Working with Words: Kris Mrksa
Kris Mrksa is a Melbourne-based writer and script editor. During his 12 year career as a screenwriter, he’s brought shows including Underbelly, The Slap, East West 101, The King and The Secret Life of Us to the small screen –and won several awards from the Australian Film Institute and the Australian Writers' Guild.
Speaking with the Wheeler Centre, he talks about conservatism in Australian TV, the media’s preoccupation with directors and the ‘wonderful circuit breaker’ (see also: ‘pain in the arse’) of collaboration.
What was the first piece of screenwriting you had produced?
My first commercially produced credits were all for children’s TV. Which is actually rather bizarre when I think about it, as writing for kids was probably the last thing I ever imagined I’d be doing, me being a grumpy, childless bachelor at the time. But I was offered an opportunity, and when you’re hoping to make a living as a writer, you take whatever you can get.
My very first produced script was for a show called Horace and Tina. It was kind of like I Dream of Jeannie, but instead of a sexy genie with a bare midriff causing the magical mayhem, we had two grumpy, invisible gnomes. Not quite the same, somehow.
What’s the best part of your job?
There’s a wonderful balance between being your own boss, working alone, at home, quiet and contemplative, and going into work for brainstorming and plotting days, which is highly collaborative and can be very intense and demanding. My wife is also a writer - she writes books and a newspaper column - and the biggest difference between our jobs is that I have that collaborative aspect to my work. Which can be a wonderful circuit breaker. Because when you’re feeling doubts about the work, there’s always someone you can talk to – someone who is equally invested in the project. So I guess that’s the best thing – working closely with other creative people.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The worst thing? Working closely with other creative people.
As I said, screenwriting is a collaborative process, which can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be a pain in the arse. You inevitably get notes from half a dozen different sources – the network, the producer, the director, the production company. Most of the time I work with wonderful producers and script editors, and their notes are invaluable, pushing me to make the script better and better. But once in a while you find yourself in a position where the person calling the shots doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And that is heart breaking – to know that you’re actually making the script weaker in the re-drafting process, rather than stronger.
I think it’s changing, but there is sometimes a tendency to fall back on formula in Australian TV – to cringe away from anything that is genuinely original, or hasn’t already been pioneered on another TV show. It’s that conservatism that still occasionally holds our industry back, and inspires a lot of the stupider notes that you sometimes get on your work.
What’s been the most significant moment in your screenwriting career so far?
People often talk about getting a Big Break, but I don’t see my career that way. I think I’ve had a series of breaks, and each one of them has been important in its way. Having said that, there are one or two moments that do stand out. For example, I won an AFI award early in my career, and that public, high profile recognition certainly gave me a huge boost. It got me out of writing kids TV, and moved me up into adult. Otherwise I might be working on Horace and Tina 2 right now.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about screenwriting?
The best advice I was given was to just write, no excuses. Writers are so creative about the excuses they make for not writing; if they put half as much energy into their work they’d be doing fine.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
The thing that surprises me the most is if I get mentioned at all. Unlike the US, where celebrity screenwriters are quite common, and writer-creators are widely seen as the driving forces behind successful TV shows, screenwriters in Australia are largely ignored by the media.
It’s actually pretty disgraceful – the number of times I’ll read an article about a telemovie or a mini series, and the focus is largely on the director, when I know that the director was essentially a hired gun – that it was the writer who developed the project, and steered it, and lived with it through its difficult gestation, possibly for years. And you get this even from experienced media journalists who should know better.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I honestly don’t know. Thank God screenwriting happened for me, because I don’t know what else I’d be good for.
What’s more important for a budding screenwriter: experience or study?
Experience, no question. I have nothing against writing courses; indeed, I did a little bit of the RMIT screenwriting course myself, and it was useful. But [in the first place] the only way to learn about writing scripts is by writing scripts.
The bigger challenge comes in getting them produced. Writing is only the second best way to learn; the very best way is to see your scripts produced. To look at the finished product critically, and think about what worked, and what didn’t. Of course that’s very difficult, because you’ll probably only be able to do that when you’re actually working as a writer. Perhaps that’s why my stint in kid’s TV was so valuable. I got to make all my initial mistakes in a context where it didn’t matter so much (assuming that most 8 to 12 year olds don’t look at the writing credits).
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a screenwriter?
This is the question I am asked most often, and I still don’t have a clear answer. The problem is, there is no well established path for aspiring screenwriters in Australia. There are very few internships available, and the screenwriting courses don’t have the kind of prestige that will automatically land a graduate a job. Writing spec scripts and sending them off to producers or production companies… I’m just not sure how much value there is in doing that. Most good producers are far too busy to read unsolicited scripts from writers they don’t know.
The only thing that seems to work is to find a job that will get you into the room with the writers and producers. I know a few people who have stepped up from being researchers, or taking notes in the story room, and have managed to make enough of an impression to eventually be offered a script. I guess it’s about getting noticed, while not making yourself into an annoyance – a difficult line to walk.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Always in a physical bookshop. Basically, I like shopping, and I like bookshops in particular. I love browsing, leafing through books, reading the blurbs. It’s a recreational activity. In fact, if I had the time I’d hang out in bookshops anyway, even if I wasn’t looking for a book. Then I’d probably end up buying something, just so I didn’t feel guilty. Buying online is cheaper, but for me you lose half the pleasure, so it’s not a bargain that interests me.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I’m a huge fan of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but I don’t know that I’d like to have dinner with any of the people who inhabit those worlds. I mean, sitting down for a big bowl of ziti with Tony would be tempting, but what if you caught him on a bad mood day? I tend to be attracted to stories about troubled, unpleasant characters, so few of them would make pleasant dinner partners.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
When I was a kid my mum would take us to the local library every weekend, and my brother and I would choose some books. One school holidays I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. Like a lot of kids, I was a science fiction fan, and I expected a fairly conventional tale of aliens and space ships. What I got instead completely blew my mind. OK, it was genre, but it was also philosophical, surreal, intelligent, deeply moving and incredibly funny. Over the course of that two week holiday break I read everything by Vonnegut that I could get my hands on, and I think that reading binge defined my literary interests for the rest of my adolescence.
But speaking as a screenwriter, my work has been more directly impacted by films and TV shows. There are two shows that stand out for me as big influences – Twin Peaks and The Larry Sanders Show. Long before the recent explosion of edgy, high quality, made for cable drama, these two series showed what could be done on TV. They were a glimpse of the future, and they inspired me to take TV seriously as an art form.