SCRIPTING MISS FISHER MURDERS
by Wendy Morriss 2014
Gippsland Country Life magazine
Television scriptwriter, Ysabelle Dean started her career as a story liner for Grundy Productions popular soap ‘Prisoner’ in 1984. She is now writing scripts for the second series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Melbourne’s own, extremely popular 13-part television series that was first aired in February 2012 on ABC1.
The series is based on Australian author Kerry Greenwood’s novels, the first written in 1989 about the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, a daring, glamorous, lady detective that fights injustice with her pearl handled pistol in late 1920s Melbourne. Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) is a thoroughly modern woman with an acquired taste for the best, but from impeccable working class origins.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries starring Essie Davis as Miss Phryne Fisher and Nathan Page who plays detective inspector Jack Robinson, was created and produced by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger and their production company Every Cloud Productions. The first series was filmed over a six-month period in and around Melbourne from July 2011 with a budget of one million dollars per episode. Since then the ABC drama series has been purchased by 120 territories worldwide including Europe, Canada, USA, Asia and Latin America.
Ysabelle, who has written and edited scripts for many Australian television series, wrote or co-wrote scripts for three episodes of the first Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which were‘Murder in the Dark’, ‘Away with the Fairies’, and ‘Murder in Montparnasse’. She also did some over writing and script editing. She is now writing three scripts for the second series, which she said is shooting now and is due to come out later this year.
“I am one of a few scriptwriters for the project,” she said. “I’ve just finished episode 12 and started working on episode 11. When I write an episode, I take one of the stories the producers have developed and work with them through various stages of it to shooting stage. That goes on for three or four months for each script.
“Each scriptwriter does complete episodes but if there are time issues the creative producer Deb Cox, may take over and do a polish on the last draft or running changes. If someone is ill, or a location can’t be used or something goes wrong, then the script is adjusted quickly before going on set.
“We also work with a fantastic bunch of script editors who edit and make adjustments after the scripts are written. We hope after the script writing stages of scene breakdown, first draft, second draft and polish that they don’t have to do a lot of re writing. There are serial strands though that change and evolve as you go and sometimes they have to be adjusted right up to the last minute, and it’s pretty much a team effort.”
She said there’s a lot of respect from the crew for the producers Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger. “Fi and Deb are so great to work with.”
When asked if she knew before they started how successful the series was going to be Ysabelle said she had a pretty good idea. “Kerry Greenwood’s books were already successful and Fi and Deb and their production company Every Cloud Productions have a very strong track record. The work they do is painstakingly crafted and when the ABC take on a project like that they become very involved and operate in the same way, so I knew with that sort of formula it would be a goer, and it has been. With everyone on board, the last detail, the last second of shooting and film editing is so well crafted.
“Initially I didn’t know the series was going to be set in Melbourne, which was exciting. I read the books a few days before going to Byron Bay where we plotted at Every Cloud Production Company. I knew it was set in Melbourne in the books but I still didn’t know for sure if it would be filmed in Melbourne or Sydney.
“What was more exciting was that it was a period piece which gave it a new and interesting flavour. I have worked on several shows set in Melbourne that weren’t able to really make use of the location like this show has. They were shows that were shot in Melbourne because that’s where the studios were. In Prisoner, Cell Block H was in Channel 10.
“Because it’s a period piece, I’ve had to do a lot of research. When I write verbal expressions, I have to stop and think about what was used in 1929 or when someone goes to the fridge, I have to remember they go to the ice chest. There are little things like that all the way through but it makes it really interesting. For Murder in Montparnasse there had to be a French restaurant in Melbourne and French characters so I had to learn a lot of French in a hurry, but Google makes it easier.”
Ysabelle’s first contact with Australia’s film industry was while studying a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Literature at Victoria College. “In my third year, someone from Grundy’s approached my script writing tutor looking for a trainee to work on Prisoner and I was recommended. I still had the last semester to complete but my tutors allowed me to finish the work at home, which was great and I finished with high distinctions.
“I was a story liner on prisoner because I was a trainee. There were four story liners and we all worked in house to come up with two episodes a week of was called a scene breakdown and the screenwriters wrote from that. They only did one draft for Prisoner and then a script editor would make all the changes.
She said she felt a bit bemused by it all. “At the time there was a bit of a set amongst my fellow university students against television soaps. I was never really interested in them, but when you are asked to write, and given an idea that you don’t know anything about or you have a strong opinion on, you have to try to find a way to become part of it and it has to become part of you so that it’s authentic. That’s what I had to do with prisoner, but once I did that, I was able to get right into it.”
After working on Prisoner, Ysabelle went to Sydney to write storylines and scripts for ‘Son’s and Daughters’. She left Sydney in 87 to come back to Melbourne and started working as a freelance scriptwriter and editor.
Since then she has written or edited scripts for Neighbours, SeaChange, Blue Heelers, Wormwood, Bed of Roses, Home and Away, McLeod’s Daughters, Always Greener, Guinevere Jones, Ship to Shore, Chuck Finn, Return to Eden and The Rogue Stallion, a television movie.
“I have enjoyed script producing, writing and editing children’s shows for Paul Barron of Barron Entertainment in Perth and the series ‘Ship to Shore’ was my favourite. I also wrote scripts for ‘The New Adventures of Skippy’, not the original version – I was too young. You need to make a point of that.
“Of all the adult shows I have scripted, my favourite would have to be Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries although the scripts have been the hardest I’ve written because it is so complex and there’s so much to pack into it, but it’s been very satisfying. Essie Davis is beautiful. She’s just gorgeous on screen and Nathan Page is incredible and they work so well together. I look at it and think this is great, and then I forget how many nights I’ve been up trying to finish the scripts.”
By Wendy Morriss