SHOP TALK #1

ELIZA FRASER

Q.: Kristina, you are a casting director by training and just launched your production company MARILLA TV. How did you first connect with this project? What attracted you to the pitch?

Kristina Erdeley (Producer): Tobias pitched this to me at the BANFF CONNECT in London in February. I immediately was intrigued, as it combined a strong heroine with a few of my favorite genres. As you know Tobias and Eric had developed this as a movie many years ago. And when I began to read their movie script I was just pulled in right away. 

But from the get-go we looked at it not as a movie but as a limited series, a format ideally suited for epics and adventure. And we also knew, despite its qualities (which were probably ahead of their time in 2004), we wanted to update the story for today’s audiences and to television, where, nowadays, we can be more daring than in movies. But having a female lead is not so unique anymore - so we can and must push and elevate this far beyond genre expectations. I also love we'll get to learn much more about Bracefell, the convict in the series. This turns the formative plot of Eliza into a tale of two Englands and makes the world of the story all the richer.

Q.: You have worked in all English language markets, for classic broadcasters, streamers and in movies. Where do you see ELIZA FRASER in the current market place? Why will it succeed?

Kristina Erdeley (Producer): First off, I have some fantastic casting ideas for this, that will surprise and intrigue people. These are actors with name recognition that I’m confident will want to be part of this. That alone will make sure ELIZA FRASER will find acceptance and recognition. As to where that will be? Clearly, our most natural partners are British and Australian streamers and broadcasters and the production studios working for them. But don’t forget, Tobias and Eric are American writers - Tobias strictly speaking is not, but he basically was educated there and honed his craft there. And most of his writing partners are American trained. And I think this has an effect on the storytelling, that in my view will be very attractive to American cable and streaming platforms. The rest of the world then usually follows.

Q.: Tobias, you have been developing this project for years and came agonizingly close to realizing it in the early naughts. Then it stalled. What made you decide to pick up this project again?

Tobias Meinecke (Creator / EP-W): Indeed, I have been pursuing this story for decades, ever since I first optioned a different version of it in the mid 1990s. And I was truly depressed for many months when the money went away in 2004. But even after that crash the story never really left me despite pursuing others. So, why now? Mostly, the time seems ripe again. First off, there are the growing possibilities offered on the smaller screen to tell truly epic stories ('The Terror', for example) and secondly, there is a much wider acceptance of female heroes now; unbelievably, but that was a real problem back then in the industry. Can Kiera Knightley, or whichever actress other than Cate Blanchett one proposed, command the screen by herself? Will wider audiences want to see that?

So now it's 2019 and we can tell this story as I always wanted to tell it: not as a historical costume drama, but as an epic quest of self-discovery by a very modern, very independent young woman.

Q.: Eric, you were Tobias' writing partner on the original feature script. Now fifteen years later you two are at it again? What is it about Eliza Fraser, that keeps fascinating? What made you come back?

Eric Darton (Novelist / Screenwriter): For me, the central fascination lies in finding out more about Eliza’s nature – almost as if I were the audience, even as I’m writing.

I’ve come to see it as a blessing that sometimes the writing process gets drawn out longer than one had hoped. I can say this because it took more than eight years from the beginning of my research on the WTC to see the book published, but I’m certain the final product was much richer for the sustained development.

And I think the same is true here. Hers is a “timeless” adventure story – with strong feminist themes – whose powerful dynamic comes from the psychological complexity of the characters, as much as the dramatic plot. This kind of depth can only be fully realized over time. Ripeness, as someone once said, is all.

Q.: You originally had 120 minutes to tell the an epic adventure, which requires to condense everything to its essentials; now you got 360 minutes to craft this story. Boon or bane?

Tobias Meinecke: Neither. Two entirely different beasts. Narratively, our movie script followed an expanding horizon / consciousness, starting close-up on the world of a relatively highborn girl with some privileges, but few options. Even as this fictionalized mythological Eliza breaks out of the restrains of her birth, the movie script closely followed her. Whatever she encounters on her journey for the first time we encountered with her, hardly ever the wiser than she is. 

Now, that still remains her trajectory in the series, which leads her into a big and exciting, as well as very dangerous adventure and the ultimate self-discovery.

