‘Pioneer Days’: Acclaimed Filmmaker Returns to 1970s Castaway Series

Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale has been behind the lens of numerous critically acclaimed films, including Dead Poet’s Society, Witness, The English Patient, Rain Man and Mad Max: Fury Road.

What many people don’t know is that in the early 1970s he went through “the apprenticeship of his career” on a series called Castaway, which aired on ABC TV and was largely filmed in Port Macquarie in northern NSW.

Cinematographer John Seale on location in Port Macquarie while filming the Castaway series which aired in 1974.Delivered: Col Bennett

The historical drama was based on the trials of a group of shipwreck survivors who were stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean in 1840 after their ship bound for Australia crashed in a hurricane.

It was a co-production between ABC, Scottish Television and a German company.

Seale said the project helped launch his highly successful international career.

“As Australians who learned the trade here, we tended to take a ‘what if’ approach at the time.”

A man is smiling with bush in the background.
John Seale has returned to one of his early projects, ABC TV’s Castaway series.ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian

He said the crews would experiment with different ways of firing.

“We didn’t really know the rules, so we made our own,” he said.

He said international crews have brought their rules into their production process.

“On this one there was an English director, German actors and an Australian crew,” he said.

A man in shirts and a bare chest is filming behind a camera on a beach, as other people watch, in the 1970s.
Working behind a camera, John Seale films the Castaway series on location in Port Macquarie in 1973.Delivered: Col Bennett

Keeping history alive

Castaway is back in the spotlight nearly 50 years after it first aired thanks to efforts at Port Macquarie to produce a documentary-style film about the series.

A group of people in the 1970s, many in shorts and t-shirts, filming standing actors on a beach.
Most of the Castaway series was filmed on Miners Beach in Port Macquarie.Delivered: Col Bennett

Retired National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger Mike Dodkin and heritage consultant Mitch McKay are leading the project.

“We’re trying to keep this story alive as part of Port Macquarie’s history,” Dodkin said.

A helicopter hovers over the water at the end of a beach break wall and people film from the rocks.
A helicopter was involved in filming a castaway scene on Port Macquarie’s Town beach to display wreckage from the washed up ship.Delivered: Col Bennett

Stepping back to ‘Castaway Beach’

Australians involved with Castaway have been invited back to Port Macquarie and Seale recently traveled from his home in Sydney to visit the Castaway site for the first time since the 1970s.

An elderly man in jeans, a shirt and a hat stands smiling on a beach with rocks in the background.
John Seale said it was a “delight” to revisit the Port Macquarie locations where he filmed nearly 50 years ago.ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian

He was joined by Australian actor Alan Cinis, who was 12 when he appeared in Castaway.

Most of the Castaway scenes were filmed in Port Macquarie’s Miners Beach, in what is now Sea Acres National Park, with one scene filmed in Sydney’s North Narrabeen.

Seale and Cinis headed to Miners Beach along the original, now heavily overgrown “Castaway track”.

Miners Beach (1)
The ‘Castaway’ path to Miners Beach used by the actors and film crew is now heavily overgrown.ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian

Cinis said it was an emotional day.

A man in a blue shirt and wide-brimmed hat stands smiling in a rainforest.
Alan Cinis was involved in the Castaway series as a child actor.ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian

“It’s like visiting a house you lived in as a kid, where you had really good times, that you get a little bit of excitement from each room…it’s very personal,” he said.

He said spending 14 weeks filming in Port Macquarie was “one of the great experiences of my life”.

A 12-year-old boy with brown hair, looking into the distance, in the 1970s.
Alan Cinis during the filming of Castaway.Delivered

Life behind the scenes

Cinis and a fellow child actor, Lexia Wilson, had to stay away from their families during the filming of Castaway in Port Macquarie, as well as doing schoolwork.

“I hated the schoolwork, the poor teacher, I just wanted to be on the beach, or watch the movie or watch the sand crabs,” Cinis said with a laugh.

A black and white image of a caravan in a forest clearing, with a group of people on chairs, in the 1970s.
While filming Castaway on a cleared path in the rainforest behind Miners Beach, a caravan was set up on site.Delivered: Col Bennett

A group of 20 native people from Kempsey were also involved in the series.

“During a Castaway reunion in 2017, we found out that only two of those 20 actors were still alive.”

John Seale at Port Macquarie
John Seale inspects the Port Macquarie scene where Castaway was filmed in the 1970s.

Seale, now 79, said that while Castaway marked a significant moment in his career, he found it difficult to pick favorite projects.

It is hoped that the Castaway documentary will eventually be screened at the Sea Acres National Park Visitor Center so that the “castaways” are not lost for good.

A group of elderly men are standing together on a beach, smiling.
Col Bennett, John Seale, Alan Cinis and Mike Dodkin visit a former Castaway shooting site in Port Macquarie.ABC news: Emma Siossian

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