INTERVIEW: Deb Cox on ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is the television adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books (A&U), currently screening each Friday night on ABC. Andrew Wrathall spoke to head writer Deb Cox.

What attracted you to this project?
My producing partner, Fiona Eagger, and I were looking to do an adaptation of an Australian crime novel. We’d never attempted adaptation before and we were fairly sure the ABC was looking for a prime-time crime series. When we began reading what was around, though, we were disappointed. It takes so long to raise the finance and script and produce a television series, so you need to feel it’s worthwhile—both financially and philosophically. It was hard to find a reason to bring stories about psychotic killers and serial murderers to the screen. So when we alighted on the Phryne Fisher murder mystery series—and discovered stories led by an entertaining but wonderfully subversive, feminist character, laced through with our own history and tackling social issues with a balance of grit and humour—we knew we could turn it into something we could be proud of which would fit stylistically with our mode of storytelling and reflect moral values we shared.

Do you find adapting a book easier than writing an original screenplay, or does it limit your creativity?
We set out thinking it would be easier, but it’s definitely not! It takes a whole new set of skills to preserve what’s most important in the stories, rationalise the impossible, gather what’s left into a cohesive whole and still reflect the boundless worlds of imagination encouraged in the readers’ minds by a few hundred words on paper—in a way that’s achievable in production terms! You’re being tested to the limits of your creativity and inventiveness with a whole lot of restrictions and parameters in every direction.

Was Kerry Greenwood involved in the screenwriting process?
Yes, Kerry came to our first brainstorming for the series and answered hundreds of questions we had, as well as providing important historical background we could plunder. She also read the scripts at various stages of drafting and would make corrections—mainly to language. For someone who hasn’t written for the screen before, she had a remarkable appreciation for the kinds of changes we needed to make to each novel. I put it down to the lawyer in her—there’s a very practical, logical side to her brain as well as her wild imagination.

What did you enjoy most about recreating 1920s Melbourne?
Early in the process it was the historical research and then, in pre-production, it was the location surveys into the hidden treasures of the National Trust. There are such beautiful buildings preserved in the city of Melbourne—not all of them open to the public. It was a privilege to showcase them to a wider audience. Watching the studio sets take shape was wonderful—I still enjoy in the ‘pretend’ of it all—like watching the best-ever cubby house appear like magic. The costumes were the same—glorious dress-ups! And the music was so evocative of the time, but our composer put his own contemporary spin on it. With all the departments, from scripting to sound, it’s so much more delightful, and educational, being transported to another time. It will be very hard returning to a modern drama after Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Did you have to overcome many hurdles in the adaptation process? Any budget constraints?
Yes, of course. We couldn’t set a novel on an ocean liner because we didn’t have a 1928 ocean liner available and recreating one would have cost millions. We couldn’t shoot some episodes where we had to travel far from Melbourne, or shift the crew endlessly around the city, because moving that many people costs so much money and we would have blown our budget. We achieved the series for little more than your average non-period Australian drama series—and when you consider that Australian budgets are generally very low compared to the UK and certainly compared to US television, I think it’s impressive what we ended up with. Our crews are respected internationally because they’re inventive and resourceful and with our series that goes double.

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