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Beaconsfield

Based on the dramatic rescue of miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb this telemovie tries to tell too many stories.

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FOR 14 days and nights in 2006 it transfixed the nation: two miners, Todd Russell and Brant Webb, trapped almost a kilometre underground in a mesh cage not much bigger than a coffin. Their rescue, played out on national television, pushed all the right buttons: heroic, dramatic, nail-biting to the final frame.

But for the two men it was something far more horrifying. Partially enclosed in that cage, they were strangers at first, then friends - albeit a friendship forged in desperate circumstances, virtually immobile for 321 hours, in pitch darkness, with no food, a trickle of groundwater and, at times, what seemed to be no chance of rescue.

We know how this story ends but what we've tried to do is give the audience more information than they were ever given. 

''Every advertisement is going to say you do not know the real story and you know what? You do not know the real story,'' says actor Lachy Hulme, who plays Russell in Beaconsfield, Channel Nine's dramatisation of the events.

Friendship forged in peril ... Shane Jacobson (left) and Lachy Hulme as Brant Webb and Todd Russell in <em>Beaconsfield</em>.

Friendship forged in peril ... Shane Jacobson (left) and Lachy Hulme as Brant Webb and Todd Russell in Beaconsfield.

The telemovie also stars Shane Jacobson as Brant Webb, Sacha Horler as Webb's wife Rachel, Michala Banas as Russell's wife Carolyn, Simon Lyndon as Larry Knight, the miner who did not survive, and Steve Vizard as veteran 60 Minutes journalist Richard Carleton, who died while covering the story.

The production comes with an impressive pedigree: producer John Edwards (Paper Giants, Offspring, Tangle), writer Judi McCrossin (Tangle, The Secret Life of Us) and director Glendyn Ivin (Offspring).

Jacobson, best known as the star of Kenny and host of Top Gear Australia, was involved in an earlier iteration of the Beaconsfield project, in which he and his brother were to play the trapped miners. In that version, Jacobson was to play Russell. ''When Glendyn Ivin came on board and I was going to play Brant Webb, I had to do a very big rewind,'' he says.

Real life ... miners Todd Russell, left, and Brant Webb emerge from the mine.

Real life ... miners Todd Russell, left, and Brant Webb emerge from the mine. Photo: AP

Hulme came in later, after he was sent the script to read, and a copy of the television interview with the two miners conducted by Tracy Grimshaw for A Current Affair.

''I didn't have any doubt about whether I could do it but my question was: why am I doing it?'' he says. ''If this was just going to be the story about the kid who fell down the well, I thought, we're not making a movie.''

Jacobson says that, like most people, he was glued to reports of the rescue at the time, ''waiting for that moment when they were going to come out''. He says the telemovie fills in the 14 days between the collapse and their rescue - ''what happened above ground, what happened below ground - there are very few people who got to visit all those worlds''.

Lachy Hulme and Michala Banas as Todd and Carolyn Russell in <em>Beaconsfield</em>.

Lachy Hulme and Michala Banas as Todd and Carolyn Russell in Beaconsfield.

Visiting the set in Beaconsfield, Tasmania, is unsettling. Not just because the project is being filmed partly on location but because Hulme and Jacobson seem to have transformed into their characters. Coming face to face with the story's real-life personalities, Jacobson says, was at first like a fleeting introduction to strangers at a party. It was not until well into the production that he understood what they had endured.

''You say hello but then when you walk away, it's like someone starts to tell you the story of that guy and then you wish you could go back and shake his hand again,'' Jacobson says. ''With all that foreknowledge, to hold his hand a little bit tighter, maybe not to make too big a deal of it, but to understand what has happened.''

The four lead actors have become close to their real-life counterparts. Russell and Webb were candid with the actors, who felt any topic was open for discussion. ''They're very honest about what happened down there,'' Jacobson says. ''[Brant] thought he was going to die every second he was down there. Undoubtedly it was the worst experience of his life. It was hell. I think perhaps now his view of the world is a bit different.''

In Hulme's case, he says Russell made the first move: ''He rang me. We spoke. I had some questions. He said you have to spend time in Beaconsfield with me and see me in my natural habitat. So I jumped in feet first - Michala and I were on the next flight. We just clicked with these people.''

The last day of shooting, when the Guide visited the set, is a tense one. One scene shot earlier in the day is the first in the telemovie. The last scene, late at night, is the final one - the dramatic re-emergence of Russell and Webb from the mine.

Ivin describes the juxtaposition as a fortuitous happenstance. ''It creates a sense of closure, the first scene and then the last scene,'' he says. ''We know how this story ends but what we've tried to do is give the audience more information than they were ever given.''

That's a tall order, given the extensive media coverage. Ultimately, most questions come back to what it was like to be trapped down there. ''The media reports were saying the boys are in good spirits; well, they weren't in good spirits,'' Hulme says frankly. ''And the size of the space they were in was the size of a coffin. With 150 tonnes of rock key-stoned above them, it was like pick-up sticks - you pull the wrong one out and it's all over.''

Those scenes were filmed in a Melbourne studio, designed to the same dimensions as the collapsed mine shaft. ''I felt we kind of shot the film right there,'' Ivin says. ''That was the heart of it. You felt there was a friendship formed and they're an odd couple because you couldn't get two more different guys in real life.''

Hulme says he and Jacobson focused on trying to tell that situation as truthfully as they could. ''We've kept our emotions very close to the surface,'' he says. ''I thought about the relationship between Todd and Carolyn, the massive mental and physical stamina to keep going under those circumstances.''

The cave sequence was also, unusually, filmed in chronological order. That decision was made, Ivin says, to give the actors the chance to travel the journey Russell and Webb went on. ''And it is a journey,'' he says, ''even though they don't move. They started totally dumbfounded and confused, panicked and disorientated in the pitch black, working out where they are.''

Hulme is cautious not to overstate the difficulties in play-acting the real-life situation - after all, he says, it is merely actors working on a set - but the payoff is an illuminating re-creation of a compelling story.

''Every single moment is a discovery,'' he says. ''If you put the most evil minds in a room to devise the most diabolical death trap known to man, it would not come close to what happened here. This is that story and the story of the people who were sent in to defuse that death trap.''

 

What's the buzz?

What happened?
The mine collapsed on April 25, 2006, killing Larry Knight. Fourteen miners escaped immediately. Todd Russell and Brant Webb were located in the mesh cage of a telescopic handler, a hybrid crane-forklift used in mining. They were rescued on May 9.

How were they discovered?
Almost six days after the mine collapsed, two rescuers arrived at the mine shaft 925 metres below the surface and called out. Russell and Webb shouted back that they were alive and trapped.

How extensive was the mediacoverage?
More than 100 journalists travelled to Beaconsfield to cover the story but the biggest clash was between rival channels Seven and Nine. Both made significant offers to the miners for exclusive interviews; the Nine deal, worth about $3 million, was successful.

What was Beaconsfield: The Musical?
Originally titled Beaconsfield: A Musical in A-Flat Minor, it was a 2008 stage production by comedian Dan Ilic. It was criticised for its lack of respect for the family of Larry Knight but was in fact a send-up of the media circus surrounding the rescue.

Beaconsfield
Nine, Sunday, 8.30pm