Women Behind Canadian TV: Alison Reid

Ryan Cox
Ryan Cox

The path to working behind the scenes isn’t always a straight one. For some, a career in the television industry isn’t something they necessarily knew they wanted, despite eventually ending up there. However, there are other people who always had that passion and just knew that there was no other choice. That’s the way it was for stuntwoman and director Alison Reid. She knew from an early age that she wanted to perform stunts on screen and has done exactly that, accumulating over 300 credits to her name over the course of her career. Reid has coordinated stunts on many different Canadian TV series, most recently working on Killjoys, Saving Hope and Murdoch Mysteries.

Reid’s work in stunts and her passion for storytelling eventually allowed for a natural transition into directing. She’s an alumnus of The Canadian Film Centre’s Producer’s Lab and well as CWW’s Women In The Director’s Chair Program. She’s also directed episodes of Murdoch Mysteries, Saving Hope and Heartland. Reid recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss her career and that transition into directing. She also shared with us how she played an active role in getting more roles and better treatment for female stunt performers.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share a little about your background? How did you get into stunts in the first place?

Alison Reid: ‘I fell into it’, is my usual answer but that is far from the truth. I knew I wanted to be a stunt performer from quite a young age, and pursued it hard. When I was in school I told everyone I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and tried to get leads on how to do it. The film business in Canada was very young then, and no one could tell me how to get a start here. So at 16, I hopped on a bus and went down to L.A. to meet some stunt folks and find out about the business. Eventually, I heard about a stunt coordinator in Toronto named Dwayne McLean who was in need of more stunt performers and was running a training program. I signed up right away and that led to my first stunt performing job on The Littlest Hobo when I was 17.

I also had a passion for horses and did a lot of show jumping as I was growing up – that really helped when I landed my first stunt coordinating gig on a series called Road to Avonlea. My mom thought my attraction to stunts was a phase I was going through. She was right, it was a 30-year phase.

TTVJ: You’ve been doing stunts for a long time, and with films like Wonder Woman coming out, I think we’re seeing more attention brought to that position. How do you think the attitudes towards women in stunts have changed since you began?

AR: As the community of talented, skilled stuntwomen has grown, things have definitely improved. When I began, it was quite common for stunt coordinators to double female characters with male stunt performers — especially on the larger, higher paying gag — like fire gags. I was quite vocal about changing that and helped get language in our agreements that emphasized the need to make best efforts to hire women to stunt double female characters whenever possible. Now it’s rare that men double women and that practice is frowned upon unless there’s a good reason for it.

There are also far more female stunt coordinators around now, and I think Canada was a bit ahead of the curve in that regard. I remember a U.S. show called Hollywood’s Greatest Stunts contacting me years ago, and being very excited to find a female stunt coordinator, which didn’t seem to exist in the States at that time. I believe I was the second female stunt coordinator in Canada. Betty Thomas from Vancouver was the first. There are still groups that are underrepresented in our stunt community and of course, the more diverse it becomes, the better we can serve the stunt requirements of our shows.

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: How did the shift to directing happen? Was it a natural progression or just something you always knew you wanted to work towards?

AR: It’s been a bit of both. When I got into stunts, that was the be all and end all for me. Stunts encompassed my entire being. However, as years went by my interest shifted more and more towards directing. I’d always had a passion for storytelling. Early on in my career, I did a little writing on a television show called Katts & Dog (known as Rin Tin Tin K-9 Cop in the States), and I’ve always had projects I’ve been developing, stories I wanted to tell. I’ve been extremely lucky in that my stunt career kept me busy year-round, but the flip side was it left me no time to pursue directing.

An injury I sustained on set was what led to me having the time to make my short film Succubus – which is about two women who are trying to have a baby that is a biological combination of them both. When I was on the film festival circuit with Succubus, actors Angela Vint and Megan Fahlenbock both became pregnant in real life. I couldn’t resist spring boarding off that opportunity and shooting a feature length sequel called The Baby Formula. It’s a comedy with the premise that they are the first women in the world having each other’s babies, having become pregnant with sperm made from their own stem cells. I shot it during a 10-month period over the course of their real pregnancies.

TTVJ: How did coordinating stunts and orchestrating fight scenes for shows like Killjoys prepare you for directing?

AR: There is a huge amount of crossover between stunt coordinating and directing that might not be obvious on the surface. Working with actors and thinking about designing the stunts/fights in a way that speaks to story and character is a huge part of the job, as is interacting with practically every department on set — camera, props, art department, hair/makeup, costumes, AD’s, locations, etc. The stunt coordinating process is in many ways like a microcosm of the process a director goes through, so having that background has been extremely helpful in preparing me to direct. It’s also put me in a position to observe and work with a lot of excellent directors and learn from them.

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 directing chance?

AR: It is incredibly tough to get that first break. I had wanted to transition into directing for a long time, and let that be known, but it wasn’t until relatively recently — when the climate towards hiring woman started to change — that I got a break directing television. Ironically, I booked my first two directing jobs on different shows during the same week. The first one was Saving Hope. I had been stunt coordinating and second unit directing shows for Ilana Frank and her producer Linda Pope for many years, and one day Linda came to me on set with a little smile on her face and said ‘what are you doing in September?’ I was over the moon.

Right after that, I went out to Calgary to direct on Heartland. In that case, I had nothing to do with the show before I directed on it. The opportunity came through Helen Asimakus of the CBC who I’d known for years. When I told her of my directing aspirations, she said ‘of course you should be directing,’ and went over her list of shows to see where there might be an opening. It was late in the season and there weren’t any slots available. Then she suddenly remembered a slot had become available on Heartland. I reached out to producer Jamie Paul Rock who introduced me to show runner Heather Conkie. They were incredibly kind and willing to give me a shot.

