I’ll admit it. On occasion, I use this blog for a bit of self-indulgence. Such is the case here.
Recently I watched Pine Gap on Netflix—a show that is far under-hyped and under-watched. (Even Stephen King loved it! As he should! But don’t get me started on his opinion on adverbs.)
At first, I watched because Netflix suggested it to me. Then, I kept watching because it is set in Australia (specifically in the “Red Center,” or if you’re using British/Australian spelling, the “Red Centre”). My first Big Trip was to Australia and it’s been in my heart forever.
But after maybe the second (of six) episodes, I couldn’t stop watching. The cliffhangers at the end of each episode are brilliant. And the writing is superior. The acting is certainly top-notch as well (and the guy who played Obama in that Obama show is in it! And I love me some Obama!). But as a writer, especially one who is keenly interested in improving, I was intrigued.
And so, because of the amazeballness that is the internet, I was able to find and connect with the show’s creator and writer in Australia, and Q&A him. Seriously, how amazing is that?
Well, once you’ve watched Pine Gap (and read Greg’s interview, below), you’ll know that for a writer in Seattle to be able to connect with a writer in Australia is some pretty basic stuff. Pine Gap is (in real life) a Joint Defense Facility (Australia/US). The series showcases some pretty insane technological capabilities that our governments already have. Can they hear us now? Yes, yes they can. Read on. And then watch the show.
Q: Let’s start with Pine Gap (streaming now on Netflix; anywhere else?) First, can you give us a brief synopsis of the show?
A: Always hard to reduce what you hope is complex down to a synopsis(!). But the press kit said “A team of talented Australian and American intelligence analysts work together to ensure global stability in one of the world’s most important and secretive joint intelligence facilities … Pine Gap. The relationship between the Australians and Americans isn’t always rosy, and beneath the surface bubbles a clash of personalities, cultures and politics that may have grave consequences as the US and China grapple for power, with Australia caught in the middle. With a new global player encroaching, and the world inching closer to war – trust, betrayal, love and loyaltyall come into question … what do you do for the liberal world order, what do you do your country, what do you do for those you love and what do you do for yourself?”
Q: What gave you the idea for Pine Gap (the show)?
A: An amateur interest in Foreign Affairs, a similar interest in how working in the secret world of Intelligence changes people and their attitude to relationships. And I suppose a sense we could say something that might stimulate people thinking about the choices facing Australians (how do we position ourselves if America begins withdrawing from Asia?) and Americans (Do you want to pull back and share power in Asia?). those sort of questions…. but hopefully posed through personal relationships—not just geopolitical policy.
Q: For audiences who are unfamiliar with the real place the show is based on, tell us more about the actual town (is it a town? or is it an institution?) of Pine Gap?
A: Pine Gap is the name of the Joint Defence Facility which is located about fifteen miles outside of a small town in the middle of Australia called Alice Springs. It is funded mostly by America, but on Australian land, and it’s a shared base: the workforce there is pretty much 50/50 Americans and Australians. Theoretically all the signals intelligence collected there is available to both countries, and i believe in practice that’s pretty much the case, too. But alice is remote (over a thousand miles from the nearest capital cities in any direction) and the base is in a valley and inaccessible by land without security clearances. But it’s huge, fourteen radomes [editor: “a dome or other structure protecting radar equipment and made from material transparent to radio waves, especially one on the outer surface of an aircraft”] download information from dozens of geostationary satellites with antennas tuned on anything and everything from the middle east to the mid-pacific. It is run by a mixture of the us military, Australian Defence Force, NSA, CIA, NRO, ASD and ASIO.
Q: In the show, locals in Alice Springs joke about how everyone who works at Pine Gap is a “gardener”—meaning, no one will speak about what they actually do there. How do you go about doing the research for a spy agency where secrecy and confidentiality are so high? Were you allowed access, or did you do some educated guessing? Did you find some good anonymous sources? Is Pine Gap as secretive as the show implies or was that dramatic license?
A: Pine Gap is as secretive as the show implies and we weren’t allowed anywhere near it, nor were we allowed to have any image of the real base in the show at all. Our main consultant was David Rosenberg, an American signals analyst—now retired—who had worked at the base for over a decade and could tell us anything unclassified. We did also have conversations with another half-dozen or so people who had visited or worked at the base at various times. And the “gardener” thing is real. They all pretend they’re just workers in the unclassified support sections of the base. No one admits to being an intelligence officer.
Q: There were many instances where there was some highly technical and/or scientific talk. Do you work with consultants to make sure you get the science and tech right? What is that process?
A: David Rosenberg helped enormously with that. No one’s going to admit it on the record, but off the record we’ve heard from several different sources that we were far more accurate than they expected.
Q; Are all the spy technology and capabilities in the show real? For example can spies tap into our cell phones at any time and listen in? CAN THEY HEAR ME NOW???
A: Yes, that’s absolutely real. All the capabilities represented in the show are real —and they’re just the unclassified capabilities we were allowed to know about. God knows what else they can really do! Although technically they have no authority to listen to calls inside Australia, and our satellites don’t reach to the USA—that’s covered by Buckley Air Force Base in Denver.
Q: I did some research that suggests while the primary purpose of Pine Gap (officially “Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap”) is as a US/Australian “intelligence facility,” basically for satellite tracking. However, some people suggest that the real purpose (or one of the real purposes) of Pine Gap is to investigate UFOs and aliens. (I will tell you: I interviewed Dean Haglund, one of The X-Files‘ “Lone Gunmen.” I asked him his opinions about UFOs and aliens. He basically said, if I may paraphrase, that he’s talked to a lot of people and what he’s heard has been pretty convincing.) As I was researching Pine Gap I also learned about Wycliffe Well, the “UFO Capital of Australia,” a bit north of Pine Gap. What’s your opinion on all that? Have you talked to people in or around Pine Gap about the possibility of alien/UFO research there? And is there any chance of that coming up in future seasons? A sort of X-Files Down Under? (Just FYI, I am massively in favor of an X-Files Down Under show. After all, I even wrote aliens in Australia into my MG/YA sci-fi books.)
