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Raising the bar for The Heights

The Heights showrunner and co-creator Warren Clarke on making a show that reflected Australian audiences on-screen and off.

Warren Clarke, Calen Tassone and Bridie McKim in The Heights

The thing about television is, it’s always hard.

So says Warren Clarke, the co-creator and showrunner of ABC series The Heights and now Head of Scripted Development at Fremantle Australia, where he’s executive producing several projects including Wellmania for Netflix and Rock Island Mysteries for Nickelodeon. 

Clarke isn’t the only person to say this – the time and financing pressures on Australian television is not new. But for Clarke, ‘hard’ shouldn’t be a reason not to push for change. With ABC’s The Heights, which he co-created with Que Minh Luu (now Director of Content at Netflix ANZ) while they were both working under Debbie Lee at Matchbox Pictures, they wanted to make TV that was reflective of the diversity of Australia. The two 30-episode seasons of The Heights follow the residents of the inner-city social housing tower Acardia as well those who live and work in the quickly gentrifying area around it.

“[We wanted] a show that was more akin to walking down the street of an Australian city and having that spectrum of humanity effectively represented,” he says. “Also something that had a high volume of episodes, so a model where you had the breadth to explore wide-ranging ideas around life in Australia.”

In his efforts to move the needle, Clarke is also aware of his own privilege.

“I am conscious of being a white guy in this space and the limitations of that perspective,” he says. “Something that is obvious really, is that the idea of having a truly representative television industry is a journey that we're still on. It's being conscious about the destination and taking the measured steps to get there.”

It meant prioritising authentic casting and additional resourcing to mentor emerging writers, as Clarke will explain in more detail below. He says it didn’t make it more difficult, TV is just difficult, full-stop.

“It would be remiss to go ‘well it's so much harder to do reflective storytelling or represented storytelling’ because it's all pretty tough,” he says.

“Time and money were attributed to certain places that we felt would get us to where we wanted the show to be… It's just about digging into where your principles lie, where you want the show to live and then committing.”


Authenticity wasn’t shoe-horned into a show like The Heights. It was there from those initial conversations. The creators, the network, the production company, the heads of department: everyone came onto the project knowing the intention.

Clarke says he and Luu made it clear from those first brainstorming sessions that they wanted The Heights to reflect the audience that should be watching the series.

“That was part of the mandate of the show as it was pitched. It was an immovable piece of what the work was and then everything got to fall behind and follow that North Star,” he says.

That shared goal is important to Clarke because it helps create a set where people can talk through ideas to find the best approach.

You’re not going to get it right every time, so [it’s about] having that safe environment where you can problem-solve, workshop together and learn from mistakes,” he says.

“When development or production get tough you might be tempted to ask, ‘wouldn’t it just be easier to just go down this more traditional pathway or make a more familiar choice. But the team on The Heights had a fantastic culture of saying, ‘let's keep looking, let's keep pushing, let’s stay true to our goals’.”

Leading that group was Clarke and Luu as co-creators on The Heights. When Luu went to ABC in 2017, she continued as executive producer on the series with Sally Riley, while Chris Oliver-Taylor and Debbie Lee executive produced for Matchbox Pictures. Clarke stepped into a showrunner role, which in this context meant he had creative oversight, worked closely with the scripted creative team and as a point of contact for the network.

Particularly when The Heights moved into production, Clarke had producing responsibilities alongside lead producer Peta Astbury-Bulsara, who came aboard the project in the early stages to build the production model and drive the crewing process in WA. 

“[There was] the practicalities of production and the problem solving that requires,” he says of being a showrunner. “I saw that role as being a filtration point through which creative decisions could be made, so making sure the HoDs and their teams had what they needed and ensuring we were all on the same page and… on track with the vision of the series.”


Throughout any aspect of the decision-making process, Clarke says the creative team could refer back to that original intention – to reflect the audience that would be watching The Heights – as a kind of checkpoint. 

For the series to be representative, they knew the characters would need to be a diverse group of people. From there, they knew they would need to cast the characters authentically.

“As opposed to it being retrofitted, it was just so the DNA of what the series was that [those decisions] were a no-brainer for us,” he says.

In some cases the difficulty lay in the follow-through of those decisions – in actually finding the actors to portray some of those characters. Clarke says pathways and opportunities aren’t necessarily available to every demographic, which means there can be potentially smaller pools of talent for certain roles.

“It’s [about thinking] who has access to this industry and who doesn't? And for those who don't, how do you access them?” he says.

On The Heights, casting director Annie Murtagh-Monks was given a brief to find actors of First Nations, Caucasian, Middle Eastern and Asian cultural backgrounds, while some are straight, others are LGBTQI+, able-bodied, or have a disability.

Bridie McKim was still at NIDA when she was cast as Sabine, one of the first characters with a disability ever given a lead role on Australian screens (read an interview with McKim here).

For her work in authentically casting 100 or so speaking roles on The Heights, Murtagh-Monks won the 2019 Casting Guild of Australia Award for Best Casting in a TV Drama. In her acceptance speech, Murtagh-Monks says it was her most ambitious job, but also the most rewarding, calling it a “genuine privilege to be tasked with finding so many diverse new faces” (read more here).

