Sarah Scheller on writing motherhood satire: The Letdown
The seven-part comedy series, The Letdown, for ABC in Australia and Netflix internationally, was produced with funding support from Screen Australia in association with Create NSW. ABC will broadcast the series in Australia on TV and ABC iView. Netflix will stream the series internationally outside of Australia and in Australia following its premiere season on ABC. Ahead of its release at the end of October we spoke with the series co-writer Sarah Scheller about the series.
Are you determined not to be defined by motherhood?
Absolutely. I had my first baby at 32, which is considered quite young these days, but I always knew I wasn’t going to completely lose myself to motherhood. I wasn’t ready to give up on my old life and over the years have worked really hard to fit my children into my life, and not the other way around. Of course there were times in the early days when that was impossible, especially when my second born refused to drink from anything but the breast for almost two years, and I felt the isolation and loneliness like every new mother. It took me a while to realise the sacrifices I was making were nothing in the bigger scheme of things. The intensity of those early challenges is what makes the experience so real and profound.
I was also overcome by a wave of ambition as soon as I had my daughter, Frances, which really took me by surprise. I started writing and used the time I had to think hard about what it was I wanted to do with my life. Once you have a baby your time becomes so precious and I knew I didn’t want to waste my years working for someone else in an uninspiring job. I also approached motherhood as a challenge, not the act itself, but challenging the norms and fighting against the preconceived ideas of what I could and couldn’t do. I was determined not to spend every night in and I was determined to find time to work and write. And I did! Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband and family. Also, my mother always worked and continued to study later in life so I had a strong role model for a woman who didn’t define herself through motherhood.
Both you and Alison are co-creators and writers. Can you tell us how you write together; what’s your process?
I like to think of us as true collaborators, we really do work as a team. First, we come up with storylines and spend long lengths of time talking, possibly too long, plotting storylines, series arcs and breaking the stories. It involves plenty of coffee and/or Al’s homemade treats. For the first series, many ideas were drawn from a collection of anecdotes from friends, family and each other. We realised early on that it’s much easier to write from a place of truth knowing that the story actually did happen to someone. After we’ve done the plotting broad strokes we compile detailed episode outlines and then we set off to write the first drafts. We might split them up but we then pass them back and forth for edits and rewrites. Often we write in the same document, literally watching each other’s words pop up on screen, and then disappear when we invariably delete.
What has been the most rewarding part of seeing your script come to life?
It’s very gratifying being on set and seeing the crew crack up at a joke or come up and tell me how much they enjoyed a certain scene, that always means a lot. Seeing Trent smirking behind the monitor is always a good sign, he’s very discerning with his comedy.
I feel very fortunate to have secured such a superb cast (Alison included) and it’s always a thrill hearing your script come to life when it’s in the hands of great actors. Any anxieties I had about handing over the characters were instantly eased when I saw how deeply the actors cared about their performances and the characters they inhabited. I really have a newfound respect.
There was also moment during pre-production when I had to pick my kids up from school and take them back to the office. They were moaning because they didn’t want to go, they wanted to go home or to the park, etc, etc. Then an old friend came up and told me how much she had loved the pilot, how much it had meant to her and she started getting teary talking about it. After she left I said to the kids: “That’s why we have to go back to the office. We have to make this series so mothers feel that they’re not alone.”
Frankie got it; Henry still wanted to go home.
Was there a particular scene or character with this script that was more difficult than the rest or more challenging?
We were overly conscious of making sure the show would appeal to men, as well as women, so I think we put a lot of thought and time into Jeremy’s character, and also Ruben. We did a lot of research amongst male friends, and our partners to ensure we were writing fully rounded characters and not simply stereotypes. I remember asking Trent, “What did it feel like for you when we came home from the hospital with a new baby? What was going on in your head?” It was really interesting to speak with him about it, because at the time everyone is so focused on the baby and the mother that the partners are often forgotten. I genuinely had no idea what he was going through.
What do you hope the audience will take away from watching the series?
I hope new parents will relate and feel comforted to know they’re not alone in their challenges with new parenthood. There’s nothing wrong with admitting it’s not living up to expectations, or that you thought it would be better, or that your relationship has changed, or that your mother isn’t the grandparent you thought she’d be, and so on. All we can hope for is that people watch, have a laugh and maybe a little cry.
Can you tell us how you started off as a writer and what your career pathway has been like?
I studied journalism but only started working as a freelance journalist after I had my daughter. Before that, I worked in fashion PR and advertising. I was always interested in screenwriting and had always helped my husband with his TV shows, but The Letdown was my first real screenwriting gig.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Write about what you know, it makes the whole process so much easier and you can write truthfully, which will come across in the dialogue. For television screenwriting I also think watching other shows is important, knowing what’s out there.
Oh, and don’t put it off, just open your laptop and start writing - easier said than done, right?
Do you test your writing out on anyone – if so, who and why?
I wouldn’t say we ‘tested’ our writing on anyone in particular but we certainly ran storylines and jokes by our partners, who both have excellent taste in comedy. Alison’s partner, Johnny, is also an actor so the two of them would often read the scripts together and get a feel for the rhythm of the dialogue and timing and structure of the jokes. Trent is also a great comedy sounding board and whenever he nodded and muttered something like “yeah that’s really funny” I knew it was a winner.
What’s next for you?
To be honest, I’m still consumed by The Letdown and haven’t had time to think about anything else! But, I’m back in Los Angeles, resettling the kids after months in Australia, and starting to breathe again.