Niki Aken celebrates the era of richer screen diversity

Niki Aken.

When screenwriter Niki Aken started writing TV shows seven years ago, she was the only one with an Asian or non-white heritage in the room.

That situation did not change until two years ago when the writer, who has a Malaysian father and an Aussie mother, and Benjamin Law began developing a show for Fremantle.

“For the first five years nearly everyone I worked with was middle class, Anglo and aged 40-plus,” she tells IF.

As a founder member of Australian Writers’ Guild’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Committee alongside Law, Kodie Bedford, Jaime Browne, Mithila Gupta and Que Minh Luu, she has been heartened by the much greater diversity on screen and in writers’ rooms in the past couple of years.

One show she is developing with Ian Collie’s Easy Tiger is emblematic of the advances in pluralism across the industry. Based on an idea by Collie, the Chinese-Australian comedy-mystery revolves an investigative team which goes in search of a missing person.

The writing team comprises Aken, Corrie Chen (who directed two episodes of Hoodlum Entertainment’s Five Bedrooms), Melissa Lee Speyer (who won the inaugural $20,000 Foxtel Diversity Screenwriting Scholarship) and Tristram Baumber.

Aken, whose credits include The Hunting, Chosen, Janet King, Hyde & Seek and Underbelly, will serve as the story producer on Partners on Crime, a drama series created by sisters Hannah and Eliza Reilly.

She met the writers-directors-performers at the Engendered Masterclass hosted by Bunya Productions last December. Screen Australia head of development Nerida Moore had recommended Aken to the sisters. They brainstormed the Reilly’s ideas for a show about two sisters who quit their day jobs in their quest to become full-time criminals.

Supported by story development funding from Screen Australia, a high-powered story room comprising the sisters, Yolanda Ramke, Sarah Lambert and Aken will meet next month.

“Hannah and Eliza are funny and they have high energy,” she says. “Most females in crime shows are like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien movies: they do the kind of things men would do. We want to make the characters more real and authentic.”

Niki Aken with Felicity Packard at the 2014 AWGIES.

Aken much enjoyed co-writing with Matthew Cormack The Hunting, SBS’s four-part drama which stars Asher Keddie, Richard Roxburgh, Sam Reid, Jessica De Gouw, Luca Sardelis, Pamela Rabe and Leah Vandenberg, directed by Sophie Hyde and Ana Kokkinos.

Created by Closer Productions’ Hyde and Cormack, the plot follows four teenagers, their teachers and families throughout the lead up, revelation and aftermath of a nude teen photo scandal.

Cormack and Hyde sent her the Bible and brought her on board to help with the characters and plotting. “When I am offered something, I consider whether it’s a story that needs to be told,” she says. “This story is vital. I emphathised deep down with the characters.”

Aken owes the start of her career to Felicity Packard, who was her supervisor in her honours year at University of Canberra, where she did a psychology/arts degree majoring in media production.

Packard, who was writing the first series of Screentime’s Underbelly at the time, gave her valuable tips on a sitcom she was writing. After she graduated Underbelly producer Greg Haddrick hired her has a script assistant.

Thanks to Haddrick, she got her first screenwriting credit: two episodes of Underbelly Badness in 2012. She later collaborated with Packard on Screentime’s ANZAC Girls.

Determined to broaden her producing skills, she secured a producer placement with Create NSW which led to her working with Helen Bowden at Lingo Pictures.

She served as script producer on Lingo’s upcoming Foxtel-commissioned drama-comedy Upright, working with Tim Minchin, Leon Ford, Kate Mulvany, the creator Chris Taylor and director Matt Saville.

She describes the show about two misfits (Minchin and Milly Alcock), who team up to transport a precious piano from one side of the country to the other, as “bittersweet, very poignant in parts, with a slow reveal.”