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Podcast – Bevan Lee: writing Back to the Rafters for Amazon

Screenwriter Bevan Lee on returning to the characters, tone and world of the Rafters some eight years after waving goodbye.

Bevan Lee stands next to a large camera.

Bevan Lee (Photo credit: Brook Rushton)

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

Screenwriter Bevan Lee has worked on a multitude of Australian television series, writing or working in the script department on series including Prisoner, Sons and Daughters, and Home and Away, and creating Always Greener, All Saints, Winners & Losers, A Place to Call Home and Packed to the Rafters.

A technique he’s learned to employ over the years is to somewhat erase a series from his mind so he can move onto the next.

“The only way I can do the amount of shows I do and not go insane, is I tend to sort of strip and burn the landscape of my brain pan of my former shows,” he says.

So when Lee was first approached by Amazon Australia about bringing the Rafters back to screens for Back to the Rafters, he wanted to make sure there was enough story to justify it.

“I just thought, can I go back there? Is there anything left to say?” he says.

“And then I did find something that I wanted to say and that was basically about… what do you do when two people who truly love each other get to a point, pair-bonded in life, where both of them see a different future?

“What would happen if Dave and Julie Rafter got to [that] point…?”

Once Lee found that thread, the possibilities opened up for Back to the Rafters, a new six-part series that’s launching on Amazon Prime Video on 17 September.

“I was really excited about telling that story and the ripple effect upon the children,” he says.

On the Screen Australia Podcast, Lee talks about working with a streamer like Amazon (Back to the Rafters marks Amazon Australia’s First Scripted Original Series), his career more broadly, advice for screenwriters and also the power of nostalgia when it comes to revisiting something like the Rafters, some eight years after it wrapped up on Channel Seven.

“The power of nostalgia in drama is potent,” he says.

“Most of the shows you get now are dealing with very high concept storytelling, so if we’re not going to Westeros and having people disembowelled and their heads cut off and dragons flying through the sky and fabulous things going on, then you’d better have a damned good substitute. And I think nostalgia is a damn good substitute.”

Watch Back to the Rafters on Amazon Prime Video from 17 September.

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's online publication Screen News. On this episode of the podcast, we are joined by Beven Lee, the prolific television writer and creator of Australian series, including Always Greener, All Saints, Winners and Losers, A Place to Call Home and Packed to the Rafters. Speaking of which, eight years since the sixth series of Packed to the Rafters aired on Channel Seven, the Rafters are returning with a new home. The six part series, Back to the Rafters, marks Amazon Australia's first scripted original series and will be launching on Amazon Prime Video on September 17th. Bevan also returned as a creator on the series, which he wrote alongside Margaret Wilson, Trent Atkinson and Katherine Thomson. Throughout the podcast, Bevan talks about being approached by Amazon, writing for one of the streamers and returning to the characters, tone and world of the Rafters that he thought he had waved goodbye to. He also discusses the power of nostalgia in drama and his advice for writers. To get every new episode of Screen Australia's podcast, remember you can subscribe through places like Spotify or iTunes. If you have any feedback, send it to [email protected] . And remember, you can subscribe to Screen Australia's fortnightly e-newsletter and you'll be sent all the latest news, videos, articles and funding announcements. Now here's Back to the Rafters, creator and writer, Bevan Lee. 

[00:01:37] Caris Bizzaca Just to start off with, for anyone that isn't familiar with your work, I'm sure they are, but can you tell us your background in the industry and some of the projects that you've worked across, maybe not all of them, because we'll be here for a good ten minutes. But, you know, just some highlights. 

[00:01:53] Bevan Lee OK, I got an internship at Grundy's back in '79. I worked on The Restless Years as a trainee. I then got a lovely opportunity to be in charge of the writing of Sons and Daughters under the mentorship of Don Battye. I then did that. I did for three and a half years I did Prisoner in the sort of script producing chair. And then I got the chance to recreate Home and Away - not create it because there'd been creation work done, but it wasn't working so I was brought in to recreate it. Then from there I went to nine for a while and did script executive work, which wasn't creative. But then I also was lured back to Seven to create a hospital show which became All Saints, followed on by I think then we had Always Greener and then Headland and Packed to the Rafters and Winners and Losers and A Place to Call Home. And now, you know, risen from the - I thought the grave - [is Back to the] Rafters and I'm previously from that a passion project which didn't work but I'm still very proud of called Between Two Worlds.

