Working in television production can be very stressful, especially when deadlines are looming, you’re behind schedule and the work just needs to be done. It can mean very long hours and one of the best ways to survive those tough times is with the help of your team. Television is a very collaborative medium and having a supportive working environment is one of the things that helps the most on those toughest days says writer Julie Puckrin. A great team is something Puckrin has been very lucky to be a part of working on shows such as Killjoys, X Company and Motive.
In fact, that’s just one of many lessons Puckrin has learned from working with some of Canadian TV’s best showrunners. They are also lessons she’s trying to take forward with her in her career as she works towards showrunning her own series. Currently, Puckrin is working as co-executive producer on the upcoming Global series Nurses, while also leading a project that would adapt Kelly Armstrong’s Rockton mystery novels.
She recently participated in our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to discuss her career, the importance of having women writers in the room, and why once you’ve had some success, it’s important to look back and bring others up with you. Puckrin also shares her thoughts on diversity and why investments need to be made to give underrepresented voices a chance.
This interview has been edited and condensed
The TV Junkies: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you got into television writing?
Julie Puckrin: I started with a degree in science. I was always drawn to film and television, but I (naively) didn’t think it was a real job. So I went to school for science… and quickly realized I hated it! But I knew someone out there was making a living writing television, and somehow, I was going to too. I went to the Vancouver Film School to learn the basics, and met one of my first mentors, Maria Jaquemetton. I also met Jennica Harper and Sarah Dodd at VFS – both of whom are incredible women, and have been huge influences in my career. Maria advised me to pursue an MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. When I finished and was looking for an internship, Maria was an Executive Producer on Mad Men. She helped me get my foot in the door there. It was a huge opportunity, and in turn helped me get a spot in the Motive writing room. So many of the career-making opportunities I’ve had were courtesy of the amazing women I’ve met in this industry. They were the first people to show me the importance of sending the elevator back down – something I try to do wherever I can in my own career.
TTVJ: While a lot of the shows you’ve written for have had very diverse rooms and ones that were pretty balanced gender-wise, have you ever had an experience where you were the only woman or one of a few? If so, how did you manage in that type of situation and what challenges were involved?
JP: I’ve been lucky to work in rooms that were not only gender-balanced, but in some cases, the women actually outnumbered the men! For many years, shows said “we need a woman in the room”, but in my career, I’ve never been the only woman. I hope that indicates the start of a greater change in the industry. Having a well-balanced room is important not only for the show – which benefits from a wider range of voices and lived experiences – but the writers as well. My craft and career have benefitted exponentially from the incredible women I’ve worked with, who have been wonderful mentors, and in many cases, become close friends.
When I was a junior, it was so important for me to see other women doing the job, and how they handled themselves. They were always the first to offer encouragement and support. It makes a huge difference in a writer’s early career. Now that I’m in a senior position, it’s important to me to provide that same support and encouragement to others. We’ve made big strides getting women into rooms, but there’s still a long way to go – we need to open the doors for more diverse storytellers.
TTVJ: On both Killjoys and X Company, you had a female character that led a team of men, unfortunately something we still don’t see enough of on TV. What was that like for you as a writer and what did you love most about writing for characters like Dutch and Aurora?
JP: Something I loved about both Dutch and Aurora was that they didn’t have to always be “perfect” or “likeable” women. They made strong choices, and difficult choices, and sometimes even bad choices. But when they did, audiences still loved them, and invested in them as characters. There’s a weird thing that can creep into storytelling, sometimes subconsciously. There’s a very strong urge to make female characters “likeable”, which is a standard we don’t hold male characters to in the same way. The result is that female characters get softened, or prevented from making interesting, dramatic choices because we don’t want them to seem “mean”, or “wrong”, or “unlikeable”. You end up with characters who aren’t allowed to do much, and as a result, don’t have much personality or growth. The idea that women need to be likeable is problematic; it’s true we need to invest in characters, but there are lots of male characters that audiences are deeply invested in and truly love without necessarily liking. The same can be true for female characters – if we’re allowed to take the same chances with them.
TTVJ: You’ve worked under some terrific showrunners in your career like Michelle Lovretta, Adam Barken, Dennis Heaton, Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, just to name a few. Now that you’re poised to start getting looked at for running series of your own, what kind of lessons did you learn from them that you’re taking forward with you into future endeavors?
