Women Behind Canadian TV: Jennica Harper

Credit: Pardeep Singh
Credit: Pardeep Singh

Once you’ve reached a certain level of success, it really does become your responsibility to lift others up along with you. That’s one of the main lessons and takeaways writer Jennica Harper has learned from working on many successful series in the Canadian TV industry. Writing for everything from crime dramas and genre series to kids’ programming and now comedy, Harper finds herself preparing for the premiere of CTV’s new original comedy series JANN. Multi-platinum award-winning Canadian singer and legend Jann Arden stars in the series as a fictionalized version of herself, and Harper was brought on as showrunner.

Harper recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to share her journey to JANN, as well as insights on how she and producers went about putting together the show’s writing staff. She also discusses the difference working on a comedy like JANN for the first time after writing for dramas like Cardinal, Motive and the upcoming Netflix series The Order. Based in Vancouver, Harper provided insights into the growing TV writing community there and how it may differ from the larger one in Toronto.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Did you always know you wanted to work in television? Can you share a bit about your background?

Jennica Harper: I was one of those kids who always wanted to write. I was writing poems in elementary school, and while they were cute, I don’t know that they were particularly good. I have always been very passionate about writing and a voracious reader. Different people have different dreams. Some people see hockey players and want a piece of that; but for me it was always books. I was always a book kid. So in my other life, I’m also a poet and have a few published books there.

I did pursue that part of my dream, but it wasn’t until university that I got a taste of screenwriting. I went to the University of Toronto for my undergrad and it kind of clicked that I love to write and tell stories, but also human beings actually tell the stories that are in the movies or on TV. I will fully admit that TV has been my love in terms of consuming it since I was a kid, but I hadn’t really put the pieces together.

When I was applying to grad school, the University of British Columbia was really appealing because you spent two years instead of one there, and it was pure creative writing in different forms. So I knew I could go in and write some poetry, but that I also could do some screenwriting. That’s what brought me to Vancouver from Ontario and I’ve been here ever since. That program did allow me to really sink my teeth into the idea that this was not only an art, but a profession. If you’re writing poetry or a novelist, it’s really still just about the work. You’re trying to write something first and put your work out in the world, hoping anyone will care. In TV, it quickly became clear, because we had guest speakers and some professors that worked in TV, that this was an actual job. That’s when a light went off in my eyes.

It seemed very exciting and very hard — and it has been — but I decided to put the pieces of my life around making that happen. My philosophy over the years was that as long as I felt like I was moving forward, or growing in some way, then that was a good sign. If it starts to become clear you’re not going anywhere, or it’s a big dead end, then I told myself I’d start to reevaluate what I was doing with my life. So the decade after grad school I just kept writing and got some shorts made, got to do some rewriting for producers, and every year there was new stuff happening where I was being paid. That was enough encouragement to keep me doing it until I got to do what I really wanted, which is be a part of a TV writers’ room.

Credit: Leah Gauthier
Credit: Leah Gauthier

TTVJ: So let’s fast-forward a bit to JANN then. How did that come to be and how did you become involved with it?

JH: Jann Arden and a very good friend of hers, writer Leah Gauthier, had worked on an idea of a sitcom version of Jann’s life. They were working with producers from Project 10 in Toronto,  and at a certain point, realized they wanted someone with TV writing experience and who would be a good fit. I met Ben Murray, executive producer with Project 10, at Banff in 2016 and we hit it off. When we met in person, he thought I’d be a good fit for this particular team. Jann and Leah were reading a lot of writers to figure out who to bring on board, some of who I know and really respect, so I thought I didn’t have a shot at the job.

In a way, that was maybe kind of freeing. I knew the show was a no-brainer and definitely going to happen. I thought the gig would probably go to a person with a lot more experience than me, who had been showrunning for 10 years already, and so I just interviewed and pitched my ideas. We then had an in-person interview in Vancouver, went out, had food and drinks and laughed all night. It became clear we were a good fit, both personally and creatively. I think they really liked my take on what they were trying to do and what I wanted to add to it. When I found out they wanted to work with me it was surreal and wonderful.

