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Interview with Sue Smith

Sue Smith is one of Australia’s finest television writers. She initially studied journalism but soon realised that she preferred making things up and found herself a job as a trainee in a television production house. Since then she has written everything from The Young Doctors and Sons and Daughters to The Leaving of Liverpool and Brides of Christ (both co-written with John Alsop). In 1994 she won an AWGIE for The Road from Coorain. Her work also includes the television series R.A.N Remote Area Nurse, My Brother Jack, Fallen Angels and The Cooks. Her first stage play, Thrall, had a sell-out season at the Old Fitzroy Hotel (Sydney) in 2006.

We spoke to Sue Smith about her work Bastard Boys – a mini series on the waterfront dispute in 1998.

What would you describe as being the most difficult part of screenwriting?

Keeping faith with an idea and a set of characters and a thesis during an often agonisingly long and demoralising development process. It takes a very long time for any one piece to get to the screen. The average feature film in this country takes about seven years and other television material I have written has taken about three to five years. So you have to maintain faith that it’s still worth doing and that eventually the money and the interest will be found and it will happen. I think that is the most difficult bit.

You have adapted some iconic Australian books for the screen including My Brother Jack and The Road from Coorain. How did you deal with the pressure of re-inventing those famous stories for the screen?

That was hard. People out there love those books and they have read them and re-read them and cherished them. You are always afraid that you are going to damage people’s perceptions, because readers imagine things in their minds and you will never get the picture or the kind of understanding that they have themselves. You have to try not to get too stressed about that and try to say ‘This is my interpretation of this material and I’m doing my absolute best to deliver the intention of the original writer’ and you hope that you get it right. But you will have to accept that you will not be able to please all the people all the time, because you can’t.

What advice would you give to students interested in screenwriting or young professionals?

Learn to trust your instincts and find people whose supporting guidance you trust. In screenwriting – because television is such an expensive industry – absolutely everyone will have input. And if you are not really careful of your own instincts they will be knocked all over the place and you risk ending up with something that you never intended to write in the first place. So that is it – learning to trust your own judgement. It sounds really simple but it is really hard.

Your latest work Bastard Boys – a mini series about the waterfront dispute in 1998 – will be screened on the ABC on May 13th and 14th 2007. Do you remember your first reaction when you heard about the dispute?

I suppose my first reaction was the standard left leaning reaction of “this is outrageous”. And I probably continued to feel that way until I started to research the series and then I realised that there were many arguments on all the sides involved in that story and that many of those arguments had merit. But it wasn’t until I did the research that I discovered that.

How did you get the idea of writing about the waterfront dispute?

I was approached by the two producers of the program, Ray Quint and Brett Popplewell. Ray found a book written by Anne Davies and Helen Trinca, both journalists for the Sydney Morning Herald called Waterfront: The Battle That Changed Australia. He picked it up in a bookshop and thought ‘This is a fantastic piece of television drama’, so he and his colleague approached me to write it.

Did you work together with the authors of the book when you researched the series?

We talked to them at length and they read my scripts and gave feedback and have been involved throughout, but I redid much of the research that they had done anyway. I went and talked to most of the key people and I also went and talked to a lot of people who worked or still work on the waterfront to try and get a sense of the culture and how the series of events in that dispute changed it. So the book was a fantastic starting point and then we worked from there.

Ray gave me an immense amount of trust and freedom to write the story the way I wanted to write it. That doesn’t always happen in television and it was particularly valuable. It means that I can look at this project and be really proud of it and equally that if there are bad reviews then I have to cop them too, because this is the story as I chose to write it.

It is amazing how many of the people involved in the conflict agreed to talk to you. Did they need a lot of convincing?

Most people on the union side agreed quite readily.

What about the company side?

I think they wanted to make sure that we were bona fide and that we weren’t coming from a kind of pro-union propagandist position. I talked to Chris Corrigan about that and he asked me quite specifically about what my position was and what kind of approach I would take to the material. And once he was satisfied he talked to me at length which was great – he was fantastic.

The people I didn’t interview – and actually haven’t dramatised – are the government figures, partly because it would have been to hard to hold the story together exploring all of those characters. So I have hopefully articulated the government’s position through media interviews and press statements that they made at the time. So it is pretty much a battle between the union and the company in the drama, the politics are kind of the backdrop for it.

What were the reactions of the union and the company when they read your script?

I think the reactions were pretty positive. Both sides were very keen to spell out the specifics of the settlement details so that an audience would know what the outcome was, what the union had protected, what the company had achieved, so we did a bit of work to make sure those things were articulated. It was quite interesting, very few of them had any issue at all with how I had written about their personal lives, they really only wanted the settlement detail spelled out clearly. And I think they are satisfied that we have done that.

Were there any real wharfies involved in the shooting?

It was all actors in the principle roles but there are some sequences that required a number of protesters on the dock in which case we had quite a number of former and current members of the MUA and other trade unions who came along to be extras for those big occasions and that was really exciting.

Did shooting those scenes stir up emotions?

Oh yes. When I was talking to the principle characters during the research, a lot of them would cry. And there is one character who is dramatised quite extensively in the piece who came down to the shooting and within a second of arriving and seeing a bunch of people protesting he had tears streaming down his face again. It’s incredibly powerful stuff.

The way I have always imagined it is that it was a bit like fighting a war for these men and I think the intensity and the rawness of feeling is still as you might find in the veterans of a military battle, because that’s how they view it.

You have won several prizes for your work, but this is the first of your screenplays to be published. What does that mean for you?

Well, I am just delirious with excitement, absolutely insanely excited. The first day I visited Currency Press I saw a poster of David Williamson and Patrick White and Ron Blair and all those luminaries and I thought – wow, I’m being published by the same company that publishes these people, I am incredibly excited.

What are you planning to do next?

I am writing another play called In the Violet Time which will be produced by the Tamarama Rock Surfers at the Old Fitzroy Hotel in January next year. It is set in 1931 and explores life on the Hungry Mile and the unemployed workers movement sieges during the depression, one siege in particular that happened in Union Street, Newtown.

And I have a few things at very early stages that I am tinkering with and another television series, again for the ABC, which we hope we can make, about a group of international guest workers in abattoirs or mining and construction and what it is like for them to work in a completely foreign country and what it is like for the Australian community to welcome a group of people with a different cultural, racial or religious background. So that is in the very early stages but that is what I am hoping to do in a little while.

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