[00:03:02] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, fantastic. You mentioned, you know, getting your start in the industry. From what I understand, you worked as a teacher and taught science and maths before working in the screen industry and -

[00:03:15] Bevan Lee Yeah my degree's in pure mathematics. And then it wasn't a good enough degree to do some of the things you would do, because I was too busy going through traversing the traumas of coming out, to sort of really be as good a scholar as I should have been. And so I end up being a teacher and then to sort of save my sanity, I guess, I started to do amateur performing. And then I became a professional actor and I came over to Sydney to be an actor and and sort of found my way just by chance, by a chance comment by somebody into doing submission for Grundy who took me on. And, you know, I wandered in there thinking that I'd written Hamlet in my submission and learnt very quickly I had not. And I learnt an enormous amount. And I was lucky enough to get wonderful mentors like Don Battye and Reg Watson. To make me realise, as all good creatives should in the early part of the career, how much you don't know and I've never stopped learning, you know, the day I stop learning is probably the day I stop writing. 

[00:04:21] Caris Bizzaca Mhm. Well, do you do you ever think that your, you know, obvious kind of skills in that mathematical area prior to your screen career, do you think that those ever affect your approach to writing at all, you know, are you very methodical or anything? 

[00:04:37] Bevan Lee Oh yeah. They definitely affect my approach to how I deal with the practicalities of especially back in the day. Not as much now when we've got the six hour and the 10 hour series, although there are still logistics and practicalities to consider there in terms of creativity versus budget. But back in the day and we still have things like Home and Away and Neighbours now that turn out, you know, 98 hours or something a year and they have very, very strict logistical requirements, you know, creativity versus logistics. Things like All Saints, which were 44 hours a year, you know, all my training in the analysis of dimensional variables come in very handy, I think, to sort of marry the creative with the pragmatic. And so although I didn't realise it at the time yeah, I think definitely I had that sort of skill innately in me from all that work I'd done on being logical so I could marry logic with my creativity. And yeah, I could still be a diva and go, 'oh my God, I'm wonderful. And if you'd only give me ten thousand dollars for this moment'. Then you just sort of slap yourself around the head and say, 'get on with it'. 

[00:05:56] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. Well, and also, you know, juggling multiple storylines and multiple characters and- 

[00:06:01] Bevan Lee  Multiple storylines, multiple characters. You know you've got five episodes a week and you've got this one contractor for three and that one contractor for two. You get to the end of a half hour and you desperately need that character, but you simply can't do it budget wise, so you have to twist the story. But that was the most wonderful, like I was blessed. I can be a bit of an old curmudgeon, I suppose, about the industry in the state of the industry, as all old people are, I guess, about what comes after them. But I was truly and people of my era were truly blessed that we had this wonderful training ground of having to turn out all this material to order where we could be creative, but we really, really had to train ourselves to be pragmatic as well and to consider our audience, you know, like it's all well and good to create something. But if nobody turns up to watch it, you know, the tree falls in the forest, does it fall? So I was so lucky to have my training at Grundy. And many back in those days had training at Crawford. You were either training at Grundy or training at Crawfords. That sort of training doesn't exist anymore. And still some wonderful creativity is coming out. I think actually the last couple of years, some nice creativity is bubbling to the surface after what I saw as more fallow years. Yeah, I think that the some of the young talents these days, I think probably have a lot to offer. You know, I fear for some of them that if they falter early and we can all, god some of the mistakes I made early on, you know, if they were probably in the more visible arena that exists now would have blighted my future and I wouldn't have had the future I've had, which I think was a valid future. So I do feel for some of the younger ones these days, perhaps getting their break too early, getting their break without that mentor to help guide them through what they don't know and not having that person there because the arrogance of youth is wonderful. And I can only say that because god was I arrogant when I was young, but I was just lucky enough to have those people who could caringly and sometimes strongly slap me around the head and 'go, you know, step down. You're not as good as you think you are'. And those people who can do that for you are to be treasured and I worry about the new young talent, that they mightn't have those people to to help them with that self knowledge. 

