A session at the Screen Futures conference held in Melbourne was a presentation of the television mini-series Cloudstreet, with an address by producer Greg Haddrick and director Matthew Saville. This was in conjunction with a presentation of the website companion to the series by Anne Chesher.

Cloudstreet looked fabulous on the huge screen of ACMI’s Cinema 2, and after the screening Greg and Matt told an interesting story of how this project made it onto the TV screen a mere 20 years after the Tim Winton novel was originally published.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that eventually Tim Winton got to adapt his own material for the small screen – a prospect dreamed of by many a novelist, but achieved by few. And since Tim was the go-to guy for advice and deliberations about character and story, even during the filming, he was clearly in the box creative seat.

Matt told the story of how he was running the cast through their lines in rehearsing a particular scene (which Greg immediately found in his well-thumbed copy of the novel,) and Kerry Fox asked ‘What’s this scene actually about?’

Saville had to confess that he didn’t know. He suggested they go ahead and shoot it anyway, despite the fact that nobody present, including the runner, knew really what it meant. And later it made perfect sense.

Matt and Greg suggested that this could be because the work contains a good dollop of magical realism, including the presence of a talking pig as one of the characters, so a scene which didn’t immediately seem to have a raison d’etre actually fitted in wonderfully.

Greg explained that the rights to the novel had originally been snapped up in America, and the writer Ellen Fontana had written many drafts in trying to turn it into a feature film. However, it was simply too big. “The story demanded more than 2 and a half hours,” said Haddrick. “It needed at least six.”

Greg explained that the series was produced for pay TV channel Showtime, which allowed them flexibility that wouldn’t have been possible for a free to air network. For example, they couldn’t edit the final two hours to less than two and a half, and Showtime simply allowed them to keep it to that length. A commercial network would have chopped it back to the two hours, one way or another, regardless of the story arc. That’s just the reality of TV.

Haddrick also mentioned that adapting this novel had its challenges, as it was full of complex times jumps forwards and back. “A novel can jump time and the reader feels secure in the hands of the novelist,” he suggested, “But with a screenplay this novelist’s voice is completely missing.” So the adaptation followed a more linear timeframe. Greg also wondered aloud if this lack of ‘writer’s voice’ in a screenplay is one reason why screenwriters are not as recognized as novelists by the public.

Clearly Tim Winton enjoyed adapting his own work for the television screen, and one reason was that he wrote the novel so many years ago that he wasn’t precious with the material.

Matt talked about bringing a cinematic style to the work, holding onto shots for longer than you would normally, and shooting wider. He mentioned that under the influence of HBO shows like Deadwood, television has become more cinematic anyhow, perhaps reflecting a convergence of film and TV. “Film screens are getting smaller and TV screens are getting bigger, so perhaps they’re meeting in the middle somehow.”

Asked why Showtime supported the making of the series, Haddrick commented that they wanted to do landmark TV, rather than ‘ordinary’ TV. He also said that networks aren’t against adaptation at all, in principle. The problem can be that the biggest, most well-known Australian titles get optioned internationally, such as the novel Shantaram being optioned by Johnny Depp.

He added that networks would like to buy a show based on a novel that is well-known, or an event that is well-known. Ideally they would like a series that doesn’t have to be marketed at all, as people are aware of it already. But then it becomes difficult to acquire the rights to those sorts of novels or true-life stories.

Greg also pointed out that Showtime is required to spend a certain proportion of its overall budget on original drama production, so it had the sort of money required to make a top quality series like Cloudstreet.

The show has already gone to air earlier this year, but no doubt it will be repeated. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have cable.

As mentioned, Cloudstreet featured at this Screen Futures Conference because Anne Chesher also presented the companion website at another session. It is an extensive site with lots of interesting materials for people within the industry as well as media teachers, such as a clip from Matt Saville explaining why he was interested in directing the series and how he went about getting the gig. There is also a Behind The Scenes section which includes video on the work of sound designer Emma Bortignon, as well as set design, music, wardrobe and makeup and graphic artwork.

You can view it here: http://showtime.com.au/cloudstreet/


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