth, Wind and Fire of regional justice. Mike drives an old car and has had 100 divorces, Kristin can’t make coffee and suffers through fart-fueled first dates, Sam has 9000 jobs including being a rugby player and painter/decorator as well as a full-time Detective Constable.
The Brokenwood police team are so used to seeing murders that they barely flinch when confronted with a hanging corpse on a rugby post, or a dead woman face down in mud. There’s a distinctly Kiwi matter-fact-tone to the series, miles away from the poignant brooding of it’s serious cousin Top of the Lake. That’s not to say it’s bad, there’s a certain recognisable comfort to the procedural Brokenwood world. This just happens to be their particular daily to-do list: murders in – murderers out. The gang are joined by an inexplicably Russian morgue-dweller called Gina (Cristina Ionda) who shares pithy wisdom from the Motherland (“in Russia if you light a cigarette from a candle, it is very bad luck”) during her post-mortem examinations. It was outside her morgue that I stood, notebook in hand, waiting for another murder to happen at any given moment.
Filming the Brokenwood morgue is a bit of a Pandora’s box. On the outside, you’re just looking at an MDF shoe box and hearing muffled noises. Through the monitor, you get a peek at the grim inner demons of New Zealand’s busiest morgue. Sitting with some of the crew at the cluster of screens several metres away, we watched as the dead man’s mouth was prised open again and again. It’s hardly scintillating viewing, so I had a wander through the props around the corner. Decrepit ‘Welcome to Brokenwood’ signs were scattered among old chairs, pot plants and asthma inhalers. There’s a familiarity in the banality of Brokenwood, you have to constantly remind yourself that you are on set, and not just raking around your uncle’s junk shed.
Someone from outside the box yells to add “touch of gravitas” to the scene. He can’t be referring to the dead man, surely, that guy’s gravitas was six feet off the chain. “SHOOTING” someone else yells from inside the box. I chuckle to myself about Rob Brydon’s absolutely classic ‘Man in a Box’ routine, but this is not the time or the place for iconic timeless comedy – this is a place for a very serious murder investigation. On his command, the dead man on the metal slab immediately goes rigid again. It’s incredible, not a single muscle flinches. This man needs a posthumous Oscar, stat.
The rain continued to pelt down on the tin roof, becoming deafening over the quiet, sombre morgue scene. We take a rain break, something that I’m told became pretty common during the mid-winter shoot. Seems fittingly gloomy. Neill Rea, better known as Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd, retreats to one of the actor chairs to recline. You can always tell it’s an actor chair because it has a plush robe on it. I asked Neill if he had learned anything since season one “I’ve learnt to not do too much squinty acting” he laughs, squintily. He tells me that we can expect more creative ways of killing this season, something we’ve seen in last week’s Shakespearean slaughter-fest. “Themed murders” he beams, perhaps a little too much. Plot twist: he is 100% the killer.
Before I can find my handcuffs, someone inside the box calls the crew back to their marks. The dead man scampers back to his steel bed. Some props are rushed inside including “Gina’s probing device” and “the blood bag.” I turn around to see the CEO of SPP John Barnett standing with his hands in his pockets – there really are twists and turns around every corner. The cameraman sets up a close-up shot of a bloodied piece of gauze. I’m reminded of the time I bought a copy of Perfume: Story of a Murderer from a Mangawhai book fair and every page was bookmarked with a small piece of similarly bloodied fabric. I should have called the police about that, but it’s far too late now. Perhaps I’ll pitch it for season three. “That blood bag bit was nice,” the director bellows, “we’ll keep that.” There’s something I never thought I would hear a human say out loud.
With the beautiful blood bag scene in the can, everyone breaks for lunch. I am delighted to see a travelling animal truck outside, and devastated find only cables inside. During lunchtime at Brokenwood the vibe changes pretty quickly – there’s now rap music ringing through the morgue where we just saw a dead man have his throat examined. Just outside the morgue, the crew play some sort of makeshift volleyball under an ominous green light.
We go for a walk through the police station, and I’m let loose with the camera. The spooky green glow seems to grow stronger, perhaps it’s time to bring in a detective for this one.
They aren’t in their cars…
Probably gone for a walk to buy cheese…
There was no-one in the dog unit. In fact, much to my chagrin, there was no dog unit at all.
I was all alone in the emerald Brokenwood haze, with nothing but this printer with a friendly face to comfort me.
With no-one around, I had a small sneak into the evidence room to see if I could find anymore clues about the greenish tinge seeping it’s way through the set.
Nothing but some basketballs, a machete and a lot of old VCR’s. Frankly, I left Brokenwood that day with more questions than answers. How did that dead man stay so still? What makes the perfect blood bag shot? Why were all my photos tinged with such a sickly green?
“What have you been doing at the studio?” the taxi driver asked me on the way home, “are you an actress?” “Yes,” I said, wrapping on sunglasses despite it being an overcast day. If Brokenwood has taught me anything, it’s that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping a little bit of mystery.
The Brokenwood Mysteries airs Sunday 8.30pm on Prime
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