Behind the Scenes of Black Snow

Black Snow creator Lucas Taylor and producers Rosemary Blight and Kaylene Butler talk to TV Drama about the origins of the series and collaborating with the Australian South Sea Islander community during production.

When Lucas Taylor witnessed the opening of a time capsule in a small regional town in Queensland, he got the idea for a unique cold-case series. “I was struck by the notion of, what if among the memorabilia that was in the time capsule—the ’90s music and the Sony Discmans—there was a clue that sparked the fresh information on an unsolved murder from that town?” the creator tells TV Drama.

That concept is what sparks the events of Black Snow, produced by Australia’s Goalpost Pictures in association with All3Media International. In 2019, the opening of a town’s time capsule unearths a secret related to the 1994 death of 17-year-old Isabel Baker, whose unsolved murder devastated her Australian South Sea Islander community. A letter she wrote is included among the artifacts, claiming that “predators disguised as friends” walk among the town. This results in a reopening of the case and the wounds it left behind, with Travis Fimmel as Detective Cormack taking over to discover what really happened.

The series takes place across the two time lines, “with one being very deeply rooted in 1994,” Taylor says. “There is a nostalgia for that period with audiences who are looking back to the time, but there’s also a sort of lightness to the coming-of-age narrative that Isabel and her friends are going through in that part of the story. We know it’s heading toward tragedy, but it’s still quite a beautiful character-driven thread. The modern-day time line, meanwhile, offers “the ability to see how those 25 years had marked all of our characters,” he explains. “How had it changed them? How had the trauma of Isabel’s death affected each of our key characters across the time line?”

The overall story is rooted in the history of its location and the Australian South Sea Islander community of the area. Taylor himself is not part of the community, but he grew up in a sugarcane town in northern New South Wales. When researching crimes in the agricultural sector in order to craft a narrative around the sugarcane, he came across the community’s tragic history and Australia’s colonial-era crimes. Though the murder storyline is fictional, the series as a whole is rooted in the history of the community, whose ancestors from various Pacific Islands were kidnapped and forced to work in Queensland’s sugarcane fields in the 19th century. The sugarcane and tragic history of the South Sea Islanders are interwoven and underlie everything that occurs both in the past and the modern day.

“This underlying story comes out of the cane,” says Rosemary Blight, a founding partner of Goalpost Pictures and producer of the series. “As much as we spoke about the practicalities of shooting in the middle of nowhere in the sugarcane and how that’s really not very sensible, it just kept drawing us to it. And we knew in a way that the location became—and this is something that people say all the time—it was a character.”

Knowing the history of the community, it was important to Taylor, Blight and the rest of the team to make the production process highly collaborative with the local people. Kaylene Butler, whose ancestor was a chief stolen from Tanna Island, was a producer on the series and heavily involved alongside Blight. “It was a blessing that we’ve been able to talk with our community [for] the story,” Butler says. “Black Snow was an opportunity for us to have a voice, a presence, especially in our community, but all the way to Tanna Island,” she says. “It’s not a documentary, but it feels like the right thing to do to tell our story, as we are forgotten people.”

A large portion of the cast are of South Sea Islander heritage, including several first-time actors, such as Talijah Blackman-Corowa, who plays Isabel, and Jemmason Power, who plays the grown-up version of Isabel’s younger sister. Power notes that the team behind the camera had protocols in place before filming to ensure that everyone felt safe and respected, working to avoid stirring up intergenerational trauma. “It was a blessing to walk into this space,” she says. “It was tangible, the work that was already laid out between Lucas and Rosemary and Auntie Kaylene, and that foundation of safety was there.”

The design of the set and costumes was also a highly collaborative process, with Helen O’Loan working with Butler and local craftspeople, artists and seamstresses for the Baker house set-up and layout of the garden. Costume designer Vanessa Loh also partnered with local seamstresses for the outfit designs to ensure that everything was authentic to the local community during 1994 and 2019.

Blight also notes that the composing team of Ziggy Ramo, a South Sea Islander descendant, and Jed Palmer went so far as to travel to Tanna Island with Butler, back to the village where her ancestor was stolen 150 years prior. While there, “they were gifted sounds and music from the chief in his village, which they then brought back to Australia and turned into a score,” Blight says. “Sounds that you think are detective genre actually come from someone clapping on the island, someone throwing something, someone speaking. It all makes up part of the world [and] the sound of the show.”

Even down to the name of the series, the show pays homage to the history of its location. Taylor explains that, prior to modern-day machinery, sugarcane was burned before being harvested. “All through harvest or crushing season, there would be these huge cane fires burning, and the winds would take the ash, and it would float like black snow down into the town,” he says. “As kids, we would play in it because we didn’t have real snow, but we had black snow. So, it really speaks to the sugar that’s at the heart of the story, but also that period of the ’90s.”

Viewers can catch this collaborative story combining coming-of-age drama and whodunit mystery centered on the South Sea Islander community on Stan as the new year rings in on January 1. All3Media International is taking it out the global market.