There’s something to be said for seeing what you and going after it 100%. After a brief stint studying biology at university, 1st Assistant Director Emily Renner Wallace realized that her heart belonged to the film and TV world. By taking positions that didn’t interest others, she soon started working on productions all around Alberta and hasn’t stopped since.
One production where Wallace has worked since it began is Wynonna Earp. In a true case of women helping women, she shared how she was promoted from within to 1st AD for Season 2 of Wynonna, making her the youngest and only 1st AD in Alberta. She detailed that experience for us as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries, and told us what it’s like working in Calgary when so much of the Canadian TV industry seems to be happening elsewhere in Toronto and Vancouver.
In addition to her work on Wynonna Earp, Wallace worked on Season 1 of JANN and the new CBC drama Fortunate Son. It’s on sets just like those that Wallace says she’s left feeling more encouraged than ever by seeing more and more women all the time behind the scenes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you talk a little bit about your background? Did you always want to work in TV?
Emily Renner Wallace: I did a bit of theater when I was a kid, but never really thought about being behind the camera. As I grew up and got older, I went to school for biology and was taking science for a long time, and then moved into broadcasting at Mount Royal University. While I was taking science, I met a couple people taking that program, and decided to move into that.
I’ve always loved film and television growing up, and worked at a movie theater for 8 years. That’s really the only other job outside of film that I’ve had. I did work for the Calgary Film Festival for a few years and through that, I ended up meeting local filmmakers who asked me to work on their productions.
TTVJ: What attracted you to assistant directing? What qualities and responsibilities do you have that make you well-suited to being an AD?
ERW: The first job I ever had coming into the industry was that coordinating an indie film. I knew nothing about it at that point, and I had absolutely no business getting that job, but I got it. I did the absolute best that I could and learned a ton, quickly. I didn’t even know what the Assistant Director position was, so I started coordinating and found out because you work very closely with the ADs.
So I met many ADs through this film, and I didn’t even know it was a job, but I saw them making lists, which is oddly always one of my favorite things to do. So they’d be building the schedule and organizing people in a way that was helping everybody succeed.
I’ve always been a great supporter of other people’s creativity and really wanting to support other people’s vision. I wasn’t sure about producing, and I found out about ADing and thought, ‘What a perfect opportunity! I love making lists. I love being organized. And I love supporting other people’s creativity.’
TTVJ: Once the show is underway with production, what’s a typical day like on set for you?
ERW: As a first, I usually try to show up at the same time as the technicians, the grips, and electricians. I like to show up with them because I know how the day is going to go, I’ve made a plan, and I want to make sure everybody is putting their stuff in the right spot. Then, if anyone has any questions about the day, I’m there to answer it before the director gets there. A lot can happen then so I like to be around to assist people and make sure we get off on the right start.
We then usually have a safety meeting at crew call, which is the standard nowadays, run people through the day, and then start with the blocking. People always think working in film is so great because you’re not in an office, and you’re in a new setting everyday. It’s still the same consistency though — block, setup, rehearse, and shoot. On a TV series, you’re doing that anywhere from 10 to 50 times a day. There is a certain amount of consistency that’s important to be successful.
There’s always challenges that happen every day, even though you plan the best you possibly can to make sure you’re anticipating everything that might happen. You always go in with a plan, but things change throughout the day, whether it’s weather, a car accident and everyone’s late, or something breaks or doesn’t show up. It’s always exciting and changes constantly, but there’s a bit of consistency across the board.
TTVJ: ADs have to keep a tight schedule, plan a lot, and as you said, make tons of lists. It seems like a position many women would naturally gravitate towards, but there’s still far too few female ADs on sets. Does it feel that way to you, or are you starting to see more women get these roles?
ERW: I’m definitely starting to see more of it. When I first got into the business, it definitely seemed like there were less women 1st ADs. As far as I know, I’m the youngest and only 1st AD in Alberta since I got the position. That’s definitely something, but in other places, I feel like I’m hearing more about people being excited about female firsts really coming up in the business. It was just a really male-driven industry before and that reach wasn’t really there because there were so many men.
There’s this belief, that I always try and break, that people tend to hire people that are like them. They pick people that look like them and act like them. I think that is how the industry got so white male-driven. You’re comforted when your entire team is just like you. It’s about seeking those other personalities and people that look different, act different, but that you can still have a really honest, great working relationship with — that’s how we grow and diversify our industry. I’m always actively looking for those opportunities for myself, and being conscious that that’s something people naturally do without even knowing it.
In looking at seconds, thirds, trainee directors, and PAs there seems to be a lot of women now. I seem to constantly be in a situation of women approaching me saying ‘Hey, I want to be an AD. How did you get to being an AD?’ I always try to encourage them.
