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Podcast – Screenwriter Catherine Smyth-McMullen

Screenwriter Catherine Smyth-McMullen on writing genre in Australia and the US, and what you need to know about general meetings.

Raffey Cassidy, Catherine Smyth-McMullen, Ailbhe Cowley

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

There was a period in screenwriter Catherine Smyth-McMullen’s career where she made it her job to take general meetings in the US.

“Some days I would be doing four meetings a day,” she says.

At that time, Smyth-McMullen had been juggling note-taking and developing her own work in Australia when her pilot Living Metal won the Ustinov Award for Television Writing from the International Emmys. A year later her feature script for The Other Lamb was on the 2017 Black List as one of the year’s best unproduced scripts – and would go on to make its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. But back then, armed with two pilot scripts and two feature scripts, over several years Smyth-McMullen ended up going to around 300 general meetings. It was expensive and exhausting, but it paid off.

“So many opportunities came out of that,” says Smyth-McMullen, who has sold and set-up pilots with SyFy, Warner Bros., Netflix, AMC and eOne, as well as being a writer on season 1 of The Sandman for Warner Bros/Netflix, and on Two Sentence Horror Stories for The CW/Netflix.

“How I started properly working in US rooms was I had had a general meeting with an executive and then I'd been put forward [for] a show that they were staffing at the time… [the showrunner] read my script, liked it, and then said, ‘Would you would you like to write on this show? I've read your samples. Let's see if it's a good fit.’ And two weeks later I was over in the States for an eight-week room.

“So that was from a general meeting. I can trace it from: the exec at the company met with me and then I met the showrunner and then I was in the room.”

Throughout the latest episode of the Screen Australia Podcast, Smyth-McMullen explains what a general meeting is, how to prepare for them, what materials you should have ready and how they differ from a pitch meeting. She also talks about being a genre writer, the differences between working in Australia and the US, working across both film and television, her writing process and more.

For the full episode, listen to the Screen Australia Podcast.

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

Audio Transcript

Caris Bizzaca [00:00:05] Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, I'm a writer, content producer and creator of this podcast, which is part of Screen Australia's in-house publication, Screen News. I'd like to firstly acknowledge the various countries you were all listening in from - the Unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This podcast has been created on the lands of the Gadigal people of the larger Eora Nation, and I've had the great privilege to be a visitor and be able to work on these lands for many years. Always was, always will be. For this episode of the podcast, we are talking to Catherine Smyth-McMullen, an award-winning film and television screenwriter who has a focus on genre. Catherine's feature film, The Other Lamb had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. After being on the 2017 Black List, the Hit List and the Blood List as one of the year's best unproduced scripts. As a television writer, Catherine has sold and set up pilots with SyFy, Warner Bros., Netflix, AMC and eOne. She was a writer on the first season of The Sandman for Warner Bros. and Netflix, which was based on the graphic novels by Neil Gaiman, and she was a writer and consulting producer on two sentence horror stories for the CW and Netflix. In Australia, she's worked as a writer, script editor and script producer in writers' rooms and was a writer on the second season of Stan series Bloom. Throughout the podcast, Catherine talks about being a genre writer in Australia and the US, how she began writing in The States, and the difference between working in the two countries, as well as talking specifically to general meetings. Having done around 300 general meetings, she explains what they are, what materials you need to have ready for them, how they differ from a pitch meeting and more. Before we get to the chat, remember you can subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes where you can leave a rating and review. Any feedback send to [email protected], and don't forget, you can also subscribe to Screen Australia's Industry eNews for the latest funding announcements, opportunities, videos and more. Without further ado, his screenwriter Catherine Smyth-McMullen. First of all, could you tell me a bit about your background in the industry and some of the projects that you've worked across?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:02:27] Yes, I have been in film and TV for ten or 11 years now. I got my first proper job at Matchbox [Pictures] in 2011, working front desk there and then was Tony Ayres' assistant. In terms of the projects I've worked across, I went from Matchbox and production company land to production, worked across a bunch of shows, worked in reality, worked on drama, did lots of jobs in lots of different departments, and then made the transition to screenwriting full time. That's all I live off [from] 2016/2017, and in that world, I've worked pretty widely: lots of development, lots of writers' rooms in Australia and also the states. The things I've worked on that got made have been a horror anthology called Two Sentence Horror Stories, that was my first US gig. I had a feature of mine made called The Other Lamb that premiered at TIFF and went to London Film Festival and San Sebastián [International Film Festival] and had a cool festival run and then was released digitally and theatrically.  worked on a show called The Sandman, which is a giant show, it was number one on Netflix, it did pretty well, and I was a staff writer on that, and I also wrote an episode. That's broadly my path.

