Director Samantha Strauss talks to DIVA about dying with dignity, living with none, and making every day count
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
As the global population continues to age, conversations about end of life care and assisted dying weave in and out of the mainstream consciousness. It’s those very conversations that make up the central, ethical conundrum of Sky Atlantic’s brilliant new dramedy, The End.
Starring Dame Harriet Walter (Sense And Sensibility, Atonement) and Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park, Mr Selfridge), this deeply moving, wildly funny series follows three generations of a family with “separate but intersecting obsessions”. There’s Edie, a suicidal grandmother finding her feet in Australia after her daughter, Kate, flies her out from England to be with her and her teenage children. Then there are Kate’s two teenage children, one of who, Oberon, is a young trans teen grappling with their own mental health.
The brains behind this intergenerational, semi-autobiographical story is Aussie screenwriter Samantha Strauss, best-known for the teen drama series Dance Academy. We caught up with her at a recent screening of The End to find out a little more about life, death and everything in between…
DIVA: Let’s get straight to the heart of The End – assisted dying. At what point did you decide to write it into a television programme?
SAMANTHA STRAUSS: I tried to write it as a film and I did it really badly, because I was young. It was the first thing I wrote! I was [in my 20s] writing about an 80-year-old… I needed to go away and try to be a better writer.
You did exactly that. The End, as it is today, is semi-autobiographical and based largely on your own grandmother. Did you have a conversation with your family before writing it?
Yeah, in fact my dad was the unofficial medical consultant. [He’s a doctor], so I’d have him on speed dial and call him for advice along the way, or even just “practical advice” about how you might put a bag over your head or jump out of… things like that. I mean, they’re used to it, you know?
What did they think when they saw the finished product?
They really loved it. They were a bit surprised… I used some props that I’d stolen from home. We shot it where I grew up, so I lived at home with my parents during filming. I got fed every night, had my washing done… I left my real life.
How much of your grandmother is in central character, Evie, played by the brilliant Dame Harriet Walter?
I mean, heaps. But Harriet co-created Evie with me. The retirement village I hung out in [with my grandmother] felt like high school, so the film Mean Girls was a reference [laughs]. Edie to my grandmother, feels like [grandson] Oberon feels to me. Both teenagers trying to fit their own skin.
There are definitely parallels between Oberon and Edie. It’s almost as if, the older you get, the more like a teenager you become.
Yeah, I think so. It’s like you don’t have to be an adult, you can just kind of give that up.
How old were you when you were visiting your grandmother in her retirement village?
I was in that kind of period just after high school [when you’re] trying to figure out who you’re going to be.
How was it, at that age, spending time with older people?
I loved it. I felt disconnected from my own peer group and these people had really good stories. They also loved having a young person around to tell those stories to. They’d done things. They had [to deal with] some of the same bullshit you have to [as a teen]. They were very political too, surprisingly, and they talked frankly about sex and death. I loved that aspect. There’s a moment where Evie, in the pool, says, “I’m a glow worm, watch me glow,”. I remember seeing my grandma stumbling back from the restaurant holding a torch under her neck saying, “I’m a glow worm, watch me glow!” I was like, if you’re 82 and you’ve survived all of these cancers and husbands and you can still feel like a glowworm? That’s pretty inspiring.
That’s such a lovely memory. Let’s talk a little more about Oberon. Did writing a trans storyline come naturally to you?
I’ve written lots of teenagers and while I was developing the fourth series of Dance Academy, which didn’t happen, I had a trans character in my head and so was spending a bit of time in the community, researching and thinking… That idea of not being comfortable in your skin is something I really relate to and so, Oberon always was trans, and attracted to men, from his earliest incarnation. He’s [experienced] depression in the past, and I’m interested in genetic depression and how the trauma that Edie might have suffered from her parents has been passed down. At what point do we stop it perpetuating it? Maybe it’s by talking.
You had a consultant work with you on the trans storyline – was that helpful?
It was, yeah. A really wonderful actor called Andrew read all of the scripts and watched all of the cuts and then gave feedback. And Morgan Davies [a trans actor who plays Oberon] himself, obviously had a very keen eye for detail.
…the youthful details?
Oh my god, yeah [laughs]. His generation is amazing; they are just killing it. We could learn from them. I really felt that with Morgan, Sebastian [Thornton-Walker], who plays his friend Jasper, and Zoe [Terakes] who plays Scarlet. They’re these queer kids who are hyper intelligent and switched on. They’re going to change the world. So, even though Oberon’s struggling, I think he’s going to be fine. He’s going to have a happy life and do really good things.
Later on in the series, we see Edie exploring her sexuality. Is there potential for her relationship with fellow retirement village inhabitant Pamela to develop?
My grandmother’s best friend was a woman called Pamela and they were inseparable. They sort of fell in love as friends. I like to imagine a much more sexual-romantic relationship, but that might just be my fan-fiction! [Laughs] But yes, that’s definitely part of it. Also, it’s hard being in a retirement village as a gay or lesbian person – you have to come out again in this weird, heteronormative environment. Yet there are [LGBTQI] women in the retirement village where we filmed. [It must be] hard to hold on to that sense of who you are and the freedom you’ve lived with. It’s an interesting element of the story.
Stay tuned – Edie might just have her first orgasm! [Laughs]
I hope so! Now, back to the big topic… death. Has your own philosophy on death and dying evolved through the process of making The End?
I feel like I know more. But, my views were already pretty pro [assisted dying], and they’re pretty pro now, but it’s not something I’ve dealt with right up close. My mum says she wants to be helped to die at some point – but she doesn’t trust me [laughs]. Even though I’ve made a whole show about it. My heart breaks for people who are in pain and who are degenerating and who are forced to endure… I don’t understand why there’s not a kinder way. But then I also have enormous respect for palliative care and medicine.
What have you learned while researching palliative care?
What I found really interesting, according to the palliative care doctors that I spoke too, is that most people are worried that doctors will knock them off before they’re ready. They have that kind of great anxiety, particularly non-English speakers. Also, when [supporting] polls are so high, 80% consistently in Australia, I think that we should have [assisted dying]. It’s the Catholic church blocking it all the time. I mean, it feels like we live in a secular country so, how is that possible?
Do you think there needs to be a change of philosophy around death, one which moves away from religion?
Absolutely. I’ve heard doctors say things like, “Suffering can bring you closer to God” – I don’t want that doctor anywhere near me at the end. It’s terrifying, but that’s the lottery that we’re playing in.
There do seem to be more people “confronting death” in the west. Things like death cafes, which encourage open, supportive discussions, are popping up. Is this reframing something you’d like audiences to take away?
I really hope so. I’d like them to have that conversation with their loved ones and to think about it themselves. Thinking about how you’re going to live your best life, and how you’ll die. It’s something I probably think about a bit too much.
It has its advantages. Another important area you explore in The End is suicide. How did you approach that?
That’s a tricky one, right? We didn’t want to glamorise it. I think suicides have to be framed differently to assisted suicides. With Beth’s death, for example, we could have made it more gruesome on screen, but we tried to thread the needle of – this isn’t a happy death. I feel tremendously sad for her. To me, it’s like, don’t try this at home, it’s not the way to do it. But then there are deaths that are kinder and more peaceful along the way. [Importantly] I don’t think any of the deaths we show would encourage anyone to take their own life.
Would you say it’s about acknowledging suicide exists, rather than encouraging it?
Yeah, absolutely. Both Edie and Oberon have suicide attempts that they survive, and thank god they do.
And it’s clear that both characters come to appreciate the fact that they are still living.
Absolutely. They do.
The End is available to watch on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.
This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!
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