Women Behind Canadian TV: Karen Troubetzkoy

Photo courtesy of Karen Troubetzkoy
Photo courtesy of Karen Troubetzkoy

People come to work in the TV industry in a wide variety of ways. Some have always been drawn to telling stories on screen and known that this was the job for them, but others take more of a winding path. For Killjoys executive producer Karen Troubetzkoy, she found her love of TV despite only getting one channel while growing up in St. Lucia. What she saw on the screen while out on that island in the Carribean caused her to move to Canada and enroll in film school in Vancouver.

After working various jobs behind the scenes, Troubetzkoy became a drama executive for CTV before producing Orphan Black and Flashpoint and executive producing The Listener. Throughout all of her jobs, she continued to find herself thrilled by the entire TV-making process. As part of The TV Junkies’ Women Behind Canadian TV series, she recently detailed how important it was for her in those early years to be surrounded by a group of powerful women.  

Troubetzkoy also tells us what made her time on Killjoys, which ended after five seasons last fall, so special, what she’ll miss most, and how creator Michelle Lovretta mandated diversity and inclusiveness on all levels from day one.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Let’s start by discussing your background a bit. Was working in television always something you knew you wanted to do?

Karen Troubetzkoy: I didn’t grow up with a TV in the house. My parents were always moving and believed in books. So, naturally, I was drawn to the forbidden fruit. But first, I was a horse and carriage driver, scuba instructor, cocktail waitress and helped manage my family’s small resort in St. Lucia. It was while editing videos for the hotel that I suddenly realized…I could control everything! Well, at least images, sound, and music. Which seemed like life itself. Drunk on power, I got a small television set. But there was only one channel controlled by a guy with a satellite dish in his backyard. It was called SCTV; St. Lucia Community Television. I was really into it. Sometimes I’d go to the station at his house. I’d watch him dodge chickens and drag the huge dish around by the rope that hung from it. He’d tune in shows like Dallas and… Well, mostly Dallas. But sometimes he aired this little Canadian sitcom called Dog House (with a talking dog who was a retired cop! It was awesome). The owner would also broadcast his own shows and commercials from his living room. One was called Be My Guest. A person would come and sit on the chair against the wall and tell us what they did. Sometimes he made two teenage boys sit and talk about what they learned at school to fill airtime. They did not seem to enjoy this. I guess they were relatives. Ads were handwritten posters pinned to the wall then videotaped. There was no official cameraman. Everything was a “lock-off”. I thought: I can do this!

So, with a diet of Dog House, Dallas and Be My Guest, I hit the industry. I enrolled in the Vancouver Film School where I was brought crashing to earth by the vastness of what I did not know.

TTVJ: There are so many different jobs in the TV industry, so how did you land on producing?

KT: I entered film school with the belief that one had to do as much as possible oneself (drag the rope on the satellite dish). My family was likewise hands-on in running the hotel, from manning the desk to designing furniture, sewing bedspreads, maintaining vehicles— no one stayed in their lane. So, naturally, I was drawn to the jack-of-all trades aspects of producing. Although, I initially wanted to be a picture editor – because the edit suite was my first love. After graduation, I volunteered at a company in Vancouver called Forefront Productions run by four incredible women who produced Madison and the Adventures of Shirley Holmes. I was thirty, a little old for an intern, but I went at it hard for weeks, answered phones, fetched lunches, made photocopies, and made sure that I was first in and last out every day until, perhaps a little spooked, they offered me an office manager job. Not one to stay in my lane, I read piles of scripts and became a know-it-all about TV – because by then I was able to watch TV obsessively and there was SO MUCH CHOICE!

I worked up to Head of Creative Affairs when a book I’d developed for them got the greenlight. It was a high-budget BBC / CTV miniseries, and they let me showrun it! Crazy. Luck. The UK writer wasn’t interested in producing, so soon I was on location in Victoria running the show creatively. But…I’d never been on set before. I have a lot of respect for the keys and crew who put up with me. They were so patient. I had so many opinions. The one good thing about me, though, is that I’m all enthusiasm. To this day I retain an excitement and kind of naivety and still get swept up in the process, even after producing over a hundred hours (I counted!). I love it when in a production meeting I’ll say, ‘Wait, but how are we going to do that?’ And some wise DP or Special Effects guy (sorry, but can we have more gals in these roles?) will wink and say, ‘Through the magic of film.’ That magic never gets old.

So I got through my first show and nobody ended up in tears. Except the Line Producer. Once. And the director quit for half a day. Hmm. Looking back, perhaps I owe someone an apology basket. But the show was nominated for a Bafta and won an International Emmy, which the crew and cast definitely deserved.

Photo courtesy of Karen Troubetzkoy
Photo courtesy of Karen Troubetzkoy

TTVJ: As you were breaking into the industry, creating shows like 15/Love and 18 to Life, did you ever feel any kind of opposition related to your gender?

KT: There may have been opposition to my gender, but I was usually hyper focused on the goal of creating a good moment, a good sound, a good scene, a good show, so I’m not sure I would have noticed. I’m aware now that there’s a myopic selfishness in getting lost in one’s work. But more likely I didn’t encounter opposition because I was fortunate to start with Forefront. These four awesome and powerful women were pillars in the industry and gave me my start despite how oddball I must have seemed. They are: Mickey Rogers, Helena Cynamon, Teri Woods-McArter, and Gillian Lindsay, and they supported lots of women. 

From there I went to CTV/Bell working as a drama executive under the incredible Tecca Crosby. Again, I was surrounded by a supportive team of women. Then, with 18 To Life and 15/Love, when you create a show, I feel you get some latitude. You’re the reason everyone is gathered, and with that (hopefully) comes respect. 

The only place I felt a little bro-pressure was sometimes in post production, particularly early on in the field of sound. But then I wasn’t experienced when I waded in. So, if there was pushback, it may have been with good reason. When you’re posting sound, you’ve got to learn to listen. So I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that to my sex but my level of experience. Today, sound is one of the areas I’m strongest in, and I have the sound teams who gently guided me to thank. And I’ve had sound teams notice and appreciate that since. So, it goes both ways: I got some deserved flak when I trampled on toes and some credit after I learned the craft.

TTVJ: Michelle Lovretta has always talked very openly about what a vital part of Killjoys you were. How did that opportunity to work with Michelle and on that series come about?

KT: I still feel happy just seeing her name. It was an exciting collaboration. I met Michelle through Temple Street, who hired me for Orphan Black. Orphan had gone well, so they wanted me to come aboard their new show, Killjoys, from the beginning with a view to overseeing it throughout its run. But, first, I had to meet Michelle and we had to get on. I’m always reluctant to meet new people. But reading Michelle’s pilot energized me in a way that I’ve rarely experienced. Her frankness on the page allowed me to be dead honest over coffee. I felt she needed to know me back, and quickly because we both wanted to get back to our homes (okay, pajamas). So I stated my weirdnesses and shynesses outright. And she got it. 

After that, I had a big girl crush on Michelle. And, after five seasons in the fires of an ambitious production, I still do. There’s nothing I love more than seeing a Lovretta first draft in my Inbox. We see creative very similarly and are both rigorous and detail oriented. But where we divide in opinion, we trust each other. This means we are each able to let go when we need to and trust the other. It’s a huge benefit to be able to divide and conquer creatively. But we also enjoyed hanging out on the various faux leather couches of production and post together, hashing out the details.

TTVJ: I’m not sure a lot of people really know what it is that producers do. Can you describe what a typical day for you on a show like Killjoys was like?

KT: A line producer once told me that ninety percent of a producer’s job is knowing where trouble lies at any moment…and being there before it hits. This means some mornings I’m up at dawn to hit the hair and makeup trailer in a freezing quarry out of town (where all sci-fi is filmed) to approve the look of a guest star. Other mornings I’m in a cozy sound booth directing some difficult ADR (additional dialogue) for a locked cut. Mostly, I’m in a string of prep meetings with various Heads of Departments (aka Keys) figuring out how to make the next episode the best looking, most action-packed, with the most gorgeously outfitted characters who also have awesome – but not distractingly awesome – hair and carry believable props while flying through the galaxy courtesy of (cleverly repurposed) VFX all in the service of the story. 

