James Griffin co-created Outrageous Fortune — arguably New Zealand's most successful TV drama — and is creator or co-creator of 800 Words, The Almighty Johnsons, Serial Killers and Westside, among other shows.
Griffin's love of writing started while he was growing up in Hastings. At primary school he "quietly enjoyed" writing; later he wrote for, and edited, the high school newspaper. When he moved to Auckland to study arts, he wrote comical columns for the university student magazine Craccum. Capping revue sketches taught him about timing and structure.
But at that point directing television was what Griffin wanted to do. After finishing a Bachelor of Arts, he got a production attachment job at TVNZ in Auckland, and started training to be a director. On being told there were no directing jobs, he became a trainee script editor (his future writing partner Rachel Lang was given the other trainee script editor role). Griffin thought he'd work his way back into directing, but found he enjoyed writing too much.
While learning the ropes at TVNZ, Griffin was flatting with Peter Murphy (a future member of comedy group Funny Business). The pair decided to write television scripts on the side, and see who'd buy them. The pair's first sketch to end up on air was for The Billy T James Show. Griffin remembers Billy T as "an old school gentleman" and "an icon".
Griffin eventually got the chance to join TVNZ's drama department. It was the start of a very successful time for the writer. He wrote for a host of high profile shows, including the final episode of Gloss, the Funny Business series, and tourist resort drama Marlin Bay. In 1994 he shared an award with Marlin Bay creator Greg McGee from America's Writers Guild Foundation.
Griffin began script editing for "glamour soap" Gloss back in the late 1980s. The hit show centred on a wealthy family, the Redferns, who run a high fashion magazine business. Griffin was in his mid 20s, and had just finished his traineeship. His job was to hone the story, to rewrite scripts. "It was just fun and we drank lots of champagne ... We just went, 'we don't know what we're doing so we'll make it up as we go along.'"
In the mid 90s, Griffin spent a year as Head of Development at production company South Pacific Pictures (future home of Outrageous Fortune). In 2004 Griffin returned to the role for three years. His long association with the company has seen him supervising initial script development of anthology show Mataku, fantasy series Maddigan's Quest and 2007 movie We're Here to Help.
In 1995 Griffin conceived City Life for South Pacific. Based around a central Auckland apartment building, the series follows the lives and loves of a tight-knit group of 20-somethings (lawyers, bartenders, drug dealers, etc). Under pressure to perform in the ratings, City Life was shunted after seven weeks from a 7.30pm time slot to 9.30pm. While calling the show "a failure of epic proportions", Griffin still stands by it. "Failure sucks but it can teach you a few things if you're smart enough to learn..." He laughs that the head of TVNZ told him he'd never write for Kiwi television again.
A few years later, Griffin took away an award for Best Comedy Script for Kevin Smith comedy Double Booking. Griffin writes here about the challenges of creating a piece that could stand alone, but also potentially launch a series. He also wrote one-off teleplay The Possum Hunter (a thriller involving high school students who encounter a dodgy possum hunter), and worked on miniseries thriller The Chosen.
Come the new millennium, Griffin's career switched into high gear. Aside from helping out on animated hit bro' Town, he wrote for award-winning satirical series Spin Doctors and Jay Laga'aia crime show Street Legal. By now he'd realised — partly thanks to time on soap Shortland Street — that "drama makes comedy better, comedy makes drama better".
That insight would feed into arguably Griffin's finest creation: Outrageous Fortune, the drama/comedy about a West Auckland family trying to go straight, who get caught up in robbery, lingerie and tragedy. Debuting in July 2015, it ultimately became one of New Zealand's most beloved and awarded shows. It also spawned a number of versions overseas, though none matched the original's success. Griffin created Outrageous Fortune alongside longtime collaborator Rachel Lang, who first come up with the idea for the show. Lang says that Griffin brought the comedy to the writing equation, while she concentrated on character. In this ScreenTalk interview, Griffin attempts to define the "magic" involved in making a hit show, and why others fail.
