Time Out Melbourne

The Working Dog team turns its laser-like beams on 'nation-building' governments, with director Rob Sitch also taking a lead role

The Working Dog production company knows many tricks. It’s enjoyed critical acclaim for its feature films (The Castle, The Dish, Any Questions for Ben), its stage plays (The Speechmaker with the MTC) and quiz shows (Channel Ten’s Have you Been Paying Attention), but it’s most at home with satirical series. These include The Hollowmen (2008), which skewered political spindoctors, and Frontline (1994-1997), following a current affairs show.

Now the team has created Utopia for the ABC – an eight-part series that will tackle "the un-costed grand dreams and white elephants that have become the new political currency". Sound familiar? Director and actor Rob Sitch ought to know.

Rob, after playing the hilarious Mike Moore in Frontline and also Tony in The Hollowmen, you’re set to appear in front of the camera again. Why is your character one that is best suited to you?
They have a mental state in common. It’s a person living in a world that is moving slightly too fast for their brain to process. It’s probably why we gravitate to media, politics and in this case huge, nation-building projects. They’re big, confusing worlds.

What is it that’s funny about politics?
There’s often an amusing difference in public life between what people say and what people do. This show adds another amusing gap, the difference between what people plan and what they achieve. It’s really about how smart people produce dumb results.

Is Utopia being aired at a very apt time, politically?
The theme of the series has been bubbling to the surface for a few years but the recent election and budget seem to have made “nation building” the number one priority.

Working Dog has been a solid and prolific team since college with a reputation for keeping fairly closed ranks. Do you have a regular intake of fresh blood, though?
Every project involves an influx of people we’ve never worked with before. Pretty much the entire cast is like that this time. Luke McGregor’s a good example. Ed Kavalee tipped us off about him some years back and we made a mental note to cast him at the first opportunity.

How do you throw ideas around and find one that sticks? Is there a certain criteria that your ideas have to meet, or a question that you ask yourself to test the validity?
Having fun with the early stages of an idea is pretty easy however you eventually have to knuckle down, write a dozen or so drafts over many months and gather a large team of professionals. We often procrastinate for years until we’re sure that the idea will hold up through the “grown up” bit!

Last year, Crikey’s Ian Mylchreest lamented that Australian political satire does not match up to its American counterpart, because the subtext is “these guys are wankers” rather than “Is this really the best we can do?” Are you comfortable with the term ‘satire’ to describe your work?
I struggle with labels these days. Some sitcoms get called satires and the odd drama gets called a comedy. The one constant is that really good writing and acting stand out. I struggle to pin that down to any one country. However, every second recommendation I get these days seems to be a Scandinavian crime drama.

Do you consume a lot of satire, or do other things inform your work?
I read a lot of non-fiction. Mostly out of curiosity. I also like podcasts. If someone’s idea stands up to an hour-long interview it’s usually pretty good. Locally there are dozens of good radio podcasts. My favourite from overseas is [weekly economics podcast] EconTalk; it should be better known. As for comedy, my favourite thing in the world is a brilliantly told anecdote. Denise Scott’s story about her family’s van getting bogged at the circus is the best I’ve ever heard.

We’re all Facebook cynics and satirists these days, but is that enough?
If it’s funny it’s a healthy antidote. That’s been the longstanding role of newspaper cartoonists. There’s so much message management these days that I’m appreciative of anything that can cut through. If you want to do it in a longer form the agenda changes. You’ve got to uncover something that is both systemic and hiding in plain sight. That seems to take a bit longer and it requires a fair bit of research.

Utopia starts on Wednesday, August 13, 8.30pm on ABC1. 

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