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Podcast – Niki Aken: writing for TV in Australia

Niki Aken breaks down the different roles for Aussie TV screenwriters, and shares her experience of co-writing The Hunting for SBS.

Niki AkenFind this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Since starting out as a script assistant on Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, television writer Niki Aken’s career has covered script editing, freelance writing and script producing.

Unsure of what any of these roles are? On the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast, Aken explains the different work out there for television writers who are on the more traditional career progression route (acknowledging that many people are creating their own pathways online).

Aken says she’s always been drawn to storytelling, which initially took form through acting in theatre, but her focus began to shift toward writing. “I guess there was an element of me making sense of the world through writing,” she says.

Since embarking on a screenwriting career, she’s written on series including Underbelly: Badness, ANZAC Girls, The Secret Daughter and series 2 and 3 of Janet King. Most recently Aken co-wrote The Hunting for SBS and Closer Productions, with catch-up episodes now streaming on SBS On Demand.

“I wrote episodes two and three of The Hunting and I was brought in to help brainstorm and plot,” she says of the series, which follows the fallout of a nude sexting scandal in an Adelaide high school.

“So the two creators, Sophie Hyde and Matthew Cormack, had devised the initial concept… and then it was a process of going into the room and really examining what that arc was going to look like over the series.”

In addition to Aken’s writing credits, she also script edited the second series of both Janet King and Squinters; was story editor on ABC/Screen Australia comedy pilot Why Are You Like This?; and was script producer on the upcoming Foxtel, Lingo Pictures and Sky UK series Upright starring Tim Minchin.

Aken also gives her top tips for writers starting out and the way the Australian industry could better utilise writers beyond handing in a script.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

[00:00:17] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen News, which you can find on the Screen Australia website. On today's episode, I'm joined by screenwriter Niki Aken, who most recently worked on The Hunting a four-part series which you can catch on SBS on Demand. Now I was actually interviewing Niki recently for a video interview about the work of various women in the Australian industry, which you'll be able to see very soon. But there were so many interesting things that she said about different screenwriting roles, about her advice and industry challenges and just her career in general. And it would have been a real shame to leave some of that on the cutting room floor. So here we are, with this podcast episode all about screenwriting. We've also got another big ep coming up very soon, which I'm really excited to share with you. But to make sure you get that and all of our podcasts as they release, please remember to subscribe and also that you can subscribe to our newsletter, the link as always is in the show notes. And if you have any feedback, shoot me an email at [email protected]. Without further ado though, here's television writer Niki Aken.

[00:01:32] Caris Bizzaca So starting off with some career questions. What made you want to be part of the screen industry? Was it something you saw? Was it someone you saw working?

[00:01:43] Niki Aken I have always been attracted to storytelling. And originally I was acting in theatre. But I think I became interested in writing because I just tended to write in general. I was that sort of person that journalled a lot. And I guess there was an element of me making sense of the world through writing and so as much as I was very passionate about acting as well, I started to see my focus sort of moving more towards writing and then fast forward a few years, I was studying at university. I was studying psychology and arts and was very fascinated about human behaviour and I happened to fall into screenwriting at that point through my arts degree and that sort of that moment, it's clichéd, but it's sort of that light bulb moment where I went, "oh this is where the two interests intersect and where I feel like I've got the potential to do good work".

[00:02:41] Caris Bizzaca And what was your first screen credit then?

[00:02:45] Niki Aken It was a script assistant on Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities.

[00:02:50] Caris Bizzaca And then looking back on your career so far, what are maybe one or two turning points for you?

[00:02:57] Niki Aken I was thrilled to work on Anzac Girls. I had done quite a few series of Underbelly in a row and so was sort of excited to move out of crime at that point and it was still kind of in my comfort zone because it was an adaptation and it was historical so there were, there was research for me to dive into so it sort of felt like familiar territory even though it was a completely different tone and genre. So that was an exciting turning point. And look more recently it was really thrilling to move into script producing. So I've been sort of a ‘jobbing writer’ as they say, for about seven years. So working with lots of different writers and lots of different script producers and it was a challenge to step into that role on Upright with Lingo Pictures and Foxtel, but really really thrilling to sort of use that experience that I've had as a screenwriter and take that into the territory of running a writers' room and supervising the story across the series.

[00:04:09] Caris Bizzaca And so Upright is a series that's set to release on Foxtel, but a series that you also worked on that people can watch now on SBS On Demand is The Hunting. So for anyone that hasn't watched it yet, can you give us a bit of an idea of what The Hunting is about?

