Christina Milligan, Jo Johnson, Rachel Lang & Mark Beesley
Writing and directing for hire: the realities of ‘getting your foot in the door’
Writing and directing for hire … dreaming the impossible dream or ore achievable than you might think? MC writer/producer Christina Milligan (McLeod’s Daughters, The End of the Golden Weather) invited South Pacific Pictures (SPP) development executive Jo Johnson, writer Rachel Lang (creator of Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls and This is Not My Life) and director Mark Beesley (Legend of the Seeker, Power Ranges, Outrageous Fortune) to discuss turning dreams into reality and getting a foot in the door without breaking any toes.
The May Writer’s Room was memorable not only for high winds and heavy rain but also for the ‘birthday’ of a television institution. The first episode of Shortland Street had aired 18 years before on that very evening. Christina acknowledged the anniversary, paying tribute to our longest running soap and recognising the role this series has played in providing our up and coming writers and directors with an opportunity to try out, hone their skills and get that all-important foot in the door to paying work. But there are other ways to break into the industry too – so what are they, how does it all work and once you’re in, how does the writing process integrate with production?
The commissioning process at SPP attracts 200-300 hopeful but unsolicited scripts every year. Christina began by asking Jo to explain the process at SPP and the opportunities available for writers.
“An unsolicited script is a new writer’s ‘calling card’,” said Jo, “and we review all we receive. I might look at 50% of those scripts. The Head of Development reviews them too and of those received 10% might go on to the wider development team (which includes John Barnett, Chris Bailey and Head Writers Rachel Lang and James Griffin). Ideas come to us in other ways as well. Publishers send books and sometimes we may see an article in the paper that looks like a good idea for a series and we’ll commission work. We also ask writers to pitch ideas so we can commission work from them.”
The first clip of the evening was from Outrageous Fortune, a series idea that was not picked up right away. Christina asked Rachel to talk about the genesis of the show.
“Outrageous Fortune was spurred on by bitterness, and fear of unemployment!” said Rachel. Both she and co-writer James Griffin were facing job-losses after bothing having had their ‘respectable shows’ sent off to be buried in Friday time slots. The idea for Outrageous Fortune was one of several they pitched to TV3. “TV networks have limited slots for New Zealand drama so what there is really needs to make a statement. NZ On Air had made an edict of no more ‘cops and docs’ because they could buy enough of that overseas so we had to do something other than cop shows. Outrageous fit well – it’s a comedy and a crime show.”
Rachel felt NZ TV drama had been quite serious up until that time. Something more ‘in your face’ was needed to pull in the audience. “These days, networks see the value of one hour shows as a way of branding their channel. It’s a commercial reality. TV3 has had great benefit from Outrageous, something they may not have expected at the start, so there are definitely opportunities to do something bold and new.”
Christina asked the panel to comment on the role of the writer in television – where does it start and end? “I start at the beginning with the initial idea and keep going all the way through the series,” said Rachel. “Writers have a lot of control in TV and you have to be a team leader. Making a series involves so many people. All must be empowered to make the same show so you need to trust them. However, you can be at the mercy of directors who might come in to do a couple of episodes and then go.”
The script is the blueprint, the architectural document for constructing the series. “You hand over the production draft to the producer and director,” said Rachel. “You work with them to finish the script, using their ideas, discussing how feasible it will be, before the production draft goes to the actors. It’s a very fluid process.”
Mark was asked to contribute his thoughts on the script from a director’s point of view and he began by saying that the role of the TV director is not to write the show but rather to create scenes that play well and to elicit ideas and performances from actors. “Having said that, directors coming into TV often feel that the boundary between where their job starts and the writer’s ends can be fluid. A lot of directors believe they can transcend the script – ‘I can make this line better!’ – and I’m guilty of this every time I read a script. It’s part of the ownership process. You’re imaging the scenes in your head. Actors think they can make a script better too but the reality is that if it’s not good on the page, it’ll never be good. It’s not the job of the director to transcend the script. The writing and casting stages are make or break – if you get those right, you can make a show director-proof!”
