Australian screenwriters win sponsorship deal with powerhouse US showrunners

David Taylor, from Playmaker; Graham Yost, writer/producer of The Americans, Justified; and Shelley Birse, writer/producer of The Code.

Australian television is undergoing a revolution, albeit a gentle one, in which the voices of screenwriters are rising in volume. It is, in part, a response to the success of risky genre-based dramas such as The Kettering Incident, Wentworth, Top of the Lake and The Code. “I feel like there are more broadcasters prepared to take those kind of risks, more than ever before,” screenwriter Shelley Birse says. “I’ve been writing 20 years, and it feels like the last three or four, the ceiling on what you can get people excited about has just been blown out of the water.”

Birse, who wrote The Code for Playmaker Media, is in Los Angeles as part of a program sponsored by Playmaker’s US parent, Sony Pictures Television.

The program, Scribe, pairs Australian writers with US writers as part of a program to help them develop new work and skill them as writer “showrunners”.

The writer “showrunner” model dominates US television, with most scripted projects steered by a writing producer, typically teamed with a directing producer and several other co-executive producers.

In Australia, the writer’s voice has historically been less prominent and drama development has been network executive led.

“The writers’ rooms are not that different, but the continuation of that writer’s voice into production, that’s where the gulf in Australia has been really different,” Birse says. “That just doesn’t exist. [In the US] the writer’s voice is the loudest and most important all the way through.”

Birse and another writer Glen Dolman, who wrote the award-winning telemovie Hawke for Ten, are the first two writers in the program.

Birse is working with Graham Yost (The Americans, Justified) and Dolman with veteran CSI producer Carol Mendelsohn.

The intention is that Yost and Mendelsohn will continue to steward the two writers, and the projects they are working on, remotely once Birse and Dolman return to Australia.

Playmaker’s David Maher says the scheme is also a reaction to a larger cultural shift in which borders are breaking down and local fine print – such as accents – are mattering far less to international broadcasters who are looking for new content.

“There are no concerns about accents, and parochial storytelling or overt regionality being a barrier, to be able to do that is far less of a concern now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago when I was working for Fox,” Maher says.

Australia’s success in exporting scripted formats is mixed, though we were unusually early pioneers of the idea.

In the 1980s Grundys, now Fremantle Media, was a prolific seller of scripted soap opera remakes to Europe, including The Restless Years, Sons & Daughters and Prisoner.

More recently, Fremantle’s Wentworth has been reversioned in the Netherlands, Germany and now Belgium, and Maher confirms an Italian adaptation of Playmaker’s drama House Husbands is underway.

In the case of Birse’s The Code, the series was sold – in its current format – to the BBC in Britain and to DirectTV in the US. It has also been sold to Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland and Canada.

Maher hopes the relationships built empower Australian writers and push them out of their comfort zone.

“Empowering writers is the reason we did it, and the chance to access some of those amazingly talented writers, like Graham and Carol,” Maher says.

“It’s an opportunity to bring Australian writers to LA for a week where they can actually sit and work, bringing their ideas and to work with craftsmen like Graham and Carol, it’s just invigorating,” Maher says.”To then get home and have someone like that still there as a long-distance mentor, is very lucky.”

Birse says her experience working with Yost has already paid dividends.

“He will push me to think a bit more boldly and tell me to make some mistakes that I might not be prepared to make without feeling like somebody that experienced is helping hold the wheel a bit,” she says.”I feel like he’s going to give me a lot of shit a long the way,” she adds. “That’s good. He’ll hassle me, give me a hard time, but it’s of the best kind of quality.”

Michael Idato – SMH – August 11 2016

Observance review – low-budget horror that manages to stand its ground

Made on a measly $11,000, Joseph Sims-Dennett’s twitchy psychological thriller is poised on a knife edge between excellence and a cabin-fever B movie – 3 / 5 stars

For 11 days in January 2013, director Joseph Sims-Dennett holed up in an apartment in Rozelle, Sydney and spent $11,000 making his second feature film – roughly the same cost as the duck canapés and gougères served at a Hollywood premiere. Two years later he emerges with Observance: a twitchy, icky, genuinely unsettling psychological thriller about a private investigator who takes on what appears to be a simple, well-paying job.

Observance stars Lindsay Farris as the private investigator, Parker.

From a derelict apartment across the street, all Parker (Lindsay Farris) is employed to do is spy on a woman and report daily updates over the phone to his employer (voiced by Brendan Cowell). Things aren’t as they seem, as these things often go, and Parker – traumatised by the recent death of his young son – spirals into confusion, delusion and possibly madness.

Why is he paid to watch this woman (played by Stephanie King) and who is he working for? When a man on the street mumbles something about her being “a sacrifice” it feels like the film is about to get Wicker Man-style weird. Instead, Sims-Dennett gravitates towards things-that-go-bump-in-the-night style inclinations, largely swapping out plot-based mysteries for spooks part-and-parcel with scary sound effects and gnarly images.

Think body horror and surprise discoveries made during his surveillance, such as an ominous-looking silhouette captured in a photograph and a ghostly voice found on an audio file. Opening images of a beach and coastal rocks are clearly, in some way, important to the riddle of what exactly is happening and why.

