Sometimes the seed for what our futures can hold is planted very early on in life. That certainly was the case for director Jordan Canning who, thanks to a mother who worked in production design, was exposed to life on a TV set very early on. While those days spent on sets with her mom certainly sparked her interest in filmmaking, it wasn’t until her 20s when Canning decided to pursue it as a full-time career. She soon moved to Toronto and was a 2010 graduate of the Director’s Lab at the Canadian Film Centre, as well as an alumnus of Women in the Director’s Chair.
Once in Toronto and out of the CFC, Canning admits to having the very relatable struggle of getting that first opportunity to direct TV, her first chance to prove she could do it. That eventually happened with an episode of Saving Hope, and Canning is now directing many of the industry’s most popular shows such as Schitt’s Creek, Baroness von Sketch, Little Dog and Burden of Truth.
The St. John’s, Newfoundland native recently spoke with us as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to share her experiences. She tells us how that first job really did make a difference and afford her many more opportunities. Canning also shares why she thinks it’s getting better for women behind the scenes, but how there’s still a need to keep pushing for change, and keep pushing for more women and diversity hires at all positions behind the scenes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Is directing something you always knew you wanted to do? Can you share a little about your background?
Jordan Canning: No, I don’t think I always knew I wanted to go into directing. It all occurred to me after I graduated university. I had grown up around film — my mom worked as a production designer so I had been on sets a lot with her and seen the process. I think I was always attracted to it, and watched a lot of movies as a kid, but my mom made it an accessible career. She made working in film not seem so outside the realm of possibilities that I couldn’t consider it a real job.
I went to university for creative writing, had been writing short fiction and was into photography at the time. When I graduated I thought I’d go into journalism or go back to school for media studies, and then I got a job working at a production company. When I moved back to St. John, I got a job as a writer at a production company and eventually, started directing on a reenactment docudrama they had about ghost stories and fairies in the forest. It was very fun.
It rekindled a little flame that I had been carrying as a kid. So I started working on a short script that I made through the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Co-op, and just became totally addicted to the whole process, working with the crew, working with actors and just writing something and turning it into something else. It ticked all sorts of boxes in my head and was all I wanted to do from that point forward.
I did know fairly early on, probably my early 20s, that this was something I was very determined to pursue. That didn’t translate in my head to ‘oh, I want to direct TV.’ It was ‘I want to do this more. I want to make more films and get better at it. I want to keep learning how to do this.’ It never occurred to me early on as a way to make money, but rather the thing I would do in my off time in between other jobs. It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto in 2009 that I was feeling more ready and determined to try to make this a career.
TTVJ: I love that you got to see all that at a young age from your mom and be on sets. I think sets are magical when I visit them, so I can’t imagine what it was like as a child. JC: My mom worked on a lot of cool projects in Newfoundland, and my first job back at that production company led to some on set jobs. Randomly, my first job on set was as a publicist and it was a great learning experience. I pivoted out of that into being a script supervisor and was where I got the most on set experience. I worked on the first season of a series and a bunch of movies, and I got to really be on the inside, right next to the director, seeing how the machine worked. I saw the choices the directors were making and how that’d influence the finished product. It was a great learning experience to be able to do that job for five or six years before I moved to Toronto. It’s the best seat in the house if directing is what you want to be doing.
TTVJ: One of the hardest things about directing is that people always want you to have experience, which is hard to come by for women especially. How did you get your first foot in the door and first opportunity to direct TV? JC: That is very true and I’m an impatient person in general. I want things to happen when I want them to happen, and that’s not how it works — certainly not five or six years ago. I spent all this time being a script supervisor and seeing these directors — some of who were incredible and some who were not. I started to feel like I could do this and I knew what needed to be done. I had this feeling of being ready for a long time. I moved to Toronto, did the CFC, and met with some agents.
One piece of an advice I got from an agent was that I had to have enough stuff on my reel, that was similar enough to the work I wanted to do in TV, to make my case. If you want to direct one hours then you should direct a feature. If you want to do half hour comedies, you should do a web series that shows you can do something over a serialized format, or a funny 22-minute short. It has to be something that says ‘you can trust me with this because I’ve done it before.’
I took that advice very much to heart and made my first feature and a web series. It was basically like ‘here’s all the stuff that proves I can take on an episode of TV.’ That was still years before I actually got my first gig. It was a confluence of things of having made all this work, feeling ready, and knowing if I did get the job that I could do it. When I was taking meetings with producers I felt like I was putting my best self forward and making a good impression. That’s important because that’s all you have until you do the job, and they have proof you can do the job, then it’s all about the impression you make.
It was then all about my agent officially pitching me and sending me out for meetings. One of the things that definitely helped — my first directing job was an episode of Saving Hope — is that I had worked with and became friends with Peter Mooney, who was in my feature We Were Wolves, and we loved working together. He was on Saving Hope, and I’m sure doing a lot of on the ground work saying ‘hey, you guys should meet my friend Jordan. She’s a good director. Maybe you should hire her and bring her in for a meeting.’ It’s a lot of people talking about you, and that falling on the right ears enough times, for them to be like ‘OK fine. Bring her in.’
I had just finished shooting my second feature, Suck It Up, and got a message from the producer on Saving Hope that they’d like to meet with me. I met with them and what had happened, in addition to all these people trying to line this up, is that a director had dropped out. They had two open spots last minute that they were looking to fill because a male director was no longer going to be directing them. Very lucky for me, they wanted to hire a woman, and so they gave me my first episode of TV, and luckily, it went well.
