Women Behind Canadian TV: Karen Moore

Photo courtesy of Karen Moore
Photo courtesy of Karen Moore

There are a limited number of jobs in the TV industry, but there are a lot of people who want them. That’s what makes getting your first foot in the door so difficult. But all it takes is that one chance, and your entire career can take off from there. For Karen Moore, that chance was working as a writer’s assistant for showrunner Tassie Cameron on Season 4 of Rookie Blue. From there, Moore found herself writing on shows like Mary Kills People, Workin’ Moms, and Detention Adventure

Despite it not being the norm, the shows that Moore found herself writing for consisted of writers’ rooms predominantly made up  of women. She told us, as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, how she learned a great deal from the women in those rooms. She saw firsthand that a work/life balance was indeed possible, and drew inspiration to keep moving forward in her own career. Not only that, but Moore found herself really identifying with the layered female characters at the center of the series she was writing for. 

Recently, Moore stepped behind the camera for the first time as director with her short film Volcano. Nominated as Best Canadian Short Film at TIFF ‘19, the film tells the tale of two longtime friends that meet up at tiki bar for drinks, only to find themselves in a bidding war for attention as one begins to detail her romantic trip to Mexico.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Let’s start with your background. Did you always know you wanted to work in television and write?

Karen Moore: I grew up in a really remote area, about an hour and a half north of Toronto, but remote enough that we literally lived in the forest. We had two channels and I never thought I’d be working in TV. I was a kid that was really studious and tried very hard at school and got good grades, but I didn’t excel at any one subject. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I gravitated towards a media class, and I came out of that thinking I wanted to be in media in some way.

I went to Ryerson University in Toronto for a program called Radio Television Arts. It was a very broad program where people come out of it and go into entertainment law, sports broadcasting, or they become audio engineers. It was a vast program, but I gravitated towards writing. There was a writing stream in the program that had about 15 of us who stayed with it through the four years. There’s now at least five of us from that working as screenwriters in Canada.

Part way through university I was given an assignment to write a spec script for an existing show. I wrote one for Arrested Development, and I really loved it. That’s when it started to feel like a tangible reality, and when I got out of school I worked on a lot of reality shows, mostly home reno shows. I tried to do writing classes on the side, wrote a couple feature scripts, and wrote a short film. It was then really about seeing peers get into writing rooms and get these entry-level positions like writers’ assistant or story coordinator. That was the first time it seemed like that was the job I needed to get to be in this world.

Fast-forward to me, through a million connections and circumstances and begging emails, becoming Tassie Cameron’s writer’s assistant in Season 4 of Rookie Blue. Once I got that one foot in the door, I got to come up within the Rookie Blue and Saving Hope writers’ rooms, an amazing, nurturing environment with those senior writers who are still my mentors now. That’s how I got into the world. It took a long time for this to feel, though, like something I could actually make a living doing.

Photo courtesy of Karen Moore
Photo courtesy of Karen Moore

TTVJ: In talking about those nurturing rooms, a lot of the shows you’ve been on, from Mary Kills People to Workin’ Moms and back to Rookie Blue, they’ve all had more women writers than men. How did those experiences with a majority of women affect your career?

KM: It’s also affected me as a person. To have people like Tassie, Sherry White, Morwyn [Brebner], Adriana [Maggs], Shelley Ericksen, and Noelle Carbone in my life, at that age, was inspiring as a writer and as a woman. Getting to know them intimately really showed me that this job is a lifestyle and a demanding one. To see whether they were married or not, had kids or not, it was amazing to just see these people doing the thing and know that it is going to be OK. That’s how working under them always made me feel. 

Some of us here are pretty fortunate to have not had to experience the classic toxic masculinity, giant male writers’ room situation. The majority of my showrunners and mentors have been female, and it’s been so nice that that has been normal. It was always clear that we were lacking female directors in the industry, and also that the rooms have been predominantly white, but working under all these amazing, eclectic, hilarious, talented women has just been so inspiring.

TTVJ: It seems like having rooms filled with all those interesting and talented women has translated on screen to the characters at the center of shows like Mary Kills People and Workin’ Moms as well. On a lot of the shows you’ve written for, the women at the center of them are kind of messy, trying to keep things together, and not always making the best choices out there. However, they’re rich, interesting, and very complex characters. Why is that so important and what’s your favorite thing about writing those women?

KM: Those are the shows most interesting to me, personally. I find that these shows are having the same conversations that I’m having with my friends. Before I got on Workin’ Moms, I had that conversation of “having it all.” That whole discussion of when to have kids, and how, and what does it mean for my identity as an “ambitious woman”? Those were the conversations I would have with friends and the articles I would read.

On a show like Mary Kills People, with a more heightened concept than Workin’ Moms, I’m not out there killing people, but there’s something about the fact that Mary is a female, a mother, and that she’s trying to do this morally gray thing on the side. That’s more fascinating to me than if she was a man. Some of the same Workin’ Mom issues bleed into Mary Kills People, and that just is more interesting to me.

Working in those writers’ rooms, you get into these conversations with tons of nuance. I’m not interested in trying to write stock, black-and-white characters who know everything all the time. I feel like I never know anything. [laughs] The joy is in the exploration and actually hearing each other out. You don’t have to just have a female character that is the moral compass of the show. On something like Workin’ Moms, Catherine Reitman had four characters that really were facets of herself and over time became facets of all us writers. You really get to bring your whole self to work on these shows. It’s very encouraging too that the idea of the messy woman character is becoming so much more common. About 10 years ago, it felt like a gimmick, or you’d only want one of them, but now it’s just like no, this is women.

