Tag Archives: Endemol Shine Australia

Remade Abroad: Sisters/Almost Family

Almost Family executive producer Annie Weisman reveals how the Fox drama was inspired by an Australian series about a woman who discovers she has hundreds of secret siblings.

Annie Weisman

For several years, Annie Weisman had wanted to write a series about the relationships between sisters. Projects at US networks CBS and NBC didn’t move forward. But when Universal TV, the studio where she has an overall deal, said they were looking at adapting Australian drama Sisters, her chance finally arrived.

Sisters tells the story of a woman whose life is turned upside-down when her father reveals that during his career as a fertility specialist, he used his own sperm to impregnate his patients, meaning he may have fathered hundreds of other children.

Produced by Endemol Shine Australia, it aired on Australia’s Network Ten in 2017 and the following year debuted worldwide on Netflix.

“The premise is so eye-catchingly shocking and heightened,” Weisman says of Sisters. “It’s so much of the moment and in the zeitgeist and can only happen today because of new DNA testing technology. It’s just a new way into telling that story and a new look at sister relationships and so I leapt on it. It was a confluence of the studio having this property and me having an interest in the subject matter.”

A remake was then pitched to Fox last year, before the network ordered a pilot from Weisman and subsequently commissioned a full series, called Almost Family, in May. It debuted in October.

Australian drama Sisters centres on the daughter of a fertility specialist

Starring Brittany Snow, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Emily Osment, it similarly follows one woman who discovers her father may have conceived hundreds of children, including two new sisters. Universal produces in association with Endemol Shine North America and Fox Entertainment, with NBCUniversal distributing.

Owing to the fact that Sisters was already an English-language series, with Australian culture not too dissimilar to that of the US, Weisman says adapting Sisters for US audiences largely came down to the pace of the storytelling.

“The Australian show had a laid-back ease to the way the story unfolds, which was really pleasurable for me to watch on Netflix. But in the gladiator battle of US broadcast television, the shape of the advertising-driven six-act structure changes the pace big time,” the writer explains. “So there’s a need to amp up the pace and in doing that, you compress the storytelling and tell stories quicker.

“The big challenge of broadcast television is trying to tell a fast-paced story to a broad audience. If you get it right, it’s exciting because you can bring a lot of different people together.”

Annie Weisman adapted the Aussie show as Almost Family

Weisman chose to keep the same basic dynamics between the main characters, with one woman discovering her father’s actions and building a close bond with two new sisters. But the main change to the US series refers to the doctor at the centre of the fertility scandal.

In Sisters, he faces a civil action lawsuit. However, for Almost Family, Weisman elevated that to a criminal trial, upping the stakes against him so he is the subject of sexual assault charges against the women he unlawfully inseminated.

“Even in the six months after the pilot was made, we’re in such a different moment [in society] in terms of the perception of abuse of power among men and doctors so it really felt important for me to focus on that,” she says. “Interestingly, in doing that I’ve opened myself up to a lot of scrutiny and attack, but it was important for me to add it. It’s not in the original. I didn’t feel anyone was held accountable [in Sisters] but somehow it seemed to put more life and attention on him.”

As Weisman notes, the series has drawn criticism from those who have experienced these circumstances first hand and are upset at how the series presents itself as a quirky family drama about sisters who come together amid extraordinary circumstances, in effect making light of the doctor’s horrendous crimes — the very DNA tests that bring the siblings together also prove his guilt — at the root of their new relationship.

Sisters first aired on Australia’s Network 10

Weisman says that although she has strengthened the criminal case against the doctor in question, “for some people, that’s not enough. You hit the zeitgeist in a particular moment and there’s an attitude and perspective you collide with. That’s part of making things and putting them out there. That’s what happens. But that was an element I had very deliberately added because I thought it was irresponsible not to.

“It’s been the plan from the start that there is this criminal trial and that his crimes would be perceived as sexual assault. That was part of my pitch, part of my adaptation. That’s always been the spine of it all. But the thing I haven’t let up on and don’t apologise for is, it’s not the only thing we do in the show. It’s not the only note we hit. There’s also his point of view. There’s humanity in him, there is humour and lightness and I believe in that. The people who watch the show and stay with it will understand the show reflects life lived by us in families and how tragedy and comedy and absurdity, and the sublime and the ridiculous are very close to one another.

“Sometimes there’s an impatient appetite for the story to be told immediately but it’s a TV show. We’re unfolding that over time. That was always the plan: to see him come to terms with what he’d done and have remorse and accountability and the way that happens is dramatic and there are lots of twists. It’s a TV show, not an earnest documentary. That’s the journey we’re on with him.”

In writing Almost Family, Weisman says she has borrowed “liberally” from the original, describing Sisters as a buffet she has taken the best bits from. She also praises Sisters creators Imogen Banks and Jonathan Gavin for giving her the freedom to take the show in her own direction.

Almost Family debuted on Fox in October

While television is known as a collaborative medium, with all the opinions and notes that can be levelled at a showrunner from numerous interested parties, she says an adaptation can bypass that creative interference. “One of the nice things about any kind of adaptation is having a set of ‘givens’ to work from, so there’s less up for grabs in terms of just getting traction and moving forward,” she says.

