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ESOL Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Learning task 9

Interview with writer Maxine Fleming

Simplified for ESOL students

by Susy Pointon, New Zealand Writers Guild (a Guild is name for a society or association)
First published in Write Up - the New Zealand Writers' Guild Journal, September 2001

We have not seen a locally made drama series for young adults on New Zealand television screens for some time. Write Up sent Susy Pointon to talk to series co-creator and writer Maxine Fleming about what it took for Eve to be.

Q: Maxine, I get the impression that the development process for Being Eve was quite different in many respects to the standard television drama development. We so often hear bad stories about development that it is great to be able to tell a positive story, for a change. So tell us about the conception of Eve. Whose idea was it? What was your brief? (a brief is introductions for what you need to do) And when did it start?
It all started back in late '99 ... NZOA, (New Zealand On Air), had made it known there was $2.1 million put aside for children's series. Gavin (Strawhan), who was then South Pacific Picture's head of development, and I were playing with a few ideas but we weren't really enthusiastic about any of them until Gav turned up at my place and suggested we base the series around a girl who was a bit of an amateur anthropologist, ( an anthropologist is a person who studies human beings and their societies.) This got us going and after a coffee or three up the road and a lot more talking, Being Eve was born. Basically, we wanted to write something that was fresh, funny and intelligent. (No sweat, right?) I went away and wrote up the series idea and it all seemed to come together pretty easily - one of those unusual times when it feels like it's all just there waiting to come out on to the page. Anyway, Gav came up with more stuff, TV3 liked it and so did NZOA and the rest, as they say, is history ...

There was no brief as such, other than to aim it at 9- to 14-year-olds, and this, in my opinion, was a very good thing. It was very much a writer-driven project and I hope we see more of them. Because if the writers don't get excited by the idea, why should anyone else?

Q: What were you aiming for in the character of Eve?
To create an intelligent, likeable teenager whose head was often in conflict with her heart. On a personal level, as a mother of pre-teens, I really wanted my kids to watch a show that wasn't centred around American teenagers.

The other decision we made early on was to give her divorced parents which, let's face it, is a lot more common these days than it used to be. So this gave her character another layer - that secret wish to see her parents get back together, even though her Dad is now living next door with his new girlfriend.

Q: Neither of you are teenagers. How did you get into the minds of the youth of today? Was there a lot of research in the field?
You mean what did a couple of people like us who are, let's face it, getting old, think we were doing writing a series for teens? Good question. Hey, we were teenagers once. I was a nerdy teen who spent a lot of time reading books and trying to figure out the world. And Gav, well let's just say he spent a lot of his teens doing research in the field with teenage girls.
And really they are the same issues - friendships, popularity, boys and so on - just different times. For instance, kids don't send notes to each other any more, they text message. But you don't need to be a teenager to know that - you just need to have your eyes open. There was some research done with kids at Selwyn College and one of their students, Nyree Barrett, spent time with us storylining early on which was helpful. It also confirmed what we already suspected - she was more mature than we were. Just as a side issue, it always puzzles me when I hear writers say things like they couldn't write teenage characters any more. As long as you're being truthful to the characters you've created, I can't see why not. I mean, do I actually have to murder someone to get into the mind of a psychopathic killer? I hope not . . .

Q: How do you and Gavin work together? Do you literally sit at the same computer or do you share the tasks?
Now there's an amusing thought - Gav and I sitting at the same computer! No, we wrote different storylines and scripts but the exchange of ideas was constant and in the end, with several episodes, we both had a go at them.
There is no doubt, especially when you're trying to write comedy, that it is a very good idea to have someone else to try out ideas on, to have a good laugh with and the odd argument. Arguments can be a good thing if your common aim is make product better.

Q: When you were making up the storylines, did you base them around other teen shows or a list of local issues for teens?
Neither. On the "issues" front, I think one of the series' good points is that it doesn't take itself too seriously - even when dealing with themes like divorce or death. That's not to say we make fun of those things but it became a matter of tone - finding ways of exploring those things without becoming too heavy.