Caris Bizzaca [00:03:41] What drew you to screenwriting and how [did] that come about?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:03:47] I'm very, very lucky and I always try and be clear about different kinds of privilege and ways that the path can be smoothed for you compared to someone that's not from a creative family. My dad's a novelist, he's a science fiction writer. He always had to work full time as well and he's had books published in the States, but I was very, very fortunate in that I went, "I'm a writer" from probably five or six. It was always very clear to me; I always knew I wanted to do it. What did shift is that it wasn't screenwriting, and I'd say that as a specific interest was probably around [the age of] sixteen or seventeen. I watched Buffy and then Arrested Development and I just went, 'Oh my God, I want to make these stories.' I still read very widely across fantasy and sci fi and part of me still hopes I have a novel in me. I always knew I wanted to write, but screenwriting was, not a later thing [necessarily], I was still a teen, but certainly that was a progression for me. I always thought I'd be a novelist, basically and then I was, 'Oh, I think actually I want to make TV.'

Caris Bizzaca [00:04:51] You were saying that you still read a lot of sci fi and fantasy, and with your screenwriting, you do have a focus on genre. What do you enjoy about writing genre in particular, and are there preferred genres for you?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:05:08] It's an interesting question because fundamentally, I actually don't see myself as a screenwriter. I see it as a very important facet of my writing, but fundamentally, I see myself as a genre writer that is happy to work across different mediums, and I think that is where it's different and that's why I have such a clear focus. The facetious way of saying it is, if it doesn't have a ghost or a dragon in it, I'm not interested. There's probably some room to play within that, but if there's not some dark, twisty genre-y-something in there, it's just not the stories I'm drawn to. As a result, it was actually really clear to me that I couldn't just work in Australia and I will probably get more into that later but compared to other Aussie writers that [think] 'there are some bigger advantages in the States, but I can do these shows at home,' I'm [thinking], 'maximum we've got one or two genre shows in a year and that's not enough for me to sustain a career by writing an ep or two of those, so I probably have to go to the States'. Those are the stories I'm drawn to, I do still write prose, I write short stories, I would love to work in comics. I have a comic idea and I read comics very widely and obviously worked on Sandman, so it's a medium I feel very comfortable in, but pretty much if there's not some genre aspect, it's just not a story that speaks to me.

Caris Bizzaca [00:06:23] Is being a genre writer like yourself more common in somewhere like the US than Australia just because of the amount of opportunities that are available?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:06:34] Definitely, it's just a numbers game. There are lots of writers in Australia that love genre and would love to just write genre. I could name ten off the top of my head. We had just a smaller market, so it is changing because we're selling more things internationally and all of that stuff. There is more scope for genre, we have more buyers. Netflix is in town, there's Stan, there's Disney Plus. Compared to when I started work ten, 12 years ago, there were the five channels. I actually think we're in a golden era in terms of interesting stuff that's coming out of Australia and being made, but at the same time, we're still a small country compared to the States, so we just have less people, we have less people that can watch things. Yes, we can sell things internationally, but we're a smaller market and so as a result, in America, when I do Generals and do meetings, no one blinks an eye when I say I only do horror and Sci-Fi. Whereas in Australia, that is very specific and if you said, who are the genre writers in Australia, I'm probably on that list but part of it is because I'm one of the few people that's [said], 'Hey guys, this is all I do' and just been very clear about that. That's not to say, honestly if a show is dark enough, I would consider it, or if there was really something that spoke to me in there that I'm not ever going to not read a potential show that they think I could bring something to, but I have   deliberately put myself in that box. Whereas Aussie writers just have to be jack of all trades and that's just a function of, you might get three eps of a one-hour show a year, let's say. What are the chances that they will all be exactly the type of stuff you're interested in writing? It's not always going to fit with what necessarily speaks to you, but you generally find something in there. We just have to be more flexible so really working in the States is the only thing that's allowed me to be that specific. In America when I go to meetings, there are other writers who [say] 'all I do is genre.' That's pretty common. In fact, you need to be more specialised. You need to [say], 'Oh, I write network, medical dramas, or what have you, because people do want to put you in a box of what jobs they should think of you for. The frustration is, if you're [thinking], actually I love Rom-Coms, which I do, no one thinks of me for Rom-Coms. That's my own fault.

Caris Bizzaca [00:08:50] A rom-com with a ghost or a dragon, you might have more of a-- [laughs]

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:08:54] Exactly, that would be fine. I have a show idea that is very rom-com-y and the way I have made that stick to, I'm going to say 'my brand' which I hate as a phrase, but the way I've made that stick to my brand is that it's still time travel, so it's like 'look, it's what she does normally, but slightly different.'

Caris Bizzaca [00:09:13] Mixing the genres up?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:09:14] Exactly.

