Breaking into Canada’s television industry is far from easy, but there are resources available for those who look for it. For Canadian writer Ashley Park, that meant joining the Writers Guild of Canada’s now retired Bell Media Diverse Screenwriters Program in 2012/13, and the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Bell Media Prime Time TV Program in 2014/15.
It was at the CFC program that Canada’s latest sci-fi hit Travelers was largely developed and workshopped in collaboration with creator Brad Wright. Park was among the residents asked to join the writing staff for Seasons 1 and 2, serving as writer, executive story editor, and co-producer. Since then Park has worked as a story editor for Killjoys Season 3 and a scriptwriter for a yet-to-be-announced project for game publisher Ubisoft.
Park spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss her experience in the Travelers and Killjoys writing rooms, jumping from writing for TV to writing for gaming, and why diversity behind the scenes of Canadian television matters.
This interview has been edited and condensed
The TV Junkies: What inspired you to get into writing as a career?
Ashley Park: I don’t know if I was inspired to get into writing. It was more that I couldn’t do anything else. I was that little weirdo reading books about dragons and monsters in the library, and I was always making up stories. I wanted to get into film after reading Emma Thompson’s diaries of making Sense and Sensibility, probably because I wanted to be Emma Thompson. I shifted gear into TV after doing the WGC Diverse Screenwriters Program and I haven’t looked back since.
TTVJ: You were among the residents of the CFC Prime Time TV Program who worked on Season 1 of Travelers, then were asked to officially joining the writing staff on Seasons 1 and 2. What was that experience like?
AP: It was fucking wild. The Prime Time TV Program has a great track record, but it’s still uncommon for a series concept to be workshopped and then actually become a show. But I think Brad Wright could sell religion to the Pope. I had a lot of fun, the program was great forward momentum, and I was in a year with fantastic writers who I learned a lot with and from.
TTVJ: How would you compare the writers room of Travelers to Killjoys?
AP: Well, the big difference was Travelers used a whiteboard and Killjoys used index cards and a corkboard.
It’s apples and oranges. Every show and every room is its own beast. The Travelers room was small (four writers plus Brad) and the Killjoys room was big (8 writers plus Michelle [Lovretta] and Adam [Barken]). They are both sci-fi, but tonally they couldn’t be more different. One has cerebral timey-wimey stuff grounded in an interpersonal drama, and the other is balls-to-the-wall bounty hunters in space with a sassy ship! Sci-fi series live and die on the internal logic of their universes, so it was a different rulebook and a different sandbox to play in.
But writers are writers. You put a bunch of freaks (I say this lovingly), chuck them into one place, put a lot of money and not enough time on the line, and magic happens. Both teams were full of very smart, very funny people and being in the trenches with them made for a job that always put a smile on my face. I think a lot of that has to do with leadership and the culture set from the top down. I’m lucky I worked with two showrunners who made sure their teams had open, collaborative and supportive environments to let loose in. ‘No assholes’ is a very good rule to fill a room by. At this point, I think I’m pretty spoiled.
TTVJ: Who are some of the female mentors you’ve had in your career and how have they helped you grow as a writer?
AP: At Ryerson University my screenwriting professor was Tara Cates; in the Diverse Screenwriter’s Program I had Deanna Cadette and Jenn Cowan; on Killjoys Michelle Lovretta was my lady-boss; and on Travelers my producer is [Peacock Alley Entertainment President] Carrie Mudd , also a lady-boss. I’ve had the fortune of having amazing mentors, champions, supporters and allies helping me along the way, vagina or no vagina.
Some of these women whipped my ass into shape craft-wise, so as a writer I learned to cut the fat, not be precious, and write for the screen, not the novel. But above that, I’m here because a bunch of tough, funny, smart ladies took a look at me and went, ‘Yeah, you’re weird and awkward and kind of loud and swear too much, nothing wrong with that, go out there and kick some doors down.’ These mentors helped me find and hone in on my voice and, most importantly, to embrace it – from the page, to the room, to the pitch, to mingling at an industry function. I think it’s valuable for any young female writer – any young writer, really – to be told you don’t need to shut up, be quiet, or be more ‘this’ or ‘that’. You’ve got to polish what you have, yes, refine, build on it, keep improving – but own what you have. That’s why you’re being hired over someone else.
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?
AP: I’ve personally faced more discrimination or outright harassment on public transit or walking down the street than within the industry. Seriously, people suck. The entertainment industry has its deep-running, systemic issues though, and I’ve certainly had colleagues and even mentors share their experiences with me. Or I’ve seen it happen on set. And it just makes me angry and tired.
The discrimination I have come up against has been rare, and it hasn’t been from other writers. If anything, it’s had more to do with my age than anything else. I’ve been astoundingly lucky to have done so much at this point in my life, but that’s led to times I’ve been dismissed or disrespected because I’m seen as just this ‘upstart kid’. At least youth is a problem that’s rapidly fading. All you can really do is laugh and prove them wrong.
If I’ve been discriminated against specifically for being a woman or Asian or queer (I’m an easy target, to be honest), then it’s happened early on in the hiring process when I haven’t been in the room and I don’t know about it. And I don’t care. We’ve all missed out on jobs for whatever reason, and I’ve been hired for those exact same reasons too. Everyone has to play the hand that they’ve been dealt.
