Interview With The Wild Headwriter: Rohan Dickson
It is very hard to describe Rohan Dickson, the head-writer of M-NET’s new groundbreaking soapie The Wild, to someone who has not met him in person. I have had the privilege of working with him on two TV shows and I have always been humbled by the way in which he treats his team of writers, he is a head-writer that cares about his team, something one rarely finds in the TV industry and he makes a great friend. Well enough about praises, here is my interview with the man himself, Rohan Dickson.
Phathu Makwarela (PM): How did The Wild come about?
Rohan Dickson (RD): I was interviewed for a job of head-writer. When I went for the interview, I understood that MNET wanted to replace Egoli with a new daily drama. I am not sure if they knew whether they wanted to do a drama or a soap then, but what they knew was that it would be set in a game lodge. They had done a few years of research into the South America telenovela format, their own DSTV market and they decided that they wanted something ground breaking, hence a soapie set on a game farm. So two producers and myself were hired in January 2010. We started doing research on the game lodge business. We went to game lodges in South Africa. Then we hired a story team, and which you, Phathu were one of them.
(He starts to laugh. Another story for another day I guess.)
PM: But I still am, can I have my old job back?
RD: You wish. Back to the question! The core story team went on an intensive research into the game farm business and we visited a number of game lodges again. A month later, the team got into a room and brainstormed what kind of a show it would become.
(Hayi shem, MNET e nale chelete…gape I went to some of the most expensive game lodges ke sale daar)
PM: So you had a blank slate?
RD: It was pretty much that, we did not know which channel it was going to be on; we hoped it was for M-NET. Everything was on a need to know basis. We knew there was a piece of land that had been bought in the North West for the show. So yeah, we had a clean slate apart from the fact that it was set on a game lodge. And it had to be amazing. We did research into conservation, hospitality and poaching, everything to do with game lodge. We came up with a basic idea that the show will be set in a piece of land, where the different families lived and each one of them had a specific relationship to the land. The conflict would arise from that. I then pitched the story we had come up with to the CEO of M-NET. She approved it in three phases. The story idea that was proposed, then we went back and created a series bible, which she also approved, by this stage we had a sense of what kind of show we were dealing with. The whole process took nine months. Then we went into a pilot phase, we shot a pilot or a test episode of what the show would look like. We presented it to the channel and they tested in with their audience who gave us feedback. We took the feedback and reworked the show to what you are seeing now on screen.
PM: Do you think there is another room for another soapie, there are too many soapies on TV now?
RD: I think it is a very saturated market. Is there room for one? I think there is room for one that is good, not just a new kid on the block, but a show that changes the soapie landscape. I don’t think the previous M-NET soapie was that compelling in the end, which is why they decided to do something new and fresh that would appeal to the target audience that they want to be speaking to in the future.
PM: Now, what really happened with the Tony Kgoroge thing? There is so much accusations and counter accusations?
(At this point his tone changes, I can see he is a little bit uneasy)
RD: Well I do not know all the ins and out, or the details of both sides of the story. You know what; I really do not want to be drawn into that discussion, as it was something between him, the producers, his agent and channel. It would be wrong for me to sit here and debate what really happened. Seputla is now our Tiro and that is where I would like us to focus on.
PM: This show has been sold as a compelling show set on a game farm, shot in high definition and all these fancy stuff. What can we expect to see when the lustre of these things has worn off?
RD: I think the soap market takes care of people’s interest in various places. We are offering entertainment of a great production value, great writing, great cast and beautifully told stories. We are not the SABC, our aim is to provide great entertainment and that is what people should expect. We want to tell great dramatic stories in a world that is glamorous and filled with great conflict. Our stories are light, playful, sexy and sophisticated. This show is sleek and glossy, beautiful to look at.
PM: I watched the first four episodes at the launch, and it was good as I could follow the narrative. When I went home and watched it as a daily, it felt like a letdown. The drama was not that strong for a new show. I kept waiting for something dramatic to happen and nothing earth changing happened in the lives of the characters in the first four episodes.
