Denise Eriksen - Inside ACMI X podcast
Stories & Ideas

Tue 22 Feb 2022

Episode 2: Mentorship and Storytelling in the Screen Industry with Denise Eriksen – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

Using her wealth of experience and knowledge of all things broadcasting, Denise helps creative practitioners find their way into the industry.


Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a podcast series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, with the people currently making it in Australia. Each episode features a resident that works at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focused coworking space housing 72 practitioners. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator. During this episode, we're discussing mentoring and storytelling with Denise Eriksen; co-founder of Media Mentors, who assist creative practitioners to find their way into the industry. Denise has worked as a journalist, producer and executive producer around the world. She has been Head of Factual and Head of Current Affairs at the ABC, head of Production and Development at SBS and made programs for 7, 9, 10 and Foxtel over her lengthy career. She has trained TV's professionals in many genres in Australia and around the world. Welcome, Denise.

Denise Eriksen: Wow, thank you! Gosh - (I realise) I've done quite a bit when you say that (laughs)!

AG: Now, I just wanted to start by hearing about your experience first entering the screen industry. What are some of the earlier key roles that allowed you to progress to the more executive positions at the ABC and SBS?

DE: My career has been something of a ramble: accepting opportunities and taking chances with no particular plan. That is summed up by how I got into this business from the start. At school, I was hopeless. I was bored, rigid and I never did any work. My whole aim for my last year of school was to be on the organising committee for the end-of-year school ball. I achieved that, but it drove my father nuts and he was actually ferrying me around to potential jobs, wondering what I was gonna do with my life. He took me to a typing job at NAC; the Air New Zealand equivalent, and I couldn't type. So I started thinking about what I needed to do and long story short; I thought, "okay, I'll be a secretary at the Wellington Polytechnic". They offered secretarial courses and when I was reading their brochure I saw this thing called journalism and I thought; "well, journalism sounds good," and I didn't really know what it was. So I applied for it and thanks to a brilliant English teacher who was the most fabulous mentor, I got accepted. The problem was that I failed the exam that I needed to pass to get in. They said they'd take me if one of the successful people dropped out. 10 days before the course started, I got accepted into the School of News Journalism at the Wellington Polytechnic and I found my place. My place was as a sort of teller and supporter and enabler of story and I learnt my craft as a journalist. So that was how I got in. And I think that once I learnt my craft, I just progressed through random opportunities in my career. The things that I've done have been anything from (laughs). When I was an unmarried mother I wrote plumbing socket press releases for an ad agency because we needed the money. I've been an executive producer of amazing shows, which I just am so proud of. Things like The Games with John Clarke. I think in summary: what I learned from that first job was that I'm a storyteller at heart and everything that I wanted to do in my future career was to tell stories or enable storytelling. And that's what I've done.

AG: You mentioned that you had those key mentors when you first started out. What made them such inspirations for you?

DE: My English teacher, Doc Allen we used to call him, was a genius teacher. He made Shakespeare coherent. I did like 97% on my English exam. I was in the top five or top 10 people in New Zealand. Everything else: (I) didn't care. I got 18% for Math because I was totally unengaged. And what he (Allen) inspired me to do was to take time to understand stories. When I told him I wanted to apply for this journalism course, he helped me. My task to get in was to write a review of the TV current affairs program and we worked on it together. He didn't write it, I wrote it, but he was so open to helping me and guiding me.

The second mentor was (Rash Avery). The (journalism) course was actually run and owned by the newspaper industry. We were all guaranteed jobs at the end of it. Rash Avery, who was the editor of the local newspaper, had the right to send people to be considered for the course. He could see in me things that I didn't know that I had. Rash Avery could see in me a passion for storytelling. My first job was for his newspaper. He just helped me. There were so many people at that first job that did that for me. We had a woman there who was the first Chief Sub-Editor who was a woman in New Zealand and she was as tough as old boots. I discovered that a mentor doesn't always have to be a happy chappy. She kicked my ass so many times. I remember sitting in the canteen one day, about three floors down, and I heard this: "Eriksen! Get your ass up here! This story is shit!" And I went: "oh!" (laughs). Mentors don't always have to be: "oh my gosh, you're doing a wonderful job". They can really kick ass. I've always had mentors in my life, either official mentors or people who I respect and I seek out their counsel.

