63rd Monte-Carlo Television Festival Winners Talk - Madam
BY Yako Molhov
At the 63rd Monte-Carlo Television Festival Rachel Griffiths' ('Six Feet Under', 'Brothers & Sisters', 'Hilary and Jackie') latest series - Madam - won the Golden Nymph award for Best Creation. The New Zealand comedy, produced by Tavake and XYZ Films in association with Fifth Season, follows Mack (Griffiths), a woman who discovers her husband is seeing a sex worker, which sets off a chain of events that sees her setting up an ethical brothel. Launching in New Zealand on July 4 on Three and Three Now, the 10-episode show which had its world premiere at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival, also features big Kiwi names such as 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'’s Rima Te Wiata, 'Virgin River'’s Martin Henderson and 'Wentworth'’s Danielle Cormack and Robbie Magasiva. Madam is based on the not-yet-published memoir by Antonia Murphy, who founded an escort agency that emphasised the protection of women’s legal rights, mental wellbeing and financial autonomy.
Griffiths talked to journalists at the Festival, revealing details about the filming of the series as well as her career, her opinion on sex workers and violence against women, working with intimacy coordinator on the series and plans for season 2. TVBIZZ's Yako Molhov also got to have a one-on-one chat with Madam's producer Halaifonua Finau.

"We in Australia are currently in the throes of terrible domestic violence against women. We've had more women die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners in the first three months of the year than in all of last year. The only cure for that is to respect women and it has to be all women. Women who do sex work are making a reasoned decision - how much I am getting, how long I am working... Many women are doing sex work to support themselves and their dependence... That should be respected, if we disrespect sex workers, we disrespect women. People used to talk about what a woman was wearing if something bad happened to her. If she was a sex worker, as we've seen in America, nobody investigated these cases against sex workers, they are 'disposible' women, which is terrible. I really hope we grow out of it,” Griffiths told journalists.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to fully decriminalize sex work, as producer Halaifonua Finau pointed out to TVBIZZ, and Griffiths commented that "the purpose of an ethical brothel is to empower women and create an environment where the women are safe. Australia and New Zealand probably have one of the strongest occupational health and safety laws, you are obliged as an employer to provide a safe work place, both morally, mentally and physically and once you say this is a legitimate business you have to manage a legitimate business. New Zealand is very progressive, it was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote, it had three female PMs, in Australia we only had one; this respect for women is being embedded in the Kiwi psyche from the foundation, First Nations women are really incredible presence.There is always a fight, a movement, it became a feminist issue that women cannot be incarcerated, penalized or fined for providing a service. What is the difference between a massage and a blowjob?". “What people do with their bodies should be their decision. We have some very good safeguards in New Zealand. For example if you are a foreign resident on a visa you can't do it, you have to be a permanent resident and that's to protect from trafficking, you can't bring girls from abroad. We have some really big problems we are facing as a world. So why do legislators focus on the female body or try to stop people from getting laid? Come on,” added Griffiths.

Madam is based on the not-yet-published memoir by Antonia Murphy and the Australian actress commented that "the story is inspired by the novel, many characters were changed, many circumstances are invented for the purpose of your enjoyment. The only real character is Mack, she (Murphy ed) has an unpublished biography which was really helpfull, as an actor you dream that somebody says 'here's 200 pages of everything that has happened to yo, and how you feel about everything'. I was on the fence should I meet her or should I not and I had a dinner with her but I didn't want to be doing an impersonation of her. I meet the character halfway - I bring the role a little bit to me and then I move towards the role - if you meet too far out it doesn't work, there is a range."

In terms of how viewers from different generations will see the series, Griffiths said that "younger women are more sex positive and body positive. And maybe OnlyFans has normalized certain things. I know many women who are getting off dating apps. They say: ‘these guys are expecting sex, for free, after buying me a coffee.’ If that’s the dating culture at the moment, what’s the difference between getting paid? It’s still a transaction.”

As far as sex is concerned in the show, the actress laughed that "humans fucking is very funny, it's hillarious what we do to each other... It’s not that different from watching two dogs at a park. When women talk to each other they tell really funny stories, there is a fun female gaze in this, we are not trying to turn on the audience but I don't think we are afraid to show sex, I have done shows where I've had a lot of sex and sometimes it is unnecessary and not actually sexy, a lot of actresses regret some of the things their younger selves were coerced. ‘Last Tango in Paris’ – need we say more?" The actors worked with an intimacy coordinator on the series. "We had a fantastic intimacy coordinator, she is practically a dame, incredible respected Kiwi actress - Jennifer Ward-Lealand. No one would take her on, she would turn up with this luggage, full of different bits, she discusses it and she was very direct: ‘What are you happy showing?’ Consent should always be explicit. We are teaching young people in Australia now: ‘If it’s not ‘hell yes,’ it’s a no...’ The most nervous people were the men who would come in just for a couple of scenes." In terms of boundaries when doing sex scenes in her career: “I was lucky – apparently, I had the last nudity clause on HBO. But there wasn’t a language to talk about what I was asked to do with my body. One of the reasons that I moved into network television was that I felt it was the best protection. Before, there were many, many times when I wasn’t comfortable. Luckily I was never been cast for being sexy, other women had much more difficult journeys”.

