James Griffin has had a long and successful career as a writer, creator and developer of drama and comedy for television. Griffin co-created Outrageous Fortune, arguably New Zealand's most successful drama series, and is creator or co-creator of 800 Words, Serial Killers (based on his play), the offbeat Almighty Johnsons, comedy Diplomatic Immunity, and 90s drama City Life. On the big screen, he co-wrote both hit 2006 comedy Sione's Wedding and its 2012 sequel.
Griffin began working as a scriptwriter in 1985, when he joined the development department of Television New Zealand. During this period he wrote for a host of shows, including Gloss, sketch comedy series Funny Business, and drama Marlin Bay (winning an American writers award with Greg McGee, for an episode of the latter show).
In 1994 Griffin spent a year as Head of Development at production company South Pacific Pictures (future home of Outrageous Fortune). In 2004 he returned to the role for three years. His close association with the company has continued, and seen him overseeing initial script development of fantasy series Maddigan's Quest, supernatural anthology show Mataku and 2007 feature We're Here to Help.
In the mid 90s Griffin conceived City Life. The show was an attempt to create a local urban-based series that appealed both to a local Gen X demographic, and overseas audiences. Based around an apartment building in central Auckland, City Life follows the lives, loves and conflicts of a tight-knit group of 20-somethings (lawyers, bartenders, drug dealers, etc). Under pressure to perform in the ratings within its first six weeks, City Life was soon moved to a 9.30pm slot.
The 90s also earned Griffin an award for Best Comedy Script for Kevin Smith comedy Double Booking. Griffin writes here about the challenges of creating a piece that could simultaneously stand alone and launch a series. He also wrote one-off tele-play The Possum Hunter (a thriller involving four high schoolers who encounter a dodgy possum hunter), and worked on mini-series thriller The Chosen.
Come the new millennium, Griffin's career continued in high gear. Aside from working as story producer on animated hit bro' Town, he was part of the writing team on award-winning satirical series Spin Doctors and long-running crime show Street Legal, starring Jay Laga'aia.
2005 saw the debut of Outrageous Fortune, the drama/comedy about a West Auckland family trying to go straight, who get caught up in robbery, lingerie and tragedy en route. The show became one of the most watched and awarded in Kiwi television history; it also spawned a number of versions overseas, though none had the success of the original. Griffin developed Outrageous Fortune alongside Rachel Lang, a longtime creative collaborator, who had first come up with the idea. Lang commented that Griffin brought the comedy to the Outrageous writing equation, while she concentrated on character. (The two collaborated again for prequel show Westside in 2015 — whose first episode cleverly combines West family folklore with 1974's real-life Commonwealth Games. A fourth season was set to debut in 2018.)
Griffin's award-winning play Serial Killers debuted as a short-lived television series the same year Outrageous Fortune began. The series poked fun at the stressed out writing team on a soap opera, possibly echoing his time working as a writer on Shortland Street. Serial Killers won rave reviews.
Feature film Sione's Wedding saw release in 2006. Co-written with bro'Town's Oscar Kightley, and showcasing the comic talents of comedians the Naked Samoans, it follows four polynesian friends on a desperate mission to find girlfriends. Sione's Wedding went on to become the fourth biggest grossing film in New Zealand that year. Kightley and Griffin's script for the sequel reached Kiwi cinema screens in January 2012.
Griffin has also flown solo as creator of over the top comedy series Diplomatic Immunity. Based around the local consulate for a mythical South Pacific country, the show features Craig Parker as a Kiwi diplomat who finds himself facing off against an oddball collection of consulate staffmembers, led by ambassador David Fane.
Griffin reteamed with Rachel Lang to create hit comedy drama The Almighty Johnsons, which debuted in February 2011, and ran for three seasons. The Johnson brothers are sometimes bumbling incarnations of Norse gods, thanks to Scandanavian ancestors who immigrated to Hawke's Bay. Griffin is also from Hawke's Bay; his maternal grandparents were from Sweden.
In 2015 Griffin left his column at The NZ Herald after 12 years, to focus on TV series 800 Words. The series is about a newspaper columnist from Australia, who moves with his two teenage kids to a fictional Kiwi coastal town. Griffin called 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 an NZ Film Commission production incentive grant), 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 primetime 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 season went into production in 2017.
'James Griffin - Head Writer' (broken link). South Pacific Pictures website. Accessed 28 May 2012
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
Jacqueline Smith, 'Going back to Godzone' - The NZ Herald (TimeOut section), 7 April 2011, page 19