Women Behind Canadian TV: Carol Hay

CarolHay

The path taken to a chosen profession is not always a straight line. Frankie Drake Mysteries co-creator and executive producer Carol Hay may have started out working in television, but certainly not as a writer. She began her career as a broadcast executive before switching things up and then writing for years on CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. It’s there she shared an office with fellow Murdoch writer Michelle Ricci. The two women then came up with the of a female private detective in the 1920s and the rest is history, as Frankie Drake came to life.

Hay, who also wrote on Shoot the Messenger, recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to shed more light on the beginnings of Frankie Drake. She details how the initial idea to center the show on the friendship between two women was broadened to four female leads for Season 2. She also details why she loves writing a period show and more specifically, why the 1920s were so appealing to her and Ricci when choosing when to set the show.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share some about your background? Did you always know you wanted to write for television?

Carol Hay: I began my career as a broadcast executive. I was working for CBC in the 90s in what was then called the movies and miniseries department. I was on the other side of the glass working for broadcasters, and then went freelance and started doing TV writing before moving to CTV. I had always wanted to write and eventually took my leap in a ‘now or never’ moment. I suppose you could call me a bit of a late bloomer to the world of writing for television.

My stock in trade, as a broadcaster, was story and story editing. So much of writing for television is about structure, and I really honed my chops in structure in those jobs. I really wanted to write TV movies. I optioned the rights to the Walter Gretzky story, produced and set up the whole team and worked very closely with Susan Cavan, the main producer, 24/7 out in Calgary on the project. That was my foot in with CBC.

TTVJ: How did the opportunity then to work on Murdoch Mysteries come about?

CH: Working in TV movies really appealed to me, but the market dried up. Through Christina Jennings [CEO of Shaftesbury] and my agent, I was offered an episode of Murdoch as a freelancer in Season 2. I then joined the writing team in Season 3 and stayed until Season 10. I just loved it. It was interesting because in a funny way, it was the perfect way for me to enter series television. Each episode of Murdoch is like a mini-movie, and I wrote episodes on that series that went from the world of medicine, to prostitutes, to autism and the beginning of electricity. Every episode had a world unto itself and that was very satisfying that you could contain it into one episode. It was so good in fact that I stayed for eight years.

TTVJ: I believe I heard that the idea for Frankie Drake was something you and Michelle Ricci discussed while sharing an office on Murdoch. What was the process like of taking that idea and turning it into an actual series?

CH: It was an organic thing where we’d come across a story that wouldn’t work for Murdoch, and then tossed around that it’d be great for a female private detective show. So one day we said ‘let’s just throw this together.’ We put together a pitch and we met with three or four producers, got some interest right away, but because we were both Murdoch writers we also took it to Shaftesbury. They liked it very, very much and wanted to option it. Then CBC was looking for a new series so Christina, in her inimitable way, pitched it and we were thrown into very fast development.

What we knew we always wanted to do was tell stories from a female perspective, and the big difference was that we wanted it to be historical, but not in Victorian times. We were doing that with Murdoch and just had this thought about the 1920s and how much we loved it. It was a wonderful pocket of time in history. There was a little bubble of optimism then, Toronto was booming and really developing as a city, and at the same time, women were coming into their own. It was really a period of time — for the first time in modern history — where women could live on their own. They didn’t have to go straight from their parents’ house to their husband’s house. They could actually have a job, have a little cash and be able to get a room where they could have an independent life.

There were no female detectives then, but we still said “let’s just do it and go for it!” We always knew it’d be two women and at the heart of it, the friendship between the two.

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: We still don’t see enough great female friendships like that on TV.

CH: For me, what was really interesting, was that it was a female friendship based on work. They aren’t talking about their boyfriends and all that, but they work together and have this partnership which leads to a friendship.

TTVJ: Frankie Drake doesn’t stop with just the two, but the four main leads are all women.

CH: The story of how Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) and Flo (Sharron Matthews) came to be is very interesting. We really loved the idea of our two leads, Frankie (Lauren Lee Smith) and Trudy (Chantel Riley), having this network of people they could go to and get their information from. That’s where Flo began, and she was initially going to be a woman that worked in the morgue, was going to medical school, and gave Frankie information when she was in the alley having a smoke. When we cast Sharron we just felt like we hit a gold mine. As soon as we saw her and her performance, we started to write for her and ditto for Mary.

