One of the strongest programs currently on television is Wentworth; the show, which was originally adapted from Prisoner (an Australian soap opera set in Wentworth Detention Centre) might have come before Foxtel’s new version but can hardly be compared to its invigorated descendent (think hot, but intimidating long lost cousin). Ultimately a starting point, the creators and writers heading up the charge over at Wentworth Prison have concocted one magnificent piece of television full of dark, complex and interesting characters (can you tell I’m a fan… no? Let me try harder). The series, which stars leading ladies Danielle Cormack, Nicole da Silva, and Kate Atkinson (amongst many other phenomenal performers) continues to captivate audiences that spans across the globe. Wentworth, which can only be described as gritty, dramatic, and hyper-realistic is at the forefront of prison dramas, hell– dramas altogether. Seriously, it really holds its own in its genre and is often better than most big-name American cable shows.
I bet you’ve heard of the binge-worthy comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, right? Well… hold onto your valuables because Wentworth not only owns the prison scene, but can be categorized as OITNB’s older, much more aggressive sibling. That’s not to say OITNB is anything short of entertaining, but really, the two are hardly interchangeable. Thanks to its vague and often abstract similarities, more and more people are seeking out the Aussie drama for their fictitious prison fix. (Yay, more fans!)
We at NoWhiteNoise not only LOVE Wentworth and its on-screen talent, but must give credit where credit’s due and raise our meticulously (and sneakily) hand-crafted shivs to the creative, hard-working writers and behind-the-scenes folks that make the magic happen. Pete McTighe, writer extraordinaire, was generous enough to squeeze me in between writing Wentworth scripts (incomprehensible squeals on my end) to chat about his time amongst the women in teal.
McTighe gave us some insight into season 3 (minimal spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it yet), and although everyone is desperate to know what’s next for our favorite inmates, this writer is keeping season 4 details extremely hush-hush (it’s okay Pete, even though you refuse to spill all the secrets, we still dig ya). Aside from his ironclad demeanor, we got to chat about Doctor Who, American TV and the ongoing debate regarding accessing Wentworth in other territories.
MCKENZIE MORRELL: Wentworth is a reimagining of Prisoner, what drew you to this story and how much of the current show stays true to the original series?
PETE MCTIGHE: Wentworth uses the DNA of Reg Watson’s original Prisoner series as a jumping-off point, but is absolutely standalone. It’s not a sequel or a prequel; it’s a new show. We’ve reimagined some of the characters from the original series but made the decision very early on not to be bound by their earlier incarnations or back-stories. Our version of the show had to feel fresh and contemporary – we wanted to be really bold with our storytelling and win what I suppose was initially a sceptical audience over. To the credit of everyone involved, it seems we’ve achieved that. It’s a really nice feeling to watch Wentworth making its mark internationally. For the writing team, as for everyone involved, it’s been exciting seeing the reaction to the stories and how passionately Wentworth fans have fallen in love with these characters. What drew me to the project was that I was a big fan of the original series when I was a kid. I’d always thought that the show could be revived and be a success again if it was done properly.
MM: How do you approach new ideas with the writing team? Do you guys have storylines planned out just for the whole season, or a good idea heading into the next?
PM: The way it generally works is that we sit down before each season, and over a period of weeks, roughly map out what’s going to happen across the twelve episodes for each of the characters. We then pitch those big arc stories to the broadcaster (Foxtel), producer and executive producers, and in consultation with them we begin to lock those stories down. Once everyone’s happy, we proceed to episodic plotting, where we spend time mapping out each episode in detail. We work as a very small core team, there’s usually about 4 of us plus Marcia the script producer, and it’s a system that has been very effective so far. Once that structural work has been done, a writer takes ownership of a particular episode and goes off and writes. Once drafts of the script start coming in, we all meet with the producer, director, the execs and broadcaster to discuss how they are working and start refining. The script will go through many drafts before it gets to the studio floor.
So when we sit down to start writing Episode 1 of a season, we know exactly where we are heading during the course of the twelve episodes – often we know the basics of the bigger stories up to two seasons in advance. During work on Season 2, bringing in Ferguson [Pamela Rabe], we knew we were building to something big at the end of Season 3 (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it), and (roughly) how we were going to get there.
MM: How much time goes into writing an episode of Wentworth?
PM: It really varies. But by the time a script goes before the cameras, it’s been months of work to get it to that point.
MM: Which character would you say has been the most difficult to write for?
PM: I can’t speak for the other writers, but personally, I’m not sure any characters have been ‘difficult’ as such. They’re all really enjoyable to write for, and all have very distinct voices.
MM: Out of all the characters from the beginning of the series, who would you want to see a spinoff show about?
