How did you get your start in directing television?
I was a first assistant director on a show called Heartbreak High, and I had just found out I didn’t get into film school (AFTRS) for the second time, and I was very disappointed. AFTRS were very nice, but they said “we feel like you’ve done too much now”, and I was like “aaarghh”. I couldn’t figure out how to make that jump from 1st ADing to directing. I’d made short films and I’d made a half hour and a one hour for television in New Zealand and I knew I wanted to do it. After the disappointment of the phone call I was sitting in the tea room at Heartbreak High when the Producer, Ben Gannon, came in, and I found myself saying to him “I direct as well” He asked “have you got anything to show me” and I said “Yes”, and he said “great show it to me and maybe we can give you some episodes”. It took about three weeks and he came back and said “I’m going to give you a block” which I thought was great, I was very excited. He gave me a piece of advice I’ve held onto, which was “I don’t actually care how brilliant it looks. If you tell the story well, I’ll give you another two episodes. If you don’t tell the story well, it doesn’t matter what else you do well, I won’t.” So I thought, Ok. It started me on the track of storytelling being the primary function of what I was trying to do.
Fantastic. And how long were you an assistant director for?
About eight or nine years. I started when I was twenty, and I started directing full time when I was about twenty seven.
Has that had an impact on your directorial style? Have you been able to split the two halves of that process?
I think initially, I focused on the practical aspects of it, and I had to unlearn that, and realise everyone else will take care of the practicalities. Your job is to work creatively, and understand creatively, whether you’ve got the moment that you’re looking for or not. You do have to be responsible for your use of time but you do have to be able to say, we don’t have it yet, I’m not moving on. And that was a gear shift I had to make. And I also distinctively remember, and perhaps it’s embarrassing to admit, but I remember thinking on set, the very first scene I did on Heartbreak High, because I’d been a First AD and suddenly was directing, we did two or three takes and everyone looked at me and they went “Great, great” and they started moving on, and I thought “Ok”, and then as we walked out to do the next scene I thought, “Oh… I have to decide!”. I knew that, but I realised that there was no one else to help me know if I’d got what I needed or not. And it was good I had that early on. I just thought, it’s not about how it works for the technicians, it’s not about how the light is, it’s not about any of those things. I just have to know whether I’ve got what I’m looking for, and I have to understand what I’m looking for.
Just looking at your more recent body of work, I’m interested in the shorter run, and the new formats and how, where there are eight to thirteen episodes of a show, how does that shorter series influence your directing, and the change from a bigger series, if at all?
I think longer running series are delivering a different thing to the audience, in the sense they need to be ongoing, a story that can be endless, so it can go over several years. And in that structure, the script producer, the producer, and the cast in many ways have a bigger function than the directors, in that they are maintaining a look, feel and style of a show that you need to slip into, to work with and come out of. When you set up or come on board a short run series, you can be more distinctive in your style, you’re taking different risks. You’re telling a story that will be complete, you know it’s got an ending, so you’re working towards that ending. When you’re working on long run series, there is no ending. These characters are on going. They could be going on for twenty years, if it’s very successful. Or six, eight, ten years, I’m thinking of shows like All Saints, which went on for a long time, and I went in and out of directing. I like those two different disciplines, but as a director you do have a different role in ongoing series from short run series.
Following on from that, with a project like “The Slap” where you only have four directors, does that influence what you do? Does it give you a bigger voice in the show? How does that collaboration work?
They did a brilliant thing on “The Slap”; Helen Bowden and Tony Ayres, who were the two main producers of it, a number of people produced it, but they were the people we had the most contact with; they were the on the ground producers. What was brilliant about working with those two, was they set up a situation where they brought all four directors, the designer and the cinematographer down to Melbourne, and we had three days together. We all brought films, books, images; and sat down and we talked about style and tone and content and shooting styles, and we did that four months before we started shooting. That was a fantastic investment. I don’t think it cost that much, but it was a really great thing to do because we all came onboard on the same page. When I started directing the first two episodes, even though Tony was already on board, I knew what Rob Connolly, who was directing the third block and starting weeks later, had thought from that initial discussion. We were each given a lot of directorial freedom on, “The Slap”. It was different in the sense that they were individual stories so we were allowed to approach them as individual films, that had to have a unifying thread, but they could have a distinct style and voice that had to do with that character, that we were representing in each episode.