But a young woman like that, even in 1830s, did not exist without context in the world, regardless if she was aware of it or not. So, the series offers us the chance to show the topography of that period under those particular circumstances. We get to understand Bracefell, we get to experience these English invaders as the Aborigines would have, we see the harsh and exploitative class system, we understand what drove both the indigenous clans and the English to the extend they were driven. And as storyteller we get to hover above the confluence of all these stories and lives. To see. And experience. It’s exciting.

Q.: Eric, you have English ancestors and are a historian in addition to writing fiction. Has that contributed to your desire to co-write this?


Eric Darton: In a word, yes. What historians and fiction writers have in common is their love of exploring a mystery and revealing something about how human beings work in the process. The fact is that my English grandparents, just before WWI, tossed a coin to decide whether they would emigrate to Australia or the U.S. So some of my attraction to this project stems from walking, in some way, down the Australian “road not taken.” 

The novelist instinct in me also homed in on Eliza as a character in a million. Yes, she had trauma and drama enough for several lifetimes, but her process adaptation to her experiences drew me with equal strength and in a sustained way. At the end of the day, among all the rich and beautiful folk gathered for the ball in Act 1, Eliza would be the most interesting person in the room.

Q.: How do you divide the work? What is your role in the writing? And what's your goal for it.

Eric Darton: My role is somewhat historian, but mostly novelist. The plot is super-compelling and is mostly Tobias' department. 

As a team our stated goal is to close the distance between Eliza’s moment and our own while remaining absolutely true to the worlds in which she lived.

And I see my own job as fully 'dimensionalizing' the emotional dynamic of characters bound up in circumstances most of us would have difficulty imagining. Their experiences are not just harsher, but of a qualitatively different nature. How, then, to “translate” their motives and actions into something contemporary audiences can connect with? 

The fact that my grandmother, Anne, was a Cockney from the East End of London gives me an empathic window into the language and thoughts of many of our characters.

Q.: Jay, you are a co-founder of LOVE CHILD and you and Tobias go back some time. On ELIZA FRASER you are a creative EP, kind of an additional pair of eyes. How did you first hear about the story and get involved? And how do you think the story benefits from being reconfigured as a mini-series as opposed to a movie?

Jay C. Key (Co-Founder Love Child): I got involved with both Eric and Tobias, I want to say, in 2003. Tobias got on board a script I had originated, that also had a female lead (and eventually became the LOVE CHILD film project EVIE'S APPLE), and he wanted my thoughts on Eliza because here was another female character that was clearly the solo lead.

I was really intrigued by Eliza because she was such a survivor. She insists on her own path during a historical era where that wasn't easy.

I do truly think the story benefits a great deal from becoming a mini-series. One, we get more development time with Bracefell. He was sort of a representative character in the film script, I thought: the Australian man. In the linear storyline, he doesn't appear until Eliza is several adventures into her story. Now, we have time to define how he ended up Australia - what was his crime that sent him as a convict to Australia, what were his social circumstances -, and I think the story really benefits from that.

Second, we get more development time with Eliza. In film scripts, I think there is a fine line between being a survivor and an opportunist. In Eliza's case, she survived a ship wreck, violent attacks, the loss of a child, thuggish men, and the Australian outback. Meanwhile, many of the men in her life are dying or being killed. I mean, in Australian lore, Eliza Fraser is an unsympathetic character, "abandoning" Bracefell to return to England. And Tobias tried to work hard against that - but without context that can be an uphill battle. I know at least one actress Tobias approached was actually concerned about that, that somehow Eliza was a floozy for finding new love, fairly erotic love at that, after losing her husband and baby, and then turning her back on that too.

I think with the mini-series format, you have time to craft Eliza into a fully formed three dimensional character, flawed, passionate, and for it to make sense, and feel valid after all these other things have happened to her over a period of time. Essentially, it gives the story a little more space to breath.

And from our discussions I can say, Tobias and Eric are creating an even more interesting Eliza, who is not only emotional and intuitive and in search of something she cannot name, but has more of a history even before the story begins.

They have also pushed back on the mythology surrounding Eliza, which I think is a smart choice.