While she may be best known by television fans as Colonel Samantha Carter, the character she spent 10 years playing on Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, lately Amanda Tapping has been making quite the name for herself behind the camera as a director. With directing credits that include Dark Matter, Continuum, Strange Empire, Sanctuary and Primeval, Tapping has become one of Canadian television’s most sought after directors. Her busy schedule will continue well into 2016 as she will be bringing her talents back to Dark Matter in Season 2, along with helming upcoming episodes of X Company and SyFy’s The Magicians.
Tapping recently joined the The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, where she discussed her career path and why she wanted to take on the challenge of directing episodic television. Throughout this series the directing position has been named as one that is severely lacking a female presence, so Tapping candidly shares how she was able to breakthrough, why she’s always trying to prove herself and her take on why the number of female directors is so low.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: A lot of people will know you best as an actress, why did you make the switch behind the scenes and get into directing?
Amanda Tapping: It was a few different reasons, one was that I knew I needed to diversify. I knew that as a woman in this industry, as an actress, that my career options would get less and less the older I got. I also just needed to challenge myself. I strive in chaos, and I think when I’m a little scared I’m a bit more creative. So I thought this was something my Type A personality brain would be able to handle and I really wanted to use a different part of myself.
Stargate was phenomenal because it was like a 10 year Ph D program in filmmaking. I took every opportunity I could to sit behind the monitors, to find out how people did their jobs and what each person’s job was. It was an amazing opportunity to learn from people who were actually doing it. There were also a lot of great directors that were doing episodic television–Martin Wood for example–I shadowed him on another show and went through prep, shooting and the post with him. I knew as I started to get into it and spend more time on sets that it was something I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to give up acting for directing–and I find myself at this interesting crossroads right now–but I just knew I had to diversify.
TTVJ: Time and again the directing position is named by women in this series as the one position where we still really lack a female presence. How were you able to break through?
AT: Well my first foot in the door was with Stargate, they gave me my first directing opportunity and I loved it. I think that’s when I really knew. It was interesting because I asked at the beginning of Season 3, along with my male counterpart, and he directed right away and I had to wait for Season 7. I was the last episode to shoot at the end of Season 7 so I had no second unit, I had no insert unit, I had to shoot everything in the time allotted. I took the challenge and I was like ‘OK, I get it. I’m going to prove myself.’
Then on Sanctuary obviously because I was one of the producers I gave myself the opportunity a few more times. I actually had an interesting ‘Come to Jesus’ moment, I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘OK who are you if you’re not that girl that’s been on TV for 15 years?’ March came up and I wasn’t invited to the upfronts in New York and it was the first time since forever I wasn’t going to Comic Con in San Diego. So I went ‘OK who am I and what do I really want to do?’
That’s when Primeval came along and I got three episodes directing that and from there it was word of mouth. I knew I had to prove myself on a show I wasn’t involved in. I was a gun for hire. I knew I had to convince people to take me seriously as a director and I had to convince people that I knew what I was doing technically. I still find that to a lesser degree now because I think I have a pretty good reputation. I took the technical aspect of it on because I wanted to be able to walk on the set and go ‘No, I don’t think it’s 35 mm, I think it’s the 50 mm we need on this.’
I think this is my goofy way of saying I felt like I had to do this in order to prove to them that I knew what I was doing. I think people automatically assumed I would be good with actors having come from that side of it, but I had to prove that I knew the technical side of it as well.
TTVJ: You mentioned that on Stargate your male counterpart got to direct in the third season and you had to wait 4 years for your chance. Did he have any previous directing experience?
AT: I don’t want to say that it was a gender issue but I’m pretty sure it was. It’s not to say he didn’t do a good job, but it was like ‘Why do I have to keep waiting?’ Every year I would ask and finally they gave me one at the very end of Season 7.
There’s more and more females directing now, still not a lot. The number is low. The female community of directors is small but supportive. I have mentored other women, and it’s important that we keep supporting each other. It’s a nice, supportive community. It’s not cutthroat. We realize that we’re a bit of an anomaly and so we’re supportive of each other.
TTVJ: If you just look at the number of female directors on television they are abysmal. What gives? Why are they so horrible?
AT: I don’t know. It’s like why are the numbers so horrible for female showrunners? Is it just that we haven’t been represented so people coming into the industry don’t expect that that’s something they would be able to do. Like Stephanie [Morgenstern] said in her interview, without representation there’s no ‘Well I’m going to do that. I’m going to be like her,’ because there was no “her” to be like. Now it’s changing and now you’ve got Stephanie Morgenstern (X Company) and other amazing women showrunning. It’s happening, but it’s still a small number. I think it will become more and more prevalent to see women in positions of power because we are actually making the change that needed to be made and highlighting it.
TTVJ: One of the things we hear a lot is that the same men are getting hired over and over again because of who they know. What’s the process like for you in order to book a job?
AT: I have to say it’s become word of mouth. I’ve never had a directing agent. It’s about building up a good reputation. It’s about getting the opportunities that I got from people like Gary Harvey on Artic Air, Simon Barry on Continuum and Martin Wood on Primeval. It’s people that took a chance on me and said ‘OK, we think you can do it.’ Gary Harvey did something really interesting, he phoned up crew members that he knew who I was working with and said ‘What’s she like?’ He didn’t call the executive producers, he didn’t call the studio, he called the crew which I thought was great. Then I get a call from him out of the blue. So for sure it’s word of mouth but that means that the pressure is definitely on to do the best possible job you can do.
When I interviewed for X Company, I really wanted to work with Stephanie [Morgenstern] and Mark [Ellis]. They said ‘OK, we’re really interested and this is the timeslot we want you for,’ and it was the season opener for Season 2 and the timeslot was June and July. I said ‘I have to turn you down because I promised my 10 year old daughter that I would take the summer off.’ I thought to myself that this is the quintessential paradox for women in any industry. How do you put your family first without compromising the opportunities that you may or may not be given?
They could turn around and say ‘OK, well she put her family first and that’s an issue and that’s a problem for women in this industry, because they are always going to put their family first.’ It’s that same old Catch-22, right? I put my family first because I promised my 10 year old that I would. Bless them, two days later I get an email saying ‘OK how does this timeslot work for you in the fall?’ First of all, they are parents and they understood, but I thought they got it but they probably aren’t going to hire me because I’m not available for the slot. But they switched things around and brought me in and it was an amazing experience.
TTVJ: You didn’t just try to sell your daughter on a summer in Europe where they were filming?
AT: Well it’s funny because I thought about that, but I’d not be taking the summer off. I’m still working and she’s in a strange city with her dad. I’m still getting up every morning and going to the office or set. So no, I made her a promise and we travelled. But it was great that when I hit that moment, that Mark and Stephanie are the people that they are and said ‘OK, no problem.’ But I was scared out of my tree when I said it, even though I knew it was the right thing. I would’ve hated myself if I said ‘Alright, I’ll take it.’
I still wonder if that’s something that people talk about when hiring women. ‘What if she gets pregnant? What if her family gets sick?’ It happened to me on Olympus, my daughter had an emergency appendectomy and thankfully my friend Martin Wood was editing his episode and he continued my day. I have done the same for him, but with women there’s always that fear. I don’t think we’re ever going to get over that and I don’t think we need to necessarily.
TTVJ: Or women will get asked ‘What are you going to do about childcare?’ But they don’t ask the men that.
AT: They never ask men that! Or you get the ‘How do you juggle family and work?’ Well how do guys do it?
TTVJ: Other than mentoring programs, what can be done to get women directors that first opportunity?
AT: I think the opportunities are a little different now which is really great. There are small festivals like the Crazy 8s festival, and all these great opportunities through different studios to do short films. I think that’s the start of it. Also because of the internet people are able to produce for a fairly low budget and put it up on the web and get eyeballs on it. That wasn’t something that was necessarily available when I was starting out. There’s more opportunities to create your own product less expensively and show what you can do.
How do we get these women into mainstream? It’s a matter of continuing to mentor and keep their faces in front of the people who hire. For me it was people who championed me and said ‘Look at her! Look at her! Look at her,’ which was great. So now it’s my job to go ‘Look at her! Look at her! Look at her,’ and give people that opportunity.
TTVJ: Who are some of the young female directors out there that you think have a lot of potential?
AT: I could name dozens of them. I am part of the Board of Directors for the Crazy 8s festival and a huge number of the applicants this year were women which is fantastic. Certainly if you look at someone like Lena Dunham who did something that someone her age had never done, not to mention someone her age and a woman, which is create a successful cable show and monetize it, produce it, write it, star in it and get eyeballs on it. That’s huge having people like her doing that and at such a young age.
People didn’t realize that Mary Tyler Moore had her own production company and was really, really savvy about how she presented herself and what shows she got involved with. She was a champion that people don’t necessarily realize or talk about, but she was huge in that she did that at a time when women weren’t doing that. Those were people that I vicariously looked up to as a kid and went ‘Hey, why does that say MTM instead of MGM? Why is there a kitty instead of a lion? What’s that all about?’
TTVJ: What advice do you have for young women looking to get into directing?
AT: Shadow as much as you can. Get as much on set experience as you can. Put your face in as many festivals as you can. My route was very different, not that it was easy, but I had opportunities because of the fact that I was on a long running series. I had opportunities to see how things were done. Get on set. There’s so many ways to get on to sets now, just shadow people, mentor, follow people, stalk people. [laughs]
The problem that we have is that when a male director walks onto a set there’s an automatic assumption that they know what they are doing. It’s changed a bit for me because of my reputation, but when I first walked onto sets people didn’t assume I knew what I was doing, and I had to prove to them that I knew. The more we see women behind the lens and in positions of power, the less we’ll have to prove that we can do it, and the less people coming up behind us will have to prove that they can do it.
Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.
Season 2 of X Company premieres in early 2016 on CBC and Season 2 of Dark Matter airs in 2016 on SyFy.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.