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Podcast – Peter Duncan on writing and directing TV

Writer, director and co-producer Peter Duncan on approaching Operation Buffalo like a long feature, looking back on Rake, and career takeaways.

Peter Duncan on the set of Operation Buffalo

Peter Duncan (right) on the set of Operation Buffalo

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

Peter Duncan, the writer, director and co-producer of Operation Buffalo joins the Screen Australia podcast to talk about making the new ABC series, while also reflecting on the Australian and US versions of Rake.

Duncan was one of the co-creators of the series Rake, which starred fellow creator Richard Roxburgh and ran for five seasons on the ABC. It also had a US remake with Fox after a format sale to Sony Pictures TV, with Peter the co-writer of the pilot, series writer, creative consultant, executive producer and co-showrunner on the series.

Peter talks to about this vastly different experience of writing under the US television network system during the podcast, as well as his writing process generally, and his approach to directing the six-part series Operation Buffalo in comparison to Rake.

This episode was recorded as part of a video interview that focuses on the making of Operation Buffalo, which you find here

Operation Buffalo airs Sunday nights on ABC, with catch up episodes on ABC iview.

Subscribe to Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia is online publication Screen News. On this episode of the podcast, we're joined by Peter Duncan - the writer, director and co-producer of new ABC series Operation Buffalo, but who you might also know as one of the co-creators of the series Rake, which starred Richard Roxburgh and ran for five seasons on the ABC. It also had a US remake with Fox that Peter was co-showrunner on, which came about from a format sale to Sony Pictures TV. During the podcast, Peter talks about this vastly different experience of writing under the US television network system, as well as his writing process generally, and how he approached directing the six part series Operation Buffalo in comparison to a series like Rake. This interview was actually recorded as part of a video interview that focused on the making of Operation Buffalo, which you can find on Screen Australia's YouTube and which we will provide a link to in the show notes. Also, a reminder that Operation Buffalo is currently airing Sunday nights on ABC with catch up episodes on ABC iview. Before we get to the chat with Peter, remember you can subscribe to the Screen Australia podcast through iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify. Or you can subscribe to the Screen Australia newsletter. And we'll send you all the latest episodes, along with updates from the local screen industry once a fortnight. For feedback about this episode, please email [email protected] - now here's a chat with Operation Buffalo writer, director and co-producer Peter Duncan.

[00:01:42] Caris Bizzaca In terms of writing and directing, did you gravitate to one first? Do you remember what kind of drew you to them?

[00:01:51] Peter Duncan I remember as a teenager seeing with my mother and her best friend, Woody Allen's Manhattan. And for some reason, I said to my mother's best friend, 'I think I want to write'. I ended up after a brief legal career, going to AFTRS in the writing stream, but I was always keen to direct. You know, the control freak wants it said just so. And I think that's part of the fact that I love writing dialogue. And that means performance. And that means being involved with the actors and all that sort of thing. I enjoy directing more when I'm writing and I enjoy writing more when I'm directing because I'm away from the other ones.

[00:02:36] Caris Bizzaca I always want what you can't have.

[00:02:39] Peter Duncan Can't have now.

[00:02:40] Caris Bizzaca And with your career, starting out more and features and and TV movies, what was that experience like to then move into episodic TV and particularly with something like Rake, which just took off in the way that it did.

[00:02:54] Peter Duncan In terms of the shift to episodic TV and Rake, which I mean I know Buffalo is episodes, but it is one story. The shift was apparent in terms of speed and, you know, just in preproduction as well as production, that these things had to be done very quickly and one has to resist letting the sausage machine take over the process. But because we had such a good cast, led by [Richard] Roxburgh, it didn't feel that much different because, you know, episode one, we've got Richard and Hugo Weaving and that sort of set a bar for whom we could get. So that didn't feel too different because I've been very lucky with my casting, Anousha Zarkesh, I've always worked with [and is an] amazing casting agent. We were lucky enough to get top notch people and that felt the same [as features]. It wasn't like I'm going down a level of quality. It felt like I've got to do this faster and do more of it. Just speed it up. But it's also, you know, Andrew and I wrote eight episodes a season so there ended up being 40 in Australia, 17 in America. So it's a different process.

[00:04:13] Caris Bizzaca And when you said you didn't want to let the, I think the phrase with 'the sausage machine take over the process', what did you mean by that? Could you explain a little bit?

[00:04:24] Peter Duncan Well, I think sometimes you can get, and I've been lucky enough that this doesn't apply to me. But I know a lot of stories about crews who have cookie cutter approaches to television. So they do series of the series after series, and 'we do it this way in this way and this way'. And because we had wonderful people - Carol Hughes was one of our, she did most of the production management for us on Rake, she allowed me and allowed the other directors room to not feel like you're in a cookie cutter situation. And, you know, just get it out this. It was something that we all wanted to take pride in. Hence the absence of sausage.

