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Mystery Road screenwriter Kodie Bedford on big breaks

Growing up in Western Australia, Kodie Bedford dreamt of being Buffy. Now, as one of Australia’s most promising screenwriters, she wants to write the next Buffy.

Kodie BedfordKodie Bedford in her short film Last Drink at Frida's

“We’re at an interesting time,” says Kodie Bedford, smiling as she sits in a Marrickville cafe. “It’s an exciting time.” She’s talking about the possibilities and opportunities available to someone like her: a young, ambitious, Indigenous screenwriter. Growing up in Geraldton, Western Australia, such possibilities seemed unattainable as a kid who was obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Buffy was the first show (I saw) with a female superhero,” she says. “I was probably the same age as her going through school. At first I wanted to be Buffy, then I realised ‘oh, someone is writing Buffy’ … I started reading Buffy scripts online back in the 90s, when it took 20 years to download. I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter and a showrunner, but I was stuck in Geraldton and it was like ‘I’m in the most isolated place from film and TV, how am I gonna get there?’

“I got the job and moved to Sydney with seven and a half boxes.”

A communications degree at the University of Western Australia seemed like the logical step, with Bedford originally focusing on journalism before she realised she was a little “too introverted” to handle life in the field. While staying with her family in The Kimberley after wrapping her studies, it was a chance encounter with a journalist from SBS that set her back on the path towards film and television. “The reporter, Emma Cooke, was interviewing my nan and we got chatting … She called three months later and was like ‘there’s a job going at SBS, you should apply for it’. My whole life changed course: I was a girl treading water. I got the job and moved to Sydney with seven and a half boxes. I’ll always remember that because my autobiography is going to be called ‘My Life In Seven And A Half Boxes’.” Bedford cut her teeth on benchmark programs like NITV’s Living Black, before heading over to ABC and working on Message Stick.

“It was an avenue for Indigenous filmmakers to get skills; learn how to shoot, how to produce, how to write, how to edit,” she says. “If SBS and ABC weren’t here, I just wouldn’t have a job as a black female writer … and that makes me sad.” Her time at the public broadcasters also put her in the path of Sally Riley, the former head of the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia, which is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary later this month. It was her passion for “taking Indigenous storytelling in a different direction” that Bedford says saw her follow Riley “like a puppy” as she took a show called Redfern Now – a joint venture with the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia and ABC TV – from concept through to completion. “She got this show up in ABC prime time and I look back now – that’s 2012, 2013 – and that completely changed the direction of Indigenous storytelling in my opinion.” It also encouraged her to take risks, with Bedford’s time on Redfern Now motivating her to return to university and get a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney.

Last Drink at Frida'sLast Drink at Frida's

“I thought ‘what would Buffy do?’” she laughs, when reflecting on leaving her position at the ABC to truly embed herself in the Australia film and television industry. At first, it was a shock to her system starting back at the bottom: making coffee for producers, running tapes, taking notes. Yet it also reaffirmed how hungry she was about the business. Bedford bucked the idea of one ‘big break’, with her shot coming in several smaller increments over time: the harder she worked, the luckier she got. The Indigenous Department’s Pitch Short Blacks Initiative saw her submitted script – Last Drink at Frida’s – selected and developed into a completed project, which screened throughout 2017 and Bedford says “opened doors”. She added: “The short film initiative … without that, I wouldn’t have a career”. One of those doors was the TV adaptation of Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road, directed by Rachel Perkins, which Bedford scored a job on as a note taker in the writers’ room. When one of the writers left the project, there was an opening and she was perfectly positioned for it.

“I’m now living as a full-time screenwriter, which I thought I’d never be doing.”

“The producer and the head writer Michaeley O’Brien were like ‘why don’t you do it Kodie?’” says Bedford, who penned episode two of the Screen Australia-supported series. “I could have died. It was a risk for them … it was the hardest job: there were tears and times where I was like ‘what am I doing?’ but then it all worked out. From there, I’m now living as a full-time screenwriter, which I thought I’d never be doing.” There has been no slowing down for Bedford, with a placement on Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok in Queensland as well as writing on the teen-targeted Grace Beside Me for NITV. “Being an Indigenous woman, I always thought ‘oh, they’ll just force me to tell that story’. I wanted to tell superhero and Buffy stories – that was my dream.” On Thor it became a reality, with her time working on the Marvel blockbuster “spurring a passion in me” as well as demonstrating how important diversity was not only in front of the camera but behind it as well. The Screen Australia-supported Grace Beside Me too held a special place for Bedford, who wished she had the series when she was 12 years old, adding “Australia needs this show”.

Mystery Road TV seriesMystery Road TV series

Her pipe dream had been to work on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit at one point, but now Bedford is refocusing her gaze locally: especially in light of Mystery Road’s success. “In Australian TV, particularly the commercial networks, I don’t see what I see walking down a Sydney street on screen,” she says. “When Mystery Road came on it was unlike anything else on the ABC. Its success amazes me and says to me that Australians do want Australian drama and Australians do want to see diversity on screen, which makes me so happy because it means I have a future.”

A joint initiative between Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department, ABC and the Australian Film Television and Radio School has seen Bedford utilise her childhood love of all things genre, with her horror short Scout in development – which she’s set to write and direct – as part of the Shock Treatment program. Plus, with larger and larger spaces in writing rooms as a full-time staff member, the Western Australia local is starting to realise how she can use her capital in the industry. “My moment in my career now is trying to change perspectives on what Indigenous stories could be,” says Bedford. “Stories have always been my escape, but they’ve also saved my life. And that’s what I want people, the Government, everyone to know: stories save lives.”

Mystery Road is now streaming on ABC iview (Australia) and Acorn TV (USA), and will premiere on Sky Soho (New Zealand) on 23 August 2018. The series is this week’s New York Times Critics Pick.

Learn more about the 25th anniversary of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department here.