Robyn Butler: Be original. Be truthful. And rewrite

Supreme slashie (writer/producer/star) Robyn Butler, at Storyology 2015, on the importance of story. From the Walkley Magazine, Issue 85.

The brilliant writer David Milch, a decade after creating the groundbreaking NYPD Blue, went to pitch a show to HBO about ancient Rome. The executives told him, unfortunately, they already had a show about ancient Rome in the works.

Milch thought for a second and suggested that his show didn’t have to be set in Rome. What about Deadwood, 1876? The wild west. Milch wasn’t interested in the location. He was interested in exploring a society in its beginnings, in which authority could be overthrown, rules could be invented; where civilisation was evolving. HBO immediately commissioned Deadwood because Milch had nailed the most important part of the creative process: he had defined what he wanted to say. He had found his story.

I am an ardent believer and feverish defender of story and I am happy to share my thoughts on its “ology”, which begin with “write not what you know, write what you believe”.

Story is not location. Story is not plot. Story is a point of view. In television and film, it is story which enables the audience to feel, to think, to be changed. And to laugh.

The first major television series I created with my husband, Wayne Hope, was The Librarians for the ABC. My friend Roz Hammond and I had wanted to develop a comedy together and she suggested setting it in a library.

We had only arrived at one character, Dawn, an assistant librarian, whom we imagined as being confined to a wheelchair after a team-building activity went wrong – when Roz scored a role in a touring theatre show and left for the year. Wayne and I took over the development. We soon realised that a location and one character wasn’t really a thematic starting point. We needed to know what we wanted to talk about.

We sat in our local library in Melbourne’s St Kilda and observed. Rich in diversity, class and religion, and overflowing with mental health and hygiene issues, the library was a microcosm of the world outside. At the time, the world outside was certainly struggling with diversity, class and religion. After John Howard had famously declared: “We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come”, a cloud of fear and intolerance had descended on Australia and it made us furious. Fury, as it turns out, is terrifically inspiring for comedy.

We decided to make our head librarian, Frances O’Brien (played by me), a portal for the bigotry and ignorance we were witnessing. We surrounded her with a super-smart Muslim woman, a gay Asian man, a woman in a wheelchair, a sexually liberated hot blonde… every character in the library was created to irritate Frances. Self-important and anxious, Frances wielded just the right amount of power to be oppressive but never effective. We made her smallminded and petty so the world views she reflected would seem ridiculous. But we also made her frightened and unhappy so her world views would seem explicable. We made her passive-aggressive so she would be relatable to every middle class person in the country.

The Librarians was a big success for us because the show prosecuted a point of view. The lead-up to Book Week may have been the plot, but the story was Frances’s struggle with her own repression and the fear it generated in her towards everything and everybody around her.

After the third season, Wayne and I wanted to move on. The ABC asked us if we would be interested in making a family comedy. With such a broad premise as “family” again, we discussed what our story might be. Wayne wanted to talk about public versus private and class. He was certainly onto something as this was 2010 and we were right in the middle of the Alan Jones vs the inner-city-lattesipping- elites cultural war.

But something had happened since we first started making television. We were now in our forties and with age had come a desire to create happy, hopeful stories – we didn’t want to just write a social satire about class. We needed some emotional glue and I suggested an adoption that inextricably linked two families from wildly disparate backgrounds.

We created Upper Middle Bogan from these early thoughts: an upper middle class doctor discovers she is adopted and comes from a family of drag racers in the outer suburbs. The show has been a hit I think because the premise is happy and hopeful. Two families, at opposite ends of the freeway, trying to live as one. Not everyone has shared that experience, but everyone understands that story. It’s why we all continue to have Christmas every year.

Engaging an audience is increasingly challenging. In this digital, multi-screened moment we’re having, overcrowded with content, the writer’s voice needs to be specific and purposeful. The only hope of getting a slice of that big audience pie is to find and stay true to your story, large or small.

Little Lunch, the children’s mockumentary comedy we made this year for ABC3, is based on a seemingly small idea about what happens in the school playground at recess. Children’s TV is generally governed by magic and aliens and time travel – not by the perils of having to eat your cheese and biscuits inside on a wet day timetable. Initially, Wayne and I had developed a handful of scripts but the ABC and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation were understandably worried that the stakes weren’t big enough in our show and suggested we make a proof-of-concept pilot.

