Written by Shona Smith on Jul 6, 2020. Posted in On Location

Set on the wild South Island, Period drama The Luminaries shot entirely in New Zealand

Currently airing on the BBC, The Luminaries is the largest ever New Zealand TV series based on a local story that has ever been made in the country. Producer Lisa Chatfield says the BBC, TVNZ and Freemantle were "committed to ensuring that the series has the integrity and authenticity of the book - a story by a New Zealander, about New Zealand and made in New Zealand". Southern Light Films shot and produced the series in partnership with Working Title Television for the BBC.

Set in 1865, British traveller Anna Wetherell, played by Eve Hewson (Robin Hood, Bridge of Spies) arrives in New Zealand to forge a new life. Soon Anna’s fortunes begin to fail and she is drawn into an elaborate plot of blackmail, involving opium, gold, shipwreck, fraud, and false identity, which ultimately finds her framed for murder and fighting for her life.

The entire shoot took place in New Zealand, with kiwi's making up 96% of the crew and 87% of the cast. In total, The Luminaries created nearly 650 jobs for local talent and technicians.

Set on the wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, on location filming and extensive set building took place in Hokitika region of the South Islands as well as studios near Auckland. Key location filming also took place in Hokitika at Lake Kaniere and Crooked River.

Production Designer Felicity Abbot (Upgrade, Ladies in Black) oversaw extensive set building in and around Auckland. 1860’s Dunedin streets and Quay, the township of Hokitika, the ship Godspeed and a remote cottage in the Arahura Valley were all created by the team.

The majority of filming took place on these built sets. “We shot at a location called Jonkers Farm, which is a big hunk of beautiful farm just outside of Auckland” says director Claire McCarthy. “We had ambitions for it to be a 360-degree set where you could walk through and film from any angle, and we almost achieved that, it was probably about 280 degrees in the end. We built - from scratch - the Hokitika town, which included the main township and all the elements that are within that: the jail, the cemetery, the opera tent, as well as 10 or 12 workable buildings plus additional components of buildings…It needed to be a living, breathing, visceral experience for the actors and it was".

Much of the world building had to be done from scratch using reference pictures and research. The production team used ten thousand historical references from museums to create an accurately filthy and textured world.

"We were trudging around in the mud and slipping around the rain. We were constantly wetting-down and it was certainly hard going for everyone, but it really translates to the screen. I'm sure I haven't made many friends in that process! But it was a labour of love to get that texture and a commitment to the creative ambition of the show” says McCarthy.

A Kiwi team made the majority of costumes from scratch. The “cutters, pattern makers, the recycling and sourcing of fabrics, the workmanship and craftsmanship is world-class. There is a lot of intricate detail and thought that has gone into the look of the sets and these characters. There are little hidden treasures that if the audience knows the book, they will understand” McCarthy explains.

Representatives from the Hokitika Māori community visited the set to bless the production at the start of filming and consulted on all the Māori content of the show. The community also supplied all the pounamu (greenstone) which is an integral part of the show. “There was an integrity to it and there was a discussion and a discourse about the way the work was being done between the team. So, even though I am a foreigner, and I'm not from the culture, I felt very connected to it” adds McCarthy.

The series was supported by the New Zealand Grant worth 40% of qualifying New Zealand Production Expenditure on up to $15 million. The New Zealand Grant is capped at $6 million per production unless the production qualifies for an additional grant.

(C) The Luminaries Production Ltd 2018 / Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

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