W.D. Stevens is a local writer/director who has recently finished a sitcom pilot “Written in the Stars” to pitch to various production companies. Considering it’s a story of a horoscope writer who doesn’t believe in horoscopes at all, and that its central character is a woman in her 50s – a very under-represented group on TV – The Westsider decided it was worth investigating further via this virtual chat…
So W.D. perhaps start by explaining how you have come to ‘pitch’ a TV show?
I’ve always felt that my writing abilities skewed more towards TV. I really like the idea of dropping yourself into someone’s life and seeing how they and the people around them react to different situations and watching them grow and change as the series goes on. So when I began writing, I kind of made it my goal to have a TV series of my own but I knew I wasn’t going to go straight there so I wrote a number of short films, theatre pieces and web series to get myself to a point where I felt I was ready to really go for it. So I’ve been trying to make some contacts and find people and production companies who I think would be the best fit for the series and I’ll be contacting them very shortly after some community feedback so I can really know what notes hit best so I can put my best foot forward.
What do envisage as the likely way this will pan out?
I am a bit of a pessimist sometimes and I’ve heard all the stories about creative teams going round and round in circles for years trying to get something produced until, if they’re lucky, someone sits up and takes notice. I’ve had a few ideas in the last few years that I thought would make for a good series but I really feel like this actually has real potential. Having mapped out the direction of the series with Celia Handscombe, my script editor, there are some incredible stories in there that I’m really passionate about seeing them on screen so I’ll be really pushing. And the series has already received lots of really positive support. Even just from releasing the trailer, I had many messages and emails really excited to watch it and then a large number of shares on social media as well as messages and emails from people who loved it and really want to see more. Ultimately, it’s up to the production companies, funding bodies and networks to decide if they want it but I think I’ve proved with the work that’s been done that it’s of good quality, hitting the right demographics and marketable (it is a business, after all).
What previous writing have you done – any TV shows?
I have written a fair number of short films and web series since I started writing with the aim to have them produced rather than just as a hobby. I’m pleased to have had my films shown at festivals around Australia and the world. I was especially pleased to have had three of my shorts shown at the Setting Sun Film Festival. Being a Westie, getting to see my work shown at the Sun Theatre was truly a dream come true. In 2017, I produced a web series called ‘Walter’ that followed a rock star throughout his career from the 60s up to the present day which was probably my most ambitious piece before this. I have also written a number of online audio dramas as well as long- and short-form theatre. My piece ‘7 Minutes to Say Goodbye’ that was directed by Renee Palmer won best production at the 2019 PlaySix Short Play Festival.
Were you always a writer?
I always knew I wanted to be involved in the film industry in some way from when I was in single digits though I wanted to be an actor at first. I remember writing little pieces for my friends and I to act out with our parents as camera operators and I really enjoyed the writing I remember, a lot more than the acting. There was always something almost magical about having the rough idea of where the story had to go and the kinds of beats I knew I had to hit but, with that framework, dropping a character in and then winding them up and letting them go. I still find myself surprised when characters do something I wasn’t expecting and thinking ‘Oh, that was clever. Where did that come from?’ That’s what drives me to write, I think. I’ve done a number of jobs across film sets but the constant has always been writing. It’s what I’m best at and it’s certainly what I enjoy most. With directing maybe second though I prefer to direct other people’s work. It’s fun finding things in the script that sometimes the writer didn’t even know was there.
There are many writers in the inner-west, are there any that inspire you?
I think one of the things that might have spurred me to become a writer was actually meeting the children’s author Andy Griffiths a few times when I was young. He came to school as well as to the Williamstown Literary Festival which I went to a fair bit to talk about the career path of being a writer and I remember asking his advice about how to go about it. We have very different styles but I found him to be quite inspiring at that age. Also at the Willy Lit Fest, I remember meeting a local artist and writer Bess Whitehurst who was very inspiring. We would send each other things we’d written from time to time and she gave me feedback and encouragement. More recently, Kerry Drumm is a film and theatre writer I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the last few years. Her piece ‘Strawberry’ that debuted last year was a truly incredible piece of writing.