Griffin and Lang collaborated again for Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside in 2015, which would equal the six season run of its predecessor. The first episode cleverly combines West family folklore with the real life 1974 Commonwealth Games. Westside won Best Drama Series at the 2018 and 2019 NZ TV Awards; its final season is set to screen in 2020.
While working at Shortland Street, South Pacific Pictures boss John Barnett asked Griffin to come up with a film idea that would appeal to a largely untapped audience: Pacific Islanders. Griffin and bro'Town's Oscar Kightley developed the script for Sione's Wedding over six years.
The movie showcased the talents of comedy group The Naked Samoans. They played four Polynesian friends on a desperate mission to find girlfriends. Sione's Wedding went on to become Aotearoa's fourth biggest grossing film of 2006. As Griffin argues in this extended interview for TV show Funny As, working with Kightley was "a great learning experience", and the film proved the naysayers wrong — including those who questioned the idea of basing a story around four males. "It was written off as a commercial film," says Griffin. "People would say that ensemble pieces never work, films needs a single through line, not these kind of four different stories that are interwoven. I just take that as a challenge." Kightley and Griffin's script for the sequel reached Kiwi cinema screens in 2012.
On the comedy front, Griffin has managed to sneak two sitcoms onto television: Serial Killers (2000) and Diplomatic Immunity (2008). Griffin was surprised when TVNZ executives invited him to turn his award-winning play Serial Killers into a TV show, around the time Outrageous Fortune began. The show "mercilessly savaged television networks". It followed the stressed writing team on a soap opera, possibly echoing Griffin's experiences on Shortland Street. He is "hugely proud" of the results, partly because of the show's Kiwi elements.
The madcap Diplomatic Immunity was set in the local consulate for a mythical South Pacific country. Griffin feels it was buried by its 10pm time slot. The "great cast" was led by Craig Parker, playing a Kiwi diplomat who faces off against an oddball collection of consulate staff members, commanded by ambassador David Fane.
After the success of Outrageous Fortune — whose male viewership was larger than many dramas — Griffin and Rachel Lang were given the freedom to create their own show, so long as it somehow centred on males. Hit comedy drama The Almighty Johnsons debuted in February 2011, and ran for three seasons. The Johnson brothers are bumbling incarnations of Norse gods, thanks to Scandinavian ancestors who immigrated to Hawke's Bay. Griffin is from Hawke's Bay; his maternal grandparents were from Sweden. He was surprised the series "sold all around the world more than any other thing I've ever been involved with. It's the one that hit a nerve out there and it is so distinctly New Zealand."
Griffin penned a weekly humorous column for The NZ Herald for 12 years. In 2015 he left the role to focus on award-winning series 800 Words. The Trans-Tasman hit is about an Australian newspaper columnist who moves with two teenage kids to a Kiwi coastal town. Griffin calls it the tale of "a guy in the midst of grief who has made a rash decision".
Co-created by Griffin with Maxine Fleming, the show was funded by Australia's Channel 7 (with help from the NZ Film Commission) and made by South Pacific Pictures. Channel 7 got involved, says Griffin, because it "was looking for a new project" for star Erik Thomson. When it aired in Australia, 800 Words topped Tuesday night prime time ratings. Nominated for two Australian Logies for best drama, the show scored a Logie for Thomson, and a New Zealand Television Award for Best Drama Series. A third and final season went to air in 2018.
Profile written by Ian Pryor and Natasha Harris; updated on 17 December 2019
'James Griffin - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 9 October 2019. Accessed 17 December 2019
'James Griffin: Getting serious about Kiwi comedy...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 13 January 2014. Accessed 17 December 2019
'James Griffin - Head Writer'. South Pacific Pictures website. Accessed 17 December 2019
Jennifer Dann, 'Twelve Questions' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 24 January 2017
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
James Griffin. 'A Good Goodbye' - The NZ Herald, 22 August 2015
Rachel Lang, 'West success' - Sunday View, 25 November 2007, page 5
Jacqueline Smith, 'Going back to Godzone' - The NZ Herald (Time Out section), 7 April 2011, page 19