As a team, we put together a pitch document and went right to Bell Media because Jann had former relationships with Bell. We went into development from there and spent about a year working on the script, the bible and outlining Episode 2. It was then, early Spring 2018, that we got the green light. Ultimately, a pretty fast turnaround since I met the producer in June 2016 and then we got greenlit in early 2018. I have no illusions about how that happened. The show is called JANN and people are going to come to see her. I knew my job was to bring everything I could creatively to this project and fight for the things I thought were important for the heart it, and to help shepherd it through production. If I could do that, then I was supporting the person at the heart of this, which is the person everyone wants to see.

TTVJ: Jann Arden is a Canadian legend, so what was it like collaborating with her on this and writing a character loosely based on her?

JH: In a way it all goes together. First of all, she’s incredibly funny and anyone that goes to see her perform knows that. I knew that she was going to be game to have some fun with playing a version of herself. We talked a long time about whether or not she was going to literally be named Jann Arden in the show or not. We did go down a path of not doing that, but then it just became clear that it’s funnier if she has her own name, so many of the same circumstances, the same past hits and playing on all that real stuff. So we had fun with it, but allowed it to be fictionalized and taken to extremes and fun, ridiculous places in the present.

TTVJ: What was it like working on a comedy series like JANN after working on so many dramas such as Cardinal, The Order and Motive?

JH: It was a dream come true. There’s not many primetime comedies in Canada for grownups. I came up in kids’ multicam and worked many years writing comedies for YTV. It was a really wonderful time in my life. They were so fun, but also so challenging. Anyone who thinks that writing for multicam or writing for kids is easy is dead wrong. It was some of the most challenging, but satisfying, work I’ve done.

So I had spent years writing comedy, but it had an audience of tweens. So to be able to write something that was personally closer to home, in terms of adult women going through something in their lives in their 40s or 50s, it was very exciting. I bring something of myself to this show, even though it’s so clearly Jann’s face, voice and history. But my voice is in there too. It was really satisfying to get to draw from real life stuff, but also really have the fun of trying to make people laugh. My co-creator Leah and I just gelled so well and spent pretty much every day of prep and production trying to make each other laugh. In that way, it was also a dream come true.

TTVJ: Can you discuss a little about the writing staff for JANN? How did you go about putting that group together and how did diversity come into play on the decisions made?

JH: We definitely wanted to have diversity in our staff. We knew that it was going to probably be more than half women because we had so many female characters with different perspectives we wanted to explore. We also found ourselves gravitating towards women’s writing samples that were being sent to us and thought ‘why fight that?’ We were comfortable with it being more women than men, but we were really concerned about diversity. We had three white ladies at the top, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t just a room full of white ladies! We read a lot of people and were overwhelmed with how many funny, smart comedy writers there are in Canada. It really was a shame we only hired so few of them.

So what we tried to do in the end, was hire people that were bringing perspectives that were different than ours. We thought we were really nailing the white lady of a certain age and privilege voice. So we wanted to focus on writers who were queer-identifying or women of colour. We did end up hiring a guy to come in and help us out, Mike McPhaden, who was a fantastic voice in the room. It was also clear to us that he was that guy that got along well in large groups of women. He had a very easy-going way about him and wasn’t particularly worried about proving his dominance. He was extremely lovely and just extremely game in going down the path we were going. He was also able to contribute things that I would’ve thought were very female. For example, in Episode 2, we have product placement for Jann and she’s wearing yoga period pants and we were trying to name them. It was Mike who pitched “Flowga Pants.” He was basically one of us the whole time.