A script must present the writer’s intention clearly otherwise it causes confusion all the way along the line. “Sometimes a director can barely understand a script,” said Mark. “Even the actors don’t get it. As creative people, we’re mining the material to find something useful for ourselves – this is part of the process. As a writer, you may have lived with that story, those characters or that scene for months or years but a director comes in and lives with them for the amount of time it takes to read the script. We may or may not get it but we have to try. If we don’t understand then the producer goes back to the writer. A director is not obliged to re-write the script.”
But when re-writes are needed, everyone is in the mix. Christina introduced a clip from Go Girls and asked Rachel to explain the story behind the re-writing of the scenes.
“It was a ‘10am in the morning whisky moment’ after watching Episode One of Go Girls,” said Rachel. “We were so depressed because it was so bad. Part was our bad writing and the other was bad directing from junior directors who were learning on the job. But, after our deep despair and whisky, we re-wrote, re-shot and re-edited bits and got through Episode One and we’re still on the air. It was a good lesson to me about picking yourself up, dusting off, not feeling that despair and how some rewrites and good editing and music can help get you through.”
Rachel spoke further about the ‘bad writing’. “We were too slow setting up our characters. We were lazy. We knew we had to grab the audience much faster so decided to be much clearer about characters. And with the directing and acting – the first series of any show is like groping in the dark, trying to find your way and hoping it’ll grab an audience. Season One of Outrageous was like that too. It wasn’t until it went to air and we added the audience that we knew whether it would be a hit or not. Networks are alarmingly nervous of everything you make. You should not take anything for granted. You should be worried.”
Mark added that writers must realise that the painful experiences go on throughout a career in the industry. “We’re in the business of walking on tightropes.”
Despite this warning, the writers in the audience were made of stern stuff and wanted to know more about breaking into the television industry so Christina introduced the topic of “finding a way in and getting your foot in the door.”
It can be hard for a new writer to know if their script is really working well until the show is on the air. Long-running soap Shortland Street has offered many a beginner the opportunity to try their hand and learn from seeing their creation on the airwaves. Indeed Christina, Rachel and Mark had all worked on the series at some point in their careers. “Many of the writers I work with at SPP worked on Shortland Street and we owe a lot of our career and experience to it,” said Rachel. “You get to fall over, try things out and there’s always another bus coming next week. Back in the old days it was a very good way of getting in the piano practice really fast.”
So how can writers find their way to Shortland Street? “The most common way is to come in as a storyliner,” said Jo. “Shortland Street welcomes trainee storyliners and will also take interns. We have a test kit process for dialogue writers and new writers are encouraged to have a go.”
For a new director, the much-loved soap offers 2.5 hours of drama/comedy and plenty of suds every week. “Every shot and edit is invaluable for a new director and the same is true for writers,” said Mark. “The 18 year anniversary for Shortland Street is to be celebrated because we have a generation of viewers who’ve grown up with New Zealand actors on television every week night. Every show is risky for a network but the success of Shortland Street has proven that an audience is there for television drama.”
Mark is a producing director on the popular international series Legend of the Seeker. Christina asked him to explain how this differs from work on a domestic production.
“International is slightly different to local. There is a show runner – who is an executive producer and a writer – looking after the writers. An international show has many producers associated with it but a producing director takes the script and helps prep all the directors coming in. They’re expensive shows – each episode of Seeker costs about NZD 2 million so they can’t afford to have a director coming in who is unprepared and unfamiliar with the style of the show.”
In film, the director holds the vision. In television, it is the producer. “You’re never going to be remembered as a director in television,” said Mark. “When you go to a film, you want to see the director’s vision. In TV, you need continuity of style and experience. There may be a different director every week but you won’t get a good television experience unless the continuity is there so the producer is responsible for shepherding the vision. For example, I can’t remember a single director of The Simpsons.”