We asked them to choose the script they thought was least likely to work. They chose the one where Rory bites Melanie’s hand and is sent to sit in the principal’s office and everyone sends him notes during little lunch. Not huge stakes, I agree. But storywise – the stakes are huge. Melanie suffers hurt and injustice, Rory is excluded and lonely, his punishment elicits sympathy and forgiveness in his friends.

The point of view is a 10-year-old’s but that doesn’t make it not potent. And it’s these very large emotions bursting out of a prosaic situation that allowed us to create comedy. Because we knew what the story was about, we were able to prove the concept with the pilot and make 26 more.

Little Lunch has resonated widely. We’ve just sold the series to Netflix UK and US, so it turns out having the wrong costume on dress-up day is high stakes no matter where you live.

There are so many obstacles in writing something to getting something actually made. The best armour you can have is to know what you want to say.

There are two types of obstacles. First, there are the obstacles you face in the world at large, getting someone to back your idea. Second, there are the obstacles you face by yourself, actually writing.

The first kind of obstacles are daunting and, at times, insurmountable. Wayne and I have written and produced more than 90 episodes of television, but I took 10 scripts to networks before anyone said yes. I spent a year developing three projects for a production company, with which they then did nothing. Then I spent two years unemployed.

It’s hard. But if you really have something to talk about, and can talk about it well, if you persevere, someone – eventually – will be in your corner.

And then, of course, when you actually do get something up, not everyone will be in your corner. They will be in the notes corner.

Let me be clear, writing is rewriting and notes are invaluable. Some notes are dopey and off-topic, because some executives are stupid. However, lots of notes are astute and smart and helpful.

If you know what you want to say, you stand a much better chance of dealing with network and studio and funding body notes and you will recognise whether or not a note has merit.

Scripts are held hostage in the development process. If you know what your story is about, your script should be able to walk free, with minor injuries, at the end of the siege. In the course of developing my feature film Now Add Honey, in cinemas now, I received notes from 32 people – not surprisingly, almost always contradictory. (Fun fact: Little Lunch, same budget, notes from two people.) Throughout this three-year period, I tried to stay true to what I wanted to say. I wanted to tell a story for women and girls about love and selfacceptance. Cut to now, when I have had the joy of sitting in many screenings of the film and seeing and hearing women and girls laugh, cry, be changed and uplifted.

In all honesty, I don’t think I wrote the perfect script, but because I stayed true to my story, I have had an extraordinary, emotional response from the women and girls for whom it was made. And that’s why I write.

The second type of obstacles – the ones faced by you as a writer, writing – are just as tough, in a different way. Because these obstacles are all on you.

I’m incredulous when people say to me “I really want to write, but it’s so hard to focus and not do housework. How are you so disciplined?”

Because it’s my job. A teacher doesn’t get to say, “Ugh, I just had to spring clean the kitchen and do three loads of washing – I just couldn’t face year 7.”

Don’t get me wrong. Writing sucks. That thing they call writer’s block is actually called writing. Thinking something up from nothing is so hard that sometimes I genuinely feel like I have a fever. But if you want to be a writer then you just have to write.

Everyone is different but here’s how I suggest approaching it:

Find your story. Work out what you want to say.

Create, as imaginatively as you can, a world in which to say it.

Decide what your characters want and how they can achieve it.

Figure it all out in broad brushstrokes before you start any dialogue. A pitch, if you like. The pitch should be compelling on its own.

Define what happens by character choices, not by plot choices: Compare “Helen and Gary’s car breaks down on the way to meet Helen’s parents, uh-oh they’re late”, to “Helen and Gary’s car breaks down on the way to meet Helen’s parents because Gary left the radiator cap off and the head gasket blew. Now they’re late. Helen’s mad. Gary’s an idiot.”

Get inside your characters, give them each a different voice. What would they do/say/think?

Ask yourself: what happens next? Throw possibilities around and let them swim in your head until one sticks.

Be original.

Be truthful.

Don’t be scared to throw pages and scenes out and whole scripts out and rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite.

In this world awash in social media commentary and online bubble and squeak, creating an original story has become a radical thing to do.

So for those plucky optimists who want to write for television and film, I say to you, find the courage, risk the failure, bear the judgement, and create.

Write your story.

Robyn Butler is an actor, writer and producer who runs Melbourne-based production company Gristmill with her husband, Wayne Hope. On November 5, Now Add Honey, a feature film that she wrote, produced, and in which she stars, was released in Australian cinemas.