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EXCLUSIVE: How an Offspring episode is made from start to finish.

Nina and Billie on Offspring.

How long does it take to create an episode of Offspring? The short answer is that it’s a lot longer that you might expect.

We’ve often wondered just what it takes to make one hour of amazing TV. How long do the writers plan in advance? Do the actors have a say in their lines? What happens if, on the day of shooting, a scene isn’t working?

And so, on behalf of Offspring fans around the world, we picked the brains of Offspring writers Debra Oswald and Michael Lucas to find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how an episode is made from start to finish.

Their answers are fantastic.

MM: When it comes to writing a TV show, how far in advance do you plan story lines? Were you thinking about what could happen in season 3 when you were writing season 1?

Debra Oswald: Writing the telemovie pilot, I had no idea we would get to make a series, let alone five series!

Then again, when you dream up a group of characters for a drama, they’re all sort of humming with potential and you hope you’ll have the chance to see their stories play out over a long time.

We (the writers) know and love these characters and could see potential for where their lives might go in future series. We always wanted the characters to develop and change. The world of Offspring is not static from series to series because the characters have new challenges thrown at them all the time, for example Nina’s pregnancy at the end of series 3, Jimmy’s growing maturity over 5 series, Nina and Billie’s relationship being shaken and then strengthened in series 4.

We have always ended the writing of each series buzzing with story we were keen to try in the next season. That’s the glorious thing about making long-form drama.

MM: How long does an episode take to write? Can you talk us through start to finish and what happens along the way? How much of the planning and writing process is collaborative and how much is done individually?

Michael Lucas: At the start of every season, Deb will arrive having made lots of notes about the overall story arc, and the individual character arcs. Then the three key writers (the two of us and the brilliant Jonathan Gavin), plus producers John Edwards and Imogen Banks, will do about five days of ‘series brainstorming’: mapping out the big events of the season, scrawling over whiteboards and jumbo post-its, trying to avoid chocolate binges at 3pm.

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Once the overall series shape is roughly there, we move into ‘plotting’ days. We plot two episodes at a time, normally in three-day bouts.. Each episode will be written by an individual writer, but we plot them all together in a group, everyone pitching in ideas. We know the plot is ready when we start to declare ‘episode envy’. That’s when you look at the whiteboard and see so much good material that you wish the episode was yours.

The individual writer will then go away and nut out a draft in about six weeks, but with each draft they deliver, we’ll all re-convene and give notes, make suggestions.

It’s still very collaborative, but we want the writer’s individual voice to come out. When it’s one of your episodes, you do feel a lot of freedom, but also a big responsibility to the show as a whole.

The deeper we get into the season, the more these stages begin to overlap: we might be plotting ep 12, and giving first draft notes on ep 7, whilst making last-minute line changes to ep 2. The available time shrinks dramatically and the chocolate consumption escalates just as sharply.

MM: Is there room for change if something isn’t working when you get on set?

Debra Oswald:Two episodes are filmed together as a block. During pre-production, the director of those two episodes will wander into our writers’ room, flop on our couch, drink a lot of coffee and discuss the scripts with us. Based on those notes, we’ll redraft the script again. Some of those changes will be about story, character or tone. Some changes will be practical things to fit in with the reality of production – episode length, the shooting schedule, locations and so on.

During pre-production, the actors share their responses and notes with us too. Then just before the start of filming that block, we have a read-through of the script with most of the cast around a table. That way everyone can hear how the episode comes off the page.

During the shoot, small logistical problems might arise and we make changes on the run. Sometimes, we go out to set at lunchtime to talk things over with the director or an actor. At the end of the day in the production office, when we writers are all exhausted and over-caffeinated, we watch rushes (the footage from the previous day of filming).

Rushes are often very inspiring. When we see how a character is playing on screen or the chemistry between two actors, we can adjust the scripts to make the most of what we’ve got.

