When Hannah Carroll Chapman won the 2022 AACTA Award for Best Screenplay in Television for Heartbreak High, it seemed she was the one most surprised. When she arrived on stage to collect her trophy, her first words were to ask they check it wasn’t a ‘Moonlight moment’, referring to the 2017 Oscars when La La Land was announced as Best Picture shortly before a correction had to be announced, that Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age film, had, in fact, won the category.
The rest of us, however, were far less shocked. After all, Heartbreak High racked up a cool 42 million viewing hours in its first three weeks on Netflix and remained in the streaming service’s global top-ten for over a month.
‘I don’t think I realised what a big deal [the AACTA’s] was until afterward’, Carroll Chapman says. ‘We were up amongst Mystery Road, The Twelve, and Love Me – all incredible shows. I thought it was silly I was nominated with such powerhouse writers.’
‘I’ll never forget that night’, she says. ‘It was one of the most magical nights.’
Carroll Chapman is equally unlikely to forget the moment the possibility of helming the reboot appeared on her radar.
‘I got that call because I had worked on The Heights with Que Minh Luu, who had just become the Director of Content at Netflix ANZ and liked my writing, so I was incredibly lucky.
‘I jumped so hard at that meeting my neck almost snapped. I was obsessed with Heartbreak High when I was a kid. Obsessed. The minute I heard it was in the works, a million ideas started popping into my head about what you could do with it – how you could bring it to the here and now.’
The heart of the story quickly fell into place when Carroll Chapman’s 17-year-old sister showed her the ‘incest map’ she’d made about ‘all the hookups in her school year that year’. This led to the revelation that the ‘heartbreak’ in Season 1 would be the heartbreak of losing a best friend.
And yet, despite these early bursts of clarity and inspiration, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
‘I recently found a diary I kept at the beginning of making Heartbreak High, in which I was clearly having a Sooky Lala day. I wrote: I’m grappling with a huge amount of anxiety and imposter syndrome over the creation of Heartbreak High. Sometimes it is so severe I feel like I can’t breathe. There seems to be so much to do and so little time to do it in. I feel so much fear and insecurity. I can’t help but think that everything I am plotting is wrong, stupid, and bad. I internally punish myself for not having the answers, not having a direction, not finding it quicker. I am so tired.’
Struck by the honesty of Carroll Chapman sharing this, I wonder if there’s anything that her AACTA Award-winning self would offer to that ‘diary-writing emo girl’.
‘Keep going and try not to doubt yourself too much,’ she says.
‘I read that now and it gives me hope. Hope that even though sometimes I feel like I am a worthless piece of shit, and that everything I do is the worst thing I’ll ever watch, tomorrow is a new day, and if I keep working – if I keep searching – I might just find what I’m looking for.’
This relentless commitment to searching seems to be a common thread in Carroll Chapman’s journey.
Few people know that the writer started her career in 3D animation with the intention of one day working at the ‘almost peerless’ Pixar.
‘Films like Inside Out, Toy Story, and Up are not only entertaining, but they tap into our humanity, our deep truths, and our complexities as human beings and offer it all in this hopeful, hilarious package. I still read the script for Inside Out sometimes when I want to read something inspiring. I credit those films as making me want to write things that resonated with people.’
3D animation led Carroll Chapman to VFX, where she worked on titles such as Iron Man 2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
‘It’s truly the end of the sausage-making process. I would spend months working on a three-second shot that would be among thousands of other shots that had been meticulously toiled over by very talented, smart people’, she says.
It was during this stretch that Carroll Chapman realised she wanted to be at the beginning of the storytelling process – ‘where the kernel of the idea begins’ – so she went searching again. This time, ending up in Los Angeles to study screenwriting at the University of California (UCLA).
‘I knew when I started to study screenwriting that I wanted to spend some time learning the craft the American way.
‘I studied under Neil Landau (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, The Secret World of Alex Mack). I still refer to his class notes when I’m in a bind. He taught me gems such as “every great television show is about family, whether it’s chosen or blood”, to be diligent about reading scripts of shows that I love, [and] always learning and studying the craft. It was one of the best things I ever did.’
Carroll Chapman did the rounds after graduating but now feels she went to the City of Angels ‘too early’ in her career.
‘LA is such a paradox – able to one day make you feel like a million bucks, and the next humble the fuck out of you.
‘I remember pitching to an executive who clearly wanted nothing to do with a nobody like me – she slotted me in to pitch a feature to her while she was doing her 6am jog around Echo Park Lake. I had to try and sell her on the idea of my horror film while I breathlessly struggled to keep up with her: “And then …. He finds the dead body … Under his bed …”. Every pitch since then has been a breeze in comparison.’
Somewhat less of a breeze was her three-year stint on Home and Away when she returned to Australia.
‘People talk shit about soaps, but soap writers are the hardest working motherfuckers in this industry.
‘We’d plot all five episodes for the week in two days. That’s nuts. We don’t get enough time to plot TV in Australia, but even by Australian standards, that’s actually insane. But we did it. Every week. Sure, I got an entire body rash, and all my eyelashes fell out for a while, but we did it.’
‘I thank Home and Away for a multitude of things: to (try to) be grateful for how much more time you get when you’re not working on a massive soap; for the ability to plot, to replot, to chuck what you’ve done away, and not be precious about it; to be humble; and to work with others in breaking story.’
The second season of Heartbreak High is where we’ll see Carroll Chapman’s story-breaking prowess next, but she has a few other projects ‘waiting silently in the wings’ until she ‘re-emerges like a drunk yeti from the magical forest of Season 2 to tend to them’.
She’s also keen to ‘jump onto someone else’s project for a little bit’, and in her mind, there’s no shortage of emerging Aussie creators she’d leap at neck-snapping velocity to collaborate with.
‘All of the writers on Heartbreak High: Thomas Wilson-White, Natesha Somasundaram, Megan Palinkas, Meyne Wyatt, Marieke Hardy, Matthew Whittet, Sara Khan, Keir Wilkins, Jean Tong, Kathleen Lee, and Sarah Emery’, she reels off without skipping a beat.
‘I can’t wait to see what they all do with their careers – I can’t wait to work with them again. I feel so lucky to know them. They’re the future.’