Q: The documentary segments, ( a segment is a small part,) in each episode where you quiz other teenagers on their attitudes towards the issue that Eve is faced with - were they done afterwards or before you wrote the scripts?
We had this idea that it would be great to throw in "real" kids responding to some of Eve's questions. So we wrote the questions into the scripts and the interviews or "vox pops" were done later with students. And some of their responses were just classic - we couldn't have written them better ourselves.

Q: How many writers were there on the show in the end?
Six or seven different writers worked on the show, including writers like Briar Grace-Smith, James Griffin, and Niki Caro. And then in the end, once we had a better overview, Gavin and I reworked all of them in third drafts, mainly addressing the differences in tone and style.
But it also became much more apparent what was working and what wasn't in terms of the fantasies, Eve's family interviews and so on so those things needed more work too.

Q: How long did the script development process take? And how did it feel when you got the green light to go into production? (to get the green light means to be told you can go ahead with the project.)
Once we had development approval, we worked on the storylines and a couple of scripts throughout the second half of '99 and then learnt we had production funding in February 2000. So that whole process seemed to happen remarkably quickly, compared to some series I've worked on.
The rest of the scripts were written over that year, with stops and starts for various reasons, and then it went into production in October.
As to how it felt when we finally got the green light - the usual mixture of excitement and dread, as in, uh-oh, now we really have to make this thing work.

Q: How did Vanessa (Alexander - producer) influence the development process?
She had a huge influence. For starters, she's written a script or three herself so it soon became apparent that she knew what she was talking about. Once she came on board as producer, we looked at all the scripts again and talked about issues like those differences in tone and so on.
And her aim was very much to make sure our vision - and hers, I hope - was there on the screen at the end. Look, she just had an incredibly positive influence on the whole process. I can't say enough in her praise. And one of the things that's become really obvious as a result is that it's all very well to have good scripts but they won't necessarily make good drama unless you have a producer with her ability to stay with the project and not give up, and her attention to detail .
There, that should get me a pay rise on the next series with any luck.

Q: There are several innovative talented young short film directors working on the show. What did they bring to it? (innovative means having fresh, new ideas.)
Passion and commitment! Honestly, it was an inspired idea to bring people like Peter Salmon and Armagan Ballantyne on to the show as directors. They may never have directed for television before but they bought fresh ideas in all sorts of ways.
And they loved the scripts. I mean, this is a sad thing to admit after writing for television for ten years, but I have never before had a director tell me they've taken on the job because they loved the scripts. So it wasn't a case of "how can I fix up this piece of crap?" - it was, "how can how I be true to it or make it better?"

Q: Were you involved in the casting of the show or any of the other elements?
Yes, we were definitely involved in casting and nearly every other element in one way or another. Not that we made the final decisions or anything, it's never that simple. But there is no one cast in this show that we were not totally happy with.

Q: Did you or Gavin get to be part of the actual production?
Yes we both were, Gavin as executive producer and me as well, the writer who would never quite go away. We were at read-throughs - another first for me as a television writer - and Gav was there for rehearsals and to generally do whatever last minute rewrites that were needed for one reason or another.
It really doesn't make sense to me any more to just hand over your script and walk away, hoping that the producers and directors will get it right on their own - a little like adopting out the baby you've laboured over for months without ever seeing it again.

Q: How long did it take to shoot? Was there a rehearsal period?
The 13 episodes were shot in about 11 or 12 weeks and there was a week's rehearsal at the start, plus extra days throughout the shoot. Vanessa and Armagan also did extra rehearsals with Fleur (Saville), who played Eve, because she had so much to do. Certainly, it would have been great to have more time, but time of course is money, and there was only so much of that to go round.

Q: How do you think the process of you all working together has impacted on the final show?
I think it's affected the show in every way - from the scripts right through to post-production. (post means after.) Because every aspect of the show was discussed in such great detail, the end result is truer what the series was meant to do than anything else I have ever worked on.
It must surely be time to quit while I'm ahead - except now we're working on the second series. A writers' work is never done.

Published on: 09 Jan 2018