Aaron Pedersen - Mystery Road (2013)
Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road (2013) photo John Platt, courtesy Bunya Productions

Stephen A Russell charts the journey of Ivan Sen’s outback detective Jay Swan from the big screen to our televisions.

Who is Jay Swan?

Aaron Pedersen’s heavy-shouldered screen presence as lone wolf detective Jay Swan is unmistakable. Face stoic beneath a white cowboy hat, he traces a weary line in the red dust as he walks a difficult path. He first breathed life into Ivan Sen’s films Mystery Road (2013) and its follow-up Goldstone (2016), before reprising the role in the ABC TV show helmed first by Rachel Perkins and then by Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair on season two. But Swan has seen more than one soul inhabiting his furrowed brow, with Mark Coles Smith portraying a younger Swan in the prequel series, Mystery Road: Origins (2022– ), when Pedersen decided to step away from the role, and acting, for a time.

If Sen had gone with his first hunch, the man we met in 2013 would have been markedly different from the Swan we now know. “Funnily enough, my first idea was to situate this Indigenous cop within the constraints of Sydney,” Sen says. “He was assigned to the Redfern police station in the middle of the city, and at that point, there’s a large Indigenous population there.”

Sen had observed Pedersen’s career from a distance, but it took a while for their paths to cross. When they did, Sen shared with Pedersen his vision for this city cop. When he sat down to write the first film – a task completed in two weeks working out of a Starbucks in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province – something about that distance allowed Sen to get closer to his own truth. “So, I was sitting there in a culture you’re not really involved in, and that made it easier to dive into my own Culture.”

Sen was born in Nambour, a small rural town inland from the Sunshine Coast and some 11 hours’ drive north across the Queensland border from the New South Wales capital’s harbour views. When he was four years old, his Gamilaroi mother Donella took them back over the border, settling in the famous country music town Tamworth, having separated from his Croatian father Duro. It’s these places that most inform Mystery Road’s journey on the big screen and the man Swan became.

A rear shot of a man in Australian outback attire surveying the landscape from a high elevation

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road (2013) courtesy Bunya Productions

“One of the first books that I was really interested in was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and that journey on the river with the raft,” Sen says of his free-ranging childhood. “It still appeals to me now, just that sense of being within nature and moving through it, and that attraction has worked its way into my own expression.”

He could, in Finn, glimpse a reflection of his scrappy days kicking around in search of adventure. “The landscape was always part of that growing up experience, where after school you would go down to the local creek and play in the river,” Sen says. “You’d cross into private property and run away when the farmer sees you. So that land has always held a sense of escape for me because we grew up on the edges of these towns. We didn’t see a lot of attraction within the town itself, but we did on the edges where it turns to the land.”

So, the city was left behind in favour of Swan, a man who has run away from these Huckleberry days towards the Big Smoke, but who grudgingly finds himself drawn back to his hometown under less-than-ideal circumstances to solve the murder of Aboriginal teenager Julie Mason (Patrice Maisie) discovered in a drainage ditch beneath a dusty road. Bringing things closer to home, a scan of her phone reveals that she was mates with Swan’s daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton, later depicted by Madeleine Madden in the television series).

It’s fair to say that his estranged wife Mary (Tasma Walton, also joining Pedersen in the TV show) isn’t overly impressed at fatherly concern she believes is ten years too late. The detective finds himself equally out of step with the local First Nations community as with the wary ‘whitefellas’ and his fellow coppers, including Hugo Weaving’s Johnno.

Sen says that attracting names like Weaving, the late Uncle Jack Charles, Jack Thompson and Ryan Kwanten – then a huge deal because of his much-loved depiction of Jason Stackhouse in True Blood – to walk with Pedersen was a huge part of realising his vision for Mystery Road. “It’s a funny thing,” Sen says. “It’s like a fire. Once you start it burning, it grows. You get one, you get another, and once you get two, it’s much easier to get the third. It’s a self-fulfilling thing.”

Two middle aged men – one white, one Indigenous – stand side by side in half shadow. Both are dressed in Australian outback attire.