Griffith's return to Australia after 'Six Feet Under' and 'Brothers & Sisters' was incredibly intentional. "It is kind of an accident that I became a film actor in some ways and got into TV. It started more as a storyteller, coming from this side. I wanted to tell Australian stories, born of Australia. I couldn’t never understand the American psyche. I wanted my kids to be Australian”. Talking about one of her latest shows: 'Total Control' the actress commented that "for Australian shows it is very wordy, it is very heavy and sophisticated in terms of ideas, it explores the intersection of race and gender in political life and where women fit into those. It is super groundbreaking, it is the show I am most proud of joining in my life".

As far as the future of Madam is concerned: “In the first season, you can only set up so many characters. In the second, I think we will go more into the lives of the women that live in a brothel, so that it’s no longer all about the privileged white lady. It will open a whole lot of humor and a whole lot of scenarios.” Regarding her work with fellow actor and on-screen cheating husband Martin Henderson, Griffiths said: “I felt so lucky. I thought: ‘we are not going to get him.’ But he was interested, because he’s never done comedy. He’s like a Jason Bateman: plays ‘douchebag funny’. It's an underplay, you see exactly what he is doing but you still don’t want to kill him".

Regarding directing in the future, the Aussie actress said she is not planning to do it soon: “I just got my second child through school and I still have one that’s younger. I hate to say it, but there are many barriers for women to direct and not all of them are institutional. It’s about the 100% focus that’s required while directing and balancing your other life. Co-creating shows – we just wrapped three seasons of the political drama ‘Total Control’ which I am really proud of – and taking on roles I have an input in, is my sweet spot at the moment. But that might change.”


TVBIZZ also got the chance to speak to prod co Tavake's Halaifonua Finau who is the EP of Madam. Launching his career in the screen industry as an actor and presenter, he has switched to working as a writer and producer. Halaifonua is the co-writer and associate producer of 'Jonah', a mini-series on Jonah Lomu, and alongside producer Tom Hern, wrote, created and executive produced drama 'The Panthers'. He is a co-writer and producer for his debut feature film  'Red, White & Brass'.

Finau revealed some details of how the series was created: "we saw a newspaper article about the memoir (which is going to be published this year) two years ago, our partners from XYZ Films brought it to us and we thought it was a great story, great characters in a great world for a TV series, that was the first seed. We got in touch with the publishers and the real life madam - Antonia Murphy - and they gave us a version, an early draft of the unpublished memoir and when we read it, we thought - the characters were so great, the world is so unique and beautiful and the community is so live, it was a no brainer for us that if we played our cards rights, we could make something really special".

Regarding Murphy's involvement in the script writing process, the EP said that "we met with her and she was involved in reading our drafts and scripts but she wasn't writing them per se, we did a lot of interviews with her early on to build the world and do our research and knowledge for her character, she was heavily involved in the development process. She has seen the first five episodes, she loved them, she laughed, she cried. We are very lucky with her, I've made a film about my family ('Red, White & Brass', ed), real life true story so I know it is very confronting, risky and vulnerable to put yourself and your family out there for the world to see... She was very open creatively to what we wanted to do and to tell the story, she loved the show. We had a lot of creative freedom in it, we didn't want to reveal the identity of the women, our sex workers were merged characters, merge real life stories and experienced together to create one character."

In terms of the casting process, the EP that "once we got Rachel in place, that was the first domino. We know we had a star actor, we knew we had someone at the caliber that will attract other top actors as well. Rachel was the real driver, then we got Martin Henderson, Rima Te Wiata, Robbie Magasiva, Danielle Cormack who were all accomplished actors in their own right and have achieved great feats. Especially in New Zealand they are senior, professional actors. We worked very closely with our casting agent Kate McGill and our intimacy coordinator Jennifer Ward-Lealand, making sure we had those processes in place to protect our actors and make them feel safe... Now with an intimacy coordinator it is the same as a stunt - a choreographed dance, both actors need to be aware of".

On creating an "ethical brother" in the series, Finau said "it is one of the oldest professions in the world, in many places it is legal, New Zealand was the first country to legalize sex work and decriminalize it, but despite this fact there are brothels that take advantage of vulnerable women and so the ethical brothel meant that the environment that was created was run by woman for women and most of the brothels are run by men who take advantage of vulnerable women which is the unethical part... In Madam it is run by a woman who wants to empower women, who wants to give them control over what they do with their bodies, when and how they do it. It is about giving the control of the relationship, the transaction to the sex worker... to understand the barriers and boundaries of what workers and clients do".

Finau doesn't believe that Madam is a feminist show: "it can be seen as a feminist show but it is a show about a mother, a family, often people think that it is about women when it comes to sex work but in many sexual relationships there is a man and a woman, so men are half of that transaction as well. We do explore the men that come to that space as well. Anotnia Murphy says in her memoir "we don't sell sex, we treat loneliness'. Another part of the show is exploring the need and the importance for humans to have intimacy, to have relationships and connection... Although there are feminist aspects and the empowerment of women, it is also a commentary about human connection... We crossover between drama and comedy in the series, throughout Madam there are a lot of questions we explore and we ask the audience - how do you feel about the sex work, there's a lot of stigma about it. Mack is in her 50s, trying to start a business, a lot of people work in our 30s and 40s and when you get over 50s it is often on the other side, you have to reinvent yourself, this is also a major theme. For our younger audiences we have characters that they can relate to - wanting nice things, wanting to be independent, break out of their situations, forge their own path, the ups and downs, trying to find your way in the world..."

As far as the distribution of the show is concerned, the producer shared that there is interest from international partners and Fifth Season will be announcing some deals soon.
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