James Willson with his partner Nicola Powell in front of their Red Hill home that used house the Maltese High Commission. Photo: Jeffrey Chan JCC
When a location scout from ScreenACT knocked on the Red Hill door of James Willson and Nicola Powell, he probably had no idea just how fortuitous the call had been.
He was interested in using the home to double as an embassy in the new ABC TV political series CODE, which is due to start filming in Canberra next week.
The couple's home not only once served as the High Commission for Malta and had all the trappings of an embassy building including big gates, impressive facade and the all important flagpole, but its owner just happened to be one of the most passionate champions for Canberra and its metamorphosis into a sophisticated city.
As the managing director of the Cre8ive agency, Mr Willson is all about branding. He believes the fact Canberra has secured such a big-budget series as CODE is another step in its evolution as a smart, creative city that is about more than only the public service.
"What I think is so fantastic about this opportunity coming to Canberra is what it does for the Canberra brand and how it expresses the Canberra capability," he said. "From what the city was, say even only 10 years ago, to what it is today, are two different cities."
The six-hour political thriller, which is also filming in Sydney and Broken Hill, stars Dan Spielman (Offspring) and Ashley Zuckerman (Rush) as brothers who stumble across technology that those in the highest political echelons will kill to keep secret. Lucy Lawless and David Wenham are also in the large cast.
The production will film in Canberra for two weeks.
Parliament House and other locations around the national capital will be filmed for the series.
Mr Willson said the request to use the house came out of the blue, found ultimately by ScreenACT's location manager Christian Doran who is working with the production. The deciduous trees of La Perouse Street and their starkness in winter was another selling point.
"I actually thought he was someone from a political party and I was thinking, 'What do you want?'," Ms Powell said, with a laugh.
Mr Willson said he hoped the series would show a glimpse of the Canberra of today.
"It was once a very beige city," he said. "New Acton is a great example of what Canberra is today. Braddon is now like parts of Melbourne. It used to be that Manuka was the only place to go for good coffee, whereas what we have in the way of eateries and restaurant here today is comparable to Sydney.
"One thing I'm big on, and I've lobbied this point all the way up in government, is that there is a strong Canberra capability in terms of Canberra businesses, Canberra creative agencies, Canberra restaurateurs - they don't look at what their neighbour is doing, they look at world's best practice and further afield than their own backyard."
ScreenACT director Monica Penders said aside from the fact that the thriller was bedded in Canberra intrigue and needed to use locations such as Parliament House, the production team had also been attracted by the national capital's architecture, its shadows and light and even basics such as the territory's absence of billboards, which might otherwise have had to be edited out in post-production.
Canberra filmmakers Marisa Martin (production design) and Rebecca Filipczyk (script) are also working on CODE.
The $2.5 million feature film Galore, a coming of age drama set against the 2003 bushfires, was also filmed in Canberra last year.
It may all signal the start of film renaissance for Canberra with that scene on the steps of the High Court in the 1997 classic The Castle until now about the highlight of the last couple of decades.
"It's very exciting," Ms Penders said.