Cryptic screens: deciphering our toxic film industry

For ten years I’ve been trying to crack the code of the screen industry: that is, learn how to proceed in my career, while navigating the power imbalances, manipulation, and toxic environments that come with it. 

I’ve been attending seminars, buying festival tickets, dutifully taking notes at workshops and during Q&As. Taking jobs I’m wildly overqualified for, completely underqualified for, or jobs in TV-adjacent media. Working for free. Paying for the opportunity to work. Working in horrendous conditions, being a silent observer of harassment and abuse of power. Climbing a ladder of credits, retweeting articles about diversity, watching from the sidelines waiting for the day that I have the power to change things.

This past year, I have also been trying to learn how to do cryptic crosswords.

There are many rules when it comes to solving cryptics. If you are looking at a cryptic for the first time, without knowing the rules, it seems like unintelligible gibberish.

A thin bit of smoke stumbles out loud, across the industry every day.  (8)

Several years ago, when allegations against XXXXXX first came to light, I was in a script meeting for a children’s show. The writers and producers all chuckled sadly as they swapped stories of his inappropriate actions. It stunned me how casually they confirmed that this was all collective industry knowledge. It was my first taste of pressing up against the invisible web of rules I could not parse. It wasn’t group silence or ignorance but a series of deliberate phrases we all had chosen to use.

Many cryptic clues include an indicator. This tells you what type of code you’re dealing with. Anagram indicators can be words like astray, bizarre, strange, out, twisted.

We’re all talk and no action on messy driest ivy. (9)

A few weeks later, many more stories of other predators bubbled up on social media. A friend of mine shared that she, too, had experienced sexual harassment on set, without detailing when, where or by whom. Her boss immediately called her, demanding to know: Was it one of my jobs? One of my people? Why didn’t you tell me immediately? Did you have to tweet about it?

People love to reference the #MeToo movement in their pitches, their speeches, their scripts. I can’t tell you if it has changed anything. People are still being sued for defamation and people are still staying quiet. We have more clues now, but just as many problems.

Some cryptic clues are simply hidden definitions—put the individual pieces together and you’ll find the answer. Known as charade clues, these ones generally don’t have an indicator; sometimes you can tell because they feel longer and more disjointed. A lot of deciphering for me is going on my gut instinct.

Maintain tech department with feathers … this is what they want to say. (4, 2, 4)

I could have written this in an easier way. But what happens when we speak plainly?

Loss of power. Producers are afraid something will be taken away from them, if they are honest. There is very little money in our industry—compared to the business of international territories—and opportunity is often led by government finance rather than market. If something goes awry midshoot, we do not have the finance in the country to save the project. Everything goes under. Reshoots are unlikely. And those at the helm may not see funding support again—government bodies, distributors, commissioners alike will now see them as a risk. The captain that could not hold the ship together. So if a problem arises, it is better for the producers and for the future of all their projects to quietly hide it away.

But what are these cracks we’re so afraid of? What exactly are we hiding?

Quite often there are words in cryptic clues that are automatic codes for certain letters. French becomes le, la, or les. Queen becomes ER for Elizabeth R (unless you are my dear friend Noon: when he sets a cryptic, Queen becomes B for Beyonce). Time is often T, Right is R, Doctor is MD or DR. Turn, while earlier I said it could be an anagram indicator, can also just be a U. Sometimes—it can be both in the same clue.

And sometimes, these words can be a misdirection, a red herring.

Cheerful Italian has no right, time and charges … not truths. (11)

In order to bring on board partners for film and television projects, transparency across the budget and the finance plan is a requirement. Financiers don’t want to take a risk—they want to see exactly what the shape of your spending is. But this information is never public for the crew, for the team, for the rest of the industry. Every producer knows there is a version of the budget that the financiers see, and the real budget. What would happen if that real budget became visible?

It would be interrogated.  If you want to underpay certain departments, or claim to be unable to afford rehearsals for safety, or insist that overtime and weekends must be worked through silently—you need to keep every dollar secret. Otherwise, someone will realise that of course there is room for safety, protection, fairness. Someone will call you out on your behaviour. Someone will accuse you of doing something wrong. You will lose money. You will lose profit. You will lose stakes. And so there is secrecy perpetuated by people at the top.

