Q&A with screenwriter Hannah Carroll Chapman



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

Hannah Carroll Chapman — Winner of the 2024 Mona Brand Early Career Writer Award.
Congratulations on winning the 2024 Mona Brand Early Career Writer Award. You've taken home the award for your writing on Heartbreak High, Season 1. What does it mean to you to win this award at this point in your career?

It means a lot. This was my first foray into creating and running a show, and I was so terrified I was going to mess it up. To be at the end of it now and getting recognised in this way is an extraordinary feeling. To also be recognised in the same year one of my screenwriting heroes (Belinda Chayko) receives the Mona Brand Award feels really meaningful.

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

I had always been writing stories since I was a child, but I never thought I could make a career out of it. I suppose I was scared I might fail at something that really meant something to me. So I dabbled in other adjacent careers: journalism, editing, 3D animation, visual effects, production assisting and development, but none of those felt like my calling. I finally bit the bullet and went back to film school to study screenwriting at the age of 25. I knew immediately that this was what I was determined to do. My screenwriting career then truly began when I was lucky enough to get a job as a storyliner on Home and Away. It's where I got my first script, and worked with the brilliant in-house team of editors, script producers and writers on learning how to write for television. 

The original Heartbreak High series was aired in the 90s. The judges have described your work on the reboot of as 'a funny and heartfelt exploration of diverse stories surrounding teenage drama, sexuality, and body positivity. This new version provides nostalgia for older audiences and sets the standard for how young people can be better represented in Australian television.' Why do you think it was time for a new generation now?

I was obsessed with the original Heartbreak High. It was a huge cultural moment when it was released and it was totally groundbreaking for the time in terms of its depiction of race, class, diversity and the issues teens were facing back in the 90s. It was an export that I felt proud of as an Australian young person: I felt seen. I wanted to replicate that feeling for our Australian young people with this reboot. US and UK teen shows are popular here, but it's so important that we see our own stories on screen, that we see ourselves reflected. It's been a rough couple of years for Australia, and I think in a way it's been toughest on our young people. Tough to see a future that looks bright and hopeful. And that's ultimately what I wanted this show to be – hopeful. So for this reimagining, I wanted to make something that conveyed just how brilliantly teenagers – and particularly Australian teenagers – deal with the embarrassment and sometimes the sheer awfulness of being young – with humour. Australians have our own language, we have our own way of dealing with trauma and often that's by laughing at the situation, and ourselves. When I spoke to the young people in my life as research for Heartbreak, that theme came up again and again – “If you can't laugh at it then you're dead.” Out of that came this rule in the writers' room where we said whatever happens in the show, “It's funny until it's not and then it's funny again.” We never wanted to shy away from tackling some big issues, but we also never wanted to trap our audience in the horror of it, and we always wanted to remind them – you will be okay. That's been the most gratifying thing about the release of the show. Seeing Australian teenagers being proud to have this show, to feel like they own it, that it shows them for how funny and brilliant and batshit they are, that they can tell the world: Look at us – this is who we are

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

I still refer to notes I was given by my script editor Hamilton Budd on a particularly terrible early script of mine on Home and Away. He scrawled “HEART, HANNAH, WHERE IS THE HEART?” on my script. I cried. Then I rewrote it. And it was so much better. I still say that to myself when I'm writing anything, now. HEART, HANNAH. HEART.  Two of the writers I have tried to base my own philosophy off include Belinda Chayko and Lou Fox. I watched Belinda and Lou closely when I was a notetaker in their rooms: the generosity, curiosity and inclusivity with which these women ran their rooms became the playbook for me when it became my turn. Romina Accurso, Warren Clarke, Pete Mattessi and Megan Palinkas, who were the core writing team on The Heights (my first gig after Home and Away), created the kind of environment in-house one could only dream of being in: they became my family. And that was the feeling I tried to emulate on Heartbreak High – a safe room where we could tell all our secrets, and alchemise that into story and character. Thomas Wilson-White, one of the core writing team on Heartbreak, became muse-like to me as we worked – we wrote to make each other laugh, and I realise now that's part of what my process needs to be. Finally, my partner Paddy Macrae, a brilliant screenwriter, is the person I share all my writing and ideas with, and vice versa – he's the barometer with which I measure everything I put out into the world. 

How did you find writing for the new season of Heartbreak High? Are you able to take more risks now that the reboot has had such a positive response?

I thought that crafting the second season of Heartbreak would be easier than the first, and in some ways it was, but in other ways it was more difficult. Trying to find a new series arc and hook, whilst servicing all the characters that our audience had such fierce love for, was daunting. I relied heavily on my fellow writers and my in-house script team, Script Producer Keir Wilkins and Script Editor Sarah Emery. We were able to take more risks this second time around – I think our Fremantle producers and Netflix allowed us to get away with more in the comedy, it's certainly more out there in its tone and humour than the first season. I was so grateful for that trust.  

If you could write for any Australian actor, who would it be, and why?

So hard to name just one! Leah Purcell, Sarah Snook, Mabel Li and Margot Robbie. Could I get all four of them at once? That would be a dream. 

What is next for you?

I'm branching out of YA for a bit of difference (although I'll always have a fierce love for it). I'm developing a TV drama series with my partner Paddy, a comedy series with Princess Pictures which I'm going to try and drag a bunch of the Heartbreak High writers onto, and I'm writing on Thomas Wilson-White's new comedy series Sick to Death. Heartbreak High has opened a lot of doors for me – I'm incredibly grateful.


See Hannah Carroll Chapman 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


Hannah Carroll Chapman is an award-winning screenwriter and the creator of the hit Netflix series Heartbreak High. 

Spending over a month after its release in the Global Top Ten Series on Netflix, Heartbreak High won an International Emmy Award, as well as the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Audience Choice Award for Best Television Series, and was nominated for the AACTA Best Drama Series Award. For her pilot episode, Hannah took home the AACTA Award for Best Screenplay and garnered an Australian Writers Guild (AWGIE) Award nomination. Likewise, for her final episode, Hannah achieved a NSW Premier’s Literary Award nomination for Best Screenplay. Her writing on the ABC television drama The Heights also earned Hannah both an AWGIE and a Screen Producers Award nomination. As a writer and story producer, she worked on the iconic Australian series Home and Away. Prior to screenwriting, Hannah contributed to shows such as Downton Abbey, Whitechapel and The Borrowers as a production operator for London-based production company Carnival Films, and to a number of series produced by Matchbox Pictures, notably The Slap, Nowhere Boys and Glitch, as a member of their development team. She has several projects currently in development.