Don’t forget the writer: an interview with screenwriter Giula Sandler

She remembers a time before TV was cool, but persistence built this writer's career and it's taking her far.
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Image: Giula Sandler, screenwriter. Supplied.

It’s one of Giula Sandler’s personal bugbears that writers are often overlooked when film and TV shows get mentioned in the media. ‘It drives me nuts,’ says the Melbourne-based screenwriter as we share lunch one Autumn day, and I try to unlock the secrets of her extensive IMDB profile.‘The press often talks about the producer, the director, and the cast, but not the writer,’ she says. ‘It’s insane because none of those people would have anything to do without the words on the page.’

Sandler is an experienced writer who got her start back in the late-90s/early 2000s heyday of long-run Aussie TV serials; shows like McLeod’s Daughters and All Saints that spanned multiple seasons and hundreds of episodes. More recently, she’s worked on NBCU/Matchbox’s Nowhere Boys, three seasons of the acclaimed supernatural thriller Glitch, children’s dramas Grace Beside Me (for which she was nominated for an AWGIE Award) and the Blackfella/Werner ABC series Ready for This. She’s also credited as the creator of the untitled feminist Shakespeare Anthology being developed by Hoodlum and Margot Robbie’s Lucky Chap production company.

Disappointingly, Sandler can’t talk just yet about the specifics of the projects she’s currently developing, but they include writing original TV drama series for Fremantle, Aquarius, Werner Films and Wooden Horse in Australia, developing a number of adaptations for Eleven Films and Little Island and having written two episodes of a true crime drama for the UK’s ITV created by her frequent co-writer Kris Mrksa, and airing in 2020. She’s also developing work for 42, Clerkenwell Films, Ecosse, The Forge and Chapter One in the UK, and this means that since 2016 she’s been spending much of her time, sometimes several months a year, in London for work.

Working in the UK

That fact that you probably haven’t heard of her proves Sandler’s point. She says the profile of writers seems better in the UK, where there’s more of a theatre tradition and the playwright is the core of the work. ‘A lot of playwrights are working in TV there and they are names in themselves,’ she says, noting this respect for the craft, along with the greater pool of opportunities and resources are some of the reasons many established Australian TV writers are finding work there.

 ‘A lot of writers of my vintage are wanting to create our own shows now, and we find that there’s just not a huge market for that in Australia, particularly if your ideas aren’t hugely commercial, which only leaves the ABC, SBS and Foxtel and they’re all doing less drama than they used to,’ she says. ‘Also, it seems the UK is very receptive to experienced Australian writers, because we’re really versatile, having had to work on everything from kid’s shows to dramas to serials. We know how to work with other people in a writers’ room, but we can also do it all on our own as well.’

Anecdotally, Sandler wonders if maybe Australians are less precious and more relaxed about receiving feedback and criticism on drafts. ‘I’m basing this on nothing except my own experience,’ she laughs, ‘but the producers I’ve worked with in the UK seem surprised and grateful when I’m easy and collaborative about taking notes.’ This means that when she does push back, they take it on board.

Working in the UK came about in a roundabout way for Sandler, who’d had a disappointing experience trying to break into the United States in 2015. After a terrible time working on an Australian show, and in an effort to ward off despair, she had written something ‘just for me that I knew nobody here would make.’ She thought producers in the US might get it, as that was the kind of TV she loved watching.

I thought I’d understand the way people talk and the culture, and I got a manager and I went there and had a bunch of meetings and I just didn’t get it! I couldn’t connect with anyone. There was much more of a culture clash than I had expected. We didn’t have the same humour and we just didn’t connect on any level even though culturally I was of the same background as most of the executives. Nobody was interested in what I had to say or sell. I should add that this is much more my fault than it sounds. Not just a culture clash, but a disconnect in the way of working. In the US they expect you to have a lot of the plotting of the series already done, for season one and beyond, when you walk into the room, which I was just not used to, and didn’t know how to do at that stage. I think I went too early, or at least, without knowing enough about what was expected of me.So I came back here with my tail between my legs and thought, “oh well, I’ve written this thing that I like, that’s fine.”‘

The next year, however, Sandler’s agent Anthony Blair was in the UK for some meetings and asked if he could mention the project. Sandler didn’t really rate British TV at that time – ‘I thought it was all Eastenders or something!’ – but after a couple of meetings, a production company optioned it straightaway, flew her out to meet with broadcasters and more people wanted meet with her. A UK agent took her on board, others wanted to hear her ideas for new shows, and she realised that the UK TV industry had really changed. ‘Suddenly it was all about female driven shows, and more complicated female characters and antiheroes, and it suddenly it had become much more what I wanted to do. So many more doors had opened at the right time.’

