In what's turning into my continuing series profiling influential and inspirational Canadian TV professionals (aka the few industry players I actually know), find to follow a really long interview with producer, writer, creative consultant, mentor to many and all round cool dude Allan Magee.
If you've been in this business a while in Canada, or even if you haven't, you've probably worked with Al. He's not only one of the busiest, but is also one of our most sought after talents over the past couple decades or so. From his drama creative consulting credits like the Showcase originals; Trailer Park Boys, Kenny vs. Spenny, Bliss, Naked Josh, Slings & Arrows, and Moccasin Flats...to his story editing of dozens of features including Canadian indie hits CUBE, RUDE, ECLIPSE, HIGHWAY 61, ROADKILL, and BLOOD & DONUTS.... Al is one of the 'go to' guys.
Magee is also president of Magee TV Inc., a television production company dedicated to creating innovative new formats for international audiences; recent series as a creator, writer and producer include The Smart Woman Survival Guide, So Chic, Partydish, Design Rivals, Fixing Dinner, Designer Guys and Love By Design. And if that wan't enough, Al has been a longtime consultant and mentor with the Candian Film Centre.
This email chit chat goes on a while, but it gives a lot of insight into the mind and methods of one of our country's best...
Will: First off - set the scene…where are you situated (as in do you work out of your company office or the Smart Woman’s Guide production offices)…what are you presently working on, and what’s on your desk?
Al: I am situated in the “world headquarters” of Magee TV, which is also the production office and studio for Smart Woman Survival Guide. We have a bunch of industrial spaces scattered throughout an old tent factory on the corner of Logan and Dundas in Toronto. Two are fully outfitted as studios, two are set up as corporate and production offices, one is a big green room and kitchen to serve the crew, another is dressing rooms and space for the actors and the wardrobe/make up team, and lastly an art department shop.
I’m sitting in what we could call my office, a very minimalist 13 x 13 boardroom containing a round Saarinen table, a 42 inch flat screen, a phone and my Crumpler bag full of scripts and rough cuts. On my desk I have half a Subway sub, a stack of paper, and a jug of hand sanitizer. Confessions of a germaphobe. My awesome assistant Neil Huber is just outside my door in what used to be my boardroom, we just switched, and theoretically we share an office but there’s too much crap on my desk so I work in this meeting room.
Will: So, like, what are you exactly? I know we all have to do a little bit of everything to survive up here in Canadian TV, but how do you introduce yourself…as a creative or a business man? Writer? Producer? Creative consultant? What hat are you wearing today?
Al: That’s a tough question to answer so I usually avoid answering it. Today I’m Executive Producer of Smart Woman Survival Guide, and President of Magee TV Inc. But a week ago I was also Professional In Residence at the Canadian Film Centre, and until March 31/07 was the Creative Consultant at Showcase Originals, a post I’ve held for 7 years. I’m retiring that post to focus on production. I am a writer but I don’t do the hard work of writing much anymore. I used to call myself a Script Evangelist, but some people mistook that for something religious and confused my zeal for narrative as a zeal for something else.
I wear a lot of hats, writer, producer, story editor, executive producer, creator, consultant, mentor, coach, trainer, industry ambassador, evangelist, and champion. I try to make stuff happen so I might start just introducing myself as a “Possiblist.” (Though people will probably think I’m trying to be the next Reveen or Chris Angel.)
Will: Did you have a mentor coming up in the business? Or someone that you admired or emulated?
Al: I had a couple of great mentors. The most impactful is Norm Bolen, who showed me how to do most of what I know how to do. Norm is a television God. Joe Novak now of Joe Media gave me a lot of opportunities. Clark Donnelly at Westwind was a real mentor both professionally and personally and created a lot of opportunity for me. Back in the 80’s I got to apprentice with Lionel Siegel a Hollywood pro who relocated to Canada. He was a show runner on Six Million Dollar Man, and Bionic Woman; and I also got to work with David Doritort who ran Bonanza. They taught me a lot. Debby Bernstein used to look out for me when I started out and I always appreciated that.