It was a unique format in how it separated the episodes and wasn’t something I’d seen much of either here or abroad.
I think you’re very lucky when you get to do your episode from an individual point of view. And very much it was that idea of not having to have a universal point of view, but a very distinct singular point of view from one character that was freeing thing as a director. It’s slightly more filmic in its approach.
You’ve worked on fictitious and historical projects, in terms of “Curtin” and “Devil’s Dust”. What responsibility do you find as a director, to the source material, whether it’s to a book, or former property, or someone’s life? Where do you see that delineation?
Obviously when you’re dealing with straight fiction, in some ways there’s more freedom, but you still have to spend enough time with the writer to be clear of their intent. You’re working as a team. They’re part of that filmmaking process. You need to understand what they’re trying to convey, and what you can do to add to that visually, and what you can do to help convey that thing. And sometimes you uncover things the writer didn’t intend but they’re happy for you to have uncovered. When you’re working on historical projects there’s more of a consciousness of ‘this person’s family might still be alive’, you have to be acutely aware when you might be defaming someone, and where those lines are drawn. What they actually said and what they didn’t. When we were making “Curtin” for instance, nearly every piece of dialogue and everything that was structured in there came from the actual back room briefings that the writer, Allison Niselle, had researched meticulously, over a number of years, When we ran into script problems Allison and I would work together. I said to her at one point to her, “Dramatically we need a way to introduce characters on screen, I don’t want to have their names written on screen (as it was in the early drafts), I don’t want it to feel like a docudrama, we’ve got to be in the world of the drama” and she said “What do you need?” and I said “I almost need a conversation where they’re talking about who’s going do what in the new Curtin cabinet”. She said “Oh, I can do that. Because I know they had a discussion about that, and we can set it in a corridor as the guys are walking past. And can you shoot it so we know who they are?” And I said “ Yes. I can put the camera on people, so we’re aware of who’s being discussed, without their names having to come up.” And it was about how you introduce characters, which is a big thing when you’re setting up a series. Audiences need to know who to follow; you can mislead them slightly if that’s the intent, give them red herrings, but you need to be clear about how you’re directing them to watch.
In that sense, who ended up in that relationship, being more specific to the source material, the documents and the research? Was it a case of moving away from that when necessary? Or did you stick very close to it?
With “Curtin”, we stayed very close to it, with “Devil’s Dust” we were trying to compact thirty years of history into three hours of television. So we knew we were condensing. And Kris Mrksa who wrote that, did an extraordinary job. There was one day we got close to a meltdown. Both Kris and I and the actor, John Batchelor who was fantastic as Jack Rush QC, got sent sixteen new pages of dialogue which had been overwritten by lawyers to accommodate what was actually said in the Commission. Kris then had to rewrite it overnight and make sure the scenes still had enough dramatic content that the audience could understand it while keeping it legally ok and John and to try and learn it before the next day. That was what was difficult, we had to make sure we got it right. We could never have exactly what was transcribed in the commissions, because we weren’t going to have a five hour show straight out of the transcipts, but we needed to show dramatically what had happened. We had to make sure we didn’t make leaps which would mean that any kind of assumption could be made that we were taking sides in the way we were reflecting it. It was tricky, it was really tricky.
Cause it seems like there was a lot of characters to balance, and when we jumped forward in time, to when Bernie was the mortician, it was a case of “ok, we’ve moved along”. And particularly in the introduction of Bob Carr. It was interesting how Drew Forsythe was able to capture Carr’s distinctive mannerisms that defined him before he was fully introduced. So what sort of insights did you want to capture from the people themselves and make that translate?
