Women Behind Canadian TV: Anita Kapila

Photo courtesy of Anita Kapila
Photo courtesy of Anita Kapila

Sometimes all it takes is someone taking a chance on you, or seeing something in you that even you don’t see, that will lead to getting that first foot in the door. That was certainly the case for Kim’s Convenience writer and co-executive producer Anita Kapila when she was hired to write for a kids’ sketch comedy series while still in school. Getting that opportunity led to writing for animated series such as Rusty Rivets, Doki, Camp Lakebottom and Little Charmers before working on comedies such as Mr. D and now Kim’s, for which she was a recent Writers Guild of Canada Award nominee.

Kapila joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, and she shared how writing on children’s programs and animated series, including How to Be Indie, allowed her the first chance to take some of her own stories and put them on TV. She also discussed what it was like to be nominated for and the importance of awards when it comes to highlighting your work for others to see. Finally, Kapila shared thoughts on diversity in the industry, as well as why it’s important for young writers to get their foot in the door any way they can.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: How did you get into writing for television? Can you share a little bit about your background and journey to writing?

Anita Kapila: I was finishing my degree in English Literature, and had just applied to various masters’ programs when I realized I was done with school — just didn’t want to study anymore. I wasn’t sure what my plans were, just that I wanted to be a writer. Lo and behold, I was walking through campus when I saw a sign, saying a kids’ sketch comedy show, created by John May and Suzanne Bolch (two amazing writers and exec producers) was looking for emerging writers. I hadn’t written anything but essays for four years, so I sent off some parodies I wrote in high school, which were just terrible. But I wrote a funny cover letter. And that’s what got me hired. They very correctly threw away my actual work, but hired me on the strength of my cover letter. Anybody else would’ve just passed me by, but John and Suzanne are fantastic mentors, always looking out for new talent, and I’m forever grateful that they could find the potential in what was truly some horrible work. Can’t stress that enough.

TTVJ: Earlier in your career you were writing for a lot of children’s programs and animated series. Was there anything in particular that drew you in that direction?

AK: The show John and Suzanne had developed was a kids’ sketch comedy series called Squawk Box, so that was my first job. I love writing for kids’ TV, and still do when I can. It’s a fantastic community of funny, creative, and kind people, and for me, it’s the hardest thing to write. You not only have to get back into your kid-brain, you have to be entertaining, educational, funny, visual, and you have less than 20 pages to tell your story.

I also got to work on another John and Suzanne project (along with Vera Santamaria) that was ahead of its time – How to Be Indie. A tween show about an East Indian family, with a female lead. It was an incredible experience to be able to take some of my own stories and put them on TV. I even used a photo of my dad as a prop in one of my episodes, which was amazing as the story was based on a childhood memory of him. It was the first time – maybe the only time – I’ve ever been able to write on a show about an Indian family, and the fact that it was a kids’ show is amazing. It would’ve meant so much to me if I could’ve seen someone who looked like me on TV when I was a kid.

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: More recently you’ve worked on comedy series for CBC like Mr. D and Kim’s Convenience. How did you become involved in both of those shows?

AK: I was working on a show in development with Shaftesbury, and one of the other writers was Jessie Gabe, the showrunner at the time for Mr. D. We got along well and had similar senses of humour, and she ended up offering me a job on Mr. D. As for Kim’s, when I heard they were hiring I knew I wanted an interview. I really related to the themes of the play: my parents are immigrants and while my father isn’t Korean, he’s very much like Appa. Unfortunately there’s no fascinating story attached: I sent in my work, got an interview, and they were either stunned by my incredible talent or were short on time. Either way, I got the job.

TTVJ: Since you have been able to work on a variety of shows, in different genres, did you ever feel like there were times that you’ve felt openly or implicitly discriminated against as a woman or a POC? If so, how have you dealt with that?

AK: Yes, absolutely. I’m a light-skinned bi-racial person, so most of my discrimination has been more in the form of sexism, but the subtle sexism is difficult to prove and wears you down over time. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve dealt with it very well, and as I get older I find it harder and harder to take. If I’ve binged The Handmaid’s Tale the night before, all bets are off.

TTVJ: You were among many of the women making headlines for their nominations for the Canadian Screen Awards in 2018, and you’ve won the Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award in the past. How did you feel about getting that kind of recognition for your work?

AK: There’s so much talent in Canada that, as trite as it sounds, it truly is an honour to be nominated. And waaaay better when you win. But the truth is, behind each writer being nominated is an entire room full of funny, creative, incredible writers who have given their ideas, their notes, and their jokes to each and every script, even the ones “written” by someone else. It would be great if there was a Writer’s Room award, because television writing is always a collaboration.

