For most of my working life, my main source of reliable income was to work as a television director of Australian drama shows. I started off, in spite of three years spent studying at the National Film School, very bad at it, but eventually I got better at it and came to love it.  The job suited me, I guess. I loved the camaraderie, the nonsense, the gossip, the fun of working with a big bunch of people, “proudly delivering nonsense to the masses”, as we used to say on ‘Home and Away’. Mostly, I worked on the lighter end of the spectrum – I would do soap and period dramas and light romantic-comedies, with occasional limited forays into action. This suited my modest skillset just fine.

I am not proud to admit that even late in my career, I would blithely and regularly commit a screen direction crime known as “crossing the line”. I should pause here and explain to the reader what “crossing the line” actually is, but you see,  that would require me having to Google it and paraphrase an explanation. Suffice it to say, it is very tedious and difficult to grasp and requires multiple rarified spatial-thinking skills, and yet a complete understanding of it was apparently essential to the job.  “We could do that, but it would be crossing the line,” the director of photography would mutter darkly as she gazed upon my shot list, the continuity person nodding in vehement agreement, a stricken look upon his face. “Oh, okay,” I’d say. “You guys sort it out then.” So they would. And in this fashion, I muddled along for years, propped up by my crew.  I guess I was more a kind of a figurehead than an actual director.

Some of the best fun it is possible to have is to work on a period drama chugging along happily in its third or fourth series. Money flows freely, which means more background extras and better catering, and no one upstairs is worrying too much. (As in Barton Fink, one never wants the producers to take too much of an interest.) The company has evolved into a traveling circus: setting up camp then moving on, gossiping and bickering, bonded together by years in adversity. I remember stomping our feet in a frozen paddock one morning, trying to keep warm, when it dawned upon us that no one we knew actually watched the show we were so arduously creating, and that included ourselves. It was a sobering realisation. “Then who is watching it?” we wondered.  After all, we were going to an awful lot of trouble, getting up before dawn and standing about in frozen paddocks and working all hours. “Hang on a minute,” said our continuity person, a latecomer to the conversation. “My mother watches it, albeit for the costumes.” From that moment on, especially in times of extreme physical discomfort, of which there are plenty when you’re making television, we took to blaming Mrs Mansfield for our predicament.

Having plenty of background extras is a rare luxury in Australian television – many is the hospital scene I have filmed where the corridor mysteriously empties itself of bustling background medical personnel before the lead actors have actually made it through their opening dialogue. Where is everyone? the viewers at home must ask themselves. Has there been an evacuation drill, unbeknownst to the main characters?

On the period drama, we were permitted plenty of extras, and the thrill of all this background talent went to our heads – we began to develop, for our own idle amusement, complex storylines for them to play out in back of shot.  In an elaborate wedding sequence filmed over several days, my assistant directors and I crafted a detailed and nuanced drama involving a burgeoning romance between a couple of young wedding guests. They would lock eyes at the wedding, hit it off at the reception, engage in a furtive tryst in the front parlour of the stately home, before – as is so often the way in real life – having an ugly bust-up even as the bride and groom drove off, tin cans rattling, into the sunset. Although there was drama aplenty to keep me busy between our lead characters in foreground, I became more and more determined to do our background story justice.  In a shot in which our leading lady advanced misty-eyed toward the altar, I found myself endeavouring to simultaneously capture the moment when the young extras first slapped eyes upon each other across the aisle. Staring at the monitor in horror, the fundamental flaw in my thinking was soon revealed to me – these extras could not act to save themselves. That is why  they were extras. And now they were totally ruining the shot.  And yet I kept doggedly trying to make it work“Why are we going again?” asked the bride, bristling beneath her veil, and fair enough: her own performance had been faultless (as far as I knew – I hadn’t actually been watching her). Thankfully, after multiple ruined takes and the imminent threat of delaying lunch, I came to my senses – the bewildered extras were unceremoniously banished out of shot and I was duly punished in a karmic sort of way: running onto set with a last-minute note, I ran smack bang into the arm of the camera crane, almost knocking myself out.  I still bear the lump on my forehead.