Caris Bizzaca [00:09:16] When you were saying you had that realisation of 'Oh, I think I need to go to the US', early on in your career you won a number of awards. In 2016 you won a television scriptwriting award at the International Emmys and then in 2017 your feature film script, The Other Lamb ended up on the Black List. Can you talk through that period of sending scripts into these competitions or   'best of' [competitions] and the impact of these?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:09:46] Absolutely and this is something I'm quite passionate about because competitions are not all great but some of them are incredibly useful. In that period, my career was very much about the juggle, I was actively working in productions, but I was also very much in writer's rooms as a note taker, I was solidly in that world. I was writing spec scripts, so a spec script is when you write an original script for no money and you're just doing it for yourself and you can do that with a pilot and that's a sample, or you do it as a feature, it's also a sample. What I will say is that if it's a feature and you're a brand-new writer, it is more likely to get a bit of momentum simply because if they like the script, the full product is there, whereas with the pilot, what you're selling is your ability to make an entire TV show and if you're a brand-new writer, people will not think that you can do that. A pilot is not just about 'how good is this pilot', it's about 'can this person deliver me ten episodes?' I was in that odd [place], I was actively working in production, I would be in writers' rooms, I'd be an intern in rooms, I would note-take. I was juggling and then in between jobs, I would go and write scripts. I joke about it, but it's a joke that had truth. I would write my weird science fiction scripts like Living Metal, which was what won the award from the Emmys, it was a cop drama with robots, basically and no one in Australia was making that. I didn't think 'oh, I'll see this on TV in two years.' I absolutely knew it was a sample and no one was reading them and not in a bad way. I did have an agent but again, no one was [saying], 'oh, we really want this cop drama with robots.' I joke about it, but if I finished the script, basically, if I went into the backyard and burnt them and then made smoke signals out of it, that would be more people than would read my script, whoever ever saw that in the sky. I wasn't depressed, it's just that I wrote genre in Australia, but because of that, I entered into comps, I started getting a bit of just general positive feedback. I had placed in the Nicholls [Nicholl Screenwriting Awards] through a script [called] Driven, which was a horror script I'd written. Something had been optioned, I'd maybe been paid to do an outline, I was starting to get little bites of work. Then the award from the Emmys, which is very specific award. It's not an Emmy, it says it in the clause of the competition. I cannot say it is an Emmy, but it's an award from the Emmys for unproduced television writing that really did put me to another level, simply because if you can put that at the top of your bio, people will generally at least read your script. I don't believe in particular breaks. You have lots of small, mini breaks that take you to a different level or a new stage of your career, but that award, they flew me to New York and then I went to L.A. for a few weeks of meetings. In those few weeks, two different people referred me to my current managers, two people separately. I met with them, I liked them, I [thought] 'I'm interning in writer's rooms, I've got not much to lose by signing with them' because they were brand new as well. They were just becoming managers and that was about five years ago. They had this amazing network of contacts. They're lovely, lovely people and I think nine months later, in the first year of them repping me my script The Other Lamb had gone out wide, so I'd gotten a lot of generals, it had been optioned, I'd met with people, and then it ended up on the Black List. The difference with the Black Listed competitions, because I had placed in comps, is that the Black List has a competition element. It has their website that you can upload scripts to and people vote on, but the Black List, the actual infamous list that everyone reads every year of best unproduced scripts is an industry list. It's that you get on it by industry executives, development execs and production execs, etc., voting on their favourite scripts of the year and that is very network based because they've read that script because that manager sent them their favourite client or what have you. There are certain managers that are known for getting their client script on the Black List every year because they have their list of 50 people that they know are probably the readers of the list. It's technically secret who's on it and so it is the best scripts of the year in terms of the best unproduced things but also when you look at the list, most of them are optioned, some of them have A-list talent attached, it's just that it hasn't started shooting, so when young or emerging writers are [asking], 'how do I end up on the Black List?' it's not a competition. That is a list of effectively, how effective are your managers and how good is your script.

Caris Bizzaca [00:14:07] It's a combination of that networking and the script.

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:14:11] Yes, and the one difference to just being a general industry script list is that it's not for assignment gigs, so if you were paid to adapt that short story or if you are doing a Marvel film, that's not on the Black List, it is for original scripts. Even if it's optioned, even if someone's paid lots of money for it, it is still in list of interesting writing. It was incredibly useful for my career for me to be on the Black List. It meant the Americans knew where to slot me in basically which you could write on 50 shows in Australia and if they didn't air in the States, they don't know what those shows mean. Whereas, as soon as they know where to place you, either because you've worked in the States or because that Australian show aired in America or on Netflix or whatever, they know, 'oh you sit about here, you write this show, you're at this level of your career' and the Black List absolutely meant that people were like, 'oh, she's probably at least pretty good', and then they would read my scripts, and at that stage of my career as well, I didn't have anything made and it meant that that initial period after I won the award from the Emmys and I went to the States, I had either four or five un-optioned, completely clear samples. I had two pilots and two features, I think the idea for a third feature and it just meant that [I could say] 'oh, you're a TV company, I can take a meeting with you, here's my two samples, oh you make films? Here's my other two samples.' I did feel very ready for that next step verses just having one interesting script and nothing to follow up with it on.

