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On location: Packed to the Rafters – a familiar feeling

Now entering its third year, Packed to the Rafters has become the Seven Network’s flagship drama. Its creators told Eleeza Hooker that making a hit TV show might be difficult, but maintaining it over the years is even harder.

The series, about a couple whose adult children come back to live at the family home, has been a hit with audiences, averaging 1.9m viewers in 2008 and 2009 – with a peak of 2.07m for Episode 41, a number surpassed only by Nine’s Underbelly.
The concept was developed by series creator and network script executive Bevan Lee, producer Jo Porter and script producer Anthony Ellis. Together, they’re in charge of keeping the series going.
“It’s a nice problem to have to maintain a hit show. As you keep going through stories, it becomes harder and harder,” said Porter.
According to Porter, Rafters is a valuable property for the network, and one that needs to be attended to if Seven wants to retain its healthy audience share.

“Everybody [at Seven] is very protective [of Rafters] and wants to see it continue and to do well for them.”
In Porter’s opinion, changing the format too much is a big mistake that often happens in the television industry – “sometimes as the creator you get bored with it and want to tweak it” – leaving audiences wondering what the show is about. Change, while necessary, must be subtle.
At the end of the second series, forty-something Julie (Rebecca Gibney) and Dave (Erik Thomson) had a baby they called Ruby. This new Rafter is the driving force of the series, as the family adapts to a new lifestyle.
“There are obvious changes; having to deal with the baby and her demands – feeding, bathing, staying up all night, etc.” explained Porter. “It will also make the other characters look at the possibility of babies themselves.”


SAME FAMILY, NEW HOME

Each series of Rafters features 22×60 min episodes, which are shot in blocks of two over 12 days. The first two years, Rafters was shot at Seven’s Epping studios in Sydney. Earlier this year, the network relocated Rafters and Home and Away from Epping to a new facility in Eveleigh, at the Australian Technology Park.
The move has been beneficial. The main home set was originally conceived by production designer Samuel Rickard to be one piece – from the front door through to the back door. Due to the limited size of the Epping studios, that was impossible to achieve and the sets had to be spread across three different studios. Their new home – which Porter says is “enormous” – has allowed the production to finally assemble the main house as one piece. The move increased the total number of sets that can stand at the same time.
Other benefits, in addition to an easier commute for cast and crew, said Porter, include easier scheduling and more lighting possibilities.
The first three years, Rafters has had a core group of four to five writers (including Jeff Truman, Marieke Hardy, Abe Pogos, Margaret Wilson, Tony Mophett, Chris McCourt, Rick Held, Jenny Lewis, Trent Roberts, Boaz Stark, Nick Stevens, Chris Hawshaw and Martin McKenna), but Ellis says he’s looking at expanding the team to eight for the fourth series.
The two-draft writing process starts with a meeting between Lee, Ellis, the staff script editors and the writer of the episode, to discuss the general plot. The writer then works on a scene breakdown for the episode and, after receiving feedback from the rest of the team, writes two drafts which are then handed over to the in-house script editors to ensure character and style consistency.
“The in-house writers are the best at that because external writers are working on other projects. Internal writers have a much stronger sense of the big picture, the totality of the show.
“We are careful not to let slip any continuity mistakes; it’s amazing how vigilant viewers are, they will always pick up continuity glitches,” explained Ellis.

TIED HANDS
By the time Rafters went to air in June this year, the scripts for all 22 episodes had already been written. For shows with such a long lead, reacting to a drop in audience and making adjustments to reverse declining ratings is not an easy task.
“You’re working that far in advance that you have to trust your own instincts, without being deaf to the feedback you’ve been given,” said Porter.
According to the script producer, the strengths of the show are its good humour and its truthfulness.

“We will continue to endeavour to ensure that the stories are truthful,” he added. “An audience can detect if it’s not authentic, if it’s a bit too out there or too unreal”.
To serve this purpose, the writers are encouraged to use their own life experiences. The team includes writers from various age groups, which provides a sense of diversity and helps differentiate the perspective of each character, with certain episodes written from the point of view of a particular character that might be better suited for a specific writer.
Ellis rejects the suggestion that Rafters is soft or safe; without being too confronting, the series has dealt with domestic abuse, abortion, drugs, death and other dark themes. It even had a controversial episode portraying masturbation in series two.
“You always want to push the envelope, but you have to self-monitor as you’re plotting the series. You learn to gauge the taste of the audience,” explained Ellis.
Like any mainstream project, to keep the high ratings Rafters must be appealing to a large demographic with a wide range of interests.
“We want to be a family show; we want kids to be able to watch it as well, and there are parents who don’t want to sit in their living room while certain things are being shown because there can be some embarrassing questions. We are mindful of that,” Ellis added.

TAKING OWNERSHIP
Pino Amenta is one of the six directors working on Packed to the Rafters, alongside Chris Martin Jones, Lynn Hegarty, Cherie Nowlan, Ian Watson and Catherine Millar. Each director works on three two-episode blocks.
“In Australia, TV directors are not recognised, especially for their work on ongoing projects. Sometimes you look at a show and it’s so much a producer-run project that you can’t tell which director’s done what. That’s part of the business.
“But you take some ownership of it like it’s your show to a certain extent; every director works differently but we’ve got to make the same show while bringing our own individual things to it,” said Amenta.
In terms of look, Rafters is quite bright, optimistic, light-hearted and spirited, so these characteristics are all reflected in the colour of the set and the lighting used by DOP Lou Irving.
“It isn’t a depressing show even though we handle all sorts of topics. We want to forge ahead that families are the most important thing in life, and the tone is pretty much that. Visually, you can’t shoot it too dark,” explained Amenta.
At press time, the three episodes that had gone to air had pulled in an average of 1.8m. If the ratings remain that high, Rafters is likely to become Seven’s longest-running drama in years.
The Packed to the Rafters cast had a three-series contract. Its success and the fact that it is an ensemble show means that retaining the cast is essential. At this stage there is no certainty that a fourth series will be commissioned – although the creative team has started thinking about storylines – but a re-negotiation process has already taken place.
“The cast are enjoying themselves and they’re keen to continue, which is wonderful,” Porter told Encore. “If the situation arose, we would never recast; that would look silly and you lose credibility with your audience.  Gone are the days someone could disappear under a hair dryer and then come out played by a different actor.”

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