MM: We saw Michael Lucas tweeting that Kat Stewart was the person behind the “you’re the love of my life” line in Episode 11. Can you talk us through how that  came about?

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Michael Lucas: Originally in that scene, Mick asked: “Why are you here?” And Billie answered simply, “You.” But Kat had the gut instinct that Billie should declare, “You’re the love of my life”… and I instantly agreed.

That’s a bit of an anomaly though. Normally if the cast have notes, it’ll be that they want to say less – they want to express things without so much dialogue. But in that instance, Kat felt she wanted a bit more and she was right! It certainly made me cry.

Audiences have such a strong connection with the show and the characters in particular. We’re sure you’ve noticed that they’re very vocal about it online!

MM: Throughout the show’s history, has public input influenced your writing at all?

Debra Oswald:We love the social media talk about the show. Michael and I both have to control ourselves from trawling through Facebook, Twitter and Mamamia to an unhealthy extent. (Am I allowed to say that, Michael?) To see how connected and passionate viewers are about the characters and story is so gratifying and delightful.

Michael Lucas: It’s mostly great fun, but over the seasons I have learned to identify when

I’m slipping into a social media vortex, and I have trained myself to step away from the iPhone!

Debra Oswald: In terms of the response influencing the writing – hmm….There are general impressions about the combination of elements people respond to in show and we keep that in mind when we’re plotting future scripts. But the reality is that we are writing far ahead of screening, so audience response comes through too late to change anything.

For example, by the time the last few episodes of series 4 were on air, we had already written the first 7 episodes of series 5. All we can do is write the stories we think will work and hope the audience will be happy to go with us.

MM: What is your favourite scene or moment from the show so far?

Michael Lucas: Really hard to pick just one! A lot of fantasy moments or moments of ridiculous comedy spring to mind (like the “I killed a bear” fantasy… Or like drunk Nina hiding in the bushes outside her front door).

But in the end, I always come back to those really poignant moments between the siblings… Like this season when Jimmy asked Nina if he could call his son Patrick. Or last season’s finale when Billie said to Nina “I’ll love the baby until you’re ready to” (even as I type it now, I tear up).

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I think those moments stand out not just because they’ve been well executed, but because they build on (and pay off) years of accumulated history with those characters.

As Deb said, that’s the great thing about long form TV – when you hit an emotional crescendo, it can feel so intense because the characters really are like family.

Nina with Zoe.

MM: What was the hardest episode or scene to write?

Debra Oswald: I always write the first and last episodes of each series and that job brings particular challenges. The first episode is tricky – we need to re-enter the Offspring world in a way that feels familiar but fresh. We also need to catch up with the changes that have happened during the gap but still give the episode a compelling story in its own terms.

The last episode is the same in reverse – wanting to tie up story strands in a satisfying way but without things feeling too neat and predictable. That’s a process that Michael and Jono and I talk about a lot on the writers’ room as we approach the end and there’s heaps of trial and error with it!

Comedy is always hard – in my opinion much harder than sad stuff. But then it’s also true that some of the darker material brings a special responsibility to handle it with care and emotional authenticity – Patrick’s death, infertility, babies in peril and so on. It’s all hard!

Michael Lucas: For me it’s the darker material. Like in season 2, when Billie broke down in the wake of her miscarriage. And also this season when Nina finally shared her grief with her ex-husband Brendan.

In both cases, I was writing about things I hadn’t personally experienced, but I was hugely aware that there would be a lot of people watching who would have. So as Deb said, there’s an extra responsibility.

But the great thing about collaborating with such a strong team is that you can turn to them if you’re stuck or if you’re unhappy with what you’ve nutted out. You know can always cry out: “This sucks!! Help me fix it!!” And they will. They always do. And we generally get there in the end.

Debra Osward will be doing a live Twitter chat before the final two episode of the season. To join in on the conversation or ask a question, just hashtag your tweets #OffspringChat.

Some of our favourite moments from Offspring season 5 so far:

Thanks to Intern Lauren for helping out with questions.