Photo courtesy of Karen Moore
Photo courtesy of Karen Moore

TTVJ: You’ve written in many different genres of TV: comedy, drama, and kids programming. Do you have any preference and how do you think that’s helped make you a better writer?

KM: It’s interesting with TV writing because some people diversify and some specialize. I don’t even know if this is true, but sometimes I feel like the least funny person in a comedy room or most funny person in a drama room. That’s my niche. I gravitate towards those comedy-drama hybrids in my personal tastes — shows with big emotional stakes, but also a lot of levity to them, while exploring bigger philosophical questions. Regardless of what I’m writing on, I’m trying to explore those things and those are the tones that appeal to me.

With something like Detention Adventure, as much as it’s a retro action adventure show, it was still important to me to give it a lot of heart, make sure moments felt earned, and that when we got to those moments, that they felt satisfying. I also tried to upend some of the cliches and stereotypes, so while we were doing this retro show, we also contemporized it. I felt pretty conscious of wanting the jokes to feel current, and that the comedy came from a contemporary place for kids.

As a TV writer, you’re hired to execute a showrunner’s voice, but you’re also hired for your own voice. It’s always a dance. I do think I can find a throughline with my choices to where I’m open-minded to the show, and once you’re in there, you fall in love with it, even though it’s not necessarily the show you would’ve watched.

TTVJ: Your short film, Volcano, had a pretty big TIFF ‘19. What was it like getting to make that film and how did it differ from other experiences you’ve had writing for TV?

KM: Volcano is the first time I directed something, and so that was different for sure. Alongside my work in TV, I have always been making short films as a writer and producer, but Volcano was different in a few ways. First, it was a personal story and autobiographical in its nature. It was a very vulnerable thing to share, which added to the vulnerability of being a first time director. I also self-financed it, which is something I could do because of my TV work. I have been thinking of directing for forever really, mostly in a “maybe one day” kind of way, but this felt like something I could really execute that would be a real representation of my sensibility, and a pretty specific calling card to show myself as a writer and filmmaker going forward.

We shot it in a day, and it stars Hannah Cheesman and Jess Salguiero. I met both of them on Workin’ Moms’ second season. We worked on the script together for awhile, and they were into doing something with me, so I brought together an intimate team of people I had gotten to know over the years. I essentially made the safest little environment for myself. That was partially because directing is scary, but also the subject matter was scary to be sharing.

It was an intense day. We shot the film on Mother’s Day, and the deadline for TIFF submissions was a month later. It was a very, very quick post process. My partner, Joe [Kicak], edited and color corrected the film and he lives with me, so he couldn’t get away. [laughs] I didn’t think it was going to be accepted because it was such a long shot. I read the email a hundred times when I got it, and then the experience of being embraced by TIFF, for something you tried so hard to craft, was very encouraging, especially in terms of doing things that lean into more personal stories or follow my instincts.

Photo courtesy of Karen Moore
Photo courtesy of Karen Moore

TTVJ: Is directing something you now want to keep pursuing?

KM: Yes, but it’s a tricky thing to practice. [laughs] I do think I’ll be seeking opportunities to shadow and grow that skill over time. I’ve always wanted to write and direct feature films. That was one of my first goals and something I want to do at some point. Being on a show like Workin’ Moms for two years, and working very closely on set with the directors, it showed me that we can do it. I think if I was in the right environment again that I’d be looking to grow in that direction.

TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with young people looking to get into the industry?

KM: It’s a lot of the usual suspect type things like applying for grants. I still apply for grants all of the time, and I’ve gotten rejected from a million of them. But I’ve found that they are deadlines and those submissions work for me because you’ve got to get a project to a place that you’re proud of it enough to submit it, even if you don’t get the grant.

Also, have someone else who can read your writing, or join some sort of writers’ group. Even if you don’t connect with everyone, maybe there will be one or two people you can keep sending your stuff to. I send everything I write to my closest friends. We’re so used to now story editing each other’s work that notes now become so much easier to take. You know it’s not personal, it is an opinion, and you don’t have to take it, but they always see something I didn’t see. Ultimately, it’s about whether or not they perceived the thing I was hoping they would perceive, and if they didn’t, then how we figure that out is a separate problem. In theory, you want people to get the thing you’re trying to put out there, and it took me a very long time to get that that’s what notes are.

It’s a marathon, whether you’re getting a foot in or maintaining your career in this industry. There are more people that want to do it than there are jobs. You have to be as patient as possible, try to reach out to people, but don’t badger them. If you’re going to coffee with someone, know some things about them, and have something specific you want to talk about. It’s been nice over the last few years to have more junior people reach out and want advice. It really does depend on schedules, because if you get me when I’m on a show then there’s no chance, but if you find me between shows then I’m procrastinating on my own writing. [laughs]

Try not to care as much about your friend getting something that you didn’t get. It’s tricky, because in my life, all my closest friends are all in the industry. By definition, we’re all competing. As much as possible, it shouldn’t feel that way. It should feel like a win for both of us.

TTVJ: What is the next project you’ll be working on?

KM: After the world premiere of Volcano, we’re taking it out to the festival circuit. We’ll be premiering the film on CBC on a program called Canadian Reflections. It’ll be broadcast in the summer. Volcano is a very funny until it’s not funny type of film, and the feature I’m now working on is in a very similar vein.

 

Thoughts? Share them below!

VOLCANO Trailer from Karen Moore on Vimeo.