The novice director learns early on to go for as many takes as she likes, but never to stand in the way of lunch.  There is nothing more restive than a crew after hearing the First A.D. mutter into his comms that lunch will be delayed fifteen minutes. A low murmur of disgruntlement goes around the set. Heavy sighs, muttering, rolling of eyes – all of it directed at you, the director, as you insist on endlessly dicking around with something that was just fine on the first take. (Horribly enough, in spite of one’s convictions otherwise, it is often revealed in the edit room that in fact it was just fine on the first take.) However at the time you cannot see this and thus you must set your jaw and firm your resolve – after all, the audience won’t care about lunch being late when this thing goes to air, you tell yourself. But now the actress’ stomach is rumbling, audibly, over her dialogue. So that last take was unusable. You want to go again? Okay, quick, let’s get the actress some barbecue shapes to settle her stomach. No, she doesn’t want barbecue shapes, she’s a vegan - she wants an apple. Here’s the apple. Now she has to eat the apple. That’s like five minutes gone right there. And of course, she’s mussed her lipstick - what the hell do they teach them in drama school anyway? Quick, Makeup, get in there and re-do it.  Roll sound – shit, is that a plane? No, it’s a helicopter. A police helicopter. Why are they hovering overhead?  Are they searching for someone? Gee, they’re noisy, aren’t they? I guess sound will be totally unusable? Oh look, now here’s the Channel Seven news helicopter - like we didn’t have enough helicopters. Are you really, really sure we need to go again? Seriously? Couldn’t you patch something together with the previous takes? No? Okay. Looks like lunch will be delayed by thirty, everyone. We’ll roll just as soon as we get rid of these choppers…

Fortunately for the crew, I was the sort of director that was as keen to get to the lunch table as they were.  And why not? It was always the highlight of the day, so much better than the crackers and cheese you would otherwise be scrounging up at home.  By late morning, the talk behind the monitors would have invariably turned to this favourite of all subjects. What would lunch be today? The gaffer, crouching down at the monitors to check his lighting, is hoping it’s Indian. “Rogan josh with just a fragrant hint of cardamom, succulent butter chicken, crispy golden samosas that fall apart as you bite into them…”  He lists each possibility in mouth-watering detail.  “I’m pretty sure I heard it’s Japanese,” whispers Continuity. “Not Japanese,” hisses the DOP.  “I hate Japanese. I’m always hungry after Japanese.” “You’re all wrong.” This from Hair and Makeup, who has reliable insider knowledge since the make up van is situated right next to the catering truck. “It’s Mexican.  I saw them making the tortillas from scratch.” Me, I was always more than happy with any of the above options.  “And cut!” I’d cry, rising from my seat with undue haste.  “That was excellent. Let’s go to lunch.”

In my experience of making television, the gap between my lofty aspirations and the actual end result was often, shall we say, significant. Apart from the obvious reasons – not understanding what crossing the line is, being much too interested in background extras and lunch – there were other factors at play. You have to work fast in television. You haven’t got time to do a lot of takes. Frequently, the actor is still figuring out his blocking and the camera crew their focus marks, and yet somehow, we’ve already shot it and moved on.  And often, way too often, I couldn’t find the words or I lacked the insight that could help an actor find the way to play a scene. They’d be stuck, knowing it wasn’t working, and yet – oh look, we’ve already shot it and moved on. Could I try one more? asks the actor plaintively. No you can’t – sorry, darling - we’re out of time. On those days, everyone drives home feeling like failures – but so much worse for the actors, their failures plainly visible on the screen - while the rest of us fail and flounder relatively anonymously.

And yet at other times, by some strange alchemy, everything would come together in the most glorious and exhilarating way – you’d have ten minutes left to shoot and suddenly the sun would peep through the clouds; cameras and actors would all hit their marks; the camera crane would ascend majestically to the heavens and the actors belted the scene right out of the park. And then making television is just about as much fun as it’s possible to have.

Shirley Barrett, February 2019