1.Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start as a screen-writing wordsmith.
I’ve been writing my whole life but it wasn’t until late in university that I decided I wanted to do it for a living. I was torn between behavioural science and filmmaking so I enrolled in a psych/arts degree to explore both. Psychology is endlessly fascinating, and I was pretty absorbed there for three years, but when I took my first screenwriting class in fourth year, I knew. It was like I finally understood how I best fit in the filmmaking/TV business. I got my first TV job as a Script Assistant, which is the entry-level position in a Script Department. I’ve been fortunate to jump from job to job since then.
2.What are some projects you have worked on in the past?
As Script Assistant on Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities I took notes in meetings and was basically married to the photocopier. I also did a bit of research and legal coordination, and this led to me becoming the Researcher (and legal coordinator) on Underbelly: The Golden Mile. I moved up to Head Researcher on Underbelly: Razor. Underbelly: Badness was my fourth TV job and I was offered two scripts on it. At first I was offered one script, but because I was so familiar with the story I managed to convince the Script Producer to give me one more. The finale, at that! So I definitely cut my teeth on true crime.
3.Career highlight so far?
Winning the Television Mini-Series – Original AWGIE Award for my first broadcast screenplay for Underbelly: Badness, along with my stellar co-writers Peter Gawler, Felicity Packard and Jeffrey Truman. The Australian Writers’ Guild Awards (AWGIES) are judged by other writers, and they’re judged on the script itself and not the finished product (ie. the writer’s intention, not the broadcast episode). It was an incredible feeling to get that peer recognition; you spend so much time slaving away on your own, and a show can rate well but that’s not the full picture when it comes to whether it’s actually good quality.
On a related note, it was also an incredible feeling to watch my first screenplay broadcast on television to over a million Australians.
4.What are the biggest misconceptions about screen writing? Do you think it differs from print, and in what way?
The biggest misconception is that all the screenwriters do is the dialogue and the director and actors make everything else up. The screenwriter writes everything you see happen on screen. They have figuratively built the world you’re watching.
Screenwriting is definitely a different beast to print. It’s extremely different from print journalism in that you’re dramatising a story, not simply telling it. It’s also different to novels, and this is also to do with the ‘show, don’t tell’ factor. ‘Thinking’ verbs have no place in a script but you find them frequently in books. We can’t simply say that a character is stressed about something; we have to see them chew their nails or rip their IKEA assembly manual to pieces. It will never do to declare that a character ‘knows’ something. If you called “Action!” on a character ‘knowing’ something you’d have a spectacularly boring scene of a person just standing there. It’s all about action. Everything has to be actable and shootable.
I think the other big misconception is that somehow it’s not real writing. Or it’s not challenging writing. It’s not uncommon to get the “So when are you going to write a book?” question after you tell someone you’re a screenwriter.
5.What’s your favourite part of the job?
I love the camaraderie of the Writers’ Room. I get that “I have the best job in the world” feeling as we swap pertinent anecdotes to the story. It’s free therapy. You get the odd (okay, frequent) moments of frustration when you can’t find the right way forward, but if it were easy everyone would be doing it.
I also love it when the show hits pre-production. Pre-production is when (ideally) all the scripts for the series are in good shape and the Heads of Department and their teams come on board: the Director/s, Production Designer, Art Director, Casting Director, Location Manager, Costume Designer, Make-up Designer, etc. Obviously the goal is to have your vision and intent clearly expressed on the page, but every time I find myself chatting with a Production Designer or Director about where the inspiration for a scene came from, you see their face light up and the gears ticking over – maybe it’s a new idea, or maybe they’re just chuffed that you’re on the same page. Great work comes from open collaboration.
Of course, excitement levels hit fever pitch the moment you step on-set. It’s like you’re taking a walk through your imagination. In case you hadn’t noticed, I find it hard nailing down my favourite part of my job.
6.You’ve worked on shows like Underbelly, and the WW1 mini-series ‘Anzac Girls’. Is it hard writing for shows set in the past? What are some of the things you have to look out for?
It can take a little longer to find the right tone, and you have to stop the creative process fairly often to check the history. The research process is more involved – there’s often a few trips to the archives and it can take a while to find the right people to interview. But technology is often on your side. If you stumble on something research-related as you’re plotting or writing – say, when was the telegram invented? – you can usually find the answer very quickly with savvy internetting. Trove is a veritable time machine. The amount of times I’ve been able to win a “They didn’t say >insert contemporary sounding word here< in 1915” only to find proof that they did, a few clicks later, via a digitised newspaper article.
You have to be wary of taking your cues about the past from secondary sources. When I was Head Researcher on Underbelly: Razor, one of the scripts had a character getting a shoeshine on the street. To me, this seemed like something out of an old American film, so I did some research and as I suspected, this wasn’t the done thing in the 1920s in Australia. In fact, I found a great newspaper article written by a woman who travelled to America in the 1920s, who remarked that the Americans had “an obsession with displaying their toilet.” To her (and presumably her contemporary Australians) it was completely bizarre that people would get their hair washed or their stubble shaved in full view of passers-by.
The other trap that’s easy to fall into is assuming that people didn’t swear back then just because it’s not in print. Again, this can come from people’s conceptions of a bygone era that’s solely informed from fictional films and television. Or it can happen when people form their opinions based on one source only; they didn’t print swear words in the newspaper but that doesn’t mean they didn’t swear.
