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The creator of Why Am I? on taking smart science to the idiot box – and succeeding

For the past 45 years the Dunedin longitudinal study has been charting every aspect of the lives of 1037 people, making it one of the most important studies in human history. José Barbosa talks to producer Mark McNeill about how you make interesting TV about hard science.

Mark McNeill makes TV the way Steven Segal fights Tommy Lee Jones with a knife in Under Seige: the pointy end goes right in the brain. His production company, Razor Films, tends to produce TV that seeks to dig deep in your grey matter, exploring and illuminating new ideas or dropping bits of science that will drop your jaw. Razor’s bread and butter has been the successful parade of Nigel Latta series for TVNZ. There’s at least six Latta shows on TVNZ Ondemand and probably at least three more behind the couch in the staff room.

Mark McNeill, director, producer of Why Am I?, courtesy of NZ On Screen

Mark McNeill, director, producer of Why Am I?, courtesy of NZ On Screen

But while all that’s been humming along, they’ve also been putting together Why Am I? The Science of Us, currently halfway through its four-episode run on TVNZ. It pulls out all the most fascinating discoveries from the last 45 years of the Dunedin study.

These include findings that show the amount of TV you watch as a kid influences income and job status in later life; how teenagers become criminals and how the amount of sleep a child gets can predict how fat it will be as an adult. There are some surprising challenges to established theories or even common wisdom. Watching Why Am I? is like giving your brain a good scrub.

It’s taken over five years for the series to be made, for reasons that will be made clear, but now that it’s finally on our screens it’s going great guns. The first two episodes won the 9:30pm time slot, hovering around a 20% share of the 25-52 years old demographic. To put that in context: Seven Sharp during prime time managed a 17% share.

Mark makes smart TV that rates. This combination is the television equivalent of finding a ripe avocado that’s reasonably priced. How does he do it?


How did the project start for you?

We were watching an interview that Kim Hill was doing with Professor Richie Poulton (Director of The Dunedin Study) on TV. My wife said to me: “That guy’s really interesting, you should give him a ring.” I gave him a call and that kind of got the ball rolling.

He’d had a number of people approach him in the past and they’d said no, because the whole privacy thing for study members was a deal breaker. A lot of people couldn’t see how to make the series without filming study members, whereas I wasn’t interested in filming the study members at all. Richie and I came from slightly similar backgrounds and we just seemed to hit it off and got on.

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Professor Richie Poulton, Director of the “Dunedin Study”

How did you go about finding people to act as examples of the study findings? That’s quite a process.

Yes. They aren’t actors, the vast majority are just normal people. The really heavy lifting of a series like this is structuring it, figuring out what the themes are, what you want to put in, and the kind of interviews and illustrations you need to flesh it out. I asked around the usual people that fulfill that brief.

When we started personality types we found AJ Hackett. The people with criminal history were more difficult. It took a while, but in the end we found the right people. My wife is in there as well, of course. She’s the inhibited person.

Is that why it took so long? Just a matter of trying to track down these very specific personality types and people with very specific histories?

That took way longer than anything I’ve ever made before for a variety of reasons. When I first got the gig, I realised I wanted to make an international series and went looking for some extra money. I wanted to do a really good job and I thought that it deserved some extra money. That put it on hold for a while.

Then we started and I lost Paul Casserly – who initially directed. We kind of ran out of his time. Then Irena Dol, who did a fantastic job editing it, had a lot of other commitments so she had to go away for months at a time. Towards the end, there had just been so much more information that we did another round and included the latest information in it.

The project became a passion project, really. Particularly for Irena and I, we wanted to do the study justice. We realised that we were making something that was quite special and we might not get the chance to work on something like that again. We didn’t want to just bash it out, we wanted to make it as good as we could.

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Watching the first two episodes online it feels really refined and it’s all the much better for that. Why were you passionate about it? The subject matter definitely has the kind of “what the fuck?” response.

I had that response myself. I try and work on things I am interested in. It’s an amazing study and, shit, no one in NZ knows about it. It’s really weird, you know? A Nobel Prize-winning economist said “I suppose everyone in NZ has heard of the study.” When you say “no,” they’re kind of flabbergasted.

I’ve got a Master’s in experimental psychology and I was aware that this is pretty unique and pretty unusual. You don’t get a chance to make a series like this very often on telly, and there was just such a great opportunity to have something really meaty.

How do you approach making complex arguments and ideas accessible for television?

I don’t know if I have a strict rule for that. I treat everybody like they’re not stupid for a start, but I aim it at a kind of level that if I was explaining something to my mum, or maybe my teenage kids. I’m interested in making things that people want to engage with. I’m not just conveying information. I’m trying to tell a story here, I’m trying to keep people involved and interested.

One of the challenges in dealing with scientific stuff is that television is a relatively blunt instrument, and it doesn’t like qualification a lot. Most scientists are terrified because their results are always more complicated than the generalisations you’re often making on TV. You’ve got to try and walk a path between those.

It’s really difficult getting experts who will speak broadly and make those bold statements which are true, in general terms. For example, on another show we were asking when a particular Kauri forest was established, and they said, “Well you can’t really call it a Kauri forest, it’s 96% Kauri but another 4% of mixed podocarpus.” That interview becomes unusable.

We were lucky in The Dunedin Study that Richie and Terrie Moffitt (associate director) are both fantastic communicators and speakers. It’s no accident that they form the bulk of those interviews. Part of the process was finding the right scientists and the right commentators who just had either a gravitas or a really passionate way of speaking – and weren’t tied up in qualification and being too exact.

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Terrie Moffitt, associate director of the “Dunedin study”

My rule is that I never try to misrepresent people. I do my level best to put on screen what I think is the essence of what someone’s trying to say, but a lot of the time you do have to edit it. That said, Richie and Terrie both speak in wonderful, eloquent sentences that are just great for TV.

I noticed to some surprise that the series is available in it’s entirety on TVNZ onDemand as it’s being played out week by week on TV. That’s remarkably forward-thinking. Obviously you’re OK with that?

I am OK about it. That was TVNZ’s idea. The rationale was that it might develop a buzz online and that might support the stuff being watched on TV. There’s also the two audiences – the people who watch online and the people who watch free-to-air, so it might be a way to get a larger audience. They put it to us as an experiment and I thought it was a good idea.

In the first week it did really well, about 75,000 downloads. It’s a really nice way for people to access it and the oddest people have told me that they binge-watched it. They sat down and they watched them all or watched a couple end-to-end. I just like as many people as possible to see it, whether they watch it on the internet or watch it when it goes to air. I’m really happy either way.

You’ve obviously got a very international-sounding narrator in the voice of Susie Ferguson. What’s happening with it internationally, if anything?

It’s done really well. I realised that I thought we had an international series and I made it with an international audience in mind. It’s been acquired by around 20 buyers so far. They cover, like, 60 countries, some of them are pretty peculiar countries – The Comoros and Burkina Faso and stuff like that. It’s done really well. I’m just really happy.

All kinds of people have been saying they really like the series which is unusual because you don’t normally get a whole lot of people ringing up and saying: “Great job,” you know? It makes a nice change, but I’m realistic enough to know that not every project is going to be like this.


Why Am I? screens Tuesdays, 9:30pm and the whole series is available on TVNZ Ondemand.

Disclosure: José Barbosa worked as a researcher on Why Am I? for two days.

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