“There are some proven elements you can work with and I think that’s really helpful. The trap is just not to be overly loyal to things, to use what’s helpful and be willing to leave behind what isn’t. It’s really important because at the end of the day, you have to make it your own and have to believe in it and be organic and intuitive and go where the story wants to go and not get in its way.”

Weisman adds: “Hopefully you’re lucky enough to work with people who aren’t overly precious with their material and aren’t overly protective. That would be tough and you can feel very hamstrung by that. The culture change is everything so you have to be nimble. You have to be responsive to what’s going on. You can’t be overly loyal to things. We hope we’ve been loyal and kind to it. I think the spirit of the core character relationships are very much intact. That’s what drew me in initially.”

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Raising Lambs

Lambs of God, a four-part miniseries commissioned by Australia’s Foxtel, introduces three eccentric nuns who live on a secluded and remote island.

When their peaceful way of life is interrupted by an ambitious young priest on a mission from the church, they are forced to take matters into their own hands in a tale of faith, love and redemption.

Based on the book of the same name by Marele Day, it stars Essie Davis (The White Princess), Sam Reid (Prime Suspect 1973), Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World) and Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale).

In this DQTV interview, writer Sarah Lambert and director Jeffrey Walker talk about their partnership working on the series. Lambert also talks about how she adapted Day’s novel for the screen, while Walker discusses how he threw off the shackles that sometimes limit directors to turn his ambitious vision for the series into reality.

Lambs of God is produced by Lingo Pictures and Endemol Shine Australia for Foxtel and distributed by Sky Vision.

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Biopic boom

True-life stories of the famous and infamous continue to win commissions in Australia – but for how long? DQ investigates.

Australian TV dramas inspired by real people, living and dead, have been consistently popular with audiences over the past four or five years – but is that boom about to bust?

Although four biographically based miniseries are in the can or due to go into production this year, and another has already gone to air, some producers and broadcasters believe the cycle is exhausting itself. Others still see plenty of potential for the genre.

Mark Fennessy

“The biopic genre is tired and the subject matter is running thin,” says Endemol Shine Australia (ESA) CEO Mark Fennessy, whose firm produced the top-rating minis Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS, Catching Milat and Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door for the Seven Network and Brock for Network Ten.

“In recent times we’ve seen a definite trend towards more contemporary subjects where the primary audience has an emotional connection – often to their younger days,” Fennessy continues. “As often happens in Australia, everyone quickly jumps on the bandwagon and so it’s largely eating itself now.”

Australia’s Nine Network has ridden the true-life wave with CJZ’s House of Hancock, Southern Star Entertainment’s Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War and, less successfully, the FremantleMedia Australia (FMA) telepic Schapelle, about the conviction of Schapelle Coby for drug trafficking – which came off second best against the INXS mini. Later this year Nine will launch CJZ’s House of Bond, the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond, the flamboyant English immigrant who helped engineer Australia’s famous America’s Cup yacht race victory, bought the Nine network from Kerry Packer and was later declared bankrupt, convicted of fraud
and imprisoned.

“The challenge with biopics is to find a subject matter with broad audience appeal, a riveting story and contemporary relevance,” says Andy Ryan, Nine’s co-head of drama. “But there is definitely a limit to the genre.”

CJZ MD Nick Murray contends shows such as House of Bond go much further than linear biopics. “It’s the rise and fall of the house of Bond – the influence of both wives, the business advisors and Bond’s ability to talk or con people and banks into doing what he wanted. What on earth motivated them all?” he says.

House of Bond tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond

Ryan concurs: “House of Bond is very much like the man himself – colourful, outrageous and always entertaining. Bond’s life was a roller coaster of excitement and emotion, and we think we’ve captured that in the drama.”

Rebecca Heap, head of programming and digital at Australian pubcaster the ABC, sees a bright future for drama based on real people: “Audiences love Australian stories, and bios have the ability to capture our imagination on two levels – telling the story of the subject and the story of our society at that point in time. There will continue to be room for well-written and well-executed stories about extraordinary Australians, both famous and infamous.”

The ABC has commissioned The Easybeats from Sony-owned Playmaker Media, the saga of five young immigrants who met in a Sydney migrant hostel in 1964 and went on to create Australia’s first truly international rock group. On paper, the project may have seemed more suited to a commercial network, but Heap says: “The Easybeats is a great Australian success story with a killer soundtrack. What’s not to love? It maps the beginning of a new Australian identity, one that places us on the world music stage and celebrates the role of diversity in getting us there, making it a perfect fit for
the ABC.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door centres on the Australian singer-songwriter and entertainer

FMA director of drama Jo Porter says: “We are in the midst of a cycle of biopics that reflects the appetite of audiences to celebrate significant individuals who have helped define how Australians feel about themselves both locally and globally. We would consider another biopic; the challenge is they need to also have international audience resonance to get the support of distribution.”