A: Well…. A lot of people think that here, too, but I doubt it. I don’t know of course, but my best guess is these bases have enormously powerful transmitters and receivers and in some way they are connected to other arrays nearby, so it all looks spooky and alien and might even occasionally impact on or interrupt normal electrical services in Alice [Springs] and nearby homesteads—but it is all earthly at the end of the day. Just using technology the average person doesn’t know about yet.
Q: While the acting is excellent, the story would have fallen apart without a foundation of superior writing. Yet as I’m sure you are well aware, writers rarely get the recognition actors (and directors, and etc.) do. What do you think could or should be done to help people understand the core, indispensable role of the writer in the process and the industry? Is this recognition something the entertainment industry should be working on? I’m thinking in terms of, how does an industry that doesn’t place much value on writers draw in great writers? (Take this question wherever you want to take it)
A: Big question. Some writers have transcended this barrier of course (Aaron Sorkin, Vince Gilligan, Allan Ball) but they are few and far between. Fiscally responsible showrunners these days do have a high degree of creative control, which is really what you want more than recognition. Both would be nice, of course, but I’d rather choose the first and then see if the second happens or not.
Q: How do you go about writing a six-part series like this? You start, I imagine, with an idea or a question, is that right? Where do you go from there? Do you start with the end in mind, or write and see where it takes you, or other?
A: We had themes and characters and worked on each of their (a) backstories, and (b) journey through the show. But we had the basic beginning, middle and end worked out before we started detailing each episode and drafting.
Q: You co-wrote Pine Gap with Felicity Packard. How does it work to co-write with someone? Do you each write separate episodes, do you sit and write one episode together, do you plan out the whole series together first, what is the process? How do you come to consensus when you disagree on something?
A: Felicity and I have worked on the same shows together in various roles for over twenty years, but not as a “partnership.” Nonetheless we know each other’s style very well. We developed the story and “plotted” each episode together, then wrote our episodes individually. But then would swap and make notes on the other’s draft often.
Q: In this kind of story, it’s necessary to write in both real clues and red herrings. I’ve recently started writing mysteries, and this is a skill I’m still working on. Do you have all the clues and red herrings planned out before you start writing, or do you go back and weave them in once you have the whole story written?
A: About 90% were worked out. One or two occurred to us as we were writing. Although it’s not part of the “mystery,” the scene at the end of Ep 6 between Gus and his dad only occurred to me as I was actually writing Ep 6—so we just adjusted a couple of things earlier to bed that into the whole story better.
Q: Has the emergence of Netflix, Hulu, etc., made it easier for Australian writers and shows to find a global audience? Or is there now such a crowded field that everyone is scrambling for a finite amount of attention? Easier to get out there but harder to be seen?
A: Yes, “easier to get out there but harder to be seen” is a very good way of putting it. There are pathways to a global audience that Australians have never had before, but it is a crowded field.
Q: You recently created your own production company. What does that mean for you in the big picture, and what does that mean on a more micro level?
A: Still trying to figure that out myself! There are still three or four options ahead of me. Watch this space, I suppose!
Q: I read that your focus will now be for international audiences rather than only Australian. What do you do differently for an international audience than an Australian audience?
A: Well, I wouldn’t phrase it quite like that. It’s more that compared to traditional Australian FTA [free-to-air] TV networks international end-users like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, etc., have different criteria by which they assess whether to commission something. And I suppose many of the projects and ideas that interest me most at the moment are more likely to meet those criteria.
Q: I also read that your goal is to bring compelling stories to a world audience. What, in your opinion, makes a story compelling?
A: For me it’s a mix of good characters, good story and good ideas. But you need all three. If you have the first two and not the third it can be exciting but usually forgettable once it’s finished. If you have the first and third but not the second it could be a complex reflection of life—but boring. If you have the second and third but not the first it just won’t feel real. … But that’s just me.
Q: When you look back at the beginning of your writing career, what do you think you didn’t do so well that you’ve learned through practice and time? How did you go about improving?
A: Always still learning. I still tend to over-dialogue and the drafting process is always about economising for me. Can I say it in less words and keep the meaning communicable? The biggest single change I learnt early on was not to treat each scene as a little “playlet.” I always try for a structure that lets the story tumble through it rather than construct scenes that have beginnings-middles-and-ends. Hope that makes sense.
Q: By popular definition, you’ve had a great amount of success. How do you personally define success? What do you think are the keys to a good life?
A: I don’t have a ready answer for these questions! Let me get back to you on those!
Q: What is the greatest compliment a person could give you?
A: That something I’ve done or said has made them stop and think for a while…
Pam here again. If you haven’t already watched Pine Gap, I envy you, because you have the whole show to look forward to. It’s an interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking watch. (And if you can’t stand long seasons, it’s only six episodes.) Like Stephen King, I, too, am eagerly awaiting more! Greg, are you writing? Are you writing fast??
Thank you so much, Greg, for your time and your thoughtful answers. I really enjoyed hearing what you have to say, and as a writer, still considering myself a somewhat beginning writer, I loved your insights. I look forward to hearing more about you and your work … through non-spy-network, civilian channels, of course! By the way, that blue shirt you have on is really fetching …