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Australia The challenges of making Australian Story's To Catch A Stalker program on Di McDonald's 'bad romance'

00:41  24 october  2020
00:41  24 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Di was caught up in a stalking nightmare until a young detective in Melbourne teamed up with one of the FBI' s most celebrated profilers on the other side of the world. And he found the clues that would crack this case in places no-one had thought to look.

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a flat screen television: Di McDonald shared her harrowing story of stalking and how a determined young detective was her © Provided by ABC NEWS Di McDonald shared her harrowing story of stalking and how a determined young detective was her "saviour". (Australian Story: Simon Winter)

"Have I got a story for you."

Those were Di McDonald's words when I met her in 2018.

It was a story that took two and a half years to play out and was made more challenging by Victoria's COVID-19 lockdown.

An old friend had asked me along to his "Sip and Sketch" art classes.

There was a lot of sipping and some sketching, and a harrowing story from a woman I met that night.

As I struggled with the light and shade in my still life, Di McDonald told me how her life had been affected by three years of stalking.

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About Australian Story : Putting the "real" back into reality television, Australian Story is an award-winning documentary series with no narrator and no agendas — just authentic stories told entirely in people' s own words. Take 30 minutes to immerse yourself in the life of an extraordinary Australian .

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Police seemed unable and unwilling to help her.

Her best friend, who was also a target of the stalking, had committed suicide.

It was complicated and bewildering.

Why couldn't the police stop this man?

It seemed to be up to Di, not the police, to prove her stalker was her former boyfriend, Max Gardiner.

A story unfolding behind closed doors

I started to film Gardiner at court appearances, from a distance at first.

I worried about making Di's situation worse or actually becoming a new target for Gardiner.

He scared me.

By mid-2018, Gardiner had been convicted several times for breaching the intervention order Di had taken out against him.

But the fines did not stop him from continuing to stalk her.

Naming people publicly who are subject to intervention orders is legally tricky and that made it difficult for me to report on the case.

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Domestic violence experts also warned me that if Di was publicly identified, she could become a target on social media.

I didn't know when or how I was going to tell the story.

Then Di texted me and suddenly the story changed.

She'd got lucky with a young detective who got a search warrant, found a balaclava on a kitchen table and enlisted a former FBI linguistic profiler who clinched the case.

Detective Senior Constable Beck Norris pulled together the numerous reports Di had made to police and charged Gardiner with breaching an intervention order and with stalking.

It was finally recognition of the years of menacing by Gardiner.

Stalking is a criminal charge and I could report it.

I made a pitch to Australian Story and producer Belinda Hawkins and we met with the Victoria Police media liaison unit.

We needed Di's "saviour", Detective Senior Constable Norris, to be part of the story.

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Victoria Police were happy to highlight the work of their brilliant young detective but nervous about revelations of the initial failures by police to take action against Gardiner.

We never compromise our editorial control and all elements of this story needed to be told.

After much discussion, Victoria Police agreed to be involved.

'Scared the living daylights out of me'

During the meeting, Belinda, our producer, explained there would be long, exhausting interviews and hours of overlay to shoot but none of us realised how hard it would be to make this program in the middle of a pandemic.

Just as the production demands intensified, so did the lockdown restrictions.

"I didn't know how we were going to do it," recalls camera operator Simon Winter.

We were producing 60 minutes of television (two half-hour episodes) featuring highly creative, complicated TV production techniques and multiple re-enactments.

All produced while we operated under many new rules that we'd never had to deal with before.

It was a massive gear-shift for me going from being a daily news reporter used to producing a 1- to 2-minute TV story.

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I didn't really appreciate how much filming and how many orchestrated sequences would be needed, or how clear and concise we needed people to be when they were telling us what happened, due to the fact the program has no reporter narration and relies on the interviewees to tell the story.

We filmed during both Melbourne's coronavirus lockdowns.

Classified as essential workers, we had permits that gave us an exemption from the stay-at-home orders but no guests were allowed to visit the ABC's studios and we were banned from going into anyone's home.

We could travel more than 5 kilometres but we had to all drive to filming locations separately.

On one occasion, that involved three of us driving in different cars from Melbourne to Benalla, a five-hour round trip.

Of course, we all had to wear masks except when actually speaking on camera.

"This story threw us many curve balls," recalls Belinda Hawkins.

"There was always a question mark about whether we were acting within the rules."

On the first night of Melbourne's 8:00pm curfew, Belinda, Simon and sound recordist James Fisher were filming scenes outside a house in one of Melbourne's hotspots.

Everyone was on edge.

Neighbours called the police.

Belinda recalls it "scared the living daylights out of me" when a police car pulled up behind her.

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Everyone scrambled to find their work permits.

When Belinda explained what they were doing, the police officer was excited to hear Beck Norris was part of the story.

"I know Beck, she's great," he said and rang her straight away for a long chat.

What impact would our story have on Di McDonald?

COVID-19 also meant the Victoria Police media unit was having second thoughts about participating in the program.

It was becoming hard to organise interviews and overlay that they were confident met lockdown restrictions.

We were excited when we got permission to film a sequence of Beck Norris going through the evidence box but it involved some creative thinking.

When we filmed overlay of her reading reports, Simon had to set the camera up, turn it on and press record, then we all hurried out of the room.

Alone in the room, Beck Norris could take her mask off and the camera rolled until enough footage had been recorded and we returned to the room.

Filming overlay and one interview with Di in her house meant shooting from outside, through Di's windows and back door.

Simon and editor Andrew Cooke worked out a shooting style that was floating, handheld and voyeuristic, which was perfect for the story.

Shooting from outside also meant asking the interviewee inside to set up the background.

While interviewing Di's sister Michelle McLennan, her husband Rob was moving the lights and adjusting the blinds to Simon's instructions.

One of the biggest problems, Belinda felt, was finding a "redemptive upswing" for the end of Di's traumatic story.

Di was locked down in her home, working remotely from her kitchen table, and unable to fully live her life.

While Gardiner was in jail, he was actually benefiting from the lockdown by having days cut from his sentence because of the restrictions.

Belinda and Simon took Di to a park near her home to film a long aerial shot from a drone to finish the program.

The weather was not good and Simon warned, "if it rains, the drone can't fly."

It did not rain.

Di walked through the fog to a hopeful but uncertain future.

It was perfect.

Throughout filming, I was worried about how the story would play out for Di McDonald.

She was going public and trusting us with her deeply personal story.

Thankfully, there's been a lot of positive reaction.

She has been repeatedly described as strong and brave, and many women have come forward with similar stories about struggling to get police to take stalking seriously.

I am relieved Di has received so much support and I am glad she told her story to me.

I may eventually go back to those art classes when the lockdown ends.

Watch the two-part Australian Story To Catch a Stalker on  or

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