Mary was even more interesting because when we hired Rebecca, she was only going to be in one episode. From the minute she did the read through of the script we just fell in love with her. It was a wonderfully organic happenstance in that first season where we began to realize it wasn’t a team of two, but a team of four. That was the thing I was most pleased about in Season 1, that we developed this incredible foursome of disparate women in different phases of their life. What binds them all together is this incredible optimism and joie de vivre where they all enjoy each other and their lives so much.

TTVJ: You mentioned you really wanted to set the show in the 1920s. What does that kind of setting allow you to do storywise?

CH: The great thing about writing period drama is that you can tackle issues, get into stories and dig around, make a social comment or a societal observation that wouldn’t work in a contemporary setting. Yet, when we do issues of gender, race, sexuality or inequality, it’s incredible how little has changed. It’s very cool to be able to do that. It is the same with Murdoch as well. You can really draw parallels to what’s going on now and women can react as they would in the 20s, and yet, you realize all these years later not much has changed. You can still get to the heart of an issue and I really love that.

CBC
CBC

TTVJ: Did you ever get any pushback from anyone about having all these women front and center?

CH: No. We do get asked a lot ‘don’t they have boyfriends? Where is the love interest?’ That’s something we’ve explored a little bit, and may be something in Season 3 that’s more at the forefront. Personally, I just love being with these women. Obviously though, the audience wants to see them involved though. One of the things we did in Season 2, which was a Shaftesbury initiative, is we opened up the world of Mary and Flo a little more so we saw the institutions in which they work. We met cops and the coroner and then had a sense that they were in a very male world. It was a really good suggestion and it filled out the world more. No real pushback though against ‘oh god, you can’t have four female leads.’ Our broadcaster and Shaftesbury have always totally embraced that.

TTVJ: I’m always with you, where I love seeing scenes with those four women together.

CH: They all have a different perspective. We’ll see what happens, but it’d be so cool to see them being worried for each other or having different points of view around a case. I think that would be different. Just because we’re all women doesn’t mean we all walk in lock step and agree with each other. It’d be interesting and surprising to see who thinks what. There’s a lot to be mined and that’s what great about a show like this — there’s never ending stories.

TTVJ: What about behind the scenes? I know there have been a lot of women that wrote and directed on Frankie Drake, and you have women producers too. Did you put a priority on women behind the scenes telling these stories from the start?

CH: Christina very much embraced the idea of women directors, just as she’s done on Murdoch. We were delighted to be able to do that, and on both seasons of Frankie we’ve had 50 per cent female directors. There are great women out there to fill these positions, and we have men in the writing room, but we get men who understand what stories we are telling.

TTVJ: There’s a lot of steps being taken to increase diversity in the industry. Are there any that you see making the biggest changes or the most positive?

CH: CBC’s initiative to get 50% women directors on their shows has had an good impact. Now I’d like to see more training. What if there was a program where young women directors (with a credit on a short or a webisode for example) are formally mentored. As part of that, they shadow an experienced director to really get a solid sense of a series then they direct an episode with the guidance of their mentor. Something like that. More thought than this obviously needs to go into such a venture but it will mean the pool of female directors is constantly being replenished. That’s what we need to ensure the good beginning is sustainable.

Ditto for crew. I’d love to see more women behind the camera – literally. DOPs; grips etc. And bring on the women producers – I was thrilled to work with Teresa Ho, our producer this year.

TTVJ: Do you have any advice for young writers looking to get their start?

CH: I’d say what everybody probably says, which is to just keep writing. We came up with this show kind of out of nowhere, yes we had Murdoch, but a good idea is a good idea. No matter where it comes from. Be prepared to team up with other people and don’t be precious about your writing. Television is a really collaborative medium — not just in the writing room but with who you take your idea to. When you come up with an idea, think of who might be interested and what other people have produced. Think about teaming up because it’s too hard to do it on your own. I’m very grateful for my partnership with Michelle and with Shaftesbury. We have teams of writers and I could never do this by myself. Writing can be a lonely profession and sometimes working with other people can make it less lonely.

 

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Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.