Clarke says if you opt for the way it’s always been done, you might be missing an opportunity – for an actor, but also to elevate your series to be the best it can be.

“It's a process of reaching even further than possibly the more traditional models or advancing them,” he says, “because casting directors have the skills to reach into community [and] to find that perfect person for the role.”

Cast of The Heights


Another positive with the 30-episode model of The Heights, was the pathway it provided into the industry – something that only Home and Away and, until recently, Neighbours had been able to do since traditional 22-episode seasons contracted into shorter run series.

Clarke says the beauty of longer-run shows, which used to be such as staple of the industry, is how they give emerging talent insight into the television “machine”.

“[Being] exposed to production meetings, working with HoDs and creative problem solving is such a critical education point,” he says.

“Absolutely part of the drive of the creation of [The Heights] model was to fill that gap [of] there not being the industry on-ramps that there had historically been.”

For The Heights, building the crew and in particular, the writers’ room, was again driven with that original intention to have reflective storytelling.

“For roles in development, we searched for talent that had lived experience, but had those craft skills or [would benefit from] the platform to develop those craft skills,” he says.

On season 1, there were 41 interns who worked on The Heights. While internships, placements and attachments are important, for Clarke it was also about getting people their first screen credits, and hopefully more down the line.

Case in point was writer Timothy Williams, who took part in an observer program on season 1 and then moved up to be in the writers’ room and wrote an episode on season 2. 

There was also at least 60% gender parity across the heads of departments and wider crew on both series – predominately from Western Australia, where The Heights was shot and Clarke is from.

“How do you set people up to win?” Clarke says. “It's not enough to provide an opportunity. You have to provide the opportunity in the correct way.”

That was done by making sure resources were put into training and engagement, so there was infrastructure in place and it wasn’t a hollow exercise.

“It came in the form of mentorships, particularly in the early writing stages. We brought on an additional script editor who was able to work specifically with the more emerging talent in the craft principles and bringing their scripts along,” he says. 

With a number of First Nations stories in the series, community engagement from multiple points of view was also a priority, as well as representation in the crew.

“In season two we had quite a significant First Nations storyline, so we had First Nations writers in the room and writing on the scripts, we had a First Nations director, we had First Nations cast and we had a First Nations editor on at one point as well,” he says. “So you can see how [First Nations perspectives are] reflected in the storytelling throughout that process. I think our ability to do that was really made possible by the support organisations such as Screen Australia have given to First Nations practitioners over many years”

“That's the kind of representation you want throughout the whole pipeline of television. That takes conscious decision making and it takes active thought about making sure that you get there.

“We were more successful in some areas than others, but I think if you're working with the philosophy of what will provide the best opportunity for success, you can start to recognise ways you can structure the production to do that.” 


While there was a push for change in the DNA of The Heights, Clarke says if you stepped onto the set it still would be recognizable as a standard television project.

“You wouldn't get there and go ‘they've absolutely reinvented the wheel’,” he says. “It’s still TV [and] with any facet of production, challenges arise…. there is never enough money, there's never enough time.”

That balance between fulfilling the goal of the series and the practical financial difficulties was a constant learning process.

“When you have a production or a show that is driven towards breaking in emerging talent and providing opportunity, there's going to be this intersection of intention and then commerce,” he says. “You hit these tricky points where it’s like ‘it's fantastic that we brought in a writer who can authentically represent this story being told, but we're out of drafts in terms of the budget and I have 10 pages of network notes going into production. Oh, and I've also lost a key location.’ How do you negotiate those script edits while still preserving that original representation? I think as an industry that is a challenge we are still grappling with”

He says it’s something productions face on multiple fronts, not just in terms of representation, but across the board.

“The friction points of production is a really tough one,” he says, particularly in trying to create opportunities for emerging writers to work in-house as a script editor, or storyliner. 

“To be in-house is really an important step of career development and one that's so absent. It's really difficult to get those opportunities now because of the way the production models work and the series run orders.

“[But] when the rubber meets the road it’s about trying to stay true to your principles. Sometimes there's give and sometimes there's not.”

The end result is a series that has provided in-roads for creatives, and was critically lauded, with The Guardian’s four-star review saying it “proves that diversity done right is not just tokenism, but makes for genuinely better TV” (read here), while Junkee called it “the Aussie soap opera you should absolutely be watching” (read here). It was nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Drama Series, as well as nominations from the SPA Awards, ADG Awards, ASSG Awards, and won the AWGIE Award in 2020 for writing in serial television series.

As Clarke says, reflective storytelling is not only better for our society, but makes for better television.

“Representation is clearly so important in the arts and in the media, but the other strong point for us was it made the show better,” he says. “It elevated what the show was…

“It’s an ancillary benefit to the fact that as an industry we are being supportive and fair, [that we might] reach a point where anyone could turn on the television and find themselves somewhere there.”

Watch Season 1 and Season 2 of The Heights on ABC iview

Carina Hoang in The Heights