CJZ head of drama Claire Tonkin looks for projects with something to say

'My Life is Murder' S3 premieres on Acorn TV October 10. (Photo: Matt Klitscher/AcornTV)

CJZ head of drama Claire Tonkin is busy: Over the past 18 months, the production company has put 28 hours of scripted TV into production.

This includes Greta Scacchi and Bryan Brown-starrer Darby and Joan, which debuted globally on Acorn TV in August, and seasons two and three of Lucy Lawless vehicle My Life Is Murder in New Zealand, again for Acorn TV with TVNZ.

Not a bad run considering both productions contended with the joys of COVID, including international and state border closures and quarantine.

The third season of My Life is Murder will start on Acorn TV on Monday, while season two started airing on original commissioner Network 10 this week.

Tonkin joined CJZ in 2017 from Network 10, and has spent the last five years further establishing the company’s drama brand alongside its work in comedy, entertainment and factual.

During that time, she’s seen the market change quite rapidly, but observes there is a large desire for Australian content from both buyers and audiences alike.

She feels her brief is to find and develop scripted projects that match CJZ’s “smart, provocative” brand, and notes there is a freedom within the company to be bold. She’s looking for series that put a surprising, contemporary lens on Australia with a strong, clear voice – that is, projects have something to say.

“That doesn’t have to be harsh or dark,” she tells IF.

“We’re finding you can make joyous, warm shows that still have something to say.”

With a writing background, Tonkin’s focus is on the story, creative and writers first and foremost, whether they be established or emerging talent.

“The first question we ask is: What’s important to you? What don’t you want to change? What is your vision of the show? And I think that we follow that through as much as possible.

“We are quite involved creatively, but it’s also maintaining that original vision.”

Claire Tonkin.

Grey nomad drama Darby and Joan fits into the joyous and warm bucket, with a mystery wrapped in. It stars Brown as an Australian detective Jack Darby fleeing his past mistakes, who on the way meets English widow Joan Kirk (Scacchi) is attempting to outrun her grief. An epic outback odyssey unfolds.

Created by Glenys Rowe and Phillip Gwynne, the series’ writers include David Hannam, Beck Cole, Andrew Anastasios, Giula Sandler, Ainslie Clouston, Adam Zwar and Paul Bennett.

The response to the show since its August release has been very positive, with audiences petitioning Acorn TV for a second season, and fan letters coming in for Brown and Scacchi from around the world.

“That has been lovely and a credit to the team who brought it all to life during the madness of lockdown and COVID,” Tonkin says.

As a platform, Tonkin says Acorn TV “know exactly where their audience is”.

“They’ve been involved in Darby and Joan since I first came to CJZ. It was [CJZ CEO] Matt Campbell’s passion project that he trusted me with. Acorn came on board early, before they even started streaming in Australia; they are enthusiastic and really supportive.

“What I do love is they play well with others, they’re used to collaborating with other investors, and they know what they want and they know what works for their audience, which is fantastic for a producer.”

‘Darby and Joan’. (Photo Credit: Scott Belzner/AcornTV)

Collaboration has been key in the production of My Life is Murder. While the first season was commissioned by 10 and shot in Melbourne, production shifted to NZ for season two and three as a result of COVID. Lawless lives in Auckland, and given the difficult of travel, asked “why don’t we make it here?”. It worked neatly given CJZ has a Kiwi company, Greenstone.

“It had done really well for TVNZ; they had bought the original series as an acquisition early on, so they came on board and commissioned it with Acorn TV. DCD, our distributor came on board as an investor and 10 stayed within that deal as well, and invested. It became an international spin-off, essentially, which was really fun – for a little Australian show to go to another country,” Tonkin explains.

“It’s now a Greenstone series, and they’re a phenomenal company. It’s been really exciting to see it in their hands – and they let me play along as well.”

Darby and Joan was eight hours, while each season of My Life Is Murder is 10 hours – series lengths that Tonkin says provide opportunities to bring new talent through. For instance, Tonkin and My Life Is Murder executive producer Tim Pye were so impressed by emerging writer Malinna Liang, they gave her two episodes of the second season to write, and she has gone on to pen the first episode of season three.

“There are challenges in a long running series, but you also have the opportunity to sort of bring people through and create some career paths. I think that’s really something that’s important to all of us.”

On CJZ’s development slate is a project from Neighbours writer Libby Butler, The Esplanade, described as a “period drama with a Kardashian twist”, based on a true story; an adaptation of Tim Ayliffe novels The Greater Good, State of Fear and The Enemy Within; a UK-Australian co-pro based on a novel by Sarah Forster, and it is developing another series with producer Serena Hunt (Housos, Fat Pizza: Back in Business).

The company has also just optioned a novel by Meredith Jaffe, The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison, which Tonkin describes as The Full Monty meets Orange is the New Black.

“We have quite a wild selection of warm, uplifting stories and some dark, edgy stories. But really what we like is a voice and a take on what’s going on.

My Life is Murder, Lucy Lawless has attitude. It’s warm and it’s engaging; people care. There’s a lot going on under the bonnet, and that’s what we’re interested in.”