Fireflies: articles

Sims and Tanner

Jeremy Sims & Libby Tanner

New drama takes shape

Late in June filming began on FireFlies, a telemovie for ABC TV. Two weeks into the shoot the ABC announced that it had commissioned a series to be developed from the concept of the telemovie. The 20- episode series focuses on the people in a rural township where the local fire brigade is central to the lives of the community. The big name cast is headed by Libby Tanner, Jeremy Sims and John Waters. The FireFlies series, produced for ABC TV by Southern Star John Edwards in conjunction with AUSTAR, will go into production later this year.

The scriptwriter for the telemovie, 4-time AWGIE winner John O’Brien, is now Story Editor for the series. He has already spent some weeks working with the team of six writers who are scripting the series. The first seven episodes are to be delivered in September and the writers will immediately begin work on the next block of episodes.

Inside the ABC met John O’Brien in the program’s production office adjoining the ABC soundstage at Lanceley Place Artarmon on Sydney’s north shore. He was in a buoyant mood having the previous night resolved some issues relating to two of the episodes. Such breakthroughs are important. To the uninitiated seven weeks might seem ample time to produce final scripts for seven episodes but John describes their timeframe as ‘a flash flood — an extremely intense period of writing.’

John’s first ambition was to be a novelist — ‘Then I realised I wasn’t very good at novel writing but I was good at dialogue and ideas for filming things.’ His four AWGIES for feature films and television would attest to that. The winning work includes Bondi Banquet for SBS and an episode of Close Ups for the ABC. It was on Bondi Banquet that he first worked with ABC TV’s Head of Drama and Narrative Comedy, Robyn Kershaw. His most recent work for the ABC was three episodes of the first series of MDA.

In developing the concept for FireFlies, John drew on his personal experience. As he explains, ‘I knew I didn’t have very long [to work on it] but I live in a small town so I based it on a small town nearby — except it’s completely different and half the characters are based on me.’ John’s nonchalant description of writing clearly belies the hard work involved in the creative process.

In their first two weeks together the writing team sat around the table to work out the overall arch of the series and some of the stories and flesh out the characters. In the following two weeks they blocked out the first seven episodes before going their separate ways to actually write the scripts.

One of the challenges with this series is that the episodes are to be completely self-contained, not serialised although guest characters may well be in for two or three episodes.

Both the producer John Edwards and John O’Brien emphasise that despite the central role of the fire brigade, the series is character driven, it is not an action series as such. It is the story of a community ‘seen through the lens of the local fire brigade.’

On the other hand it is not one of those idyllic views of small town life. ‘There’s this vision.’ says John, ‘that if you move to the country you are going to a simple life — a life where you have plenty of time to do things — and fresh air. Well, you get the fresh air.’ One of the themes of the series is that ‘you have to work for the community you want.’

Despite the round-table discussion that series writers have there can be times when one of the writers ‘loses’ a character and has somebody in their script behaving ‘out of character.’ John O’Brien concedes, ‘I am sure that will happen and I have to learn to tell them nicely in a positive way.’

It is inevitable that some writers will find it easier to write for some characters rather than others but if everyone in the team is having a problem with certain characters it could be time to review the profile of those characters.

In the early days of the FireFlies writing conferences most of the writers were attracted to the same characters for their stories but that was turned into a positive. ‘As we have been working,’ explains John, ‘we have used that as a litmus test. We worked on the characters who were not attracting the writers to see how we could make them more interesting and we have got some fantastic stories in the course of doing that.’

Even with fiction on television it is important to get basic facts right. If you are writing about a fire service you need to have some idea of how it operates.

‘I contacted my local fires service,’ says John O’Brien the day after I sent my memo [outlining his ideas for the production] and within two days I talked to one of the media officers at the rural fire service headquarters and he has been fantastic. He has given me lots of material and ideas and he’s been in charge of taking the actors through from basic firefighting and hose rolling to communication techniques. Tomorrow we are spending half a day with him, getting the feel of the hose and doing a few exercises ourselves.’

It might be ‘an extremely intense period’ for the writers but John is boyishly enthusiastic about the work. ‘Two things that have been most exciting for me about this project are first of all I’ve been treated terribly well as a grown-up and given a lot of responsibility, but the other thing is that it is always improving. The self-described erstwhile failed novelist is more than happy to be working in television. ‘I think we are living in a bit of a golden age of Australian television. Grassroots is a great example for me, I thought it was extraordinary.’

Inside the ABC
Issue 14
July 25, 2003