PM: I think the show works really well as an ensemble, if you stripped one of those characters out for a spin-off I’d be wondering where everyone else was. But if I had to choose, I’d say Officer Linda Miles [Jacqueline Brennan]. Seriously. I love her.
MM: Are you able to go to set when an episode you’ve written in being filmed?
PM: Yes, the script office is on-set so if I’m in Melbourne (a lot of the time I live in London), I can dash downstairs if I want to see something being shot. And the Wentworth officers’ areas are right next to the production offices. So when you see scenes of, say, Ferguson and Vera walking down the carpeted corridors, a lot of the time the writers are sitting on the other side of the wall, in meetings. Or hiding in the toilets.
MM: Which season of Wentworth was your favorite to write, and why?
PM: Oh that’s such a tough question. I love all three for different reasons. Season 1 was great because it was new and exciting and terrifying – and then successful, which was a big thrill for everyone, but Season 2 was invigorating because we brought in Ferguson and from a story perspective that allowed us to shake up the show. It became bigger in scale in a way, more operatic. We still had those smaller character stories that everyone responded to, but we ramped everything up a notch. And again in Season 3 – we knew we were heading for this big event at the end of the season and let allowed us to build big characterful stories to a massive climax which was really rewarding. I guess if Bea had a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d choose Season 2 or 3. I think everyone had a real confidence boost going into that shoot, knowing the show was a success.
MM: What are your favorite episodes?
PM: The Series 3 episode called ‘Goldfish’ by John Ridley. That was Ferguson-focused and just brilliant. Great script and great direction from Kevin Carlin. Of the ones I’ve written, Episodes 1 and 3 of Series 1, Ep 1 because it was the very first episode and I was proud to be writing it and establishing those characters, Ep 3 because it really zeroed in on Franky and began exploring what was beneath her tough exterior. The Series 2 finale was great as I had a big challenge in paying off Bea’s revenge arc and the luxury of a massive six-page two-hander between Bea and Brayden. I also loved the Series 3 finale, that was pretty epic.
MM: I had some “Freakytits” (they come up with the funniest ship names) fans writing in to me, asking if there was any chance Joan and Vera would mend fences and rejoin forces in season 4… can talk about those ladies and their development throughout the season?
PM: There is no chance. Sorry!
MM: Speaking of Joan, that character was so hated and well-liked at the same time– what are some tips you have for writing a well-layered character?
PM: The challenge is always to give a character layers, make them well-rounded and believable. That’s especially important for characters perceived as ‘villains’. Certainly the characters don’t perceive themselves that way – Ferguson would argue that everything she did had a clear logic behind it, and was for the greater good. She’d see herself as a hero, or as misunderstood. I see her as a bit of a hero actually, especially when I’m writing her. You have to be able to get under their skin and let them inhabit you for a little while when you’re writing. For me, that’s what makes writing so addictive – being able to live vicariously through all these amazing characters. You can tell you’re really into it when you catch yourself making the faces while you’re writing. But then Pamela Rabe comes along and does the faces way better.
MM: Season 3 just ended in Australia (phenomenal by the way), can you give us any hints as to what’s coming up in season 4… there’s definitely a lot to explore: Kaz Proctor arriving at the prison, Ferguson under lock and key, and life after Wentworth for Franky?
PM: I’m so glad you guys enjoyed it. Season 3 was a thrill for us to write; we were all pretty knackered cos we basically shot Seasons 2 and 3 back to back. It was intense for everyone. I can’t give you any information about Season 4, sorry. Everyone’s desperate to know who’s coming back and who isn’t, but it’s a long way off so the powers-that-be are keeping the secrets for now. But I can tell you it’ll be epic, and shocking, and emotional.
MM: What has the response been on Twitter? Are people generally supportive when it comes to the show and everything that unfolded this season?
PM: The response on social media has been amazing. The fans are so engaged and passionate about the show. We know we’re really lucky to have such a loyal, loud and proud fanbase. And it’s great seeing the show and the actors win awards.
MM: Any word on when the current season of Wentworth will hit U.S. Netflix? I know it just released on the Canada version.
PM: Not really my area, sorry. I thought it hit Netflix a few weeks ago but maybe that was Canada only? Hassle Netflix about it.
MM: I spoke a little about the global reach of the show with Nicole da Silva and Socratis Otto in the recent weeks, and just the idea of getting the world on the same page– would you be for releasing the seasons at the same time in say the U.S. as it does in Australia?
PM: I know in a perfect world it’d be great if everything could be released at the same time worldwide, but TV is a business. The people spending the money, the people who commissioned and nurtured the show – Foxtel – should naturally be the first to broadcast it. They’re the reason the show exists in the first place. End of story. If you’re a fan in Australia and you want to watch the show as early as possible, you should get Foxtel, simple as that.