We talked a lot about the essence of the people, rather than imitation. I didn’t want actors to feel they were going into a situation where it was all about the external. In certain situations we would say “Look, you don’t look anything like that person, it doesn’t matter”. We joked a lot with Matt Peacock, Ewen Leslie was playing him, and I said “He’s not having a bald cap” because Matt’s bald in his later years, because that’s not the point of who you are. What Ewen did so beautifully was when he played him young he had this incredible energy, and when the ten year jump happened he came back on to set, it all happened one day on set, we’d filmed him ‘young’ in the morning and when he came back to play the older Matt in the afternoon, it looked like he’d been physically beaten down by life. I felt this great sadness, and I was talking to the designer about it. She had a similar experience watching him transform. When you get older there are things that defeat you and you think “Oh that’s right, I remember what it was to have that youthful energy” and we saw this in one actor in one day, and I thought hopefully we can capture some of that on screen. It’s a testament to what Ewen is able to portray. He has the ability in his inner being to just really be that person in that period of time. It was in all the tiny details, the way he slightly slumped and stood, but his whole energy had gone from being very out to being slightly more cynical and back. And I thought it was a great reflection of what happens, what can happen in life as you age.
So in terms of performance and you’re relationship working with actors, how has that changed over your career?
For me it’s very much a trust relationship, and as much as you need them to trust you, you also have to trust them. You’re not the one up there doing it. They are. And you have to understand that at a really fundamental level. A lot of the time in rehearsal is spent on coming to an agreement about the story that you’re telling. Then starting to look at the details of how that might be reflected. If you do enough of that work in rehearsal you start to shape who that person is, and I tend to try and look at the key emotional shifts in the story for them. And we talk about those key moments and everything else that has to be woven in around that. It means we have a shorthand when we get on set of “this hasn’t happened yet, so you know this has happened to you, but this hasn’t.” I talk with the actor about “where are you at emotionally with this person?” A lot of it is about looking at those emotional cross channels but leaving the actors on the day to be open to what actually comes up between them. So they’ve got the given circumstances of what’s happening, and they’re properly informed by the script, and then you allow them to take it wherever it’s naturally going to go. It provides more excitement than me going, ”I’ve blocked this out in my head, and this is how I think it’s going to be.” What I tend to do is say “these are my initial thoughts, you can try starting here, or try starting here. Let’s have a look at how this feels” And then you very quickly start to work something up with them where they go “Look, I’d actually rather be standing up rather than sitting down. You know, in terms of energy, I think I need to be here, or I think I could play this differently, if I was sitting down, it might give me more power, and if I use the shift differently.” You’re just trying to explore where the material seems to work best and what you’re bringing out of it dramatically, and you can see it as it happens in front of you, you can start shaping it with them.
With Ewen Leslie on Devil's Dust
In terms of time generally, and with rehearsal, is that something you get a chance to do in every project? Do you get a lot of time with the actors? And do you find with the shorter series you get more time or less?
I just take the time. I ring them up, talk to them. I give them my number. You can rehearse in lots of different ways. You can rehearse over a cup of coffee. You can rehearse by just having a conversation. My main thing initially is to let them know I’m incredibly open to what they need and however they want to work, how whey might approach it. There are very different ways of approaching performance, and you need to be open to those with actors. You need to understand where they’re coming from, how they might work. And then whether you need to shift that into perhaps something that’s more physicalised or more concrete or cerebral, depending on what you think might help what they’re doing. And it’s also accessing from them, you know I like to try and draw out, “what are you most scared of, what are you worried about with this?” And once you start to share those things, and I’ll often share “this is what I’m terrified of. I’m terrified that the piece will come out and the audience will think this, this and this. And if that’s all we give them, what a waste of time. This is what I’m hoping they’ll think at the end of this. What are you hoping that they’ll think?” So I try and start those conversations. But I don’t think rehearsal is an expensive thing, and I’ve never met an actor who doesn’t want to rehearse at all. They’re all happy to have a conversation. Sometimes they’ll say “I don’t want to get up on the floor” or “I don’t want to do it with other people, I just want to converse with you” and I’ll try and make that work. Sometimes it’s just individual time. Sometimes it’s group time. But producers that I work with are very aware that’s part of the process that I do. I don’t like and won’t have situations on set where an actor arrives that I haven’t met yet. I need to have spoken with them at least the night before, even if they’re playing a small role and have some prior conversation. And with casting too, I’m part of that process because to me in an audition situation I get a very quick feel of the flexibility of the actor and their possibilities and what they might bring to it. And we start our communication from that very first meeting.
