Writing the 1970s for ABC’s Riot

Writing the 1970s for ABC’s Riot

I was introduced to screenwriter Greg Waters at the opening of a play at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre in 2017.

Crossing paths several times since, I asked to interview him about his role working on the recent screenplay for Riot.

Marking the 40th anniversary of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Riot is an ABC telemovie focusing on the six years prior to Sydney’s first Mardi Gras parade in 1978. Vastly different to the popular, colourful event it is today – attracting performers like Cher – the original parade ended with police beatings and arrests.

When you meet someone socially who writes for television, you take it for granted they’re a writer with some credentials. However, until I checked Greg’s IMDb profile, I had little idea just how prolific his work has been for the Australian television industry.

His writing credits include The Alice, My Place, Secret City among others, Drama Development Executive on Rake, and Network Script Editor for Crownies, Paper Giants, The Straights and Janet King – and that’s the short list.

I spoke by phone with Greg Waters while on a rivercat to Parramatta to see Calamity Jane at the Riverside Theatre.

When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?

I had a career in politics, which I knew wasn’t a forever job. I was working as a policy adviser for the Deputy Premier and as a Councillor on South Sydney Council. Back then, I didn’t even know there was such a job as a TV writer. I thought the actors did it themselves.

How long have you been writing screenplays?

I went to film school in 2000 (AFTRS) and left with an M.A. in Screenwriting. So I guess I’ve been working in television since about 2003.

How did you find your way into the Australian television industry?

TV Producer John Edwards took a risk and gave me a shot. I was very lucky to be given a break by someone prepared to take a chance.

What series was that?

Fireflies, about rural firefighters.

What were those first jobs like?

Writing for TV is a really tough gig, nothing prepares you for it. When I turned up for my first job I had no idea what I was in for. I was very lucky to be around a whole lot of extraordinary and patient people…given at least three or four chances until I got it right.

When I think back to that time I wonder how inexperienced writers would now break into the industry. Long-running shows like All Saints and McLeod’s Daughters have disappeared, replaced by lots of high-budget mini-series.

That means a whole training ground for writers has gone. The opportunity to balance the storyline of hour-long episodes and long series story arcs is no longer there. Inexperienced writers don’t get hired for shorter, high-budget series.

Tell me about your role working on the script for Riot.

The fantastic Carrie Anderson researched and created the story, discovering some key figures in the protest movement of the ‘70s. I then worked her research and story into the screenplay for the telemovie.

What was involved in bringing this story to screen as a telemovie?

There was lots and lots of research. We spoke with people who were there. It was quite a long writing process, with lots of input from the cast and director Jeffrey Walker.

It’s one of those pieces that’s so far away from being a solo work, it was highly collaborative – working closely with the set designers, looking at protests of the era, poster designs and, of course, the clothes.

Do you have any favourite characters or scenes you worked on in Riot?

I really really love what Kate Box has done with Marg’s character. The scene with Marg and Lance in hospital after her heart attack is one of my favourite. The cast have really been wonderful in the way they’ve brought the whole show to life.

Were there any challenges recreating the language of the 1970s? And for this particular event?

Yes (laughs). I had friends who were there at the time, and I absolutely exploited them. Did people say ‘okay’, for example? I was keen to avoid being anachronistic, but there may still be a few moments.

Do you believe there is – or do you try to capture – a particular Australian voice or style?

Yes, I do. We were lucky with Riot. Many of the people on whom the characters are based had given oral histories. I was able to listen to their contemporary voices. In general, I do try and be authentic to Australia.

I’ve worked on several international co-pros, although first and foremost Australian. I believe using our unique voice and place is always better for successful Australian drama, and the Australian voice is absolutely necessary.

I’m always watching Australian drama and theatre, checking out new writers, keeping in touch with our contemporary ‘voice’.

You’ve worked in several capacities as a writer, editor and developing drama; is there one role you favour over another?

Nah, I wish I were incredibly talented as a writer, but I’ve had to string together a career jobbing in a variety of roles.

Has experience in those other roles changed how you work as a writer yourself?

Yes, for sure. It’s changed my writing a lot. From getting and giving notes, knowing how not to create problems in a script that could see the First AD (First Assistant Director) ‘blowing up’. I’ve learnt a lot about screenwriting from watching the production process.

Are we seeing a resurgence in writing for Australian film and television?

We certainly are. Writers are being given more of a voice, and a seat at the table. We still don’t have the same value here as writers in the U.S. and U.K. though. In the U.S. the writer is the showrunner, known as God, and usually the creator and head writer.

In the U.K. TV writers are given as long as it takes to create the entire series, with the series writer credited as the key creative figure.

What do you find the most challenging part of scripting for Australian television?

Deadlines. There’s never enough time. Our script departments are way under resourced compared to those in the U.S. and Australian timelines are much shorter than those in the U.K. We rush.

You can watch Riot in Australia on ABC’s iView.

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