We then had this amazing experience hiring Nelu Handa, an improv comedian and performer in Toronto who has been doing more writing on things like The Beaverton and Baroness von Sketch. She did this thing that was incredibly ballsy. She interviewed with us and said something along the lines of ‘I know this isn’t necessarily the way to get this job, but I want to propose that this character you have that’s a white, straight man, be a young woman of color instead. Here’s why.’ So she outlined for us why this character should not be a white dude, but in fact be a woman of colour. At the end, we thought ‘I guess we should do that then!’ She was very convincing. After we met with producers and said ‘let’s do that, and we should probably hire her.’ She was somebody that was not as much on my radar, largely because of how she came to writing through performing, but we were so grateful to have her voice in the room. Because she has improv experience, she’s always throwing funny stuff out there, but also her instinct wasn’t always the same as mine or Leah’s which was wonderful. We then ended up getting to have Nelu as a guest on one of the episodes which was really fun.

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: There’s something I’m a little curious about. You write on a lot of shows that film out in western Canada. It seems like there’s a strong Canadian TV writing community growing out there as opposed to everything being based in Toronto. What’s that experience been like for you being based in Vancouver versus Toronto?

JH: The community is way smaller in Vancouver, but also very close. So when we go to the Writer’s Guilds parties here in Vancouver I know every single person. It’s great because I have a chance to catch up with everybody. Vancouver has a huge production industry and huge shows, but for the most part the American shows do not have the writers’ room in Canada. I’m not putting myself forward for Riverdale and the CW shows. Those are written in LA and are as competitive to get into as any other LA room. What you’re really looking at are the Canadian productions that do have writing rooms here in Vancouver. There aren’t many, but the one advantage is that we all know each other so there’s an easy ability to connect with other people.

There’s events like Ink Drinks in Vancouver and you meet junior writers coming up. We’ve all met a lot of the junior people that are really hungry and ready. We can then recommend people to each other and there really is some value to knowing your community well, and I think those of us in Vancouver do. The challenge then is that there’s just not enough work to go around. I’ve been very fortunate to work on a number of productions in my own city. Part of what has helped me with that is that I have experience and writing samples in a variety of genres. What I hadn’t had for a long time was any genre experience or writing for a supernatural show.

I had the wonderful opportunity earlier this year to work on The Order, a new Netflix series created and showrun by Dennis Heaton. I did not have a lot of genre experience, but he knew me from working on Motive. That was another benefit of this being a small community, that I got a job that would’ve been harder if this town was chock full of people. But Dennis thought of people he knew and trusted and reached out instead of going through samples. So I got the gig and that meant I was able to write my first genre show. It was not only incredibly fun to do, but also so valuable to have because I do think there are a lot of opportunities in genre.

TTVJ: Do you have any advice for other young writers looking to get involved writing or working behind the scenes in TV?

JH: You have to actually be writing and finishing things and making those things better. I do sometimes meet people who are really amazing human beings, and who have a lot of ideas, but they don’t actually put those ideas to paper. Finishing something is one of the hardest things to do. You start something, it goes poorly, it’s hard and not fun anymore, but you have to actually finish it and then try to make it better. That is, creatively, the best groundwork you could possibly have for a career in TV. That’s what it is and what we do. We write the outline and write that over and over again. Same thing with the draft. If you can train yourself to do that it’s huge.

I also think it’s very valuable to reach out to people in the community and very courteously ask for some of their time. A lot of people in Vancouver are really great at that, so I feel like I’ve been trying to help some people by going out to coffee or giving feedback on their work. I think that’s the hardest thing in a way for writers to do because often we’re very internal people. So to just get out there and say ‘maybe I’m worthy of some help and can I reach out for that?’ I think that’s really, really valuable.

The other thing I think that’s important, and which I’ve seen other women in power discuss this on some panels and has really sat with me, is that if you see someone that is deserving, then it’s our responsibility to reach down and help pull them up. It’s already so hard and competitive, but if you see somebody, especially from an under represented voice, then those of us that have any kind of power really do have to start pulling people up. The people who have the most confidence are often the ones who have the most privilege, and it makes sense, right? These are people that feel the least fear for being rejected for who they are, and we need to help the people who do have some reluctance, fear and do need encouragement. I’ve been trying to do that more and help the people who need more of it.

 

What do you think of Harper’s experience? Looking forward to JANN? Add your thoughts below!

JANN will premiere in 2019 on CTV. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.