Women Behind Canadian TV: Michelle Lovretta

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Credit: Steve Wilkie
Credit: Steve Wilkie

If you prefer your television characters to be full of heart, courage, intelligence and sensitivity, but also able to kick ass and dish out the snarkiest of comments, then you’re probably already a fan of Michelle Lovretta’s work. After creating the groundbreaking series Lost Girl, Lovretta moved on and created Killjoys, the action-adventure SyFy and Space Channel series about three space bounty hunters that appeared on critics’ lists as one of the best new series of 2015. In addition to creating and showrunning those two series, Lovretta’s other writing credits include Instant Star, Relic Hunter, Mutant X and The Secret Circle.

She recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, where she discussed why she’s drawn to other female writers when filling out her staff, as well as shared her experience coming up through the ranks. Lovretta also candidly talks about why it is so important to her to have multi-dimensional female characters.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share some about your background, how you broke into writing for television and if you met any opposition as a woman?

Michelle Lovretta: Well, I’m the first writer in my family so a lot of it was just trial and error and terror sweat. Ignorance of the shitty odds also helped–you’re never more fearless than when you’re blissfully uninformed of the challenges ahead. The biggest hurdle for me was just wrapping my head around the notion that writing could be a legitimate and lasting occupation. That seemed crazy and indulgent, so I resisted.

I eventually did an indie feature film when I was very young, and in the process realized that–while the producers on that specific project were fabulous–the film industry in general is pretty disrespectful to writers, regardless of gender. I’m very pro-writer and 100% not OK with that bias, ideologically, so film was out until I could better protect myself. Fortunately, this was around the same time as I was seeing genre television series like Xena and Buffy exploring the exact types of nerdy worlds and characters I thought I’d have to be a novelist to pursue–and novels intimidate me. So, I happily hitched my wagon to television and haven’t looked back.

As for overt gender opposition, do you mean the sort that might cost me work? That tends to happen when you aren’t in the room, so if I’ve experienced it, I haven’t been made aware. There have been a few instances of blatant sexism or harassment along the way, but one of the joys of showrunning is not hiring “Those Few Assholes,” now that the power dynamic has switched.

But truthfully, my very first mentors who took a risk on me as a newb were a series of amazing and supportive guys: Amnon Buchbinder, Bill Mustos, Wayne Grigsby, Jeff King, Pete Mohan and Jeff Alpern. They all aggressively championed me when I had very little credit to my name. Part of this is simply a mathematical result of more men being in positions of power to hire or greenlight, for sure, and I could name many badass women mentors who later helped me along, like Karen Wookey and Anne Marie la Traverse. But on a personal, micro level that initial warm welcome really shaped my perception of the industry and my place in it. I’m still deeply grateful for their support. I know some of my peers had a harsher start.

TTVJ: How many writers’ rooms have you been a part of where you were the only woman or one of only a few? What were your survival strategies in those situations?

ML: My impression of one hour primetime dramas is that industry-wide, being the only woman is still somewhat common; being one of a few is the most common; while having a majority-female writers’ room is quite rare. When it comes to my anecdotal experience, though, I’ve only once been the sole woman in the room, and the rooms I run tend to skew slightly more female than male: Instant Star we were 2 women, 1 man; Lost Girl Season 1 we were 3 women, 2 men; and on Killjoys Season 1 the senior writers came and went on different time tables, so it swung back and forth. We started Killjoys Season 2 with an equal split, but will actually finish it with more men than women this year, which is novel. And I could do better on racial diversity, so I absolutely don’t deserve any cookies.

TTVJ: Have you found that environments with more women tend to be more supportive?

ML: Not really? I mean, it’s not like we all sit around and braid each other’s hair and do kegels–although that sounds awesome–which is why any resistance to hiring based on gender alone is asinine. For the most part, writers are writers, and the “type” you are in the room (Logic Police, Cheerleader, Pitch Machine, etc) is far more indicative of whether I’ll like and gel with you, professionally. On a strictly personal level though, sure, when there aren’t enough women in the room it loses a bit of sparkle for me just in pure enjoyment. So, yeah, for me personally, the ideal room is a mix. I don’t understand people who don’t want that. Sounds boring. Possibly sweaty.

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: What strategy do you employ when filling out your staff? Do you make it a point to hire women and make things evenly distributed?

ML: I really crave well drawn female characters, so I most often respond to a writer who can bring that recipe. Many of those writers are women, so the gender balance thing kind of takes care of itself. I don’t hire the women I hire for politics or for the industry–I hire them selfishly, for the good of my show. Same for the menfolk. But I will say that over the years I’ve come to realize that it’s not just the number of women on staff that matters, it’s also the number of women whose ideas and voices end up on the screen under their own name. That’s how you build a career and escape tokenism.

TTVJ: Lost Girl was revolutionary in that it proved how powerful female friendships can be with Bo (Anna Silk) and Kenzi (Ksenia Solo). On Killjoys you’re giving us one of the most kickass females to grace our screens in a long time with Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), but yet she also has a vulnerability to her. Why is it so important to you to bring multi-dimensional female characters to television?

ML: Honestly, I just don’t know any other way to write women. There’s nothing about my gender I am ashamed of or apologetic for. The old advice to writers was always “write what you know.” This is what I know, this is my truth. That women are actual humans. That’s it. Nothing more earth shattering than that, just the basic knowledge that every emotion, grace and sin that human beings are capable of can and has been part of womankind and should be part of our stories.

My personal interests are usually not what the world would call classically feminine, and that was hard for me growing up. The stories and movies written expressly for girls often repelled me. I have a visceral reaction against any property that asks me to identify with the damsel as if rescue is the height of my story, and I think I partly got into TV out of a hunger for the cathartic wish fulfillment of being The Hero.

