As a young female television writer recently out of school, it’s hard to imagine landing a gig at a more female-friendly show than Wynonna Earp. Not only is showrunner Emily Andras driving the ship, but the show also revolves around several different and complex female characters. However, after being the first Canadian to win the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Award, a writing award presented by the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for novice writers under 30, that’s exactly what happened to Caitlin Fryers.
Fryers spent the first season of Wynonna as a script coordinator, helping to write an episode, and now enters Season 2 as a story editor. She recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to offer perspective on what it’s truly like for young female writers trying to break into the industry. She discusses some of the challenges still left for women to overcome, and why she feels so lucky to be working on a show like Wynonna that places an emphasis on females not only in front of but behind the scenes as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you just share a little bit about your background? Did you always know you wanted to write for television?
Caitlin Fryers: I didn’t always want to write specifically for TV, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I’ve been a voracious reader and film/tv watcher since childhood–I kind of went from watching Disney movies straight to watching The West Wing and Poirot. As a kid, living in Winnipeg, my parents had to drive me 40 minutes to and from school, and we also drove five hours to the cottage on many weekends; to keep me occupied my parents would tell me stories. Then I started telling stories to my friends, like my parents did, and eventually I started writing those stories down.
Somewhere in there I decided I wanted to do it as my profession, and my parents, God bless them, were totally supportive. Maybe they realized it was their fault! I thought I would write prose–I started writing a novel when I was 15–but then I went to the University of Winnipeg to study English, and took every screenwriting course they offered. It just fit. I went on to get a graduate diploma, and my Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting.
TTVJ: For young writers one of the biggest obstacles is getting that first job and your foot in the door. How did you land at Wynonna Earp and were there any obstacles along the way?
CF: Exiting graduate school I found myself in a period of borderline panic–I had no idea how to find a job in the industry. I knew step one was probably getting an agent. But also, agents want you to have an accomplishment that attracts their attention. I also knew that in Canada it’s much harder to make it as a feature writer, and all I’d written were features. That was the first obstacle. It was my husband who suggested I enter the Sir Peter Ustinov Award. I used the deadline as motivation to write a pilot. I wrote it quickly, entered it and won. Because I was the first Canadian to win it, Playback did an article about me and several agencies reached out asking to read the script.
Meridian Artists were the right fit, and six months later they told me I had an interview with Emily Andras [showrunner, Wynonna Earp] the very next morning. I met Emily at a coffee shop, and I literally walked in and hugged her because she just exuded warmth. It wasn’t until after that I went ‘are you supposed to hug a potential boss when you first meet them?’ Anyway, Emily liked my writing, we had a lovely meeting and after the most nerve wracking weekend of my life, she offered me the job of Script Coordinator.
TTVJ: Even though you’re early on in your career, have you ever felt that your gender has played a role in the opportunities you’ve had? Whether for good or bad?
CF: Well, in the case of Wynonna I’m pretty sure it helped that I’m a woman, but also, I’d written female driven scripts, including a western, which I think was even more important. I know throughout my studies–at the University of Winnipeg through to the MFA–I was frequently the sole woman in the class, or at least in the clear minority. I almost became desensitized to it. Which at the time, maybe I needed to be, so I wouldn’t get discouraged. Now the lack of parity in the industry frustrates me, but it also motivates me. I want to write great scripts so that I can make my way into a position wherein I can help other women break in, which is what writers like Emily are doing.
TTVJ: You’re on board for Season 2 of Wynonna, so what does that mean in terms of responsibilities versus what you did in Season 1?
CF: I was very fortunate that as script coordinator I got to be in the room breaking story quite a bit, I was given half a script to write with Emily, and I learned a lot about the script editing side because it was a small team and we were closely knit. But that job–script coordinator–is also hugely administrative. Lots of making schedules, formatting scripts, taking notes, and acting as a go-between for the writers and production staff. This year I’m a story editor, so the administrative tasks are largely eliminated. I’m in the writers’ room consistently, helping to break story, and I’ll write a script on my own–which is something both exciting and nerve-wracking, though I know the team has my back. And of course, I’ll be there to support Emily wherever she needs me.
TTVJ: As a young female writer beginning her career, it’s hard to think of anyone better than Emily Andras to train under. What’s been the most important thing you’ve learned working with her?
CF: Right? I so lucked out! And to have another woman like Alex Zarowny there too, I feel very blessed and by the way, the gentlemen in the room are also wonderful! I learned a lot, obviously, but what sticks out in my mind is: Be a problem solver. A hell of a lot of things can go wrong when making a TV show. Emily’s very good at always looking for the solution, and not panicking about the issue. Don’t panic. Think outside the box. Use what you have.
