Sometimes big breaks can happen when we least expect them to or even are aware they are happening. That was certainly the case for director Aleysa Young who, thanks to the kindness of a friend, found herself unknowingly interviewing for the directing job during Baroness Von Sketch’s first season. Young ended up directing all six episodes of the CBC sketch comedy’s first season, even winning a Director’s Guild of Canada award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy for her work. Since that break on Baroness, Young has went on to direct episodes of Workin’ Moms and Kim’s Convenience, for which she was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award in Best Direction, Comedy.
Young recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to discuss her path of becoming an award-winning director. She shared with us her experience as a person of color working behind the scenes, and how she started off in casting before moving to directing commercials and then Baroness. Young also talked about she wants to see more diverse stories being told and more diversity on screen as well as off.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Tell us a little about your background. Did you know you always wanted to be a director?
Aleysa Young: I got started fairly late in life. I started off as a casting director and before that went to film school for about 2 years before dropping out. I realized I was going to learn more being in the industry than studying it. I wanted to get my hands dirty. I didn’t know yet that I wanted to direct, but knew I wanted to be behind the scenes. When I was a kid I went to a live taping of a sitcom and that was the first time I realized TV doesn’t happen live.
After dropping out of film school, I moved to Toronto and my first job was as a PA, except that instead of dragging cables, it was a pasta commercial and I basically boiled noodles all day. I really tried to do more on-set stuff, but I had no skills or experience. I ended up getting a job as a casting assistant, where I stayed a few years, but slowly started to work on my own projects with my friends.
One of the companies I worked with was starting a satellite company where they build directors from scratch. It was the opportunity of a lifetime where they wanted people who had the makings of a great director — not PAs who were aspiring directors — and they approached me because they knew I was great with actors. There was also an editor, a photographer and an illustrator. None of us were directors per se, but had the makings. They helped us develop a commercial reel and it was a crash course in film school. We had to pitch, write treatments and it was great. From there I developed a commercial reel and did that for a number of years. I’m still doing it.
A few years ago Baroness happened and it was my first ever show. That’s where I got a taste for it and from there everything started to happen.
TTVJ: We always hear how it’s really hard for young directors, and women especially, to get that first gig or break in the door. How did you get that first series to give you a chance at directing?
AY: I feel like I got my whole body stuck in the door, let alone a foot, and then refused to leave! [laughs] It was a roundabout thing though, and I look back on it now and see it’s timing, who you know and just putting yourself out there. I had worked with Aurora Browne before on a PSA commercial years and years ago. I got in the Baroness room though because they were looking for female directors, and I had a friend who in her interview said ‘this isn’t really for me, but you should talk to Aleysa.’
TTVJ: We all need a friend like that!
AY: I know, exactly! It’s just women supporting other women and that’s how I got in the room. I didn’t even know though that I was up for the job and just saw it as a meeting. The stakes weren’t that high for me because I didn’t think I had a fighting chance since I only had directed commercials. Because of that, we got along like a house on fire. I was able to be honest, open and I was super connected to the material. They had a really strong sense of what the comedy would be like, and it ended up just being a conversation between women of a certain age connecting and finding the same things funny. I left and thought ‘oh great, I met these four awesome women and it’d be nice to see them again.’
Even when they called me back and said ‘we really enjoyed our time together and just have a few more questions,’ I again literally took them at face value. Again, I didn’t even think it was a thing. [laughs] In retrospect it makes sense because commercials are just 30 second sketches. It was a good transition for me, it made sense, and I’m not sure I could’ve gone straight from commercials to a scripted half hour or hour. They really fought hard for me though, because I had no experience and gave me all six episodes of the first season. That was such a crazy, amazing opportunity, and I was super lucky to be offered it. We had a great time and that led into Workin’ Moms and Kim’s. I owe Baroness my entire TV career.
TTVJ: Have there been any times in your career that you’ve felt openly or implicitly discriminated against as a woman or a POC? If so, how have you dealt with that?
AY: I’m definitely coming around at a time when things are shifting. I’ve been fairly lucky that I’m coming in at this time and even if it was just a few years ago it’d be completely different. I’ve been on shows that are of a new generation and they are trying to create the shift and make the change. I’m always aware of tokenism, both in front and behind the camera, and I haven’t personally felt that, but I know it exists. I’m always sensitive to it and think ‘am I being hired because I’m a woman or a woman of color?’ I think in all the cases, ‘yes I am, ‘ but for a good reason. I used to fight against thinking ‘I’m just the token woman, and you just need a woman director to make you feel better about yourself.’
