Stories can change our lives. Stories are an important tool for communication and in getting people to relate to one another. They matter. Telling good and interesting stories is exactly what producer Amy Cameron has strived to do for her entire career. It’s one of the driving reasons that she, along with her sister Tassie Cameron, started the production company Cameron Pictures Inc. Together, the sisters have used their independent production company to back Mary Kills People for Global and Lifetime, starring Caroline Dhavernas as an ER doctor who performs doctor assisted suicides, as well as the upcoming CBC comedy series Little Dog, created by and starring Joel Thomas Hynes as a boxer on a quest for redemption.
Cameron’s path to production company head was anything but straight-forward. She has worked at various positions, in and outside of the television industry, as a writer, journalist and network executive. As the former executive in charge of production in the drama department at CBC, Cameron oversaw projects such as Heartland, Republic of Doyle and The Book of Negroes. She was an editor for Maclean’s and contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail, as well as a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre.
Cameron recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries. She shared with us the principles used by Cameron Pictures when staffing their shows, and how they try to find diverse, sometimes young and inexperienced voices, and give them an opportunity to find new and exciting ways to tell stories. She also touched on positive initiatives she sees happening in the industry that give her hope things will continue to become more diverse and more inclusive moving forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: You’ve had such an interesting and varied career working in journalism, as a television executive and now running a production company with your sister. Can you share a little bit about how you got into the industry and whether making TV was something you always wanted to do?
Amy Cameron: It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I remember telling my best friend in high school that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but if I could figure out a job telling stories then that would be great. I found myself circling various storytelling jobs and TV is just another way of telling stories. However, I went to university for fine arts and painting, found myself in New Brunswick and ended up working as a journalist. I then went to Maclean’s where I decided I would write a book and started freelancing as a journalist.
After looking for other ways to make money as a writer, Tassie suggested I go to the Canadian Film Centre. I wrote a script and got in, which sounds easy but wasn’t. I ended up selling an idea to CBC with Tassie and Miranda de Pencier as co-creators called Wild Roses. That ran one season on CBC and wasn’t picked up, so I started hammering out features that never got made. I ended up pitching networks as a writer, was having children and still working in journalism to make ends meet. CBC actually came calling looking for an executive, and I thought it was an interesting aspect of the business I hadn’t seen.
I ended up working at CBC Comedy for a year, then head of development for Vérité Films, the people who were behind Corner Gas and other things, and then went back to CBC in the drama department. I had an amazing experience and worked on some fantastic dramas with some amazing producers and creators.
It was then a combination of working for a production company and seeing the slog it is to get things in development with networks — having worked at a network and seeing the slog to get things you like through the various chains of command and having worked as a writer — that I just realized how exciting and challenging it is to work on a project you’re passionate about. So Tassie came to me and said ‘I just want to do things differently,’ which is what I think every production company starts out with. For us, that meant we wanted to work with the person we trust most in the industry and have the most fun with, and that’s each other. It was such a wonderful opportunity to work with my sister, and we both have very different skill sets that compliment each other. It was a now or never moment, and we had the opportunity to join forces with eOne to produce Mary Kills People. That seemed like a nice, safe landing for us to start with. So we leapt into it, which was really fun, terrifying and exciting but so incredibly rewarding.
It sounds really glamourous to be the head of a production company, but it really is just me, Tassie and Caledonia [Brown]. [laughs] It’s really fun though to be that hands on and see all sides of it. It feels like a nice fit for me.
TTVJ: Having worked in such a wide variety of positions, did you ever feel like you faced any outright opposition as a woman? I know that CBC actually seems to have a lot of female executives.
AC: Not in this industry, which is a bit surprising for people to hear because I know other people have had very different experiences. I have worked in environments led by incredibly strong, engaged and fiercely smart women. Almost the entire executive team at CBC, in the scripted department, were women, and then I worked for Virginia Thompson at Vérité. In this industry I’ve had an amazing experiences. It was different in journalism where I had a lot of experiences, but in Canadian TV I’ve not found that.
I do see this though, when it comes to crew. I see it with directors and editors and to think of a female first AD [assistant director] is an exciting prospect to me. I’ve worked with amazing male ADs and by no means would not work with them because of a woman being in the mix, but it’s nice to know women are breaking into traditionally male areas. That’s where I notice it more, but it hasn’t really affected me.
TTVJ: Being in charge of the production company making these series, just looking at Mary Kills People and now Little Dog, you seem to have a lot of women behind the scenes. Are you putting a high priority on hiring women, or what strategies do you guys use to hire for the shows you’re making?
AC: It’s certainly a priority for us at Cameron Pictures. When you look at something like directors, there’s so many amazing male directors, but also so many amazing female directors that just need a shot, or just ones who don’t need a shot and are amazing and we want to work with. Holly [Dale] was like that and such a coup for us in the first season of Mary Kills People. Mary sort of came together that way because eOne is another example of smart, wonderful women who have taken charge there.
For Little Dog, on its surface it’s a very masculine story about a white guy who is a failed boxer. That’s the surface one line pitch, but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about a guy who is struggling with his relationship with his mother and family. We wanted to bring a female gaze to that material so that it felt balanced, and that there was a different approach to a story about a white guy on TV. So we made an enormous effort to have female directors and try and find diverse voices in the writers’ room. One of our directors was also indigenous, which was really valuable to have the perspective, and she had done a lot of MMA fighting in indigenous communities.
Tassie and I feel very strongly that we want to work with as many talented women as possible. Not because the talent isn’t there in the pool of men, but also because it’s a different way of telling story. Certain things really lend themselves to a female gaze, and on Little Dog that was the case with Sherry White showrunning and Tassie and I as creative producers. We teamed with Elemental Pictures in Newfoundland and they were three male producers, but we wanted to make sure we had different viewpoints and that perspective.
