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SPADA 09: New Dramas, a masterclass by another name

The masterclass you are having when are you not having a masterclass would aptly describe the SPADA conference session The Inside Story of the New Dramas.

While the title might have been missing the degree of detail and candour offered by both The Cult producer Rachel Gardner and This is Not My Life’s (GRST) Executive Producer Steven O’Meagher had all the hallmarks of such a session.

Much of the thanks must also go to the knowledgeable facilitation by Chris Bailey who was himself producer of This if Not My Life for a short period, before moving on to South Pacific Pictures where he is, amongst other things, Producer of Go Girls.

Both The Cult and This is Not My Life were shot earlier this year, both for TVNZ. The Cult is already in broadcast.

The Cult was in development for two years. The idea was triggered by a cult shifting in next door to Great Southern TV’s (GSTV) Phil Smith’s home near Queenstown. Gardner didn’t buy into the concept originally but Smith’s persistence eventually prevailed. It led to the worst year of Rachel’s life – very satisfying, but incredibly hard work developing a 13 part series aimed at prime time television. GSTV were aiming for high production values and, for Rachel, it was also a new genre.

GRST’s O’Meagher noted that This is Not My Life hasn’t been seen yet by the TVNZ and that The Cult had set the bar high. Development took 18 months; writing and rewriting the script was very time consuming but TVNZ was very supportive and did not rush the process. Like GSTV, GRST were aiming for high production values.

TVNZ’s involvement in the development process was considerable and both O’Meagher and Gardner noted how useful it was. It was noted that broadcasters do know the market well, certainly their target market.

This is Not My Life is a high concept drama set in the future – the day after tomorrow. To help visualise the concept GRST employed a futurist who amongst other things noted that the future is already here – it is just not well distributed. Think, for example of early adopters of digital technology, versus those who have never used it. Roger Horrocks was also employed to help guide the creative process as a neutral, calming influence.

Rachel noted that by the pre-production stage they had 4 scripts ready, various other in draft and 4 storylines. Drafts were being turned around every 2 weeks.

The Cult used four directors in production, This is Not My Life two. Continuity was able to be maintained by having strong bibles, storyboarding and the oversight of producers. Rachel was fortunate in being able to make decisions herself, whereas Steven, on key decisions, had co confer with the other partners in GRST.

Rachel noted that a 13 hour series requires 13 hours of scoring and they were fortunate in being able to obtain the services of Rhian Sheehan, who came on board before shooting commenced. GRST tried to use existing music developed for feature films, but eventually found that this did not work with the overall concept and employed Don McGlashan.

Both Steven and Rachel used Red (2K) cameras and although both had initial concerns about data processing and handling through to post-production, these were able to be addressed.

But, despite the solid preparation work in development and pre-production, it’s impossible to plan for everything. On The Cult, one of the lead actors snapped his Achilles’ tendon.

GSTV did not want to lose his character, particularly so far into the series, and within 24 intense hours brainstormed script changes to accommodate the accident. This still meant major re-writes of scripts which kept the writers busy for some time.

Both Steven and Rachel commented on the importance of the script – and the need to love the story because it is part of your life for so long. GSTV brought a sales agent on board early on and succeeded in getting a pre-sale based on the script. This was necessary to get the budget they required. Steven was also confident that they would achieve sales, based on the strength of the script.

In fact, summarised O’Meagher, his experience reinforced that old truism – the importance of the script. If there was one thing that should be taken from his experience, that would be it. Gardner concurred.

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