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My Life in TV: James Griffin on the Great Unmade Outrageous Spin-off

A reissued post from July this year, days before the premiere of the much-anticipated Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside. Alex Casey talked to creator James Griffin about getting started in television, the perils of funding in New Zealand and the Van and Munter spin-off that time forgot.

It’s a dizzying feeling to walk into the Grey Lynn villa where you know a large chunk of New Zealand’s scripted television has been born and nurtured, in one way or another. James Griffin is unequivocally one of the most prolific and acclaimed New Zealand television writers working today. There’s a sense of national importance and pop culture heritage that comes with absorbing in his working environment – but at the same time, it’s just a house and he’s just a man doing his job.

For example, on the doorstep where James Griffin may have first conceived of Outrageous Fortune’s West family, there now sat an empty ASOS box. I was prepared for showers of scripts, shelves stuffed with awards and endless stacks of DVD boxsets. Actually, he did have all of that, even the Russian version of The Almighty Johnsons. “We’re a family of magpies,” he says, kicking some laundry down the stairs.

James Griffin’s most recent project is Westside, co-created with long-time writing partner Rachel Laing. A prequel to Outrageous Fortune, the six-part series has skipped back a generation to explore Auckland’s wild west in the 1970s. It’s the latest in a jaw-droppingly long television bio, and I was interested in discovering his process for writing and creating television at such a high rate. He made us some peppermint tea, and noted that he actually had a script due on Monday that he had forgotten about. “It’s alright, I’m well-versed in the art of the blank page,” he said.

Amongst the plush Mario toys, Daleks and Stars Wars merch, he talked candidly about his projects that have failed in the past, and how writing television is often less a transcendent process and more of a numbers game.

“You need to know that if you have five things going, four of them will die on the floor,” he said. “You have to get used to that.” He’s all for killing the baby, and moving onto the next thing that might lure in funding bites. Griffin openly mentioned that he was actually chasing NZ on Air’s Platinum fund, by trying to write a historical drama, when he realised he was already sitting on the perfect idea in Westside. We looked around his DVD library (it was immense) and jam-packed office space. I wondered how many dead scripts were lurking in every drawer…

Growing up, did you always have a strong relationship with TV and writing?

I was that kid at school who, whenever everyone complained about having to write things for class, always quietly enjoyed it. I secretly liked writing stuff. At high school I wrote for and eventually edited the school newspaper. When I got to university I wrote reviews and silly little columns for Craccum. Up to this point, I still never really considered myself a writer. It wasn’t until I got a job as a script editor for TVNZ that I realised I had written for my whole life. Writing was never a conscious decision.

How did you get into TV writing? Was that something you had alway wanted to do?

Not at all. I became a writer by accident and stayed one out of fear of unemployment. When I finished my BA, I enrolled in a broadcasting communications and started training to be a director. Directing seemed really cool, you know that’s always what everyone wants to do.

After that course, I got accepted to a training scheme through TVNZ. I worked in rigging, set painting, props and really learnt how TV worked from the ground up. After that, I saw there was a job as trainee script editor going in the drama department. This is back when TVNZ had a drama department, of course. I winged the interview and I got the job.

What was the first show you worked on as a script editor?

The first series that I worked on was Gloss, which just came about for me simply because there was no-one else to do it. I was 22, and doing essentially the same job that I am doing now. I had no clue what I was doing.

Gloss was an invaluable experience. There’s no better way to learn how to something than being forced to do it. In our writer’s room, we used to have all these sheets of paper plastered all over the walls with lines and characters and story arcs. Above that, we hung a huge banner that said “it’s only television”. It’s always important to remember that it isn’t life or death – it’s just TV.

Something that definitely wasn’t “just TV” was Outrageous Fortune. What do you think is was about that world that struck such a chord with New Zealanders?

I think the “outrageous” part of the title was a lot to do with it, actually. It took proper and tame kiwi drama and kicked it in the ass. I think we created a good world with compelling characters, but I think the casting was the strongest part. They walked into those roles and just fully inhabited their characters.

I also think the central premise of the show touched on something universal. The simple focus of the show was “a mother wants the best for her family”. We made sure that we always returned to it throughout the series. When a premise holds out for that long it’s got to be doing something right for the punters.

How did you know when you wanted to pull the plug on Outrageous Fortune?

First of all, we never imagined that we were going to run for six seasons in the first place. But as the seasons kept getting funded and TV3 stayed happy, we realised we’d have to make a decision as to when to end it. I think that, by the end of season six, it was time. We didn’t want the show to lose its steam.

The thing about funding shows in New Zealand is that there is a glass ceiling – the funding stays the same and the budgets rarely grow. So we had X amount of money for Outrageous Fortune, but as each season continued, the actors were getting pay increases. Which is fine, and they absolutely deserved it. But when you have a big core cast, more is going out.