TTVJ: There’s still a real lack of diversity in Canadian TV, and I’m sure that’s something you thought about a lot in your work at CBC and now with Cameron Pictures. I’m curious what positive steps do you think are being taken to improve diversity and make the industry more inclusive?
AC: There’s a lot of effort being made right now that is successful and there’s a lot of people who are open to it. Networks and producers are open to trying out different diverse voices, meaning underrepresented voices, so not necessarily a visible minority but also female or LGBTQ. At CBC there was always an effort, but it became crystallized after the Women in View report evaluated the CBC scripted programming and found not that many series were directed by women. That was shocking to us, especially in the drama department, because we were all women, and it was an eye-opening moment. So after a lot of conversations, that’s when the idea that 50 per cent of episodes should be directed by women came about.
There’s also a diversity workshop through CBC that’s incredibly successful. As I’ve went forward and have to staff my own shows, I’ve been chasing a lot of people I met through those workshops. I’ve tried to get them on my shows and they’ve been busy, which is excellent.
You then have grassroots organizations such as Women on Screen, an amazing Toronto-based workshop for female screenwriters with a fairly strong focus on diverse voices within the female screenwriting community. They bring in mentors from different areas of the industry, and I’ve been one for four or five years now. A lot of the women I meet there I’m trying to staff in my writers’ rooms or recommending for different jobs. I know the other mentors are doing the same thing.
There’s an effort and intention to open up the doors. It’s just a matter of finding those people who have an appetite for the risk they see that it is. There is an element of risk to go with someone who is unknown or untested, but I think people are open to that now and trying to dig a bit deeper, mentor and bring them in, or just support the women that are already in the industry and see them have more of an equal opportunity. There’s a lot of positive changes that are happening.
TTVJ: What’s the process like for Cameron Pictures when you’re deciding on what series you want to develop?
AC: We are small, so we can’t take on a ton of projects. The first and most important thing is that the three of us all like it and think it’s worth pursuing. I think Tassie and I have different tastes and Caledonia tends to have a good middle ground. Beyond that, it’s really about whether or not we feel that we can bring something to it that’s valuable. There’s a lot of projects out there that are written really well and would, frankly, just do better with a larger production company. But back to that original idea and why Tassie and I formed Cameron Pictures, it’s that we want to work with people that we like and have fun doing it, while also being committed to the story telling. That’s the most important key for us. Finding those diverse voices and underrepresented voices is exciting for us because that’s new, fresh storytelling.
Using Little Dog as an example, even though it is a white male that created it, Joel was so interesting to work with because he has such a specific voice. It is also universal in some of the challenges he’s facing. We brought in Cory Bowles, a Halifax based writer who wrote Black Cop and talked about growing up in the black community in Halifax. There were so many parallel experiences to Joel because of the particular world, and particular challenges, and the fact that family is both suffocating and your biggest support. It was really interesting to find that connection and bring that voice into the room. It really improved the story and will help us reach a broader audience.
We also have to like the people we choose to work with. If your show is a success you are married to that person for a long time in this business. No one wants to be married to an asshole. I think that is part of why Heartland has been such a success. They all have a wonderful time, are all friends and get along so well. There’s something really lovely about that, and it was a joy to be their exec because you sense that. It’s certainly something we seek at Cameron Pictures, that joy of working on a project together. We have no ambition of becoming a huge corporation, and that’d defeat the purpose of why we started this company to tell great stories with great people.
TTVJ: What advice do you have for young women looking to get into the television industries in these behind the scenes positions?
AC: Say “yes” to every job you can get in the industry. I really feel like knowledge is power, and once you’ve been the beleaguered PA on set, you’ll never treat someone that way. It’s just so important to learn the other parts of this gig. I’m sitting in the edit suite at Little Dog every day right now and working with amazing editors who I’m learning from on a daily basis. They talk about ‘how do we get this feeling across?’ It’s something we try in the writing, the lighting, the set design, and it’s really the editors sitting here going ‘well, if you’d ask me in the beginning I would’ve told you.’ I love that process, and it makes people better at their jobs when they’ve seen other sides of things.
So do any and every job you can in the industry if you’re truly trying to get in. If you’re a writer, then work as a set PA because you’ll see and learn a ton. Also, just be a nice human being. That helps and people really remember the nice people.
TTVJ: You have Little Dog premiering soon, and Mary Kills People will be returning for Season 2. Is there anything about either of those you can preview?
AC: The people who have seen Mary feel like it’s better than Season 2. It’s fun because you know the characters and the world is established so you just get to go for it. Tassie took the lead for Cameron Pictures and Tara [Armstrong] is showrunning, and I think they did a really great job. It’s a really exciting season.
With Little Dog, we are coming in March and I haven’t seen a Canadian comedy like this. The tone is very unique to Canadian comedy and feels like Shameless with a bit of a Transparent vibe to it. It’s not a laugh every ten seconds and is quite an emotional comedy that was beautifully written by Joel and amazing team of writers. I have to say, like Mary, one of our greatest achievements in Little Dog is our casting. I’m so proud of our cast and we got some amazing actors.
I am also very proud of having three out of four directors that are female. The reason we went with our one male director, John Vatcher, is that he has experience shooting boxing and we have an enormous boxing match in the final episode. It’s an amazing cast though and exciting to see a group of people come together and become a family. There’s remarkable performances from people like Dwain Murphy and Julia Chan. It’s a joy and been fun to work on that.
Are you a fan of Mary Kills People or looking forward to Little Dog? Add your thoughts in the comments below!
Mary Kills People airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Global in Canada and later this year on Lifetime in the U.S. Little Dog premieres Thursday, March 1 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.