It’s really good that it happens, you occasionally hear horror stories where that opportunity isn't afforded.
It is, but it does depend on where your priorities are. For me, I love it. It’s one of my favourite things. Working with the cast, choreographing the physicalisation of the drama that’s going on is something that I really love and am very comfortable with, and so maybe I lean towards that. But it’s also where my strengths are, so you also play to your strengths.
There seems to be a lot of female directors leaning towards television as opposed to features, such as Rachel Perkins, Emma Freeman, Jane Campion and yourself. What do you think is conducive about television and the longer format that appeals to female directors and has that been your experience?
No. That hasn’t been my experience. I think all of those directors are extremely good directors and who make both feature films and television. But features have become, maybe it’s always been a hard market, but it seems very difficult to get films made, get them financed. What I’m really thrilled about is that I’ve been a big lover of television for a long time and it’s really exciting to see all these film directors coming into television because I think they have a whole other, unique way of looking at things that they can add. You see that in “Top of the Lake”, but I don’t think that means Jane’s going to stop making films, and I certainly know Emma Freeman will make films, and Cate Shortland, who is a great feature director is also a wonderfully successful TV director and, you know there are all these people, when you talk to them they love longer form drama. In a film you’re telling a story over a couple of hours, when you get to tell a story over six, eight, ten hours, you get more things to explore. There are more possibilities. There are different things within ensembles. It’s a different form. It’s got more money in it now. It’s got more international recognition, and people are responding to it as a form in itself rather than a poorer cousin. I’m thrilled with that because I’ve always thought television’s very cool, but that hasn’t always been the way people have responded. And in terms of female directors, I think we’ve got an abundance of incredibly good female directors in Australia, when I think there’s Jane Campion, Daina Reid, Cate Shortland, Kate Dennis, Emma Freeman, Shirley Barrett, Rachel Perkins, Leah Purcell, Rachel Ward … there’s so many and they’re all working all the time. They’re highly in demand. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily that they’re better with film or television. I think they’re practical. A lot of them have kids and they want to work and television is an ongoing thing that you can also self create and fund and in Jane’s and Rachel’s case you can produce as well, so there’s ways of getting an income where you’re funded before you start, whereas with a feature film there’s a higher risk financially. You may get a smaller audience, and with TV you’re reaching more people. It’s fantastic to reach more people. Everyone directs because they want people to respond to the work. You want as many people as possible to see it.
It is interesting watching the landscape change, especially with internet delivery, it’s no longer an Australian or American show, it’s the click of a button. It’s a great equaliser.
It’s fantastic, that Australian shows, and English shows and Danish shows are making it into America. Some of them are being remade, but some are being remade with the creators of those shows. Peter Duncan who created “Rake” with Richard Roxbrough and Ian Collie has gone onto create the American version, which is a brilliant thing for an Australian writer/producer/director to be doing. And Chris Chibnall who created “Broadchurch” is writing the pilot episode of the American version of that show. It’s fantastic that these people are starting to criss cross the globe. Danish television has a whole incredible niche of its own.
Where do you see your own voice as a filmmaker? Are you attracted to a particular style of show? What attracts you to the projects you’ve previously worked on?
I love things that deal with identity, gender, family dynamics and I love political thrillers. I love things where you can take a personal story to explore a political issue, and that hopefully you can start to, not preach to the converted but preach to those people who may not think in a way you hope they would - Devil’s Dust was like this, you try to reach them through the drama. I think that’s a great thing. You can actually influence and shift people’s perceptions and ways of looking at the world. They watch it quite comfortably, because they don’t feel they’re being preached at. Hopefully. But it might start to shift the way they think and I think you can have, you would hope that you can contribute something to your community by doing that. So that’s the kind of thing I look for.
