Andrew Bock follows a story idea as it battles editors, directors, producers, actors, budgets and the cutting room floor to make it on to your screen.
SCENE 1: Exterior. Holiday house at Jamieson, central Victoria. Summer. Day.
Writer John Ridley is relaxing on Christmas holidays near Lake Eildon. Ridley is reading a book when he has an idea. The book is Undercover by Gary Marx, an academic book about the ethics of undercover police surveillance in America. His idea is for an episode of Stingers, Channel Nine’s police drama, now into its sixth year and eighth series.
Ridley’s starting idea is for a judicial inquiry into police surveillance powers chaired by a judge who is himself being investigated by police. Ridley likes the idea of exploring the abuse of police surveillance powers.
“Often undercover police are encouraging the crime to be committed. It’s all about temptation.”
This is the story of Stingers script 189. From the time the idea is accepted, the writer has six weeks to complete two drafts. The script production team stays with the script for a total of 10 weeks. The director works with the script for four weeks. The actors have it for one week and post production takes another week.
The writing team is involved for 10 of the 12 weeks it takes to make the episode.
Script producer Marcia Gardner summarises when she says, “If the script is good, the episode will be good. Television is writer-driven drama. That’s why, in America, writers are increasingly the producers of television shows. Film is different. Film is more of a director’s medium.”
Scene 2: Interior. Stingers production offices, Richmond. Day.
Back in Melbourne, Ridley, who has been booked to write six episodes of Stingers, pitches his idea to Gardner. Ridley’s story idea includes a suspicious but moral judge, a paedophile ring, a kidnapping and a murder.
Gardner, who has an encyclopaedic memory for plots, first considers whether Ridley’s story idea repeats any of their past 188 episodes. Then she considers whether his episode will fit with the current series and character arcs. Gardner gives the story a green light.
Scene 3: Interior. suburban house, Croydon. A small unruly office, children’s voices somewhere in background. Day.
Ridley works his idea into a two-page story outline. He hangs his story on the character of Judge Burns, a civil libertarian who is investigating abuses of police surveillance powers. The judge is also being watched by police, under suspicion of helping to smuggle Asian children into the country to be used as sex slaves. The mother of a kidnapped child becomes a key character in exposing the crime. This story outline doesn’t last a week.
Scene 4: Interior. Stingers production offices, Richmond. Day.
Gardner and story editor Chris Corbett are not happy with the paedophilia angle and are concerned that there are too many plot lines. Gardner says it used to be network policy not to show children in a “degraded state” but her main concern is that the story has too many elements vying for attention.
Script 189 is given an ultimatum. Ridley can keep the judge and the inquiry or the paedophilia — but not both — and he can’t have child victims of paedophilia as characters.
Ridley elects to keep the judge and drops the paedophilia. The judge’s victim becomes older which allows for a new element — “Stockholm Syndrome” — made famous by Patty Hearst’s love affair with her captors.
At a plot meeting, the writer talks with ex-undercover cop and police consultant to Stingers Damian Marett, about the legal and ethical limits of police undercover work. Marett gives Ridley a few tips about the way corrupt judges might operate.
Scene 4: Interior. Ridley’s home office. Night.
Ridley has a week to write a thorough scene breakdown or plotting document of about 13 pages. Production limits place strict parameters on the writer now.
Script 189, like most Stingers scripts, is allowed three to five guest characters and four to six “50-worder” characters. The action has to take place over three days or less. There can be no more than six locations and there should be roughly 45 scenes — 23 location and 22 studio scenes.
Night exterior shots, CBD scenes, big stunts, large crowd scenes and moving car dialogues are too expensive to film. But for the writer, the major structural parameters are the five ad breaks and the length of segments between.
“When you hit an ad break, you turn the story around,” says Ridley, “with the biggest climax before the last ad break. It’s like writing in reverse.”
At this point, Ridley devotes himself to the structure of the story. “The story is everything. I do 75 per cent of my work before I write a word of script. I get annoyed when I hear people talk about character-driven drama. I think that’s an actor’s point of view. There is only story-driven drama,” Ridley says.
Gardner concurs: “You can’t commit to a first draft until you have nailed the story. The further down the track you go, the harder it is to fix.”
