Adapting ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ was ‘most rewarding’ for Canadian director

At first, Larysa Kondracki didn’t think directing a TV miniseries based on the novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was going to be much of a picnic.

“When the idea first came up I said, ‘Absolutely not, that’s a classic,’” Kondracki recalls.

The Toronto native had seen the 1975 film directed by Peter Weir and was reticent about following in the Australian’s footsteps.

“Then it was framed to me as an absolute reimagining of the original book,” says Kondracki, who started reading the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. It only took a few pages before the Canadian realized this was more than a mystery novel about the disappearance of several Australian school girls on Valentine’s Day, 1900. “It became a much darker and deeper, and sadly relevant, exploration of all these different girls,” she says. “Creatively it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”

Kondracki and the cast and crew — including Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones”) as the no-nonsense headmistress of an all-girls school — shot the six-episode miniseries early in 2017 in Australia. Episode three, which is directed by Kondracki, as were the first two, airs this coming Sunday in Canada on Bravo. (Amazon Prime Video streams the series in other parts of the world.)

“Australia really wanted to make a splash and make an international show,” says Kondracki. “They just didn’t necessarily have the budget of something like ‘American Gods’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Walking Dead.’”

Kondracki’s challenge was to make the miniseries special and stylistic on a tight budget. “That really came down to just a lot of creativity and an unbelievable work ethic on behalf of the cast and crew.” She singles out Dormer as “a class act” who “set the tone for all the young actors. She came in and was such a force.”

The director encouraged everyone to pitch ideas that could be used in the miniseries. Any idea that made it to the screen would win whoever suggested it a bottle of wine.

Soon, ideas were flowing from every direction. Kondracki says she gave away a lot of liquid bonuses, including a bottle of gin to a costume designer who didn’t drink wine.

The reward was part of an overall plan to create a positive work environment. “You’re supposed to be having fun,” she says. “When you’re growing up as a kid, pretending to do movies, this is what you wanted to do.”

Kondracki has always been interested in directing. At McGill University in Montreal she threw herself into what she describes as “a phenomenal theatre program.” Later, she earned a MFA in film directing at Columbia University in New York.

She found early success as a director on “The Whistleblower,” a drama starring Rachel Weisz. The searing depiction of sex trafficking in war-torn Bosnia earned Kondracki a Genie Award for Best Director in 2011.

Her subsequent TV credits read like a critic’s Top 10 list, including episodes of “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “Legion” and “The Walking Dead.” This has put her in business with today’s top showrunners, including Vince Gilligan and Noah Hawley.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is also her first project as showrunner. That’s a career direction she intends to pursue, although closer to home. After years of living in New York and Los Angeles, Kondracki has returned to her Toronto roots.

“This is a very interesting city to try and do this from,” she says. “The talent is here and we have a very robust industry.

“Truth be told,” she adds, “I’m the mother of a two-year-old son. That’s a challenge — how do you figure out how to be a human being and an artist? Hopefully, if you do figure it out, you become a better parent.”

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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