Marcia Gardner: Sea Patrol

In 2009 Sea Patrol script producer Marcia Gardner was interviewed for fan site The interview focused on the scripting process for the naval action series. The interview is being exclusively republished here as it contains a great insight into the challenges of writing for television. Marcia has more recently worked on Wentworth.

1. Can you give us a brief timeline of the gestation of a Sea Patrol script, from idea to release script?

Story kernels are devised in November each year and developed into thirteen (or sixteen in Series 4) storylines making up the “Series Bible” which is delivered prior to Christmas. In late January, the scripting process begins. Scripts are developed in blocks of four and go through the following stages: story conference (during which every beat of the story is mapped out), scene breakdown (a prose description of each scene developed from the story conference notes), first draft (two weeks), second draft (one week), director’s release (a third draft following input from the director) and finally the shooting scripts which are delivered in mid August. So, from idea to shooting script, roughly nine months – a bit like having a baby, times thirteen.

2. You’ve worked on long form mystery dramas including Blue Heelers and Stingers. How does the process differ for Sea Patrol where there is an overarching storyline threaded through 13 episodes?

All drama series have at least one episodic storyline (the plot) and one or more character storylines (the character story/ies). The difference with a mini-series such as Sea Patrol 1, 2 & 3 is there is an additional layer of story that is the mini-series narrative arc. This doesn’t necessarily appear in every episode. It is devised separately from the episodic storylines but threaded through during forward planning and may even become the episodic storyline on occasion when there is a significant enough development e.g. the series will usually conclude with a storyline which wraps up the miniseries arc.

3. How do budget constraints affect the script development process? Eg. are there a certain number of explosions or appearances by the hovercraft allowed per season? Can you give us an example of the process of negotiation and compromise surrounding particular stunts or storylines?

Scripts are always developed with budget constraints in mind and there are general guidelines which are ‘no go’ areas for writers such as extensive at sea action at night or underwater shooting. We have a definite allocation of script pages we can write for the key production locations and studio and must adhere to these guidelines to ensure the production can be shot on time and budget. However, we usually find a way of telling a story within the budgetary limitations. For example, in Episode 11 of Series 3, there is a sequence where Bomber rescues two yachties from their capsized and sinking yacht. As the budget does not allow for a full underwater unit, it was agreed if we could write the sequence for a very limited space, the art department could build a section resembling the inside hull in a purpose built tank, allowing the camera to view the action from outside through a glass portal. In this way, what would have been a prohibitively expensive sequence was achieved to great dramatic effect through the co-operation between script and production.

4. Because scripts for all 13 eps are completed before shooting begins, how difficult is it to make impromptu adjustments when uncontrollable events (eg. Jeremy Lindsay Taylor’s calf injury) occur? Do injury/illness/weather/watercraft-related inconveniences ever end up unexpectedly benefiting a story?

Since all scripts are locked before shooting begins, any minor amendments necessary during production are made by the production office on site. In the case of Jeremy’s calf injury, it was decided to replace his character with Robert in the story and any amendments to dialogue for character were agreed on between director and actor – a relatively simple adjustment. However, when a situation arises that requires rebuilding a story, then one of the writing team – usually myself – will be called upon to undertake whatever rewriting is necessary. Fortunately, this didn’t occur on Series 3. It was nice to see Robert in Episode 5 take on a leadership role in Buffer’s absence even if it wasn’t plotted that way – so sometimes impromptu amendments can make for a refreshing change. Wouldn’t want to make a habit of it though as of course, it might not always work out as well!

5. Can a scriptwriter ever be truly 100% happy with a script? Are there times when you have been disappointed by the end product of a special episode or, conversely, surprised when a weaker script turns out better than expected?

Working on a television series is a huge collaboration of many highly skilled and talented individuals. The script is the blueprint for this process and, as such, is subject to interpretation by a number of other key creative people. Therefore, the end product is rarely exactly as you’d imagined it while banging on at the computer. It often happens that some aspect of an episode will disappoint while another you considered to be a bit soft will delight beyond all expectation. The desired outcome is for each aspect of production to value add to the script and take it to the next level. When this happens, the writers are happy.

6. There are ten primary characters in Sea Patrol. How great a challenge is it to divide major storylines equally?

Sea Patrol is scripted as an ensemble. This means that in a series, each character gets at least one episode in which they are featured. The challenge is to find an action storyline which will explore some aspect of that character so it becomes a journey for them as well as an intriguing plot.

7. Obviously Sea Patrol’s close working relationship with the real RAN is paramount to production. Are there storylines that you would like to explore but can’t because of this relationship?

Because of the non-fraternisation rule aboard Navy ships, we cannot depict sexual relationships between crew members. Obviously it’s also tricky to have a ‘bad’ character who is one of our sailors as we try to avoid portraying Navy in a negative light.

8. At what point does the Navy advisor enter the script process? How much say so the navy have on the story?

A Navy advisor attends our story conferences and reads and comments on every draft of the script. Generally speaking they confine their input to aspects of procedure, technical advice and matters affecting Navy reputation. This inevitably affects how the story is told but not what story is told.

9. As the seasons progress and you see what each actor brings to their specific role, do you find yourself writing for the actors rather than just the characters?

As we get to know the actors we try to play to their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. Some actors will offer interesting interpretations of a line or scene that we may pick up on and decide to push the character even further in that direction. Although our ability to be responsive to performance is limited by the fact the entire series is shot in one block, so any development we do decide to make won’t take effect until the next series.

10. Some media commentators have suggested that there is a limit to the number of stories that can be generated from life on a ship and Naval duty. If Sea Patrol continues for several more years, how will you meet this challenge and prevent rehashing the same plots?

Before we start the storylining process for each series, we do a research trip to Cairns ACPB base and spend a few days talking with sailors and hearing their anecdotes about Navy life and their experiences. Usually out of that we are able to extract enough story kernels to build a series of episodes. We believe there are as many more stories as there are sailors yet to meet – everybody has one.

Thanks to Marcia Gardner for great insight into creating the stories for Sea Patrol. You can see some scenes from episodes Marcia wrote throughout the series below: