Meet the man behind Fair City's Katy storyline, series consultant Sam Atwell
Behind the Scenes: meet key talent in TV, film, and music
Behind the Scenes: We meet key Irish and Ireland-based talent working behind the scenes in the TV, film, and music industries. This week we're chatting to Fair City's Series Consultant Sam Atwell.
Sam Atwell will be familiar to long-time fans of Aussie soap Home and Away as the character of Kane Phillips who caused all sorts of trouble in Summer Bay in the noughties.
After that role he switched to directing and script editing before moving to Ireland to direct several episodes of RTE's hit soap Fair City.
The 38-year-old Aussie has been Series Consultant on the soap for the past three and a half years and his day to day involves liaising with Executive Producer Brigie de Courcy and overseeing story and script.
Although four episodes are broadcast every week, the team films more as there are two crews with two directors filming at one time – an outside crew and a studio crew.
The Fair City team also includes 30 script writers and 15-20 story editors working on rotation and scripts are published to a Thursday deadline.
Sam describes it as a "boiler room situation" and adds, "It's kind of like sport - we have to take people on and off the bench."
Sam is the man who, with his team, conceived of and fleshed out the compelling Katy kidnap storyline that sent the country into a tizzy this past 12 months and particularly over the past few weeks as it reached its climax.
Although many viewers felt Katy's escape was too drawn-out on the show, Atwell feels the time was necessary to do justice to the story.
"I think with that one we really strongly felt we wanted to pay homage to the fact that people do go missing for a long time, and we wanted to look at what that would do to a community like Carrigstown," he says.
The storyline, which is still ongoing as Katy adjusts to life at home, prompted a huge reaction on social media, as viewers and the media continually speculated on when she would make her escape.
It even prompted a petition calling for her release.
"We write the show for the audience - if there wasn't an audience we wouldn't have a show, so I think we do try to please as many people as we can," he said. "But you can't please all the people all of the time.
"The thing with television is that it has almost become like theatre. The difference with theatre is you can hear the clapping or laughing or booing, and now with Twitter and Facebook you can hear it too.
"I think for me at least it means people are watching and engaging and I hope we can give those people a storyline they do hopefully enjoy.
"Certainly I do understand when there's an episode and people have problems with it and they might complain about it but then when they're asked if they tuned in the next night they say: 'Yes, of course, I had to find out what's happening!'
"I think if you challenge the audience sometimes it's a good thing but as well as that we don't want them to turn off."
Sometimes working on Fair City can be a challenge for the actors too. It's a pretty gruelling filming schedule especially when an episode focuses solely on one or two characters.
"Those guys can be inside the studio for 18 scenes in a day," reveals Sam. "I know when we did the two-hander with Niamh and Paul they shot that over a couple of days. That was just them all day so it required an incredible amount of energy. They were absolutely knackered because they weren’t exactly just having cups of tea in The Hungry Pig either!
"I remember seeing Johnny [Ward, who plays Ciaran] in the mirror here and Daithi [MacSuibhne] in the canteen and they looked like zombies. I was like, ‘Are you guys alright?’ It was the same thing with Alan Howley [who plays Eoghan O'Brien] when he did the taxi driver episode. He was filming a whole raft of episodes at the same time, out all night in a taxi driving around Dublin, and then he was back in the studio and then he was on a roof. We ask a lot of our actors!"
Sam adds, "I think the thing is it never ends. It’s not like a film or a ten part series or something like that. It’s really marathon stuff. It’s not a sprint so you’ve got to keep the energy up. It’s about making sure people can sustain the longevity of it."
He jokes that he sleeps in his office, but on a more series note he admits he has seen people suffering from burnout.
"I think we do have to look after each other," says. "I’ve seen burnouts and I’ve felt burnt out at times, but Brigie is very good at checking in with people. I think we all need to look after each other and ourselves. I’ve just started going back to the gym.
"You have to treat it as a marathon and know that sometimes you can’t do everything in a day. If you take it bit by bit it really helps with not getting overwhelmed. It is such a big machine that if you thought about everything at once you’d probably explode! It’s the same with every department. If you gave Johnny and Amilia [Stewart, who plays Katy] their scripts for the year they’d probably lie down and go to sleep for a long time or walk away!"
The team has a broad outline of plot 18 months in advance. At the moment they're working on the finer details of the Christmas episodes.
"We’ve got some big stuff brewing," says Sam. "We’re looking at different character groupings. We’ve focused on the O’Briens for a long time and they will continue to feature but we’ve some exciting stuff happing across the community."
Of course he won't be drawn on specifics and he feels for the actors when they're being grilled about plot.
"Their faces are recognisable so we try not to tell them anything," he says. "It’s on a need to know basis so they don’t have to lie! Also, we don’t want to make announcements and say we’re bringing in a plane crash and then we can’t find a plane!"
Speaking of plane crashes (there definitely won't be one over Christmas) and other 'event' episodes, Fair City is a little more limited than UK soaps like Coronation Street or Eastenders thanks to a smaller budget. However, Sam doesn't necessarily see this as a negative.
"I think what our show does best and what I think the audience responds to is the character driven relationship stuff, the stuff about community, and I think the smaller budget really forces you to really delve into who they are, what they want, and how they interact with each other," he says.
"I remember when I first came over I was so impressed by the gritty realism of the show and that’s a really positive thing that comes with the budget.
"And working on a lot as opposed to a beach in Summer Bay!" he jokes.
As far as competition from other Irish soaps like Ros na Run and Red Rock is concerned, he reckons it's all good for the industry.
"Daithi is from Ros na Run and there has been some crossover in terms of writers and directors and actors," he says.
"I think the more shows we have over here the better. There’s Red Rock and there are the big shows up around Belfast. I’d like to see more and more shows happening down here as well. Any competition is great and Red Rock looks great so I think it’s good for the industry."
As for his own career, Sam would ultimately like to develop his own shows.
"Game of Thrones has been calling – I’ve just been a little bit busy!" he laughs. "The long term plan is I’d love to develop and run my own shows and one hour dramas. I love a bit of crime and mystery and I kind of have a love of black comedy as well. The really interesting, great thing about this job is you’re continually developing ideas and storylines and that all feeds in to where I want to go."
Despite growing up in Brisbane and living in Syndey for several years, he's perfectly happy staying in Ireland, despite our inclement weather.
"I never did the backpacking thing when I was young so when I did come over to Europe and Ireland I just fell in love with it," he says.
"But I got a massive shock that first winter. I just didn’t think I was ever going to see the sun again! I remember I spent the first Christmas here and it was the first time I hadn’t been in the southern hemisphere for it and all the Christmas lights were on and everyone was sitting around drinking a hot whiskey and I just saw the magic of it. I fell more in love with it and then you get to summer and it’s not too dark!"
He laughs, "I talk to my mum and dad and they say, ‘It’s getting a bit cool. It was 24 degrees today.”
Fair City airs on RTE One every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.