Rose McIver has a friend with a tightrope in his backyard. It’s a home-made set-up so it could be a bit dodgy. But she’s not about to let months of acrobatic practice go to waste. She can’t wait to give it a go.
“I’m definitely not as confident as I’d like to be on the tightrope,” says the 17-year-old star of TV3’s young adult drama, Maddigan’s Quest. “But it’s not too bad once you’ve got your balance.”
Walking a fine line wasn’t the only thing she learnt to do playing Garland, the 14-year-old circus performer in Margaret Mahy’s epic story of magic, adventure and time-travel. It took a bit of hooning around on Bethells Beach before she felt comfortable on the quad bike, Garland’s preferred mode of transport. It wasn’t exactly a doddle turning into a tree either – or at least, becoming one with a tree – a way to hide from the baddies in a post-apocalyptic world.
But that’s what makes fantasy fun.
“It allows you to completely step outside of what you are,” she says. “It’s not something you can always relate to. You get to encounter all these amazing people and places and big props and all that kind of thing. It’s really grand.”
Produced by South Pacific Pictures, Maddigan’s Quest is the biggest TV production in New Zealand since Xena and Hercules, and reunited several members of the old crews.
Co-incidentally, McIver starred in both as a child alongside Michael Hurst, who plays the evil cyborg, Muskar, and Danielle Cormack, Garland’s mother. “The way we shot Maddigan’s was very similar,” says Hurst. “Xena and Hercules showed how to do it.”
Big, in other words. Maddigan’s cost $8.6 million to make, and was bought by the BBC, Britain and Nine Network, Australia. Key writers Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan (Mercy Peak and Being Eve) developed Mahy’s screenplay into scripts.
Garland is part of Maddigan’s Fantasia, a circus troupe from the solar-powered, Zion-like city of Solis. Utopia is under threat, so the troupe make a secret mission into the unpredictable outside world to retrieve solar converters that will save their city. It’s not just the dramatic terrain that thwarts their progress. In the first episode they find themselves contending with deadly, pirate-like “road rats”, and being blackmailed by troll-like ferals who won’t let them pass.
Garland is also dealing with the loss of her father, Ferdy Maddigan, the founder and leader of the troupe, whose death upsets the Fantasia’s dynamic.
“They have to venture out into situations they don’t always want to put themselves into, but they’re doing it for the greater good,” says McIver. “They’re venturing into forests, literally into the wild. It makes it a lot more exciting.”
The large cast also includes Tim Balme, Tandi Wright, Fleur Saville, Geraldine Brophy, Hori Ahipene and Shane Cortese, “everyone you could think of you’d want to work with in New Zealand all grouped together”, says McIver. “It was amazing.”
The crew was just as impressive, including set and costume designer Tracey Collins, composer Victoria Kelly and Oscar-winning concept designer James Acheson (The Last Emperor, Sheltering Sky, Restoration). Top storyboard artist Peter McCully made blueprints of Maddigan’s fantastic worlds, many of them realised using special effects.
The 13 half-hour episodes were shot on high-definition video, giving the slow-motion and high-speed filming a more vibrant quality.
The idea for the show was pitched 10 years ago, then shelved. But after the huge success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the fantasy genre seemed a perfect platform for New Zealand’s striking scenery and one of our most reputable children’s writers. Maddigan’s Quest is aimed at 8-14-year olds but the story asks enough big questions to give it wider appeal: what if the technological advances we’ve made send us careering towards disaster? Where would we live? How would we survive?
It’s not just the land scarred by the “great chaos”. Humans live in isolated, disparate societies. They clash throughout the quest.
“There’s great separation between the communities, which allows you to create a different world for each different episode,” says Hurst. “You can lock down looks.”
Like the tunnels of Devonport’s North Head compared with the bleak landscape of the Wainui Quarry; the plains of Wheelers Farm near Bethells Beach to the wastelands of an abandoned meatworks in Southdown.
Garland’s world is also a cultural melting pot, where some members of the Fantasia speak Maori, the “ancient tongue”. If life imitates art, we’ll all speak with British accents in the future.
“In this country how could there not be a multicultural level to it?” says Hurst. “It may be that the rest of the world has been polluted and destroyed and the last bastions of civilisation are here, in New Zealand. It’s great because [Mahy] was able to throw in Maori cultural aspects.”
Enter the two mysterious time-travelling boys, played by British actors Jordan Metcalfe and Zachary Fox. Although the boys are trying to help, their presence puts the fantasia in danger.
“They have to learn how to accept people from the outside and relate to them because they’re such a small, close environment,” says McIver. “It’s quite hard for them to know who to bring in. There are a few trust issues in this series.”
There’s little doubt that Hurst’s character is not to be trusted. With his black, humourless eyes and cat-like reflexes, he’s intimidating.
“Bad guys are always going to be the ones the kids are going to get one up on at some point,” says Hurst. “So there was quite a lot of falling over. And even though I could run super-fast and had the strength of 20 men, there was still quite a bit of falling on me bum.”
McIver had the challenge of playing a teenager three years younger. Despite her youth, she is heaped with responsibility.
“She’s pretty mature for a 14-year-old in some ways and I’m pretty immature so that kinda helped,” she laughs. “She really aspires to be like her dad. She’s probably a bit too eager to take on adult responsibilities and step up to the plate but everyone knows she’s capable and trusts her. I think sometimes she just wants to be seen as the kid but she doesn’t always have something to fall back on, like a kid would.”
“The story is about the truth of children’s faith,” adds Hurst. “All those things that we tend to lose when we become adults or get warped by politics or whatever. They’re the best things to retain. Good will triumph over evil.”
* Maddigan’s Quest, Saturday February 11, 7pm, TV3