Has that been your experience? With Devil’s Dust particularly, one of the most recent things, but also one of the most touchy subjects I suppose, has it been your experience that people leaning one way or another have reacted to your work?
I guess I only know what comes back to me, and there was some very good press regarding it. But I look at things like my partner’s parents, I did a short feature a few years ago about a young Albanian refugee, and at that stage they were very conservative and struggling with certain issues to do with refugees and yet they loved that film and really responded to that girls’ plight and talking to them about it, I could see they related to her as a person. I think sometimes when you take a broader issue, but you show it through one individual, people can relate more easily. And that’s often what you’re trying to do. I live in hope.
I’ve found that same idea of scope-creep in my own projects, where it’s a struggle to pair back the “issues” and focus on the human story.
But look at “Redfern Now”, it’s a brilliant piece about Aboriginal, urban life. And there hasn’t been a lot of that reflected on our screens. Generally Aboriginal characters have seemed to need a reason to be on screen. They need a backstory. They don’t in “Redfern Now”. They’re just part of the story, because they’re part of the life, of the community. So all those things are helping to shift that perception. I really loved with “The Slap”, that it was truly multicultural and very, very reflective of those areas of Melbourne that Christos knows and comes from and it was very important we captured that accurately. That we had actors playing those roles who understood where they were coming from. They understood that world. And we reflected it in a way that was our experience of Australia. And I remember when we did “Love My Way”, we all talked a lot about extended family dynamics and what our experience was and how we wanted to see more of that reflected on screen. What it was to be female, in these kind of interchangeable family dynamics where you might have a child with one person but you’ll be with someone else ten years later, but the child binds you for life, and how does that get played out? How does that make you feel and how do you manage it?
What do you see as the future of Australian television drama and film?
I think the most exciting thing that’s happening in Australian drama is that more and more we seem to be able to get our dramas into the international arena and I think it’s fantastic that Australian voices and Australian stories are being seen and being bought outside Australia and for me that’s incredibly exciting, while at the same time we’re maintaining our local audience. The more local product we make the more we reflect our own culture, the more we learn from our own culture and the more diverse our stories can be. If we’re only buying in content then we’re reflecting cultures to our children that are not necessarily relevant to what they’re growing up with and might influence their view of the world in a way I don’t think is necessarily positive. This way we’re part of an international arena and I think that we are being viewed, our work is being viewed, very highly and I think that’s incredibly exciting.
From the perspective of a budding director, what advice would you have going forward, and how do you make the leap into the professional sphere?
Keep making your own stuff. I think that’s really important. Try and figure out where you'd like to end up. So if there’s a show being made you really like, look at the production companies that are making those shows directly and say “I love this show and I love what it’s saying and this is the kind of thing I’d like to do. Is there anything I can do, even if it’s not on this show, do you have another show, that maybe I could start on, that may not be as prestigious, where you would take more of a risk on me as a starting director with the view to me then crossing over to doing something higher profile?” And it’s just building up people’s confidence that you can deliver the work. There’s a lot of pressure on you to be able to deliver. They want to know you can deliver within time and budget, but also that it’s going to be good. So the more your work gets better and the more you’re able to take those opportunities to do that; it is hard - I asked, I got lucky. Ben Gannon could have just said “Look, we’ve got a full slate of directors and we’d prefer you as a First” and I don’t know, I was still probably ambitious enough and would have found a way to do it, but that was just a great opportunity. Sadly shows like that don’t exist anymore, because Heartbreak High was brilliant for that, because they were young actors and the producer was prepared to take risks. There are lots of amazing Australian producers who are prepared to take risks. John Edwards is someone who’s given a lot of people breaks. He’s absolutely fantastic at doing that and he continues to do that. I think there are a lot of companies out there who are willing to do it, you just have to keep going forward. And if you have good film work to show them they will respond to it.