JP: I’ve learned so much from every showrunner I’ve worked with. They all have different styles and approaches, but the common thing I’ve seen is how important it is to support and encourage your staff. The best rooms are the ones where everyone feels included, and knows their opinions are valued. And hire good people! I don’t just mean that in the sense of, “hire good, smart writers” – I mean, hire team players who want to support each other. This is the best job in the world, but the hours can be long, and things can get really stressful when you’re deep in the weeds of production. The only thing that gets you through those stressful times is your team.
TTVJ: Since you are working towards showrunning series of your own, that will mean you’ll be in charge of decisions like putting together the writers’ room. How do you hope to factor diversity into that and ensure the room you’re building is not only talented, but also representative of a lot of voices?
JP: One of the things I find frustrating is when you run up against the argument, “we’d love to hire this diverse writer/director/actor, but they just don’t have enough experience.” But no one gets experience unless someone gives them the chance to get it! It’s only recently there’s been a conscious push for diversity – which means that until recently, a lot of talented people with great potential just weren’t being given the same chances. But we’re still expecting them to come to the table with the same level of experience as more established creatives in order to get the jobs. That has to change. If we want to hear from under-represented voices, we need to give opportunities to people who haven’t necessarily had them before. Rather than expecting experience, we need to invest in providing it, and training talented people. It takes many, many people to make a show – which means there are many, many experienced people to teach newcomers. It’s not as big of a risk as people fear – and the reward is huge. A lot of people took chances on me, and mentored me when I was starting out. I hope to do the same for others.
TTVJ: You’re also working as co-executive producer on the upcoming Global series Nurses. What’s that experience been like, being a number two and what can you share with us about that series?
JP: We have an awesome writing team on Nurses. As a group, real-life nurses are largely female, and from diverse backgrounds. Adam Pettle staffed the room with that in mind, and I think it brings an authenticity and freshness to the stories we’re telling. There have been so many interesting perspectives and story ideas that may not have come out of a different team. It’s a great example of how having diverse voices and different lived experiences in the room can lead to fresh, exciting material. As Co-EP, it’s most important to me to create opportunities and space for the other writers. It’s the number two’s job not just to support the showrunner, but to support the rest of the team. People give their best work when everyone feels included and encouraged, and that tone comes from the top-down.
TTVJ: What initiatives or programs aimed at increasing diversity do you see as being very beneficial or making the most positive impact at the moment?
JP: There are great initiatives like diversity internships, and Writers Guild of Canada events to introduce emerging diverse writers to experienced writers who can mentor or hire them, but the biggest impact I’ve seen is simply when showrunners – and producers, and network execs – are willing to take a chance on hiring new voices, who maybe don’t have as much experience as more established creatives. Sometimes that means fighting to be able to make those hires. It also means being willing to take the time to train and mentor a newcomer once you’ve given them the chance.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with young writers?
JP: While you’re working toward your break, take time to really work on your craft as well. It can feel so frustrating when you’re trying to get in the door, and it’s easy to fixate on goals like getting an agent or into a room, but the thing you can always work on, whether or not you’ve done those things yet, is your craft. You can always be pushing yourself to grow as a writer. I’ve found that to be true at every stage in my career – whenever I hit a wall, or things weren’t coming together the way I wanted, the solution was always to “just keep writing”. Writing begets writing, and the more you invest in your craft, the more you’ll be ready for those opportunities when they come.
TTVJ: It was pretty exciting to hear about Temple Street’s project around an adaptation of Kelly Armstrong’s Rockton mystery novels. What can you share about what’s going on with that and how you got attached to the series?
JP: I worked with Temple Street on X Company and Killjoys. Kerry Appleyard, Lesley Grant and I kept saying how much we’d like to find a project together. Kerry mentioned she’d read City of the Lost, so I picked it up – and devoured it in a weekend! I was drawn to the characters and setting, but I was especially excited about the theme. You can run from everything, except who you really are. I loved the idea of exploring that through an intricate, season-long mystery. But before you can write the pilot for something like that, you need to know how it’s going to end (and how you’re going to get there!). So I got to go on a fun journey, unravelling those details, exploring the world and developing a complex wheel of characters. It’s been a lot of fun, playing with what was in the books and expanding it in new directions.
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Nurses will air on Global in 2019. 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.