Women Behind Canadian TV: Holly Dale

Photo courtesy of Holly Dale
Photo courtesy of Holly Dale

Thankfully, more and more female directors are getting their shot to prove themselves in the TV industry. It is becoming easier for women to get that first foot in the door, but that certainly hasn’t always been the case. Holly Dale has been able to find incredible success directing over the years, but even she had a hard time getting that first chance to direct TV drama. 

While Dale has been recognized as Best Director by the Director’s Guild of Canada on three separate occasions for her work on Flashpoint, Being Erica and Mary Kills People, she recently recalled how the industry was not always open to hiring women. In our interview as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, Dale says that it was through her work on documentaries that she was able to break in and begin directing an impressive list of shows that include Dexter, The Americans, X-Files, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Law & Order:SVU.

Dale is currently working as a producing director on the first season of The CW’s Batwoman. While she has had an impressive amount of success working in the U.S., Dale tells us that she always loves coming home to work on some of Canada’s best TV series. In fact, she recently spent time in Montreal directing several episodes of the upcoming CTV drama Transplant, and she shares why it’s so rewarding to be with a show from the very start.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: You’ve been a successful director for a while, but can you share a little bit about how you first got into the business? How did you get that first foot in the door?

Holly Dale: I’m a couple of generations back, in terms of my career, and a generation after Helen Shaver, who I really admire. I just think she’s a champion. But I started out making documentaries because at that time, women were ghettoized into them. If you wanted to make shows, then you could do those because women weren’t even doing children’s television yet in this country. I always wanted to make dramas, but it turns out that documentaries were a really great training ground for me. 

The types of documentaries I did really taught me how to deal with sensitive subjects and people. I made a film, along with my partner Janis Cole, called Hookers on Davie, about prostitution in Vancouver, as well as one about women in prison [P4W Prison for Women]. We got in a lot of rough situations and had to learn how to survive. We were on the streets with prostitutes and walking in on places where guns were being drawn. Little did I know, but it was a great training ground for dealing with actors. [laughs] I really learned the sensitivity of what it is for an actor, and I also learned how to handle very delicate subject matter for dramas.

I made the progression into dramatic films by going to the Canadian Film Centre. I was there in the very first year of the centre, and it was sort of a guinea pig project at that time. Women weren’t really directing drama for television in Canada at the time — maybe only three were doing it then — and so this was a launching pad for me because all eyes from the industry were on the Canadian Film Centre. Subsequently, they started championing people that went there. That became an opportunity for me to start directing drama.

TTVJ: You’ve worked on so many great TV shows, but you’re currently working as a producing director on Batwoman. What do you love about being a part of that show and can you share a little about your role there?

HD: I had been offered this position on a number of other shows over the years, and I always turned it down. I love moving around, doing different genres, working with different people, and I never really wanted that job. But with Batwoman, because it was the first lesbian superhero, I jumped at the opportunity to do the job because I thought it was something that was fantastic. When I was a young girl, if there were lesbian superheros, that would’ve been great.

It’s been a wonderful experience because the showrunner [Caroline Dries] is really smart, really wonderful, and very generous. I’ve directed my own episodes, but because in the beginning of the show, Ruby Rose had just come off surgery and she was only able to work four hours a day, a lot of our directors couldn’t finish their scenes. There was a great deal of work that needed to be done, and these directors had moved on to other shows. So I ended up directing a good portion of many of the episodes early on. 

A producer director’s job is really to chaperone directors when they come and make sure the image stays true to the tone of the show. They really take part in making sure the show moves in the right directions. Occasionally, there will be scenes left behind and different things you have to pick up for the show. In my case, it was an unusual situation because of what I just said about Ruby, and literally, only ⅔ or ¾ of episodes were done. An episode is 8 days of shooting, and I’ve done my two episodes and an additional 35 days of full directing on other people’s episodes. That’s where a producer director comes in handy. 

I love it because I love the subject, and I love the fact that a lesbian is being championed as a hero and role model for young girls. It’s a really blessed job.

The CW
The CW

TTVJ: I am really enjoying the show for that very reason. I love that the hero is someone who is unapologetically queer, and we get to see all different types of stories she has to deal with.

HD: It’s cool too because each week a little more about her personal lesbian life develops. She doesn’t just happen to be gay, but it’s something that we’re actually speaking a lot about, and speaking to issues that young gay people have. In the one episode it deals with a young girl who felt like a freak because she was gay, and Batwoman ends up coming out because of everything. She realizes that she’s a fraud because she’s told the world she’s gay as Kate Kane, but now needs to tell the world she’s gay as Batwoman. That’s very cool.

TTVJ: You also had your hand in Transplant, an upcoming Canadian drama series that will likely get a lot of attention in the new year. What can you share about that series and why you wanted to work on it?

HD: I directed the pilot and two other episodes. I block shot the three episodes together. I was totally engaged with every word of the pilot script when I read it. It’s about a Syrian immigrant who comes to Canada, and he was a doctor in his country, but not here. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s really about his journey of how he gets back to being a doctor.

It’s a beautiful story, and as a Canadian, I’m very proud of how we have helped out Syrian refugees coming to our country. It’s funny because I showed the trailer to one of the writers on Batwoman, and she happened to be Iranian, and said ‘there’s a series with a Syrian lead?’ I told her ‘only in Canada!’ It’s a really great show and I’m very excited about it. 

