The first Writer’s Room for 2014 featured kiwi-born producer Helen Bowden (THE SLAP) in conversation with producer Philippa Campbell (TOP OF THE LAKE). Helen spoke about her experiences developing and making high-end television drama in Australia for Matchbox Pictures, with particular reference to the Emmy-nominated drama series THE SLAP (2011), the tele-feature UNDERGROUND (following the early life of Julian Assange) and her latest six-part mini-series DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND.
Helen’s work pre-Matchbox began in 1993 when she started producing shorts, documentaries, feature films and enjoying the privilege of working with some great actors like Cate Blanchett. “Like many New Zealanders I went to London after university. I shared a flat with a young Israeli director. She asked me to produce her film … and that was the beginning, a trial by fire really, but I loved it.”
After a four-year stint in London working on short films and waitressing, she made the move to Sydney and began a career making educational and corporate videos. It soon became clear to her that she was in the wrong ‘groove.’ “I realised it was just sucking up my energy. I knew I wanted to do drama.”
And so Helen began a gradual shift into the world of dramatic series and feature films. “I was a ‘suitcase producer’. I was essentially making one thing at a time and keeping my overheads very low. That was the only way to make things viable.”
In spite of the uncertainties that came with this territory, Helen enjoyed the ‘suitcase’ life. “You could do what you really wanted. Sometimes I had bigger overheads, an office, an assistant … but then there was often the pressure of trying to keep the cash flowing. This type of approach can be lonely at times, but I loved it anyway. You’re very mobile and can join forces with others. However you can be seen as being ‘successful’ – but after each project, you’re back at ground zero again. Disheartening, but that’s the nature of being part of a small industry.”
Then in 2008 the Australian government introduced the ‘Producer Offset’. Put simply, it is a tax rebate for producers, offering 20% of the total budget for television and 40% for film projects. The rebate is claimed back once the entire budget is spent, so you have to borrow against it to make the show.
A number of companies had been finding it hard to be viable prior to this initiative but the Offset meant that if a film made money, its creators would too, something that did not happen before. This form of financial support from government gave Helen and four other producers the certainty they needed to establish Matchbox Pictures in 2008.
Matchbox was set up to produce television drama, documentaries and some feature films. Friend and colleague Tony Ayres (Melbourne-based writer/director) approached Helen, asking if she would like to do something with him and his longtime producer Michael McMahon. The time was right with the Producer Offset. They asked Penny Chapman to come on board and she brought Helen Panckhurst with her as a ‘package deal’.
It was about this time that THE SLAP came into the frame, a book written by Christos Tsiolkas. At a suburban barbecue, a man slaps a three-year old boy (not his own child) across the face. The child has been misbehaving with no intervention from his parents and the book explores the reverberations of the incident through the voices of eight characters, each with their own chapter. The characters range in age from two year 12 students to a 71 year old man, four male and four female, and the book itself offers up an insightful portrait of contemporary Australian society.
“I ran into the office one day not long after we started Matchbox,” Helen said, “waving this book saying ‘I’ve found it! This is what we should do next!”. Tony and Michael were good friends with writer Christos and both agreed the book would make a great television series. There was stiff competition from others who thought it would be better as a film. We had to develop a presentation based on why we thought it would suit TV and how an eight-part series would do justice to the book. Fortunately Christos understood and agreed with us. When we secured the rights, ABC was in touch with us right away. The book was already making a splash and several networks wanted it.”
Helen and her colleagues knew ABC was keen. “We were lucky because ABC had received new money for drama. They’d been starved of funding by successive governments and the end result was no money for drama. They’d cut back from 100 hours a year to only 6 in 2007. Shameful … but Mr Rudd and a new government gave ABC a lot of money for drama and we were one of the first projects to benefit from that. The ABC wanted to do something multi-cultural and contemporary, so the timing was perfect.”
The pitch was a ‘dream’. “It was an easy pitch to make when I went off to raise the money. A man slaps a child that is not his own … the story resonates so widely because it is an urban one about child rearing that people really engage with … a child no one wants to deal with, and then a line is crossed. It’s very exciting when you have a strong idea that you can pitch. It makes your life so much easier – and the fact that potential financiers can then pitch it up the line too, is also really good.”
There were five writers on The Slap and Christos had input into the creative process too. “He was very good to work with, very modest and wanted to learn more about screenwriting and be involved. Tony and I met a lot of writers and eventually put together a team of five that we felt were a good mix for the novel and who showed a real willingness to collaborate. We wanted people who would put the project ahead of themselves and not think solely of their own episodes – some did one episode and others did two – but rather of the whole story. The book was ideal and inspiring, constructed around eight chapters and eight different points of view.”