But what about people at the bottom?

Turn art, turn Master of Arts—I’ll carry that for you! (6)

I don’t know if it was my social media presence, my queer activist vibe, or just because I was a visible woman, but it soon became clear that many emerging people in the industry looked to me as someone who could help in dire situations.

Three years ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from someone I’d only met once or twice. They knew of an emerging writer who was sexually assaulted during development of a project by another writer, and repeatedly harassed via text throughout. The caller said, ‘this writer wants my help, I don’t know what to do, but you seem like the sort of person who does.’ The caller had already reported it to the production company, who gave a cold detached statement about their inaction that made little sense.

The emerging writer was terrified of never being hired again. They couldn’t speak up. The first person they reached out to was terrified of confronting a production company and sabotaging their career, which was finally starting to advance, so they would not speak up. The company would have had to legally pursue the case and most likely cease the project, leaving them with debts and a black mark on their record. It was not financially viable to act. It was also not wise to state that directly. So they gave a weird cryptic response instead.

Sometimes we’ll say any string of words rather than acknowledge the huge amount of money and reputation that is on the line.

Your silence makes you freebie left, I see it. (9)

I remember calling a friend of mine who knew some of the parties involved. ‘Why did he call me?I asked. ‘Why did he make me responsible for this?’

‘Because,’ she said, ‘you’re like a superhero.’

I was on my knees in my backyard when she said that, my forehead pressed into the wet grass, as if the ground was going to give me an answer. I spoke to the young writer and asked them what they wanted to happen next. They just wanted the producers to know—they didn’t want to go public, press charges, or confront the perpetrator. So, I called the producer.

A bad guy? No, he’s just a whacky teardrop! (8)

The producer immediately called the abuser and told him he was being accused of something horrendous. The abuser sued the young writer for defamation. The writer had proof: a string of awful text messages and unsolicited photos. The defamation charges were dropped. The young writer had a nervous breakdown and ended up doing a short stint in a mental health ward, trying to recover from being so hurt and then so threatened.

This all happened quietly as the project went on to screen around the country. 

Parts I mixed for that person everyone keeps working with. (6)

The writer ended up leaving the film industry for good. The abuser recently got funded again.

Maybe I mishandled the situation. Maybe I should have anticipated that the producer would not react with empathy. Maybe I should have set up better support systems for the writer or referred them to someone with more experience. Maybe I should have stayed away from something that wasn’t my problem to solve.

For those of us who do find the courage to speak plainly, to cut through the layers of doublespeak and half-truths and everyone protecting everyone else, we face Australian laws around defamation that make it near impossible to do so. So, once you battle through the immediate fear of confrontation, once you face up to the consequences of losing a career, a reputation and friends, once you’ve dealt with your own internal insidious voice telling you to shut up and stop causing a scene—you’ve got legal ramifications on the horizon.

Speaking out makes me a fair, radical, and independent driver… at first. (6)

Of course, we’re going to stay quiet.

Of course, no-one is ever going to give you the answer.

The problem with cryptics is that once you begin to learn the rules, you will soon realise they are malleable, and every crossword writer—known as a ‘setter’—applies their own take anyway.

The clues I have written are not perfect. They don’t follow traditional guidelines. But for once, I have the power here, so I’m saying it how I want to say it. Well, almost. Not quite.



Image: Matthias Blonski


Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Stephanie Westwood

Stephanie Westwood is a queer producer of film, television, and interactive content.

More by Stephanie Westwood ›

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  1. It’s such a messed up industry. Then many people who are in the industry say that it’s all good because they had to go through it too. I haven’t even finished my media degree, and I’m already considering changing industry.

  2. Stephanie, this is a great article and long overdue. I’ve been in the industry for many years across almost all areas of the business and I’d be more than happy to take a stand with you, with advocacy and approaches.I have nothing to lose and tbh I don’t care who I might offend – enough! Julie Marlow

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