An Oral History of 'Ocean Girl'
Ocean Girl was kind of an alien, sort of a mermaid, but not really either. She loved whales, hated pollution, and gave zero fucks about petty teenage bullshit.
In 1994, kids in Australia were introduced to Ocean Girl, a show about a kind of an alien, sort of a mermaid, but not really either, who lived on a deserted island off the Great Barrier Reef. The premise was simple enough: in the near future, two brothers living in an underwater research facility/community called ORCA (Oceanic Research Centre of Australia) meet a beautiful and mysterious girl living alone on a nearby tropical island. The girl is called Neri, and a babe to rival Blue Lagoon era Brooke Shields
Conveniently for the soon to be a gang's future eco-adventures Neri, possesses a superhuman lung capacity and the ability to communicate with whales. The show was one of the most expensive and technically ambitious shows ever produced in Australia at the time. And from episode one it was a massive hit.
The 'Ocean Girl' theme
Over its four year run, the show was syndicated in the US, the UK, Canada, the Czech Republic, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, and South Africa. It was the the highest rated show on the Disney Channel for several years and is still on air in Australia through ABC 3.
But for a generation of pre-teens like myself, it was more than an early attempt at event television. Neri was a heroine unseen on Australian kids TV before. Sure she was beautiful, but she was also smart and brave. Despite always leaving a pool of sweaty pubescent boys in her wake, she wasn't interested in their attention. She was focused on her mission of saving her home from environmental destruction and didn't let any teenage bullshit faze her. Unlike other young girls on TV, she gave zero fucks about what anyone thought, and embodied an easy confidence that felt very far away for the gawky kids who idolised her.
Even today, it's impossible to discuss Ocean Girl without everyone's faces lighting up. Neri's a 90s feminist icon whose style is constantly noted when discussing fantasy summer looks. And almost 20 years after the show wrapped in 1997, I challenge you to find anyone who can spend 10 minutes in a pool without attempting the signature "Ocean Girl swim". This move involved swimming largely without the use of your arms, but rolling your body through the water to propel you forward like a mermaid. It always felt a lot more elegant than it looked.
At VICE we still carry a torch for the show, so we set out to find out how it came to be, and why it only lasted four seasons. Here are the people we spoke to.
Jonathan M. Shiff, Creator
Ocean Girl was Jonathan M. Shiff's idea and the first in what became a successful theme for the producer. Referring to it as his, "girls, magic powers, underwater" formula, he went on to create H20: Just Add Water, Make: Island of Secrets, and Lightning Point.
Mark DeFriest, Director
After working with Jonathan on previous projects, Mark DeFriest was brought in as the lead director on the project. Over the show's four year run he directed over half the episodes.
Marzena Godecki, Neri
The show's star, Marzena, was making the transition from dance student to actor when she was cast as Ocean Girl. At 14 she had no acting experience, but by the time the show ended she was 19 and at a physical level where she was performing most of her own stunts and Neri's seemingly superhuman swims.
David Hoflin, Jason Bates
David played the elder of the two brothers who discover, befriend, and team up with Neri. The same age as Marzena, he was 14 when cast, and 18 when the series wrapped. While his role wasn't as physically demanding, he experienced the strange surreal experience of spending most of his teen years on the set.
Chris Anderson, Stunt Coordinator
With his brother Rick, Chris was responsible for stunts, crew safety, and much of the management of Charlie the 100 thousand dollar fiberglass whale.
THE INITIAL IDEA
Jonathan M. Shiff: I got the idea for Ocean Girl on the beach in Port Douglas, surrounded by the beautiful rainforest, I was inspired by that. In the early 90s they were finding the last of the lost Amazonian tribes, and it made me want to do a show like Tarzan and Jane. Then I became more attracted to the water element and the reef.
Marzena Godecki: I think it (being cast) was just timing, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was a good swimmer, I've always been a beach baby, but it was more that I had been a dancer full time. The physicality for me was the easy bit.
Jonathan M. Shiff: Originally I wanted someone very exotic, gorgeous, and aspirational. But also physically capable. Marzena was one of hundreds of girls that auditioned, but she was a bit of a tomboy and and physically up for it.
I remember her walking through Bourke Street in Melbourne with her little backpack on, and talking to her and thinking, oh my god this girl is a baby, can she do it? She was only 14.
David Hoflin: She was such a lovely girl, how could you not have a crush on her?
When I first met her I was so nervous about the auditions I didn't even recall what she looked like. But when we got to Port Douglas and I met her for a second time, it was like I'd never seen her before. She was in the Neri costume and I was just blown away at that stage. I was like, who is this girl?
Marzena Godecki: I was pretty ballsy then. I think about the stuff they used to make me do: swim 10 meters underwater, not being able to see, no breathing apparatus. If I had to do that now I'd have a heart attack. Back then you kind of think you're a bit invincible.
Chris Anderson: I've worked with a lot of young kids but have never seen anyone so fantastic in the water. We had a stunt double for her, but it was more for stand in stuff. As she went on, she became a much stronger swimmer, once she finished she could hold her breath for a hell of a long time.
Jonathan M. Shiff: By the time Marzena had done season two she would say, "I don't want to use the double, I can do all that myself". She was doing big swims, she was so fit and so strong, she was just innately gorgeous and she understood the character. She became as fit and fearless as the character she was playing.
PITCHING THE IDEA
Jonathan M. Shiff: In those days they didn't have a lot of CGI, we were the first in Australia to use CGI in a kid's drama series. It predated Stargate Atlantis and all this sort of stuff. I took it (the idea) to the Cannes TV market and people said to me, "You're crazy. You're never going to raise enough money."
I thought, I'm going about this the wrong way, it's too expensive, it's a movie. You can't do that for kids. Then I thought about my favourite show is Star Trek, and said, "What if I do Star Trek underwater? What if I do ORCA as an underwater city? Then we could do part of it in the studio." Ocean Girl was a very ambitious, very expensive show.
Mark DeFriest: Jonathan never shied away from trying the impossible. There were times when I couldn't believe what we were doing.
Chris Anderson: Working with Jonathan was certainly different. It was very adventurous, to say the least.
David Hoflin: I hadn't read the script when I auditioned, but everyone was saying it was going to be this new endeavour for kids shows. They were talking about filming all this underwater footage, with this underwater city, at the time I couldn't recall anything like that.
CHARLIE THE WHALE
Mark DeFriest: This was before CGI, so if we wanted to have Neri swim with the whale, we needed a bloody whale. No one could figure out how to train a real one so we built one and towed it out there. It took I think six divers to operate it. That was pretty cool. Half the time I was standing on the bloody whale as it surfaces, standing over the blowhole trying not to get an enema.
Jonathan M. Shiff: A guy called Chris made Charlie (the whale) for over 100 grand, which was a lot of money in those days. He was a full replica humpback.
Mark DeFriest: We filmed on the outer of the Great Barrier Reef for two weeks on these massive boats, accommodating 60 people sleeping each night, because Jonathan has built a bloody million dollar fiberglass whale.
Chris Anderson: The stunt department also looked after the whale, which was an art department thing, but they weren't allowed to do it [manage it in the water]. We spent a lot of times on boats going backwards and forwards to all the reefs, and at that time of the year they weren't exactly the most pleasant trips. Especially when we towed the whale.
Marzena Godecki: It was wonderful, it was really cool. I remember walking into that wide eyed and thinking, what am I doing here? Most of the crew were mid to late 20s, so it was like having a whole heap of older brothers and sister that were really looking out for you. Because it was a kids show it wasn't one of those wild, kids going off the rails situations. It was a good environment to be around.
CHALLENGES OF MAKING IT WORK
Mark DeFriest: Water. First challenge, start with water. You've got maybe seven boats way out to sea, you're out there all day, with maybe 50 or 60 people being ferried from one boat to another, and you're focused on a girl that can supposedly breath underwater—you can imagine your screen time is reduced considerably. Instead of getting maybe six or seven minutes a day you're getting two.
Chris Anderson: Marzena was really good at what she did, but she was also a 14-year-old girl in the open ocean. We weren't often worried about sharks, but we were worried about people floating off.
Hypothermia was always also a constant concern. Even though we were in Port Douglas, you put people in the water for seven or eight hours they're going to be really cold.
Jonathan M. Shiff: I remember one night we were towing Charlie the Whale back with the coast guard, the weather got rough, we were a couple of hours out of Port Douglas and the tow rope broke. I was in an open ocean environment with a storm coming, in a very small boat, with a sinking hundred thousand dollar fiberglass whale.
Chris and Rick Anderson, the greatest stuntmen in Australia, jumped overboard to retrieve the chain that was towing the whale. I thought they were dead, and that someone was going to die because of me and this whale. They got the chain though and we reattached it.
Chris Anderson: I don't remember it very clearly, I just know it happened. We lost the line and I was one of the guys that went in after it, then had to climb inside the whale to reattach the line, and swim it back to the boat. It wasn't one of the scariest things I've ever done, but it sticks in my mind as being one of the dumbest.
Neri in action
Mark DeFriest: Almost everybody under 16 when Ocean Girl was being televised knew about it. Even now at cocktail parties I'll be talking to people in the 30s and they all rave about it. The reaction was all positive but believe me I wasn't swamped. It was a job.
Marzena Godecki: I went to MLC (in Melbourne), and there was something different in the way people were treating me at school. I was in and out all the time, there was a shift in the way that people treated you. I was doing my studies in a deck chair on a boat, or in the bush, it was too crazy to explain to people. I don't think anyone understood.
Jonathan M. Shiff: It touched a zeitgeist, it was universal and travelled into so many different languages. Today it's still in repeats. It's no longer a little Australian show, and it set up our brand for what we would do for years to come. It was an international hit.
THE RESPONSE AT THE TIME
Mark DeFriest: It was Disney's highest rating program for a year or two. They were the best of times. This was a bloody good run.
Jonathan M. Shiff: It went head to head with the best of American, Canadian, and English kid's TV. A nerve was pressed when you saw this beautiful girl looking at one with nature in this uninhabited island, talking to whales, and swimming offshore. We would do things in those days that are only possible in big movies now.
Marzena Godecki: We spent so much time away from Melbourne, away from the response. When it did start showing we were in Port Douglas and quite isolated. You're in the bush, or in the jungle, or in the water. I just had no idea really. I spent too much time away from school and on the set, I was pretty removed from it.
David Hoflin: I have the same group of friends I had in school, I don't know if they watched it, if they did they didn't say anything about it. And I wouldn't have told them anyway, I kept my work very separate. It certainly wasn't anything that affected my life too much.
Mark DeFriest: I don't know why it ended, that's a marketing question. Why did Breaking Bad stop? There's a point where maybe it was saturated. If there had been a market for it, I"m sure he would have made another series.
Jonathan M. Shiff: I'd told my story. Marzena wanted to move on. She was now 19, and wanted to be wild, she wanted freedom. When you work with a lot of teenage girls, by the time they're 20 or 21 it's like being at school so they want to get away from it. I think also Charlie the whale was getting to an age where he couldn't be towed anymore. Organically you get to a certain point in the story.
Marzena Godecki: I got to the point where I'd had enough of playing the same role. Being on set from the age of 14 to 19 is a long part of your life. I left the role wondering, what is it that I actually want? Finishing gave me a chance to take a breather, I'd only known one thing. That's why I moved away from it.
Mark DeFriest: Look, there were good times, but I didn't cry. Well maybe at the wrap party. But that could have been the alcohol.
Jonathan M. Shiff: Looking back I don't know if inventing a sister, and an Ocean Boy, were as strong as the last series where the focus came back to her as the chosen one. In the final series, we dealt with more epic scale drama and battles. Then I felt like it reached the climax of the production values.
Mark DeFriest: There's a sadness, but not too much. If you do one series you had work for six or nine or 12 months, that's fantastic. If you have two or three that's a real bonus. You have a great wrap party, you have new best friends, and the next week you're on another show. Or hopefully you're on another show.
WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT?
Marzena Godecki: I think it was that the character was a really powerful, strong girl. At the time I don't think there were that many girls like that on TV. For young girls growing up, she was who they wanted to be: she was strong, tough, smart, lived on an island on her own, and was completely capable.
She wasn't mythical—aside from the alien bit—she could be you or I. I think that's what people connected with. So many people tell me stories of them practicing the Ocean Girl swim in the pool.
Jonathan M. Shiff: It showed you could do super imaginative stuff and treat it like a movie. Kids are a very discriminating audience, if you give them an imaginative show with high production values they'll rise to that. And if you don't dumb it down, but amp it up, there won't be any competition in the world. It created high production value TV that's unsurpassed.
Mark DeFriest: The ones that talk about it are the ones that saw it in their prepubescent, or pubescent, formative years. It's special because it's part of your growing up. It's a special time. It was a special time for me, it was fantastic, but I wasn't 14 or 15 at the time.
David Hoflin: I still get asked about Ocean Girl, even in the states, 20 years later. Last time it happened it was a girl from Brazil who recognized me, although they called it Ocean Odyssey over there.
Inevitable they ask about Neri. They'd say, "Oh she was so beautiful, she was so pretty, do you still see her?" It always reverts back to that statement, "Neri was so pretty, I always wanted to be her." You can't really respond, you just say, that's nice.
Marzena Godecki: It's weird because people do sometimes stop and stare at me still. They're like, "Like do I know you from somewhere?" Or they're like, "Did we go to high school together?" They can't place me. it's a bit of a distant memory. I just say, "You've probably seen me around Doncaster shopping town."
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