However, the director, Grant Brown, notes later that if a story dominates there can sometimes be too little room for characters. The producer and script producer approve an amended scene breakdown and give Ridley two weeks to write the first draft of his script.
Scene 6: Ridley’s home office. Day fading into night.
“The first act is always the most difficult,” says Ridley. “You get the first scene down and the dialogue and characters start to flow and one scene flows into another and hours fly by because you are just so absorbed. And before you know it 20 pages are written and it’s easy from there on.”
But Ridley feels under pressure with Script 189. “It was taking too long to get into the story,” he recalls.
And that is exactly what the script producers say when they receive his first draft.
Scene 7: Interior. Stingers production office. Day.
Ridley has been forewarned. The first draft meeting is going to be messy. The producers, Roger Le Mesurier and John Wild, read the first draft and feed in their comments. Unlike most television producers, Wild has creative input throughout the script writing process. Wild and Gardner believe there are still too many story lines. Gardner asks Ridley to ditch the judge’s inquiry into police powers and to take less time with the slave trade and the opening murder of an Asian prostitute.
Ridley is asked to move the story towards the kidnapping more quickly and is given 10 days to write a second draft.
Scene 8: Interior. Ridley’s home office.
Ridley works fast now and finds it easier. “It was the right decision (to lose plot threads) because the writing of the next draft was effortless,” Ridley says.
The action now moves quickly from the murder of an Asian prostitute to the investigation of the sex slave trade, to the murder of the illegal brothel owner and the kidnapping which threatens to expose the ringleaders. The inquiry and the dialogue about the ethics powers has gone.
Ridley submits his second draft on time and waits for the response.
Scene 9: Close-up of Ridley’s face — anxiety, existential doubt.
Ridley’s second draft receives no response and he fears the worst. “I heard nothing for a month and I was too scared to ring. I thought it was going to be the last one I wrote. I thought I’d be leaving this job on a real downer. People would ring Marcia and she’d tell them my last one was awful.”
Ridley’s worries are triggered because Gardner, and the rest of the Stingers team, suddenly have network and media trouble.
After years at a 9.30 time slot, the American crime series CSI has bumped the Melbourne drama back to 10.30pm.
Finally, Gardiner calls Ridley and tells him the script is fine. Ridley relaxes but still worries about his script’s fate because now it leaves his hands. “It’s a necessary part of the process. But you feel a bit protective. Suddenly there’s a dozen people who have more control than you do. It’s like everyone wants to claim some kind of ownership over the script,” he says, before quietly exiting stage left to begin work on another script.
The script Ridley leaves behind contains, more or less, the episode that will go to air. Every action and every spoken word are in the script. The drama and magic of film spring off the page as you read the script. It’s exciting.
If every television viewer read just one script, the heroic illusion that underpins celebrity worship the myth that actors are the characters they play would dissolve. The script is the secret of the magician’s tricks.
Scene 10: Interior. Stingers production offices, Richmond. The director enters.
The director goes through the script with the producer, script producer, and script editor at the first director’s meeting, two weeks before shooting begins. Like writers, different directors are contracted to do a few episodes in each series.
Major changes can be made at the director’s meeting. In a prior episode, bomb scenes that opened and closed the show were dropped (like a bombshell) and a quarter of the script had to be rewritten.
For Script 189, John Wild raises continuity and credibility issues. The director, Grant Brown, raises drama and filming issues. “It’s about texture, that first scene. If we get the texture right we will have the audience.”
Wild suggests shortening a scene and some dialogue. Brown asks the script people about the future of the sub-plot between Angie Piper (Kate Kendall) and her handsome therapist.
Gardner and Samantha Winston suggest simple solutions where required. Winston, a script editor, will write up any amendments in Ridley’s place.
Then the team of four discuss each guest character for about five minutes, to help casting director Karen Newman start headhunting.
“Less tragic but brave,” says Wild of one female character.
Right at the end, the producer compliments the efforts of the writer and the script production team. At that point, 16 staff walk in with a birthday cake for Wild. It’s sincere. This is a real team. So far, six people have worked hard on the script.
Scene 11: The release script.
