Five Minutes With....multi-award-winning screenwriter Blake Ayshford

26 March, 2024

Blake Ayshford is a multi-award-winning screenwriter. He recently finished working as a writer, script producer and executive producer on the drama series House of Gods, one of only eight projects to be selected for showcase at Series Mania. His credits include some of Australia's top dramas, including Fighting Season (creator), The Devil's Playground (showrunner), Mystery Road: Origin, Significant Others, Love Me, Troppo, Barracuda, and Love My Way. 

He is currently writing a pilot episode for a new series for FremantleMedia Australia and Archipelago Films.

When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
It was more a process of elimination. I was hopeless at every job I did before writing. Growing up in a working-class family, in a regional city, there weren’t any models for ‘being a writer’, so it took me a long time to be able to own the idea of writing as being a job. But I was hooked when I got to work ‘in house’ for the first time. 

What inspires you?
My favourite TV and film is work that speaks to history, or social issues. When I first got excited about writing TV it was through the work of British writers like Jimmy McGovern and Alan Bleasdale, and local writers such as Ian David, Laura Jones, Sue Smith and John Alsop and Robert Caswell, whose Scales of Justice remains one of my favourite ever Australian series.  

But the thing that inspires me right now has to be Donald Glover’s Atlanta. I have no idea how that show can be so good, and take such big swings all the time, and still be always excellent. An incredible meld of character, history and society. I mean, work that incredible has to inspire you. Also, as a failed novelist, I love fiction. I feel like I learn so much about the power Big Print can have from reading fiction writers. I realised a little while ago that the first readers of a screenplay probably won’t be directors, or actors, or department heads. They are producers, or network execs. You need to make your script a great read – and seeing how great authors and poets use language inspires me to create the best ‘read’ I can.

Why did you join the Guild?
My first AWG membership was part of a playwriting prize. But after that, I stayed. I’ve been a union member in other jobs I had, and so believe in the power of the many. This is especially true in an industry that can make us all feel very atomised, like our careers are competitive zero-sum situations. Finding a community is so important these days and the AWG is my community. 

Best moment of your writing career?
I’ve been lucky to have many. Recently I got a message from a friend saying she came home to find her partner crying. Why? Cos she had watched Ep 5 of House of Gods, which I’d written. Some of the best things are happenstance moments – a great discovery in a writers' room, reading someone else’s writing that really surprises you, but I have two standout moments: being interviewed by a French newspaper about religion, and guilt, and grace in Devil’s Playground, which was then playing at Series Mania. It never happens in Australia that a writer is asked to talk about our work. And that the conversation isn’t only centred on stars and directors. Oh and a dinner with Tony Ayres and the producers of Cut Snake the night before our film showed at the Toronto Film Festival. The actual premiere was fun, but the best part was sharing food with the great people who helped me create the film, and knowing that the next day I had a story that was part of a huge international cinematic conversation...

Best advice you’ve received about writing?
I didn’t study screenwriting so I learned ‘on the job’. Rather than advice the greatest gift I received was patience. I was given the opportunity to stuff up, many times, and then be patiently led to a better way. Louise Crane, Pru Colville, Greg Haddrick, Tony Ayres and Jacqueline Perske all gave my younger prickly self advice without it feeling like advice. Shorter runs for series mean more pressure all round, with less margin for error and learning. I worry there’s not the same patience offered to beginning writers. 

What is your best tip for writers?
Find a useful way of reading notes. Notes are a part of any script process. A producer once told me ’we are not going to shoot your first draft’. The fact she had to say it paints a picture of how painful I must have been back then. Try and find ’the note within the note’ and don't be nervous about asking it to be explained. The real note might actually be about pacing, or tone – not a particular line of dialogue. If you know what’s really being asked for, you can have control of any changes (and not feel like you are being imposed upon). However, never lose sight of why you wanted to write the screenplay. What’s the core of it that drove you to write it. On one project I made the mistake of letting notes misdirect me so far away from what I was trying to say that I didn’t end up recognising the finished script. 

What are you working on now?
After a number of years of being ’story producer' on ideas I haven’t generated, it feels like time to write something of my own. So I've done a couple of adaptations, one a novel, the other a foreign TV series. Even though they are not my original ideas, I’ve been able to stamp my ’take’ on them. I’m also developing a somewhat crazy, family/crime drama. Based on a true story!

What are you currently reading?
I always have about ten books on the go. Maybe it’s my ADHD. But the best current one is Goodbye Sweetheart by award-winning Canberra novelist Marion Halligan, who died in February this year. While I knew of her work, I’d never read any of her novels. I’m ashamed of that fact now, because she is just so talented. I feel like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye wishing Thomas Hardy was still alive so he could send him a letter telling him how much he loved his book. I wish I'd read Halligan earlier. 

What are you currently watching?
I’m not watching much at the moment. I have a lot of good TV to catch up on. I’m trying to work my way through all the DVDs I can’t resist buying from Salvos every time I go in there. Recent watches are Series 3 of Line of Duty – Jed Mercurio is such a good writer to watch for how to structure plot and hooks, that are always believable and character based, and not artificial. He’s like a TV writing school. And last night I watched Sue Smith’s excellent Bastard Boys about the 2000s Waterfront dispute. Sue is a true national treasure, responsible for so much drama I love, including Brides of ChristLeaving of Liverpool, and Mabo. Her recent episode of Tommy Murphy’s drama Significant Others was just awe-inspiring. There is a long scene she wrote between the two main sisters about the death of their mum, that left me breathless. Talent that good truly inspires. 

Oh and House of Gods is terrific. So good it was one of 8 projects selected out of 400 to feature at Series Mania! I really hope people catch it.  

House of Gods screened at the prestigious French TV Festival Series Mania last weekend, where actor Kamel El Basha won Best Actor in the International Competition section. Watch House of Gods on ABC iView here