In April 2020, as the implications of COVID-19 were coming into focus and I was starting to wonder if TV would ever be made again, a hard drive landed on my doorstep.
It contained 20 hours of candid footage of one of the country’s most highly regarded and famously enigmatic sports stars as he travelled through India with a camera.
Steve Waugh had just landed back in Australia as the whispers of a global pandemic were turning into a roar.
And he had a documentary in mind.
I was asked to look through his footage to “see if there was a film in it”.
Andre Mauger’s cinematography was visually stunning and beautifully covered, and there was an inkling of an emotional narrative I spotted too.
This was the fiercely competitive, highly serious, most successful test cricket captain of all time.
A guy known as the ‘Ice Man’ for his ability to stay stony-faced under incredible pressure.
But the Steve Waugh I was witnessing on tape was different: less guarded, more human.
I was sure that somewhere in all that footage was a fantastic story to be told… and I wanted to be the one to crack it.
“I didn’t exactly know how or where it would all end up but I knew we would capture something authentic, real and exciting in the quest to find out why cricket is a religion in India,” says Waugh.
“I was hoping to give the audience a window into the genuine and real love the people of India have for cricket”.
Plotting a story in reverse
Trawling through the footage, it became clear to me that Waugh had experienced an emotional journey of some kind as he, and the team around him, visibly changed over the filming period.
Additionally, I was intrigued by what inspired the journey in the first place.
He planned to make a photo book capturing the “spirit of cricket” in India.
But why was Steve Waugh looking for the spirit of cricket?
At first I thought I might be making a doco about a guy who has lost his passion for the game and went in search of it.
But I quickly realized after asking around that I was barking up the wrong tree — Waugh clearly still loves cricket!
When I interviewed Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid he shared a similar sentiment — he wasn’t particularly interested in playing the game anymore.
I read a recent interview with Adam Goodes saying the same about AFL.
I was fascinated by this reality — these stars put the tools of their trade down so abruptly when they retire.
It’s not as simple as sports stars losing the passion for the thing they grew up loving but there’s no doubt, for these high achievers, retirement is complicated.
I think there’s universality in that idea.
It’s not just sport.
As life goes on, it gets complicated.
What was really exciting for me was that the vision in this film did the reverse.
It gets simplified.
This was the story we needed to hit — and writer Mithila Gupta and I wanted to steer it away from being too earnest, or overpromising anything too deep.
This story was about the hope and joy of sport, with beautiful India as its backdrop.
“It tells the story of not only the spirit of the cricket but the spirit of the people in India,” says Waugh.
Challenges of stepping away from sport at the elite level
To make a one-hour film we needed a clear narrative arc and we needed some characters to take us along for the ride.
Steve Waugh was our hero, but who were his sidekicks?
And what was their role in his journey?
Trent Parke was clearly Waugh’s mentor — gun photographer and cricket lover, he played a vital role in helping Waugh achieve his photographic ambitions.
Jason Brooks, a friend, was there for the laughs. As Waugh says: “he’s like a Merv Hughes, someone you need on tour because you’ve got to keep the spirits up”.
As an onlooker, it seemed to me that Waugh had handpicked a great team around him.
Trent Parke’s role was to push him and Jason Brooks’ role was to relax him.
The trio was key to an entertaining film.
Editor Peter Crombie and I watched the footage, selected the most compelling scenes, roughly cut them, and then interviewed the guys on tour about what was going on at the time.
These interviews led to great yarns, lots of laughs and underneath it all fantastic insights into India as a nation and into Waugh as a person.
From then on, our job was about digging deeper into those two elements.
Interviews with Waugh’s childhood friend Gav Robertson, early teammate Mike Whitney, and his wife, Lynette, gave us really candid views of the famously private superstar.
Interviews with other high profile Australian athletes Adam Goodes, Adam Gilchrist and Lisa Sthalekar give us insight on a different level, not only about Waugh but also about what it’s like being at the top of your game.
It was essential for this film about Steve Waugh in India to have interviews with Indian cricketers, and with his connections we managed to interview none other than cricket gods Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.
They gave us unprecedented insights into India as a country, their relationship to cricket and an Indian perspective on Steve Waugh.
Luckily, we also had screenwriter Mithila Gupta on board.
An Indian born, Australian-raised cricket tragic, she worked with us from initial questions through to the narration script.
This helped ensure the India story was told from an authentic voice, rather than only hearing the perspective of the outsiders on tour.
Plenty of talent to interview but how to do that during COVID?
Usually the biggest challenge is access to ‘talent’.
But Waugh’s reputation being what it is, we had no problem securing interviews with superstars.
The biggest problem was how to actually film them during a global pandemic!
Both Tendulkar and Dravid were unable to leave their homes, narrator Harsha Bhogle was locked into a hotel room in Dubai and the rest of the interviewees were dotted across Australian states with closed borders.
This was a feat in remote producing!
Associate Producer Stephanie Bosnic was essential to making these shoots happen.
Thanks to incredible technology, Tendulkar’s interview was self shot in 4k on his personal smart phone, with a set up organized remotely via video call with me.
Dravid had the opportunity to bring a small, PPE-wearing crew into his home and I interviewed him again via videoconference.
For the Australian interviews we had field directors Ili Bare and Maddie Parry in the states I couldn’t be in, and I was lucky enough to interview Adam Gilchrist in the flesh in our hometown of Perth.
Bhogle’s hotel room was transformed into a makeshift sound booth, complete with curtains, rugs and microphone accessories to record the narration.
Again, video calls meant I could direct his voice performance remotely.
An exercise in trust
A successful documentary always requires a huge amount of trust between the director and the subject.
It was hard to build this trust while I was locked into WA and Steve and Lynette Waugh were in NSW.
Other than one lunch we had at the start of the process, our entire working relationship has happened via phone and video calls.
It didn’t make it easy for him to get to know or trust me, and I don’t take it for granted that he did.
As a documentary maker, I rely heavily on my gut instincts — my ‘EQ’ — to ensure I understand the subject correctly, and therefore tell their story appropriately and fairly.
Without being in the room with Waugh I worried I wasn’t quite getting him right.
But when I sent it to him and Lynette Waugh to watch, she told me she liked the film and I was hugely relieved.
I think audiences will love getting to know Steve Waugh in this documentary, but if Lynette thinks we got it right, I know we found something pretty special on that hard drive.
Watch Capturing Cricket on Tuesday, November 17 at 8:30pm on ABC + iview.