TTVJ: Do you think awards recognition is important for giving women and POC more opportunities?

AK: Absolutely. If nothing else, nominations and awards let other people see you and your work. It’s like a tiny little arrow, pointing you out in the crowd – “hey, I’m here, hire me!” There’s so much talent out there, that sometimes that’s all you need – a way for people to spot you in the crowd.

TTVJ: In addition to your work in the writing room, you also have a role as Co-Executive Producer on Kim’s Convenience. What has that meant for you in terms of having a say on the production of the series?

AK: I don’t know if it’s given me more of a say in the series, but it’s definitely helped me write for the show. In a perfect world, all writers should be able to go to meetings and be on set for their scripts. It’s helped so much, not only in knowing the actors’ strengths and voices, which in turn helps me write for them, but also to see what doesn’t work — staging issues, what certain actors are uncomfortable with, or even just seeing an episode on its feet and realizing that something that killed in the writers’ room doesn’t necessarily work on the show.

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: While we are slowly starting to see Canadian TV become more diverse on-screen, more can always still be done. What would you say are some ways Canadian TV could be more inclusive — both on and off screen? Conversely, what positive steps or initiatives do you see being implemented that are really helping push diversity forward?

AK: One of the frustrating things about writing and casting a show is that if you don’t put a characters’ ethnicity in the script, chances are the actor getting hired is going to be white. On the other hand, if you specify ONE character’s ethnicity, you’re also intimating that all the other characters are white. At least that’s how it’s going to be read. It would be wonderful to be able to write a script and just cast out a wide net for the best actors, regardless of race or gender. Kim’s does that really well, but it’s one of the few shows I’ve worked on that truly does strive to hire actors of all races.

If we want diverse stories, we have to hire diverse people. Writing rooms need to open up so that POC aren’t just hired for shows featuring POC, because how many of those shows can you think of? It’s not just about hearing these writers’ voices, either, although that’s important. It’s about giving diverse writers experience in a room so they can hone their talent and become better writers and, eventually, showrunners. You can’t get better if you can’t get hired. We also need to stop thinking that women only write female characters, gay people only write gay characters, POC only write for POC… I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that I write women really well. Sure, okay, but actually, I write all characters really well. But usually the least developed characters are the women – they’re the ‘moms’ and the ‘daughters’ and the ‘love interests,’ but without any real wants or faults or fears. So I come in and start asking questions, demanding that they be developed into full-fledged characters, not because I’m a woman, but because I’m a writer, and I can’t come up with a story for a ‘mom’ who doesn’t want anything, need anything, or say much of anything.

I don’t think a lot of showrunners are racist, they just have a core group of people they’ve worked with that they want to work with again, so the same people get hired and rehired, over and over again and most of those people are white males. Things are starting to change, and I’ve seen the make up of the rooms slowly get more diverse, but there’s lots of room for improvement. I’ve mentored many fantastic writers through Bell Media’s Diverse Screenwriting program, many of whom have ended up working in the industry. This may be unpopular, but I’m not against diversity hires. I’m sure I’ve been hired before because I’m either a woman or a minority, and to be honest, it’s never bothered me. How many white men are hired because of how they look, and they’ve never complained? Get your foot in the door any way you can and then work your ass off to show them that you deserve to be there.

We should also open up our minds and go Hamilton on casting: who cares if, on the made up show that everyone knows is made up, the family all has the same skin colour? Why can’t they be a multi-cultural mix? As a writer, when you’re going to create a new character that would traditionally be a white male, what if you made it a woman? Or someone who’s gay? Or Asian? Shake things up from the start. It not only makes the show more diverse, it takes a tired TV trope and gives it some life.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young women looking to get into writing or working in television?

AK: Learn the craft – everyone can write dialogue, but structure is the difference between a funny script and an amazing one. Study good television. Break down the scripts, see what makes them work. And just keep writing, even if you think it’s bad. Everyone’s first draft is terrible, but if you can take constructive criticism you can make every script better. Network: take people out for a quick coffee, and go to every meeting you can. Half of getting the job is being seen at the right time. I got one job simply because I joined Facebook and the showrunner friended me. I got another one when a co-writer and I tanked an interview, but the producers liked me and thought of me when they were developing another show. Every person you meet could be the one who hires you – but when they do, you’d better have the scripts and the talent to back it up.

And women, stop apologizing! When I mentored, the men would hand in their scripts with a confidence I can only dream of. The women would hand in their scripts with a long email, apologizing for their work and pointing out all their mistakes. I understand the urge – I’ve done it myself – but confidence really does help sell a person.

 

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Kim’s Convenience airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBC and is available to stream anytime on CBC Gem. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.