I have experienced the negative context more commercially, but in the case of Baroness, I know they were looking for female directors. I was sensitive to that, but then I realized I was hired because I was a female director who could contribute something. My female perspective would help make the show better instead of ticking off a box. That’s when I started to value myself as a female director who has something to contribute as a woman. I saw that with Workin’ Moms and then with Kim’s Convenience. As an Asian Canadian, I can bring a certain perspective that’s an asset as opposed to just checking off the box. I’ve been lucky because the people who have hired me have recognized the value of not just making it look like you have all the boxes checked off, but that I have something else to offer.
I do think it’s changing though and I’m optimistic. Being a woman and being a woman of color has value now. I’m still sensitive to it when I see ‘OK, you have an all white cast, so are you hiring me because it makes you feel better?’ I’m also trying to take advantage of my position and make sure you do have representation on screen. I think that’s the next challenge because women are hiring other women and people of color are hiring people of color. We’re hiring people we want to see and work with. I just want to see more people of color in lead positions, as opposed to the shopkeep or the friend.
TTVJ: I am not a person of color, but I love watching Kim’s Convenience and think that’s a great example. It’s very specific about that family and their traditions, but it’s well written and very relatable to many different viewers.
AY: It’s the perfect example. I don’t know what conversations were going on, but I don’t think anyone could’ve anticipated that a half hour comedy, about an Asian family that runs a convenience store with thick asian accents, would be the number one comedy in Canada. That’s such an exciting success story and for me, I love the shows that are about people and stories. They are relatable stories that happen to have people of color in the lead like Master of None, Insecure or Atlanta. They have a person of color in the lead, but they have an audience that isn’t exclusively black or brown. It’s more proof that you can invest in diverse stories without feeling like you need to target a specific audience.
TTVJ: You’ve done a lot of directing on comedy series. What do you love about those and do you want to get into drama series?
AY: Yes, definitely. The ongoing joke for me is that I started with 30 second commercials, went to sketches and then half hour comedies, so I progressively get into longer formats. That means that my opus will be a 22 hour series. [laughs] I’d love to do longer formats and a feature one day. I love comedies, but at my core I’m just a storyteller, and whether it’s funny or not you can approach comedy and drama similarly in terms of telling the story.
I would also love to blow something up! [laughs] Something with special effects, chase scenes or a fight scene. Something with stunts! There’s not a lot of women in comedy, but there’s also not a lot of women doing those big sexy shows. So every time I see a female director doing Game of Thrones or The Handmaid’s Tale it’s just so exciting.
TTVJ: Unfortunately in Canadian TV I don’t know how big your explosion is going to be. [laughs]
AY: Well I know! Maybe I’ll just set something on fire.
TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young women looking to get into directing or behind the scenes positions?
AY: Tenacity and assertiveness are really valuable things to tap into. It’s hard to find those things, especially as a woman in the industry, because we are so accommodating, nice and just want to be liked. We don’t want to be too pushy or come off too aggressive. For myself, I always have to fight that instinct to just be nice, and if I’m not getting what I want just accept it. The biggest challenge is always reminding myself to be assertive and it always pays off. Whenever I think I don’t want to rock the boat, but then end up asking for what I want, which takes a lot of courage, it always pays off.
TTVJ: I feel like that’s something that’s hard for women in general, not just in the industry. Men would never worry about that.
AY: I know! There’s so many times where I think ‘why am I doing this? No man would be going through this angst.’ It’s just a business decision and you have to take emotion out of it, but I do pride myself on making tough decisions and still being friends. That’s a challenge as a director, to make sure everyone is a part of the team, they aren’t working for you and we’re all working together. That’s an asset that you have as a female director, that collaborative instinct.
TTVJ: You have episodes in Season 2 of Workin’ Moms coming up, but are there any other projects you’re working on we should know about?
AY: I am still finishing up post-production on Workin’ Moms. I’m also working on my own projects and trying to get something of my own off the ground in the near future.
Do you enjoy series such as Baroness, Workin’ Moms and Kim’s Convenience? Add your thoughts on those and Young’s thoughts below!
Workin’ Moms airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBC. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
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.