When it comes to cop dramas and crime capers, Ian David is the man. It's a wonder he hasn't been shot, garroted, hung, drawn and quartered by several generations of Sydney mobsters, let alone the Australian film and television community. He's been around long enough to set the standard for Aussie crime drama excellence - and make himself the odd enemy.
His ground breaking reality-based ABC dramas Police State and Police Crop won AFI Awards in 1989 and 1990; the telemovie Joh's Jury won an AWGIE Award in 1995, and his three- hour mini-series Blue Murder, which was screened on the ABC (except in NSW where the subjects of the series took a while to make it into gaol), received the 1996 Logie Award for Most Outstanding Television Drama, the AWGIE Award for Best Television Screenplay, and an AFI Award for Best Screenplay.
It's always Australia's screenwriters who cop it when the media goes nuts over the lack of clever, sassy, commercially successful, critically acclaimed, Australian cinema masterpieces - with international sales written all over them. But what is it really like to be a screenwriter in Sydney - the Australian city which has always seen itself as the movie star of the nation? Time Out sat down with Ian David to find out.
Writing Blue Murder almost killed you didn't it?
I had a nervous breakdown that lasted about two years.
What were the symptoms?
I couldn't sleep, or concentrate. I was completely emotionally exhausted.
But it was a huge hit!
When I started researching the series I was going to read and adapt two books. I ended up being bugged, I was advised to get my wife and children out of our home, I was followed, and then my computer was stolen, with 13 years of work.
Your house was bugged?
Yes the police found bugs in the picture rail, the phone, and a yellow pages sitting in the corner of a room.
Would you go through any of that again for a Logie, an Awgie and an AFI?
I'd do it differently. I was lucky to find good cops who guided me through it, but I should have had them in place before I started.
What is it about bad guys that got you hooked?
I was an avid watcher of shows like Homicide when I was a kid. Crime is the most basic form of story. It works in any culture. I was drawn to that world. And once you have an inkling of how it works, you feel you can write about it with confidence.
Do Australians have a particular penchant for the crime genre?
We've absorbed bits of American film noir and married them to the British detective tradition. Plus in every state we have these fascinating police cultures. In NSW it goes back to the convict days and the Rum Corps.
Isn't it dark, depressing stuff?
Believe it or not, I watch a lot of romantic comedies. Comedy is the key to writing crime. If you take it too seriously, you won't last. There was a lot of self-parody in Homicide, and it works in Peter Corris's books, too. The larrikin mentality requires a strong doses of irony.
Having gone through all that, does it rile you to hear Australian writers blamed for everything that's wrong with our television and film industry?
Of course I used to think the script was the most important element, but there are producers and directors and funding bodies who all have a hand in the end result. As soon as you get someone interfering who has a "market driven agenda", you're fucked. We make bad films in Australia just like anywhere else, but it's not because of second-rate writers.
So what goes wrong?
OK, I've read at least six brilliant screenplays in the last decade which just died.
They got stuck in development hell?
Or worse. Remember the Australian composer Percy Grainger? Back in the 1990s there were two scripts floating around and guess what? The dog got made.
You're talking about the politics of individuals involved?
Yes. That sort of wrong headedness goes on all the time.
But how can decision-making processes that result in bad films continue? In Hollywood people have to manage their professional relationships if they want to succeed. The collaborative process is about having relationships for the good of the end product. People work with editors, directors, writers, actors who they don't like or agree with, all the time. But they put those prejudices and personal feelings aside.
And that doesn't happen here?
Our industry is small, and we're not good at professional relationships. A negative encounter with one individual can have ramifications for your career that last a long time.
How does this affect morale in the writers' world?
There's a lot of frustration, and confusion as to why projects everyone likes, with really good scripts, don't get made.