I’m curious about your experience as a First AD and translating that, because there is a very pigeonhole culture around that as well, in terms of are you a first AD or are you a director and there’s a temptation to ask, “Can’t I be both?”
I’d try doing one thing at a time. If you’re writing a series, focus on the writing of it. If it goes ahead you will get the opportunity to direct it. By being in there, by being in the right place, you don’t need to necessarily discuss that, you don’t need to say I’m writing it to be able to direct it. Say I’m writing it to get the best directors I can on board to do this, but I would also like to be involved as a producer, because that’s what I’m trying to learn, and I’m bringing the project to you, but I want to work with experienced producers; and you want to match up with someone who will let you do that. And then, it’s kind of one step at a time, and then bring the directing in. If you go in saying; “I’ve written this to direct”, it’s not such a good proposition for them, because they’re going “We’re going to take a punt on you as a writer, but as a director as well? Well we feel less secure about that.” It’s a business, you have to understand what you’re putting forward.
In terms of the business, has that changed over time, working for both commercial and government broadcasters, and the projects they’ve commissioned?
Yes. I think the most interesting shift is that producers used to dominate and run the television industry, and the shift from that is now writer-producers, are starting to have more influence, which I find very exciting creatively. There’s a lot of very good creative producers who have worked like that with the writers for a long time, but writers are also taking producing credits which are giving them much more say on the outcome of their shows look and feel and tone. My hope is that directors also start to produce as part of that collaborative team.
In terms of the power of the director, you’ve been fortunate to work with some high profile projects, with genuine artistic merit. Has it been your experience that there are times when you get shaken off as a director? That you can become a cog in the wheel?
It’s a creative industry, it can happen in any circumstance. There are combinations which are good, some which are less good. It’s hard to know. You’ve got to look at it carefully before you go into it. The real thing is being true to yourself about, “Do I love this project? Is this a story I really want to tell?” rather than “Is this good for my career?”. I think if you start thinking that way, you might find yourself in a situation where “I don’t really relate to the material” or “I’m really struggling with this” or “I’m not sure about the dynamics”. If you really love the material then you look at the team and think, “Do I think we’re going to be a good combination?”. When you’re younger and starting out, you have less choice, but I still encourage people to look at, you’ve got to have a real engagement with the story, not “I’ve got to get runs on the board” but that it’s a story I’ve really got to tell, and I can contribute something. There’s something that I can bring that’s unique about the way I tell stories to that”. So that’s what I’d encourage people to look at.
Have there been situations where the collaboration isn’t as strong and you’ve had to fall back on your craft to get through?
There have certainly been situations where I’ve looked back and thought “It would have been better in this situation, rather than me try and facilitate a number of different points of view to be clearer about what my point of view was. And stick with that. And then try and work that in with what other people wanted.” Sometimes when you’re trying to serve too many different points of view, I’ve experienced losing track of what my point of view is. And my experience is my work isn’t as good when I do that. I’m better to hold onto my point of view. I don’t mean in a dogged way, but to be able to sit down with people and say “This is why I think this” they might not agree, but then they put their point forward and you try and talk about it. I think what’s challenging is it’s often emotional in a creative situation. You feel very strongly. You’re tired. They’re tired. It’s a subjective point of view, but you work through that. You just try and keep working through that.
I’m interested in your relationship with your key collaborators, your cinematographers, and other heads of department. What sort of relationship have you had with them and has that sustained throughout your career?
I’ve shifted around a lot with cinematographers. It’s often got to do with circumstance. You work with someone for a couple of years and then you’re not doing something. I’ve had children, so you have breaks, and they move on to doing other things, so when you want to work with them again they’re not available. I like working with new people, I find it exciting, and great things can come out of it. After I’d done “The Slap”, I really wanted to work with Andy Commis again, and I was trying to get him to do “Devil’s Dust” but he wasn’t available and then Toby Oliver turned up and Toby was fantastic. And I might not have worked with Toby if that circumstance hadn’t happened. I worked with a producer on that who was just a genius, Antonia Barnard who was really, really fantastic, and one of the things I learnt from her was she talked about who’s right for this project. They don’t have to be right for everything you do but what’s the right person for this project? On “Devil’s Dust” we had limited time and budget for what we were trying to achieve. Who’s going to cope best in those circumstances and deliver the best outcome? It’s just thinking all the time about how those relationships can work and what’s going on. And being very honest upfront in your early meetings about how you see it and then listening to how they see it. It’s the same with actors.