The audience then enjoyed a clip from Legend of the Seeker. “From a writing point of view, Legend of the Seeker was a series of paperback novels that sold around the world,” said Mark, “and now it’s a cult hit TV show. The source material was a much loved fantasy – 80% was Star Wars meets Tolkein which wasn’t very original. The other 20% was extreme sexual violence – that was the good stuff and worth creating! But ABC Disney didn’t want that or any complex mythology in their show. They wanted a Hercules and Xena. So the challenge was to take the mythology and fantasy and find a way to get people hooked.”
Mark feels there are opportunities here for local producers and writers wanting to venture into the international TV market. “We have a solid international television-making infrastructure. Auckland has the best facilities so most are made here. For those thinking of writing for the international market, I can say yes, we need people to support the writing stock of this infrastructure. There is a real future for this material to be written here. We’re looking for ambitious producers and writers who can exploit the local talent and scenery for an international audience. Xena and Hercules were written and produced overseas but we’re starting to do more of that right here.” Mark praised the efforts of Rob Tapert who had tried unsuccessfully to convince ABC Disney to write, cast and shoot both shows in New Zealand. Rachel said writers need to be close to their show. “It’s cheaper and better because you’re working with the production. It was hard for the Xena and Hercules writers because they were in the US and the production was here.”
Christina invited questions from the floor and the first asked whether a writer can pitch an idea direct to a network. Rachel said writers are fortunate here in New Zealand because they can. “You can pitch your idea direct to a network and stand a good chance of a series being made. However, some may prefer you to have a producer attached to your project – or they’ll attach you to someone. If you go it alone, you have all the responsibility, pain and no support. If you go with a production company, they’ll buy the rights to your work and give you support but you don’t stand to gain the full benefit of the work if it becomes a success. You also have to remember that if you want to make a big budget series like Xena, we just don’t have that kind of money here. If people are going to get paid well for their work then we’re locked into projects where we rely on scripts, actors and ingenuity to make them succeed.”
Shortland Street may be a ‘tried and true’ way of breaking in as a television writer but there are other ways. “If you have ideas for short films or other projects – perhaps feature film or comedy – send them in to Jo,” said Rachel. Other production companies are on the look-out for new talent too. “There are opportunities through the docu-drama avenue and one-off tele-features. Many companies are desperate for writers to create those. If you have an idea for a one-off show, give it a go. There’s more than one way in.”
Do our ideas appeal to the international television market? “There’s always a market for a good idea,” said Rachel. “People are always looking for fresh talent. Sometimes we think, ‘where are all the good writers?’ If you’re out there, make yourself known. The industry is so small here that it’s relatively easy to crack into it. It’s not Hollywood!”
Jo was asked to outline pitch requirements at SPP. “We ask for a short selling document. Give us bold, fresh, broad strokes that encapsulate your idea. Convey your enthusiasm so we get excited about it too. If we like it then we would commission you to write a treatment or do some further development.” Rachel enjoys her work at SPP. “The writers have invented a culture within the company where we are highly regarded and involved with the productions. I feel that our input is respected and valued. The positive results of this have been seen. Writers are consulted and involved in each stage of the process. It’s incredibly important and I think it makes for better television. I’ve worked on shows where you’re literally a gun for hire and then someone else takes over, you take off and then you see the finished product and think ‘oh my God!’ I hire in people to work with me and we’re always looking. It’s great to have new people in to share the big workload.”
Christina paid tribute to the efforts and determination of writers who began establishing a culture back in the 80s within the TVNZ Drama Department. “Our ‘present’ sits upon the shoulders of so many who have gone before. It has taken a long time to achieve this much and it was a hard fight at the time. Greg McGee fought to stay at the centre of the mini-series he wrote about Erebus … and so many others have followed.”
As a final piece of ‘outrageous’ and ‘go’ for it advice, Rachel said, “If you adore Outrageous Fortune and Go Girls, send a fan letter that genuinely proves your devotion and shows that you really want to try out. This is New Zealand! You can do it!”
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen