This month’s Spotlight On features Sarah Lambert, an award-winning writer who works extensively in Australia, the UK and the US. She is best known as the creator and producer of Love Child, the smash hit drama for the Nine Network. Her other credits include The Dr. Blake Mysteries, A Place To Call Home, The Alice, All Saints, Dance Academy, and the critically acclaimed Love My Way.
She is currently writing several new shows: Pandora, a family noir for Essential Drama/SBS; an adaptation of Lambs of God for Lingo; and Rote Faden, a mystery set in Germany and Australia, also for Essential Media. She’s also writing her new series TRUST, an 8-part international thriller produced by Ian Collie (Rake, Jack Irish).
Our intern Ren Arcamone spoke to Sarah about about Love Child, new projects, and the busy world of screenwriting.
You’re the creator/writer and a producer of the hit Australian TV drama, Love Child. Could you tell us a bit about the show and what inspired you to write it?
Love Child is set in Kings Cross in 1969, a time when Australia is coming of age. The series starts out with a maverick young midwife, Joan Miller, returning from London to take up a job at Kings Cross Hospital. She gets swept up in the lives of five young women at Stanton House, an unwed mothers’ home run by the hospital. Pregnant, the young women live hidden behind steel gates, while outside the bright neon lights of Kings Cross beckon, promising freedom.
In the first series, we saw Joan setting out to fight for these young women, battling the Matron of the hospital and a brutal system of forced adoptions. At its heart, the show explores the friendships and lives of these young women as they are thrown together, fighting for each other and their children at the height of the sexual revolution.
For me, Love Child was a show I’d always wanted to write. I learned about unwed mothers’ homes when I was a child. One of my mother’s closest friends had been sent from Brisbane to Sydney by her parents to hide her pregnancy at St. Margaret’s home in Darlinghurst, and when the baby was born it was adopted out. It was a secret she carried for twenty years, until one day the child she’d ‘given up’ turned up on our doorstep looking for her mother. My mother’s friend eventually told us the story of what had happened to her behind closed doors at St. Margaret’s, and it was truly horrifying. Though it was something she had no control over, she carried so much grief and shame, and that really stayed with me. When the Inquiry into Forced Adoptions came out, I read the report and later went to the Apology at Parliament House. I met so many women and children with the same stories still dealing with the pain. And it struck me that over 250,000 women went through this system, but still, no one really talked about it. I knew then I wanted to tell the story in a drama of some sort. This was our history, our past.
Over the years I wrote different versions of the story but none of them quite worked. The darkness of the story kept overwhelming the drama. After the film Girl Interrupted came out, I realised there was another way of coming at the concept. I decided to focus on the drama inside a home for unwed mothers while also exploring the sexual revolution going on outside the gates. I wanted to explore the clash of freedom and repression. And I also realised I wanted to make a show that was uplifting and about the fight for change. I guess I wanted to make revolution sexy again – for this generation. So I wrote a pitch about five very different women and a young midwife in Kings Cross at the height of the sexual revolution, rocking the boat and fighting to change a brutal system while finding friendship, love and heartbreak. Out of that pitch, Love Child was born.
What was your first love – writing or acting?
I started as an actor and am very grateful for the insight and access it gave me to plays and screenplays, alongside the valuable practical experience of literally growing up on film sets. That said, I’d have to say my first love would be writing. Long before I ever dared showed my work to anyone, I wrote. Short stories, scripts, (bad) poetry, (bad) plays – it was my escape and my way of coping with the world. I loved escaping into the world of my imagination where anything was possible. And when I wasn’t writing I was reading. Voraciously.
What’s your typical work week like? (Do you have a ‘typical’ one?)
My weeks change depending on whether I’m in the writers’ room, brainstorming or plotting a show, or if I’m in writing mode. The writers’ room weeks are gruelling but also a lot of fun. It’s the only time I really spend with other writers and producers. The writers’ rooms are very collegiate and inspiring; it’s where we figure out the DNA of the show and explore our characters and the series’ arcs. Getting it right involves days locked in a room with whiteboards waiting to be filled, and it’s a great process to witness. After those weeks, I retreat to write. My weeks then are about juggling the shows I’m working on. I like to try to block out time for each show so I can fully invest in one script at a time. But sometimes that’s not possible and you have to juggle writing a pitch for one show while continuing on another draft for a different show. I write five days a week and put in 8 hour days. No phones or internet – I get too distracted. Then I write again once my kids are in bed. The days are long as I often make calls to the UK in the evening for work, getting notes and feedback, but I make sure I have weekends off.
Could you tell us a bit about the current projects you’re working on?
I’m writing a 4-part Greek noir called Pandora, which I’m really enjoying at the moment. It’s set in Athens and Melbourne and takes the Pandora’s Box myth into a modern context. I can’t say much more, but it’s a show I’ve really enjoyed writing as it explores a side of Australia we don’t often show. It’s bold and it’s definitely a show I’d watch. I’m also writing another 4-parter, an adaptation for television of Marele Day’s Lambs of God. I love the book so much and again it’s a very different show. I felt very blessed that Marele came to our writers’ room when I first started on the project. She was so generous and smart – it’s been a true joy to work on her story. It’s set in the world of an enclosed order of nuns who live on an island forgotten by the rest of the world until a priest arrives in their midst. It’s weird and wonderful – full of dark fairytales and black humour. On top of that I’m writing a new show, TRUST, an international thriller set in three countries. It’s probably the show I’ve always wanted to write, and it feels very timely considering the state of the world right now. I think it’s the most ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted. It scares the hell out of me, but that’s a good thing.
You’re currently working between Australia and the United States. How does the changing scenery impact your creativity?
I have children, so I try to minimise the amount of time I spend away in the UK and US. I used to try to take the whole family with me, but as the children get older that becomes increasingly difficult. So in general, there’s not much change of scenery, just lots of Skype calls at all hours of the night. The changes to my creativity mainly involve tuning into the different sensibilities of the US or the UK. I have to adjust to different producers’ and broadcasters’ cultural sensitivities and realities, and learn to navigate their peculiarities.
What’s the best piece of writing advice that you’ve been given?
In terms of writing for film or TV: write something you would actually like to watch. Create characters and a world you haven’t seen before but want to see on the big screen.
And in terms of craft: value your own unique voice. No one else writes like you. Make that your asset. And know why you are writing something. If it scares you, drill down into it and find the truth of the piece.
Finally, keep writing. With every job, every script, you learn more about the craft. You will make mistakes and fail but resilience is everything in this career.
What advice would you give someone interested in starting out in screenwriting?
I think the most important thing is to try and get into a writers’ room. A working plotting room is a great way to learn the craft. Many people start out as note-takers in plotting rooms. It’s hard work but gives invaluable insight, and it’s also important for making contacts in the business. Often note-takers are taken on as script co-ordinators later on when the show goes into production, so it’s one way of getting your foot in the door. Beyond trying to get those opportunities, I think it’s essential these days to have a few spec scripts that show your voice and your passion for a particular genre.
What helps you when you’re feeling uninspired?
If I’m stuck, I listen to music. Instrumental only. A lot of Ludovico Einaudi at the moment. He’s become my writing soundtrack.