Of course it’s bullshit. Of course I’ll never be a tenth as badass as Bo or Dutch–neither will half the men who got to experience their fantasy fulfillment through Rambo or Iron Man. So? It’s just make believe. There’s enough room for all of us to escape our shitty day jobs with some escapist entertainment where we save the day–or maybe the galaxy–and get the boy-or-girl. I am so damn grateful to James Cameron and his team for Ripley (Alien) and Sarah Connor (Terminator), those characters made an actual and quantifiable difference for me. They got me into genre, because they made a welcoming place for young me at the table. If I can achieve that inclusiveness for any teeny tiny number of people through my own fictional heroines, I’ll be thrilled.

TTVJ: Canadian television does have women in some very prominent positions such as Tassie Cameron and Emily Andras, along with producers such as Ilana Frank and Vanessa Piazza. What are your peers doing that impresses you?

ML: Oh hell, just surviving more than one show and having the energy for another always impresses me. I actually haven’t had the pleasure of working with Tassie or Ilana, but both of them are highly respected and always working, two things that should impress anyone in this fickle gig. Semi Chellas is another one doing amazing things. Karen Troubetzkoy gets me through the grind every damn day on Killjoys.

Emily, Vanessa and I have “been through the wars together” on various shows and have a very tight bond. Vanessa is an amazing, unflappable producer. Emily makes the world a better place, one writers’ room joke at a time. The three of us plan to run away and join the circus together, by which I mean we’ve pledged to make a movie one day. We’ll see. Mostly I see a lot of ulcers and emergency naps in our futures, until our respective series are done. We’re all pretty busy right now. It’s really, really nice to be able to commiserate as peers.

SyFy
SyFy

TTVJ: Genre TV certainly seems more welcoming to females in behind the scenes positions. Have you found that to be true and why do you think that is?

ML: I think partial credit goes to the nature and traditions of speculative fiction and its effect on genre television. Spec is all about opening up your imagination and playing in the sandbox of the impossible, the profane, the unique. For a while, that exoticism included such “crazy futuristic” ideas as women in nontraditional roles. Women who were sexually liberated, not just sexually available. Not too long ago, if you were selling realistic contemporary stories your female protagonists were pretty much limited to being moms and secretaries. If you were selling genre stories at that same time, your heroines could be Amazons, Presidents, superheroes. Sure, a lot of that exoticism was still expressed as 3-boob-Martian girlfriend sexist terrain, but change is slow. Cumulatively, over time, I believe spec fiction did a great deal of good. It got readers, male and female, comfortable with the idea of not limiting what female characters could be or do.

Eventually, that leaked into genre television series with female action leads, which led to more female viewers, which led to networks and showrunners wanting “a girl” in their writers’ room to help with the voice, which led to those women writers proving themselves and getting shows of their own… where they tended to hire more women. Add to that the fact that Canada became a big producer of those internationally co-funded genre shows in the 90s, and perhaps we benefitted more obviously from that genre/gender boost? I mean, I’m being super simplistic about all of this, but the roots feel right.

TTVJ: Sexuality was a topic that was always explored on Lost Girl. How important was it to make those relationships, regardless of gender, as realistic and solidified as possible without having them be gratuitous?

ML: Oh, man. Very important. Lost Girl was an extremely personal story to me. Kenzi is very firmly based on Young Me, and the core friendship was inspired by an amalgamation of friendships I’ve had with wonderful women dealing with the repercussions of unhealthy sex and sexual assault. Making Bo a sex superhero reflected my internal desire to keep those women I knew safe–something I wasn’t able to do for them in real life.

Here’s the thing: sex is powerful. I get it. But some quarters give sex way too much weight, and hang all the responsibility and judgements of that like a millstone around women’s necks. Screw that. No seriously, fuck it. You cannot declare a group of people simultaneously passive objects, and sole instigators. That’s the fucking Schrodinger’s cat of autonomy. I wanted Lost Girl to first and foremost be pure entertainment, but also to gently push back against that untenable, no win position. To show that sex between two eagerly consenting and emotionally mature adults, who aren’t using it to numb themselves or cause pain to anyone (hello, affairs) is good. It. Is. GOOD. Insert whatever tab A you’ve got into whatever slot B is interested, and then get on with things, because great as it is, sex isn’t life. It’s fuel for the shit that ACTUALLY matters. We all have stuff to do, dammit.

So when I say I’m sex positive, I’m not sex promotional–whatever your gender or orientation, I absolutely consider asexuality and abstinence as valid a path as what others would deem promiscuity, as long as your actions are driven by your actual, rational desire and not a cage put upon you by others. I’m proud and a bit amazed to have created a show bearing that message, and grateful to the many, many people along the way who helped make it happen, especially to Prodigy [Pictures] for bringing me the first kernel.

TTVJ: What does your ideal TV landscape then look like with a female presence?

ML: Well, the entertainment industry in general has a history of quietly devaluing interests coded feminine as if they are inherently less “prestige” than those coded as masculine. Television, film and literature are rich with properties featuring the Male Experience being taken super seriously–now, I tend to really love those projects for their exotic-to-me perspective, but I’d also love to see us do that with women’s stories in an equally prestige way, and not require it to be a romance, weeper, or comedy.

The “this is what girls like, this is what boys like” rigid gender binary still evident in entertainment and marketing will always rub me the wrong way because it’s unfairly limiting to both genders, but the unspoken “and what girls like is less important” sentiment often beneath it–a sentiment driving some decisions on what to greenlight and where-and-in-whom to invest–is the real kicker.

 

Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

Killjoys will return to SyFy and Space Channel for Season 2 in summer 2016.

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