Liz Doran preps Matchbox series, feature ‘Bondi Beach Breakfast Club’
Screenwriter Liz Doran has written for The Secret Life of Us, McLeod’s Daughters, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Dance Academy and Please Like Me.
She speaks to Jackie Keast about Gender Matters and upcoming projects.
How did you get your start as a writer?
Well, I did it the classic long way of making sure I was an expert before I put myself forward (laughs). I left school in the early 90s and actually trained as a film editor, but I always only ever wanted to be a writer. After I finished film school I did the usual thing: I applied for a lot of development [funding] for early drafts and I tried to get Screen NSW funding for things. I was quite lucky; there was a funding round through the F.T.O., the precursor to Screen NSW, and they funded development on a series of 50-minute scripts. They were essentially funding a TV hour. SBS made four or five but they developed about ten. The one I got some funding to develop was kind of a contemporary rom com. Coincidentally for me – and happily – The Secret Life of Us came out at the same time, so I could use that script as a spec to show the producers of The Secret Life of Us. I was really lucky because they took a punt on me, but this is the thing – how do young people do it now? Secret Life of Us made twenty-two hours a season, whereas ten is a massive achievement these days. Mainly they’re six and eight. To give a new writer one of your eight episodes is a much bigger risk than to give a new writer one of your 22 episodes. The producers of Secret Life of Us were John Edwards and Amanda Higgs and they are very pro taking a chance on a young new writer. But the opportunity to do that within the current structure is really difficult.
Two of your projects received Gender Matters development funding last year. Why are initiatives like that one necessary?
There is a sense that the stories of our culture are historically male dominated. As a woman you get used to watching men and transposing your own story onto male stories. Most of my work is in TV and I’ve been in rooms where there’s been a majority of men and it skewed us really quickly. Most of the men in the film and television industry are delightful, you know (laughs). You rarely come across a bad one. But there’s an historical bias, and we all make stories that reflect our own lives. I’m a big believer in diversity in all areas in the writing room. Because if you get heteronormative whites dominant in the room then that’s the kind of stories that are going to come out, because we all tell stories about ourselves essentially. Although with women’s stories it’s not really [about] diversity because we’re not actually a minority (laughs). I think female directors are hugely important to the process as well. I think they’ve got a different take on things and I think crews are different around women directors.
One of your two Gender Matters projects is Holy Cow.
It’s based on a book called Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald. It’s a co-production between Ester Harding and Chloe Rickard from Jungle and also Radha Mitchell, who originally optioned the book. I’m adapting that story into a contemporary adult TV drama series. It’s based around a young woman who goes to India to escape her life and ends up having all sorts of adventures and finds herself, or finds a different side of herself, over in India. It’s a pretty exciting contemporary drama. Three writers: there’s me, Lally Katz and Greg Waters. We’ve done two really big brainstorming sessions. We’ve got the first episode plotted. It’s a 10 x 1 hour drama series.
Will the success of The Dressmaker herald a groundswell of female stories?
The feature project that I’ve got with Louise Smith, the other Gender Matters project, is Bondi Beach Breakfast Club. It’s the story about three friends over four decades and it is unashamed. You know, we sort of think of it as Bridesmaids meets Beaches. We’re not being cynical about it; we were developing it before Genders Matters. If it’s a Sunday afternoon with your girlfriends at the movies, this is the one you’ll choose because it’s a story that is absolutely, 100 percent, specifically targeted at women. And I don’t think that is a problem because there is a bunch of action movies that are 100 percent specifically targeted at fifteen-year-old boys, and no one seems to think that that’s remarkable.
This will be your first feature?
It’s funny, I’ve got so many TV writing credits and I’ve developed a lot of features yet none of them have been made. That was one of the reasons I went, ‘I’m just going to work in television because at least they make things’. So it is certainly not the first feature film that I’ve written but, if it gets up, it would be my first feature as a writer. It’s very loosely based on a group of friends of mine who’d meet every Friday morning, for about ten years, at 6.30am on Bondi Beach. We’d go for a swim and talk about our lives and have coffee and that’s where the title comes from. It’s exploring friendship over decades, and how the kind of friendships you have when you are twenty are different from the ones you have in your thirties and your forties. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal. I’ve finished the first draft.
You must be proud of the extraordinary acclaim that the fourth season of Please Like Me received.
That show has always been a delight and I feel like I was so fortunate to meet those guys at such an early stage. I met them right at the very beginning of writing season one. I’m so proud of it. There’s a lot of comedy out there that is just boring white male jokes about their dicks and getting fat. Really dull sort of stuff. Whereas the thing our boys did really well and the thing that attracted me to the premise [was that] it was a coming of age story. A coming of age story with that very real and difficult family story that Josh has always been telling around mental illness and his relationship with his parents. I just thought that was such a thoughtful introduction to a comedy. It’s this really lovely, gentle exploration of what it means to be in your twenties and also what it means to be in your fifties. And what it means to be a slightly damaged person living in the world. There’s a gentleness to that story that I’ve always really loved.
Are you working on other shows?
Oh yeah. I wish I was doing less. I’m doing a new show with Matchbox. It’ll be another big 10 x 1 hour drama series, but it has to go to the network. I’m writing the pilot. It’s not my idea – I wish it was – but if it gets up I’ll be running the writers room and being the head writer, but it’s an idea they already had. I’m doing more Doctor Doctor. And I’m developing another show with Essential Media. I’m just writing an episode. And I’m writing a feature based on a true story called Chain Reaction. It’s a happy story about Australia’s reaction to the AIDS crisis set in the 80s in Sydney. It’s a good-news story, actually. So there’s a bit on.