Alice Bell talks female screenwriters initiative Smart Like A Girl: Roar

Alice Bell.

By Jackie Keast

Prolific screenwriter Alice Bell has an enviable list of credits: The Slap, Puberty Blues, The Beautiful Lie. She speaks to IF about life as a scribe and her latest project – a collaboration with producer Imogen Banks which aims to mentor young female writers through the process of developing a TV series through to network pitch.   

Congrats on the funding through Gender Matters for Smart Like A Girl: Roar. Why did you want to set up this program? 

Imogen and I are often approached by young writers asking how to become a screenwriter for television and the answer is: there’s no clear path. It’s a frustrating thing. You could be a note-taker in a story room but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get to write an episode. You could write your own web series or a pilot, but then you’re competing with experienced writers and the world, and it might be the first thing you’ve written. The passion is there, the drive is there – but not the industry training. I found myself mentoring a female writer every year and it’s something I feel proud of but helping to advance the career of one writer at a time didn’t feel like enough. When Gender Matters came around Imogen and I knew that this was an opportunity to find new female voices and support them so we set about imagining what Smart For A Girl should be. It was important to us to find a space where writers could be given time to brainstorm, to learn and be paid. Being paid is an important part of it. You want to be able to allow these new writers to give it their full attention. We are hoping that this first initiative will be one of many and if it’s successful in rebalancing the gender divide then we can always start up Smart For A Boy.

What’s hindering emerging female writers from breaking into TV? 

With shorter-running series being more popular now there are no spots left in a writing team to try out a new writer – be they female or otherwise. If you’ve got six or eight episodes that’s just enough to employ your experienced writers. It’s risky to give one of those episodes to an unknown. A lot of training and script editing usually goes into giving a writer their first episode of TV – it’s more work for everybody. So on a short run series there just isn’t the time.

What do you think of initiatives like Gender Matters?

Without Gender Matters, yes, the divide would slowly become smaller over time but it would take too long. I feel more positive for writers because the problem can be addressed through mentorship and industry training. I worry about directors. Their figures are much lower. While we can train up a writer in a story room, the enormous benefit for them is that their training is private. Baby directors land in preproduction, the HOD’s are all there and they’ve only got a 3-4 weeks before they shoot – so even if they do get their break in television, there’s no room for error. There isn’t any time. And more often than not, [there are] no second chances.

How did you start out in the industry? 

I joined the film industry at seventeen as a production girl. I always knew filmmaking was what I wanted to do. While pulling together shoots for commercials in the day, I was writing a screenplay at night, which turned out to be Suburban Mayhem. It was invited to screen at Cannes. That was a lucky break for me. One afternoon I was called up by my agent to tell me that John Edwards wanted to meet me. My life changed that day. He has championed me and mentored me ever since. The first show I wrote on was RUSH (Channel Ten). It was a 22-part series and I was thrown in the deep end. John gave me three episodes to write. I have never worked harder in my life. He kept pushing me and pushing me until I got it. Rick Maier at Ten was patient and supportive. It was a real training ground and I will always be eternally thankful.

Were you aware of the gender gap at that point? 

Not really. Sometimes I think I grew up in an industry bubble. John (Edwards) has always filled his writer’s rooms pretty evenly in terms of gender. Not to say he’ll hire someone just because they’re female, he won’t, but he seems to have collected many long standing relationships with female writers like myself – so I feel women were always equally represented in his story rooms.

Are there are more female writers now than there used to be? 

I have to say the recent figures shocked me. I didn’t realise there was such a disparity until I saw the report. But when you are trying to put together a writers’ room and you are looking at the agents’ lists it’s true that there are always the same female writers. And they’re most likely always busy. We definitely need more.

What’s it like being a woman in a writers room? 

Writers rooms are very personal spaces. Very honest. I have never felt that somehow it’s us vs them. When coming up with a female character it’s often the male writers who are protective of her, asking [things like] is that what you want to say about your gender? One thing I notice is that we often start talking about the male characters in terms of what job they do and it seems to be the last thing we lock in for the women – as if male characters are defined by their work. That’s changing now but I do feel that my male colleagues are just as much on the quest to improve the way women are represented on screen as I am.

Have you ever consciously felt discriminated against? 

Not directly, no. But sometimes I think I do it to myself. Men are better at representing themselves and declaring what they want. I annoy myself sometimes with how overly grateful and thankful and even a bit apologetic I can be. But then I look up at my friends who are successful writers, directors and producers and they seem to have shed that part of themselves. I think what happens over time is that you learn to get better at saying what you want without a shake in your voice.

Is there a lack of female screenwriters, or are they simply not getting the gigs? 

I think it has mostly to do with the lack of opportunity for new writers in the last ten years. I feel like the women writing for television now are the same people who got through when or before I did. Apart from the odd newbie, like Kacie Anning – who got through by writing/producing her own show. She’s talented and determined and has found her own way in.

Is it frustrating to have to talk about being a ‘women in screen’ rather than about the work, or is this an issue that needs to be aired? 

Sometimes I want to talk about being a “mother in screen”, rather than a woman. That’s part of the difficulty – the juggle. But my husband has the same restrictions and obligations that I do when it comes to juggling our kids and our careers; everybody’s different in how they work it out. Talking about how to keep your career alive is important in any industry.