Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale has been behind the lens of numerous critically acclaimed films, including Dead Poet’s Society, Witness, The English Patient, Rain Man and Mad Max: Fury Road.
What many people don’t know is that in the early 1970s he went through “the apprenticeship of his career” on a series called Castaway, which aired on ABC TV and was largely filmed in Port Macquarie in northern NSW.
The historical drama was based on the trials of a group of shipwreck survivors who were stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean in 1840 after their ship bound for Australia crashed in a hurricane.
It was a co-production between ABC, Scottish Television and a German company.
Seale said the project helped launch his highly successful international career.
“As Australians who learned the trade here, we tended to take a ‘what if’ approach at the time.”
He said the crews would experiment with different ways of firing.
“We didn’t really know the rules, so we made our own,” he said.
He said international crews have brought their rules into 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 nearly 50 years after it first aired thanks to efforts at 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’re trying to keep this story alive as part of Port Macquarie’s history,” Dodkin said.
Stepping back to ‘Castaway Beach’
Australians involved with Castaway have been invited back to Port Macquarie and Seale recently traveled from his home in Sydney 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, in what is now Sea Acres National Park, with one scene filmed in Sydney’s North Narrabeen.
Seale and Cinis headed to Miners Beach along the original, now heavily overgrown “Castaway track”.
Cinis said it was an emotional day.
“It’s like visiting a house you lived in as a kid, where you had really good times, that you get a little bit of excitement from each room…it’s very personal,” he said.
He said spending 14 weeks filming in Port Macquarie was “one of the great experiences of my life”.
Life behind the scenes
Cinis and a fellow child actor, Lexia Wilson, had to stay away from their families during the filming of Castaway in Port Macquarie, as well as doing schoolwork.
“I hated school work, the poor teacher, I just wanted to be at the beach, or watch the movie or watch the sand crabs,” Cinis said with a laugh.
A group of 20 native people from Kempsey were also involved in the series.
“At a Castaway reunion in 2017, we found out that only two of those 20 actors were alive.”
Seale, now 79, said that while Castaway marked a significant moment in his career, he found it difficult to pick favorite projects.
It is hoped that the Castaway documentary will eventually be screened at the Sea Acres National Park Visitor Center so that the “castaways” are not lost for good.