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Career-making moments: Vicki Madden

Vicki Madden’s enviable career encompasses police dramas in the 90s, running The Bill in the UK and co-creating The Kettering Incident back home in Tassie.

Vicki Madden with producing partner Vincent Sheehan on the set of The Kettering Incident

What has been a major turning point for you in your career?

There’s a couple.

One of them was getting a gig on Halifax f.p.. I always wanted to work on that show. It was the main show on Australian TV, it was high-end, it was a 90-minute show and I kind of felt it was the genre I wanted to go in. I loved every minute of it – working with (producer) Roger Le Mesurier and (writer-producer) Roger Simpson. They were such wonderful mentors and really pushed me up to the next level.

Then through Halifax I met Lynda La Plante, who invited me to go over to the UK and just working alongside someone like Lynda, the biggest crime writer in the world, was astonishing. It was a year of intense masterclass on crime. That, and her confidence in me, really made me step outside of that needling thing we have a lot back here where (we think) we’re not good enough, or are impinged by little things people have said. When somebody like that endorses you – it’s the first time I really felt like if I put confidence in myself, I will step up. And I did.

And then (there was) working on The Bill over there. The Bill was the biggest, still is really, the biggest script department in the world, which I didn’t know when I went onto it. But running that show and again, having to step up into really big shoes and doing it.

So I think those three elements of getting onto Halifax, working with Lynda La Plante and then working on The Bill – those three things in a row.

What did working with those people, or on those shows teach you?

Confidence.

Because if you lose that confidence you just can’t do it. Something will block it. There’s so many of what I call ‘petty tyrants’ in this industry. It’s an industry where business meets creatives. It’s very competitive and what I might love you may hate, so there’s no real ‘this is good and this is bad’. It’s about believing in yourself and finding a way to tell your stories that is really hard. And you have to have that confidence, because someone will come in and go ‘that’s terrible. I hate that’. And you have to be able to say, ‘no it’s not terrible – it may need work, but it’s not terrible’. I still now sit looking at my next project with a blank page going ‘I don’t know what to write and I’m terrible’. So it never goes away. You just have to hope that you’ve learnt something and try and believe. But I’ll feel a lot better when Kettering goes on air.

Elizabeth Debicki stars in <em>The Kettering Incident</em>/Ben King Elizabeth Debicki stars in The Kettering Incident/Ben King

Did you battle with confidence on The Kettering Incident, which you co-created and co-produced, as well as being a showrunner on?

When I wrote the first draft of the first episode, I had no real boundaries and was writing something that just really formed out of all my years of storytelling. I thought this is a story I tell when I come home, this is my story in Tasmania. So it came out quite easily and (co-creator/producer) Vincent (Sheehan) really liked it and we were on the same page most of the time in making something really unique.

After that, when people come in and read the script and you start getting input it always becomes difficult. That’s when you have to work very hard to keep the vision locked in. You’ve just got to ‘hold your nerve’ and I think I had (that phrase) written on my whiteboard for the first year.

You’ve got to reach an audience so if people aren’t responding in a certain way, you do have to be able to step back and know when to fight and know when to walk away. And that was for me being a producer on this show and it being my baby, I had to be very balanced. Like there was resistance for Crimson and Clover as our key song, but I fought for that because it was my mother’s favourite song and I kind of think as a writer, if you’re passionate about something, other people will accept it and be passionate as well.

I can say I’m very proud of (Kettering) and I recognise it was a show I wanted to make. I just feel like we somehow got there, surprisingly, so I hope everyone likes it and embraces it.

During the actual production itself, you were writing episodes as you went, and the directors and cast weren’t given scripts until they sat down for the read-through. How did you manage? (Madden wrote the ‘bible’ as well as five episodes in the eight-part series. Writers Cate Shortland, Louise Fox and Andrew Knight were also brought on to write an episode each).

There’s something really good about writing as you go and there’s something really bad about it, which is called PRESSURE.

Writing and plotting episodes, and overseeing the other three, it was a monster to juggle, especially because it was a mixture of genres and trying to get the balance right throughout them all. So the pressure became fairly intense around episode 6. I think I remember sitting at four in the morning and my assistant would come in about 7am every morning with a big green juice and I had no idea what it was but she would make me drink that. That and toast with peanut butter I think I just lived on until the end.

There was moments there where I thought ‘I’m stuck, I don’t know what happens next’, but it’s a really good masterclass I will do one day about knowing what your character’s greatest fears are and what your character’s fatal flaws are. Because when you get your back against a wall and you’re in episode 7 and you’re moving towards the end of the big hook, you’ve got to pull all of it into play and knowing what they were quite clearly really saved me. While it was great fun, it was intense and knowing those few key points pulled me home, but man it was a lot of all-nighters let me tell you.

You had a large number of attachments on Kettering. Noirhouse director Shaun Wilson went from his director’s attachment, to another attachment on Rosehaven, where he was also able to direct an episode himself. What is the significance of attachments in Tasmania, and Australian filmmaking as a whole?

