Anyway, continuing on with my discussion with Canadian TV producer and Creative Consultant extraordinaire...Al Magee
Will: One of your first in-house jobs was as director of development at Sunrise Films in Toronto. What did that experience teach you about story editing and writing? And about running your own company?
Al: That was a very formative experience. For four years very early in my career I was exposed to Canadian and US networks and cable channels and got to work with all the best writers in Canada of the late 80’s, people like Tony Sheer and Jay Tietel, Janet MacLean, and Charles Israel, and I worked on all of Deepa Mehta’s early films. I learned the process of series development on Danger Bay. And I got to work very closely with Paul Saltzman, who was very generous with information and remains a good friend to this day.
What did I learn about running my own company – probably things like how to manage a development slate, how to manage people, and how to stay solvent. I learned how to run a company from Clark Donnelly at Westwind and how to lead teams from observing John Gill my awesome boss at Showcase.
Will: You recently commented the best gig you ever had was as development and production supervisor for CBC Regional. Why was it so great? What did it teach you?
Al: That must be a misquote, my best ever gig was my Showcase Network gig, but CBC regional was a great gig too. When I worked with CBC I had the opportunity to spend five years traveling to every corner of Canada and working with creative teams in all the regions. I learned a ton. I worked with Joe Novak the regional director at the time and we put 30 series on the air over five years. We developed a regional schedule from nothing.
It was during the early and mid nineties just before Speciality television launched so a lot of what we did was the first wave of non fiction lifestyle television in Canada.
Will: The CBC gig subsequently led to a raft of consulting in Scandinavia. What was it like working in Europe? What lessons could we learn from how they do things there?
Al: The big lesson from Europe was that all audiences really crave homegrown hits. I worked on a show in Finland called Tutto Jutto, a crazy cross between Lawrence Welk and the Newlywed Game. On Thursday nights 3 million of the 5.5 million population watched Tutto Jutto. It’s no wonder that our own hits have such an idiosyncratic homegrown feel.
And the professional sensibility in Europe is the reverse of here; the producers and broadcasters don’t take themselves too seriously, but they take the work and their responsibility to the production community and the audience very seriously.
Will: You’ve been playing this Canadian film/TV game for a long time now, and have done way more ‘behind the scenes’ work than just about anyone I know (I’ve never seen someone with so many story editor/creative consultant credits). How did you get to a position of being that ‘go to’ guy, especially for Showcase and the CBC? Are you hired separately by each show, or do you have an overall network(s) deal of sorts (as I discussed with Hart Hanson and his deal at Fox)?
Al: Tough to answer the how I became the ‘go to’ guy without sounding like a dick but I’ll try.
I sweat every single job and do it with a neurotic perfectionism. I always worry that every job will be my last. I have a few skills that serve me well. I understand how narrative works and I see the patterns in an individual story. I know how to listen. I can carry the equation of a particular story in my head for as long as it takes to get it written, and can hold the writer accountable to that story in a way that empowers the writer. I love and respect writers and have a real affection for other people’s ideas and a respect for what drives them to create projects. And I have a facility for negotiating the sometimes conflicting needs of the writer, the producer, and the broadcaster.
If I had to give one answer, I know how to channel a story out of the mind of a creator and coach them on how to complete it to the satisfaction of the all the people they have to answer to.
Will: That's an AWESOME answer. Okay, let’s stroke Trailer Park Boys for a moment. Were you involved with that series right from the get go? How much did you help shape it? And does that involvement extend to today (and if so, how have your ‘notes’ changed over the years to keep up with the times and the ever-shifting television landscape)?
Al: I got involved in Trailer Park Boys at the pitch stage. That was Norm Bolen’s baby and he sent me out to Halifax to coax the series out of the guys. We spent three days locked in a room and came out with a series. I channeled it out of (showrunner) Mike Clattenburg. The genius of Trailer Park Boys is all Clattenburg and his team, I helped get it out of his head and into a form that would support it as a television series. And I had the huge privilege of then working with them, and with Rachel Fulford at Showcase on every single draft of every script and every rough cut and fine cut of every episode.
How do my notes help shape it? I work as a promise keeper for Mike and make sure I know what the goals are at the beginning of the season and then help the team achieve those goals by shaping story, responding to scripts, and offering ideas on character and story throughout the season. On the first season I’d write pages of notes on every script and edit. On the seventh season I send a half page list on all the stuff that made me laugh out loud. My season seven notes are more like fan mail than broadcaster notes; those guys are very expert now.
Will: How much involvement did you had with more recent scripted series like Slings And Arrows? How do you think it turned out? Anything you’d suggest they try differently knowing what you know now?
Al: I worked with Tara Ellis on season one of Slings and Arrows and functioned as the writer’s story editor. There were three super talented writers and us at Showcase so I did a lot of work on the set up of season one, finding the story model and working with Bob Martin to balance the on and off stage story telling.
In season two and three I gave notes on all the scripts and edits, but those later notes read like love letters. As soon as it knew what it was, Slings and Arrows was effortless and brilliant. Rough drafts read like finals, and rough cuts screened like picture locks. Bob Martin is a frigging genius.
Will: Notes that read like love letters...awesome. Shifting gears slightly…Best. Concert. Ever. Okay, you can have more than one but which stand out?
Al: Best Concert ever – that’s a crazy question. Supertramp at the CNE in 1978 or 79, the Crime of the Century Tour with the trippy train film. Pink Floyd at Ivor Wynne Stadium in the mid seventies – first time I did acid. Jeff Healey at Clintons before he was a Jeff Healy.
TO BE CONTINUED...