Graeme Blundell on how a remarkable Australian is behind the two most successful scripted TV shows in the world
PARAMOUNT Studios is a long way from Wandin Valley, that rural idyll most Australians over 40 will remember retreating to during the 12-year-run of Seven’s classic family drama, A Country Practice.
But what screenwriter Shane Brennan learned in those early freelance days penning the antics of Fatso the wombat, Cookie the bartender, and the doctors and nurses of Wandin Valley District Hospital has taken the 59-year-old all the way to the top of the US television tree.
As showrunner of both NCIS and the 2009 spin-off he created NCIS: Los Angeles, the Bendigo-born Brennan walked 17 hour days writing and producing what would, within two years, become the most watched drama in the world.
Plotting more than 170 episodes of the franchise, overseeing a staff of more than 200, with a hand in everything from choosing what watch one actor wore to the hiring and firing of every cast member, Brennan has been the man in control of the show.
That was until last month, when he stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the program (which stars Chris Donnell and LL Cool J) and swapped his fulltime place in the same office suite which has been home to Paramount powerbrokers from Joe Kennedy and Howard Hughes, to Lucille Ball and its most recent tenant before Brennan, Tom Cruise.
While still on the show’s payroll as an executive consultant, Brennan is taking time away from the daily TV grind to turn his attention back home — with plans to shake up the Australian industry which gave him his start.
Speaking to News Corp Australia at the launch of Scripted Ink, a new screenwriting development imitative he is funding to the tune of $1 million, Brennan is both nostalgic and grateful to be rubbing shoulders with so many peers from his fledging days, working on a personal catalogue that includes The Flying Doctors, All Together Now and Stingers.
Sipping on a glass of his favourite red wine at the fund’s Sydney launch party, the married father of three stands confident in what he has to offer his home industry and how it can benefit from his fame and fortune.
“It’s a golden opportunity and one of those rare times things come together: the fact that I’m lucky enough to be able to inject some money where it is really sorely needed; the fact that doing that alerts the funding bodies to a need in this area; and the fact the industry is really well placed to take advantage of the way people consume drama today. They are doing it through laptops and streaming. They watch on their iPhones, they watch in the doctor’s office. There’s no set ‘sit down and watch TV’ time so they are accessing more material and we have to compete with that material.”
The change he wants to be, and see, in the local industry goes to the structural difference between how programs are made in Australia, and why he says he earned his fortune and control in the US studio system.
“On television, we get three chances to tell our story. First when we write the script. Then, again when we shoot the script. And finally, in post production when we edit what’s been shot. The showrunner or the writer is involved in all three stages [in the US]. Not just the first, and that’s the bit that needs to change here,” he explains.
Not all writers, he clarifies however, are made to be showrunners; but it is his determination and that of the fund’s board [including AACTA Award-winning actor Sigrid Thornton and acclaimed TV screenwriter Katherine Thomson] to develop the careers of those who do; and in the process wrest back control, respect and a greater share of the profits for our storytellers.
“There’s a show here, that has aired in the last 12 months, a very high-profile show, with a writer/producer who wasn’t invited to the launch of the show…that is absolutely disgusting. Almost 30 years ago, the same thing happened to me and that’s why I say things haven’t changed. I co-wrote a mini-series called In Between, it won an AFI Award for best scripted mini-series for that particular year. I wasn’t mentioned in any of the publicity that came out from SBS, I had to take legal action. There was a series of books based on my writing and my name wasn’t included in them. So nothing has changed … they are paying lip service and saying they are doing something, when patently they are not. And that’s not the way to grow this industry.”
Producers, he says, have taken advantage of this working model and focused too much time on pulling money out of funding bodies.
“To be a producer in this country takes 12 words, you could put it on a business card. To write a script, the average script has 12,000 words. Producers have spent far too much time learning how to get money out of the funding bodies and I’ll be as blunt as I need to be. There are other production companies here that have been bought by international entities and they’re not helping writers.”
With the world’s best television now at our fingertips, Brennan says the challenge is adding the best Australian shows to that list.
“We shouldn’t watch a show because it’s Australian, we should watch it because it’s the best. So let’s make more shows, let’s make them better, let’s make them so damn good that everyone wants to buy them. And the way to start down that path is to get the writers working with you, not for you.”
At the top of his agenda is his desire for Australians to be proud of their local industry, adding his praise to two local ABC dramas, The Secret River and The Code.
“[The Code] is a show which doesn’t fit the mould of what we’ve been making over the years. Our stories tend to be about famous Australians who’ve achieved things in sport, famous Australians who’ve achieved things in business, or been naughty; true crimes. And then there are serials which have been a great mainstay in the industry and have been very successful overseas; but there’s nothing changed in them. The stories being told today were being told 30 years ago, only the wardrobe and hair that’s changed.”
Recalling his time on ACP, Brennan said: “that was a great show to work on and it’s been very, very successful for a lot of writers, because we learned a lot from that show; but [the industry] hasn’t ventured far out of [Wandin Valley]. If you look at something like The Code, that’s why it worked…it’s different and we need to be different. We need to be able to say to writers, ‘you know what, this isn’t good enough. This idea would have been good five years ago, but it’s not going to compete. It needs to be better…so let’s rethink this.’”