Street smarts

Street smarts

By Michael Pickard
May 9, 2024

The Director’s Chair

Tig Terera, the creator of Australian series Swift Street, reflects on breaking into the television industry with this energetic family crime drama – and explains why writers are ‘cooler’ than directors.

Breaking into film and television, Tig Terera didn’t have many people in the industry he could look up to. Now, with the launch of his debut series Swift Street, he’s becoming the role model to others he never had.

As an aspiring filmmaker, Zimbabwe-born, Australia-raised Terera worked as a bartender and would “save up my pennies” to make short films with his friends. But turning his ambitions into a full-time career wasn’t a prospect he took seriously.

Making short films “was the only way I knew healthily how to express myself and what I enjoyed the most,” he tells DQ. “But as a career, it was not something that existed in my world. Therefore it’s not something I was even striving for.”

It was only when Swift Street was greenlit by Australian broadcaster SBS that he realised his dream could actually become a reality.

“My life ambition was to be a bar manager. Now, I’m not pouring any more pints,” he jokes. “If you don’t grow up in an environment where the arts are even looked at as a possibility, it’s hard to think of them as one. That’s changing more and more every single day.

Tig Terera

“But to this day, in the country I live in, Australia, I could probably count on one hand the number of dark-skinned, longform filmmakers. I’m talking about African-Australian filmmakers, and apart from Indigenous filmmakers – the best filmmakers in Australia – there aren’t really any. It’s hard to reach for something when there’s nobody who looks like you in that field. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.”

With Swift Street now airing, Terera has found aspiring filmmakers reaching out to him. “It’s weird,” he admits. “I get such lovely messages from people, and especially from young African-Australian filmmakers. I’m like, ‘Oh wow, I guess they can see something I never saw when I was their age.’ I’m becoming a young uncle in this filmmaking game, and I’m really happy to be that person too.”

From his 2021 short film Tinashé to eight-part series Swift Street, Terera focuses on stories rooted in his own life. “I want to be able to tell black stories – and have a lot of fun with it too,” he says. “Maybe black stories get pigeonholed in trauma-based stories, but I want to have fun with characters without having to tokenise them.

“I also don’t want to create this illusion that people are either really bad or absolutely perfect. Swift Street was an exploration of showing black and brown characters making bad decisions, but not being bad people.”

Set on the streets of multicultural Melbourne where Terera grew up – the title takes its name from his former address – Swift Street blends crime and family drama to tell the story of 21-year-old street-smart Elsie (Tanzyn Crawford), who must team up with her jaded old-school hustler father Robert (Cliff Curtis) to get him out of a $26,000 debt and save him from a merciless crime boss (Eliza Matengu).

The unlikely pair then embark on a series of crimes while navigating their complicated father-daughter relationship, as Elsie must juggle her relationship with high-school sweetheart Tatenda (Alfred Chuol) and her growing attraction to Aisha (Bernie Van Tiel), as well as facing a shocking revelation about her new friend Tom (Keiynan Lonsdale).

Terera began developing Swift Street four years ago, before making Tinashé. Stuck in Covid quarantine and “very bored,” he came up with the show’s jaw-dropping opening scene and sent the first few pages to Magpie Pictures executive producer Lois Randall.

Swift Street centres on the relationship between father and daughter Robert and Elsie

Randall became Terera’s mentor while he developed the series further during the pandemic, with the pair speaking every day. Terera also linked up with producer Ivy Mak, and what started out as a web series of six 10-minute episodes was bulked up into 20- and finally 30-minute instalments.

“We presented it to our commissioner on the Friday and she said yes on the Monday,” Terera says. “But she was like, ‘I want eight episodes.’ So there was one more round of development. But since the beginning, the start and end haven’t changed, so we were just getting more into who are characters are and what our world is, instead of just chucking more plot in.

“The development process was just under three years. That ended up being my film school. Then while I was writing Swift Street, I released Tenaché because I really wanted to direct this but the longest thing I’d done at that point was five minutes. I knew I could carry a story, but I had to prove I could. Tenaché was an exercise, and ended up becoming a lot more than that.”

From the outset, Terera, who directs the first four episodes of Swift Street, sets the tone and pace for the series with uptempo music and quick cuts, only slowing down for character interactions before picking up speed again.

The show uses a prologue to set up the relationship between Robert and Elsie, who finds her father at home with his head in a noose, distraught at the financial hole he has put himself in. But rather than help him, Elsie kicks the stool out from under his feet. It’s not a spoiler to reveal Robert survives, and the opening illustrates the love-hate dynamic between the pair.

