1. There's been criticism lately that NZ On Air funding keeps going to the same tired old group of writers - you, Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan. Would you agree?
This all came about because Rachel and Gavin left South Pacific Pictures to form their own company and got two really big TVNZ commissions, Filthy Rich and Dirty Laundry. They could have been celebrated as the new kids on the block who broke the SPP stranglehold but the critics went after Filthy Rich and it became the whipping boy for 'what's wrong with our drama'. It pisses me off that I got dragged into it because I had nothing to do with those shows.
2. Did you personally like Filthy Rich or Dirty Laundry?
I didn't like either of the shows, but that's just me as a viewer. I think they were unnecessarily vilified by people with an agenda who want to change NZ On Air funding. Despite the critics, TVNZ says Filthy Rich got the audience they wanted and has commissioned another series. Dirty Laundry won't be back. As a writer it's very hard to know what's going to work until it's out there. You just have to make an educated guess. Filthy Rich could have been the new Gloss but it wasn't. It's harder to poke fun at conspicuous consumption in a world more attuned to inequality.
3. Do you think too much power lies with a handful of TV commissioners?
With Filthy Rich, TVNZ commissioner Kathleen Anderson set out to compete with reality TV viewing patterns by finding a low budget, high impact drama they could air two nights in a row. That's her job. Yes, commissioners are gate keepers but can you think of another way of doing it? Amazon make a whole bunch of pilots every year and put them to an audience vote but we don't have that kind of money in New Zealand.
4. Is the New Zealand TV industry doing enough to develop up-and-coming writers?
Yes. On Westside we had five writers, 800 Words has seven of us story-lining round the table - senior writers Tim Balme and Kate McDermott and new people like Natalie Medlock and Michael Beron. I lead the table because in the end someone has to make the decision or you'd be there forever. Writers have to be prepared to come up with crazy ideas only for them to fall flat. They have to be able to fight for their ideas but know when it's time to let go. Writers used to start out with plays - now they make web series or short films. But once you push "go" on a major TV drama series you're forever running with the sound of the production train behind you. That's why they keep going back to people with proven track records of being able to manage that process.
5. Are we making enough "edgy" television in New Zealand?
No and we should be. There needs to be a mind shift that film and TV drama now have equal cultural significance. The Government falls over itself to help film. TV's still very much the poor cousin. NZ On Air should be allowed to invest in partnerships with networks like Netflix or HBO to make drama here.
6. Your latest TV show was inspired by an 800-word column you wrote for the Herald's Canvas magazine for 12 years. Was it hard to find a topic each week?
I tried to cycle between three sorts of columns, one would be ripped from the headlines, the second would be character pieces and the third were personal life observations. Friends who hadn't seen me in a while would say, "We keep track with what's going on in your life through your column" which was alarming because the columns generally only started from a point of truth and were much more interesting that what actually happened. The more you do it, the more you realise you can get away with just about anything.
7. What was your most controversial column?
One election I decided to write a series of columns having a go at each of the political parties. It was fascinating. I got called a fascist when I had a go at Labour and a communist when I had a go at National. But part of the reason my column came to an end was that in this era of poking bears with sticks, I was probably too nice. Acerbic wit is not in my nature. I'll have a go at people and institutions but I like to couch it in gentle humour.
8. That gentle humour can also be seen in your TV show 800 Words. Is that style of TV more popular in Australia than New Zealand?
Yes, Channel 7 specialise in that Packed to the Rafters sort of programme. We used to do shows like Mercy Peak or Jackson's Wharf in more innocent times. 800 Words was originally created for TVNZ but they wanted their dramas to go in a darker direction like Broadchurch. I quite like going to a place where there are essentially no villains. One of the problems of working in such a well-established genre is people will say, "It's just another Sea Change". All you can do is stick to your concept which in this case is about a guy in the midst of grief who has made a rash decision. At the heart of it is will George get his life back together and find love again? Love is at the heart of every storyline in 800 Words and the mistakes we make on the way.
9. You and co-creator Maxine Fleming are both parents of teenagers. Did you draw on your own experiences for 800 Words?
We both have an older girl and a younger boy so we set up that dynamic deliberately because we understood the language that goes on, the baiting and the fighting but also the fact they're close enough to be good friends if they actually get over themselves and admit it. But there's nothing specific about our children in there. I set the same boundaries for my column. The part where George gets into trouble with the locals for describing Weld as a "dead end town" actually came from a friend of mine, a Rough Guide travel writer who once wrote a bad comment about a small town in Wales. It made front page news and he became public enemy number 1.
10. 800 Words is made in New Zealand by New Zealanders with Australian funding. How did you manage that?
South Pacific Pictures sent the script to Erik who loved it. Channel 7 was looking for a new project for Erik so they agreed to pay for the whole thing. Entrusting SPP to make the show was a huge step for Channel 7 which had always produced drama in-house. They oversee all the storylines, scripts and key casting decisions to ensure it suits their audience. The New Zealand Film Commission contributed a screen production incentive grant which is a tax incentive to attract big budget productions down here. We're about to start shooting series 3 next month.
11. The first season of 800 Words was Australia's top rating drama with close to 1.5 million viewers an episode. How has it fared in New Zealand?
The first season started really well, it was up around 400,000 viewers for the first couple of episodes but then they shifted it to later and changed the lead-in and the ratings fell away. Anecdotally I get as many strangers telling me they love 800 Words as The Almighty Johnsons. I think it will develop a good audience here.
12. How can we measure the success of drama these days?
It's very hard to gauge actual viewership because people now watch drama when they want to. That's why networks like reality shows because you have to watch before the next episode comes along. Australia has several different types of ratings; the overnight metros, the regionals and then the 7-day consolidateds which take into account those who record and watch later. You can even do 28-day consolidateds. In the end the only measure of success I can truly go by is whether I'm proud of it. If an episode makes me laugh and cry - that's perfect. If it can do both in the same scene - bingo! That's what it's all about.
• 800 Words starring Erik Thomson screens on TV1 on Wednesdays at 8.40pm.