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