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Interview with ‘Fair City’ Series Consultant Sam Atwell
24 Aug 2015 : Sean Brosnan
Atwell previously played Kane Phillips in Australian soap ‘Home & Away’ as well as writing and directing for the soap
This summer IFTN is taking a closer look behind the scenes of Ireland’s soaps – continuing our series we talk to Sam Atwell, Series Consultant on RTÉ soap ‘Fair City’.

Atwell may well look oddly familiar to many Irish soap fans – he played troublemaker Kane Phillips on popular Australian drama ‘Home & Away’ for a large bulk of the noughties – before going off camera to also write and direct many episodes.

Being brought into direct a block of episodes of ‘Fair City’ in 2014 ultimately led to him being appointed to his current position last summer. Here, Atwell takes us through the ins and outs of his post at ‘Fair City’.

IFTN: You came to ‘Fair City’ with an already impressive pedigree working on soaps after writing, directing and starring in ‘Home & Away’, not to mention serving as Script Editor – did that give you a certain degree of confidence coming in or is ‘Fair City’ a different kettle of fish altogether?

Sam Atwell: ‘Yeah, I suppose it did. This all came together because of my wife (actress Alison McGirr). She works here and I asked how I would go about getting into writing over here. She took my CV and gave it to Brigie (de Courcy – Executive Producer) so I met with Brigie and she said if I were interested in working in ‘Fair City’, they were looking for directors who could direct multi-cam so I took that and then this job became available so I jumped into it.’

As Series Consultant then – would you be alongside the writers as they write or would you just be casting an eye over the finished product?

‘Basically, I oversee story and script. I am involved with Brigie and the story editors and the writers that pitch ideas. We plan ahead – we normally look ahead to stories that are 18 months into the future. That’s the bigger picture stuff. Then, every two weeks we produce two weeks of story which equals eight episodes of story.’

The story writers would then publish this. I work for two days with them on the plot – we plan out all the stories and pitch them to Brigie who gives us notes. We re-work and edit the next week before we send something off to the script-writers. The script editors and I then meet with eight of the script-writers and develop scene by scene documents with them. They re-work this after the meeting and then they go away and write their scripts for four weeks. The script editors and I look over the first draft and then there is another executive meeting with Brigie and the producers. We then give notes and give it back to the writer who does another number of drafts and then we take on to the floor. It’s quite a big process! In short, I am basically just in charge of making sure that the stories and the scripts are being produced [laughs].’

Part of your job requires you to be critical of your writers. Is it hard to strike a balance and be constructively critical all the time?

‘I am very lucky as we have a fantastic group of story and script writers here. They work very hard. Of course, it is up to me to put notes on the stories and scripts but these are people I work alongside – I know how hard they work all the time – it would always be more of a discussion about what’s not working and how do we make it work. Sometimes I would have ideas or sometimes I would have to go away and talk to about five other people before getting a solution. It’s very much a communal process and it’s great to work with people that are smarter than me [laughs].’

Coming into a new country with I presume very little knowledge of a soap that has some characters that have been around for over 20 years – was there much research involved before taking over as Series Consultant?

‘There was. When I knew I was coming over to work as a director, I got Brigie and producer Shirley Dalton to send me over 100 episodes worth of stories that I could read. When I got here, I watched the show as much as I could and got as much past material as I could get my hands on. I studied who the families were and what they have been through. Of course, Brigie was a wealth of knowledge as were some of the script editors. So, a lot of it was just sitting down with people and asking questions like “Who is this person? Where do they come from? Who are they married to? Who have they divorced?” [laughs].’

When we talked to Executive Producer Brigie de Courcy, she mentioned the relatively small budget of ‘Fair City’ when put up against some of the UK soaps she worked on like ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Eastenders’ – was the same true for you when comparing to ‘Home & Away’

‘The budgets are definitely bigger on ‘Home & Away’. It certainly makes a big difference in terms of writing. When you are writing for ‘Home & Away’ you could say “alright, we will have a dramatic chase scene and then the car will fly off a cliff and a character will swim out and rescue everyone in the water and then we will get a helicopter in and land it there”[laughs]. We do exciting things at ‘Fair City’ but it has to be more based on story and character and I think that is a fantastic challenge for a writing team. For me, I have learned a lot about how to make things dynamic without all the bells and whistles.’

And would you be in regular contact with Brigie when working on the show?

‘Yeah, we are in constant contact every day. Our offices are right next to each other and we talk constantly about the stories – about the cast, the production, upcoming stories and what’s happening every day.’

Do you think your experience working on something as big and international as ‘Home & Away’ had a positive influence on how things are run at ‘Fair City’ when you came in?

‘I hope so. I think we are really doing some fun things – I really enjoy working with these characters and we have some big stuff coming up. In particular, we have really worked hard to make the story room as efficient as possible – getting the most out of our writers without burning them out. We also changed the way the show was produced last year. We went from a system of two directors per block to just one director per block so I think the experience of being on ‘Home & Away’ and seeing how the show was produced there definitely helped in that regard.’

What did you do to make the writing room more efficient?

‘We just looked at what was working and what wasn’t. We used to have a big conference with lots of writers pitching which we honed down. Those big conferences were fantastic but we were trying to put together four weeks of story in two days. Now, we largely leave it to the writers that will be writing the stories to sort out the plot and we use the two days now to plan just two weeks of story. This gives us a lot more time to work out finer details of the plot so when the script-writers go away to write - they are at a more advanced stage in terms of the confidence they have in the story.’

Have you noticed any differences in approach when writing for an Irish soap as opposed to an Australian soap?

‘Yes, there are very different censorship laws between Australia and Ireland. It’s been a real thrill to work on ‘Fair City’ and delve into some really big issues that you wouldn’t be able to go as deep on with Australian show in the same time slot. We have a full time researcher who painstakingly sources all sorts of professionals to make sure we get the most up to date research in order to tell the stories as truthfully and as realistically as possible. Working with this ideal of often quite gritty realism has been really exciting and amazing to be involved in the processes of turning it into compelling drama.’

As a Series Consultant – what do you do when a character or a long-running storyline just isn’t landing with audiences the way you thought? Is there a contingency plan in place?

‘Yeah, unexpected things happen on every show. Coming from a show like ‘Home & Away’ where unexpected things happened all the time – like people hurting themselves or actors landing a part in a movie or characters not working out – definitely gave me good experience in that regard. Sometimes it takes until something gets to air for you to see that it’s not working but you just have to put your heads together and work it out and make it work. We are a lucky here to have such a hard-working team who do a lot of pre-planning to make sure things do work.’

Despite being on the scene since 2000, you’re still a young writer and director, what is your plan for the future – do you plan on moving into features at all?

‘Absolutely, I would love to but I also have a great love of television and I want to continue to write and direct TVshows. I also have an interest in show-running and I guess the big goal is to show-run my own show one day.’

Last question then – are you under any pressure from any producers on ‘Fair City’ to put your acting skills to good use on the show – will there be an Australian drinking in McCoy’s next year?

You never know! You might see an Australian drinking in McCoy’s yet [laughs]. But I think I am kept pretty busy in the writing department so maybe not.’

Stay tuned to IFTN over the coming months for more features and interviews on soaps and long-running dramas in Ireland such as ‘Fair City’ ‘Ros Na Rún’ and ‘Red Rock’.

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