All Saints: articles

In the beginning was the word

Johann Walraven and Andrew Supanz

Johann Walraven (left) and Andrew Supanz performing a scene from the 400th episode of All Saints.

Michael Idato follows the making of a milestone episode of All Saints, from the script to the final cut.

There is a delicious irony in the fact that great television comes not from moving images but from the written word. "The script is imperative and the most important thing is to get that as tight and as sound as possible," says actor-director Martin Sacks, who directed the 400th episode of All Saints, which airs this week on Seven.

The result is a taut, emotion-charged hour in which Cate (Alex Davies) and Jack (Wil Traval) cross scalpels with Mike (John Waters), while Bart (Andrew Supanz) grapples with two miscalculations - one that offers false hope to a patient and another that looks certain to steer the woman he loves into the arms of another man.

"The audience has to have a very strong emotional investment in characters, otherwise there's no reason to follow their journey," Sacks says. "Emotional investment in characters is something I'm very passionate about."

Sacks understands the character-audience paradigm better than most. Between 1994 and 2005 he performed in Blue Heelers as detective PJ Hasham, an audience favourite and one half of the show's most beloved couple.

Sacks moved into directing because he wanted a break from acting, although he acknowledges his new job is far more complex. Instead of heading up the woodwind section, he is now conductor of an intricately assembled orchestra. "It's not Lego; it's a living thing," he says.

In series television, Sacks says, time is the director's biggest enemy. It is a very different role from that of a film director. Instead of steering the full creative palette of the production, a jobbing television director has to yield some of the creative control to those who work on the show full-time - producers and, particularly with long-running shows, actors.

"The challenge is trying to pull together the script, the technical aspects and the performers to tell a clear and engaging story, with respect to where the show has travelled from and where it is heading. That's what you're hired to do," he says. "With an existing show like All Saints, it's very much about the writers, the cast and the crew. To be able to sustain that quality for so long is extraordinary, I think. It's not a one-off production - they have to come up with this every week and have done for a considerable length of time. They have to keep the cast and crew enthused and I think they do a brilliant job."

The storyline for the 400th episode, titled Pressure Point, was developed almost six months ago. The script was delivered in April and tabled at a "script polish" meeting at the show's production office in Seven's Epping studio. Executive producer Bill Hughes describes it as the script's "second-last gasp" before it is filmed. At the meeting were Hughes, Sacks and a handful of production executives, including script producer Louise Crane-Bowes and script editor Blake Ayshford.

"You want to be making the same episode as everyone else and you hope your take on the episode is shared by everyone around the table," Sacks says. "If that's not the case, it's not such a bad thing because it can stimulate some robust discussion but it's a process that needs to be completed. I don't think I've ever walked in and said, 'This is perfect - don't change a word.' "

Sacks describes the process as entirely collaborative. "As a director you have to pull it together and the responsibility is on your shoulders, as far as the end result goes, but I am very aware of the contribution from everybody and I think the old saying, 'It doesn't matter whose idea it is as long as it's the best one', comes in to play there. You need to be open to suggestions and I think my gut feeling tells me if it's right or wrong."

A week later the cast assembled on a cold morning just after dawn in a large rehearsal space for the "read through" - a seated, chatty stroll (with coffee) through the script, which is designed to give the director, producers and writers an opportunity to hear what the lines sound like.

"It can expose things to everyone," Sacks says. "There might be script problems, lines or scenes which are dramatically not holding you ... There is no time to sit around and have a discussion on the set while you're shooting; you need to iron out problems before you get there. Coming from acting, I really enjoy that process with the actors because for them that's the time to play and maybe discover something new."

The script-to-screen process allows the cast and crew to finetune every nuance of the episode but nothing prepares you for the power of the moving images in the final cut. Reading Bart's anguish at his mistake does not compare to watching Supanz give it expression. "The final cut can sometimes be quite different to the episode as you saw it in your mind," Sacks says. "And in a positive way because sometimes you get a whole different curve ball on something or a way of seeing the characters that can be far better than you ever imagined."

The 400th episode of All Saints airs on Seven on Tuesday at 8.30pm.

By Michael Idato
July 30, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald