Vicki Madden on bringing the showrunner model Down Under
When it came to putting together Foxtel’s The Kettering Incident, co-creator, co-producer and writer Vicki Madden was determined to adopt a showrunner-type model, despite it not being common practice in Australia.
There were several reasons behind that decision, but in part it was because the story she’d written was personal, she told IF. Kettering is set in Madden’s home state of Tasmania, and the story is by inspired by both her childhood and some of her own feelings around returning to Tassie from overseas.
The showrunner model also afforded Madden – who had previously worked overseas as a story producer on shows such as The Bill, The Clinic and K9 – a kind of creative control over the production that a writer wouldn’t typically have. She and Kettering co-creator and co-producer, Porchlight’s Vincent Sheehan, effectively “owned the show”, she said.
“All the heads of department were working to a creative vision that was inspired by my story. So that gives you a lot of power. When I say power, I don’t want to make that sound like I’m misusing it, as in ‘nobody else can say anything’ – but it allows you to keep the vision intact.”
The kinds of control went down to the visual style of the show being clearly outlined in the script, to tonal meetings – an uncommon practice in television – and wardrobe.
“You actually feel like your imagination is going on screen, rather than just being part of the machine of elements,” said Madden, who will discuss the role of the showrunner at the upcoming Screen Makers Conference in Adelaide.
In many ways, Madden said the showrunner or creative producer model reflects a changing face of TV, where shorter-run, ‘binge watch’ television series are put together more like an eight hour film. It’s a way of working she predicts will increase in Australia while the zeitgeist remains focused on high-end drama with sophisticated story lines.
“The way of creating a strong, powerful voice [for a show] is to have one very strong voice at head,” she said. “Traditionally we’ve had long-form drama [in Australia]; we still have it on commercial TV. And nobody actually owns that voice; we have a bible we all work to… So there’s nothing of me, as a writer, really coming to the table. All you can do is try to adopt the feel of the show.”
“Similarly the person running that show could be the fourth generation story producer. They may be able to impose an ideal on that series that they’re story producing… but it’s not a very big voice; you’re very limited.”
The Kettering Incident was critically lauded both here and abroad, won the special jury prize at France’s Series Mania, won two AACTA Awards and sold to Amazon Prime in the US. Madden sees subscription platforms like Foxtel, Netflix and Stan, as offering niche shows like Kettering a chance to thrive in Australia and that can then also translate overseas.
“When you go to a [commercial] network, they want you to write a show that’s going to be of interest to a 17 year old and a 65 year old. So you end up with these middle-of-the-road shows that try and grab a bit of everybody. Whereas, I think what these shorter-run, high-end shows that Foxtel are able to do is find a niche audience and then hope that it spreads out from there. That’s a whole different ball game in terms of the way you tell stories, when you don’t have to include everybody in Australia. You’re really writing to a branded network.”
While Madden, who runs production company Sweet Potato Films, still primarily sees herself as a writer, she said Kettering has opened up a lot of opportunities to creatively produce, particularly internationally. She’s currently in the process of working on a pilot with a US network, and has had another project optioned by Clerkenwell Films in the UK.
Madden has also received development funding from Screen Australia for The Gloaming. A crime story also set in Tassie, the series follows two police officers who have to overcome a shared trauma to uncover the identity of a killer. Madden has written and created the series, and will also produce with John Molloy (Boys In The Trees).
“It’s a really good companion to Kettering,” said Madden. “It’s a completely different show, but has all the hallmarks of a Sweet Potato project.”
Madden is the keynote speaker at this weekend’s Screen Makers Conference in Adelaide, July 28-29.