[00:05:13] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. And with that sale to the US and also setting up that series over there, what was that experience like? What was some of the things you learnt maybe about the US system or writers rooms there? Or what are some of the takeaways from that?

[00:05:29] Peter Duncan Oh, it was a very, very different process. I'm loathe to commit a lot of this to noughts and ones. Look, Andrew and I did all the writing on Rake and we'd do it in either of our homes. And it was very intimate, and screaming with laughter or shouting or whatever. Yes, in America, it was a writing room. There were eight people, seven of who I never met before. I found that all the people were good, but that process was I didn't find it quite as rewarding. I thought, you know, it sort of middled things out a bit. And of course, writing for a network like Fox, I found that tough primarily because of the ads. I've never written anything with an ad break before and because of the way they structure these things. You could have the first act that was like 15 or 17 minutes long before the first ad break. Have a second act that's only four minutes long and then have ad break. And you're told by the studio to make sure that there's something exciting before the ads so that people keep watching.

[00:06:45] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, you have to, like, accelerate up to that.

[00:06:47] Peter Duncan And I found that false, you know. And sometimes they'd move the ad breaks even earlier because that scene's bigger than that scene. And so I found that structurally, I'm sure it's more a reflection of my lack of experience in that sphere than anything. But I found that tonally very challenging. And the fact you'd go to a meeting... I went to a casting meeting and between Sony and Fox and the casting people, there were 22 people on the other side of the table. Casting meeting here, is me and Anousha.

[00:07:25] Caris Bizzaca Slightly different.

[00:07:28] Peter Duncan Slightly different.

[00:07:28] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. Just a completely different beast it sounds like.

[00:07:31] Peter Duncan And I think there's a sense over there that, you know, if I could make more money making shoes, I'd be a shoemaker. I'm here in a corporate capacity. You know, the directors get five days to cut. They're not involved with the music. They're not involved with any of the other aspects of post-production and all the cuts are finished by me or [co-showrunner] Peter Tolan. So it's a very different thing.

[00:08:00] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of the actual sale of that, do you ever think about the fact that, you know, something like Operation Buffalo - how far will travel overseas or anything like that? Or do you always just focus on the Australian audience?

[00:08:16] Peter Duncan No, Operation Buffalo, we very much focus on an international audience. APC is a French company, which is our distribution company. Obviously, they want to sell it to the world and I want the world to see it. And I think it's - there are three things. One, there's the obvious thing. Europeans love desert and we give them buckets of sand. Cold War is always interesting, again, particularly in Europe and obviously relevant to the United States. But so much of this is about people who trusted government and trusted their superiors and trusted their friends. And I'm fond of this expression from Arthur Miller: 'Betrayal is the only truth that sticks'. So ultimately, Operation Buffalo is about to a great extent about betrayal and set in a time when no one trusted anyone. And so I think it's a very relevant time, not just for Australians to look at something like Buffalo, but for the world.

[00:09:16] Caris Bizzaca And in terms of directing this series compared to, you know, on Rake, where it might have been a block or some episodes of the season, how was it directing the entire six episodes of a limited series like this, or making Operation Buffalo?

[00:09:35] Peter Duncan In terms of the direction, [producers] Vincent Sheehan, Tanya Phegan and myself approached it as a long movie, and you're absolutely right. With Rake, I'd do one block or two blocks a season. And that's because of the series nature of it. There is a discrete part of each of those stories that's sort of wrapped up at the end. And Cleaver's got the overarching macro element. But this was a, you know, episode one evening goes into episode two morning, it's just continuous. So we just scheduled it and approached it as a very long film.

[00:10:21] Caris Bizzaca And how did you find that experience of making something akin to a long movie as opposed to a-

[00:10:31] Peter Duncan Well I've made four movies, so it was just a longer version of that. And, you know, having written it as well, I was across the material and I was very much aware of what I wanted to achieve and what our capabilities were financially. So I wrote to that to an extent. But I think we got a lot of bang for our buck in the end.

[00:10:57] Caris Bizzaca And how did you find the writing of that? Was it a similar approach? Did you approach it as if you were writing a feature? Or did you break it down-

[00:11:05] Peter Duncan Oh I certainly approached Buffalo in terms of writing it as a feature, and I write it by myself. So I wasn't with Andrew. It's not that Andrew and I would write - we wrote separate episodes. We'd structure them together.

[00:11:18] Caris Bizzaca So you'd write-

[00:11:18] Peter Duncan I'd write episode one and two, he'd write episode three and four, or whatever it was. But this was me going back home and just doing it myself. But it's I guess one of my principles is to say what's the next interesting thing that can happen? And often Andrew and I said to each other, ok what do you think the audience is going to expect now? And we'd say 'probably this'. And we'd say well we certainly won't do that. We gotta keep confounding expectations. I think you're in big trouble when an audience gets ahead of you.

[00:11:54] Caris Bizzaca And with your writing process, are you getting up at the same time every day? Are you sitting in the computer for a certain amount of time?

[00:12:03] Peter Duncan Pretty much. I get up not super early, around 6.30-7 and usually spend a couple of hours devouring news because particularly with Rake, real news was a good source of stories because they're the strangest things that people do. And then I'll get into it at a certain point and that'll go for the day usually.

[00:12:25] Caris Bizzaca And on the other hand, with directing. How would you describe yourself as a director? You know, are you someone that storyboards everything, are really over-prepared? Do you like to kind of improvise a bit more on the day or is there more of an actor's director? How would you-

[00:12:44] Peter Duncan Well, it's sort of got to be everything. My writing has been described as pretty dense and complex. So if we start to unpick it and improvise around it, it sort of loses some of its sheen. Rox[burgh] would often unpick it and come up with tremendous things to say. But the cast on Buffalo was pretty disciplined. They did what was written. I do love working with the actors. It's a great thing. And because there's so much dialogue in my work that time I spend with the actors, not even in rehearsal, because I find here you get almost no time for rehearsal because all you need are two big stars like James Cromwell, and he didn't arrive till the fourth week of the shoot. So there's no chance for rehearsal. So what I do is I spend hours with each of them going through their role and all their lines and everything, again so that we're working on the same project and we're working on an orange and not an apple. And I don't inhibit improvisation, but on Buffalo, I didn't find it necessary.

[00:14:02] Caris Bizzaca And do you have any key pieces of advice for anyone that wants to be a television writer and also for anyone that wants to be a television director?

[00:14:12] Peter Duncan My advice to any writer would be to remember that your most valuable asset is obviously your scripts, and you've got to remind yourself that content is needed. This planet cries out for good content and there's a trick with that, which is, not just to say, 'okay, Fox is looking for a Dracula story set in Belgium'. You know, the trick is to be bold in your writing and be relevant and to have something to say. And, you know, if you want to shock an audience, you have to shock the producers first, or if you want the audience to cry, you've got to make the producers cry first. So there has to be an element of genuine interest from yourself in what you're doing rather than going back to the cookie cutter. I think you do yourself the best service to just know that the scripts are right before you start shooting. Personally, I find it very hard and I never do this. I'd never do it, not deliberately. Say 'that's fixable' on the day. You know, it's just kicking the tyres of the script as I call it. You just kick the shit out of it and test all the things that could be squeaky or wrong or not quite in the zone. And it is difficult in a project like Buffalo because I deliberately have these tonal shifts where I want to play the satire and then I want to play the drama. And I want to do that in one scene. So I had to really pummel the scripts to make sure they were line by line acceptable to everyone. In terms of direction, I think it's tougher in a sense, because if you're just a director, you are not the primal force in the creation of the content. So it is, it's tricky with series television because you are encouraged, as I did with the people who I worked with in America and in Australia, to have a house style. And, you know, you don't want suddenly someone's going all Bunuel on you in series television. But I think it's establishing, again, those relationships with actors and proving to producers that you can elicit better than other people those performances. I think that's the most important thing in terms of series. In terms of direction of films. I'd say that's really tough at the moment. And I think we're very much heading back to the auteur way in Australia, which we've had for a long time, pretty much.

[00:17:13] Caris Bizzaca That kind of writer director...?

[00:17:15] Peter Duncan Writer director thing yeah.

[00:17:15] Caris Bizzaca And with the film making process (or TV making process), what's your favourite part of that process? Is it the actual creation of the story in pre? Is it the shoot? Is it the edit, seeing it come together?

[00:17:32] Peter Duncan As I said earlier, my favourite part of the process is what I'm not doing now. If I'm directing, I'd love to be at home writing. If I'm at home writing, I'd say 'I want to be with people. I want to be on set'. I love the whole process and, you know, in all of them, there are moments of frustration. And in all of them there are moments of joy. So I can't really just pick a favourite.

[00:18:01] Caris Bizzaca That was writer, director and producer Peter Duncan. And remember, you can catch episodes of Operation Buffalo on Sunday nights on the ABC and on ABC iview. For all the latest updates from the local screen industry. Don't forget, you can subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter. And remember, you can support Australian content by buying it, renting it and streaming it at home. Thanks for listening.