The actors speak in American accents, making it clear which market Sims-Dennett was hedging his bets on. Even John Jarratt, a fair dinkum actor if ever there bloody well was one, talks like a yank, arriving to hand over documents to Parker in a car during the dead of night, cloak-and-dagger style.

The director’s gambit appears to have worked. Observance premiered last July at Canada’s Fantasia film festival, where it was greeted enthusiastically. Off the back of a review published in the Hollywood Reporter, Sims-Dennett was contacted by The Weinstein Company and flew to LA to meet representatives.

Observance continues a pattern of Australian films that from the get-go have found more success abroad than at home, including last year’s conversation starter The Suicide Theory (incredibly, the better part of a year later, it is still not available in its home country). The director doesn’t so much extrapolate bang for the buck as an atomic bomb for the buck, or whatever expression reiterates the point that his film sure as hell looks the part.

The atmosphere is largely comprised of small details: lots of close-ups and mid-shots, tied together with an unnerving sense of show and (don’t) tell, as if in most scenes something terrible is bobbing just off frame.

The cinematography of Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson (who was a camera operator on 1998’s Bride of Chucky) is textured with eerie colour-sapped grading. Scenes are tinted in unhealthy-looking shades of green and blue, as if the film is slowly making itself sick.

Sound editors rarely get a guernsey in film reviews, so take a bow David Gaylard and David Williams; their work here is terrific (observe how they mesh together the sounds of the sea with the sound of a train).

There are hints of Roman Polanski’s early films, particularly Repulsion, which was largely based inside an apartment, and Cul-De-Sac, which like Observance features surreal visions of a shoreline – also, when Parker sneaks into “Subject 1’s” apartment in a particularly tense moment, Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Following.

Sims-Dennett eventually loosens the throat-choking tie grip established in the first half and the film takes on a throbbing intensity, not entirely in a good way. The director indulges in obscene, conventional horror images that feel like shorthand for shock rather than earned scares or suspense. Blood oozing out of a person’s mouth is an easy way to disturb viewers, but feels particularly gratuitous in a film that works studiously hard to get its tone and mood right and – for a while – avoids cheap tricks.

Some of the discipline that defines its early moments is lost when the crunch time comes to start coughing up revelations, or at least hinting at what on earth is happening across the street and in the protagonist’s mind. With a story that gravitates towards cryptic resolutions and an aesthetic that also grows increasingly hallucinogenic, you get a protagonist, a plot and a visual makeup that all feel in danger of spiralling out of control.

In this way Observance feels poised on a knife edge, on some occasions tinkering on the precipice of excellence and on others feeling at risk of slipping into a cabin fever B movie. Somehow Sims-Dennett and his peculiar thriller stand their ground.

Whatever you make of the film’s oblique thinking-person’s ending, and whether or not it cuts the mustard from a storytelling point-of-view, Observance is undoubtedly an impressive achievement.

Luke Buckmaster – The Guardian – Tuesday 5 April 2016

Watch the Observance trailer here:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_S6XKT6DyY

NCIS: Los Angeles creator Shane Brennan commits $1m per year to Aussie talent

He is one of Australia’s most successful television exports, making his considerable fortune at the helm of the world’s most watched US drama franchises. Now, NCIS showrunner and NCIS: Los Angeles creator Shane Brennan is plunging some of his hard-earned money back into the local industry which gave him his start.

The internationally acclaimed, Bendigo-born screenwriter has committed $1 million a year of his own fortune to fund the development of Australian screenwriting talent, in an unprecedented philanthropic gesture which could help grow more of our own storytellers.

Brennan has teamed with his former script-producing buddy, Tim Pye (an in-demand writer and script consultant on TV favourites including House Husbands and Dr Blake’s Murder Mysteries), launching the fund later this month, in Sydney and Melbourne.

Pye and Brennan have begun canvassing leading production houses and independents for writing talent and scripts to develop and invest in; with a determination to give writers more power and control over their stories, from pre-production to broadcast.

Pye told TV Insider Brennan’s financial support would provide an extraordinary boost to local screenwriters (who often get pushed down the financial and artistic pecking order here — after actors, producers and directors).

“It’s really exciting to have this kind of philanthropy in the Australian marketplace … and shifts the power to writers which is how it happens in the US, where (screenwriters) have much more control.”

Brennan began his career in journalism, but switched to TV writing back in the 1980s; cutting his teeth on local TV productions including Special Squad, The Flying Doctors and All Together Now. It was while working on an Australian-based remake of Flipper that he came to the attention of US television studio bosses.

Brennan travelled back and forth to Hollywood, before jagging his biggest career break, in 2003, on the original NCIS program (now in season 15, starring Mark Harmon and broadcast to more than 200 countries). He is credited with creating the spin-off series, NCIS: Los Angeles (starring Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J and Linda Hunt) where he has been at the wheel since its launch back in 2009.

Last month it was announced he would be stepping down as showrunner at NCIS: LA after eight seasons and penning 168 episodes.

Holly Byrnes, The Sunday Telegraph – August 7, 2016