AG: What are some of the pathways now that can help practitioners find a job or engage a mentor?

DE: I think one of the best ways of doing it is to take whatever job will get you in. So you might think you are a writer but actually, you're probably a runner if you're in the early stages of your career. Get a job as a runner and work your way up. I always say to people: "go for entry-level jobs". I mean I've stepped back in my career and taken big drops in jobs so that I can work my way back up into different things. I think when you're in a job, it's (about) listening, watching, talking and asking sensible questions. Ask about the craft of directing: "how do you break down scripts? How do you direct talent? What are your tips?" So that (people) can see that you've got a strong interest and a bit of knowledge about the job that you ultimately want and you wanna learn.

AG: Yeah, absolutely. Making sure that before approaching someone that you admire, (you are) doing your research on them.

DE: Very much so. Go to every networking, screening, (go to) anything you can go to. Join actors and professional industry groups if you're able to. Get on things like Facebook; 'I Need Crew' have these sorts of beginner-level and entry-level groups. Get onto all of those groups and attend every single thing you can. Look, they're over-awing when you're coming to them first. I get that. I mean, when I was at Polytech, I was actually completely shocked that I had to talk to somebody to get a story. I remember my teacher saying to me; "you can't just write observational pieces for your whole life". I mean, I know I don't sound like that but I could talk to anybody. I couldn't then and it was something I had to learn to do. So I think it's just establishing that connection because in the end, establishing contacts with people is actually engaging with them first. You wanna know a bit about them before you introduce yourself because people will get emails from people every single day asking them to be their mentor. 99% of them will say no because they simply don't have time. But they will take people. But they're gonna take people that research who they are and what they do. At least (try to) have watched the guts of what they've made so that you can have a conversation with them. I've been in positions at the ABC for example, when I was commissioning, where people didn't even watch the ABC and so they come in completely ignorant of what we do and that is a complete turnoff. So you are absolutely right. Research your marketplace.

AG: Now I want to switch from mentoring and move into your experience as storytelling. Do you have any advice for writers trying to find and identify brilliant stories?

DE: That's a tough one, isn't it? I think the best advice we can give is that just because you've had an idea, it doesn't mean it's ready to pitch. If it's not well-developed and well-thought-through, whatever the idea is will fail. Beyond a one-liner on what the story is, you need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, you need to have a marketplace in mind; an audience that you're writing that story for. The other thing I think that's really important in that question, Amber, is that no story is unique. It's going to be (on) a subject that will have been told many, many, many times before; be it love, relationships, tension, war, (or) crime. It'll be a new take on an old subject. So be very clear about a point of difference in what you are trying to tell.

And it's not just good enough to layer it lightly. You need to have thought about that really deeply: what the point of difference is. You also need to know what stories like yours have been told before and why yours is different. I'd say the majority of projects that we see, particularly from emerging practitioners, are not close to being ready to pitch. You could drive a truck through the premise and they haven't thought about who their production partner will be, for example. You cannot assume that just because you've got a story that you want to tell that you are the right person to tell it. Particularly in an emerging sense: go out and make a short film about it and get funding for that. But if you wanna hit a mainstream market, you cannot assume that a funding body or a commissioner will say; "yeah, here's a couple of million bucks babe. I know you've never done it before, but you'll be right". It's not gonna happen. You have to surround yourself with people with expertise and infrastructure to enable you to tell that story.

AG: You mentioned that you need to write for somebody. How else can a person understand their audience?

DE: This applies to me and I'm sure it applies to a lot of people. I have someone in my mind who I'm writing for and it's not me. I know the story I'm telling so it doesn't matter whether I wanna watch it or not, that's not good enough. I think that the other factor that's really important in this is: why now? I think that helps inform your audience. So for me, when you think about issues like gay marriage a couple of years ago that was the zeitgeist. What's a zeitgeist now? What are people not talking about just now, but what are they gonna be talking about in future? So it's also about reading newspapers online. It's engaging in the wider world. I play mahjong with people that are very, very different to me and their concerns about the world and what they think about the world are very different to mine. So listen to what people are talking about. Have your eyes and ears open (and recognise) that you can have a story but you (have to) make it relevant and you only make it relevant by listening to what other people have got to say. (Understand) where they're at in their world so that they might find it (your piece) in this massive (amount of) content that's available to us.

AG: You mentioned that no story is unique, but how can people tell stories differently through storytelling methods?

DE: I started out when I was a news journalist working for radio and TV which was my third job. We were shooting film for Christ's sake so it's always been an industry of evolution, both technology-wise and also with storytelling devices. I mean, online is a brilliant, brilliant opportunity for people. Surprise people with your storytelling methods. Think laterally. There is enormous scope and there always will be, but it comes down to the ideas that you come up with and how you push the boundaries.

Going back to one of the shows I'm most proud of, The Games, it was really the first time that Australia had made a mockumentary series and it was because I took John Clarke to see Best In Show. It was a parody and it was a beautiful film. It was really funny. It was a total piss-take of a dog show. And I said to him; "John, instead of doing The Games as a conventional drama, why don't we do it as this mock doc thing which is emerging?" Christopher Guest made that film. And he went; "yeah, that's a great idea mate. Yeah, let's do that". So we actually hired a documentary crew to shoot a drama. It gave it a whole different edge and we had 'em speaking to cameras as if it was a fly-on- the-wall documentary. The Office later, apparently, said that The Games had inspired that because we were the head of the zeitgeist. But it was only because I saw that film and I thought; "shit, there's something in there. I wonder what John and Ross and his colleagues would make of that idea?" Because they embraced it and because the ABC said; "well yeah, alright, (do it) if you want. It's John Clarke The Games. Yeah, alright, have a go". (They might not have said yes) if I'd gone in there as Denise Ericksen with the possible project. It's about allying myself with amazing people like John.

But you know, think outside the box. It's exciting and there's a bit of me that would like to be starting again because it's just as difficult now as it always was. Let's not pretend that it's any harder. The only real difference now is that thousands and thousands of graduates are coming out of an investment of three years of education without the possibilities that they might have dreamed of. And I think that's the sadness.

AG: Denise, you mentioned The Games and taking a risk there in terms of the structure and methods that you were using to produce a show. What are some of the challenges that come along with learning on the job and taking those risks?

DE: Oh my God, we rode on the seat of our pants for the first series. Seriously. The idea of combining documentary and traditional comedy was great on paper and worked incredibly well, but only because we hired the right people. We had Bruce Permezel, who was a brilliant documentary director, Jenni Meany, a great DOP, and Annie Maver, who was Melbourne's best first assistant director in comedy. So we put the team into place but it was a constant learning curve. We didn't have a set. We just hired the Kingston Town Hall because I thought; "oh well we might as well have an office," without realising that that was rubbish for putting lights up. It was really difficult for shooting a comedy and it brought all sorts of problems that none of us had ever thought of. But we got through it because of the professionalism of the team we hired. John was a wonderful eccentric. He and Ross Stevenson wrote a great script, but because we were trying to be topical with it, those scripts would often come late because we were trying to make sure that current issues were brought into them and that added a great new layer. I mean, we didn't know where we were filming from time to time on the Friday before we'd start on the Monday. It was intensely tense. That's the joy to me and the challenge of trying new things but it can only work if you've got a team engaged in the same mission, which is to deliver that sort of difference successfully. Because a broadcaster is not interested in your failures. They only wanna see it work.

AG: Thank you, Denise. Before we finish up, is there anything else that you'd like to share with listeners?

DE: Hmm - so much. Look, I love this business. I recognize that it's hard and it's harder for some people than it is for others. But this is a bitch of a profession in so many ways. I was on a shoot a few weeks ago where tempers fray because everybody's working hard: that's the way it is. It's okay, but try and be as kind and supportive (as you can) and never, ever, ever forget that you've not learnt your craft yet. I mean, I've been at this for 50 years and I'm still learning. I wish that our career offered long-term stability of employment so that you could go to the bank and get a mortgage, but it doesn't. Maybe it will eventually but it doesn't now. So I guess you have to really examine what this business is about and decide that you've got the guts and the stomach for it. And it's okay if you don't but if you can, bloody hang in there. It's an awesome, brilliant thing to do. I bloody love it (laughs).

AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. I've listed all links in the show notes, alongside ways to connect with Denise and find out more about ACMI X. We're continuing each discussion around each topic on Twitter at @acmiXstudio.

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