So, for example, you lose a location. That scene that was supposed to take place in the woods, now has to be moved because it’s -50 billion degrees and the cameras are freezing. Also, this scene shoots in four hours! Don’t panic. Think outside the box. Use what you have. And then rewrite like the wind! I also learned that sometimes–like in stories–conflict makes something better. The rewritten version of that scene might actually be stronger than the one you had previously, because it’s shaped by the circumstances and, hopefully, ingenuity.
TTVJ: One thing that’s so great about Wynonna is there’s a bunch of great female characters. Why is that so important?
CF: Having multiple complex female characters, means we can explore the relationships between these women–friendships, rivalries, romances. Inter-female relationships are still way underrepresented in television, especially in action or superhero shows. I mean, we see female leads flanked by dudes all the time, and don’t get me wrong, I love many of those shows. Season 1, Wynonna has her boys and they’re awesome. But we also have Wynonna’s little sister Waverly, the town sweetheart, who’s not only an emotional and moral support for her sister, but kicks ass and shoots shotguns and yells profanities when you least expect it. Then there’s Nicole, the cop who has a friendship with Wynonna, budding romance with Waverly, and also has her own job to do–and she does it well.
The women in Wynonna have multiple roles, and they relate to each other on multiple levels, in multiple areas of the show. Sisters. Lovers. Friends. Coworkers. For example, I had no idea that the scenes between Nicole and Wynonna in Episode 7 would draw so much positive attention from the viewers, but in hindsight, yeah, we were putting those two ladies together and they were talking about each other, about another woman (Waverly) whom they both love (just in different ways), and about their work. On a platonic, professional, friendly level. No cat fights. No flirting. It’s surprising how rare those relationships are, when it comes to what we see on screens. And they shouldn’t be!
TTVJ: That being said, do you have a particular character that is your favorite to write for? If you don’t want to pick a favorite, maybe one that is easier for you to write and one that you find more challenging?
CF: They’re honestly all fun! And all challenging. Doc has a particular cadence and vocabulary, because of where and when he’s from. Wynonna turns on a dime from badass, potty-mouthed, quip machine to vulnerable and emotionally honest philosopher–God bless Melanie Scrofano! She reacts to things in unexpected ways, so we can look for those moments in a script. Dolls is the straight man, which means we can play with subtext and bring him into conflict with Wynonna’s less disciplined personality. The Waverly/Nicole relationship is delightful to write, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the response to it. Waverly has a ferocity to her, wrapped in this unassuming, beautifully good persona. Sometimes being good gets her into sticky situations. That’s fun to plot out!
TTVJ: Despite all the women in Wynonna’s writing room, women are still underrepresented in a lot of rooms across the industry. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for young women looking to break into television writing?
CF: I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I think it’s challenging for anyone to break in, let’s get that out of the way first; and from a certain vantage point you could say that the lack of parity has led to opportunities open solely to women. But. But. But. We’re still so underrepresented it’s crazy. So for women there’s the mental hurdle that comes with constantly seeing images of those round table talks, in which a single lady writer sits surrounded by men. There’s the heartbreak that comes when you read the list of award nominees and winners, and realize so so so many of the names are male. Then you’re checking the credits of that female led show–or any show–and you see that once again, it’s all dudes. You’re confronted with this day after day. It’s bloody exhausting.
It’s also terrifying. Because not only are you trying to reach for that tiny space, you’re also proceeding with the knowledge that when you get there, you could be alone. Which means: when you find your people, when you find your ladies, hold on to them tight! And if you bust down that door, bring as many women as you can along with you! Guys, I’m looking at you too.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with other young writers?
CF: Write what you’re passionate about. Don’t judge your own path by the paths you see others take. If you’re not following the same steps as someone else, or racking up the same accomplishments, don’t be hard on yourself. Writers are extremely self-critical, and constantly analyze their career–“What should they write next that might sell?” “Who should read it?” “What hot new show should they spec?” Everyone has their own timeline and their own creative method.
You have to learn to follow your own instincts, and develop a life and environment that fosters your unique creative process. That may be in film school, it may be in a writers’ group, it may be writing alone and showing your work to your crazy uncle. It may be writing scripts and entering them into competitions, or writing shorts and features and web series that you can shoot yourself. There are no rules. So as previously stated: write, then write some more. That’s the consistent link between success stories. Write. Write. Write.
Also, be kind. Sounds like a “no duh” piece of advice, but personality is important. The writing room has to be a safe space, it really really helps to work with people you like and trust.
Do you enjoy the ladies of Wynonna Earp? Sound off in the comments below!
Wynonna Earp Season 2 returns in Spring 2017 to Syfy. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.
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.