The storyteller

By Christine Nikiel

Rachel Lang's list of early creative influences isn't what you'd expect from one of the country's most respected screenwriters: The Goodies, Bonanza, Thunderbirds, Mission Impossible ...

"Most of my influences were rubbish," she laughs. Rubbish maybe, but also formative viewing for the girl who was to become one of New Zealand's most respected and prolific scriptwriters. Scan a list of homegrown dramas in the past two decades and you'll more than likely find her name somewhere in the credits.

The list includes Shortland Street, Mercy Peak, Jackson's Wharf, Maddigan's Quest, Go Girls and, most famously, Outrageous Fortune, for which she's won several awards. Veteran producer Caterina De Nave, who hired Lang to write for Shortland Street in 1992, believes she is one of just three writers in New Zealand consistently telling good stories.

"She has an extraordinary talent for making the audience care about the characters," says De Nave. "She writes in such a way that you really start rooting for enough of them that you want to keep watching. And [although] every story's been told a million times, she finds new twists." Gavin Strawhan, who's worked on and off with Lang for 17 years and shares an office with her, agrees.

"Rach's great thing is she channels lots of different characters. She has a kind of empathy for them, she loves all her children, even her ugly, redheaded stepchildren [her unpopular characters]." And she really does get into their heads, says Strawhan, recalling his early discomfort at Lang's reaction to his ideas during brainstorming sessions.

"She'll be sitting there sometimes with the sourest expression on her face [but] not in response to your idea. She'll actually be channelling the idea and acting it out in her head. So you'd have this character looking disgusted at something and she's going into the character's point of view. After a while I realised she wasn't wishing me ill."

It's not surprising that Lang, 48, gets caught up in the drama. She started her career as an actress in the early 1980s, developing her skills at the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington (now Toi Whakaari) against the volatile backdrop of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour protests. Lang recalls the school's then-head, George Webby, encouraged students to protest and scheduled classes around demonstrations. She and a friend were arrested for obstructing a carriageway (the Lower Hutt motorway) and spent several hours a day in court for the next 23 days before receiving community service. Lang found the experience to be "highly educational".

While in the court toilets, some girls asked why the pair was there. "When we said we'd sat on a road, they thought we were mental. When we explained it was because of the tour [and] apartheid, they had no idea what we were on about. It made me realise that I lived in a different New Zealand to these young women. I was lucky to be educated and have time to waste on political principles." Lang never used the experience directly but says it was "great" to get to know such a disparate group of people - the minister's wife who'd never before broken the law but felt this time she had to, the seemingly ordinary mum who had spent her youth meeting leading activists from South Africa because her parents had them to stay.

After working in various script-editing and acting jobs, a year of temping and travelling in Europe, and a couple of years as deputy editor for On Film magazine, Lang got the break that changed her life. De Nave was looking for fresh scriptwriters for TVNZ's new medical drama Shortland Street and hired Lang as a scriptwriter and storyliner.

At the time the show was radical; it was the first homegrown soap to screen nightly, and its five half-hour evening slots required a speedy script turnaround and a tight production schedule. Within six months Lang was made story editor, responsible for getting the week's 100 or so story beats happening and ensuring all story threads were tied together. The hours were long, the pressure was immense.

"I think my first week as story editor was probably one of the most stressful of my life," she says. "There was so much pressure and I was scared I wouldn't be able to deliver." However, her three years on the Street were good training for how to tell a story on a budget, and today the soap is a model of production efficiency. Lang's fondness for her early characters is apparent. She particularly liked taking a broad comedy character like Marj Neilson - clinic receptionist and general busybody - and giving her a tragedy to deal with, such as when her husband Tom went to the dairy and never came back. She also likes the silly storylines, such as when spoiled teen Rachel McKenna got nits. But a romantic at heart, the Lionel and Kirsty love story is one of her favourites.

She'd always wanted to do a "princess and the frog" story, and though the producer at the time didn't think it would work, it got mileage for months. Not everyone likes Lang's style though. The idea of Kirsty discovering her lost engagement ring inside a fish prompted Listener television reviewer Diana Wichtel to award it the "Most Improbable Storyline" in her 15-year reviewing of the show.

Wichtel also slated the first series of Outrageous Fortune, criticising the script for producing "Westies ... who don't talk like Westies", and asserting the show was "not another great leap forward for local TV drama".

Meanwhile, Dominion Post reviewer Jane Bowron's barbed review of Go Girls, Lang and Strawhan's latest co-creation, called it "so bad it should be gone". Ouch. But Lang makes a point of not reading reviews, positive or negative. "I used to take that kind of criticism quite seriously. It's easy to get messed up about it and that kind of stuff can sit in your head. But what's the point? You've made it, you've done your work, either the audience will come or they won't."

She's since developed a thicker skin, shrieking with laughter as she recalls one of her "favourite" reviews (she can't remember the show) which said something like, "For once, the writing is not the problem". "I thought that was fantastic, to be damned with such faint praise."

The eldest of four, Lang was "dreamy and a bit bossy" as a child and spent a lot of time in her imagination, reading, and watching television. She and her only brother, just 18 months apart, spent hours playing games based on their favourite television programmes and books. She credits her family's slightly nomadic early lifestyle for sharpening of her observational skills.

The Langs lived in four English towns before trying Australia, England again, and then settling in Napier. She got used to being the new girl, and says television was a great way of bonding with other kids. However, as a pale, bookish 14-year-old, her first year in New Zealand was a shock to the system. "It was sunny!" she laughs. "It was the 70s and everyone wore skirts below the knee in Britain and very cool David Bowie stuff. Here it was surfie style and short skirts and getting a suntan with baby oil." She refused to read a New Zealand book, or listen to New Zealand music.

