Greg Haddrick: Janet King, creating great female characters and being a writer-producer
Janet King writer-producer Greg Haddrick talks about developing the second series of the hit show in western Sydney and how it allowed the production to create a diverse and broad range of characters and cultures not normally represented on our television screens.
The previous series of Janet King followed many issues that were in the media at the time from corruption to bikie gangs. How has current affairs impacted the storyline this season?
We do try to link a Janet King series as contemporarily as possible to recent events and recent legal issues, particularly those with a moral ambiguity.
How do you toe-the-line in developing the story in terms of delivering and deciding what could be a contentious outcome in the series Royal Commission?
We never try to predict things that haven’t already happened in court, and as much as possible we follow the precedents that are set in court. With politics we are careful to deal with fictional individual politicians rather than platforms or policies of any particular party.
Last year Marta Dusseldorp won the AACTA award for Best Lead Actress in a Television Drama. Why do you think her character Janet King resonates so strongly with the industry and with audiences?
I believe she resonates with audiences through a combination of emotional depth mixed with intellectual clarity and to be able to play both at once is remarkable - and a large part of why Marta is so brilliant in the role. It’s a big reason why audiences find the character so engaging.
Janet King shows you can have a strong and diverse female lead and a successful series. How much more room on our screens do you feel there is for series driven by female leads?
The scope is almost endless. What the audience is looking for are stories that are emotionally compelling. A lot of Australian drama skews slightly female anyway and I think it is the more interesting, rounded and strong female characters that audiences respond to.
How have you maintained a gender balance in the writing room of Janet King?
It has just happened organically. I haven't ever found Australian writers rooms to be particularly male-centric, actually...And it hasn’t been my experience in Janet King, either. Jane Allen and Justine Gillmer played a central role in developing the story and characters for series 1 and Jane contributed heavily to the writing and editing of the 8 x 1hrs: then in series two Felicity Packard and Niki Aken joined myself and Stu Page. In both instances there were very experienced female writers on the show.
What advice would you have to other writing teams in terms of gender parity?
I’ve never put a writing team together consciously thinking we must have a certain number of men and a certain number of women. That said, however, a gender balance tends to happen. There are many, many fine female writers in Australia and as a result they tend to pick themselves. We just choose experienced people and young exciting talent who can tell stories well.
Janet King has done wonders in its depiction of western Sydney and it tells a story that is outside of the city centre. What was behind the decision to set the second series in Bankstown?
The Royal Commission is investigating the surge in gun crime in suburbs all over Sydney, and we decided to house the Royal Commission offices in Bankstown to provide a rich tapestry on which to film. We believe that the wonderful and diverse community illustrated as a result, is very representative of real Australia.
Do you feel that you developed ideas through your experience in western Sydney? Did it affect your writing process?
Yes it did. Western Sydney allowed us to have a diverse and broad range of characters and cultures, which you normally wouldn’t have in a drama series setting.
With season two airing this month, can you talk to us about your process on getting started on season three?
Which we are starting to do! The intention with Janet King is that each season is a stand-alone event, mini-series. Season one took place very much within the DPP, season two takes place in a Royal Commission set in western Sydney. So we are looking for a different theatre for Janet to still exercise her prosecutorial skills, to still have a story that resonates in a very contemporary way in modern Australia, but in a different environment so we can explore and examine a different aspect of Australia.
Can you talk on your own process?
The process starts by identifying the new environment you need Janet to be in and then you need to find an area where there is enough story material to last eight hours and that’s a key thing. You have to look at the canvas and think through your core story – how many subplots can hang off that one narrative spine that will sustain for 8 hours, then you have to link that thematically with a journey for Janet herself – so then you have to think where is she emotionally and physically at the moment and in that series what are the stresses on her and how do those things echo and parallel in the crime story that you are running over 8 hours. It is thinking over all those things and seeing the big picture before you start writing anything.
What’s been your inspiration for series two and how do you get your ideas?
Mostly through talking to people. Hilary Bonney who has been a consultant now through Crownies and through both series of Janet King, she is a barrister down in Victoria who was a DPP Solicitor. Margaret Cunneen, a Senior Crown Prosecutor here in NSW - who has also headed a Royal Commission - helped enormously with details of process. Over the course of 6-8 years I’ve developed a relationship with a lot of lawyers and investigators whom I always ask what’s going on, what are the latest interesting legal cases and then partly I look at the news and see what is reverberating in Australia at the moment and draw from all those threads to be able to find what I need to tell a fictional story with contemporary resonance.
What do you think the biggest challenges are facing you in developing the third series of Janet King?
The biggest challenge is to keep developing the situations that Janet is in. You don’t want to give a sense that we are just coming back for another series. We want to give a sense that we have moved somewhere else that it is more interesting than the season before. The stakes have to be as high in a different place, but not necessarily higher – just different. If we pushed them higher each time you end up spinning out of control and the biggest challenge is to maintain control and credibility.
As a writer/producer on the series, what unique considerations do you have going into production?
I am always wearing both hats. I am always dealing with network expectations on quality of story architecture, but then I also have to think as a producer - who do we have options on? Who are the guest characters we can invite back? What are the range of locations that will keep us within budget but also let us tell the story properly..? The trick of writer/producer is – and this is true of all writers – we all want to have more authorial control over our stories but that will only come if you accept financial responsibility and you have to be able to accept both in order to have a large control over the story you want to tell.
You like control?
I like being involved in all aspects of production. I’m quite open about that and that’s why I wanted to learn how to produce– it was about being involved in the whole process. Having an influential voice in casting, collaborating with the Director and DOP and Production Designer about the look of the show, then reviewing the picture cuts and the sound mixes – to be across the whole thing so you are actually making the story that you want to tell. To be that involved I had to move from being a screenwriter to being a producer-writer and it was a very conscious decision to do that.
What advice do you have for any screenwriters who want to do the same?
It works best when you are teamed with line-producers or creative-producers who have come up through production management and who can help you a lot with financing and contracting. In the early days I didn’t mind asking a lot of dumb questions about cost reports until I understood how budgets actually worked. You then have to establish good relations with the networks and understand funding models. Essentially, develop a relationship with a production company and with either the principals of that production company or the heads of production or the line-producers and actively let people know that’s what you want to do. Most people would be happy to embrace that and teach that side of the business as well because it helps them to have what the Americans would call ‘show-runners’. To have writers that are production savvy helps enormously in terms of all product.
How much do you consider the diversity of your characters and the representation of diverse people when you are writing your stories?
Part of the concept for Janet King series two was to illustrate diversity in Australian culture and we were keen to show as rich a palette as possible. We were illustrating many different aspects of Australia and attempting to find a way to put them credibly on screen. There was a lot of conversation about that all through the writing process. But it was a series whose core story leant itself to portraying diversity. Not every show has a concept that can easily embrace diversity – although I’m sure more can than do. Hopefully that’s changing.
What else are you up to?
We are in postproduction on Wolf Creek, which is a 6-hour sequel to the two Greg McLean films, and Greg was involved in that as EP and he also directed the final episode. That will be on Stan. We have the third series of Janet King, which is under development with the ABC and then Secret Daughter, which is a drama series that we are developing for Channel 7 showcasing the brilliance of Jessica Mauboy. It’s been a busy world.