As is the way with this frustrating industry, that initial project got greenlit subject to cast, was almost made in the UK, and then fell over for various reasons. It’s now back in the US where people are very interested in it. There are many lessons in patience and persistence right here. 

On Becoming a Writer

Sandler came to Australia from Lithuania when she was seven years old, and knew she wanted to be a writer of some kind from the moment she could read.  In Year 11, she heard of a friend’s cousin who went to the VCA and so she realised there was a film school where you could learn to write films. ‘As soon as I heard about it, I thought, “I want to do that!” Then I did the VCA filmmaking course, where you have to do everything – write your films, then direct, edit, shoot – but I found that other stuff very difficult. I only wanted to write.’

Nevertheless, her first job after completing her Bachelor of Arts in Film and Television at the VCA was as an assistant editor at the ABC in Melbourne. It was in the Natural History Unit working on a documentary about iguanas in the Galapagos islands. ‘It was actually quite fun,’ she remembers. ‘It was their last 16mm project and I was in charge of 700 rolls of 16mm film. Trim bins full of iguanas!’ While it wasn’t her ideal job, ‘It was at least a job in the industry, which was more than my parents had ever thought possible because as the only child of Jewish immigrants, it was pretty devastating for them that I didn’t accept an offer to go study law instead.’

After a year with the iguanas, Sandler found her way back to writing by studying a Masters in Screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) where there were only four other writers in her year. ‘I felt very special. It was very one-on-one. We read each other’s work and it was a real community.’ 

Asked what the most important or useful things she learned through her formal education, Sandler says, ‘It’s all about just doing it, reading each other’s work, and getting better. There are all those screenwriting books that are useful to know, but not to live by.’

Back in the 90s, of course, television was not cool the way it is now. Everyone wanted to write films and debut at Cannes. ‘Everyone told me I’d be a hack if I wrote for TV,’ she remembers:

I wanted to make a living out of it, and AFTRS organised a work placement for me on [medical drama] All Saints. I got a job out of that. I really enjoyed the speed of it and the problem solving. You can be working on feature films for years and years and years and they don’t happen. The biggest downside of working on All Saints was that I’m very squeamish, so writing about all those diseases and medical procedures meant I was nauseous all the time!

Sandler did in fact get to write a feature film, Little Deaths, an anthology of loosely related relationship stories with ten different directors, including herself for one of the segments. According to IMDB it was released in 2007, but she says it must have been made earlier as that was the year she gave birth to her son. Shockingly, she doesn’t even own a DVD copy, having got rid of all her DVDs in a decluttering blitz. ‘It was a really good experience of making something bigger, and working with a lot of great people on that film, but I think TV suited me better and it just became so much more interesting.’

The Process

When a writer is credited as the author of a particular episode of TV, say for the ABC’s Glitch, what does this mean in practise in terms of collaboration? Sandler breaks it down:

I would have done a story conference with the creator, the producer, the other writers. We would have talked about where this story sits in terms of the overall season, what we need to progress, where the relationships are. Often we’ll talk about it scene by scene. And then I’ll go away and write about it. Bring it back, and get notes for redrafting.

Asked what her favourite parts of the process are, she says, ‘I love writer’s rooms and I love brainstorming. There’s such magic when the room is right and it’s wonderful.’

She likes to be the one at the whiteboard, writing things down for the group. It helps her focus, organise ideas and see where things fit in the broader structure. She’s a big fan of writing things down in general, of getting your start as a note-taker, and using a pen and paper to maintain concentration.

(Look out for our story next week on Giula Sandler’s Top Tips for working in writer’s rooms.)

She says she also loves first drafts, ‘when you can still do anything and everything is possible.’ Redrafting is the hard part and she admits to ‘a bit of a sinking feeling’ when she gets back notes.

Sandler says her favourite kind of show to write is a self contained and closed story. ‘A six-parter is perfect. There’s no need for it to be ongoing. I know a lot of the streamers like for things to go on and on forever, but that’s not my ideal.’ She says in recent years she’s realised what she’s good at and been able to focus on those things. ‘Generally it’s not cops and it’s not period drama. It’s either science fiction, which hardly ever gets made, or relationship dramas with marriage and kids and depictions of grown-ups in relationships that aren’t just about obvious things like having affairs.’