For better or for worse I think that, again, shutting down discriminatory behaviour has to come from leadership. Only someone in a position of power can dictate a culture where that kind of behaviour isn’t tolerated, and the people who speak up when they encounter it don’t feel ignored or punished for coming forward. I think recent headlines have made it very apparent the industry has an abysmal track record when it comes to that, but maybe now enough people have come forward that we’re encouraging a culture of saying “fuck this bullshit” when it happens.
TTVJ: Canadian TV is starting to see more diversity on-screen, but more could be done, especially off-screen as well. What would you say are some ways Canadian TV could be more inclusive? What are some positive steps being taken that you’ve seen?
AP: Hire. Diverse. People. Pay them. Let them make you money. Profit.
Programs are a great start, and I’m terribly sad the Diverse Screenwriters Program ended as I’m a proud alumna of that, but that can’t be all we depend upon. If you want diversity, you need to hire different people. And put different people at the helm of a show. It’s not just about greenlighting a series that checks all the right boxes, because diversity isn’t a paint-by-the-numbers picture. I’m a ‘diverse’ writer, but I’ve never written a ‘diverse’ pilot or series. I like writing about monsters, cowboys, robots and ‘pew-pew’ laser guns. But my experiences, my upbringing, my perspective is different and I bring that to the room and on the page. You don’t need to put diverse creators and talents into a box and only hire them for immigration shows or niche-interest content. Spread that love around. Hiring diverse talent is key to ensuring Canadian TV grows and succeeds because good, sellable entertainment comes from originality, fresh interpretations and a wide range of voices. Otherwise it stagnates.
TTVJ: You’re currently working with Ubisoft. How does writing for games differ from writing for television? I know the gaming community doesn’t exactly have a great track record with being welcoming to women.
AP: No, the gaming community doesn’t have a great track record – Gamergate didn’t help anybody – but, honestly, neither does film and TV. Games is still a young industry compared to film and TV, but what it has is innovation and risk-taking. It evolves fast. It has to in order to maintain a competitive edge. And I think it’s starting to gain recognition not just in breaking ground with new technology, but also as an incredible, dynamic narrative medium. There came a point in the last few years when games were actually outstripping new series and feature films in female protagonists and female-led titles. You’re seeing this reflected in the workplace structure of the industry too. Yes, it’s still quite male-dominated, but we’ve seen a lot of creative directors and lead producers who are women and given huge titles and franchises to helm. A lot of developers and studios are also making big pushes to have a diverse hiring mandate, Ubisoft included.
As to the writing, if the difference between Feature writing and TV writing is like shifting into a different gear, to go from TV to games is like being thrown out of the car and told to pilot a fucking plane. It is wild. The rules are different. The tools are different. But at the end of the day, what makes a good story holds true in both, you just have to take vastly different paths to get there. The best, most succinct way I can describe it is – in TV the writer is God. I write what I want the characters to do and say, I have my act structure, then that script gets handed off in production and we shoot those words. In games – the player is God. Hey, I had this suspenseful series of beats that was building up to a gut-wrenching twist? Oh shit, but what if the player kills that NPC? Who’s going to deliver those story beats then? You have to be so mindful that your audience is interacting with this story and has a level of control over it that no TV viewer has. It is almost even more collaborative in that way. And if you can’t be flexible to provide options or embrace happy accidents, you just don’t have a story that works. It is humbling as fuck.
TTVJ: What made you decide to move from TV to the gaming industry? Do you plan to go back to TV writing?
AP: I never thought of going into game writing as leaving TV. I must have used up my lifetime’s worth of luck to be able to do both of my dream jobs. I had the opportunity to work at Ubisoft in between seasons of Travelers and I leapt for it. Number one because I fucking love games. I play maybe too much of them. I buy too many of them and I also buy too much of the merchandise associated with them. I’m a big fucking nerd and I can’t help myself.
Number two, I think that industry is so fucking exciting. I wanted to be there, ground zero, where new rules are made every day, the biggest risks are taken, the wheel is being reinvented project to project, and I really wanted the challenge of creating a story in a completely different medium. I think this is the future of narrative content. I think the experimentation and the boundaries that get pushed in games will be where narrative entertainment goes next, and I wanted to be there and get my hands dirty in it.
TTVJ: What is some advice you would give young writers starting out?
AP: It’s tempting to look at someone with a long and storied career and chase after them, because that’s what you want. But really, it’s the people and friends at the same level as you who will help you the most. Don’t ignore those connections. The tide rises and you bring your peers up with you.
Talent only gets you so far. Don’t be an asshole. At least, be a funny asshole.
Have you tuned in to Travelers yet? Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts on the series and Park’s perspective on the industry.
Travelers Seasons 1 and 2 are currently available on Netflix in the U.S., and Season 2 is available on Showcase on Demand in Canada. Killjoys returns to Syfy and Space later this year for Season 4.
Associate Editor Kelly Townsend always had strong opinions on TV growing up, so it was only natural to evolve from couch musings to online journalism. She can't ever choose a favorite series, so please don't ask. Her writing has also appeared on IndieWire and Tribute.ca. You can find her on Twitter at @kellybtownsend.