"It's all about good design."
Okay, now we're getting to the nitty gritty - most excellent Creative Consultant and Canuck TV producer Al Magee digs into two topics of interest to most of us...the making of quality drama and future of Dramatic TV and Feature Films in Canada.
Will: So what’s Al Magee’s take on what is necessary to make another long running Canadian hit like DaVinci’s Inquest or Due South or Cold Squad or Traders or Street Legal (Regenesis also seems heading down that road)?
Al: I have no secret to a hit one hour show or I’d be rolling in them, but I do have a bunch of opinions, some earned and some purely speculative.
The only hit one hour show I worked on was Slings and Arrows and I was a spear carrier to Bob Martin and Susan Coyne’s genius. (Ask producers Niv and Danny, they’ve got the touch.) I think Regenesis is a success because it is unique, it is rigorously produced by a strong production company and team and it has committed support from its broadcaster. That combination has allowed the show to mature and gain momentum and build an audience. It takes time, (more than one season) to discover a series, to learn from the audience and to process all of that learning into stronger characters, stronger stories and a stronger series design, which payoff with audience.
On the speculative opinion side – popular television is made by people who live and love television, not by people taking a break from feature film careers. Which is not to say you can’t do both. Slings was loaded with feature people, and certainly the actors, the producers and the director have great success in features, but they also have great experience and respect for the craft of television story telling and dedicated themselves to that. So too do the team at Regenisis. The industrial series that we make never hit too big in Canada because they smell so inauthentic. It’s not so much fun to watch a guy from a salad dressing commercial dressed up like an Alien spewing gibberish on a set full of flashing lights. But those series give us all great experience and keep us alive and make it possible to develop an industry. And sometimes they make it harder to develop an audience. (And by the way that is not a reference to Stargate, which is a favorite of mine, great television made by an incredibly talented group of people.)
Can we get a one hour series that takes off the way our half hours like Corner Gas and Little Mosque can? Maybe, and maybe if the one-hours follow a similar route as the half hour hits – authentically Canadian, not pretending or aspiring to a US primetime aesthetic, and giving the audience something accessible that is not available on a network simulcast. It takes a perfect triangle to get any series right but it’s more important on a one hour because of the pressure on the writing to be sustainable. So the triangle of a skilled writer with a strong point of view, a producer who knows how to work with writers and broadcasters and banks, and a broadcaster who is unflinchingly committed to the series is essential. I’ve had first hand experience on each side of the triangle and at various points in my life as a writer, as a producer and as a broadcaster, I’ve been the one to screw things up. It’s not one of those triangles that works with two sides out of three. It takes all three. So can I revise my pretentious label and call it not the Perfect Triangle, but the Perfect Storm.
The world doesn’t need another TV series the way it needs cures for what ail us, so the making of TV series is an illogical enterprise from the get go. In my twenty some years, all of the successes I’ve been a part of have had perfect symmetry on what I’ll now call my triangle theory. If you’ll permit me the temporary pretensions of naming my own theories:
Slings and Arrows had a head writer in Bob Martin with a unique imagination and singular point of view. It had producers in Danny and Niv and Sari who are very creative, know how to lead projects, how to marshal resources, how to bridge production and broadcast, and it had a team at Showcase that was maniacally committed to the enterprise. Speaking purely from my experience on that show from the broadcast side at Showcase, we were rigorous and respectful with the development, the creative team completely engaged with us for full debate, and as a result the project maintained one singular point of view and a commitment from everyone to stay on the same page regardless of the pain. Hence there was no pain. That takes great commitment and leadership from all sides which we don’t often experience.
On the creative side, the cliché that it’s all about good writing is only partially true. It’s all about good design. Good design requires the committed input of the writer(s), the producers, and the broadcaster. The broadcaster has to come to the project with an actual tested set of information about their audience not just wacky guesses and misinformation and insecurity that will undermine everyone’s confidence. From the writers it takes a commitment to the project, to the ongoing development of the project, to the responsible integration of all the input, good, bad and otherwise, and to managing their own sense of attachment to their best ideas that just won’t fly without getting pissy and passive aggressive and throwing their hands up. It’s toughest on the writers and we have a lot of extremely talented writers who can write brilliant material, and we need to support and develop those writers to gain the skill to manage their own temperament and attachments so they can apply their talent to what may at the time appear like the most undermining of notes and conditions that get placed on their work.
We need leadership and we need to commit to each other. We need leadership from the broadcasters and I’m feeling new inspired leadership from places like the CBC, and Showcase and certainly from Canwest (I’m simply not in communication with CTV so have no first hand experience.) We need leadership from the creative community, in the form of stories that the capable and qualified writers are dying to tell, and we need leadership from the producers to create workable relationships with the writers and showrunners and create partnerships with broadcasters to develop the vision collectively and get buy in from all the stakeholders. Mostly we just need to work harder and smarter and get off the sense of entitlement that sabotages our work when the going gets tough.