To kick-start the process, Tony, Helen, Christos, a script editor and the five writers participated in a three- week workshop. “It was an expensive exercise,” said Helen, “Australian writers are quite heavily unionised, so workshop fees are high, but it was a fantastic thing to do. Essentially, we paid the writers to sit in a room and have their ideas go into a general pot, because then those ideas belonged to the company and the project. They received a ‘brainstorming fee’ which was different to their writing fee. Christos was very supportive of the workshop process. At the end, we had a storyline and a series outline and the writers went off to start first drafts. We then had another two-week workshop before starting on second drafts. We had a luxurious time frame for the writing because we wanted to do it well and give the writers enough time to write.”
With financing in place and the scripts at a certain point, the Matchbox team met with directors, once again looking for those who were the most collaborative in their approach. They then selected people they felt were best suited to the episodes. “Our set up director was Jessica Hobbs (another Kiwi), very accomplished, open, clever and thoughtful. She became a key member of the team in terms of setting up the series and working with Tony and me.”
The workshop approach was used with the directors too. They participated in a successful four-day workshop, arguing and talking around the table, generating ideas and discussing style and tone. “There was huge excitement from everyone. We felt we were making something special and important about contemporary life.”
Casting director Jane Norris rose to the challenges, finding ‘the most incredible people’ for every role. “We wanted good actors, of course, but we also wanted to be authentic to the culture portrayed in the book and to surprise people. It was great to find cast members that Australian viewers didn’t know.”
The series was not shot completely in sequence and each episode took approximately 7 – 8.5 days to shoot the 55-57 minute hour. “Christos was often on set. He was very trusting and had many useful things to say.”
Helen credits Tony with the idea for Underground, a tele-movie about the early life of Julian Assange. “He is like this fountain of ideas! I then started working with journalist Mark Davis who had done the most interviews with Julian over the years. He told me about the book Underground about hackers in the 1980s, written by a friend of Julian’s who was part of the Melbourne hacking scene. The book contained a few stories about Julian’s early life. We wrote up a two pager for the networks and pitched to the Head of Drama at Channel 10. They were interested but wanted a longer outline. This didn’t exist so we started working on it right away, got it into a form the Head was happy with and he agreed to make it.”
Once given the ‘ok’ the project grew wings and took off, something Helen felt it needed to do because of the nature of the story. “We had a three-day workshop in Melbourne. Matchbox had commissioned some research, which we often do, and that person did a breakdown of the book’s contents, a timeline of Julian’s life, and sourced some additional information. We started working on a storyline.”
While they were making the tele-movie, Julian’s real-time life ‘got crazier’ with the WikiLeaks issues and the accusations from Sweden. “It was mind-blowing,” said Helen. “Julian’s mother was very upset about the making of the film. Director Robert Connolly is a very ethical person, politically aware, left wing, and he found this quite distressing. We had heard she wasn’t happy and then she called him, talked for over an hour asking, ‘what are you doing?’ and ‘this is not going to help – it will damage him! Live your own life and leave us alone’. Robert was very diplomatic but she would not step back and wrote to the papers, saying she was unhappy and the truth wasn’t being told.”
The movie was completed, went to air, received good viewer numbers and was later released as a feature film which raised some money for Julian. “Julian’s mother did speak with us after that, saying she loved the film, it was the best one done about him. As a young man, Julian was very idealistic. His ideas have stayed the same but his life has become far more complicated, so telling the story of his early years was easier than trying to deal with the complexities of his later life.”
Helen said she has always felt very fortunate being able to bring important stories to the screen and the six-part mini-series Devil’s Playground is no exception. The series is a spin-off from the 1973 Fred Schepisi film which tells the story of a young boy growing up and going to school in a Catholic seminary, and realising that the priesthood is not for him. Helen explained that whilst the film shows an ‘affectionate’ portrait of the Church, there are hints that all is not well. In the series, Simon Burke returns to his role as Tom Allen – he is now a psychiatrist who is asked by the Church to counsel priests. Simon was also an executive producer on the film.
“The process to find the story was long,” said Helen. “We wondered what had become of Tom after he ran away from the Seminary. We wanted to know where he is now, what is he doing and explain why he left. It had to be something that people would turn on and watch, so the story also had to go into the contemporary problems within the Church but not overwhelm with those stories. Tom is like an ‘everyman investigator’ going into the world of this incredible institution.”
The series is yet to air on Foxtel but Helen is keen to see this happen before people become fatigued by the number of stories currently circulating about the Catholic Church.
In 2011 a 60% stake in Matchbox was sold to NBCUniversal and the remaining 40% was purchased in 2013. Helen said this was much needed and a very positive thing. “It gave us the money to develop projects and put in more infrastructure. Universal has huge distribution and they look for high-end drama throughout the world. We couldn’t believe the purchase in 2013. That we had started, built up and sold the company in such a short space of time, was amazing. I decided not to continue once the company was 100% American owned, so I left after Devil’s Playground and will move on to something else now.”
Written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell
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