7.Writing books and feature articles is – more often than not – solitary, but I imagine script writing to be the kind of work that can either be done individually or as part of a team. What’s it like working on a writing project when you’re not the only one holding the reigns?
There’s nothing’s stopping anyone from downloading scriptwriting software and smashing out a feature in their own time. But you’re right, most of the time there’s a lot of collaboration in screenwriting.
I can only speak for hour-long series (as opposed to serials) where you’re building the story from the ground up with your co-writers. You don’t get sent a Scene Breakdown to turn into a script with no face-to-face meeting. You read/watch the relevant research or source material. Then there’s your “Plot” or Story Conference with your co-writers, Script Producer (and often a Script Editor and Researcher) to break the plot. And if there isn’t a Script Editor on board for the series, you’ll handle all the production re-writes – the blue amendments, pink amendments, green, yellow, lilac, etc – meaning further collaboration down the line, usually with your Script Producer and Director but sometimes with other Heads of Department.
“Breaking the plot” is basically building the story. You’re starting with a blank slate so it’s a process of throwing ideas around and discussing their merits in terms of story progression and character development. You want the story to be original, engaging and entertaining – it’s hard work.
Personally I love plotting with other writers. You isolate weaknesses quickly when you talk your story through out loud, and this very act can trigger even better ideas; perhaps something you say sparks something for someone else in the room – they might pitch you an idea for a sequence that was even better than your original one.
Once the story has been broken the writers go away to write their allocated episodes. The communication from this point is usually via emails and phone calls. You may be canvassing continuity issues – “How many months pregnant is Sarah in my ep again?” – or perhaps you simply need an informed and sympathetic ear to bounce an idea off because you’re stuck.
8.Tell us about POPPY, your own project. How did it come about and what did it involve for you? Was it hard because it was a more personal investment?
Poppy started as a seven minute script for a uni assignment. I was working as a projectionist at the time and was itching to tell a story set in the projection room – it’s a unique environment that not many people are familiar with.
As Executive Producer I secured funding through artsACT and later Pozible, but it was still a very tight budget. My producer role became pretty hands-on in post – I’ve always loved post-producing – and this came about due to practicality more than anything. Anna Jeffries (director) and Ariel Waymouth (producer) are both based in Melbourne, but I was in Sydney where some of our suppliers were (ie. Digital Pictures and our composer, Joel Woolf) so it made sense for me to be a go-to person in that respect. Given that I was the only one of the core creative team that had ever worked as a projectionist, I was also able to give advice when it came to how the machines worked, what noise you’d hear when, etc.
Poppy is set entirely in a cinema and predominately in the projection room. It was incredibly hard to find a cinema to film in for five full days – it took almost a year of scouting. But we lucked out with The George cinema in St Kilda; they let us film just after they’d renovated and before they reopened to the public. In a way, the fact that is was a personal investment is partly why it got made. It could’ve so easily fallen over in pre-production, but I was determined to capture a 35mm projection room before they all the cinemas transitioned to digital.
9.What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt as scriptwriter?
Evaluating and implementing feedback. Knowing which script notes to take on board and which to ignore. Basically in television screenwriting you have a few stages of notes; first your co-writers/Script Producer will give you feedback, then the network, then the director. (I think in the US there’s an additional set of notes – the studio.) That’s a lot of voices and perspectives, and you need to make sure that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, that the integrity of the story doesn’t fall by the wayside.
You can’t be too precious, either. You have to realise that if a director or actor or network exec has tripped over something in the script, even if you don’t agree with their note, it’s still a sign that it’s not quite working. What you’re really butting heads over is the solution. Your collaborator’s solution might be A, whereas instead of crossing your arms and refusing to change a thing, you should be coming up with solution B.
I’m usually the least experienced writer in the room, so it can be hard to disagree with people who’ve won a stack of awards and whose work you respect and admire. You need to listen to your gut, but you also need to be able to validate or articulate that gut feeling.
10.What advice can you offer to those who are interested in a similar career path?
Read a buttload of scripts. [https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/us-drama/show-collections] Inhale quality television and films. If you’re trying to break into the Australian industry then that means Aussie content too. Practice “seeing” action. You’ll be slow at this if you’re an inexperienced writer so hone it as much as you can. When I started out I used to narrate the action of any show I was watching in my head, this way you can practice writing without picking up a pen.
Try and get a job in the industry, a script department is ideal, but writers have all sorts of backgrounds. You could start as an observer or trainee on Neighbours and Home and Away – serials are generally pretty open to new writers and they’re excellent training grounds. Write a short and get it made – it’s incredibly important to see your work produced. And if no-one’s hiring, just keep working on your writing samples.
The Speedy Six:
- Describe yourself in one word: Earnest.
- You wish you wrote: Fargo.
- Can’t leave home without: Water bottle.
- First thing you wrote: The first thing I remember writing for fun was a song about marbles. I think I was probably 5 or 6.
- If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: A cross between Peggy Olsen from Mad Men and Saga Norén from The Bridge (the Swedish version). I realise this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
- The best thing about being a wordsmith: You get to build whole worlds. You move people, shift attitudes, make people laugh, cry, ponder. And hopefully, hopefully, send shivers down spines.