TTVJ: This isn’t your first time directing a series right from the start. What do you love about those opportunities?

HD: I did a show a couple years ago, Mary Kills People, that I block shot and did the first six episodes. That was an incredible experience with the Cameron sisters and creator Tara Armstrong. I loved creating the look and tone of the show. I had done it once before on Durham County, and I was very excited to once again do that. Transplant was attracted to me precisely because of those two shows I had done. Virginia Rankin was the producer and she’s fabulous, along with showrunner Joseph Kay.

And for a woman director to get these opportunities as well, it’s really great. 


TTVJ: You’ve worked on so many successful American TV shows like The Americans, Dexter, and The X-Files, but you still direct a lot of Canadian TV shows. What do you enjoy about working on Canadian shows and have you noticed any big differences between the two industries?

HD: I come home because it is home. I love to sleep in my own bed, and if not my own bed, my own country. I’ve done a lot of shows on both sides of the border, and the biggest discovery I’ve had — going back to my first American show Cold Case in 2006 — was how unbelievably talented Canadians are. They are right up there with American talent. You can’t go on an American show and say ‘oh this is different. This is so much better.’ It’s absolutely not true. 

The biggest difference is the finances. In Canada, if I say ‘I’d like a crane,’ then they’ll say ‘oh we’ll look into it.’ In America, I say that and they tell ‘for how many days?’ That’s sort of the difference there. In storytelling, they are on par with each other. 

I’ve been doing drama in Canada since 1988, and was involved as an AD in dramas to the beginning of the ‘80s, and we’ve had so much working experience with American shows coming up here that we are just as good as them. When you go back to early Canadian shows there was a bit of naivety and they were green, but now, like when I was working on Flashpoint, our shows are just as good. Why do I work in America? They do have more money and so I have more creative opportunities. But I still always come home.

TTVJ: Thankfully, the number of women directing seems to keep going up and up. What positive things or initiatives are being done to help with that?
HD: Let me answer that question by telling you what it was like before. When I first started directing dramas in this business, it was very, very difficult. I contribute part of my success to the fact that I was willing to go anywhere to work. If I had just wanted to stay in Toronto, then I wouldn’t have worked as much. If there was a job in Edmonton or New Orleans, then I would go. That helped a lot.

I’ve found that the difference for women now is that back then, often times, you’d try to get on a show and the producers would say, ‘Well, we had a woman once and that didn’t work out.’ That was a very common thing you’d hear. The fortunate thing for me was that I ended up starting out with some very positive people. I ended up doing “boys’” shows that had a lot of action, and I eclipsed being typecast into things women would get into like family dramas. 

What I’ve noticed that’s really changed, and this may sound discriminatory, but there were a lot of older Eastern European DPs when I first started in Canada. They had a very difficult time having a woman tell them to change lenses or put the camera in different places. The women that were successful in those early years were successful because basically, they’d let that nice gentleman tell them where to put the camera and what lens to use. I came up against a lot of aggression because I’m an aggressive person who knows what I want. I am into collaborating, but I’m not into being taken over by a DP. So that was a real problem. I would also walk into rooms, and I could feel the male crew members were just talking about you, and then they’d stop! You could just feel that vibe.

What’s so wonderful and different today is that there are so many young men — DPs and every area — that were brought up by feminist mothers. They don’t even see an issue in whether you’re a man or woman. That’s so gone away on crews it’s unbelievable. You can tell them what lens and they’ll ask you what lens. It’s a whole different world.

I think what’s really helped out is that you have people like Rina Fraticelli [Founder Executive Director of Women in View ] and Kay Armatage who commissioned the government to get more female directors with their 2x More initiative. Then you have people like Paris Barclay in the U.S. that make sure there are a lot of diverse hires. There were people that were struggling on the ground to make sure that more women got to direct.

One thing that was difficult in the beginning, and I’m sure it still is partially true today, is that women suddenly go from a training program at Warner Brothers and they’re directing a show. That’s quite elite, and they don’t have the training ground, so it’s very easy for them to fail because they haven’t been able to develop their craft. But now that there are more and more women directing longer and longer, that problem is going away.

I do think it’s important when women are in a position of any kind of power, whether you’re a director and can let someone shadow with you, or a female producer working on a pilot, then hire a woman. I think the more women can help other women, then of course the more opportunities there will be. 

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with young directors?
HD: The most important thing to do is to try and get exposure to films. Whether that’s through shadowing or doing your own film, you need to try to learn as much as you can. That way, when you do get that bigger break in television, you’re able to do it. It’s really important to understand this, and I think it’s a difference between men and women. When men are directors and ideas are presented, even if they are good, they tend to reject them because they look like they are losing power. I find that a good woman director collaborates, takes ideas, and says ‘that’s a great idea!’ If I get a good idea from someone, I give them credit, and then people don’t feel as though they’re giving up good ideas and not getting credit for them. Then, if there’s an idea that’s not good, you nicely say it’s not going to work. 

I think it’s really important to make everyone feel that it’s a collaboration. Always be friendly and open on set. No matter what stress you’re feeling, try not to show it because if you show it, then the sharks will come at you. Everyone needs to feel that you’re in charge, even in the times you don’t feel like you’re in charge. I think the best advice for young filmmakers is being open to sharing and trying to learn as much as you can before you get your break.


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Batwoman airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW and Showcase. Transplant premieres this spring on CTV. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

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