[00:04:27] Niki Aken Sure. The Hunting is a 4 x 1 hour drama for SBS made by Closer Productions and it follows the fallout of a nude sexting scandal. So it basically sort of tracks the impact of a couple of what might seem to be innocuous events or split second decisions and how they ripple through and reverberate through students, teachers and the parents at this school. And it's not looking to be a sensationalist piece of drama. So it's not saying, "oh my gosh, teenagers sending naked photos of themselves, their life is over". It's not like, you know, let's reach for the most dramatic thing that can happen. We absolutely are looking into the drama of this world and the way that technology's impacting the lives of teenagers and how they're working through it. But we also wanted to be nuanced about the depiction of teenagers which is true to life, in that someone might make a pretty shitty decision and it doesn't necessarily mean that they are the bad guy or the bad girl. We wanted to show that there are lots of different layers to these characters.

[00:05:49] Caris Bizzaca And so you were one of the writers on The Hunting, but what did that involve exactly? And what episodes did you work on specifically?

[00:05:59] Niki Aken So I wrote episodes two and three of The Hunting and I was brought in to help brainstorm and plot the series. So the two creators, Sophie Hyde and Matthew Cormack, had devised the initial concept of these four students. And so then it was a process of going into the room and really sort of examining what that arc was going to look like over the series, because I think from the beginning Sophie and Matthew had a clear sense of where they wanted the characters to start and finish but four hours is a lot of story time and so it was sort of about the mechanics and the turning points and all of that kind of thing to make sure that when we're watching it, it's compelling all the way through, that it doesn't sag in the middle. So that development encompassed the brainstorming at the beginning and then once we had a clearer picture of what the story was going to be in each episode, then we came back in for the fine tuning, like the plotting of it.

[00:07:02] Caris Bizzaca And that series is airing on SBS in Australia and you can also catch it on SBS On Demand depending when you're listening to this. But I also wanted to ask you about the different writing roles that exist in the industry. You said before that you were a script assistant and then a jobbing writer and then a script producer on Upright. So could you run us through some of those different roles then and what they involve?

[00:07:32] Niki Aken Yes. So I'll preface this by saying we are in a new world where there are a lot of people that are making their own content and sort of skipping certain roles and just starting out as creators and writers of their own content, which is really great so if you're listening to this and you are not a script assistant or a script coordinator, don't be discouraged. There are other ways of getting in. But a more traditional trajectory with script departments on long running shows like Home and Away and Neighbours and even returning series like Underbelly and maybe shows like Doctor Doctor is a great example and Love Child and House Husbands and those shows that sort of went a few times. You would start generally as a script assistant, which means that you would be probably taking notes in story meetings, distributing scripts or distributing research materials, potentially doing research. So you might be guided by the script producer in that sense or the writers themselves in terms of, you know, they might be in a meeting and they might realise they've got this knowledge gap and they'll just look at you and say, "can you look into that?" Also, look you might do a bit of writing potentially. There might be some tasks that the script producer needs help with. So if they're busy writing a script, they might say to you, look, the casting agent is after some audition scenes for these supporting characters, can you just have a go at writing something? And so those sorts of exercises when you're attached as a script assistant, can just sort of come into your orbit fairly easily. I think from there, a lot of people are moving into script coordinating. So when you're the script coordinator, it means that you are a gun at Excel and you are in charge of making sure that everyone who needs the scripts has the right version. And so that is sort of taking the scripts from the writers and doing any formatting that needs to happen, potentially when you're in production that starts to mean amendments and making sure that the scripts are going out on the right coloured pages and it's a really important job because anyone who has stepped onto a film set and sees everyone with a green script and you've got a pink script will tell you that it is not a good feeling and that's sort of contagious, "What's going on? Why don't I have the right script?” is not great. And so it's like this kind of really high stakes role. Even though it might not seem like it, even [though it] might just seem like you're like this little Excel wizard. And again, with both of those roles, script assistant and script coordinating, there's elements of research and just doing whatever it is that the script producer needs. There's also the role of script editor. There are different versions of it, but usually when the writers have handed in their final draft, television is a pretty fast paced beast and there are often production changes that will happen. So we might lose a location or you know all of a sudden because we've been having four days of rain on the exteriors, we need to relocate some scenes inside and the script producer is still writing episode eight or whatever is happening and so the script editor will make those changes. That just sort of makes it sound like they're very functional [but] they're very creative people and sometimes you might be hired as a script editor to do a creative pass over the scripts like a tonal pass. So that's a very important and flexible role. Not every show has script editors these days because things are getting expensive and shows aren't as long running as they once were. So sometimes it's the script producer that will do that role or it might be like a hybrid of the script coordinator and the script editor. Then there's the freelance writers as well that fill in this picture. So that basically means that they have been called or their agent has been called about a project, they might have been sent a pilot script or maybe they've been sent a pitch document, you know, “does this interest you?” And if they come on board, then they'll start usually in the brainstorming phase of that development. So the writers and the script assistant and the script producer will all sit around and talk about what this series is, who the characters are, where we want to go in broad strokes. And then once that firmer picture has been developed in detail, plotting happens. And that's really where these freelance writers come into play. Even if it's not your episode, it might be allocated to someone else at that point but you have to be really invested as if you were writing it yourself and so you literally start at scene one – you put that up on the whiteboard and you say, what is it? What's everyone's attitude in it? What's the crux of the scene? And then you move on to scene two and scene three and so on and so forth. And then the freelance writer, if they are allocated that script, will go away and write usually an outline. And then when that's approved, that gets taken to a first draft, second draft, third draft, polish. And traditionally, that is where the writer is then done and they move on.