I’ve found that in some cases — like with Saving Hope and Murdoch Mysteries — having stunt coordinated the show helped my chances of directing on it. It’s meant that the producers know me, know the quality of my work, and that has inspired their confidence to give me a shot. In other cases, I think having been a stunt coordinator hinders me because I am seen in that specific way and seeing me in a different light is harder for some people.

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: Do you find that now that you’ve gotten some credits under your belt it’s easier?

AR: Yes, it’s definitely easier now. There is a tremendous amount at stake for producers making television shows, and a whole lot rests on the shoulders of the directors they choose – both in terms of how well an episode turns out creatively, and if it is delivered on time/budget. Once you have a few episodes under your belt, you are less of a risk, more of a proven entity. There is confidence that you can deliver a good episode in the allotted amount of time, so you become easier to hire.

TTVJ: You worked on Below Her Mouth with April Mullen, and you’ve worked with some great female showrunners like Michelle Lovretta. What have you learned from working with other women, and are there any specific women who have helped mentor you along the way?

AR: I’m lucky to have been in a position to learn from lots of directors and also a few showrunners. Many of them have been men – wonderfully supportive men — but since you ask specifically about the women, there are some that spring to mind.

In the showrunning department, Michelle Lovretta and Heather Conkie have both been inspirations by the way they lead. Michelle sets a definite tone on Killjoys. She’s driven, thorough, and articulates what she wants very clearly. That is often linked to the message that everything we do has to be totally authentic within the parameters of the world she created, but the key is she has a wicked sense of humour and is incredibly funny in her delivery. When you’re a leader that goes a long way towards getting the best from people.

I think that Heartland has been going strong for 11 seasons not only because of the heart in the storylines showrunner Heather Conkie creates, but also because she has fostered a real family atmosphere on the show. She works incredibly hard, but always seems to find time to listen to ideas or concerns, from both cast and crew, and responds to them. She is a positive force that can lift you up with a couple of words, and that can make all the difference in the world.

As far as directors go, I’ve stunt coordinated a lot of shows that Eleanore Lindo and Gail Harvey direct, and have been lucky enough to follow in their footsteps and direct on some of the same shows. They have been very supportive of my transition, and it’s been great to be able to de-brief with them. Some other directors whose work I’ve admired as I’ve stunt coordinated for them are Kari Scogland, Mairzee Almas and Holly Dale. I stunt coordinated Dangerous Offender for Holly, which was one of the first scripted projects she directed, and of course her career has been non-stop fabulous since then. She’s also been very kind in taking some time to encourage me and share her process with me.

TTVJ: It seems like the conversation around getting more women directors is one that is being had more and more, but the numbers are still pretty abysmal. Why do you think that is and what can be done to change that?

AR: Yes, you’re right, the conversation is happening now, and it has translated into a substantial rise in working women directors. It’s a long way from being perfect, but it is a great start, and I’m hoping that as more and more women who are well positioned to succeed are hired, the easier it will be for decision-makers to hire more women. It all boils down to people who are in positions of power, and the decision-makers being willing to stick their necks out and take a chance.

Christina Jennings and Julie Lacey of Shaftsbury, as well as Helen Asimakus and Melanie Hadley of the CBC, are examples of those who have been extremely pro-active in doing that and in making a real difference in helping develop the careers of women. If more decision-makers behaved as they do, we’d achieve parity very quickly.

Photo courtesy of Alison Reid
Photo courtesy of Alison Reid

TTVJ: You’ve participated in programs through the CFC and the CWW’s Women in the Director’s Chair Program. How did those help your career and do you think those types of initiatives are important in getting more diversity behind the scenes?

AR: Carol Whiteman and her WIDC program are fabulous. She was an amazing advocate for women directors long before it was fashionable. I loved participating in her program back in 2001, and dozens of women have benefited from it. To help producers locate female directors, Carol recently started the WIDC Alumnae Directory.

TTVJ: Are there any other positive steps you see being taken to get more young women in director’s chairs?

AR: Yes, there’s an organization called Women in View, the brainchild of Rina Fraticelli. Her goal is to double the number of women directing in live action television in Canada within three years, and she’s put specific initiatives into place to help accomplish that goal.

TTVJ: What projects do you have coming up that we should keep an eye out for?

AR: I’m in post-production right now on a documentary I’ve been working on for the past four years called Smitten By Giraffes. It’s about a trailblazing Canadian named Anne Innis Dagg who was the first person to study giraffes in the wild. She went to South Africa by herself in 1956 to study them, before Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey or anyone else was studying African animals in the wild. I’m interweaving this story of her past with current footage I shot of Anne in Africa re-tracing her pioneering footsteps, and of course, visiting her beloved giraffes. We’re hoping to be on the film festival circuit with it in the Spring/Summer of 2018.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young women looking to get into the industry and work behind the scenes, whether it’s stunts, directing or something else?

AR: Do what you love and you’ll be good at it. Prepare! Work hard. Listen well to those above you and really hear what they’re looking for. Deliver high quality work in a pro-active, low maintenance way that makes things stress-free for your bosses and co-workers. If you can do that you’ll be well positioned to keep doing what you love.

 

Are you a fan of Killjoys, Heartland or Murdoch Mysteries and have thoughts on Reid’s story? Add them below!

Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.