Caris Bizzaca [00:15:35] We'll come to that a bit later about what materials you should have ready to go when you come to these things, but in terms of your career, this recognition from the Emmys and then the Black List, is this how you start working on U.S. projects?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:15:53] I have a little talk that I've done a few times with Screen Australia about what general meetings can get you. Basically, I went and I made general meetings my job, so I would come over for four or five weeks, I did that three or four times a year and some days I would be doing four meetings a day. A meeting is just making someone like you and your work and in America, it's very different in Australia, but America, you've gotten that meeting if they've read you. They won't meet with you if they haven't read your script and liked it, which is actually great because that's actually the biggest hurdle. It meant that I just made meeting and talking with people and talking about my scripts, my work for a little while, and I just felt I was burning money, but so many opportunities came out of that. It's not about, 'can I get my show made?' That's way too restrictive. It's about, 'did I make a friend?' because that exec[utive] might be somewhere else in two years that wants to hire me. Did they have a short story that they want adapted that's a weird dark Sci-Fi thing? They read my weird, dark Sci-Fi script and they go, 'she'd be great for that short story we've optioned', do they have a show that they're staffing, and then right at the bottom of the list is 'do they want my script and to produce it?' In the couple of years, I've been working in The States, I've had over 300 general meetings and of those general meetings, [which] it's a lot, it's a lot of meetings. Of the general meetings a huge amount have ended up with either more interest or work or potential things, but I think it's four of them where I've sold my scripts, which is amazing. I've sold four original pilots or features, but that's actually a very low percentage of meetings, but way more where they've read my stuff and gone 'we'd love you to consider this short story' because it's much more likely that they've got something on their slate that they want you to adapt than it is that they happen to love exactly your script. How I started properly working in US rooms was I had had a general meeting with an executive and then I'd been put forward. They had to show that they were staffing, at the time it was a digital horror anthology and ended up becoming a network TV, a proper show that was on The CW and Netflix, and the showrunner Vera [Miao] who's now a very close friend, read my script, liked it, and then said, 'would you like to write on this show? I've read your samples, let's see if it's a good fit' and two weeks later I was over in the States for, I think was an eight-week room. That was from a general meeting. I can trace it from the exec of the company met with me and then I met the showrunner and then I was in the room. But the exec met with me because, actually I hadn't been on the Black List at that stage, but my script had been optioned. It's rare that you point it to one particular thing, but also, I made doing generals my job. It's very different now because of COVID. To be clear to anyone listening that [is thinking] I should go over for ten weeks. How I phrased it at the time was I want the Americans to feel like I'm either about to come here, I'm here or I've just left. I just wanted it to be that that they were sick of me, and I guess it worked.

Caris Bizzaca [00:18:46] Well, and 300 meetings. That blows my mind. How do you actually approach preparing for a general meeting?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:18:56] I’m very chaotic, so I don't know that my tactic is everyone’s. I try to read up about the company, but also what I found is that you'll be like 'cool, they make this TV' and then anything on their website is two or three years out of date. That's what's coming out now. That's not necessarily the current focus. Like, 'actually we're moving to features' I would have to mentally shift. Generally, I'll read up a little bit about the company but not go too deep and then just keep an open mind and see what the exec is about. I've also had meetings where we've just talked about things that are not technically work for half the meeting, like, 'oh my God, I'm obsessed with cults, oh, I love this thing, have you listened to this podcast?' That's all about: do they vibe with you? Do you have the same taste? Do you like the same things? Do you find same things interesting? Not me pitching scene by scene my show. That's not nearly as useful. In fact, I'd say in a general, that's a waste of time. It's another thing that I find that some Aussie writers don't quite understand is a general is very different to a formal pitch. A formal pitch, you go in, you shake hands and you're like, 'we open on a stormy sea.' You know when you're doing a pitch, you can talk about your stuff that you're developing. You can be like, 'oh, if you'd love to read it, it's about this,' but you shouldn't be pitching your show for half an hour. That is not the goal of a general. I struggled to prep when I was doing three or four a day. I would basically just prep by getting in the Uber and reading whoever I was meeting with on the way. But it is also in the meeting you have to mentally go, remind my managers to send that script, remind them that they said they were going to send the short story so I should follow up. I would immediately leave the meeting and make a few little notes and jot them down and at the end of the day, email them through my managers, basically a summary of what I've talked about. Not exactly like 'we talked about this and this,' more like 'I loved her, she was so great, she said she wanted to read the script of mine and that they were going to send a book through.' The managers are on the phone straight after the meeting following up, it's a very intense, very different system and those meetings I could track where I got my jobs from, from that meeting I did three years ago. They were definitely worth it, but they're expensive and very exhausting.

Caris Bizzaca [00:21:03] Is there a difference with generals in Australia comparative to those in the U.S.?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:21:09] Yes, 100%. There is a strong difference, and there's so many specifics I could go into, but the main things would be in Australia we're smaller, so you might have been intro[duced] through your agent. Absolutely. Maybe also a writer friend, someone that's worked on that show and you just want to meet that producer. I have had very few producers in Australia that have read my stuff before meeting me and I'm not saying that as a 'how dare they'. It is just the culture is much more 'meet me, see if they like me and then read my stuff.' That's not across the board but I think it's partly because producers in Australia have often come from a background of development and production. Now we do have more dedicated development execs, but especially, five or ten years ago there are a lot more execs that were either in production on a show or developing and so I think it's just less of a culture of reading people. Producers in Australia don't read samples as often. Even samples it's like, 'Oh, you want me to make this show?' I'm like, 'No, it's just a sample,' like it's actually optioned so you can't make it, it is just a sample to show I can write. I do think that's shifting, but that was definitely one big difference. There's also the classic, everyone talks about it, but in America I don't go in and say, I'm the best writer you'll ever meet with. One I'm not and two it comes across as false. It's not culturally what Australians do but they do want confidence. They don't want you to deprecate. They don't want you to say 'my show was shit' because they're like, 'Well, why am I meeting with you if that's the case?' I found a good balance with that, where I feel like I can quite confidently say, ‘if you want a genre writer, I love genre and I view that as my specialty and I'm quite good at it’, and so I can be confident in that way but Americans expect confidence and they want a bit of, not arrogance, but they want you to be like, 'here's my vision for something.' In Australia, I do have to, not tone it down a bit, but you just have to be slightly more self-deprecating and that is not specific to film and TV. That's probably just more cultural. We have tall poppy syndrome. That is a real thing that you do have to shift. I see Aussies come over here and as I say, I do talks for people about how to do US meetings. It's not about coming in and making yourself really falsely big, but it is about being quietly confident in your own work and again, that does apply in Australia too. I don't want to imply that producers at home want me to be like, 'Oh, I'm so bad at everything.' But there is a cultural difference. They want you to be like, I could show run and that is not always the case with producers at home. It's still a very different landscape in that sense, and also to be honest, I couldn't have 300 meetings in Australia if I tried. There's just not enough people. You're going to meet people a few times, you get to know them through that friend, it is a smaller market, it's a smaller landscape and you know them socially more. You see them in events more. Producers in the States can absolutely be friends, but it's just so much bigger. Whereas I would know of, I might not know them directly, but I would know the names of most producers in Australia that are making stuff that is probably a good fit for me. We ae just, again, a smaller industry.

Caris Bizzaca [00:24:06] From what you were saying earlier, you were doing that juggling thing of note taking and then writing and working in production and then writing your own sample scripts, and it meant that when you did go into these meetings, you had a number of samples that you would be able to send, and maybe dependent on the what they were looking for or what they were interested in as well. If people are going into these general meetings, what materials should they have ready to go, and if they don't have those materials yet, should they be focusing on their samples and then going after these generals?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:24:47] It's a great question. I think a minimum of two of the medium that you want to talk to them about. If you were like, 'I'm only a TV writer, I have no interest in features', you don't have to have a feature sample. That's absolutely fine but you should have two of the kind of show you want to make. Those don't have to be available; they can be something you did for a company that was an assignment gig but you actually think really reflects your writing. As long as it's okay for you to send or sneakily uses a sample. They can be optioned, ideally you have one or two free, like that, that's obviously better, but you at least have to have two examples of your work that, it's a bit of-- not cop out, but they have to be similar but different. Both of mine for a while were Living Metal and Awake were my two that I started with in terms of TV samples. One was a one-hour robot detective drama, of like dead girl on the side of the road as the opening, except that's a robot. Very basic in a way, in terms of structurally it was a police detective drama and then my other one was a world where the rich don't have to sleep, so it was like a dark one-hour drama. I sold that to NBC, very different in structure, they weren't both detective shows, for example, but tonally they were both dark adult Sci Fi. It was like, 'this is where I want to sit. This is what I want to write. If you have a show that's a dark adult Sci Fi or you have a book that you want to adapt, that's that, here's roughly where I sit.' Then both of my feature samples were horror, so in very different ways. This was what I went to the States with. I had a sample of a self-driving car film that was much more, not basic horror, but scares and people being strangled with seat belts type thing called Driven and then I had The Other Lamb, which was horror and was much more cult, in the middle of the desert and that was then reset by the producers to Ireland, which was fine. I'm also Irish, I have an Irish passport, so it actually worked really well, but the sample that I went out with was very Australian. It was for a desert, it was very Australian in landscape, but cults are very popular. People love a cult script and that meant I could meet very evenly across features in TV companies. If your focus was only features or if your focus was only TV, I don't think you have to have four, that is also a lot of scripts. I'm surprised I had that many scripts, but I would say minimum, you have to have two of the medium you want to work in. It's hard in that, let's say you have a film that's really hit, so you've got that festival darling that really went strong and everyone's so interested. When you're hot, you're hot over there, everyone wants to meet with you. If you've got that feature that hit or even that short that everyone was talking about, it's not that you shouldn't take those meetings but it really is-- and Greg McLean's talked about it, I think with the follow up to Wolf Creek-- that they wanted him to have the next Wolf Creek in the drawer ready to go and he didn't because no one was prepared for how popular that was and it made it hard because on a general, they basically are [asking], what do you have next? If you have a bit of momentum, the scripts are about having something ready to take advantage of that and just showing basically that you're not a one trick pony. There are people that have one book in them or one script in them, or that script took them ten years and people want to know that you can do it again. They want to know that you're a proven quantity and more scripts shows that whatever you did with the script they liked is not an accident.

Caris Bizzaca [00:28:02] When it comes to working in television in Australia versus somewhere like the U.S., what are the big differences for writers in the development process?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:28:15] In terms of the development process in the U.S., the biggest difference is just the number of places you can go. The number of production companies you can go meet with and then that equals a number of studios you can go to and that equals the number of networks you can go to. The other difference is that structure I just described is different to Australia, so in Australia you have your production company and then you have your broadcaster, so SBS or Channel Seven or Netflix, it is a two-tier system. We do have a few studios that are starting, but fundamentally at the moment it is a two-tier system. In the States it's a three-tiered system, but some places are dropping to two so it's confusing, but it's basically you have your producers, then they sell to studio, so a Warner Brothers or whoever, and then they sell to network so you could sell your show to the studio, Warner Brothers, and then they could sell that show to the network, Netflix. Some places only sell internally, which is where it gets a bit confusing so you sell to AMC Studios and then it airs on AMC Network but technically it's a three-tier system. Development wise it means you're dealing with more cooks; you're pitching two or three times in terms of when it sells so I'll talk with the producers, [tell them] this is my take on this project. We get a pitch out, then I pitch to studio. This all might be unpaid, by the way, and then I pitch to network. It's a process, it can take literally years from meetings, notes, executives changing, all of that stuff from like, 'Oh, here's a cool idea' to 'I'm starting work on this pilot' could easily be a year or two. Ideally not, it could also be three months, but it's such a long development process and that they buy pitches so in development world they will read your sample but what they want is for you to pitch an idea to them. They say yes, and then you go and write the pilot. That can happen in Australia, but that is a bit rare. Generally, you will have written the pilot, whether it's with the production company or on spec, but pitching and selling a show purely verbally, you would have to have a very strong track record of 'you've delivered five shows', whereas I pitched and sold a show in the States but when I was in Australia, I couldn't get staffed in certain rooms because I wasn't experienced enough. That's not me being bitter or anything like that, it's just purely that they were like, 'Oh, we've read her stuff, let's give her a shot at writing a pilot' and Australia was like, 'We're not sure that she's ready to even be a contributing writer and a brainstorm.' I [thought] this is very different, but there's just more willingness to take a risk on someone, but they will absolutely fire you. I'm lucky enough to have not been yet, but it is also a more ruthless industry, they have more money to play with, they have more people, it's just different. There's more homes for stuff, more scope for pitching bigger things. People want you to be ambitious with what you want to say with a show, but the main difference is, is that there's actually copyright reasons why they want to buy pitch off you, because when I pitch something to a studio or a network, they then buy that pitch and are technically re-hiring me to write it, so they actually own that idea completely now. I have sold a script, I've sold a pilot before that I'd written completely to a network and technically, I still owned the copyright to that, and that's actually a very different deal. Their preference is generally buying a verbal pitch from you, in Australia that is not the case.

Caris Bizzaca [00:31:27] They’re very different. In addition to that, are they big differences in in writers' rooms for Australian and U.S. projects?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:31:39] There definitely is. One of the big things is relatively obvious if you work across Australian rooms, but we do very short rooms. I could do a room for two or three days, I could brainstorm something quickly, I could plot it, in the States it was considered a short room that I was on something for ten weeks and I was [thinking], 'this is the longest time I've ever done. I feel like I'm writing a marathon.' You're also exclusive so I had shows in development when I was in a writer's room, and all of that development technically had to pause because while I was in that room for ten weeks, I was exclusive to that show. In Australia, you're constantly juggling small bits of a draft for that person's show, but this original development for this, I'm doing a brain storm for three days, but there's no exclusivity and it can be quite nice because obviously you're managing your own deadlines and your own deliverables. It's hard if you're on a bunch of different things and you can't say to the producer, 'hey, I'm late on that draft because actually I have three drafts this week' so that juggle is totally stressful but it does mean that you don't get bogged down in one thing. US writers could be on a show, develop it, work on it for a year, and then that show might not come out and nothing might happen with it and on your resume, it just looks like this gap. You would put in that you worked on that show, but there's no credit, there's no anything, whereas at least Aussie writers can be a bit more agile and we break story in about half the time so in an ideal world, an Aussie room would get to hopefully three days to plot an episode. In the States you would get six and it's a very different rhythm. You can explore a character in a deeper way. Sometimes you're like, 'let's just make a decision and move on' but it's just it's a different way of plotting. It's a different way of working and also the rooms are bigger. I was in a very big room for my main show, for Sandman, that was a function of different episodes, the structure of the room, all of that. I had never been in a room that was that big in Australia. It would be rare to be in a room that had more than four writers, in Australia that would be considered a very small room.

Caris Bizzaca [00:33:36] How big?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:33:36] It was a writer per episode and we had ten eps so that big. You just would not have that in a Australian room, a room with over six people in it, I would be [thinking] 'this is a big room'.

Caris Bizzaca [00:33:56] To talk a bit more about writing specific things, what is your writing process? Are you a morning writer, are you a plotter, what's your process?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:34:09] It's a lot of chaos. I'm going to be honest. I'm trying to get better. I am someone that struggles with the deadline. I need one but also, I deeply resent them. I absolutely own that. I do have a very set system, though. It's different for film versus TV. TV, I've been in a lot of rooms, I feel very comfortable plotting a pilot out and then plotting a season out.  You might get a little mini room going or whatever. In terms of any form of writing, I am not a morning writer. I write in the afternoon. I need to block out time. In an ideal world, it's like two to six, that would be a perfect Catherine day. In a less ideal, a deadline is bearing down my neck, I might go later, I often have, but I'm trying to get better about that in the sense of ‘I want to write but I also want to go have dinner with that friend and not just have messed up a deadline.’ That's a really important thing for me and something I'm prioritising, but I am, I'm an afternoon writer. I have the mornings set aside for zooms and meetings, I do admin, I do emails, I do meetings, I do zooms. Those can all happen before 12. After that, I try to be quite protective about that chunk of time. Obviously, a doctor's appointment comes up at three or whatever that you can't avoid that stuff but a zoom at three will ruin my entire day in terms of productivity.  I wish that's not true, but I know myself well enough now to be like I would prefer that happen at ten because then I still have my afternoon and that can be really different per writer but I know after many, many years of trial and error where I'm like, I'm going to get up at seven. I have come to embrace within myself that that will not ever be true and I am very structural based, I love a structure. That's how I break a story and find it so if I'm writing a new feature, I will think of reference features. There might be tonal references, there might be structural, there might be a character arc that I'm interested in and I will do a very basic 'Save the Cat!' what was the incident, it happened around page 15 or that was the end of the first act, like very rough. We're talking like a sentence but what I'll find is I start to find themes so when I was breaking a horror feature, I went, okay, so if you open with something genre, you can hold off the next genre moment until minute 40 and that's not a hard and fast rule, but that was a trend but if you don't open with something genre, you've only got the audience with you until about 20, 25 minutes in because otherwise they're too much like 'what film is this? Am I watching a ghost film or am I watching a thriller?' It was just stuff like that where it's very mechanical. It's very [much me thinking] cool, so I have to have a cold open with something genre and then my brain would start to chew on that. Actually, having the rails gave me freedom, and I do that for TV as well but TV by its very nature, you have your act one, your act two, your turning points, your hooks at the end of the ep[isode], you have your hooks at the end of each act. TV's naturally, because of the commercial format is very structured. You have to write to act breaks, even if you're on streamers a lot of writers and I still write to act breaks even just mentally because it's the rhythm of it. Now even with streamers they might on-sell that somewhere and the next place it sells to might have ads so I still think writing an act structure is really, really valuable. I structure it out, I beat it out and then I pop that into final drafts. I write my rough notes. I start to put scene headers in and for me, it's always a battle against the blank page. All of those steps are actually about I never want to just stare at a final draft document that is empty. That is my nightmare. It's keeping it low pressure to be like, I'm just plotting it out and it's writing it on cards and popping it on my board and then I'm just transcribing those cards into a word doc[ument] and then I'm just adding some scene headers and then suddenly it looks a lot like an outline, so it's basically I'm gaslighting myself constantly.

Caris Bizzaca [00:38:00] Do you find that with genre, like you were saying obviously there are structural things around features and TV, but is that something you like about genre as well, that it has additional roles or structure points within that?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:38:17] Definitely, it's that thing of you can always tell when someone that doesn't watch a lot of horror, write something horror, I think. It's not to say you can't write within genres you don't understand, but if they're like, 'I've watched three films' and they were the most popular horror films of the last couple of years, I can tell because there will be something in there that's pretty basic or-

Caris Bizzaca [00:38:38] Like trope-y?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:38:39] Yeah something trope-y although I can love a trope, but more that, a Sci-Fi example that's quite famous because there's lots of short stories that get submitted to magazines and stuff, where it's two people land on a planet and they're trying to survive and then the twist at the end of the short story is that their names are Adam and Eve. That sounds quite specific and it was so common that short story editors have a list of, 'hey, if your story does this, we have seen this a million times, and that's one of the things on it, so if you don't read within the field you're like 'I have the best twist ever', and if you read within the field, you're like, 'dear God, no, I see this all the time' and I apply that to myself as well. If I was trying to write a thriller, like a true sexy crime thriller thing, that's not particularly my genre, but it crosses over with it enough. I would just go and binge thrillers. You have to respect that if you're working within a genre or a Western or a Rom Com that there are tropes and structure that are interesting and that are   consistent within that genre and that you have to go and pay your respects. It's not saying that you can't write horror unless you're a horror junkie, that's absolutely not. Horror is a really interesting field. It's traditionally been unrepresented by certain demographics. I actually don't watch as much horror as you would think because I get quite scared, but you do have to respect the history of the genre and what you were building on and what you were trying to say and what things are tropes and what things are the genre structure and how you want to play with those. If I'm writing something outside of my normal area, I will make sure I really binge it for a bit. I wrote a revenge film and I just went and binged films that had revenge as their main theme. I just wanted to do something interesting but also, I want to immerse myself in this.

Caris Bizzaca [00:40:27] Like you said, then you're seeing across all those revenge films, what are the common things that are that are coming up that are maybe overdone at this point, but were once fresh and then you can go from there.

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:40:39] The core of what a revenge story is basically you either win because you walk away and you let it go or you get your revenge and it's hollow. There are some exceptions, but, once you watch enough of them, you start to see they're generally actually dealing with grief, you start to see those themes and then you start to be able to go, 'well, how can I say something interesting within this space?'

Caris Bizzaca [00:41:03] You've given so much advice throughout all of this chat, [which has] been amazing, but we do always ask an advice question, so I was wondering, was there anything else that you wanted to add in terms of advice for anyone listening?

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:41:20] Yes, a few things. I'm going to be very specific and then be very general. The specific things are: if you want to be a writer, you have to have scripts, and that does not sound like particularly useful advice, but I meet a lot of writers and a lot of emerging writers in whatever form. If you don't have a script, I can't read it, I can't help. It sounds really basic, but it is actually a very important first step. To get to that script, I absolutely understand there are barriers, both of process, access, all of those things. 'm not I'm not just saying that cavalierly. If you struggle with focus, I would very much recommend an app called Freedom. I think if I did not have that app, I would not have written a single script in my life. It blocks off my Internet access on my iPhone, iPad and computer, and I can't turn it off until it, if I set it for three hours, I can't look at the Internet for that long. It's probably the only reason I've ever written anything. That's a specific thing that may help if you struggle with focus of some kind, it is probably the most useful. I think I paid 20 bucks a year for a subscription, that is by far the most useful $20 I've spent. Then, there's a lot made of the term networking. I see a lot of newer writers in some form or emerging in some form really struggle with that concept because I think it means going around a party and networking on people and giving them business cards and shaking hands. You don't network, you make friends. There are people I was assistants with ten years ago that now, more than one, that have their own shows or are very high up and I'm friends with those people because we came up together, but also, we were peers and so making friends laterally is key. [It] doesn't mean also don't ask that more experienced person for a coffee, but it's recognising it's not about asking them for a job, it's about asking them for advice and about just [asking] what do you see as the path? That advice will almost always be out of date. My advice is already out of date so the whole section I said about doing generals in L.A. would now be different because of COVID. I now do my generals online, I do them from Melbourne and it's very different. Even that, and I've broken through relatively recently, I try to be aware whenever I say this was my path, but that may be different. That path now might be writing a short form thing or doing a podcast or whatever. I don't know because everyone's path is different, but also the industry is constantly changing. Then just be nice, just be someone I want to be in a room with. Just be someone that I'm [thinking], I really love spending time with them. I would not mind being in a room with them for eight hours, for six weeks in TV. That's how you get work. It doesn't mean you have to be a pushover or anything like that, but fundamentally, it's an industry of relationships more so than other industries and while it can sound really terrifying, I actually genuinely find it quite beautiful. Some of my most meaningful friendships are people I have met, other writers I've met and become friends with, and they recharge me and support me and I hope I do the same to them. It's probably one of the most meaningful parts of my work is feeling like I have a creative cohort of 'my friend has that show on the air and they did such a beautiful job and I'm so proud of them' is probably for me the thing that is one of the most meaningful parts of my job. Cultivate that around yourself as much as possible, because I work a lot in L.A.. L.A., I actually have really lovely, beautiful friends that I really cherish and value but it is an industry town and work is not what is important at the end of the day. I want to create things I'm proud of, but I'm actually a lot prouder of my creative friendships than I am of some scripts, because to me that's the reason why I will keep on coming back to writing and why it will continue to be something recharges me. The work is important, but it is not everything and I know that's odd advice, but I think that's how you actually end up having a career and not burning out and not getting resentful. If you try and focus on what refills your cup other than just constantly burning yourself out.

Caris Bizzaca [00:45:25] I feel like that's a really lovely place for this to end on.

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:45:30] It's really deep, sorry. [I could have said] here's some normal advice, download this app, but also deep.

Caris Bizzaca [00:45:36] Yes, but also fill your cup. [laughs]

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:45:38] Exactly.

Caris Bizzaca [00:45:40] Thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today and talking to us about your career and genre writing.

Catherine Smyth-McMullen [00:45:47] It has been so lovely.

Caris Bizzaca [00:45:51] That was screenwriter and writer of all things genre, Catherine Smyth-McMullen, and a huge thanks again to her for joining me on the podcast. If you're enjoying this episode, you can subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes, and you can also subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter to keep up to date with new initiatives, opportunities, videos, articles and more. Thanks for listening.