TTVJ: You mentioned you’re the youngest 1st AD in Alberta right now, and I wanted to talk a little bit about how that came to be. Showrunner Emily Andras and the Wynonna Earp team promoted you from within for Season 2, right? Can you share a little bit about how that all happened?
ERW: I was a 2nd AD on Season 1 of Wynonna Earp and had been in the industry for awhile. I had been a 1st AD for indie productions, done an indie feature, and a short film, but had only maybe done one or two union shows as an AD. I wasn’t an established 1st AD yet. So when Season 2 came around, I had done Underworld and an episode of Tin Star as well, so had a little experience, and I saw an opportunity to be able to start the show. That’s the thing with being an AD, sometimes you get bumped up to 1st for an episode or two if something happens, but you don’t get hired on the show until you have that experience.
Wynonna Season 2 was the first show I was hired to be the 1st AD from the very beginning. It was a combination of the cast really liking me and supporting me, which is an important relationship, as well as Emily being very supportive of me, kind, and really believing in me. Our line producer Brian Dennis was really supportive of me as well. The rest of the crew too because when you’re a first you’re working so closely with every department. The crew has to stand behind you, and our production designer and set decorator were really supportive of me as well. I maybe didn’t have a ton of experience, but I was really supported by the rest of the community on Wynonna. There was a little bit of room for error too because they wanted me to succeed, and I wanted them to succeed.
TTVJ: What is it like working on a show like Wynonna Earp or JANN, with so many women in power both on and off screen, versus other series you’ve been a part of?
ERW: I feel like I’m starting to do it so frequently that this now feels normal to me. I am a woman and have been collaborating with so many women for quite a few years now, that it’s just starting to feel normalized. There is a certain lightness and camaraderie that happens when a group of females get together to create. I find that on both Wynonna and JANN. I’m not saying I’m not supported on a male-heavy crew, but there’s a specific kind of lightness and camaraderie that comes out of that adventure together.
Even though I feel like it’s normalized, I have to remind myself to continue to support it, and actively make decisions to get more females on set. I don’t want it to go away.
TTVJ: So much of the Canadian TV industry seems centered in Toronto or Vancouver, but you work in Calgary. What is that like? Do you ever feel the need to move to succeed?
ERW: I feel like I get asked this a lot, especially with our new government, but I feel like I was just incredibly lucky. I started ADing when there was a need for ADs in Alberta, especially the ADs at the trailers, because no one wants to do that job, even though I think it’s amazing. I came in and wanted to do that job and I wanted to learn. I was willing to do it when people were not so willing. I basically started working, and never stopped working in Alberta for five years straight. I had to tell myself to stop working because I was going to burn out.
I think my story is rare in Alberta. Every time I have not worked, it’s been because I took time off. I’ve been consistently working and consistently getting shows. If you’re a hard worker and you’re good at your job, then those opportunities are there. I was actively seeking them out because I wanted to make a name for myself as an AD in Calgary. I worked really hard, and didn’t stop working to achieve that. I see and hear other people not having that same success, so I think maybe I’m just a fortunate, lucky person who hasn’t had to do that in my career in some regards.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice for those looking to break in, whether as ADs or just some other position in the industry?
ERW: There’s a delicate balance on set when tensions are high and everyone is so busy between being noticed and being noticed too much. People are working, and you’re so busy, but it’s important to get your face in there and work hard, but you don’t want to be interrupting or getting in the way. It’s finding that balance of being noticed and not getting in the way. You want to be a person that people want to be around. I know this sounds like impossible advice, but to be a good AD you have to know how to read the room and people’s personalities. You’ll be able to find those opportunities if you stay quiet, listen, and watch. There’s so much going on, and so many human interactions, so much ego, art, and creativity going on. If you stay quiet and watch interactions between people, you can really learn a lot about how to find your place in that world.
Sometimes when people are eager they want to jump in and make noise. I think it’s important to always be reaching for goals and always be striving, but I think the other side of it is to take a little time to be quiet and really listen.
TTVJ: In addition to working on Season 4 of Wynonna Earp, do you have any other projects coming out we should know about?
ERW: I just finished working on Fortunate Son which will air on CBC. I also did a series called A Teacher with a young American filmmaker named Hannah Fidell. She made a film of the same name that’s been developed into a miniseries for FX starring Kate Mara. There’s a lot of women there as well. Fidell was showrunner and directed a few of the episodes along with another female director, a female director of photography, female production designer, and a lot of other women working on the show. It shot in Calgary and we were doubling for Austin, TX.
Other than that, I just directed a short film called God Lady with a local first-time producer, Sally Bishop. She has been a stunt performer in Alberta for years and years and years. She got a grant, wrote it, and I directed it for her. It’s actually an all-female cast too.
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JANN Season 2 will air in 2020 on CTV. Wynonna Earp Season 4 will air in 2020 on SYFY and CTV Sci-Fi.
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.