Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale has been behind the lens on scores of critically acclaimed movies, including Dead Poet’s Society, Witness, The English Patient, Rain Man and Mad Max: Fury Road.
What many people don’t know is that he underwent “the apprenticeship of his career” in the early 1970s on a series called Castaway, which aired on ABC TV and was largely filmed at Port Macquarie in northern NSW.
The period drama was based on the trials of a group of shipwreck survivors who became stranded on a Pacific island in 1840 after their Australia-bound ship went down in a hurricane.
It was a co-production between the ABC, Scottish Television and a German company.
Seale said the project helped launch his highly successful international career.
“As an Australian who has learned the business here, back then we tended to head towards a ‘what if’ approach.”
He said crews would experiment with different methods of shooting.
“We didn’t really know the rules in a way so we made our own,” he said.
He said international crews brought their rules to their production process.
“On this one there was an English director, German actors and an Australian crew,” he said.
Keeping history alive
Castaway is back in the spotlight almost 50 years after it first aired thanks to efforts in Port Macquarie to produce a documentary-style film about the series.
Retired National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Mike Dodkin and heritage consultant Mitch McKay are leading the project.
“We are trying to keep this story alive as part of Port Macquarie’s history,” Mr Dodkin said.
Retracing steps to ‘Castaway Beach’
Australians involved in Castaway have been invited back to Port Macquarie and Seale recently traveled from his Sydney home to visit the Castaway site for the first time since the 1970s.
He was joined by Australian actor Alan Cinis who was 12 when he appeared in Castaway.
Most of the Castaway scenes were filmed at Port Macquarie’s Miners Beach, within what is now the Sea Acres National Park, with one scene filmed at North Narrabeen in Sydney.
Seale and Cinis trekked down to Miners Beach along the original, and now heavily overgrown “Castaway track”.
Cinis said it was an emotional day.
“It’s like visiting a house that you used to live in as a kid that you had some really good times, that you kind of get that little thrill from each room…it’s very personal,” he said.
He said spending 14 weeks iin Port Macquarie for filming was “one of the great experiences of my life”.
Life behind the scenes
Cinis and a fellow child actor, Lexia Wilson, had to stay in Port Macquarie, away from their families, during the Castaway filming and were also required to do schoolwork.
“I hated the schoolwork, the poor tutor, I just wanted to be on the beach, or watching the filming, or watching the sand crabs,” Cinis said with a laugh.
A group of 20 indigenous people from Kempsey were also involved in the series.
“We found out during a Castaway reunion in 2017 that only two of those 20 actors were still alive.”
Seale, now 79, said while Castaway marked a significant moment in his career, he found it hard to pick favorite projects.
It’s hoped the Castaway documentary will eventually screen at the Sea Acres National Park visitor centre, ensuring the “castaways” aren’t lost for good.
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