“Jalla, jalla! No time to stand around, we’re very behind!” yells Mehdi Elkhaoudy, adding the same instruction in a couple more languages for good measure. We’re in Morocco near Ouarzazate, centre of the country’s film industry, where Melbourne’s flapper sleuth Phryne Fisher is making a high-heeled leap on to the big screen in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears; Elkhaoudy is first assistant director. Standing around, however, is an intrinsic part of any film shoot. An assemblage of extras, swathed in glamour versions of Bedouin robes, already have the glazed expressions worn by extras the world over after a couple of long days of being told to hurry up and wait. It is still early morning, but the sunlight reflected from the rocks where a small girl is scrambling up and down for the camera is dazzling.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, adapted from Kerry Greenwood’s historical mystery novels and starring Essie Davis as an It-girl detective who likes to drive fast cars, can fly a plane and has a golden pistol in her handbag, is one of the big success stories of Australian television. Running on the ABC for three series from 2012 to 2015, it was shown in 100 territories. Her fans are legion. They come from North America in particular to Melbourne to do Miss Fisher walks and have themselves photographed in ‘20s fashions at the travelling Miss Fisher costume exhibition. There have even been Miss Fisher-cons – like Comicon, but with cloche hats – in Seattle, Portland and New York.
Nobody can pin down exactly why Phryne Fisher has captured so many imaginations. Davis says it’s fun to be inside her. “She’s full of joy,” she says. “Even though she has dealt with great sadness, she seeks the positive, she’s a fighter for the underdog, she’s a changer of rules and she’s super-naughty.” The fans they meet are usually women over 55 who say they find her inspiring. On the other hand, Miss Fisher is reported to be a popular theme for pre-pubescent girls’ parties. “When I’m talking to fans in Australia,” says Nathan Page, who plays Miss Fisher’s ongoing, will they- won’t they love interest Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, “the demographic I often see is grandmother, mother and daughter. They’ll watch it together, while the husband is locked out and has to cook dinner.”
So when producers Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, who also writes the scripts, revealed hopes of one day making a feature film version, those fans chipped in with a million dollars – about a ninth of the total budget – in crowdfunding. That show of support, says Eagger, convinced Screen Australia, Roadshow and other investors there were people out there who wanted to see it. “It was quite tricky trying to finance it, because it hasn’t got what you’d call feature film A-list actors who help you get big money, necessarily,” says Eagger. Investors wanted an established director; she insisted on the unflappable Tony Tilse, one of the original directors on the television series, who had honed his craft with HBO. They dangled millions if she would just get Margot Robbie to play the lead. “But what are we doing this for? Part of the enjoyment is watching Essie. Nobody else could be Phryne for us: she’s magnificent.”