We also need leadership and collaboration from the agents. All the writers are represented, and we now live at a time of great opportunity and it’s time for agents and producers to work collaboratively to get projects made. We have some incredibly good smart agents in Canada and they need to take a more active role in getting material out there, in creating opportunity for their clients, and for helping their clients to develop their individual business plans and careers. The agents that take a leading role in the development of their clients work and working relationships are about to find themselves very handsomely rewarded.
We all aspire to HBO standards, but we rarely actually do the heavy lifting on the series design to get to an HBO standard. HBO does a few things that we can learn from. Their series take place in worlds that we don’t have access to but have a strong curiosity about. Worlds that we have not seen or rarely see on television. These shows are written and produced by creative people with strong points of view, with a voice, David Chase, Darren Star, Alan Ball to name a few. These writers have a story they want to tell. They don’t 'just' want to make a TV series. The network process at HBO is rigorous – and respectful. It’s not about beating up on the creative people, it’s about providing the kind of leadership that a production needs from a broadcaster – real audience information, guidance toward that audience, and committed feedback toward an agreed upon set of creative and business goals, not a random collection of opinions from people trying to impress their bosses and protect their jobs at the expense of the project. It takes commitment to the rigor of completing the design of the project, which includes ongoing exploration of theme, character, story, the world, the franchise and all of the ways these ideas can be communicated within the box that is being built around the series premise.
All that said, there is some exciting material in development and production at the networks right now and I’m very optimistic about what’s about to come out.
Will: Awesome answer, even if I happen to like aliens spewing gibberish. Okay, we’re mostly about TV here at Uninflected Images Juxtaposed, but you’ve done a fair amount of work on a lot of Canadian feature films. What are some of your favourite experiences and where do you see the feature film industry here in Canada going in the future (as in, what needs to happen for it to get on the public’s radar, at least in English Canada)?
Al: I’ve been lucky enough to work in a creative capacity on over 50 produced features. I have a few films out right now or coming out that I story edited: Lucid, Poor Boy’s Game, Fido which are all good films. My favorite experience was Highway 61, for almost a year me and Bruce and Don spent our nights in a crappy apartment on College Street beating out a story and revising scripts. That was huge fun and being a part of Bruce’s ascent to the throne was a blast. I was a producer on Sam & Me, Deepa Mehta’s first feature, which was the fifth film I’d worked on with Deepa, and to be a part of the launch of that kind of talent is hugely rewarding. I’ve worked with Clement Virgo a couple of times and it’s a challenge to serve him well and I like that challenge. And I’ve recently committed to an emerging super star Chaz Thorne, who wrote Poor Boy’s Game, and just directed his first feature from a script we worked on called Pushing Up Daisies.
What has to happen to get on the public’s radar? We have to give the public a few hits. Bon Cop Bad Cop was a step forward. I have huge hopes for Fido, and if not Fido then the next film that its director Andrew Currie makes, he’s a huge talent. But the system we have is not a workable system. Wayne Clarkson (at Telefilm Canada) is doing everything he can to make it workable but as an industry we’re not doing enough to help him. I see three obstacles:
One – the creative feedback system on feature films in development is intolerably stupid and does not work. The writing gets micromanaged by people and institutions taking a destructive approach to the notes. Most of the notes are written by readers who are frustrated wannabe writers trying to break into the industry.
Two - the screenwriters are not rigorous enough in their approach to the writing. We have very talented and skillful directors and producers and crews, but the majority of our feature writers are by and large unwilling to do the rigorous intellectual work demanded by long form drama. I know because I’ve worked with a lot of them. There is a sense of entitlement that we all have the right to make features and people use that to let themselves off the hook (now it feels like I’m ranting). In my opinion the best Canadian long form drama is on CTV where the television process is more workable and produces more consistency.
Three - the system is not self sustaining and focuses on emerging talent so it is mostly an industry of first timers. The senior people gravitate to television or move to the U.S.. We need emerging filmmakers to keep it fresh but our system also has to sustain careers and we need to be watching the fifth and sixth feature films of our writers and directors. And not just the four or five filmmakers who are the exception. And it should be noted that those great Canadian filmmakers (Bruce, Atom, Mr. Cronenberg etc.) are also exceptional people with remarkable talent, skill and commitment.
To get on the public radar we just have to make better films and we have to be more respectful of the audience.
Will: Phew...wow. Thanks for all that, Al. Much to mull over and a lot to take to heart.
TO BE CONTINUED...