Women in film and television: Interview with Kristen Dunphy, News

Women in film and television: Interview with Kristen Dunphy

Kristen Dunphy has had 25 years' experience writing, story producing and script editing drama for Australian television. Dunphy was recently nominated for an AACTA for her work on The Principal. Screen NSW talks to Dunphy about her thoughts career, the challenges, the highlights and her thoughts on gender issues within Australia’s screen industry.

Recent research indicates that there remains a significant gender imbalance in our industry.  In your career, have you felt it more challenging to be a woman than a man?

There are some areas of the film and television industry where I do believe women are overlooked because of their gender. But generally, I think screenwriting has been an area where there has been more gender equality.

I think being a writer is challenging regardless of gender.  And I feel screenwriters in general get a pretty raw deal in this country, so in a sense I believe gender is a secondary issue for us. That said, being a female writer can be challenging in the sense that women tend to undersell and undervalue themselves.  This is deeply engrained and difficult to change. Despite the progress women have made in closing the gender gap, females are still socially conditioned from a young age to be caring, humble, to put others before themselves, to wait their turn, not to push, show off, offend and – most importantly - not to appear aggressive. There is nothing wrong with being caring and humble of course – these are important and valuable attributes. But it means is that women tend to find it harder to put themselves forward, to promote themselves and to ask for what they want – let alone demand it! Men are generally better at these things. It comes more naturally to them because they are encouraged and rewarded for it from the day they are born.

In an increasingly aggressive and competitive environment the attributes inherent in women are what makes it harder to get ahead.


Have you experienced sexism in your career?

If I’ve been passed over for a job by virtue of being female I’m not aware of it. I do believe most producers will choose a writer they believe will do the best job regardless of their gender. To be honest, I think age can be a more discriminating factor for writers – shiny ‘new talent’ can be very appealing and seductive for networks and producers.


Do you think things are better in 2015 than say, 20 years ago?

This depends whether we’re talking specifically about screenwriting, or about the industry in general.  I’ve been screenwriting for 25 years and I would say the ratio of men to women has probably improved.  But even when I started out, there was a relatively healthy number of women working as writers and producers.  What I haven’t seen is an increase in the number of female directors and DOP’s. I have no idea why and I think it’s appalling. I would love to have the opportunity to work with more female directors.  But that said I feel very strongly that it’s not so much about whether a person is male or female. It’s about whether a person has talent, vision and the ability to work closely with other key creatives. There is no shortage of talent and vision in this world. But because film and television are collaborative mediums, I believe the ability to work in a team towards a single, shared vision is absolutely vital.


Has thinking about gender issues informed your work – in the writing room, development etc.?

When I’m in a writers’ room, there’s usually a good mix of men and women and I don’t remember ever feeling like my opinion carried any less weight by virtue of my being female. Female writers still tend to have to push a bit to get women into the forefront of stories at times and I do think there’s a general tendency on the part of producers, funding bodies and networks to choose stories with a male as the central protagonist. All writers need to be vigilant about giving female characters the same level of complexity as male characters. Good roles for women are still harder to find, and the casting of these roles needs to be more diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and body type!


Who have been your female role models?

I was incredibly fortunate to have started my career working with some powerful female producers – Sandra Levy, Jan Chapman and Sue Masters for example - who blazed the trail for women in film and television. Because of their strength, their belief in themselves and their belief in me, I never questioned whether I was equal to my male colleagues.  That was their gift to me.  Then, as a trainee and a later a script editor, I worked with female writers like Sue Smith, Katherine Thompson and Linda Aronson – all of them incredibly talented, smart and collaborative. And just as importantly, the large number of very talented male writers and script producers I worked with were respectful of our working relationship and often actively encouraged me to push on and become a writer in my own right.

This was in the late 80’s – through the 90’s – and they were amazing times. We were breaking all kinds of boundaries – there was plenty of work and these conditions probably made equal opportunity easier. Over the last five to eight years or so, things have become very tough. It’s very hard to earn a living. 

There are very few long running series – being 22 episodes or more – and the number of 13-parters is at the lowest I can remember.  Series tend to be four to eight episodes and the number of writers employed on these would be between two and four. Competition is stiff. I think issues of gender and age tend to rear their ugly heads under these conditions. 


Have you mentored younger women coming through?

I’m very aware of how fortunate I was to begin my career at a time when there were far more opportunities for young writers than there are now.  Writing requires talent but it’s a skill that - just like a musical instrument – needs to be practised over and over until it becomes second nature.  Writers learn best by observing other skilled writers at work and by being given opportunities appropriate to their skill level to learn by trial and error. Because of the way the landscape has changed in this industry, these opportunities are becoming scarce and I think we all need to work to change that. 

I’ve mentored a few young Indigenous women and a young woman who came to Australia as a refugee because I believe that we need more diversity within the writing community.


Can you talk about your career path – how did you start out, what were your ambitions?

I always knew I wanted to write but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into journalism or fiction or screenwriting. I did the BA in Communications at UTS in the 1980’s and my first job in drama was as a researcher and assistant to Gillian Armstrong and Sandra Levy on the film High Tide.  When Sandra Levy was appointed as Head of Drama at the ABC she took me with her as her assistant where I continued to work as a researcher for writers and shortly after, began training as a script editor on ‘The Last Resort’ produced by Jan Chapman and then on the RCC/ABC co-production ‘GP’, which ran for 100 plus episodes.  The ‘writer’s hut’ at the ABC was a demountable next to the studio where the show was being shot.  So we were right there, plotting stories, meeting with writers on scripts and dealing with problems in the studio as they arose.  I wrote a couple of scripts while I was still in-house on ‘GP’, then left and began freelancing for a wide-variety of shows for the ABC, SBS and commercial networks.


What have been your career highlights and why?

‘GP’ was definitely a highlight in my early career.  It was genuinely ground-breaking – we tackled subjects television never (??) got even close to.  The ABC back then was a dynamic and well-funded network.  I worked closely with some of the most talented writers this country had to offer.  Other career highlights for me are working on Wildside, which was ground-breaking in terms of style, and EastWest 101 because our hero detective was an Arabic practising Moslem.  The two main characters in Eastwest 101 were based on two high level and extremely generous working detectives who consulted closely on the show. This, for a writer, was like working in a goldmine.  Finally, The Principal is the most recent highlight for me.  The cross-genre style was a real challenge but I believe we made a show that really speaks to people, young and old.


What are you working on now?

I have a number of my own concepts I would love to get up so I’m out there doing what I can to make these happen while I try to earn a living. It’s always been - and always will be – a juggling act!


Want more? Read these interviews with strong women in the screen industry:

Interview with Liz Watts

Interview with Julie Kalceff

Interview with Courtney Botfield

Interview with Kylie du Fresne

Interview with WIFT

Interview with Dollhouse Pictures

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