For the past five years ‘Packed to the Rafters’ was Australia’s Number 1 drama. The show finished its run last month with a fitting finale. David Lawrance, a script editor during the show’s run has been kind enough to do a Q&A for this site. He talks about the show, script writing in general and what it’s like to get into the mindset of a late 40s woman.
Some Background Information:
Give us a little background information for those folks who aren’t familiar with your one-liners on Twitter…
I’m a film and television screenwriter with a past life in film post-production. Between the ages of 19 and about 25 I worked as a colourist, which basically involves working with the Director of Photography on a film and adjusting the colour of each shot to give the desired look to a scene. But that was a massive hassle to try to explain at parties, so I became a screenwriter instead.
I actually always wanted to be a director, ever since I was a kid, so every job I had was intended to be a step towards that. But I wrote as well, always writing my own scripts and plays, and I found it easier than the directing side of it, so when I was 27, after spending a couple of years trying to get a gig directing music videos and commercials, I decided I should play to my strengths and become a writer full time.
I applied for and got accepted into AFTRS (Australian Film, Television and Radio School), which led to an internship with Channel 7, which led to a script on Packed to the Rafters, which finally led to a full-time gig on the show.
Do you go through a particular process when writing a script?
Pre-television, when all I wrote were short films and plays, I would always just sketch out the idea in one page and then just go straight to the script. It’s quick and it got the job done.
But since working on TV dramas, I’ve adopted the more rigorous, layered process of the medium. Because you’ve got so many freelance writers working on the one show, you can’t just give them one page and say “now go and write it” because you’d get back 22 scripts that felt like they were each from a different show. And that would be a nightmare for the in-house staff, whose job it is to oversee continuity, character voices, things like that. So you go through lots of steps, from outline, to a more detailed scene breakdown, to first draft and second draft. And you give the writer feedback at every stage, so they never stray too far from the path. And for the writer it means that they get a few chances to refine the story and character.
So now whenever I write a script, be it for TV or film, I go from outline, to scene breakdown, then through a couple of drafts. It takes longer, but there’s something reassuring about being that thorough.
Working on Packed to the Rafters:
You were Script Editor (as well as a Writer) on Packed to the Rafters for three years.
Any extra pressure on you as Script Editor when having to write a script? Do you watch the episodes you write?
There is a bit of extra pressure when you write a script, because you’re expected to be intimately familiar with the show. So if you wrote a bad script while working as a script editor day in and day out, people would begin to question your commitment to the show I guess. That’s not to say that my scripts weren’t reworked by the editor after I’d handed them in – but that happens to nearly everyone.
And I watch every episode of Rafters. Not because I had to (although you really should), but because I had a real fondness for the show. I’ll admit I haven’t watched the last 4 episodes yet though. I have them recorded, but it was such an amazing experience working on the show that I kind of don’t want it to end. So I might watch one every couple of weeks, just to stretch it out.
There were some cast changes while you worked on the show. As Script Editor, you would have been involved in the development of the storylines. Did the departures and introduction of new characters, affect the process in any way in terms of the storyboarding of ideas?
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a lot of work when an actor suddenly becomes unavailable for whatever reason. We did have a few stressful moments while I was on Rafters where we had scripts ready to go and an actor couldn’t do it due to scheduling or whatever. Then there are these hurried meetings that I actually really liked, where the script department sit around the table and come up with alternative stories. But it’s so last minute that everything is up for grabs and these ridiculous ideas you’d tossed out jokingly in the past were suddenly being seriously considered. It really taught me that ideas are a commodity. No matter how lame it seems, any idea you have is worth something to someone.
Ted’s dementia storyline was one that has received praise, particularly on social media. How did the script department approach the storyline and did the process change since it would be a continuing storyline as opposed to a single episode idea.
I believe that was a story Michael Caton really wanted to do, and he took it to my boss and script producer Anthony Ellis. And everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by dementia, so we used our own stories, combined with a lot of research by our script co-ordinator Paige Montague. And yes, it was always designed to form the backbone of the last season – it’s such a massive story it couldn’t be contained in one episode. It was way bigger than the infidelity storyline between Julie and Dave, and probably as big in impact as Mel’s death. We were all very pleased with how it turned out.
People who follow your Twitter account would know this, but how was it to do Julie’s blog on Rafters. And how was it to get into the mindset of a late 40s woman?
Pretty painful to be honest. As a childless man I was really flying blind, just making up stories about what I thought a toddler might do. I hope it sounded authentic. I didn’t write all of the blog entries, it was shared around the department, but I always dreaded it when my turn came around.
You can be biased in your answer to this question, do you have a favourite Packed to the Rafters episode? Or is there one in particular that stands out?
Probably the death of Mel episode from Season 4. Partly because that’s the ep that was being written when I was an intern on the show and partly because it’s such a touching episode – and totally devastating.
Favourite All-Time TV Show: I’m going to be very unoriginal and say The Wire.
Favourite TV Show currently still on air: Game of Thrones.
Favourite Writer (any medium): David Mamet. I adore Glengarry Glen Ross and Edmund and just love his particular take on the English language.
Time to plug any upcoming projects:
I wrote an episode of a kids show called Sam Fox: Extreme Adventures earlier this year and it was probably the most fulfilling writing experience I’ve had in my career so far. I can’t wait to see it go to air.
And I’m writing a sitcom pilot with a friend of mine. I can’t say what it is just yet but I think we definitely need more sitcoms in this country.
And one last question: Do you think the Rabbitohs can finally break their drought this year?
Yes they can. And they will.
Thanks David for answering the questions and best of luck in the future!
You can catch Packed to the Rafters reruns on Universal Channel on Foxtel/Austar/Optus weeknights at 6:30pm.
Or follow David on Twitter @davidlawrance