In terms of casting, you had what seems open slather of top tier actors in the country. How does that come about? Daniel Henshall is a minor role in Devil’s Dust…
They were great! I’ve been in love with Daniel Henshall for quite some time, but once I’d seen him in Snowtown I was like, “Please! Can we get him in?” And I was just trying to figure out any place to put him in. I thought he would be beautiful in that role because he’s extremely memorable and the effect of him passing away would really ricochet with the audience in a way that I thought was important. So when I spoke to Dan about that he was really up for it. Sometimes it’s about saying to actors “This is what I’m hoping to achieve by asking you to play this role” and they finish at this point, but this it what it would give the audience. Dan is incredibly generous, he just wants to work. And he has fun and when he finished filming with us everyone was so disappointed he wasn’t going to be there the next day, because he’s just brilliant.
Tony Hayes I’d worked with on “The Slap” and I’m a big fan. He’s such an interesting actor, but I wanted him in a role which I felt, really would showcase just what a breadth of talent he has. I knew having to cast it to play across that many years, he could do that. It took a little more convincing for some of the investors. To me it was obvious from the start, but that was my point of view. I’d worked with him and totally knew he could do it. To his great credit he came and auditioned and did an outstanding audition. I don’t think I was going to back down on my choice of him as Bernie Banton, but he trusted me enough to come and audition and he did it and it was a great thing.
Don Hany was another person I’d wanted to work with for a long time, and Ewen and we just asked these guys. I find sometimes if you know who you’re looking for you can go directly to them and say “this is who I’d like to play the role, can we offer it to them?”.
So how much time do you generally have on these projects and how has that influenced your skills?
I’m looking at working over in the UK next year and they were dumbfounded with how much time we had to shoot “The Slap”. They thought I’d made a mistake when I said we had eight days an episode. And they said “No, no, no. How much time did you actually have for shooting?” and I said “Eight days”. There was a long silence and they kind of went “Right”. But I also think that’s a testament to the crew and the cast, and it’s what we can afford here. You have to shoot to what you can afford. There’s not more money than that. Budgets are quite open when you understand what you’re working with. I just never want the audience to look at it and you never want a card going up that says “We did the best we could in the given circumstances”. I don’t want them to think about any of that. I just want them to think it’s a great show.
So what do you think the extra time would get you?
My partner who directs feature films, talks about how there’s just never enough time. You will always extend what you’re doing to fill the amount of time possible. I think when you get very constricted in time, sometimes you feel like you’re making economical decisions rather than creative ones. And you have to look at yourself and go “would this be better if I made a more creative decision? Is there a more creative way to approach this scene rather than thinking I need to cover everybody in it, or that I have their moments? Who’s scene is this and what is it actually about?” So I find the less shooting time I have the more I prepare, I think about what is the essence of what I’m trying to do here and what’s the clearest and simplest way to give the audience that sensation. Is there a more lateral way I could approach it to give them that sensation without having to spell it out? I think the hard thing is that sometimes there are moments you’d like to have in there that you know don’t mean anything necessarily, in terms of plot or structure but you just know it’s a moment that would give the audience a sensation or a breath or, a feeling about what that character’s life is like. I fight for those.
And how do you collaborate with your writers?