[00:08:37] Caris Bizzaca And well, with that in mind, you know, is there anything that comes to mind to you that you apply from your many years working in serials to writing television today, like, you know, Back to the Rafters, which is six episodes as opposed to a 22 episode plus type series? 

[00:08:56] Bevan Lee Well it's very different because every moment has to count. And there's no doubt I have huge respect. I mean, people like Louise Bowes, who runs Home and Away, you know, what a formidable and admirable woman. But, you know, when you're turning out the equivalent of a solid feature film a week, you don't have the time to ensure that every moment and every line and everything counts. So I guess what I bring from the serial years is a very strong feeling that one should be writing for an audience, not to an audience. One shouldn't subservient one's creativity to an audience, but one writes hopefully for an audience and writes from the heart. And I can't write unless I feel something. I can only write from my feelings. That's the sort of writer I am. But when you do six hours and you've only got six hours to tell the story, it has to be much more focused. Every moment has to count and everything has to be very, very sharp. Otherwise, you know, I think the audience gets very frustrated with you. And I think, you know, I don't think it's a statement of arrogance. I think even though there are moments in Rafter's always, of course, that are gentler, that's the nature of the beast. And warmer and more human. I don't believe there's anything in that six hours that actually doesn't really, really earn its place on the six hour canvas, which is different because you can go into a strip serial. And, you know, any I think somebody once said, you know, as long as you've got a strip serial half hour, you know, if half of the screen time earns its place on the canvas then you've got a good half hour of strip serial, and the rest of it can be hopefully deft and entertaining padding. And I'm not putting strip serial down there. I have the most enormous admiration for the form. But you can't do that when you've got a six by one hour piece. 

[00:11:02] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, you've called you referred to Packed to the Rafters, obviously a huge Australian success, but you've referred to it before as a stick of fairy floss with a huge dollop of lemon juice in the centre. And what was it like then to return to these characters, you know, seven or eight years later, even though the story itself picks up six years later, and to find that tone again? What was that like for you as a writer? 

[00:11:35] Bevan Lee Well, I've got to be honest and say because Amazon came with the idea that, you know, this very popular show obviously would resonate with an Australian audience if it was revived and they felt had legs for the international market. And when I was first approached, because the only way I can do the amount of shows I do and not go insane is I tend to sort of like strip and burn the landscape of my brain pan of my former shows. To clear - to use the metaphor of a field - to clear the field so new crop can grow. So when they came to me I was in the middle of Between Two Worlds, which was a much darker show. Pretty high concept, but very dark drama in it. And I just thought, can I go back there? Is there anything left to say? It was very pleasing and flattering that they had this idea. And so I put my head to it because there was obviously such enthusiasm that it should work. And then I did find something that I wanted to say, and that was basically about - this is hopefully not an overshare - but it was about the failure of the great relationship of my life. And that is, what do you do when two people who truly love each other get to a point pair-bonded in life where both of them see a different future? How do you negotiate that? And I suddenly thought what would happen if Dave and Julie Rafter got to a point, still in love, desperately in love, but both saw the way into the future as utterly different, in different directions. That Julie and Dave's relationship could be put in jeopardy, in love. And I truly believe, because I just lived it, that two people in love can face the prospect of not being together again anymore, because to move forward, one of them has to compromise. One of them has to be untrue to their true self. And then having found that, I was really excited about telling that story and the ripple effect upon the children. And you know what it is to be a parent that flow out of that one... Once I found that and I was telling what was a very personal story, then it was a story I just had to tell. Then, what you've got to do is find how to tell it in terms of the stick of candy floss with lemon juice at the centre. You have to find a way to tell it that is life optimistic without being saccharine. And that's why I mean the lemon juice has to be there. That is funny without trivialising the serious issues that one is dealing with and that has always been [in there]. Rafter's is a staggeringly difficult show to write and people who have come on board to do it have found it so, because it looks really, really easy, because we get it right. And so, you go, 'oh that's exactly how it should be'. But if you get it wrong, you know, if there's too much candy floss you want to throw up and if there's too much lemon juice, you wince. So it's finding that balance, you know what I mean? It's finding the balance between the serious and I mean, some of the issues we deal with in Back to the Rafters are quite serious. They're probably more serious than anything we dealt with in Packed to the Rafters. But I think that is quite correct because we live in a much darker world now than the world six years ago when we left Dave and Julie. So, that was the other thing, too. Is it possible to go into the Rafters space of life optimism without looking like, some sort of like blinkered Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm figure? So that was the battle that we had. And I personally think we've won the battle. So that metaphor absolutely sums up the show. But getting that balance between candyfloss and what was interesting to me was six years on the stick of candyfloss and the lemon juice, the balances were necessarily different, I think, to make Back to the Rafters than they were to make Packed to the Rafters. 

