Women Behind Canadian TV: Helen Shaver

Courtesy of Corus Entertainment
Courtesy of Corus Entertainment

One would be hard pressed to find a director with a more impressive resume than Helen Shaver. After spending 23 years in front of cameras as an actress, with roles in films like Amityville Horror, Desert Hearts and The Color of Money, she successfully made the transition behind the scenes as a director. She is now one of the industry’s most in demand and sought after directors.

Despite having credits that include the likes of Travelers, Vikings, Orphan Black, Person of Interest, Elementary, and Law & Order: SVU, Shaver says that transition to successful director wasn’t necessarily an easy one to make. She recently spoke to The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, and detailed the initial doubts that came with her decision to direct, not only from herself, but from studios and executives.

Shaver, who was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2004, recalls how she leveraged her career as an actress to land her first directing jobs, and shares why she believes the number of women directors are so low. She also details how she’s never let these low numbers and limited opportunities stop her from realizing her dreams and offers up some advice for young directors looking to break through.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Something I read a lot is that it’s really hard to get that first job as a director. How did you get that first foot in the door and did being an accomplished actress help you in that?

Helen Shaver: I definitely leveraged it. I’m a very visual and whole picture type of person. Some writers say they dream in words, but I dream in pictures and throughout my life I’ve always seen things. So when I’d read a script as an actor I’d always see the movie that I thought. I had such an expansive, multi-faceted career as an actor working with some of the world’s greatest directors–Scorsese, DePalma, Spielberg, Donna Deitch–but I always said ‘I could have directed that,’ or ‘I wish I would’ve directed that!’

It wasn’t really until my 40s when I met Connie Tavel, a manager, and she said ‘you have to tell me what it is you want because you have a perfectly lovely career, so what is it you want that you don’t have?’ Of course I said an Academy Award! [laughs] But really I was born in 1951 in Canada where ambition is an impolite thing, so I would say things like ‘I want to work with good people.’ She’d say ‘no, what do you want?’ She was very good at bottom lining people and finally I heard myself say ‘I want to direct.’ She said ‘OK now we have a 5 year plan.’ So we made choices with everything that came my way based on whether it took me further or closer to that goal.

About a year went by and I got offered a series for Showtime called Poltergeist: The Legacy. I had read the pilot but wasn’t like ‘oh my God I have to do this piece!’ Connie said I could pass but that Showtime wanted me very badly and was very proactive in diversity at the time. She came back with guaranteed payment as an actor for 44 episode, The Outer Limits and the promise to direct Poltergeist in the first year.

While I was confident in my vision and had spent thousands of hours on set, I had never prepped before. So there was a big learning curve and when I went to camera it was sort of like running naked in a gauntlet. But at the other end of it, and once I finished editing, the material I turned in was better than the script. It had realized the script plus added an emotional truth to it, not just the narrative, and it’s always the story underneath the story that reaches the audience. Once I was bloody and bruised I was ready for the next one. The next one was The Outer Limits and those two pieces of material garnered positive reaction and people wanting me to do more. I continued to trade all my acting where I’d say ‘I’ll act in one if I can direct one.’

Soon I had scripts to read just as a director and directed my first full length feature Summer’s End starring James Earl Jones. I was nominated for Best Director [at the Daytime Emmys], James Earl Jones was nominated and won for Best Actor and the film won for Best Film. Oddly enough the person who won for Best Director was Donna Deitch who had directed me in Desert Hearts. I did Desert Hearts when I was 33 and by that time I had starred in a couple television series, done multiple movies, a lot of theater and commercial and radio plays and never, ever had worked with a woman as a director until Donna Deitch. I have been directed by very few women since then.

TTVJ: We have made a lot of progress getting more representation and more complex female characters on screen, but numbers for women directing behind the scenes are still super low. What gives?

HS: I think it’s a really complex answer which some social scientist has a better answer than me. While I am aware of the situation that exists and the sexism that exists in the world and business, this is not a chip I wear on my shoulder, nor is it my first thought when I wake up in the morning because had it been, I never would’ve gotten out of bed. I grew up in a family with six girls and no boys, and it wasn’t ‘oh the boys mow the lawn and the girls do the dishes,’ or ‘the boys go to university and the girls get married.’ We did everything and my parents, while they had no money, had incredible truths they lived by. The basic one was ‘Helen, you are a jewel. You are not polished yet so it’s your job to polish yourself up. You are intelligent. You are gifted and you can do whatever you want to do. Your job in this world is to take what you’ve been given and give back.’ So I have not spent the last two decades waking up going ‘oh they don’t hire enough women directors.’


However, the other side of the coin is that when I began directing, pretty much every set I walked onto they had never had a woman director. When I had enough of a resume and some critical acclaim I would say to my agent, ‘I want to work on that show. Get me a meeting on that show.’ There was one show created by a brilliant writer who is also very liberal, progressive and socially conscious human being. I went in to meet him in the fourth year of the series and I said ‘but you’ve had other women direct, right?’ He looked at me and said ‘well, actually no. We had one in the first year but she didn’t really get it.’ I remember sitting there going ‘what am I actually hearing here?’ I think there has been a consideration that it is a risk. That particular series was all about human relationships, but there was also a lot of action involved so there’s ideas like “women can’t do action” or other set biases out there that are set so deeply.

