Women Behind Canadian TV: Karen Walton

Courtesy of: Karen Walton
Courtesy of: Karen Walton

We need to take action in order for change to happen. Sitting idly by and letting things go on as they always have just means that we’re allowing inequalities to continue to exist, says screenwriter Karen Walton, perhaps best known for her cult horror film classic Ginger Snaps. Speaking up and taking action is something Walton has done over the course of her career, which has included writing stops on shows such as Orphan Black, Flashpoint and The Listener.

Walton also helps share this message and teach others in the writing community. She just completed a stint as the Executive Producer in Residence at 2016 CFC Bell Media Prime Time TV Program where she mentored seven emerging television writers. She also runs and founded the inkcanada Facebook group which is well known in the Canadian TV industry and serves to bring together “Canadian Screenwriters and their sketchy friends.” She recently spoke about her experience as a woman working in the industry and the joy of teaching others as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you got into writing for television?

Karen Walton: I was born and raised a Cold War Navy Brat in Nova Scotia; my family moved to Alberta when I was a teenager, where I graduated high school and got an Honours Degree in Drama from the University of Alberta. I am also an alum of the Feature Film Writing program of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC). I am an entirely accidental screen and television writer. I did not grow up dreaming of being a screenwriter.

As with all things to do with my career, I didn’t ‘get into’ television so much as fall into it. The great talents Adrienne Mitchell and Janis Lundman were on the hunt for young blood for a terrifically unique and wonderfully provocative half-hour drama called Straight Up. They were working with my then script mentor at CFC, Al Magee. Al asked me if he could show them a sample of my work. All I had at the time was a movie treatment in progress, a werewolf movie called Ginger Snaps. They dug it. My first TV job was a single script on assignment, thanks to those women.

TTVJ: As you’ve been a part of different writing rooms over the years, how often did you find yourself in a male dominated room and how did you deal with that situation?

KW: All of my experience has been in male-dominated rooms, with two exceptions: Straight Up, and Suzette Couture’s The City. Some were awesome experiences, some were not. In hindsight, I dealt with the inherent challenges of the Not Awesome poorly. The key to any success was to ‘be cool’, be ‘pleasant to work with’, be ‘one of the boys’; I usually did that well. I did not realize I was fulfilling some fucked-up fantasies on that front, in certain situations.

Gradually, I noticed that failing to ‘passively support’ certain forms of sexism and misogyny could cost me dearly. If I spoke up on choices that reinforced stereotypes, say, or merely behaved exactly as the boys behaved in creative dialogue, I experienced some seriously unprofessional behaviour with certain individuals whose issues with women in general were obvious. In these cases, there was no safe nor satisfactory recourse: my peers looked the other way, or blamed me for being demeaned, undermined or harassed. I paid for that toxicity, in confidence and self-esteem: my work suffered, my trust suffered, I second-guessed every contribution I might make. It wore me out.

Eventually, the risks didn’t seem worth it. I began refusing jobs that opened with, ‘we really need a female writer’, instead of, ‘we really want you to write this’. And, I started saving up and making plans to steer my own ships. Ultimately, I was able to opt out of working for hire, and opt into creating on terms that I require to want to write, at all. I began developing my own projects, which is a blast. That way, I can focus on the work (which is why I’m writing at all) while creating a safer space for truly professional writers, no matter how they identify.

TTVJ: There’s not only a low number of women writing and working behind the scenes, but especially in the horror film genre, where you had success in with Ginger Snaps. Why do you think those numbers are still low and we don’t have more balance between the genders?

KW: It’s a combination of shameful, predictable and fixable things: marketing at children remains gender-biased. Education and economic systems fail to challenge and ideally eliminate gender bias. We continue to vote for political outcomes that do nothing to change this. Then we fail to sincerely protest policies that merely reinforce gender bias. Entertainment content, what gets major marketing campaigns and perpetuates programming myths (who will watch what when) remain, generally gender biased.

Genres themselves are gender-biased, from the natures of the stock lead characters (she can be tough but can she wear a black latex bikini?), to who directs, to who hauls the cables. When your ‘market-driven’ thinking is based on audience assurance that stereotypes sell, you get exactly what the majority white male shareholders feel they can afford to give you. Which isn’t much, if you’re a woman interested in myth-busting. In short, it is this way because we keep allowing it to be.

Courtesy of: Karen Walton
Courtesy of: Karen Walton

TTVJ: What led you to start the inkcanada Facebook group and what purpose does the group serve?

KW: inkcanada [sic]’s sole purpose is to encourage free, public engagement, awareness and a lot of support and advice among professional screenwriters, aspiring screenwriters, and friends of screenwriting… no matter where they live. It started as an experiment when, mid-career, I realized I was starting to feel isolated by my workload and slowing down on my ever-ambitious learning curve. I started in a film co-op, and knew my work always got better when I felt I had kindred spirits to confide in and consult with.

Opportunities to meet colleagues who worked on things you don’t can be rare for writers, especially in a place as geographically massive as Canada. Concurrently, I was answering a lot of emails from would-be screenwriters, looking for advice. And from the industry, looking for writers I might recommend–who back then were notoriously ‘hard to find’, proudly private or more plainly, exclusive in their social engagement. I had a career because strangers came looking for new writers and specifically women writers, where I lived at the time. No one was doing that any more. The fad of ‘finding fresh new voices’ had returned to centralized, urban ideas about, Who You Know.

