Behind-the-scenes of Shortland Street (+photos)

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Devising an episode of Shortland Street is not as simple as you might imagine. Rebecca Barry Hill gets a rare chance to join the storyliners as they write the biggest episode of the year.

New Zealand's most famous soap, Shortland St, is about to turn 20. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand's most famous soap, Shortland St, is about to turn 20. Photo / Supplied

It's Tuesday morning and the Shortland Street storylining team are sitting around a table strewn with magazines, notes, half-eaten food and takeaway coffees, discussing whether stabbing is the best way to kill someone.

"Well it is a crime of passion," muses head writer Damon Andrews, a no-nonsense sort of bloke. "But it's been done too many times."

Throttling? Yes, that could work. Even better, how about they're whacked over the head, and fall on to something? Death by impaling. For dramatic purposes, the victim needs to stay alive until the second commercial break in the next episode.

So whatever they land on must staunch the blood. Then again, stabbing is better, because charges are more likely ... and the point of this whole exercise is to arrest one of Ferndale's finest on a murder charge.

Shortland Street is usually fuelled by dialogue rather than physical conflict.

But this week in December is special. The writers are plotting bold ways to mark the soap's 20 years on air, creating a 90-minute feature-length episode, due to screen on May 21, in which the stakes are unusually high.

The expected coterie of former stars will show up but it will also be an opportunity to introduce someone entirely new. As well as the murder, the team is envisaging a dramatic incident, something to force their arrival and show off their lifesaving skills.

It might involve someone leaping from a tall building.

"We need Cliff Curtis," says Andrews. "Is Harrison Ford available?"

Joining the storyliners' table is a privilege usually reserved for screenwriting graduates or Shortland Street actors at the end of their contracts. So I'm frantically racking my brain, trying to come up with something, anything, to justify being here.

I'm also struggling to keep up with what amounts to soap opera language, a bizarrely unemotional discussion about emotion.

Andrews: "He has deep-seated anger at himself."

Storyliner Johanna Smith: "Yes, yes, anger is good."

Today's agenda leapfrogs from the new guy's background to the logistics of the murder, to the socio-economic implications of an extramarital affair and where the hell they're going to find enough characters to attend that party.

Every few minutes there's a break in the chatter and everyone starts scribbling notes.

"It's like an unspoken code, isn't it?" says producer Steven Zanoski, during a coffee break in the corridor. Despite his regular input to the creative process, he still can't figure out what the note-taking cue is either.

It's also a surprise to learn nothing comes from thin air. Every character, emotion and action is driven by what's come before, a problem-solving exercise that relies heavily on logic.

"The other day we bashed our heads against the wall," says Andrews, a former actor who has worked on the table for five years. "But there's always a solution. There's always a way."

That's if Aimee Beatson allows it.

"I think it's a bit silly," says the show's medical adviser, when talk turns to the chaotic aftermath of the "big incident", and the prospect of a human organ being flung into the bushes.

She has as much input as the writers and as much if not more power to veto a storyline than the producer.

"Most of the time I'm there to say no, that would never happen," she laughs.

After providing information on heart transplants (another upcoming storyline) Beatson is charged with investigating the protocol of striking a GP off the register.

Throughout the week she also schools the team on blood loss ("she will be pale, sweaty, tachypnoeic, with poor peripheral perfusion, hypotensive, tachycardic, hypoxic and in metabolic acidosis"), explains the tell-tale signs of "P picking", crush injuries, the symptoms of Long QT and talks about the likelihood of real doctors becoming addicted to drugs (pretty high, apparently).

"When I first started it took me a good two months to get my head around what was going on," says Beatson, who works part-time as a nurse in a Remuera clinic.

Whereas her job is to think pragmatically, for storyliner Kirsty McKenzie it's the opposite.

"I'm thinking emotionally - how the characters behave, keeping it as realistic as possible," she says, after scribbling furiously on a piece of refill.

The most experienced on the team, the former librarian worked as a Shortland Street storyliner for a few years before going freelance as a script editor and writer on dramas such as Mercy Peak, Being Eve and comedies Love Bites and The Pretender.

