Event Summary: Follow the Lead, Auckland Writer’s Room, 26th February, 2013

It’s a fact. More New Zealand TV dramas are being written for particular actors. 2013 has brought three new home-grown series to the small screen and all have developed story and script around their lead actors. Agent Anna (TVNZ) starring Robyn Malcolm and The Blue Rose (TV3) starring Siobhan Marshall and Antonia Prebble premiered in February, and later this year, gritty new crime series Harry (TV3) starring Sam Neill and Oscar Kightley will make its debut.

To celebrate the start of a new year, the February Writer’s Room invited a truly ‘stellar’ panel to Auckland’s Comedy Club. MC Gavin Strawhan (Nothing Trivial), actor Roby Malcolm (Agent Anna), writer/producer Rachel Lang (The Blue Rose) and producer Steven O’Meagher (Harry) sat down to discuss all side of the process when developing characters for specific actors.

There is a long history of movies, plays and TV shows being written with particular stars in mind and such associations often meant that production was guaranteed. In New Zealand, it’s often been the other way round … but this is changing.

NZ dramatic scripts in particular were usually written first and then the leads were cast but these days, more plays and TV shows are being written with specific actors in mind.  This trend is seen very well in the top rating shows Agent Anna, The Blue Rose and in the upcoming series Harry featuring Oscar Kightley and Sam Neill in the leading roles.

Gavin began the evening by asking the panel to outline their development processes for their series and explain the role the lead actors played in that process.

Steven found crime shows such as Cracker and Prime Suspect had very engaging, strong lead characters and this gave him the idea for a New Zealand equivalent. “I knew the show had to be reflective of Auckland,  a city which has the largest Polynesian population in the world, but I had no thoughts as to who should be the central character until one night I saw The Naked Samoans perform “Go Home” and I watched Oscar. It had never occurred to me that he was the obvious choice for the lead. He’s always ‘Oscar the funny man’ but that night onstage, I saw Oscar as Harry. I met him afterwards, pitched the idea and he said yes. Caterina de Nave was at TV3 then. I showed her a picture of Oscar with one word, ‘Harry’ underneath. On the strength of that image, she said ‘yes’ and that confirmed the rightness of my choice. Suddenly he wasn’t Oscar the funny man. He was a believable dramatic lead in Caterina’s eyes at that moment and she said ‘I want this.'”

After getting Oscar on board, Steven said they recruited commercials director Chris Dudman and Neil (‘Grim’) Grimstone, a veteran cop of over 27 years, to join the writing team. “He’s worth a series in himself,” said Steven, “and at this time we still had nothing in writing, no script.”

Unemployment prompted Robyn Malcolm towards Agent Anna. “When you’re in drama school you learn that there is a world out there that offers jobs. So you audition, you get them, but sometimes there are blank patches in your career. You can either sit home or you can try and make something because you want to act. I went to Australia for a while because there’s always the danger of falling into an actor’s prison where you’re known as the same type of character. But I always come back here. I had friends who were real estate agents so I started writing down some of their stories. It was a bit of play for a while and then slowly I put together a rather unprofessional document, just a long email really! It was full of stories, characters, dreams and hopes. We talked about it around the table but it was  very unformed for a long time.  The next part of the process was getting some writers in and talking about the lead character, who this woman might be, and making a series set around a real estate office.”

Robyn said it was purely ‘self interest’ that motivated her to develop the series. “I wanted to work in New Zealand and I wanted to do something very different to Outrageous Fortune. I also wanted to be involved in the development process, experience that and to learn. We wrote a monologue of Anna and sent that to TVNZ and they backed it. Then we started making up stories. The significant part of that process for me was getting all the actors together for a workshop. We sat round improvising and came up with stories and happy accidents!”

The Blue Rose had a long development process. “We started talking about it and went through a process that changed over the years,” said Rachel. “The two actresses had a good dynamic together so we wanted to come up with characters for them that were different to those they’d played in  Outrageous Fortune.  I was interested in changing the power dynamic between them.”

Harry went into a ‘holding pattern’ after Caterina’s initial enthusiasm. “The road from idea to production is never quite as linear as you hope. Caterina left TV3 in 2008. The enthusiasm for Harry cooled until Rachel Jean came on board and the project was reignited. We discussed the character of Harry and pitched this as a gritty cop series with a Samoan lead, different to other cop shows we’ve done in New Zealand. Oscar insisted on using a lot of his personal experiences in Harry. Even as a celebrity he has seen a lot of subtle and hurtful racism that as a palagi I’d never experience in my everyday life – but he has. This means Oscar so he brings a unique sensibility to the story lining table. You need that degree of authenticity for a series based in an authentic, contemporary Auckland city. By the same token, we also realised that none of our police characters were based on real life so that’s why we got ‘Grim’ on board.”

Steven spoke highly of Oscar’s commitment to Harry.”There’s a lot riding on this for him. He’s a funny and honourable man, very popular with the public and for him to extend his repertoire in this way into a risky, dramatic role is a real testament to him. There’s a very subtle, quiet sense of anger within Oscar. I don’t know what that’s about but it’s interesting when you see him on screen.”

Agent Anna received development funding from NZ OnAir and TVNZ for six half-hour episodes. “I was involved in the development of the scripts,” said Robyn. “It was all care and no responsibility for me!  I sat round the table and jammed with the writers. We knew what the shape would be, the bare bones, so we started with that and did a lot of talking. I was working in Australia at the time so was fed scripts, drafts and ideas and fed back.  The relationship between story and character was interesting because I was in the mix so early on. We talked in depth about the lead character, who she was, how she responded to situations, and so the scenes almost wrote themselves. Towards the end we pulled in a second writer, Vanessa Alexander, to join Maxine Fleming. The last two episodes were still being written when we were shooting the first. As an actor, I’ve been the one to say , ‘My character wouldn’t do that’, but then you think ‘What would happen if she did?’ and then it becomes interesting. Try to always hire good actors because they tend to know when a line isn’t working and can come up with an alternative.”

Limited funding meant a small team but Robyn saw that as a positive. “It did feel dangerous, because we were short of money and time, but it was joyously collaborative. We had a kind of ‘co-op theatre’ thing going. Vanessa, Rachel and Max were on set a lot so we were a small family. If lines didn’t work on the day, we just cut or re-wrote them. There was a lot of play but when Vanessa put her foot down that was it, I didn’t want to cross it. I trusted her. When you do a play, on opening night the audience tells you how well you’ve done. You get a sense right away of what works and what doesn’t, but with TV you don’t know. It’s a  balancing act.”

Rachel feels New Zealand is ‘a weird country’ when it comes to actors. “I get frustrated when I hear, ‘Oh it’s the same old actors again that we’ve seen on Shortland Street’ and then the networks say, ‘Find us someone we’ve never seen before’ …. and you can’t win because if you do find someone new, New Zealanders will ask, ‘But where is the old one?’  Plus there’s the fact that actors don’t just spring from nowhere. They have to work to get experience.”

James and Rachel had ideas in mind for The Blue Rose’s lead characters. “We knew Antonia and Siobhan well and wanted to stretch them, give them a chance to play something different. It was a calculated risk.”

The audition is where such risks are tested out but Rachel says compromises are made all the time. “No matter how much you write on the page or in a character note, a casting director still won’t know the depth of a character. We cast who we want and we do screw up sometimes but that’s rare. We debate amongst ourselves who is best and we will always get the person we want. Sometimes that person doesn’t exist and so we compromise. At audition time I can hear the voices of the characters in my head. There’s an essence, the spirit of a character, and when you audition, you’re trying to find the person who will inhabit, fill and inspire that character. That person then feeds the future writing you’re doing for that character. I do have actors in mind at audition time but leave myself open too, especially if I’m not casting for something specific. But if that person cannot fully inhabit the character, then it can all go horribly wrong. When casting an ensemble, we try to get two actors together to read so we can see how they work together and if they’re are comfortable. Sometimes they may think they’re doing well but it doesn’t play well onscreen.”

The panel then responded to questions from the floor. When asked how much marketing pressures influence the casting, Rachel said the networks want someone who is going to look good on advertising and posters and it is naive to think otherwise. “Their interest is marketing and sales and you need to accept that. Most networks have the right to veto or approve a cast member and as long as you don’t get into bullish resentment about that, you can work in a collaborative way. There are bankable actors but there is also a real push for fresh faces.”

Steven felt project funding is easier when a ‘name’ is attached. “If I had gone to the network with a less recognisable face than Oscar, we would have been turned down flat. It’s about pre-audience appeal.”

And what do you do if your secondary characters start to outshine the leads?  “Give your leads more to do,” said Rachel. “Your central characters are often more complex anyway. You can have a lot of fun with your secondary characters but they can start to take over.”  Gavin warned that the audience only has two hours to take in the lead characters and their complexities so ‘too much character’ can be confusing.

Case in point was Oscar’s boss in Harry. “We modelled him on Grim,” said Steven, “and we couldn’t find anyone to play him because we had gone too far down the road of authenticity, basing the character on Grim’s stories, so it was almost in desperation that we we reached out to Sam Neill. He certainly wasn’t anything like the real Grim but he highlighted that we had lost sight of a needing created character as opposed to one based on reality. If we had tried to do Grim as we knew him, it would have become a parody – and almost certainly failed.”

A final piece of advice came from Rachel. When asked if story takes on more importance than the acting, she replied that you cannot separate character and story. “A number of characters are driving your story and that story is all about what they do and say, and how they react in a situation.”

 Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen