By MIA FREEDMAN
I fell in love with Offspring from the first episode. Head over heels.
I love the actors. The stories. The way it’s shot, directed and particularly the way it’s written.
Love. Its. Guts.
Debra Oswald is the creator and head writer for the Channel 10 show and I’ve wanted to interview her for the longest time.
Throughout her career she’s also worked on shows like The Secret Life of Us, Police Rescue, Bananas in Pyjamas and Wildside. And she’s also written plays for teenagers and children’s books.
This week, I talked to her about the show, which is just a few episodes from wrapping up series three…..
I want to understand where Nina came from. What was your vision for the character and what did you feel we were missing on TV?
I thought there were enough shows on TV about murder and death. I wanted to write a show about other kinds of life forces like birth, love, sex, food, dogs, live music. I wanted to chuck in lots of juicy things so it would a mixture of playful, serious, sexy, moving, medical, ridiculous.
I also wanted to do a family show – about a big, messy family. So that was the starting point before we fixed on exactly who the central Nina character would be. There was always going to be a female character who was an obstetrician, but it took a long time to decide that her point of view would be so central. That’s such a huge part of the show now.
To begin with we played with ideas for devices and style and thought ‘let’s throw everything at it and try things and not be scared of things’. But right from the start we wanted the voice-over not to be narration – not to be reflective musing – but to be a present-time internal monologue. Because I think that that’s an accurate way to reflect what happens in a moment between two people, sometimes more accurate than just hearing what comes out of someone’s mouth.
Who writes that internal Nina character?
Whoever writes the episode writes it but it’s one of those things we fiddle with it a lot at script time and Asher has very clear and thoughtful ideas about how she wants it to go.
Did you always have Asher Keddie in mind for the role of Nina? How does casting work?
When we pitched it to Channel 10 it was with Asher in mind. I knew her work. Asher is an extraordinary talent – able to handle so many dramatic and comic tones with such precision and truth . Plus she works her bum off. She’s in just about every scene, she has to do voice over and she works very hard on scripts. She throws herself into seeing each episode through. That’s why you get to see such an amazing performance on screen.
We knew we were writing for Kat (Stewart) and we had Eddie (Perfect) in our head even though it wasn’t definite at that time. With Claire (Bowditch) who’s a new character in season three – we knew we wanted to have a singer who would work with Eddie. And when we first saw rushes of her – she’s so luscious and appealing – we all looked at each other and said ‘poor Billie’… With Claire and Eddie we get the wonderful bonus of the songs they write for the show. Jane Harber (Zara) was always in the series as one of the nurses but we thought ‘she can do more’ so in series 3, we wrote more. The same is true for lots of our actors – Alicia Gardiner (Kim), Lachy Hulme (Clegg). You write to your strengths.
And Deborah Mailman?
When she’s onscreen it’s not fair to other people. She’s so beautiful. There there’s fabulous John Waters and Linda Cropper. I love the fact that the Geraldine character is so sexual and that a woman in her mid 50s is still full of desire. That’s a really important thing for me – that the women in the show are full of desire.
I often say watching Offspring so makes me wish I had a sister. How much of the plot is a reflection of your life?
I’m lucky enough to have a sister, but I don’t have a brother, so I created a brother that I’d like as one of the central characters. I’m from a small tortured family but I know a few big noisy boisterous families and so I used that. I sometimes write what I yearn for. The material ends up being a combination of what you are and what you’d wish for. So I have a sister and Jimmy’s the little brother I’d like to have.
Can you describe the writing process? What does it take to create an episode.
There’s a team of writers – with a core of three of us – and the two producers, John and Imogen. It’s a very particular show and to find people to write it… it’s an amazing chemical reaction, so we’re enormously lucky.
At the beginning of the series, I try to prepare some big story ideas that we want to tell. We’ll have about five days to brainstorm – talk and talk about the characters and possibilities. We scribble on a big whiteboard with 13 episodes down the side. The episodes that go to air are never exactly what we put up on the board because things evolve along the way, but we like to pretend it’s perfectly planned out at the start.
For example, we said : ‘Zara’s pregnant, when should she have the baby?’ I always wanted the baby to be premature so we worked out when that could land and how that might fit with what’s happening for other characters in a way that will multiply the drama. And then you have obstacles that are handed to you like Kat Stewart being pregnant (in real life) so we knew we had to lose Kat for four episodes. But you try and make that a positive. (For example) we find Nina is off the rails more when she doesn’t have Billie to pull her together.
After the brainstorming, we come to the plotting days – writing the plot for each episode. That happens with the three core writers, the producers and usually one other writer. Then each writer will go away and draft the script for their episode.
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What happens when the actors read the script – do the scenes change?
The actors will read the script and they relay their notes usually via the director and the director will come to us.
How do you balance that?
It’s tricky at times, but then again, the actors know their characters and want the drama to make sense for them. So actors’ notes can be very useful. For example, there was one scene in series one I had written where Billie has being far too aggressive with Cherie’s Christian adoptive father and Kat Stewart said ‘I think that’s too obvious and simple for a Billie response. Would it be better if she just tried really hard?’ And Kat was spot on.
As a writer you’re trying to juggle so much that you can take the obvious approach to a scene. But then an actor will come along and kind of push you to make it more interesting. Sometimes you have to cut a line when the actor doesn’t like it and it’s hard.
So who wins?
If it’s something we feel strongly about we’ll argue for it, but if an actor is uncomfortable with something it’s not going to look good. I really respect the position they’re in. So we compromise. But these are all just little quibbles along the road.
What makes Offspring so special?
I think what works about the show is that we all have a weird combination of being irreverent and saucy and also incredibly sooky.. When it comes to writing a storyline about a premature baby or infertility we all feel an incredible sense of responsibility to do it right and talk to people. Like the Billie and Mick story: we had a lot of letters from people and felt we had a duty to not solve their infertility problems easily.
The way you portrayed the gay relationship with Mick’s brother, it was magnificent because it was so ordinary…
It could have been any couple. It’s not a story about being gay, it’s actually a rom com. I’m really proud of that and I think the audience is absolutely ready for it. That was a really conscious decision by the writing/producing team.
The episode where she was drunk. It must be one the most incredible, accurate, brilliant pieces of writing.
Yes it’s a brilliant script by Michael Lucas and a brilliant performace by Asher. Also brilliant direction. That’s the process when you know what actors can do and write with glee.
Will there be a season 4?
Can’t say yet…. But either way, we always to finish a season with an end so if we don’t get renewed the audience don’t get cheated.
Meanwhile, we’re still wondering why Nina and Patrick broke up. Are you? This might help solve the mystery. Michael Lucas is one of the show’s writers…
Do you watch Offspring? What is it about the show that you love? If you’re not watching Offspring – what shows can you not stop watching?