Thinking aside, there's also a lot of eating - "because it's such a mental workout," explains Smith, on a run from the cafeteria. The newest storyliner, in her first year on the job, she has a plot-devising background, having worked with theatre companies in Auckland and Wellington.

Another character, meanwhile, has to somehow gain access to the locked drug room - but how?

"What if he dresses up as a cleaner?" says Martin.

Andrews shoots it down as a cliche.

"When I started it was sink or swim," says Martin later.

"You get knocked back a lot."

After writing a script for a horror film for her Master of Screenwriting at the University of Auckland, she pestered the producer for a four-week trial. She's now been here three-and-a-half years. She and Simon Hall, a fellow Master of Screenwriting graduate (and son of playwright Roger) who did his studies in Wellington, are used to the sometimes brutal collaborative process.

"Even if you have a bad idea, the brainstorming can lead to other ideas," he says. He used to work crazy hours on film and TV sets and is now training as a fill-in writer.

Everyone had laughed when Martin suggested a new character should work in the emergency department as a surgeon. "But now he's a surgeon in ED."

That new character is Josh, a man I'm silently willing to become the Street's version of Hugh Laurie's abrasive character on House, for no good reason except that I'd find it amusing.

It soon becomes clear this makes no sense. He can't be mean because it would be fun to write or wild for the sake of being wild. Writing in a new character is about fulfilling a dramatic need, and in this instance, the emergency department is understaffed. Why is he drawn to ED? Because, says Andrews, he's a risk-taker. He must be running away from something. But he can't be too much like current ED doctors Maxwell (Robbie Magasiva) and T.K. (Ben Mitchell).

"I think he's more attractive if he's mysterious, he's not all out-there, he doesn't talk about his feelings, he's broody," says McKenzie, a pen resting on her lip. "What's his past?"

It's decided it must rankle with his chosen profession.

"Could he come from a family of naturopaths, perhaps?" I ask. The nerves of speaking up are causing me to feel pale, sweaty, tachypnoeic, with poor peripheral perfusion, hypotensive, tachycardic, hypoxic and in metabolic acidosis.

Silence.

"Or not ..."

Then Andrews appears to warm to the idea. "Yes, yes," he enthuses. "He could have a cultish background, hippie parents."

"Let's make him Amish," quips Alistair Boroughs, a writer and story editor with the driest sense of humour on the table. He's spent nearly five years here, having started in the Shortland Street art department building props. His mum, Karen Curtis, has been a dialogue writer since 1992.

Like any successful company, Shortland Street does a yearly strategic planning session that affects staff employment. The writers work six months ahead but once a year they work with the producer on the longer-term strategic thrust of the show; namely whose characters have run out of conflict, what needs shaking up, and which new characters should come on board.

Fans of a certain age will remember the famous cast-cull of 2001, when 14 longstanding cast members were controversially written out. Then there was the serial killer storyline of 2007 when the Ferndale Strangler Joey Henderson (Johnny Barker) dispatched five characters, three of them core or guest cast.

"We don't tend to cull lots of people at a time now," says McKenzie. "People love the characters, and it takes away the emotional punch. But when actors move on, usually they're quite good about it."

On Friday there's an emotional farewell for actor Lee Donoghue (Hunter) who'd chosen travel over a contract-renewal.

"It really is like a family," says actress Jacqueline Nairn (Wendy Cooper), as teary cast members give speeches. There are whispers, too, that Donoghue won't be the only one leaving in the next few months.

No matter, there's a new guy to take their place. Josh has now become a fully realised character: "an adrenalin junkie who loves the rush of ED and the precision and skill involved in surgical work. He's used to partying all night before sneaking in to start his shift," according to his character notes. They didn't go with my naturopath idea, but he does have hippie parents.

The storyliners' room isn't exactly a haven of privacy but it is separated from the rest of the Shortland Street departments, downstairs from the studio, close to the kitchen for multiple tea breaks, away from the prying eyes of the actors. Almost.

"Can you put me on life support?" says Magasiva when he drops in on Wednesday morning. "Then I can just lie in those beds and get wheeled around."

A series of quotes is tacked on the wall, the writers' equivalent of onscreen bloopers: "I know the rhythm of that toilet"; "It's not incest if you pay for it"; and "a bottom isn't a genital".