[00:16:05] Caris Bizzaca And with that change of time the Australian TV landscape has also changed massively. And like you said, this is being made for Amazon Australia, although you had close to the exact same, cos, again, executive produced by Seven's head of drama, Julie McGauran and series producer Chris Martin-Jones. But what was that like creating something for one of the streaming services, you know, whether recognising there's no ad breaks or that episode length's can be a bit more flexible, it's not as yet rigid in that sense. What was that like? 

[00:16:39] Bevan Lee Oh, I think the old once again, we'll go back to that question you asked me about the mathematics, the old mathematical head kicked in. I just started to adjust my variables. And once you put your variables in place then your creativity can flow within this new set of variables. It was different. I mean, it was very interesting for me to create knowing that it was going automatically to an international audience and fair enough the people from Amazon would call us on that because it'd be fair enough for me to have Ted Rafter to go 'oh bugger me dead'. But then, you suddenly realise, it's going to an audience who might go, 'oh, goodness me, is Ted being incredibly vulgar here', you know, because they don't know the expression. When you're Australian, an old Aussie bloke says bugger me dead, then you laugh. But when you're a person from overseas, bugger me dead means something else entirely different. And so you had to constantly be aware and doing that balancing act where you are being true to an audience who comes to it primed but not sort of doing that thing where the Australian audiences goes - and I don't think they will at any moment in it - goes, 'oh, they've gone international, haven't they?' [because] you're putting all these things in where you're sort of explaining vernacular. So it was really interesting. It was a very interesting dialogue interchange between ourselves and the Amazon folk to find that right balance, same as the balance between the candyfloss and the lemon juice. But it stops things being creatively proforma. You know, there were new challenges involved. 

[00:18:28] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. And, you know, you said with something like A Place to Call Home, you are able to tackle some, you know, pretty challenging themes by setting it in the 1950s and having audiences watch it with that level of nostalgia. And I was kind of thinking like with Back to the Rafters, you're also giving audiences that hit of nostalgia. And I was wondering what your thoughts are on the power of nostalgia in telling screen stories? 

[00:18:56] Bevan Lee Oh, I think nostalgia is just... We all live with nostalgia every day. And I think one of the interesting thing is societally, we are now living with nostalgia for our former lives, which are about, you know, less than two years ago. We are we are riddled with nostalgia for a life seemingly now gone. And so I think the the power of nostalgia in drama is potent. And I think because Rafter's deals with, you know, like Jane Austen, a fine, small etching. Rafter's deals with some important issues, but it deals with them within a, you know, relatively small millieu. And unless you have potent things attached to it, like nostalgia, like really focusing strongly, albeit sometimes comically  or sometimes raucous comedy, on issues that people could truly relate to then the whole piece falls into an irrelevant pile. And because it doesn't, you know, I mean, most of the shows you get now are dealing with very high concept storytelling. So, you know, if we're not going to Westeros and having people being disembowelled, heads cut off, and all those fabulous things that are going on and dragons flying through the sky, then you better have a damned good substitute. And I think nostalgia is a damn good substitute, you know, the touching of the nostalgic nerve. And I think that what the Rafters bring is I once described Rafter's, not putting it down, but as a fairytale of suburbia. They're not necessarily any family that exists, but they're the families that we still have hope would exist, not in a way that they never could. But, they also operate off, I often say Rafters isn't about people fighting each other. It's about people who love each other, in trying to do the right things, often doing the wrong things. And I think that is so classically true of so many families. So I think when people relate to that sort of stuff and they see that. But the important thing is that in doing it, you don't sort of once again turn it into Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with them all walking around with big smiles on their face and, you know, being unrealistically chirpy. I like to think that it is embedded in realistic optimism. That's why I think this show seems to be a bit of a nice light diversion, but I think if you actually look at in one way, it has staggeringly powerful importance in the landscape of what are viewing possibilities: a place you can go, to truly feel optimistic about people. 

