On the 23rd June the ASE was joined with AWG for an in-depth look inside the writer/editor relationship on the amazing series Rake currently airing season 4 on ABC.
The AFTRS Theatre was filled with over fifty writers and editors anticipating an evening of insights into how the series Rake is created and how it maintains it’s unique sense of humour and surprise. ASE President, Fiona Strain kicked off the evening by welcoming everyone for coming out on a cold winters evening and thanking our sponsors, especially to Margot White at AFTRS. She then introduced the panel, legendary editors, Henry Dangar and Mark Perry, and writer, director, series producer and Rake creator, Peter Duncan. And the moderator Jane St Vincent Welch.
The opening, Episode 1, series 4 of Rake was screened. Now we were all in the Rake zone. (http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/rake/DR1405H001S00#playing)
Jane St Vincent Welch then introduced the panel with a short biography, starting with Mark Perry. Mark has cut some great features, tele-movies and drama series, including the series Lockie Leonard, On the Beach and Farscape. He has worked with David Caesar on the TV series RAN, then David’s feature films, Dangerous, Mullet and the glorious Dirty Deads, which won best editing from the Film Critics Circle. Last year Mark worked on, Mad Max Fury Road. He has edited series 2,3,4 of Rake. He’s been busy, maybe because directors seem to want to work with him again and again.
Henry Dangar was then introduced as,’ our gentleman editor from Armidale’. Henry has edited 24 feature films including Winter of our Dreams, Satellite Boy, Kiss or Kill, Cut, Tempted and Lucky Miles. He won an AFI for editing Kiss or Kill and has many other accolades. Many of us have settled in to watch and enjoy his television dramas, among them: The Bangkok Hilton, The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, Love My Way, My Place, Spirited and he has been there from day one, series 1, to this current series 4 of Rake.
Peter Duncan, creator, writer and show-runner of Rake was next. Peter was at Sydney Law School in the 1980s, in the golden era when there was no requirement to attend lectures. This enabled him to spend time writing and directing reviews. By 1995 he wrote the documentary Faces of War: The Battle for the Empire, and The Battle Comes Home. Then he wrote and directed the TV Movies Hell Has Harbour Views, A Little Bit of Soul, Passion (on the life of Percy Grainger), And features, Children of the Revolution. He also was script consultant on Romulus My Father. He also he directed and Unfinished Sky (winning six AFI awards and an IF prize for best director).
And then there is, the Series, Rake.
An eight episode series now in its 4th SEASON is about the life and professional escapades of barrister Cleaver Greene.
The recap opening (just screened), for the current series cut by Mark Perry. It was an hilarious black and white montage of Rake characters making out, punching, yelling and throwing wine at each other, cut to the music of ‘A Man and a Woman’, very apt. The segment ends as Cleaver Green crashes through a glass window to land on the table of a rather stuffy luncheon party.
Mark says, ‘the brief was to focus on the relationships in the series, primarily on Cleavers relationships, because that’s the central core of Rake, Cleaver and the quest for love. It was Peter’s idea to use the ‘Man and a Woman,’ score.’ He modestly adds that he watched the series 3 Episodes picking out good bits, then cut down from this initial assembly of 35 minutes to the 3-minute tease.
The character of Cleaver Green is unique and relies heavily on the performance of actor and co-creator Richard Roxburgh. As Peter Duncan explains, ‘Without Richard the show would be nothing, but he can be so naughty. Richard provides danger, wickedness and charm to Cleaver’s character. In fact he set the tone for the series, which has then absorbed by all the other characters because it has been so long running.
Henry Danger says, ‘What makes the show special is that the writers and performers have made the characters, actually care and love each other, despite everything, they might transgress but they come back to one another, this is all carefully crafted in the script.’
The pace and timing in a series like this is crucial. Getting the humour right is about timing, if it goes on too long you lose the tension, too short you lose the moment. Peter agrees, ‘the pace and tempo are established in the writing, the editors do not have to find the pace in the editing. On set Rox sets the tempo and the other actors pick up on it.’
Henry illustrates this with a scene where there was some improvisation, truly outrageous lines that really illustrate Richard's wickedness. In this scene Cleaver Green and Barney are talking at the pub where Roxburgh starts improvising lines about pornographic childhood memories. Barney plays the foil to Cleavers’ version of the scene. It’s very funny and very droll.
But the set up is all in the excellent writing, which is always fresh and unexpected. Peter says, ‘The hardest thing to do is when we switch tempo as hard as we do, like when they do something really sad, we switch to something really funny. One of the great things the editors do is to find that balance, but make sure it doesn’t feel like you’re watching two shows. We, (Andrew Knight co-writer and Peter Duncan) decide what the next logical step would be and then do the exact opposite.’
The editors agree that of all the TV shows they’ve worked on, it’s the one show that changes the least in the cutting room. As Mark says, ‘There's not a great deal of messing around with it later on.’
Which is great because as we know the schedule for television drama is always pretty tight, so how did this one compare? Henry explains, ‘It’s shot in two episodes per block for each director. Four blocks are created, that piggy back two episodes, for each eight-episode series. There are two editors working on two blocks each. The shooting period is three weeks for two episodes. The editing period to network approval is three weeks for each block of two episodes. 107 minutes of screen time is cut in that period. The courtroom scenes are killers, two cameras, sometimes three...It’s a lot of material to watch.’ Peter adds, ‘There’s not a lot of takes but it’s still a lot.’
Interestingly there’s no assemble editor, as Mark and Henry prefer to look at and choose the shots they like, which again is all about trust! Mark agrees, ‘When you are starting with a new director you have to establish trust. There is a lot of pressure on the directors; they have three days to get a cut before the producers arrive.’ So there is only time to get it right. Peter says, ‘I like to come in to the cutting room as late as possible. I watch then give notes; I try and keep some sense of objectivity. I trust the editors. These guys are so familiar with the show that sometimes they'll do something bold. I’ll watch a cut and they’ll say to me, did you miss the scene? I didn’t, so well played. Sometimes I'll notice. But I respect their inventiveness.’
So how do these tight, funny and very accomplished scripts get written? It turns out that it’s written much like Cleaver Green would go about it.
This is how Peter explains it, ‘For the first two hours Andrew Knight and I bitch about politics, have lunch, then bitch about politics, then Andrew will panic and say, we have nothing... Then we start writing stuff down. Out of the bullshit we've been spinning that morning, we find some references we can possibly use. We don't work on white boards, cards, things like that. We know where we want this to start and end. What is a good crisis we can give him, what love interests, how can we make his life as difficult as possible. We think up a crisis, then trump that with another crisis, it’s totally unstructured. It's more chaotic than organic; it's reflective of Cleaver the way we write the show. We get there in the end, I think because of this chaos, not despite it.’
The legal cases chosen in each episode reflect in a good or a bad way Cleaver's journey. The writers take real cases and then as Peter says, ‘Mess with them. We also give a fair bit of thought to the politics and social themes. The series has changed from being episodic based on the weekly crime to being more based on character and relationships, so the latest series is more organic.’
So why choose Sydney as to Melbourne? Peter explains that Sydney has always been a corrupt city since the early days of the colony, ‘I think of Sydney as a very expensive hooker.’ Henry adds that, ‘Sydney is the only place an MP can be an attorney general and minister for police’
Question from the audience is asked about, ‘How does the comic, verses dramatic scene change the editing?’ Mark responded, ‘It’s on a scene-by-scene basis. You respond to what is in front of you. You feel it out.’
Henry asks for another clip to be screened. It’s an improvised scene where Cleaver confronts his wife and her girlfriend. They are all arguing over each other. Mark cut this scene. ‘This was a nightmare to cut. There are 6 or 7 people all arguing, you’ve got to bite the bullet, it’s hard on the sound guys, but I encouraged them to overlap. That scene took the better part of a day to cut, and usually you do seven to eight scenes a day. It was a bit like a rubix cube, you keep turning it and turning it until it works. Everything was completely different, the continuity, when they said what, two camera helps.
Improvisation in TV drama is rare and was explored in this series because of Richard Roxburgh. Peter explains that this is because, ‘Rox heads the acting department. I think he gives the actors courage to have a bit of interplay to make it feel real. Those guys are having a lot of fun. Some actors are adept at the interplay of dialogue; most of them aren't as good at it as he is. Most of his ideas are thought through and funny. The most important fact here is he lifts the other characters.’
So why is Rake so successful? Peter says that ‘Pragmatism has to be your master. Necessity the mother of invention. People who survive have to respect budget and schedule. People are being asked to do more for less; our budgets are getting too small. If we had 17 day blocks and not 15 days blocks, we’d have less overtime for example.’ But would it be better if there was more editing time? Mark says, ‘Obviously more time would take the pressure off. As editors we also cut in temp sound FX and music, which also takes time. But there is a certain energy that comes from the pace of it. Adrenalin.’ Perhaps this also applies to the actors who have no rehearsal time, just a table read which also draws on the adrenalin on set. Peter sums it up, ‘you can describe the film making as a whole as being very industrial; it is physically, technically and emotionally hard labour. ‘
The thing that stands out is the consistency of the vision. Mark says this is because ‘Peter is a show runner. Peter as creator, writer, director and producer is running the show. So there is a very clear sense of what the show is.’
Then suddenly it was our time is up. What a great insight into how the writer and the editors create a drama series like Rake. Thanks to our wonderful panel, Henry Dangar, Mark Perry and Peter Duncan! And thanks all of you editors and writers that came to this Rake event!
And a BIG thanks you to AFTRS for providing the venue, as well as all our great sponsors for their continuing support.