"The New Zealand bush just seemed dank and smelly after English woods. There were no bluebells, and I missed home where it rained a lot and you had a legitimate reason to stay indoors and watch TV or read a book." However, she met "other nerds and misfits" and played the flute in Colenso College's youth orchestra, and got involved with youth theatre. She still reads a lot. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice gets a dust-off every few years. And she puts on all the characters' voices when reading to her youngest son.

"That's why I like writing, because I can hog the best parts. I love being someone else, thinking like someone else, working out what they would do and say, what makes them happy, what's their fear or pain, hearing their voice. I remember reading an article by a psychologist about [American serial killer] Jeffrey Dahmer, and by the end of it, I thought 'yes, that's completely logical and reasonable. I so get what he was doing!' And then realised that I was probably quite sick ..." So creating alternative worlds for television became second nature.

The characters for Outrageous Fortune's West family emerged from the Van der Velters on Mercy Peak, the medical drama Lang co-created with Strawhan several years earlier. She enjoyed the no-good white trash family "because they were so messed up, I felt for them all so much", and thought a comedy version would work. It did. The award-winning show, which also screens in Australia, is the only New Zealand or Australian series to be adapted for a major US network (ABC), and has been re-created in Britain by ITV1.

The show's raunchiness was a shameless ploy to get people to watch and save it from the Friday night graveyard slot, she says. And she'd rather include sex than violence, anyway. "There's such a lot of gloomy crime on television. People are being raped, murdered, kidnapped. I find it doesn't really cheer my day. Particularly since I had kids, I'm not really interested in watching that kind of stuff unless it has a kind sort of idea behind it." She's just not into dark and morbid.

The characters in Go Girls "could easily be made to be horrible and to be laughed at", she says, but "there's so much in life you can be miserable about, I would rather not." Strawhan claims Lang has the "gentle loving irony" of Jane Austen. "Jane Austen is her hero. Rachel has that sensibility of social irony [and like] Jane Austen, has great affection for her characters, expressed through irony and a kind of knowingness about their human dilemmas."

Lang has a long-time association with Outrageous Fortune producer South Pacific Pictures, including periods as the company's head of development, and compared to the average local scriptwriter, has a rare amount of control over her work. In most cases writers are deemed "deeply expendable" after they have delivered the final draft of their script, says Outrageous Fortune co-writer James Griffin.

"Before Rachel came along, about the only writer working in TV who had any say in the fate of his script was Greg McGee, mainly because he is a big, tenacious bastard and also a lawyer by training. Rachel did it by being politely tenacious in defence of her writings, good at parlaying her experience as an actor into getting a say on casting, intelligent in her understanding of how this industry works and bloody good at what she does." She's also a self-confessed control freak.

As the show runner on Outrageous Fortune, an American term for writer-producer, she's involved in casting and wardrobe, art department queries, and if the directors or the logistics department have a problem they'll talk to Lang. It all started on Shortland Street, she says. "Because I knew the characters and was making them up, I got involved with casting. Before that the director and producer would cast people and often they didn't understand what we were looking for or where the character was meant to go long-term. It's been a gradual process of us writers poking our noses into things where I thought it would be helpful."

However, Lang could only bear to watch one episode of the British version of the show, called Honest. "They'd misunderstood the idea, and made the characters caricature, you know, 'are you 'avin' a larff?' It's a good lesson about how you have to let those things go and not get emotional about it. It's kind of like sending your child abroad and not being able to pack their toothbrush and not having any contact with them." When not working or reading, or taking her sons, 11 and 14, to indoor soccer, she does jigsaws - "a deeply nerdy, highly pointless form of meditation". Juggling work and family is difficult, and Lang, a night owl, often burns the midnight oil.

De Nave remembers Lang calling her at 9.45 one Friday night to tell her she'd been thinking about an already-approved script. "And she spent four hours changing something to make the story better. That kind of professionalism is incredibly rare in New Zealand. That kind of 'while there's breath in the body and a cent in the budget I'll try and make it better'." Lang's husband of 15 years, lawyer Simon Penlington "gets a bit grumpy" about her hours but, she says, screwing up her face in mock fear, "I didn't mean to get so many shows. I feel a bit guilty but ... that's the problem of being freelance. You put in ideas from time to time and you never know what will get picked up."

Lang is a diplomat in an industry populated with big egos, Penlington says. "She's very good at pouring oil on troubled waters. If [people] are feeling upset or heated about something [they'll] run it past her, she's very generous with her time. Sometimes she gets really pissed off but she's good at keeping it to herself." However, he says, noting first that she's his best friend, she's also a "cupboard bitch". "Everyone thinks she's Pollyanna. I hear the other side," he chuckles. "She's got to vent."

Despite her declared control freakishness, she prefers working with other people. "I enjoy other people's ideas and the fact that you can debate. The process is much faster, it's just not as lonely." So what's next? The fifth season of season Outrageous Fortune is scheduled to screen next month, but there's no word yet on a sixth series.

A second series of Go Girls has just been given the green light, slated for early next year. Meanwhile, a new Strawhan-Lang series, This Is Not My Life (think the David Byrne song) starts shooting this month, to screen on TV2 next year.

So, with all that inside knowledge on storyline and production, is Lang a plot-spoiler when it comes to watching television? "I do annoy my husband because sometimes I'll go, 'ohhh, he did it', I'm trying to pick the tricks." And annoyingly she's often right, but is pleased when she's wrong. "The trick with storytelling is to give people what they want but not in the way they expect it. It's quite hard to do. But it's really good fun when you can surprise people."

- NZ Herald

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