I thought it would be nice to have one place that never closed and was not beholden to the government policies and behavioural hang-ups of the day, where anyone who wanted to hang out and talk writing could. I expected no one. It’s been a nice and constantly rewarding surprise. ink is 10 years old this spring. I’m amazed by that Group, and extremely proud of what we’ve all accomplished for screenwriters and our friends, so far.

TTVJ: Not only do you have the Facebook group, but you’ve also spearheaded “Ink Drinks” which happen monthly in Toronto. Who comes to those and why are they so popular?

KW: Well oddly, as odd as the idea really, we have very different crowds every single time.  Inkdrinks [sic] is a social night for film, television, digital writers of all stripes, and our so-called sketchy friends. The latter consist of everyone from actors to execs to agents, to curious authors, professors, journalists who just dig our vibe, visiting directors, producers, editors and fans. I promote it as a break, together–that’s all it is. I think people enjoy coming because it is not a ‘networking event’, it is not ‘work’; we have no agenda, ‘special guests’ or weird gatekeeping bullshit. It is deliberately public, it is deliberately social, it is deliberately about coming out and visiting with people you don’t already know.

Our only rule is, No Pitching. People who attend invariably meet amazing artists they would not have otherwise, and the artists–most importantly–finally get to know and care for one another. The community theme, again. We’re there to tear down creative walls and unfair barriers, one tequila shot at a time. Writing’s very hard to make a go of, you can’t have too many friends who truly understand that, really.

TTVJ: So many writers I’ve talked to have went through the CFC’s Prime Time TV program, which you just wrapped a stint as the Executive Producer in Residence. Why is that such a successful program and what was that experience like?

KW: It’s a successful program because it puts the most talented and accomplished applicants together as a true team, and a true working writers room, for an intensive, hands-on and exhaustive training experience that exposes them to the values and practices of Canada’s top working writer-hyphenates–while developing their skills, craft and their own original series. My experience was fantastic. The EP in Residence brings an unattached original series to a working room in training, where the focus is on developing something that is going into the marketplace for development and ideally, will be produced as a show.

The ultimate work practicum for the advancing writers, and for me, a chance to test a new development model, while advancing a new show. Plus I love working with emerging artists, so work felt like play again, at last. The EP has complete creative control over the process, you are accountable only to your fellow writers and your educational and creative ambitions. The extreme luxury of being able to develop a brand new series with fresh voices who are eager to work hard and experiment and support one another, in a safe and diverse environment where the artists are valued and the story’s the point. It was a highlight of my professional life. I’ve never been so honoured and felt so fortunate, as I did walking into that room every day. I love what we created, and can’t wait to push it forward.

Canadian Film Centre
Canadian Film Centre

TTVJ: While you were teaching the young writers in the program a lot, did you find yourself learning from them at all? How do you think the experience at the CFC has helped you as a writer?

KW: Oh yes, I think if you teach and learn nothing, you maybe shouldn’t be teaching. These writers taught me what I had almost forgotten, what it was like to be truly excited about the process again. How important it is to remind yourself and those you work with to be brave, and surround yourself with generous and talented allies who love to laugh. They taught me grace under pressure, how to make everyone feel safe to fail–including myself. They showed me what a healthy, happy, inclusive team environment should look like.

As a writer, I refined my approach to original concepts from the ground up. I improved how I communicate, what I still have to work on. I got back to the bones of story craft, because I had to articulate it to someone who’d never done what we were doing before. Top of the list is, confidence. What we produced in two months showed me how to solve stuff I’d been struggling with for ages. I didn’t want it to end. But I did take every lesson back to my other projects, immediately–and saw positive results at once. I so hope I’m able to get our project moving forward now. We made a very cool thing and I would love to work with every one of those writers again. It was an honour.

TTVJ: What are the big challenges you see for women trying to break through behind the scenes and how can those obstacles be overcome?

KW: The big challenges behind the scenes are systemic, and cultural. It’s not women versus men. It’s all of us, getting conscious on all our crap. Until we set the bars a lot higher for ourselves and one another, we will repeat old, familiar mistakes. Until we insist on honest assessments of who we repeatedly look to for leadership and vision, who is setting industry priorities and standards and how those benefit the same identifiable group over and over again, we’ll get the same shit-show.

Speaking up and speaking out cannot be a fad the media decides is over in a year or two. Supporting work that is made entirely contrary to any standard of diversity, parity and representation means you are paying the status quo to stay the status quo. The obstacles in any story are overcome by taking risks, collaboration, a strong sense of community, courage, re-evaluating power, and action. If we continue collectively to believe there is nothing at stake, nothing will change. This story needs stakes. Overcoming the obstacle is about behaving like you want to.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for women looking to get into writing for television or working in the industry, or is there a piece of advice you wish you knew when you were starting out as a young writer?

KW: Know yourself. Have standards, convictions, believe in something, speak passionately, write truthfully, prepare to work harder than you ever imagined you could, be mentally, emotionally and physically ready for that. Take care of yourself. That junk-food-deadline-diet won’t work when you’re at a desk pulling rabbits out of hats 24/7.
Work for people who are fair and care. And when, not if, you are treated differently because of how you identify, or are identified? Do not accept it, call it out, to the person doing it and the people in charge. Your confidence and self-esteem must remain intact and nourished, to be a professional writer. Don’t work with people who think disrespecting you is part of the job, it is not. It is a problem on the job. Change that. Lead by example. Be proud of yourself and support the women around you.

 

Thoughts? Add them in the comments section below!

Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.