Porter oversaw the production of Hoges (pictured top), the saga of Paul Hogan, the former Sydney Harbour Bridge worker who found fame and fortune as the host of his own TV show and as the creator and star of the Crocodile Dundee movies. The two-parter, which featured Josh Lawson as Hogan, Ryan Corr as his manager/on-air sidekick John ‘Strop’ Cornell and Justine Clarke as Noelene Hogan, screened on Seven in February, winning its 21.00 and 20.30 timeslots, each drawing a consolidated audience of 1.5 million – but the broadcaster was hoping for more. “I don’t put the numbers in the fail category, more the underwhelming category. You can’t win them all,” says Angus Ross, Seven’s director of network programming.

Distributor FremantleMedia International is an investor in Hoges and will sell the project internationally. Porter says: “We’re so pleased international buyers who loved our larrikin hero in Crocodile Dundee will have the chance to see the story behind the man.”

Catching Milat focuses on backpacker murderer Ivan Milat

Perhaps reflecting a limited pool of subjects, Nine originally intended to commission minis on Hogan (from ESA) and Olivia Newton-John (Screentime), but Seven got in first on both occasions.

Seven’s Newton-John drama is produced by FMA and directed by Shawn Seet. It stars Delta Goodrem as the actor and singer who blazed a trail in Hollywood as the star of Grease and Xanadu, recording five number-one hits and winning four Grammy Awards.

“We are delighted with the strength of Shawn Seet’s creative vision and realisation of this story. It’s fantastic to celebrate a female Australian legend,” says Porter.

Seven has also commissioned Banijay-owned Screentime to produce Warnie, which will explore the paradox of former champion cricketer Shane Warne, widely regarded as the most admired, criticised and publicised Australian sportsman of the modern era.

Matt Ford (creator of Playmaker Media’s ABC drama Hiding) is writing the scripts and Kerrie Mainwaring will produce with investment from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

“Warnie’s story is not only the story of one of the world’s greatest cricketers but his off-field antics have kept tabloids in business for years. He is so compelling on and off the field, you can’t look away,” Ross says.

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder

In a similar vein, true-crime dramas have long been reliable ratings performers, most notably Screentime’s Underbelly franchise, which started on Nine in 2008. The latest iteration, Underbelly Files: Chopper, will tell the story of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of Australia’s most notorious gangsters. Read, whose exploits were dramatised in the 2000 Australian movie Chopper, starring Eric Bana, died from liver cancer in 2013, aged 58.

ESA, meanwhile, has produced Blue Murder: Killer Cop, which stars Richard Roxburgh as notorious former detective Roger Rogerson, now serving a life sentence for the murder of a drug dealer. A sequel to Blue Murder, which aired on the ABC in 1995, it will premiere on Seven this autumn.

Toni Collette, Matt Nable, Dan Wyllie, Emma Booth, Justin Smith, Damian Walshe-Howling, Steve Le Marquand, Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Jeffery co-star in the show. It has been directed by Michael Jenkins and executive produced by John Edwards, who collaborated on the original series.

Ross says: “The powerful performances will give a no-holds-barred look at the downfall of Roger Rogerson. It is not for the faint-hearted.”

Opinions are divided over whether producers need the co-operation of their subjects – an issue that flared when billionaire Gina Rinehart sued Nine and CJZ, claiming the 2015 drama House of Hancock defamed her.

The programme focused on the feud between the late Lang Hancock (played by Sam Neill), his wife Rose Lacson (Peta Sergeant) and his daughter Gina (Mandy McElhinney).

The case was settled out of court in February, with Nine agreeing not to rebroadcast or stream the show and the broadcaster and producers publicly apologising to Rinehart and her family for any hurt or offence caused by the broadcast and its promotion.

Despite that, Murray says: “Personally, I think these stories are told better without the co-operation of the subjects. Imagine how different House of Hancock would have been if Gina Rinehart had script approval.”

CJZ head of drama Paul Bennett adds: “We do a huge amount of research on these productions and talk to as many people as we can, including the subjects if they are open to it. However, it is not essential at all to have their co-operation; in fact, having them on board has the potential to skew the process, as it can tend to make the piece more of a love letter to the subject rather than a more honest and probing investigation of their lives and what makes them tick.”

Newton-John was supportive of FMA’s mini, while Hoges’ producers obtained permission from Hogan and Cornell to recreate scenes from their TV shows and films. Both savvy businessmen, they own all rights to their content.

ESA’s Fennessy says: “If the subject is still living, it’s absolutely preferable to have their endorsement and support. If the subject is deceased, it’s just as important to have such from immediate family or the estate.”

While subjects who are internationally known are an advantage for producers in securing international distribution, this isn’t critical to the funding process. According to Ross, having a name who can help offshore sales is a bonus but that does not make or break the viability of a project, based on the current funding model.

However, Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne notes that bios’ international potential hinges on their relevance to international audiences.

Crime sagas such as Catching Milat often travel more successfully than generic stories, she says, while Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door struggled because Allen is not widely known outside Australia, despite his 1981 Academy Award for the theme song to the movie Arthur, his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli and the Broadway hit The Boy from Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman.

While biopics have the potential to be big hits at home and abroad, finding a star name or story worthy of the television treatment is the key to success – but the reliance on public awareness or curiosity over the topic may also prove to be the limitation for the genre.

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