I feel quite strongly about this and I think personally, every show that gets funded, especially through government funding should have attachments, especially in the Script Department, for Directors, all the main Heads of Department and we did that – we had 13 attachments. I had three in my writing department.

It’s really important because it gets crazy and it’s incredibly pressured and you just go into this whirlwind, and it was interesting to see the three, how they reacted to that. Because it’s one thing to teach people the basic skill set of script editing, or the basic skills of working in a writing department and what their role is, but until they actually deal with the shooting schedule and working within an environment that is so brutal you can’t really see what the potential of that person is. And so putting people in that extreme situation really quickly helps them also define what they want to do and how far they want to run.

We had a lot of emerging actors from Tasmania and that was important too. There’s no point bringing an entire crew from somewhere else and pushing out the locals, it’s important to bring them in, train them up and hopefully get them to stay as well and not go to the mainland.

It’s up to people like me to ensure and commit to it. There are a lot of people that were on Kettering, who trained up on that and have moved over to Rosehaven, so that’s just solidifying the experience that they’re getting.

Ari Wegner and Tony Krawitz in discussion on set Ari Wegner and Tony Krawitz in discussion on set

You also enlisted the talents of an emerging female cinematographer to capture the gothic, atmospheric look of The Kettering Incident. How did that come about?

Ari Wegner. Ari is quite phenomenal and it is a shock when you first see her because she’s this tiny little thing that comes in, but she’s very passionate and she’s very intuitive.

We looked at her work and she’d done a (feature) film called Ruin (with writer/directors Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson), so it was a big gamble. The two directors (Tony Krawitz and Rowan Woods) were the ones that came into bat for her and introduced her, because we were talking about trying to blend a filmic look even though it’s TV, so that meant bringing in film people. Ari had only done one film so she was quite untapped, but we wanted that – we just wanted everything to look different about the show.

When I first met Ari, we had a tonal meeting. I went to Sydney and I met all the Heads of Department and just talked about my memories of childhood and certain things I really wanted to implement in terms of style. So I was talking a lot about playing in forests when I was little, for example, and the dapples of light that would come through. And I just had memories about this unusual coloured mud and how I wanted the red to pop out because I always use fairytale mythology, so I was using the red riding hood mythology. And the flower, the Kings Lomatia, which is a Tasmanian flower. All sorts of things like that were very particular in this stylised way. She came down (to Tasmania) for a couple of weeks and when she came back we had another meeting and I was just blown away by her visual presentation of what she’d garnered. She had a picture of the mud and she said, ‘I call this Kettering blood’ and I said ‘yes you do and you are the girl’. She picked up everything. She’s amazing. She’s a really bright talent and I think her life will change on July the 4th I think, I hope, in a big way.

Was pitching and getting support for The Kettering Incident difficult?

We were lucky in that Porchlight Films (who co-creator Vincent Sheehan is a founding partner of) is quite a successful company and they had done Animal Kingdom and then The Hunter. And I’d been writing for like 25 years, so we really felt the support was behind us, even though on paper it was quite a bold idea and it was going to be expensive, and it was.

Then Screen Tasmania immediately gave us just seed funding and Foxtel came on quite quickly. Screen Australia came on board once Foxtel had committed to it, when you go for match funding or the next stage of funding, so again huge amount of support from everyone.

The great thing about the whole experience (is that with) Foxtel, right up front, (when) we pitched it, we said this is bold, it’s very different, it’s high end, we’re blending supernatural with drama, which no one had done at that point, and to their credit, they never backed away from it.  They did question things at times but that was good for me because it was helping me solidify the idea. But they never backed away from being bold which was quite, for someone like myself, is so fantastic and promising.

Why did you stick to the showrunner model most commonly used on US series?

Because I’ve got a lot of experience in production as well and when I worked on The Bill they ran that with the showrunner model. I have long been doing creative producing in the UK and I definitely could put a show together so I said that to (Vincent) right up front (and) he really quickly committed to that idea. So I was able to, from the moment the idea was put to paper, write five out of the eight episodes, oversaw all of the others, and was on set right into post-production, right to the very last frame, through the music and now through the promos.

I’ve probably become one of those really obsessive people. It’s been a four year whirlwind and until it goes to air, it’s still going to be like that.

In Australia, I think people are reacting to the word ‘showrunner’ because it implies that you just come in and take over. But it’s not that at all. It’s writers stepping up into producer roles where the creative vision of the show remains. You bring everybody in but you steer the ship a bit more from a creative point of view, which just makes sense to me. The fact that writers get cut off, virtually once the director gets the script, is ridiculous, because then that person has different ideas and they don’t know where the original idea came from.

On a show like this, an eight-parter, it lends itself to the showrunner model and being able to bring in a great team of people, including our two directors and all the actors as well.

Is there potential for a second series of The Kettering Incident?

Definitely in the story. There’s a very satisfying ending and we definitely answer a lot of the questions, but like any good drama, there’s always the stirrings of series 2 and more questions.

The Kettering Incident airs on Foxtel’s Showcase at 8.30pm on Mondays from July 4.