This is the script that finally allows production and casting departments to swing into formal action. It is released on 23 July, eight days before shooting begins. Locations are frantically sought and booked. The casting team — Karen Newman and Rosie Traynor — have four days to provide contracted guest actors. They often run short of male actors to play criminals.
Any script amendments after this critical point are made on different coloured pages so everyone stays aware of changes. First amendments are on pink, then blue, green, yellow, mauve and so on. Nobody wants to reach mauve let alone the colours beyond, says Gardner.
Scene 12: The read-through. Actors enter, stage right. Evening.
The guest actors all sit out the front of the main meeting room huddled over their scripts, looking decidedly nervous or else determined to impress.
In contrast, the core five characters enter the room in more flamboyant clothes and more flamboyant attitudes. They are relaxed and crack jokes at will, even as the reading begins.
When the guest actors sit down at the first read-through there are gasps at how appropriate most of them seem. Sam Sejavka is brilliantly evil. Ross Williams is hilarious as Carmody.
And Rod Mullinar sounds like he is playing his own father. Gary Sweet and Mullinar have the cast and crew in stitches with parodies of their own characters. The script is alive.
Meanwhile, the writer, John Ridley, who is also a guest actor on this episode, cringes.
“It’s an awful experience,” Ridley says afterwards. “I held my head in my hands. You think everyone is thinking this script is crap and you wrote it. Or Jacinta (Stapleton), might be sending me vibes for not putting her character in this episode much.”
Actors can make suggestions but it is generally too late to suggest major plot or structural changes. The actors have only just seen the script and shooting begins in three days.
Scene 13: Shooting on location.
There are 45 people on the set, at night, in a Richmond alley, shivering. All these people are here to record actors reciting lines that have been written for weeks. There is glamour to the scene, lights, police cars, and even a well made-up corpse.
The camera rolls back and forth on a dolly. The director and the story continuity minder peer into a television screen as the action is filmed.
But after spending so much time with the script, this part seems preordained. Surreal. Almost like puppetry.
Gardner later says what few writers dare to say: “The writing is the only truly creative work. Everybody else is interpreting. Including the directors and the actors. And if you don’t have a good foundation, then you are interpreting crap …”
The producer agrees. “Being here for six years is a direct consequence of the quality of the scripts,” says Wild, who is keen to see the script writing process receive more credit.
The actor has a more equivocal view. Gary Sweet uses his character, Luke Harris, to play with the fact that undercover cops are also actors, and thereby adds a layer to his scenes, as good acting can. Sweet says he knows that when a script is good or bad it will lead to a good or a bad episode. But when the script is middling, it could turn out either way, he says.
Brown, says, “I think you are at the mercy of the script. A good script is a gift. Directing a mediocre script is a real challenge and that’s when you work the hardest.”
Ridley observes that despite the importance of the script, writers are usually lowest in the “hierarchy of celebrity”. Writers usually come last, after actors and directors in the credits, and nobody knows their names.
Top Australian writers who have written great episodes for Stingers include Jeff Truman (30 episodes), Philip Dalkin (26), Adam Todd (12), Shane Brennan, who after 18 episodes was poached by CSI: Miami and now writes in America; and last but not least, co-producer and writer, Roger Simpson who wrote six early episodes.
On its journey from idea to television, the storyline of Script 189 retains the two principal criminals, the crime, and the two main victims, but just about everything else changes.
The element of paedophilia is cut early, although the age of the kidnap victim remains critical to a twist at the end. The illegal brothel — the Serpent Club — and the sex slave trade remain central but are exposed, and despatched, more quickly.
The starting idea about the ethics of police undercover work and a police shooting by one of the Stingers team is dropped completely. But, perhaps surprisingly, the main story remains.
A kidnapping, a bereft mother and her daughter, a hint of illegal sex, and a charming but manipulative judge, still create the central suspense.
But I can’t give away the story in detail. To really know the fate of Script 189, you would need to watch the episode and read the scripts.
The Stingers team is still waiting to hear whether there will be a ninth series. In the meantime, the director, the writer and the story editor are working on episodes of Blue Heelers.
Episode 189, “The Year of the Snake”, is expected to screen in early November.
Source: The Age