Hugo Weaving as Johnno and Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road (2013) courtesy Bunya Productions

Fanning the flame

By the time Sen filmed Toomelah (2011), his spunky feature about a gangster-loving lad running amok in a remote Aboriginal community as played by Daniel Roberts, who also pops up in 2013’s Mystery Road, he had crystalised an approach begun with 2009’s UFO-hunting drama Dreamland. Sen was taking greater control of the big picture, the look and feel of his films, stepping into the roles of producer, cinematographer, editor and music as well as writer/director to craft the whole. “I started to actually design the fabric of the entire film,” he says.

Sen’s comfortable enough if folks want to throw around the label ‘auteur’, but for him, it’s a very personal exploration. “I’m pushing that envelope even further now, and I’ve become totally self-sufficient,” he says, chuckling as he adds. “I’m training my son to be a focus puller. He’s only 11, but he’s ready to grow into the feature-making world.”

This personal mark is imprinted on Swan, right down to the family faultlines with which Sen has intimate experience. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll take this cop out of the city and make him a cowboy.’ I won’t film in my hometown, I’ll take it to an extreme desert landscape, and from that point on, every detail within my films has undergone a strong design focus.”

Most things in Sen’s films grow from a kernel of truth, he says of a generous filmmaking approach that often wrestles with characters who don’t quite fit into either the world they escaped from or the one they ran to. “There’s a lot of me in Jay Swan and the edges of my own existence, where you blur from one culture or world into another.”

A film crew stand around a film camera in the Australian desert

Ivan Sen and crew filming Goldstone (2016) courtesy Bunya Productions

It’s an idea he explored in his early short Wind (1999), starring Bradley Byquar as a young tracker working alongside Ralph Cotteril’s sergeant in the Blue Mountains to track down an ‘Old Aboriginal Man’ (Steve Dodd) accused of murdering a miner during the Frontier Wars in 1857. “I’ve always been interested in the Black tracker, native trooper or the turncoat,” Sen expands on Byquar’s proto-Swan, stuck in the middle. “He’s torn between his paternal sergeant, who is very much a father figure, and the old Indigenous man they are hunting down, so there’s this conflict between [his Aboriginal identity] and the lure of having the badge as something to lift you up.”

Sen sees parallels with his pathway as a filmmaker in Australia. “I’ve always been on the outer, and I’m addicted to writing those types of characters because I think that’s partly been my life,” he says, adding, “I use my creative process as a way of coping. I’m aware of that.”

Perhaps this is why writing Mystery Road about a familiar place close to home flowed most freely so far away in China. It’s also why he feels that the Western film genre lends itself well to his style of storytelling, whether it’s Mystery Road or, more recently, with the Rob Collins and Simon Baker-starring Limbo (2023). These films are populated with troubled outsiders skirting the edges of town, but Sen came to the genre in a roundabout way. As a kid, he and his siblings would watch VHS tapes of Italian spaghetti westerns dubbed in English, particularly the Trinity brothers movies of Enzo Barboni starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

“They were our favourite films when we were really young,” he recalls. “Being on the outer is all about colonisation and the results of that. There’s this core of isolation.”

Mystery Road panorama - Aaron Pedersen - Photo by John Platt, Bunya Productions

Aaron Pederson as Jay Swan in season 1 of the ABC TV series Mystery Road (2018) photo John Platt, courtesy Bunya Productions

Crossing bridges

Pedersen is Sen’s perfect lonesome cowboy, with the pair jumping in a car together while the director was scouting locations for Mystery Road. “I remember we took a trip to Winton [where Mystery Road was filmed], and we talked about Jay Swan the whole time,” Sen says. “Working out his intricate details as we were driving around out there, so he got a chance to really connect with the character and with the land, which is probably just as important for us.”

They began to flesh out Swan from the bones of Sen’s already sturdy screenplay before taking their place on either side of the camera. “I write the script without a lot of input, because I think it’s important to get the arc of the character and the story pretty solid,” Sen says. “But there’s still lots of room to work out the finer details.”

His star could draw deeply from his personal story to breathe life into Swan. It’s why sequel Goldstone explores a more frayed version of the man for whom the badge no longer holds the same appeal, but whose moral compass remains more or less intact. That’s why he cannot simply walk away when confronted by another town strangled by malingering corruption, this time held in an unforgiving chokehold by Jacki Weaver’s mayor and David Wenham’s equally shifty mining boss.

An older woman on the left of frame with blonde straight hair and wearing an apron smiles at the camera, while a man operates a film camera to the right of frame. They are both sitting in a messy kitchen.

