Q&A with screenwriter and director Belinda Chayko


We asked the 2024 Mona Brand Award winner a few questions about her experiences writing for the screen.

Belinda Chayko headshot
Belinda Chayko — Winner of the 2024 Mona Brand Award.
Congratulations on winning the 2024 Mona Brand Award! You’re following in the footsteps of writers like Joanna Murray-Smith, Patricia Cornelius, Kate Mulvany and Andrea James who’ve been awarded this honour in the past. What does it mean to you to win this award?

It’s humbling to be included in this group of amazing women. It’s particularly special because it is in recognition of my entire body of work. I’ve tried, as much as possible, to work on projects that I feel bring something extra to the table, and this award feels like an acknowledgment of that.

How did your career as a screenwriter begin? Was writing for screen always something you wanted to do?

I began my working life as a cadet journalist, with The Sydney Morning Herald. After a few years, I started to feel that reporting, although rooted in objectivity, wasn’t always getting to the ‘truth’ of things — that there was something essential about people and their lives that could be more readily accessed through fiction.

I don’t know why I leaned towards screenwriting more than any other form. I do have a brevity of style — a colleague once said my ideal story would be a full stop, unless there was a sequel and then it would be a comma. I don’t write a lot of descriptive big print — just enough to propel the story. Screenwriting just seems to be a natural fit.

In their comments, the Mona Brand judges state that your writing ‘centres on the profound, unresolved events of our time — going to war, surviving bushfires, rescuing refugees — events whose consequences ripple across time’ and that your writing ‘seamlessly merges the political and the personal’. What responsibilities does a writer have when dealing with such real-world concerns and realities?

I can’t speak for all writers, but I believe my main responsibility when working with big, difficult subjects is not to tell the audience what to think but just to give them something to think about. My aim is always to engage the audience with the characters and what they are going through and, through that engagement, to open space for the viewer to consider the wider political or social issues at play.

I’ve always been interested in the shades of grey in a character. ‘Good’ people who are capable of doing bad things, and vice versa. I don’t think humans are one thing or another, generally. We’re in a constant struggle. For me, that’s where great drama lies.

Who are the writers who’ve made the most significant impact on your own development as a writer?

Personally, the writer who has had the greatest impact is Tony Ayres. We met at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, where we both studied screenwriting. Meeting Tony was like finding a kindred spirit — we could talk about writing, and ideas, for hours. And we both liked to think outside the box. Later, it was Tony who encouraged me to move from writing and directing film to working in television, and who gave me my first television screenwriting job. Since then, I’ve been writing constantly, and that’s really helped me develop my story and other skills. I owe him a lot!

Regarding film and television writers whose work I admire and aspire to in terms of their craft and creativity, I would have to include Sally Wainwright, Dennis Potter, Claire Denis, Agnieszka Holland and Abbas Kiarostami (I’m showing my age here). In television, I love writers who have a distinctive voice, like Armando Iannucci and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. 

At film school, I was lucky to be in the audience of British writer Troy Kennedy Martin. A jobbing television writer, he was also responsible for great work like the film Kelly’s Heroes and the original Edge of Darkness series. I think it was from him that I learned you could make work that was unashamedly political, but also deeply entertaining.

Which of your television series or films are you most proud of? 

Safe Harbour and Fires. I’m particularly proud of these series because I acted as showrunner on both, which means I was the creative overseer of the entire process — from development to post-production. Because of that, I feel they best represent who I am, and how I see the world.

Do you have a preference between writing original work or adapting work for the screen, and which comes more naturally to you?

The answer to that question probably depends on when you ask it! Right now, I’m being challenged by an adaptation because it has taken me longer than usual to find my connection points with it. I have to be invested in the characters for the work to really sing (for me, at least) and sometimes that means coming at it sideways in order to find that connection. I suspect, in the end, I’ll end up loving this one. I’ve certainly worked on other adaptations, like Barracuda and The Survivors, which have been wonderful experiences.

I feel a greater responsibility when working on either an adaptation or a real-life story, as the need to create a compelling narrative must be balanced with honouring the original piece, or the person whose experience the story is based on. There’s more freedom in creating stories from scratch, but a successful adaptation is rewarding because I’ve often had to work through greater challenges. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that an adaptation is easy.

What are you currently working on, and do you limit yourself to one project at a time, or have a number on the go? 

I’m about to start work on another project with Tony Ayres, my long-time collaborator. I also have the book adaptation I mentioned in early development, as well as a couple of other projects which are close to my heart. Television is different to other writing, as it’s the market that decides which project will go into full development, not your own preference. It’s expensive to make and requires a broadcaster to be investing from early on.

Whatever I’m working on, though, I want to do it whole-heartedly. My preference is always to focus on one thing at a time and I mostly manage to do that, although I acknowledge it’s a luxury not all writers have.


See Belinda Chayko at the Library in a special event.

Meet the winners of the Mona Brand Award 2024

Tuesday 4 June, 6pm 

Free, bookings essential 

Register here


Belinda Chayko is an award-winning writer and director.

She was the co-creator and showrunner on Fires (ABC), which won the AACTA for Best Miniseries or Telefeature and a Silver Logie for Most Outstanding Miniseries or Telemovie. Belinda was co-creator and showrunner on Safe Harbour (SBS), winner of the 2019 International Emmy for Best Television Series and an AACTA for Best Screenplay. The series was remade in Germany. Her recent writing credits for television include Prosper (Stan), as well as Stateless (ABC) and Fighting Season (Foxtel), both of which she received AWGIE Award nominations for. Belinda co-wrote two seasons of the political drama Secret City (Foxtel), and the miniseries Barracuda (ABC), which won an AWGIE Award in 2017. She wrote the telemovie Saved (SBS), which also won an AWGIE Award. Belinda’s feature film Lou, which she wrote and directed, starred John Hurt and screened in competition at a number of international festivals, including Busan and Rome. Her debut feature, City Loop, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000.