Screenwriting is a Collective Dream

Thursday, May 9, 2019
Christopher Gist and Sarah Mayberry Interviewed by Christy Collins

Christopher Gist
Christopher Gist

Young Writers: School Holiday Program: Writing for the Screen

CC: The move away from commercial to network television has allowed TV writing to break out of some of its traditional boundaries in terms of format and audience. What are the results of this for aspiring TV writers? 

CG: The multiple platforms offer a wider range of opportunities for different voices and different types of programmes. Even the length of the programmes - there are many more shorter series, or shorter length programmes than there used to be. It's a good time to break into TV. 

CC: New formats also include web-series. Are there new opportunities emerging writers should be aware of?

SM: Web series are increasingly a launching pad for TV, but also are commissioned series in their own right. Chris commissioned Wastelander Panda when he was at the ABC, and a number of ABC comedy series have sprung from the web. It's a great, much-lower cost way to show what you can do, and you can compete at notable Academy Award credentialed festivals like SXSW and the Austin Film Festival. 

CC: What are the particular challenges of writing for very long running television series, such as Neighbours?

SM: Obviously keeping a track of the backstory/history of the many characters and even the neighbourhood itself is a challenge on a show that has been going for more than 30 years. There are also a lot of other production constraints that viewers aren’t aware of - everything from restrictions on what can be shown during the time slot (i.e. until recently, we couldn’t show blood on screen), to cast restrictions due to scheduling and budget issues, with a whole bunch of other things to consider in between. The story team are very creative at finding ways to tell stories within the many constraints.

CC: What are your favourite aspects of writing for the screen?

CG: Screen writing is everything: it's pictures, it's music, it's explosions, it's car chases, it's tears, it's the world. It is creating a dream that we can all sit together in a room for and participate in. 

CC: Can you give us a couple of recent examples of writing for the screen that you’ve found really engaging or innovative?

CG: We both really enjoyed 'Huge in France', a Netflix original comedy series. BBC’s 'The Bodyguard' was also really compelling, especially in terms of the way they just didn’t hold anything back in terms of story. 'Avengers: Endgame' was a great exercise in balance - a good mix of emotion, action and comedy, with some genuine surprises in terms of cast departures. 'The Favourite' featured some really interesting directing choices and amazing performances from the three leads. And we really enjoyed 'The Death Of Stalin', a great arthouse satire. 

CC: Why might writers consider expanding their “toolbox” to include skills for writing for the screen?

CG: Screenwriting teaches dialogue writing like nothing else. It teaches writers to be really clear in their descriptive writing, and to learn how to "leave a space" between sentences that allows the audience to make connections for themselves. Screenwriting is used in gaming, in animation, and it also prepares writers for the style of writing required in graphic novels.

CC: For writers starting out, what clues might indicate that they might be well suited to screen writing?

CG: If you love movies or TV or games, if you love dialogue, if you want to see the imaginative world on a screen, then this amazing work sounds like it could be for you.  

About Christopher Gist

Christopher Gist has been Drama Commissioner for ABC-TV and Television New Zealand where he Executive Produced both networks' highest rating dramas. He has written theatre, television, print, and internationally awarded short film. He has assessed Melbourne University VCA Masters of Production graduates, mentored VCA Screenwriting undergraduates, been Industry Member for Deakin University's Academic Advisory, and guest lecturer at multiple universities. He is developing a feature film and is currently an Honours Supervisor for VCA Screenwriting. 

About Sarah Mayberry

Sarah Mayberry is a New York Times best-selling author, screenwriter, Story Editor, and Script Editor. She has worked in print, one-hour series television, half-hour series television, and edited several feature films. Her acclaimed television teen series Karaoke High has been distributed internationally, and she is Neighbours' longest continuous screen writer. She is currently working in-house as a Senior Storyliner for Neighbours and has a feature film under consideration with one of Australia's State funding bodies.