[00:12:55] Caris Bizzaca And then there's the, did you say the script producer? So what's their role?

[00:12:59] Niki Aken If you're the script producer, then you are on, you know for the run of show. So this depends on each show. But you would be running that script room. You'd be running that department and the responsibility of the story rests with you. So you're a great mediator, you're mediating between the networks and the production company and the writers. You're doing the schedules to make sure that these writers are sort of getting their scripts in on time and that you're going to make your TX date down the line. And you're just sort of keeping an eye on the character arcs and the voice of the characters. And often that will mean if the writers have to leave and work on other projects or when their contracts have finished, generally you are that person that is doing the production rewrites through to the end. And more and more these days as we move and embrace the American showrunner model, you're on set to kind of keep a hold on the story, not sort of getting in the way of any other heads of department or the director, but just being able to feed in and react to issues as they arise quickly and through to sitting in post as well where the story is continuing to be shaped.

[00:14:13] Caris Bizzaca And for anyone listening that is a writer, or maybe they're in the creative space in general, what kind of advice would you have for them?

[00:14:24] Niki Aken Get a hobby is my advice. I feel like all the things that you've heard before like writing is rewriting, write every day, all of that is valid and do all those things. But I guess if I look back, I had a singular focus when I was chasing my dream of becoming a screenwriter and everything fed into the work: everything I watched, all the exercises I did in my own time. The things that I did for fun, it would depend on what I was working on. So if there was a footballer character, I was going to see more football games, like everything was feeding into the work. And that's great but you can kind of lose the ability to know how to switch off and to relax and that is really important when you're a creative. So I really would advise young writers who are probably super hungry and doing all the right things anyway and studying and writing and all that, I would encourage them to also know what they like doing. Whether that's pottery or photography or cooking or whatever it is. Just have something that is not connected to your work ego because there is a lot of rejection in the screen industry, for better or worse. There are a lot of gatekeepers and there's a lot of people reading your work and giving you feedback. And something that I'm proud of at the moment is that I've developed a thicker skin and I don't get as sensitive maybe as I used to when I was just starting out, about notes. And that's a much better, healthier place to be in. It means that you're much more open to collaboration and hearing what the note is and not taking it personally. And I think something that can really help with that is hobbies - is that you might have a terrible day where you've gotten some feedback on your script and you just feel pretty awful. But if you can then go to karate or go and do whatever it is that you do, it just sort of helps you get up the next day and get back to work.

[00:16:31] Caris Bizzaca And just as a final question, what do you see as one of the challenges in the Australian screen industry at the moment and particularly for writers?

[00:16:42] Niki Aken I think one challenge at the moment is that writers are being underutilised. Now, I would say that - I'm a writer so I'm maybe a bit biased, but I guess we are so inspired by our cousins in America and we look at the golden age of TV there and we look at showrunners and we bring the showrunners out here for masterclasses and to open Series Mania and all that kind of thing. And we're not actually bringing the whole model here, we're sort of saying, okay if you've been writing for long enough then you should be a showrunner. And that's great, that is completely valid and it makes a lot of sense because if you've been writing for a long time, it sort of goes to saying like, I'm sure you've also got production experience there so that would make you the ideal showrunner and then you can train in the things that you maybe don't know yet. But what they actually do in America is when you are getting your first writer's credit, you're also producing your episode. So that means that you are brought in in the last two weeks of pre-production. And those questions about costume and those character questions, they're coming to you because you created this story and you know these characters at this point better than anybody. And so that then extends to production so writers are on set for every day of the shoot of their episode and then they're also across post. And so that means that when you continue to do that in your career as a writer, you end up becoming a showrunner. You end up moving from the junior level to the mid-level to the executive level as both a writer and a producer and that is something that we have not embraced in any way in Australia thus far. There isn't a lot of leverage that writers have at the moment to say, yes, I'd love to write your project and I'd love to be on set. It just doesn't happen. So usually what happens is the script producer will be on set. So we've kind of sort of cracked the door open a slight amount to sort of say that script producer can take carriage but I think that there's probably more work that we can do there. And yeah look I also am very aware that budgeting is a real issue here but I think there's got to be some creative ways that we can look at utilising writers which is such a huge asset beyond handing in a script.

[00:19:12] Caris Bizzaca That was Niki Aken and a huge thanks to her for joining us on the podcast. Remember, you can also catch up on episodes of The Hunting on SBS on Demand and also keep an eye out for Upright on Foxtel, which is the series starring Tim Minchin that Niki script produced. Remember to subscribe to the Screen Australia newsletter and thanks for listening.