Asked about some TV shows she loves watching for pleasure, she mentions things like Friday Night Lights, TransparentHomecoming, I Love Dick, Russian Doll and The Leftovers, ‘which is just the best show ever made.’ We share a fond rave about the great Foxtel/Southern Star series Love My Way.

Mentors and Mentoring

Sandler says she’s only now finding her own voice as a writer who is also the author or creator of a show – a process that will only really be evident with the yet-to-be announced UK shows.

There have been many who’ve helped her to get this far. She wrote the following in an email to ensure they were mentioned, but also by way of advice for newcomers: 

I’ve been very lucky to have mentors and collaborators over the last twenty years who have really pushed me to grow as a writer in very different ways, whether it’s through giving me a chance on a show, or elevating my work through collaboration and insightful feedback. You learn something from every writer’s room, but the names that loom large are Tony Ayres, David Hannam, Sarah Lambert, Sam Jennings, Lynne Vincent McCarthy, Sarah Smith. Forging those connections, in an organic way, is vital for any career, and they can’t be forced. They do have to come from a genuine creative spark. And I hope to do the same for newer people in the industry. And my agent, Anthony Blair, who has been instrumental in getting me a career overseas. I was one of his very first clients when he was starting out, and to have someone by my side for the entire length of my career, is an invaluable support.

It’s notable how often Matchbox’s Tony Ayres comes up as a mentor in interviews we do at Screenhub, and Sandler says working on his shows, especially all three series of Glitch, was a breakout for her. ‘I was boxed in for a long time because I’d started on McLeod’s and All Saints and people thought that was the kind of show I could do because that’s all I’d done, whereas when I started working with Tony that really changed.’

He’s really terrific at identifying talent and supporting diversity and people who aren’t the traditional kind, and when he believes in someone he’ll push for them. You really need people who can do that, especially at the moment, when so many good writers are leaving and the the broadcasters don’t want to employ newer voices. But how do we get those newer voices experienced? There aren’t the same opportunities to learn that there used to be, which makes it really hard.

Asked if she mentors newbies herself now, Sandler says that despite her best intentions  she’s ‘a terrible mentor,’ and that she probably depresses people because she tells them how long and hard the road is. 

A lot of people are looking for a quick way in and it took me 15 years to get to a place where I can say no to jobs I don’t want, or have enough jobs to make a proper living and do work that is maybe more high end. I don’t think you meet someone for coffee and then you get them a job. You meet them, and then you meet them again, and then another time, and send them an email and maybe four years later you might be thought of. And you need to be ready and prepared for that time when somebody finally gives you a chance.

Making it work with family

Working between London and Melbourne is both interesting and challenging for Sandler, who is the mother of two school-aged boys, and has ‘a very understanding and supportive’ husband who works in post-production. She says, ‘It’s hard but you do get into the swing of it, and I’ve been able to bring the kids across and give them travel experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have.’ She enjoys the fact that when she’s away she can fully immerse herself in the work for short periods of time without having to juggle, and when she’s home, she’s really home.

How do you have a family and also take advantage of global opportunities? This is one of the big questions for those working in our industry right now and we find ourselves asking it more and more at Screenhub. Sandler is blunt about the way it has to work: 

I think one person suffers, whether it’s the man or the woman. Somebody suffers. My husband is unable to take full time work because he has the kids and there’s school holidays every five minutes, and school finishes at 3.30 and there’s after school activities, so it’s just not possible. So it’s the way things happened. I started traveling and the money was better than what he could earn, so it made more sense, and it just evolves. We didn’t plan it this way. We go on lots of trips together and spend big chunks of time together to try to make up for it.

Final advice for newcomers

In an email follow-up to our interview, I asked Sandler for some tips for those trying to get their start as TV screenwriters. Here’s what she had to say:

It’s both a difficult and exciting time for the industry. Series tend to be shorter and employ fewer writers, and the audience seems to be moving more and more to streaming services. But the kinds of stories we can tell, the unique voices that now can be heard, is amazingly inspiring. And there seem to be two ways in – get a job as an assistant, or note taker, or script co-ordinator and get to know people and work your way up. Or get known in another medium – theatre, short films, features, and create your own concepts that people want to option. Or maybe a combination of all of them. It takes a long time. And even people who appear established are getting rejected all the time. Perseverance is at least 50% of it.

Look out for Giula Sandler’s Top Tips for working in a writer’s room, which we’ll be publishing next week.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram