Women Behind Canadian TV: Karen Knox

Lauren Vandenbrook
Lauren Vandenbrook

All successful projects start with a good idea. Sometimes having the idea is the easy part, but what happens next and bringing that idea to fruition can be the hard part. Despite advances in technology and more opportunities out there than ever for young content creators to make their mark, it still takes a lot of work, sweat, favors and risk-taking on the part of those involved to bring a new series to life. That’s exactly what Karen Knox and Gwenlyn Cumyn discovered when making the KindaTV web series Barbelle. The 10 episode first season of Barbelle follows girlfriends and bandmates Alice (Cumyn) and Veronica (Knox) who break up, but must fake their relationship to adoring fans while trying to make their sophomore album.

While Knox and Cumyn received support in making Barbelle from Bell Media and originally premiered on Bell Fibe TV before KindaTV, a lot of funding for the project came from the duo and a crowdfunding campaign they ran prior to production. The money raised allowed the pair to make the first season and staff their show. In addition to co-creating Barbelle, Knox and Cumyn wrote, produced and starred in the series, with Knox also directing an episode.

Knox recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series. She discussed how a background in theater led her to discovering her true passion as a film and television content creator. Knox shared her perspective as a young creator and how she and Cumyn brought their idea of Barbelle to fruition. Having recently completed directing the short film Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping, which looks to shine a light on rape as an overused plot device in film and television, Knox shared why she found such joy directing and hopes to continue with it.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share a little about your background? Did you always want to work in film?

Karen Knox: I didn’t come from a film and TV background. It’s funny because it seems like in the tech sector, the jobs are getting more and more specialized, but content creation, which is the umbrella term I give myself now, requires so many different skills. I have to be a writer, producer, actor and I direct. It’s becoming less and less specialized since you have to have all these skills that work together.

I started in theater though, directing there and writing poetry. I then moved to England and got my masters in classical performance. It was a very expensive, ultimately useless degree except it solidified for me, that I am not interested in being a pawn in plays written by dead white men 400 years ago. I got my Masters, but I thought if I never do another Shakespeare play ever again that’s just fine with me. In the theater world, we worship at the altar of all these classic playwrights that are all men, and I’m kind of over the classics right now. I get it, but the male perspective is overdone for me right now. That’s why I’m really interested in making new content that gives a chance for the female view and perspective.

That’s why when I came back to Canada I really jumped into content creation. I started off by making some short films, some of which are very bad, but I just went for it. Any time there was an opportunity for me to be on a set, in whatever position, I was like ‘sign me up!’ I wanted to learn as much as I could about the industry and how it all works. It’s been about four years now that I’ve really been making content, and I’m but a babe in the context of the industry, but it’s something that I love. I feel like I finally found where I want to be in terms of the entertainment landscape.

TTVJ: So you decided that’s what you want to do, and then you and Gwenlyn have this great idea for Barbelle, but what happens next? What was the process like to get something like that made after you have a great idea?

KK: We didn’t really know. We literally did late night Googling and realized we had to make a pilot. So we made a pilot, on the super cheap, and called in a bunch of favors and asked all our friends to help out on it. Then we just started shopping it around to all the media conglomerates in Canada, and had a lot of “Nos” or “good luck with that.” Finally, Bell Media thought it was interesting and said they were trying to support more women. So we did script rewrites for them, and some more really difficult meetings where they gave notes before they finally signed on board to help make our dreams come true.

We signed the deal with Bell in November 2015 and went to camera in January 2016. It was a quick turnaround and pre-production of two months was wild! The grant from Bell wasn’t really cold, hard cash either, it was mostly in services. So we got our equipment for free, a sound recordist for free, they provided post-production services and a couple locations. We still had to raise some money so we could pay our main team. That’s when we did a crowdfunding campaign which was another big job for Gwen and I.

So we decided we needed to raise $10,000, or else we couldn’t go to camera because we can’t ask our friends to come out for three weeks and come away with nothing. We managed to raise over our goal. It was the worst in the world, but you come out of it on the other end realizing how much people are willing to support a project they believe in. After we raised that extra money, Gwen and I were like ‘OK, but now it can’t be bad.’ You have all these people who have invested in the idea and counted on us to make something good.

Crowdfunding was a motivating factor in a way, and while some people turn their nose up at it, there is a sense of accountability that comes with it that’s kind of nice. If people are investing their money in a project they believe in, then you really feel a sense of duty to deliver. It was a big part as we were filming, and we’d think ‘we have to do this for everyone that believed in us!’

