Asked how he’s doing after a whirlwind year, screenwriter Andrew Knight is characteristically understated: “I’m alive and trying to construct a breakfast at the moment”. In between film work last year, Knight wrote new seasons of Rake and Jack Irish simultaneously, a process he calls “a blur”.
The new Jack begins tonight – a six-part series instead of the earlier telemovies.
Knight calls the change “liberating. We had more time to tell a story. The hard part was working out where everything would fall. We had an overall story, but assigning things episodically was a constant trade-off and shifting game”.
“I worked closely with the other two writers, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios. The three of us would go away and write our bits, then we’d come back and say – that needs to move, this needs to shift”.
“If you’re just writing a tele-movie, you know where you’re starting, you know where you’re ending, you know where the cards will fall. It’s harder to work out over six hours. Right up to shooting we were saying ‘uh-uh, this doesn’t belong here’. Even in the cut we moved quite a few things”.
“You’ve got more time to spend with characters. The tension with a series like Jack Irish is that you want the humour and the warmth of the characters, but sometimes if it’s not plot-related they can feel like spackle. Thrillers demand plot. It’s a constant balancing act”.
“It was harder in the telemovies to cut to the guys at the bar or Harry (Roy Billing) and Cam (Aaron Pedersen). I would artificially weave plot in there, just so the audience feels like you haven’t completely walked away from the story, and sometimes that makes it just a little bit muddy. I felt I muddied up the first telemovie, the one I wrote”.
“I hadn’t done thrillers before. I think I was probably trying to put too much of the book in there. As John Collee said, books are contemplative and films are immersive, and the distance between that is really rather great.
The first two episodes of the new series are directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, the rest by Mark Joffe and Daniel Nettheim. Knight describes a helter-skelter shoot.
“In England you’d get fifteen days per episode to shoot something. We get half that time: seven and a half days per ep. You don’t have thinking time once you go”.
“[Essential’s Ian] Collie and I had to be constantly thinking: where the hell are we in this series? As my father in law once said: it’s a bit like trying to fart Annie Laurie through a keyhole – it’s an achievement, but you want to make sure the end result is something you want”.
The new series is the first whose plot has not been taken from one of Peter Temple’s original novels, a change Knight calls “great and fearful at the same time. You don’t want to lose his voice – the Temple tone or humour. But it was also fantastic to be able to keep his world but come up with a plot that we owned”.
The TV veteran calls the changing landscape for local drama on the small screen “an absolute thrill. I think we’re doing some really interesting stuff”.
But Knight also sounds a note of warning.
“I think the problem is that we don’t have enough long-running series. 26-parters. Because nobody’s going to risk a six-hour, eight-hour series, on new talent. And new talent has to find a starting level”.
“When I started at Crawfords as a production manager and producer, they were pumping out hours and hours of soaps and series. Even though at the time I hated what I was working on, you definitely picked up a skill base, you definitely understood how the process worked, you definitely understood what a screenwriter did as opposed to a novelist, you definitely began to understand how to work under pressure and with urgency – and that’s missing now”.
“I would really love to see the ABC find time-slots for new talent. I started with John Clarke and the Working Dog guys. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we learnt it”.
“At the same time, I think the industry is in a spectacular place now”.