Jacki Weaver and Ivan Sen behind the scenes of Goldstone (2016) courtesy Bunya Productions

“Aaron has been in so many different phases of his own life, and that partly inspired the Jay Swan we see in Goldstone because it’s highly reflective of the Indigenous experience, where you’re trying to hold on to some kind of normality but the pressures that have basically resulted from this assimilation process, over the years, come back to haunt you,” Sen says. “And it’s always a struggle. These are the things I’ve had to deal with too.”

Speaking to both men following Goldstone’s debut as the opening night movie of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival, their camaraderie was evident, with Sen calling Pedersen his “brother boy”. Pedersen valued the chance to come at Swan from a more worn-down angle. “It takes a man who’s not in the best way to come out and show care, concern and love,” Pedersen said at the time, referring to the hard emotional labour Swan has to do because too few are willing.

It’s an idea Pedersen picked up on when we spoke about him crossing the bridge into the TV show of the same name in 2018, this time under the guidance of Rachel Perkins. If she was nervous playing with the toys that Sen had created, it didn’t show to Pedersen. “The great thing about Rachel is she’s a force to be reckoned with and a great believer in herself,” he said at the time of a strong woman who hails from a long line of proud political activists, a role she’s taken on herself. “She has a different approach than Ivan, but they have the same warrior spirit.”

He relished working alongside Judy Davis, too, “She’s a rockstar, and for her to step into television, which she’d never done before, on an Indigenous project to support it and bring her spirit and rockstar nature to it, that was beautiful. You couldn’t have written it any better and I had an absolute ball working with her.”

An older female cop and an Indigenous man in Australian outback attire walking away from a police car in the Australian desert setting.

Judy Davis as Emma James and Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in season 1 of the ABC TV series Mystery Road (2018) courtesy Bunya Productions

The shift to television proved no barrier to attracting some of Australia’s biggest names to Mystery Road reborn, with Davis joined by Deborah Mailman, Ernie Dingo and The Sapphires (2012) director Wayne Blair in an acting role in season one. The latter would step into a directorial role alongside Warwick Thornton behind the camera for the second season, which added Jada Alberts, Callan Mulvey and Rob Collins to the mix. When I spoke to Collins in the German capital, where he joined Sen to celebrate the premiere of Limbo at the Berlinale, he said that while Sen had stepped away from this world to tell new stories, his creative power was always felt while they filmed Mystery Road the show.

“He was like God,” Collins grins. “He was over and above everything. You never saw the guy, but you could really feel his presence. He exerted his influence from afar. Because once you get a taste for his work, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s this pocket that I need to be in,’ you know?”

As a filmmaker who, like Sen, also tackles cinematography and wears a producer hat alongside writing and directing, Warwick Thornton innately understood the need for the second season of Mystery Road to feel like it was part of Sen’s story. “Ivan created an intricate, unique world, and Rachel did an amazing job following that path, and that actually took a lot of pressure off of me,” Thornton says. “It’s not like I’m changing everything, because that would wreck it for the audience if we stamped too hard with the Warwick or Wayne footprint.”

Instead, they trod lightly. “It’s actually all there,” Thornton says. “All you have to focus on is performance and the mystery of the story.”

For Sen’s part, he’s happy to see respected fellow filmmakers shepherd Swan’s journey along that river he dreamed of as a child. “It’s a positive thing,” he says. “I’m always wrapped up in what I’m doing next, and that’s quite separate from the Mystery Road television series.”

He even suggested the way forward for Mystery Road was backward when Pedersen stepped aside, clearing a path for Mark Coles Smith’s younger iteration of Swan. But Sen’s not quite done with the character or his story, with plans for a third and final Mystery Road movie bringing Pedersen’s original take back for one final bow. “I think there’s one more chance for a subtle drama or even a romance with a Jay Swan who’s in his older years,” Sen says. “I’m ready to go whenever Aaron is ready. I just have to sit down for two weeks and write it.”

Stephen A Russell is an award-winning film journalist and critic imported from Glasgow to Melbourne. You can read his work in The Age, The Saturday Paper, The Big Issue, Time Out, ScreenHub, Flicks and more, and hear his snort laugh on Joy 94.9FM and occasionally Radio National.

Learn more about the Mystery Road franchise in The Story of the Moving Image at ACMI

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