It is so important to do your first one. Once you have that notch on your belt and do a good job, it’s like a dam breaks. You finally feel like you’re in the door now. You don’t automatically get HBO shows, but good directors who are nice to work with, fun, great at their job, not going to torpedo your production, get along with crew and actors — it’s just not easy to find someone to tick all those boxes. If you can do that, then you’re going to get a lot of work.
TTVJ: You now have a ton of great credits to your name. Do you find you’re still fighting to get those jobs or does it get easier? JC: It definitely gets easier, for sure. The production company that made Saving Hope then made two more shows I worked on. If you’re starting to work with a great production company or showrunner you get along with, then ideally the hope is that they bring you along on the next one or the next season. That’s part of it too — the more you work, the more connections you make and the more that web expands. You then have the ability to make contacts with people you want to work with that you didn’t have before. It’s definitely easier, but you have to take that first step because it will get easier than before you’re in the door.
TTVJ: Which makes complete sense because in any industry you can’t just walk in and say ‘I’m going to run your company today!’ JC: Exactly. It’s all hypothetical until you do that first job. You can pitch yourself as best as you can, but they want to know you can pull it off.
TTVJ: Have you ever felt like your gender played a role in the opportunities available to you? JC: The landscape is now very different than it was five or six years ago, in a much better way. At least in Canada, I have seen a huge change and a big shift in the number of women — up and coming, emerging women who are ready to prove themselves — where you’re actually starting to see gender parity on certain shows on certain networks. That’s amazing. It’s not about ‘Oh they are getting this job because they are a woman.’ No, they are finally getting recognized and given the opportunity that they are more than ready to do, proving they are great at it, and do things differently maybe than the male old guard has been doing it. You don’t need to go and hire the same 10 men you’ve always hired. You can hire some new blood and it’ll make a big difference on your show.
TTVJ: As someone who just follows and loves Canadian TV, and tries to keep an eye on those things, I can see that shift slowly starting to happen. It’s exciting. JC: The advice I was given from my agent years ago of ‘if you want to direct hour long TV you have to write a feature. It’s a rite of passage.’ I don’t know if that’s the same anymore. I know some really talented directors who have shifted into TV without having made their first feature. That’s amazing. They’ve done enough work of their own to show that they are capable and ready to take this on. I think that’s great because a lot of us were ready before we ever got a shot. I’m glad people are getting their first episode earlier and earlier now.
TTVJ: On the flip side, what challenges still exist in trying to get that true gender parity in the director’s chair? JC: The big challenge remains that we need to continue to hire and train women — not just as directors, but in every department. I’m shocked to say that last year was the first year I ever worked with a female DP (Director of Photography). I loved it and always want to work with a female DP. For whatever reason, it’s still a very male-dominated department, so producers and creators need to make active moves towards hiring women and a diverse crew and training people up. There are definitely shows and networks here that are making an active push towards gender parity, but that’s not across the board by any means. That’s not what’s happening necessarily in the States or Europe. It’s not like we’ve arrived and everything is great now. It still is, and will continue to be, an uphill battle. But I can see a marked change, even in the last five years, and that’s got to be a good sign.
TTVJ: You have directed everything from hour long dramas to sketch comedy. What are the biggest differences in directing dramas vs. comedies? Do you have a preference? JC: I don’t really have a preference and really enjoy both. You get to access different parts of your creativity with both. The hour long dramas tend to be a bit more cinematic, and you can craft sequences that balance not just the content, but add a visual style to it. With comedy, the visual style stuff should never get in the way of the content, the jokes and finding exactly the best way to cover the comedy so that you have everything you need when you’re editing to make it as funny as it can be. That mostly comes down to creative blocking and coverage, and seeing the spark of something funny and helping the actors hone in on that. I enjoy both a lot.
With Baroness, what’s so fun about it, is that we do so many different things. In the run of the day we’re shooting six or seven different sketches that can range from two people talking in a coffee shop, to people dressed as aliens, to a musical number. I love doing that because of the variety and because those women are geniuses that I want to be around all the time. It’s so fun to start and finish a sketch in a day. The goal-oriented part of my brain loves making all these mini-movies through the run of the day.
TTVJ: You mentioned earlier that you went to the CFC, and I know you’ve done the Women’s in the Director’s Chair program. What are the benefits of doing programs like that? JC: They’re both important marks along the way in my career. The CFC is why I moved to Toronto. Coming from Newfoundland and having the CFC as this community that I was instantly dropped into, surrounded by other filmmakers who are passionate about what they are doing, it was a great way to transition into the city and industry here. Once you’re in the CFC it really is like a family. They are very supportive and make great connections for you. The CFC is the reason I met Erin Carter and Grace Glowicki, and that’s what led to Suck It Up being made. It really has a mandate to put creative people together and make collaborations happen. That’s so important in this industry.
Women’s in the Director’s Chair was absolutely instrumental in Suck It Up being made. We got the Feature Film Award which was the first vote of support for the film. Working with WIDC was such a supportive environment in which to shepherd that film to production. I hope that people know about WIDC because it really is an amazing organization that’s so dedicated to fostering female talent. We never could have made Suck It Up without it.
TTVJ: I know you directed episodes of the upcoming seasons of Little Dog and Schitt’s Creek, but is there anything else we should keep an eye out for? JC: I did Season 4 of Baroness which will air in the fall. I also just got funding for a music video through the Prism Prize’s new funding grant called MVP. I’m doing a music video with Tim Baker, and then I’m also working on a feature.
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Schitt’s Creek airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC and is available on CBC Gem. It airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Pop TV in the U.S. Little Dog airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBC and is available on CBC Gem. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
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.