Generally in television the writers are on board before the directors. A script comes to you and you read it and then you sit down and you talk about it. Again I’ve learnt that the most important thing in that initial meeting is to be as honest as possible about what is working, but also what’s not working. So you don’t then come to blows further down the track. I’ve learned how to try and be upfront about what I’m responding to and what I’m concerned about, but it’s also about finding ways to talk about that, in the same way it might be hard as a Director in the cutting room to have someone come in and go “well the cut’s not working, and this, this and this!”, but if someone says to you “I’m just wondering what you’re trying to convey here” then you can talk to that. It’s the same when you’re approaching scripts, try and really understand what the writer’s trying to convey and if it’s not clear to you it may be that you’ve missed something or it may be that they’ve assumed something that’s not quite there on the page. I think that relationship’s really precious and I love it. The writer’s the person I’m most anxious about seeing it as soon as we’ve finished a cut. I want the writers and producers to feel, when they see that first cut, that it’s as good as it can be and hopefully surprising to them. That there are elements they didn’t foresee that they like.
Does that process extend to the editing phase - and do they ever come in and you collaborate with them at that stage?
Oh yeah. I like them to come in. Absolutely.
And how is that interpreted by the producers?
You have to work with the producers as to what it is. Sometimes you bring writers in, sometimes a producer will say; “Look I would like the writer not to come in until the later stage. We’ve got a lot of opinions coming in” or “Let’s show it to the writer separately” I’m trying to remember what we did on “The Slap”, I think because as Tony was the show runner and producing, he’d run the writing room and he was the main conduit for all the writers. He would watch the cuts and he felt confident that he was in communication with the writers about being able to convey things he felt weren’t on screen, that they’d wanted that you might be able to shift. On “Devil’s Dust” I got Kris Mrksa in really early and said “Can you look at this? The opening we all thought was going to work isn’t working, and this is what I’m suggesting we change it to”. I remember with Kris there was a section I felt I really couldn’t get in, I couldn't make work. He came up with a great suggestion that I was so grateful for. And the editor and I kept trying it and I rang him the next day and said, “I found a way to make it work and I’m really glad you pushed me to put it back in because it’s such an essential story element”, I just needed to keep thinking it through.
Regarding the show runner role, is that something you think should happen in Australian drama?
I think shows do function well if you have a multitude of writers and directors to have a creative head. Essentially at the end of the day, someone has to make the call. If it’s a director, writer and producer all arguing, who’s going to make that call? I think it works well in a structure where that person’s been given that creative head role. Choosing that person is very important and understanding what the ramifications of that are. I think it’s a good structure to work with because again it’s so subjective. Then they can defend what you’re trying to do to the broadcasters or the investors. You just hope that you and they have a similar viewpoint and you have an open communication.
Is it specific to certain projects, or do you think that should happen more or less?
It depends. I don’t think the committee thing really works. On Devil’s Dust, we worked as a team. Two producers Stephen Corvini and Antonio Barnard, the writer Kris Mrksa and myself, but they gave me a lot of freedom in the cutting room. I presented a cut and then they would come up with what their issues were and the editor and I would go off and rework on the cut. They’d come in and work with me sometimes but I never felt they were taking my hands off the reins. We were trying to work together to find the solutions and make it the best we could. That’s what you want, it’s a collaboration and I talk to people a lot about finding the best collaboration you can and understanding what that is, without letting go of your vision. You don’t want everyone just to agree on the least controversial outcome. It is better to have the fight, even if one idea wins over another and I didn’t agree with it. I’d rather it was a more controversial idea than a weaker idea that we all agreed on.
What’s next? What are you working on and what’s in store?
At the moment it looks like I’m going to to a project in the UK, but it could all fall over tomorrow as negotiations do, but I have been going there on and off for the last couple years, and have been offered a number of projects and I haven’t been able to do them because of family commitments and things here. But it looks like we can now, our son’s just finished his HSC and our youngest is going into year two and we feel like we can afford to travel now. I’m excited about working in a different arena. I’d like to be able to work in other parts of the world and if that’s possible I feel like now’s the time to do it, then you can reinvest that back into what you do here. It’s a lovely career path in the sense that you do have a lot of freedom within it. You don’t have to stay in one place - you can explore the possibilities. I think there’s some great television coming out of the UK and if I spoke Danish I’d be over there in a second, knocking on doors, trying to get a job. I think what they’ve been doing is amazing.