Australian producers who lament the time and resources devoted to developing projects that don’t eventuate can take heart from Dominic Minghella.
Despite a stellar track record as the creator of Doc Martin and Robin Hood, the UK producer/writer says his strike rate is just one in six of all the projects he’s developed.
“I have been incredibly lucky, but what you don’t see are the projects I wrote which I was sure would work and didn’t work,” he tells IF via Skype from his home in London. “Development isn’t fun.”
Minghella will be a keynote speaker at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever conference in Melbourne this November, marking just his second trip down under. In 2008 he took part in Spark, the script development program by the Australian Film Commission run in conjunction with the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). He looks forward to discussing several projects with Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale and Miranda Dear and with Moody Street Productions’ Gillian Carr.
While the showrunner is excited by the opportunities offered by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms, he does worry about the worldwide glut of drama production.
“I don’t fully understand how all these shows are monetised in the end and I don’t really believe they all can be. It does feel there is a bubble and that over the next three or five years it will shrink back a bit and there will be fewer players,” he says.
“A lot of other people think like that too, so it comes down to, ‘How can I be among those that stay in the game?’ They may think that instead of making five mediocre dramas they should make two expensive ones. It’s like a big game of poker. You have to keep seeing everyone else, otherwise you’ll be out.
“It is overheated, which is crazy, really mad, but it’s a great time to be a creator because if you can get a show away the challenges are really interesting. You can cast people who aren’t famous, because nobody wants to pay someone who is already famous millions of dollars on a show that is already costing too much. You can be a kingmaker by casting unknown faces.”
One issue which concerns him is what he describes as the “gigantic haemorrhage” of UK talent to the US, similar to the talent drain which Oz has experienced.
“Even if you felt you could make your show quite well on the smaller British budget, you find the actors you want are used to be being paid quite a lot more money than your budget would allow. It’s a global inflation,” he says.
Among the shows which he and his colleagues at Island Pictures are developing is a true-crime drama based on a mass shooting in the remote New Hampshire town of Colebrook in 1997. The 67-year-old gunman killed four people and wounded four policemen before he was killed in a shootout.
“This is a case that everyone forgot. It happened before Columbine and it has a very human, relatable story. It happened in a community of fiercely independent, strong-minded folk, the kind of place where nothing like this will ever happen, and [yet] it does,” he says.
The screenplay will be adapted from Richard Adams Carey’s book ‘In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to One Small Town.’ The producer intends to start with a podcast and then sell the series to one of the OTT operators such as Netflix or Hulu.
Another project is a series about a brilliant, charismatic and maverick philosopher who tries to repair his relationships with his ex-wife and their teenage son, inspired by a Spanish TV show Merlí, which ran for three seasons on Catalan-language channel TV3.
The protagonist reminds Minghella of one of his tutors at Oxford University, whom he much admired despite misbehaviour which included sleeping with some students, and with whom he became great friends.
After studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, Minghella worked as a runner for a TVC company and then started reading and critiquing scripts and books for ITV broadcasters around the country. He enjoyed the experience but the pay was lousy. At £20 ($A36.30 at the current exchange rate) per report, it was barely enough to buy petrol for the Mercedes entrusted to him by his brother Anthony Minghella while he flew around the world directing movies such as the Academy Award-winning The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain (Anthony died in 2008, aged 54).
Dominic got his first break when he was hired as assistant to producer Deirdre Keir, initially working on the second series of Firm Friends, an ITV comedy about a middle-class white housewife who sets up a catering business with her Indian cleaning lady, starring Billie Whitelaw and Madhur Jaffrey.
After that Keir asked him to serve as script editor and a writer on Hamish Macbeth, a BBC comedy/mystery/drama starring Robert Carlyle as a Scottish cop. That taught him how to make shows that the whole family can see together, that are occasionally about something real, but mostly focus on a warm-hearted community – lessons he would apply to his next production.
He got a call from actor Martin Clunes, who wanted to hire him to write a series which would star Clunes as a doctor in Cornwall. Minghella’s somewhat surprising response was: “’I know what that show is and I don’t want to see it.’ Although Martin had played a supposedly naughty boy in Men Behaving Badly, he was still a cuddly, good old Martin kind of figure. I thought it would be one of those shows you can see on a Sunday night with the sound turned down, a chocolate-box village with a dog in it.”
Clunes saw his point and agreed to Minghella’s concept, succinctly put as: a show about the world’s best physician with the world’s worst bedside manner. It was and is, of course, a break-out hit, but Minghella quit after the second series because he was offered another gig: co-creating, writing and producing the series Robin Hood for the BBC and production company Tiger Aspect.
He helped Clunes find new writers for Doc Martin but never intended to stay beyond two series, explaining: “I’m a control freak. That show was already controlled, run by Martin and his wife [producer Philippa Braithwaite], who were doing a fantastic job. I like to be in on the ground, making choices of cast and directors and design, and that was for them to do.”
In 2012 he produced Charles Sturridge’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, which starred Matthew Rhys, Eileen Atkins and Anton Lesser.
Most recently he served as the executive producer and one of the writers on the first season of Knightfall, the historical action-adventure created by Don Handfield and Richard Rayner for A+E Studios and the US History channel, which screened here on SBS.
Much as he enjoyed working with the cast and crew on the 10-episode production budgeted at about $US50 million, he found the logistics of shooting in Prague and liaising with the Los Angeles-based executives at A+E difficult.
“I loved the show but it was very, very hard, particularly making calls to LA at 2 am,” he says.
“It’s done pretty well in Europe and internationally but not as well as everyone hoped in North America. Part of the problem was the positioning in the US, launching late on a Wednesday just before Christmas, which is not the time when people are looking to commit to a new show. I knew I could not bring in [a second series] in a way that would have been right for them and me.” Nonetheless History has renewed the show.
So with all that experience, what guidance and tips on constructing mainstream shows can he share with Australian producers? One core principle is having strong, relatable central characters. Another key ingredient is the supporting characters and the environment around them. In Doc Martin, for example, the protagonist has no access to his emotions, so the people around him articulate on his behalf.
“In the old days you could have a character who stayed the same, like Columbo [the long-running US series which starred Peter Falk as a homicide detective in Los Angeles], which began and ended each week in exactly the same place,” he says.
“You can’t do that now. You have to drip-feed new stuff into your main characters and move them a little bit or even a lot, depending on whether your show is a serial or a series.”
Minghella notes there is still some resistance among writers in the UK to the showrunner model. He was surprised to be told that model has been embraced enthusiastically here, which perhaps suggests the Australian creative community is more collegial.
Dominic Minghella is among the keynote speakers at this year’s Screen Forever. This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #185.