I always admired Steve Jobs for the way he disrupted our relationship to technology and made it accessible. I am a loyal Mac user. I read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill when I was young enough to take on its lessons and not be cynical, and one of the things the book suggests is an imaginary counsel of people you admire from history. So I’ve used this idea to various degrees of success finding inspiration from the courage of Martin Luther King, the creativity of Salvador Dali, the wisdom of Robert Kennedy, the mad persistence of Francis Ford Coppola and the good comic fortune of Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few. In our industry I’ve always admired Wayne Clarkson, and Bruce MacDonald, and Danny Iron.
Will: You are one of a handful of Canadian producers who is successfully producing both lifestyle and scripted material. What are the differences in working in the two genres for you? Are there similarities? Do you prefer one over the other?
Al: The difference is – lifestyle is way harder and pays much less. Scripted is more fun and pays way more. I guess that’s why we do so much lifestyle. The main difference is in the production cycle and production model. It’s possible to conceive, pitch, produce and deliver a lifestyle series in about 20% of the time it takes to make a scripted series.
What I love about lifestyle is the speed of production, the amount you get to learn about a subject, working with the talent, collaborating with the broadcasters, and that you have to invent the story all the time. There are real similarities in that it is still all about telling great stories with strong characters. I don’t really have a preference. The goal is always to make something that will present a fresh creative challenge for myself and our team and have some impact for our broadcasters and audience.
Will: Talk a little about the development process at Magee TV. Are all ideas generated in-house or do they come from outside/freelance producers and writers as well? Is it the same for both the lifestyle/non-fiction and the half-hour scripted areas of the company? What are currently your development priorities?
Al: Our development process is really taking off. We have a new Director of Development, Shelley Gunness who’s job it is to find material, take pitches, beat the bushes for interesting talent and projects, and manage the day to day on the projects that we have in development. In the past I’ve generated all of our ideas, but I’m bored with the noise in my head and am much more interested in other people’s ideas right now. So we have two documentary series in development with the super talented Rick Green, Creating Creativity, about creativity, and How to Cheat at Poker, about how the science and rules of playing poker impacts everyday life. We have a project that is so close to getting a green light at Food Network Canada that I’m afraid to jinx it. We are developing two lifestyle series with proven talent that we have exclusive arrangements with. And we’re preparing to pitch two scripted comedies.
I’m also very interested in new voices and mentoring emerging writers and producers and am setting up a system to work with new talent. We’re looking for high impact lifestyle series for women, ideally something for Slice and something for the W Network. And we’re looking for half hour scripted comedy for Showcase and CBC. Last month we had our first D-Day, a very rigorous full day brainstorm with 18 of our team going thru an idea generation clinic and 7 idea games. We got about 200 good ideas out of that and really transformed the creativity at our company. That first D-Day was subtitled “The Hidden Talent” project. I’m looking for a theme for our next D-Day.
Will: How about "The Prairie Talent" project? Next question…very important: fav band/musician of all time?
Al: My favorite band of all time is the Rolling Stones. Perhaps a bit of a cliché but I first saw them in the 1970’s, followed them thru the 80’s and 90’s, and saw them again in Ottawa in the summer of 2006 where they were even more impressive with age.
Will: I believe we first met way back when in Toronto (’94?) when you were consulting on our mutual friend Stephen Hall’s show ‘Utopia Café’ and you guys invited me to observe a focus group test of the program. I totally dug that experience of spying through the one way mirror on the participants viewing and criticizing the program, though it could be pretty hard on the ego (or Stephen’s at any rate). Do you ‘test’ all the shows you are involved with and how much cred do you give to the process?
Al: I go along with the testing of shows if the broadcaster wants to test them. We used to do a lot of testing back in the nineties at CBC and those tests were sometimes useful. We transformed Utopia Café as a result of the audience testing. I’ve attended tests in the USA where the audience gets little dials to register their enjoyment. They spend the first ten minutes figuring out how to use the dial and always seem to err on the red side of the meter, which is a bad thing when you’re the one being tested. If the person running the test knows what they’re doing, it can be useful. If they don’t it’s a destructive nightmare unlike no other and you may as well become a dentist.
Will: Whhhhrrrrrrr! Ahhhh!
TO BE CONTINUED...
Thanks Al. And thanks to Caroline for supplying some of the questions. More to come….please stay tuned.