Tanzyn Crawford (right) is Elsie, a street-smart 21-year-old helping her dad get out of debt

“I was like, ‘I wonder what’s the most gnarly situation my brain can think of.’ It doesn’t get crazier than that,” Terera says. “But the real reason [for that scene] was I’m quite into the theme of reconciliation, that we can almost always come back together. Without reconciliation, it’s impossible for the world to become a better place, and I thought that something so deep and full-on in that scene meant we could really show that reconciliation over a whole season. If it was just a fight, that could take one or two episodes to get over. But something that full-on, it’s like, ‘OK, cool. We’re gonna need a season to unpack this.’”

Terera picked up four writing credits on the series, having penned episodes one and two and co-written episode four with script producer Sam Carroll and episode seven with Carroll and Nicole Reddy. Reddy also wrote episode five and Carroll picked up episode eight, while Briar Grace Smith was behind episodes three and six.

While writing his scripts, Terera experienced something he thought of as a passion become a profession as he came face to face with the deadlines demanded by the TV production cycle, as opposed to the freedom of making a short film on his own timeline.

He also learned that deadlines to resubmit edited script drafts didn’t shift depending on the amount of notes he received. “That’s where I think, as a junior filmmaker, you sink or swim – in the notes process” he says. “I’m so lucky where I’ve been given hundreds upon hundreds of notes but I agree with 95% of them. We’ve got the best commissioner, best producers, best script producers, who I really respect. It didn’t take long for me to re-read the script and be like, ‘Nah, they’re right.’”

He found his way through writing the scripts by giving himself mini-targets and rewarding himself with a walk or an ice cream when he hit them. “The achievement can’t be finishing the script,” he says. “But also, throughout the Swift process, I made two short films. Starting and finishing projects gives you some confidence because it would have been too long a journey to have four years and not actually finish any project at all. That’s difficult. It’s difficult for anyone, especially when you’re younger.”

Viewers will recognise Cliff Curtis from Hollywood films such as Three Kings and Training Day

The filmmaker also shares directing duties on Swift Street, taking charge of the first four episodes while Nicholas Verso directs the back four. “I’m maybe 60% director, 40% writer, but writers are cooler than directors,” he says. “Writing is so fucking hard and it takes so long and you have to do it again and again. As a director, that’s hard too, but you’re so supported. As a writer, sometimes you’re like, ‘OK, I’m going to have a little cry right now’ after you look at those notes. I just hold so much respect for writers.”

Having shot the series in his home city, Terera describes Swift Street as an “intimate and untethered, gritty action crime drama set in my Melbourne,” and his own experiences shape every aspect of the show. In fact, most of the series is set within just a couple of miles of where he has lived for phe last 20 years. Scenes were even shot outside the primary school he once attended.

Terera also notes that despite being “the coolest place in the world,” Melbourne isn’t shown on screen very often. “I’m just really honoured I get to show off my inner northern, gritty Melbourne,” he adds.

When it comes to directing, “I’m really into pre-production,” he says, describing the six-week period before shooting begins as the time to have the necessary conversations to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible on set.

“You always will be discovering [new things] on set. It happened a million times, but I don’t want that to be the energy,” Terera says. “I’m quite into nailing who this character is before we walk on set. Then, on set, we’re two cameras, getting quite a bit of coverage. And I like that because you write your show three times – when you write it, when you direct it and when you edit it. Coverage just allows you to have tonal shifts. I’ve never had two cameras before and this much coverage, so it was really great in the edit suite.”

Swift Street

Terera says his approach to directing is untethered and intimate, and though the style might be loose, “I do like to walk in with a plan,” he notes. “Sometimes that plan can be thrown in the bin, and that’s cool. But having the plan gives me a sense of freedom.”

It’s not just Terera’s directing style or the quick edits that inject energy into Swift Street. The soundtrack also provides a pulsating backdrop to the events that unfold, courtesy of composers Maria Alfonsine and Damian De Boos-Smith. Contributed music also plays a part, not least Taqbir’s SMA3, which plays out during an opening sequence that follows Elsie dashing through the streets of nighttime Melbourne on her bike.

“Our music supervisor was the best,” Terera says of Allegra Caldwell. “She just went digging for really cool stuff, especially our opening track. Our composers Maria and Damian had to compose over four hours of music and had just five weeks, and they were brilliant. Swift Street has got such a cool rhythm.”

Distributed internationally by Fifth Season, Swift Street received its world premiere at French television festival Canneseries ahead of launching on SBS last month, and Terera acknowledges that more people are watching the series than any of his other projects. “I’ve never had this before. My most viewed project was a couple of thousand views. I don’t know what to expect,” he says. “I just hope everybody can find something or someone in the show to connect to.”

With his first series under his belt, Terera is now developing new film and TV projects and was back at work within two days of delivering Swift Street. And there’s also the possibility of a second season. “There’s more to be told,” he teases.

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