[00:21:53] Caris Bizzaca And just lastly, in terms of any screenwriters that might be listening to this, as we've said, like you've had a very prolific career, but would you have any kind of kernels of advice for any writers listening out there? 

[00:22:11] Bevan Lee Writing is rewriting. The minute you think your first draft is the answer, then your career is over. Write with great verve and passion, and verve and brio and get it down and step away from it and come back to it and be your own toughest critic. And never ask anyone who loves you to tell you whether your script's good or bad, because they will always lie to you. So become your own critic and be a true critic and write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And when the person comes to you with the truth wand, don't turn them away. 

[00:22:54] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. Yeah. Be willing to make those changes. 

[00:22:56] Bevan Lee Be willing. Now defend your material. Don't just give in and tug your forlock to whoever comes that because if you have passion for your material then you should defend it. But let that defence be a dialogue. Open yourself to not other people's ideas so much, but dialogue upon your own ideas. And it took me a long time, quite a while to realise that that was so, you know, because one of the problems about doing serial TV is a lot of it has to be almost first draft writing because you're churning it out such a rate. 

[00:23:30] Caris Bizzaca You don't have time. 

[00:23:31] Bevan Lee You don't have time. So that if you go in and learn your craft through serial writing, you can in fact damage your future because you can actually not learn how to truly be rigorous about your material. So I learnt that, it took me - my journey was quite a long journey on that. And I think some of my later material was... The guy who wrote the early strip serials would not have been capable of being the guy who wrote A Place To Call Home or wrote these episodes for Back to the Rafters. You know, I had to make that journey. So I guess I'm saying to to these young people, if you think there's anything to learn from a somewhat curmudgeonly, nearly 71 year old person, who's sort of done a lot of it, listen and absorb it because I think it's probably going to benefit your writing. And never, ever, if you've got a chance to get somebody's attention, never toss it off and send it into them with haste, because you only get one chance. If you don't get it right and you send it in and you've tossed it down really quickly and you tell yourself how fabulous your material is, you're really putting yourself at risk because that person reads it. And if you've not done a good job, even if you've got a good idea, if you're not realised your idea and they read it, you got Buckley's chance of getting an idea before their eyes again because you become that person where they go, 'oh, god, that was terrible'. So really, really, really sit on your eagerness often to expose your material to the world, make sure you've done due rigour to your material and do yourself the service, ensuring that what you're giving to the world is honed as well as you possibly can up to that point. It may need honing further past that point, but be sure you do due rigour and don't disservice yourself by becoming too eager to get that material out there. And I hope I don't sound like I'm pontificating on all that. 

[00:25:24] Caris Bizzaca No, no. Fantastic advice. Really appreciate it. Well, we will leave it there. But thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today and talking to us all about Back to the Rafters.

[00:25:35] Bevan Lee Cool. Hope I haven't rabbited on too much. 

[00:25:36] Caris Bizzaca Not at all. It's been fantastic. 

[00:25:41] Caris Bizzaca That was Bevan Lee and remember, Back to the Rafters will be launching on Amazon Prime Video on September 17th. To catch every new episode of the Screen Australia podcast, subscribe through iTunes or Spotify. And remember to subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter for all the latest news from the local industry. Thanks for listening.