MM: This kind of leads into the next question regarding people from other countries getting their hands on the episodes before it airs in their region… Do you have an opinion about the fans and their passion for this show?
PM: I understand why it happens. I totally understand what it is to be passionate about a TV show. But the fans out there pirating the show from illegal torrent sites, rather than obtaining it legally either on Foxtel or Netflix or Channel 5 or DVD or BluRay etc, might be killing the thing that they love. TV doesn’t come for free. And if broadcasters/production companies/distributors notice that less people seem to be engaging with a show legally, robbing them of the incentive to make it in the first place, why would they continue? Anyone who is a fan of any show should watch it via legal means when it’s available in their territory, even if they’ve already seen it – watch it on broadcast, tweet about it, tell your friends, buy it on iTunes or DVD or BD, and that way you’ll give the show its best shot at further seasons.
MM: A little birdie told me you’re a Doctor Who fan, who is your favorite Doctor and why?
PM: I’m going to sound like a nutter, and I’m not, probably, but yeah that show is incredibly important to me on, like, a molecular level. It’s the show that made me fall in love with TV, and the show that gave me incentive to read and write and create. The very first story I wrote was a Doctor Who story when I was a kid. It was terrible, but the fact is that show started me writing and led me to where I am today. As for favourite Doctor… God that’s a tough question. I’m going to say Peter Davison, because he was my Doctor as a kid. As much as I loved Tom Baker, Davison was a refreshing change. That breathless, urgent quality he brought really upped the stakes. You felt like Tom was in control of any given situation whereas with Davison you really did feel like the Mara was going to destroy Manussa, or that the Myrka was a genuine threat! But I love all the Doctors, every single one of them. Peter Capaldi is fantastic, I thought the 2014 series was glorious. A very dear friend of mine is currently writing for it and it’s the most exciting thing in the world. I scream with her regularly.
MM: Do you watch any American television? If so, do you have any favorites that you feel are done really well?
PM: I watch LOADS of American television. I try to watch at least Episode 1 of every drama that gets to air. I don’t always succeed, but I try. As far as specific shows, I’ve been really enjoying Hannibal, I was very disappointed that’s ending soon. Apart from the fact that it looks so beautiful, I love the psychology of that show, the depths and complexities of those characters. I loved Agent Carter and The Americans. I thought this last season of Homeland was stunning. I’m glad I came back for it, because I very nearly didn’t. It’s probably the best plotted show on TV right now. Game Of Thrones delivered its best three episodes of all time at the back end of this season, I loved that. I’m really excited about the return of Twin Peaks next year, one of my all-time favourite shows that I rewatch endlessly. The first few episodes of Wayward Pines infuriated me as it was trying so hard to be Twin Peaks, but once that show set out its stall and declared what was going on, I was kind of hooked. So I’ve been enjoying the last few episodes of that. Also loved The Leftovers. House Of Cards, obviously, that’s just classy television. It’s high-camp melodrama by stealth. It has this operatic scale to it that really appeals to me. And it has the biggest lamp budget on television – next time you watch it, see how many lamps are on in a scene. It’s absurd. And I’ve said it many times but Battlestar Galactica (the Ron Moore reboot version) was a massive influence on my writing for Wentworth. If you’re a Wentworth fan and haven’t seen it, get stuck into it. It’s the perfect show to fill the gap while you wait for Season 4 and has some fantastic strong female characters. Speaking of great female characters, check out No Offence, which is a Channel 4 (UK) drama and probably the best thing I’ve seen on TV this year. It’s brilliant. That and Line Of Duty have reinvented the police show, and they both deserve to be seen by everyone. And I can’t wait for the new series of Les Revenants (The Returned), the French show. I could talk about TV for hours so I should just stop now.
MM: You’ve written for many other programs, do you have a genre you’re more drawn to?
PM: I like writing about complex characters, whatever the genre. Psychological depth. I guess I’m more drawn to material with an edge to it – My episodes of Wentworth are… reasonably representative of my ‘tone’ I suppose. Most of the shows I’m developing in the UK and US right now I guess you’d classify as character-driven dramas or thrillers. I’m also really interested in ideas that have some kind of genre bent; whether that’s supernatural or sci-fi, but those kinds of shows are notoriously difficult to get right. But that’s something I’m working on, I’d love to get a big sci-fi or genre show off the ground. I love tiny characterful stories and I’m attracted to stories that have a scale; as long as there are high stakes, I’m there, with my biscuits and my keyboard.
MM: Lastly, what advice would you give for someone wanting to pursue a career writing for television?
PM: Just write, and keep writing. It’s the only way to get better. Also watch as much good TV as you can squeeze into your day, read as many scripts as you can. Soak it all up. And then write some more. And then rewrite it.
Follow him on Twitter @PeteMcTighe