You could forgive their crude sense of humour. The writers are under immense pressure to come up with, on average, an episode a day, including Monday's hour-long programmes in winter. The fastest-turnaround soap in the world, Shortland Street feeds the story beast by employing a large pool of writers, (eight on and off throughout the week) and by doing the bulk of its plotting six months in advance.

"We get a lot more control because of the speed required," says Andrews. "There's no time for other departments to come back and put their two cents in, you just have to crank it out. It would be good to move on because you can't do it forever. You can't delay on decisions like you might in lots of other forms of writing: 'oh, I'll just come back to that'. You have to work it out now."

During the "big incident", someone must die (it's soap opera law). Using a cat toy, which he plucks off the table, Andrews demonstrates an accident. McKenzie wants smoke - it means someone could asphyxiate.

"We think the [important cargo] is inside. But no," He tosses the toy.

"It's thrown free."

They plot until 8.30pm that night. "That's not typical but the pressure's on to get it right," says Andrews.

"Even soap writers can think things are too soapy. And we have too many stories happening, so we might have to chop one.

"The idea is to surprise the audience. We want them to think they know where a story is going and then it turns. We've always known [a main character] will die, so it's a matter of building the story on one train of thought and then turning it so you don't see it coming."

For 20 years, the show has been based on the system used by Australian production company Grundy, originally developed in the 1980s for soaps such as Neighbours. (The Aussie soap's long-term storyliner, Jason Herbison, was seconded to the Shortland Street writers' table when the show first started). A team of storyliners write one block - a week's worth of episodes - that are then sent out to dialogue writers.

Other shows, such as Home & Away, have a team half the size, and some, such as Coronation Street, require the dialogue writers to pitch storylines to the producers, who then choose the ideas they like best.

Over the years Shortland Street has covered such memorable and occasionally controversial storylines as gay romance, serial killers, stalking, racism, teenage pregnancy, a potential pandemic, suicide and drug addiction, not to mention a range of interesting characters with afflictions including Asperger's, Tourettes and asexuality, meaning the writers are under more pressure to come up with original ideas.

The show is known for touching on topical issues - recently rheumatic fever and diabetes both made it into the plot, while last year the writers worked weekends to incorporate an up-to-date All Blacks cameo.

"It's relentless," says McKenzie.

When teenage character Evan claimed to be Ula's baby's father in January, Shortland Street out-rated One News by 38,000 viewers.

"I think we're losing that sense of cultural cringe," says Andrews. "You can tell that by the popularity of other shows written by ex-Shortland Street writers."

Those writers include Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan (who co-created and wrote Go Girls and Nothing Trivial), James Griffin (who, with Lang, co-created and wrote Outrageous Fortune and The Almighty Johnsons), Dave Armstrong (who wrote comedies Spin Doctors and Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby), Maxine Fleming (Being Eve, Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons and who co-created Burying Brian with Strawhan) and Paul Sonne, the show's long-serving script producer.

Former Street stars Laura Hill (Toni) and Natalie Medlock (Jill) have also sat around the table.

"We're a very close team," says McKenzie. "We're much more intense than on other shows. We sometimes get criticised for how the characters deal with issues - they think we could've done better. It can be hard but it's subjective."

"We get to make shit up every day," says Andrews, who reckons he's written about 1500 episodes. "You learn through volume as to what makes a good story."

"And it's fun," adds McKenzie.

"It's intense. I really enjoy working out people's emotional reactions to things. We all have different takes and I think that's what makes it work. Stories come from personal experiences. We're always faced with huge restrictions. It's about finding a way around them."

Five actors get call-backs for the role of Dr Josh Gallagher, a part that eventually goes to Chris Tempest: 1.88m, British, with a thin moustache and eyes that crinkle when he smiles. In his audition he morphs into an ED surgeon who seems more interested in charming his patients than getting anatomical details right.

"It helps if you know your tibia from your fibia," he says, before he's told "it's a fibula".

And the good news: Josh's parents, who we'll probably never see on screen, may just be naturopaths after all. You can thank me for that one.

Shortland Street's 20th anniversary episode screens on May 21, 7pm on TV2.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 19 Dec 2014 15:25:06 Processing Time: 569ms