There ended up being increasingly less money left for us do fun stuff like stunts. We tried to top the budget up in various ways, but the writing was on the wall. Outrageous Fortune was about to turn into a bunch of characters sitting in a room and talking to each other – also known as a soap.

And of course, now there’s Westside.

We’d always joked about doing some sort of Outrageous spin-off of some kind. I wrote a joke opening scene for a Van and Munter spin-off. They were out having a doobie in a field and they wake up in the anal probing room of a spaceship. Strangely enough, nobody wanted to make it. Which is a shame, because it would have been extraordinary. Munter had eaten a curry so the alien crew had abandoned the ship and they were left alone. I thought it would have been comedy gold.

I can’t believe Westside got made and that didn’t. How did the concept for Westside come around, had it always been part of the plan?

There was always potential for it as we had used flashbacks in Outrageous, but I was never working towards it. Rachel [Laing] and I were both chasing NZ on Air’s platinum funding and trying to write historical dramas. Those are the only types of shows that receive that level of funding. I was writing something set in the early 70s and so was she. She just rang me up one day and said “let’s do Ted and Rita”.

We got together and watched old Outrageous episodes to set the rules. It was fun to excavate the characters out of the old world. For example, a throwaway line in Outrageous meant that Carol O’Driscoll could exist. That initial funding incentive is actually why it’s structured the way it is – because we were trying to get the platinum grant and have a bit of fun with history on the way.

The Wests are a big part of kiwi pop culture, how was it coping with the pressure of delving back into that family?

There was a real sense of messing with history. I think we’ve done justice to them, but also created something that stands on their two feet. It also feels like we are flying a flag for kiwi-made drama – something that is in grave danger at the moment. There’s a great wave of reality content recently. Why is it even called reality? There’s nothing real about Ben Barrington in a tuxedo. I just hope we don’t kill the beast altogether, because NZ drama is very important.

What’s your writing process like, do you have TV show ideas spitballing constantly?

I’ve learnt that you always need to have two or three things on the go. You need to know that if you have five things going, four of them will die on the floor. You have to get used to that. I’ve been very lucky in that years ago, Rachel and I got together and came up with ten ideas. One was Outrageous Fortune. Nine never got made. It’s all a numbers game.

You’ve been with the TV landscape for a reasonable amount of time, what are the main changes that you have seen?

After The Blue Rose didn’t rate, people were saying that drama is dead and reality is king. Thankfully it’s still here, just, and hopefully will rise again with these new platforms that need filling. It always comes back to money. How do you pay for these things? There have always been peaks and troughs through my career, but I hope I don’t live to see the death of drama.

I’m pissed off the only New Zealand network interested in scripted comedy at the moment is Maori TV, I think that’s a tragedy. It’s so New Zealand though. It’s the Melody Rules complex. We’re all so embarrassed and angry saying “you didn’t make me laugh so that’s crap.” I don’t like Mrs Brown’s Boys, but at the same time I know that a lot of people like it.

Do you think it’s harder for people to get into television writing now?

Yes, I do think it’s harder now. It’s a catch-22 – the only way to get a job is to get a name, and the only way to get a name is to get a job. If you are good, clever and willing to write across all sorts of things, people will notice and they will come to you. It’s just getting that first thing across the line. There’s still not a lot of money in it, it’s not Hollywood.

Have you worried about how one show like The Blue Rose receives $6.9 million, whereas lesser-known people making low-budget productions often struggle to secure any funding?

First of all, TV is an expensive thing to make. It’s not real money, it’s NZ on Air money, which is divided accordingly to represent, inform, entertain and educate. There’s a designated budget for drama, and a platinum budget for the big historical stuff. It’s not like by putting $8.5 million into Filthy Rich that they’ve taken that money away from making 10 really cool documentaries. It’s a separate budget. The real tragedy would be if that if none of the funding was contested for. So yes, I’ll agree that it’s expensive, but making television involves a lot of people.

What are you excited about on television at the moment?

Find Me a Maori Bride is cute, I’m really enjoying that. I watched Game of Thrones but I rapidly lost patience with it. I’m also enjoying Veep and Silicon Valley. I like online shows like You’re the Worst and Man Seeking Woman. You’re the Worst is an anti-rom com, it’s full of such cynical characters. I like the Crowd Goes Wild as well, that’s probably one of my favourite shows.

What’s next for you?

My latest show 800 Words is being edited at the moment, that will go to Channel Seven first in Australia and then TVNZ will screen it later this year. Aside from that I’ve just got a lot of things in development at the moment – always just trying to keep the ahead of the beast.


Click below to watch Westside, Outrageous Fortune and The Almighty Johnsons on Lightbox today

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