It’s a collaboration on a grand scale with Michelle (or the lovely Adam Barken) and the writer of the episode and director plus the line producer. The most fun meetings are about the things that are the least real, like visual effects or puppets. (Actually, I take that back. Never work with puppets. They’ll turn on you.) But the biggest unsung part of my job is…snuffing out creativity. Every department wants to showcase something extraordinary, be it a prop, an outfit, a hairstyle, new eyelashes, a high-fashion leather whip. But there’s only room for a few elements to shine if the focus is to stay on story and character. So part of my job is crushing dreams. But I welcome Keys presenting their most exciting idea in our initial meeting because, even if it doesn’t work for this episode, it may work later or inspire a future story.

@lovretta
@lovretta

TTVJ: Killjoys was always one of the most diverse and inclusive shows on TV from its very first episode until the last. Were you at all involved in the casting process on that show? If so, how did you factor diversity into your decisions – both in casting and through BTS hires?

KT: Michelle and I were involved in casting from the earliest moment. In fact, Michelle came in with photos of who she saw in the show (there was a photo of Aaron Ashmore in the initial pitch). We struggled to keep our lead, Dutch, diverse when we couldn’t find the right fit. But it was a deal breaker for Michelle – even when a former head at one of the networks wanted us to rethink. We looked at hundreds of actors and had to expand to the UK to find Hannah John Kamen, who’d only had small parts in a few series at that point. Michelle remembered her quiet audition when one of our previous picks got turned down. Hannah became Dutch from frame one. The diversity of the main cast was a given. But there was a constant search to ensure we had enough diversity in smaller roles and lots of “go backs” to try again. It took effort and it was worth it. It makes the show infinitely richer. This was a full-time, all-in job and the credit goes to our wonderful casting director Jason Knight and his team.

TTVJ: Since Killjoys recently wrapped its five-season run, what was that like for you to say goodbye to it? How did you feel about it ending?

KT: Killjoys was one of the best times of my life. It was the longest consistent run I’ve been on. I had people I loved, respected and admired to play with every day. And the best thing was I got to learn so much from them. I feel so stuffed with knowledge and happiness after producing those 50 episodes, it will sustain me for a long time. Getting to know in advance when a show is going to end, and to end with twenty luscious episodes all shot in one year, was one of the most fortunate strokes of luck in my career – perhaps most of all because it was challenging. I love a good challenge.

TTVJ: What does life after Killjoys hold for you? If you can share, do you have a new project we should keep an eye out for?

KT: I’m developing a couple of shows with one of the best writers I know, my sister Nikolijne. I can’t talk about them yet. Except to say, one of them takes place in St. Lucia. I recently got to pitch in LA thanks to our producing partners at New Metric, who include Beth Iley, who was with us in the trenches throughout Killjoys as co-producer. That’s another way Killjoys keeps giving. I also have something on the burner with the wonderful Derek Schreyer, my original collaborator and one of the best procedural writers in the business. And I have a reality show I’m developing about an unusual dog rescue operation in the tropics – for which I need an experienced production company (just putting it out there).

TTVJ: What do you see as some of the challenges and obstacles for young women looking to enter TV in behind the scenes positions, and do you have any advice for them?

KT: It feels like an exciting time to enter the business because it’s changing so quickly. I’d like to think that levels the playing field and makes anything possible for those with imagination, flexibility, and determination. My advice is, don’t think small. You know that thing you’re most afraid of, the secret thing you’d really like to do, the bigger thing? Aim for that. Don’t become a picture editor if you’d really like to be a producer. On the flip side, never expect to control everything, roll with the punches, pay your dues, respect those more experienced than you, and learn, learn, learn. If I’m lucky, there’s a good chance you’ll be my boss someday!

 

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