What Australian shows do you look at and go “that’s where I want to get to”
There’s one show that I’ve really been striving to be like in the last few years and that’s ‘Wanted’ that starred Rebecca Gibney and Geraldine Hakewill. The writing on that show was some of the best I think I’d seen on Australian TV in recent years. The characters were at the heart of everything, driving the story and they felt so real. They really managed to blend the comedy and drama well in that series. A lot of the time, you see shows have a bit of comedy then abruptly change to the serious bit and back rather than letting it rise and fall as appropriate throughout. Rosehaven is another show in recent years that I’ve really loved. Once again, it has a couple of well-developed characters at its heart and lets them expand and grow while giving you some laughs along the way. It’s got a very different feel, I think primarily because it’s written by comedians but at its core, I think that’s why it works and what I try and do mainly.
Are there more opportunities to get local content picked up and produced in the digital era with such a wave of subscription content services?
You’d hope so but I’d almost expect it to be less as content is more easily being shared globally, it’s sometimes hard to compete with the massive budgets that they have but I think that’s what’s been part of the charm of Aussie film and TV for so long is that it may not be as bold or flashy but it’s very real. Not to say that overseas shows aren’t but I do think it’s a particular strength of ours.
The trailer has promising appeal – where did the idea come from?
It was actually at a family dinner a couple of years ago. My dad had a clipping of his and his sister’s horoscope that was incredibly apt for a situation they were dealing with at the time and it gave everyone a good laugh although everyone was quick to say it was all rubbish. It just got me thinking that if (seemingly) everyone thinks that, do the people who write them think that too? And the idea developed from there. I started to develop who Judith was – she had to be intelligent and a bit cynical but I wanted her to be fun as well so that lent itself to a cutting sense of humour and a large dose of sarcasm. One of the key themes explored in the series is age and obsolescence. Judith is feeling less and less visible as she gets older amongst the office of young people and I really like the parallel that gets drawn upon a few times throughout to the newspaper starting to go under as print media doesn’t have quite as much of an impact as it did when she started in the 80s.
Do you think a lot of people do jobs they don’t believe in or don’t align with their true belief systems?
I definitely think that’s the case. Many people don’t really have much choice when it comes to where they work or what they do. It’s where they can find a stable income most of the time. I’ve done work as a theatre tech at a religious school and I’m not religious at all. I don’t think that’s the case with Judith, though. She may think all the spirituality stuff is a load of nonsense but she treats it in a very analytical way like if planet A is over here at this time, then it means this for a Sagittarius on this day. I have her backstory as her being a very junior member of the paper when she joined and was given this as something that just needed doing when no-one else wanted to (a very common thing) and found she had an aptitude for it.
Women are under-represented in leading roles – was there a particular person that inspired this character?
I’m not sure there was anyone in particular although I did write the role for Janine Evans who plays her. I think Judith definitely has a fair bit of Janine’s sense of humour. I suppose I was also inspired by Rebecca Gibney as I’ve really enjoyed seeing her in productions taking the lead and driving the story but very real and human with strengths, weaknesses and a sense of humour.
How much of the project have you filmed and produced so far?
We have produced the pilot episode only at this stage though an episode breakdown has been made for the whole series as well as the direction we’d like the show to go in from there. We wanted to prove that we’ve got real, actionable plans for the series and it’s not just the germ of an idea that hasn’t been developed enough yet.
What stage are you at currently with the overall process?
We were supposed to have a screening at some point this year which the cast and crew would be at to get feedback and create a little bit of a buzz but, due to the pandemic, we’ve had to move this online for the time being. So on the 14th of August, we released the pilot for people to watch. The idea is to get feedback about what works and what could be improved so we can put our best foot forward with our pitches. The other aim of having a screening or online release was to prove that there was market interest in the series and from the level of response we’ve had so far, it really looks like this is something people want to see more of which is great.
How can inner-westies help?
The most helpful thing would be to watch the pilot, tell your friends, share it around and give us your honest feedback. And of course if you’re uncle’s sister’s cousin’s daughter works for a production company, network, funding body or even a private investor who you think would be interested in making sure this story gets on our screens, please do pass it along! But above all I’m just hoping people will check it out and enjoy themselves. One of the things I’m hearing frequently from people is ‘This is exactly what we need right now.’ Something fun to take our minds off the current state of the world. So I figure that means we’re onto something good!