Red Rock rules: 'We don't want to feel like a show created in 1985'
Doug Whelan goes behind the scenes on TV3's hit soap to find out what really happens before the cameras roll
Despite its run-down state, the old John Player factory on Dublin's South Circular Road is a formidable sight. Its yellow-brown brickwork and concrete cladding give a lot of character, and the graffiti and broken windows add notions of a haunted house.
But behind the gates of the near 100-year-old premises, things are very much alive. For the factory, long used as the filming location for film and television programmes, is the home of Red Rock, TV3's home-grown soap opera that launched back in January.
Parts of the building and its surroundings have been converted into the main street of the titular seaside town, incorporating a garda station, a café, a branded warehouse, bus stops and other typical sights.
It's a strange sensation as I walk up this fictional main street, and even stranger as we're brought through the interior of the set and up a flight of stairs to the production offices, on the first floor of the Red Rock Garda Station. There, waiting for us, is Gareth Philips, series producer and one of the new breed of "showrunners" that all high-profile modern TV series have.
"A showrunner is essentially a writer in charge of the show, making all of the decisions," he explains. "They're at the heart of the production." Red Rock uses a slightly different model, whereby Gareth shares seniority with lead writer Kim Revill. Kim and Gareth work together to drive the creative vision of Red Rock.
"As viewers see the show evolve creatively on screen," he says, "so do things behind the scenes as well."
Ah, that old phrase, behind the scenes. It's never glamorous, but is nonetheless a fascinating experience to see the work being done and how it all comes together.
I've been on soap sets before, and the first difference I notice at Red Rock is the use of just one camera, rather than the traditional three. It ties in with what viewers have noted about Red Rock: that washed-out, overcast colouring that gives it the feel of a gritty drama series rather than a colourful soap opera.
"Traditionally, soap operas were shot in brightly lit studios from multiple angles at once," explains Philips.
"When drama evolved for a more realistic look, single cameras were used so that different lighting could be employed. Soap opera never caught up though - partly due to that high volume. Using three cameras enabled directors to get all their shots at once."
Red Rock uses one camera, which means it takes cast and crew longer to shoot a scene, and so the shooting schedule is basically relentless.
"We shoot four episodes in eight days," Gareth says. "That is the biggest challenge of our show: getting that high production value, with a high volume, but a smaller budget and the same amount of time."
It's a fact that soap operas are written well in advance of filming, and that fact is doubled when it's a brand new series getting off the ground. Gareth says that Red Rock had 60 working scripts before filming even began or casting had been completed.
"We brought in this phenomenal ensemble cast," he recalls, "who brought the characters and the show to life. What happens then is they feed the creative process and you start writing in reaction to what the actors are giving you."
Scripts were rewritten at that point, storylines reimagined and while the original idea remained, entirely new elements were introduced.
An example of this revision was the casting of Valerie O'Connor in the role of Detective Nikki Grogan.
"There was no detective in the original scripts," says Gareth, "and Valerie actually auditioned for a different role. We loved her so much, her energy and enthusiasm, that we saw an opportunity and created the role of Nikki for her.
"She inhabited the role from the word go, and her presence demanded that we write more for her. She's a regular part of the show now and will continue to be, but she wasn't a part of the original concept."
As Gareth brings me on a tour of Red Rock sets, he explains the ethos that the show was originally devised with, that it avoids the characteristics that established soaps are known for. The main being that events all centre on a local pub.
"Red Rock has a local pub, but only one speaking character inhabits it," he says.
A tiny pub set is part of the back lot, but it is only used for occasional scenes and is a replica of a real pub (the Stone Boat in Kimmage, fact fans), where scenes are also occasionally filmed.
"We like to use the pub for when the gardaí are having a drink after work," Gareth says, "rather than there being multiple elements ongoing in the pub at once as with other soaps."
Other sets on the backlot include a hospital ward that can double for different departments, an office that is the home of Harbour Haulage.
Harbour Haulage was originally a fish factory in early scripts, but producers quickly realised the difficulties that would present on a daily basis, and so the setting was changed to the warehouse.
Past some jarringly authentic-looking garda cars, there are the various homes and apartments of the characters.
"As you get to know the characters, you can evolve the sets and their homes in order to reflect them more," Gareth says.
"A flaw when we originally started production was that all the homes had similarly coloured walls.
"Each house needs to be different and to have a colour palette that reflects the atmosphere among those characters," he says.
He also points out the family photos on the walls of the homes, many of which are authentic family photos provided by the cast.
Later in the day, I am invited by Rob Burke, one of Red Rock's directors, to stand in as an extra during filming, to get a feel for production from the inside.
It's a fast-paced, but laid-back environment. The atmostphere is friendly as Valerie O'Connor and Richard Flood (Garda James McKay), do a "walk and talk" scene in the station.
It's my job to emerge from a side office as they pass, and stride purposefully in the opposite direction, pausing only to hand off an important file to a uniform garda. Nailed it.
Since launching in January, Red Rock has been met with critical approval and growing ratings.
The latest figures show 160,000 viewers, which increases to 206,000 when consolidated with online.
Gareth Philips and his team expect both numbers to grow and have ambitious long-term plans for the soap. "We're providing audiences with those brilliant serial elements," he says, "but telling stories in fresh, original ways. We're a brand new soap for 2015, so we don't want to feel like a show that was created in 1985.
"What would be the point of that?"
The storyline you need to know
All storytelling comes back to fundamental archetypes that have been around as long as storytelling itself, and Red Rock is no different.
Gareth Philips says that the original seed of an idea behind Red Rock was that it would be a contemporary Western, encompassing two feuding families and a sheriff caught in the middle of the two.
It has, of course, come on a lot since then, but the evidence (no pun intended) is still there for all to see - the sheriff, so to speak, is Garda Superintendent James McKay, for example, and the feud is between the Kiely and Hennessy families.
The main focus of the soap at the moment though is the missing teenager Rachel Reid, played by Ann Skelly (a very talented young actress, by the by). This week's episodes see Rachel's distraught father Liam (Anthony Brophy) prepare for a televised appeal for Rachel's safe return.
Her whereabouts are a mystery, but the reason for her disappearance isn't: she has been involved in a sordid affair with local bully Garda Brian McGonigle (Sean Mahon), whose corruption and moral bankruptcy have so far known no bounds.
His repugnant relationship with 15-year-old Rachel (best friend of his daughter Mel) isn't Brian's only measure of guilt either: one of Red Rock's main ongoing storylines and one of the most meticulously plotted, according to Gareth Philips, is his bullying and manipulation of fellow garda, Sharon Cleere (Jane McGrath, pictured).
As well as doing his best to get their superiors to remove Sharon, Brian has been waging a campaign of hate against her that includes conspiring to have her beaten up. McGonigle is definitely the villain of the piece and Gareth Philips revealed to us that the climax of these storylines is part of the explosive finale they have planned for June 4 before Red Rock goes on a summer break.
Ahead of that, this week is definitely a turning point though and, as is the tradition of soaps, uninitiated viewers can catch up quickly and become hooked on the various storylines with minimum prior knowledge of what has come before.
If there's someone in the industry who knows about soap storytelling, it's Gareth Philips.
Having produced Coronation Street (2000-2006) and Hollyoaks in the UK and acted as story consultant on Fair City during its renaissance of the past couple of years, Philips says he has produced somewhere in the region of 2,500 episodes of soap.
That's a lot of suds.