About a year and a half ago one of the most desirable cable networks, who always said they wanted to work with me, asked me to meet with their VP in charge of diversity. I said ‘no way! I don’t want them to hire me because I’m a woman. That’s bullshit. I’m a great director.’ But I went in and took the meeting, and we had a fabulous conversation where that night I found myself being hit with waves of grief, outrage, loneliness and I began to cry. I was having this huge emotional thing over it and found myself writing a letter to my sisters saying ‘the thing is I’m just so aware of the missed opportunities, the opportunities that were never offered me because I’m not one of the guys.’ It was the opportunities that a man with half my resume, both as an actor and director, would be asked and offered the jobs. It was really a painful taking my blinders off and looking at the whole picture moment.

What I’ve come down to is two things, one being of course we want to hire people we know. So even though somebody may not have the experience, or you’ve not worked with them in that way, at least you already have a relationship with that person. Men form relationships with men differently than they form relationships with women on a social basis–a trip to Vegas, golfing, sitting in a cigar bar, whatever–it’s natural. I have relationships with my female friends that are deeper and different because of the commonality of our experience. That exists and I think it’s one of those things women cannot change. We can do our bit, show up, go the extra step, be patient and support each other.

That’s the other thing, if there’s only 22 episodes, so 10 directors for the season and you say ‘we have to have a woman,’ then there’s only 1 space for a woman. That’s when the old adage of women are hard on each other and don’t let each other in comes in because that’s like throwing crumbs to starving people. It’s only natural that they are going to scramble over each other for a piece of bread. But women being as we are, smart and more and more awake and aware, we aren’t scrambling over each other so much. We are helping and supporting each other.

But with any kind of integration it has to come first from those that are saying no and the gatekeepers have to open their minds and say yes. If that needs to be supported with policy within companies and corporations then fine do that. On an individual level, it needs to be men who have good experiences telling other men and take responsibility for their part in the deal.


TTVJ: So on the flip side, what positive things do you see being done to get more women directing?

HS: Corporate policies are shifting, which is totally necessary and the success of some of the pioneers is helping. Every time one of us goes in and succeeds that helps. The social consciousness helps as well.

TTVJ: You’re right because it definitely seems with social media these days shows are getting called out if they don’t have any female directors, and that’s nice to see.

HS: Absolutely! It has to be assaulted from all sides. Things do change and I had the best experience the other day sitting in a visual effects meeting for Orphan Black. There’s a young woman that started as a producer’s assistant, who is now an associate producer, and she’s around 28 years old and very bright. Both of the male showrunners were at the table and began to opine about a point we were discussing, in the midst of that, this young woman turned to him and said ‘no, wait a minute, you’re wrong.’ I had this incredible moment of pride because it was so plain, so simple, real, natural and unencumbered by any struggle of ‘should I say this?’

People of my generation were told to sit down, be quiet, be a good girl, listen, you be smaller so they can be taller, that’s how we were socialized. When I started directing I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously because the first thing I was directing was what I was starring in. Consciously or unconsciously, I didn’t put a stitch of makeup on, didn’t put my contacts in, wore a baseball cap and every time I directed for a year it was like I dared myself in menswear. Towards the end of that first year I saw this reflection of a person and thought ‘who’s that?’ It was me, but it didn’t look at all like me and I thought ‘what the hell am I doing?’

That was when I first started realizing I don’t have to look like a man. Fear puts us into a fight stance sometimes and as well all do, I have a warrior inside me, but I also have a heart as big as the world. In my ignorance at the time I thought the safer place for me was to come from warrior and take a stand. That’s not how I go in life, but somehow it felt like a battle early on for me. Shortly thereafter I did my first episode of Judging Amy with Amy Brenneman, and when I started working with her I saw how she led by her heart and not having to be manly at all. She was completely womanly in her strength. Now I have loved myself and allowed myself to be myself, bring myself to the stage and work as I work. To me one of the most implicit and basic things a director needs to do is create an environment that is safe enough for people to take risks, make mistakes, fall down and that is a completely feminine energy–that is the womb and who we are, we encompass as opposed to exclude.

TTVJ: A big area that seems to help is getting more women into showrunner positions who then want to make it a point to hire women directors.

HS: Right, if the showrunner has the power to do that it’s great. What you run into is that showrunners sometimes don’t have power and there’s a large corporation behind it. Inequities exist all the way up to the board room, so there’s still resistance. The fact is human beings used to run studios, Universal was ran by a person and that person was into making money, but they also loved film. Now so many of the deciders are not lovers of film and don’t know how to look at a piece of film and know what was the director’s work.

There’s also the self perpetuating thing where if you’re looking at resumes the majority of men will have much more experience than the majority of women. There’s a place in there where there has to be active, determined choice made. ‘Yes, she’s only done five things, but we’re going to support this person and help her through it because she’s never going to get her sixth credit otherwise.’

TTVJ: In addition to your episode of Orphan Black this season what other projects are you working on?

HS: I did two episodes of Travelers, 106 and 107, where I particularly loved 107 which had no mission involved and really investigated the five characters that find themselves in other people’s’ lives. I also did two episodes of Thirteen Reasons Why which is a Netflix original and I’m very proud of that, along with two episodes of Anne coming to Netflix. I go to Ireland in February to do Episodes 517 and 518 of Vikings to lead up to the big finale which will be great fun.


Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.