Oscar-winning Australian cinematographer John Seale retraces footsteps to 1970s Castaway series

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

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

A black and white image of a young man behind a large video camera in the 1970s.
Cinematographer John Seale on location in Port Macquarie during filming of the Castaway series which aired in 1974.(Supplied: Col Bennett)

The period drama was based on the trials of a group of shipwreck survivors who became stranded on a Pacific island in 1840 after their Australia-bound ship went down in a hurricane.

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

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

“As an Australian who has learnt the business here, back then we tended to head towards a ‘what if’ approach.”

A man smiles with bush in the background.
John Seale has retraced his steps to one of his early projects, ABC TV ‘s Castaway series.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

He said crews would experiment with different methods of shooting.

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

He said international crews brought their rules to their production process. 

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

A man with shirts and a bare chest stands behind a camera filming at a beach, as other people look on, in the 1970s.
John Seale works behind a camera filming the Castaway series on location in Port Macquarie in 1973.(Supplied: Col Bennett)

Keeping history alive

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

A group of people in the 1970s, many wearing shorts and t-shirts, standing filming actors at a beach.
Most of the Castaway series was filmed at Port Macquarie’s Miners Beach.(Supplied: Col Bennett)

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

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

A helicopter hovers over the water at the end of a beach breakwall, and people film off the rocks.
A helicopter was involved in a filming a Castaway scene at Port Macquarie’s Town Beach to depict wreckage from the ship washing ashore.(Supplied: Col Bennett)

Retracing steps to ‘Castaway Beach’

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

An older man wearing jeans, shirt and a hat, stands on a beach smiling, with rocks in the background.
John Seale said it was a “delight” to revisit Port Macquarie locations where he filmed almost 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 at Port Macquarie’s Miners Beach, within what is now the Sea Acres National Park, with one scene filmed at North Narrabeen in Sydney.

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

Miners beach (1)
The ‘Castaway’ track 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 wearing a blue shirt and broad-brimmed hat stands in a rainforest, smiling.
Alan Cinis was involved in the Castaway series as a child actor.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

“It’s like visiting a house that you used to live in as a kid that you had some really good times, that you kind of get that little thrill from each room…it’s very personal,” he said.

He said spending 14 weeks iin Port Macquarie for filming 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.(Supplied)

Life behind the scenes

Cinis and a fellow child actor, Lexia Wilson, had to stay in Port Macquarie, away from their families, during the Castaway filming and were also required to do schoolwork.

“I hated the schoolwork, the poor tutor, I just wanted to be on the beach, or watching the filming, or watching the sand crabs,” Cinis said with a laugh.

A black and white image of a caravan in a bush clearing, with a group of people sitting around on chairs, in the 1970s.
A caravan was set up on site during Castaway filming on a cleared track in the rainforest behind Miners Beach.(Supplied: Col Bennett)

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

“We found out during a Castaway reunion in 2017 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 while Castaway marked a significant moment in his career, he found it hard to pick favourite projects.

It’s hoped the Castaway documentary will eventually screen at the Sea Acres National Park visitor centre, ensuring the “castaways” aren’t lost for good.

A group of older men stand together smiling on a beach.
Col Bennett, John Seale, Alan Cinis and Mike Dodkin visit a former Castaway shooting location at Port Macquarie.(ABC News: Emma Siossian)

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