KindaTV
KindaTV

TTVJ: I always hear how it’s easier these days for young content creators to make projects, whether it’s just filming using your phone or whatever, but there still seems like there has to be some initial investment you’re putting in. You guys had the grant from Bell and then did crowdfunding, but it still seems like so much more work than people make it seem.

KK: Gwen and I have donated thousands and thousands of hours to making this come true. We didn’t pay ourselves for the first season of Barbelle, and we both came out of it at a loss. But we believed in it so much and really wanted to make it happen. In filming we went a bit over budget, but we were both the first to say ‘just put it on the credit card! We’ll figure it out later!’

Yes, filmmaking is becoming easier because of technology, and the equipment is so great that you don’t need a million dollars to set up a lighting rig. At the same time, the human costs are always going to be there. You have to feed your extras, make sure your wardrobe looks good or if you have to build a big set for a scene that’s still going to cost.

TTVJ: I think that’s something that you could really tell with Barbelle, the production value was very high for a web series.

KK: I’m so glad to hear that because it was done on a shoestring. It was not an expensive show and we really hustled. Our art department was amazing and almost all the clothes were donated from local providers. It’s interesting where I’m now on bigger sets, where they have a $1.5 million episode and I just see the waste that comes out of that. It blows my mind sometimes. I cringe a bit, but part of me is like ‘I wish I had that much money to make my next project.’ Then another part of me sees the plates of fruit and vegetables being thrown in the garbage because no one touched them. It makes me a little sad.

Gwen and I had a water bottle free set for Barbelle and have always said if we have any kind of money to spend on a show that we’ll be as environmentally conscious as possible.

TTVJ: You used an all-female crew for Barbelle. What was that experience like and did you guys have any trouble in wanting to do that or actually in finding women to fill all those roles?

KK: In general finding women to fill technical positions can feel more difficult from a producer stand point, however, I think we need to work to dispel that myth. Now, more than ever, there are loads of extremely talented women emerging in the industry, so we didn’t find it as difficult to source an all female crew. While our key technical/creative roles were filled by some incredible skilled up and coming women, a lot of our more junior technical positions were young women coming fresh out of film programs. It’s was very encouraging to see that there are more and more women graduating from these programs who are happy to get their feet wet on an indie set. On Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping, about 75 per cent of our crew was female — lighting, electric, sound, across the board. It’s really encouraging to even hear myself say that because it makes me think the talent pool is starting to level out a bit.

TTVJ: Similar to how you can see what a difference having Patty Jenkins at the helm of something like Wonder Woman made.

KK: You can see it in the film too. There’s moments where you know a man could not have done that and it wouldn’t have worked. Even the knowledge that a woman is directing it makes you see it in a slightly different light. I hope that we see more and more and more female cinematographers and directors coming into power in the industry.

TTVJ: Being on KindaTV and the fact that Barbelle is a web series, I know you guys work closely with people that worked on Carmilla. Since Carmilla is so successful, was that something you guys consciously looked at and tried to emulate the way they’ve had success with things like social media in building their fandom?

KK: I don’t think Barbelle could have existed without Carmilla. Carmilla was a ground-breaking series and for me, it’s one of the most important Canadian series that has happened in the last decade. It broke so many boundaries in terms of content creation, putting Canada on the map for a unique identity and perspective, and for effectively using social media for fan outreach and to get to a niche audience. We were so inspired by Carmilla and how that series came together. It made us think we could do something like that. It’s amazing how when one series finds huge success that it can inspire others to think they can do it too. We drew huge inspiration from them.

Photo courtesy of Karen Knox
Photo courtesy of Karen Knox

TTVJ: I know between an episode of Barbelle and then your short that you’ve done some directing lately. Is that something you want to continue to do? What were those experiences like?

KK: I had directed theater for almost a decade, but I love directing film. It’s fulfilling to me on a level I didn’t think was possible. Acting has always been my passion and I love writing, but when I was on set for Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping it was like coming home. When you’re an actor and on set you’re useful for maybe 5-6 hours, and the rest of the time you’re sitting in a makeup chair or waiting on lighting to get done. When you’re directing you’re firing on every single cylinder for 14-15 hours. When we were filming I didn’t eat or sleep for 72 hours. I was so excited for what was happening and what we were making. I was running on complete adrenaline. It’s an addicting feeling.

It was so funny because I was having lunch with some other female directors, and was telling them about this feeling, and they said ‘you never forget your first time.’ I said ‘does this mean it’ll never be as good as this?’ They’re like ‘it might not be. It’ll be good, but never as good as the first time.’ [laughs] I was so, so excited by what we were doing.

When we finished Barbelle I felt extremely accomplished, but also very nervous. I hadn’t really seen any of the footage, and I didn’t really know what we had made. I was so in it and a part of it, but I hadn’t seen it. So it took a long time for me during post-production to finally be like ‘Yes! We made something awesome.’ However, on Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping I called ‘That’s a wrap’ and knew we had made something incredible. It was really exciting to get to do that and the short answer is ‘Yes! I want to direct much, much more!’

TTVJ: Something that I find intriguing about your short is that it looks to address the rape trope. Why are tropes like that so harmful to perpetuate and why did you pick that topic for your first short?

KK: After years of watching primetime drama consistently churn out half baked stories, romanticizing, sexualizing, helping to promote hateful stereotypes, and adding to the perpetuation of rape culture, I wanted to create a script that highlighted this absurd overuse/misuse and appropriative use of survivor’s stories. Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping is a period satire dealing with the rape of a young women that:

  1. Doesn’t romanticize/sexualize rape
  2. Does not credit rape as a “backstory” for female revenge
  3. Doesn’t use rape to further the development of a male character
  4. Does not use rape to turn a female character into a superhero
  5. Is told from the survivor’s perspective
  6. Does not use rape as an excuse for a woman to be “broken”
  7. Is a comedy. Highlighting the absurdity/ubiquitousness of sexual assault in “Period Pieces” especially in the particularly grim rape factories of primetime dramas.

The idea of creating this film was born of a conversation I had with my writing partner Dana Fradkin while discussing society’s treatment of murder vs. rape. How we are able to freely satirize murder and violence, but not rape? Even saying the word full volume in a coffee shop is difficult to do. Why is this? Does our inability to explore the subject matter except from a limited artistic milieu contribute to the perpetuation of rehashed tropes and bad stereotypes furthering ideas propping up rape culture? These are questions we are working to answer through the creation of this film. By working closely with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, and speaking to survivors we have strived to create a film that is insightful, sensitive, and above all else a paradigm shift in our thinking with regards to how we tell stories of sexual assault.

I am a firm believer in the ability of satire to change the world. I can totally acknowledge the difficult nature of watching media about the subject of rape. It is one of the most horrific acts of human violence and unlike murder, leaves us with a survivor, a human being who can speak to the experience, the trauma and its effects. It then seems perhaps counter-intuitive to try to create a film on the subject that includes elements of comedy. The satire in Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping is more a commentary on our oft too passive acceptance of rape culture. Truth though, satire is piercingly clear in that it allows us to be self-critical without turning us off with a too violent or vitriolic reprimand.

KarenKnox2

TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young creators looking to get their ideas made?

KK: The number one piece of advice I always give to people trying to make a series happen is that you cannot let the big picture overwhelm you. You have to get up in the morning and say ‘What can I do, literally just today, to make my series happen?’ It might be working a little bit on your script or emailing a producer you want to work with. It might be creating a vision board for what you want characters to wear in the series. You have to do it day by day because film is so overwhelming that you can become mired down in the details of ‘how are we going to get the money? How are we going to get the crew? How are we going to put this all together?’ If you let the big picture weigh you down you will never get it done. You have to take it day by day.

The other thing is that I see people in this business that constantly throw paint at a canvas. I don’t think being a savant genius really helps you as much as people who are willing to embarrass themselves, ask for favors and are willing to fail. You’re going to do all three of those things a lot before you make anything that’s good, and I’ve done all of them hundreds and hundreds of times. The only thing standing between you and getting your series or feature made is the amount of times you’re willing to embarrass yourself. I can’t even count the amount of times during Barbelle where I had to ask how to do things or outrageous favors. But eventually, people say yes and it works out and you have a cool thing. Eventually, you’re in a position where you can help people make their dreams come true because you remember when all those people helped you out.

TTVJ: I always say there’s no harm in asking because the worst they can say to you is “no.”

KK: Exactly! You just have to be elegant in the ask. I’m all about the elegant ask. Be gracious. Be kind. If you can offer them anything do it if you can. There’s no harm in asking.

TTVJ: I know you have a short that you’ll be taking on the festival circuit, but do you and Gwenlyn hope to start work on Season 2 of Barbelle now that so many people are finding it and loving it?

KK: We are writing Season 2 of Barbelle right now. So that’s completely underway and we’re working on finding funding.

 

Are you a Barbelle fan? Share your thoughts about the series and more below!

Barbelle Season 1 is available now on KindaTV. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

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