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Cybercrime and the showrunner model: The Code series 2

Shelley Birse talks about empowering writers from the set of Screen Australia-supported The Code series 2.

In a sleek cybersecurity office, fingertips clack rhythmically on keyboards as two women survey the world before them. One is Sigrid Thornton’s character in The Code series 2, but the other is away from the action, behind the camera: creator, co-producer and co-writer Shelley Birse.

As the scene ends, Birse and director Shawn Seet share some thoughts, before the writer, who cut her teeth on G.P. before working on shows such as Satisfaction and Lockie Leonard, emerges to chat with the actors on the set.

Birse was creator, co-writer and co-producer on the first series of ABC’s critically-acclaimed The Code, which won six AACTA awards and has sold in over 140 countries (with some multi-territory deals increasing its reach to more than 200 territories).

And now Birse has returned with another politically-charged, edge-of-your-seat tale in The Code series 2. The Screen Australia-supported thriller throws journalist Ned (Dan Spielman) and his hacker brother Jesse (Ashley Zuckerman) into the heart of the action again as they delve into the threat of cybercrime.

“There’s a brand new wave of currency for the story material,” Birse explains from the set in Sydney days out from wrapping the nine-week shoot, which also took place in Canberra and far north Queensland.

“The Arab Spring was part of the petrol for series 1 and by the time we came to series 2, suddenly there were the Ed Snowden revelations and it felt like there was a whole new chapter of issues and material to deal with.”

Which was a plus, considering Birse played “all the cards we had” on series 1.

“We knew that it was a very risky project for the ABC. We really didn’t know whether it would fly,” she says.

“We thought we might only get to do this dance once, so we’ve got to use everything that we have.”

‘Risky’ was because The Code was attempting something not usually done in Australian television.

The Code was one of several series that came about from Playmaker Media’s Scribe Initiative, which was funded through Screen Australia’s Enterprise Program.

Shelley Birse on the set of her show The Code/Kate Ryan

The initiative, which was initially mentored by NCIS: Los Angeles showrunner and Australian writer Shane Brennan, was designed to empower writers by using the showrunner model favoured by US television.

“It wasn’t the way that we’d done things classically in Australia,” Birse says.

“Often as a writer you would get to the end of the scripting process, press send and then you’d eventually receive a DVD in the mail and often with the best will in the world, things had changed that kind of broke the integrity of the story.

“So Playmaker went to Screen Australia and proposed an experimental model that would allow three writers to spend two days a fortnight slowly developing an idea. Then they would put us in touch with each of the networks and commissioning bodies… just to see if there was a good match of ideas.”

If the projects got off the ground, like The Code, the aim was to have the writers then move into a producing role alongside a more experienced producer, so they could shepherd the project all the way through the process – from the seed of the idea, through to production and then post-production.

“For a writer that’s kind of a dream-come-true ticket,” she says.

Scribe, which was also the means by which Love Child and House Husbands were created, continues to evolve. Australian writers are now paired with US writers as part of the program, to help them develop the skills of a ‘showrunner’, with Birse and Glen Dolman the first two selected for the program, according to Fairfax Media.

Birse also was a Screen Australia Enterprise People recipient, which enabled her to consolidate her experience as a creative producer by joining forces with Playmaker Media again after The Code for a year-long placement.

Birse says she hopes Australia continues to embrace the model and that more writers step into producing positions.

“I feel a really deep commitment to the idea that writer plays a central role in the process,” she says.

“It’s not just a nicety. I think it’s actually a necessity and that breaking down the barriers between the production team and the development team, it feels like everybody wins.

“Part of the privilege for me has been working with a director who is so incredibly open to having me around, and a cast who don’t get edgy I’m around,” she says, adding it meant if there was an opportunity to workshop a moment on the spot, they could.

“So I feel like the more we can relax into this kind of model and not feel like there’s any treading on toes, the better the industry will be for it.”

The Code series 2 airs on Thursdays at 8.30pm on ABC from 1 September.