RD: That is a very interesting and valid point of view. The highness of the stakes that you are talking about, are about life and death in the real world of a soapie. Our decision was not to blow our guns too early in terms of story. We wanted to seduce the audience into our world without being melodramatic. I am not saying we did not want to do high stakes, but we wanted to introduce the world to our audience. Our challenge now is to keep the audience interested into this world we have introduced them to and hopefully they will tune in to watch the show.
PM: M-NET is known for not being patient with underperforming shows. They extended Binneland for an hour only to reduce it to half an hour and then banish it to Kyknet, barely a year after the show had gone through massive changes. Are you worried that they might not give the show enough time to grow an audience?
RD: No. I am more interested in maintaining the high stakes of the show. I think you bring up an interesting point though, which is also our greatest challenge. I want the show to succeed and gain a greater audience, but I will let the channel decide the other matters. They have invested a lot of money into the project; they also want it to succeed.
PM: Let us talk about your timeslot, 18:00. Your target audience, the higher black LSM market is not home at six. That time slot has been established as an Afrikaans programming timeslot. If you are a black consumer, you do not switch to M-NET at six during the week, that’s if you’re home. Couldn’t they give you a later timeslot?
RD: There was a lot of talk about the time slot. We thought the later the better, we could get adult talk going, our tone could be different but we are a creative team that needs to be accessible to advertisers and we need to respect the broadcaster’s decision. While this show is a major investment for them, they still want to see how it does on that timeslot, before making major changes. We have to trust that they will take care of their investment and that this is the right timeslot for the show. People will make the effort to watch the show as long as it is good and compelling. There is also PVR.
PM: Which I am sure you get for free?
RD: Well people have ways of getting it free. I paid for mine. People will prioritize the show; my job is to make it so interesting that it makes people want to watch it.
PM: Enough about The Wild. What did Rohan Dickson do before The Wild?
RD: I was working as an actor in Cape Town, but spending much time in queues for commercials. I was much handsome and boyish looking then you know. I graduated from Rhodes with journalism and drama degree, then went to University of New York, did screen writing diploma. I came back, tried acting, which was just too much. I entered an 11-minute short film competition; my script was shortlisted to the last three. Then my film was made by Film Four and it was nominated at the Canne film festival. That was 1999.
PM: 1999? So you are really much older than you look.
RD: Yes, I am not a boy like you. For the first five years of my writing career, it was a struggle. I was working for different shows, not having a stable job like most writers in this country. Then I was appointed head-writer of Scandal, which I did for two and a half years. I then went to Jacob’s Cross as co-headwriter with Amanda Layne. I did a season there and then I went to Zone 14, as a headwriter for a year. I believe that is when I met you.
( PS: Amanda Layne directed E-TV’s 4play)
PM: Yes, that was when you hired me.
RD: Bad mistake, (he cracks up laughing) Then I got this job, so I have had about five to six years experience as head-writer.
PM: Was it terrible working for Scandal? Let us be honest, that show is weird. It is like the stepchild of South African saopies. You do not really know what it is trying to be.
(He starts to laugh.)
RD: I was brought on when Ochre got the show from Clive Morris. The show had one AR and no one was watching it. It was tarty, but I was very green and did not know what I was doing. We got a team and got the show to somewhere decent two and a half years later. Scandal was a difficult show, but a great learning ground for me. Not to knock Scandal down, it was hard to set a show in a newsroom.
PM: And those horrible sets?
RD: Let us not go there. My experience as a head writer has been very contrasting; I mean Zone 14 was also a different world all together.
PM: What I liked about working with you on Zone 14 was that you were never patronizing. I have an issue with black targeted shows that have white head-writers, as they tend to be patronizing to their black audience.
RD: I had to understand that world and having worked on Yizo Yizo 3, it helped because I knew that I could not come into the show with arrogance. I had to lead and be willing to learn as well. That was the only way I could do the job. It was the same with Jacob’s Cross. I mean the whole business thing was completely new to me.
(I look at my time, an interview that was supposed to take half an hour, took a whole hour.)
PM: Eish Rohan, I have taken too much of your time. Thank you so much.
RD: Thank you. It was great.
Interview by Phathu Makwarela for Just Curious ©