Treating others with kindness and respect can go a long way, even when you’re the one that’s supposed to be telling everyone else what to do. That’s a key lesson director Molly McGlynn has learned over the years working on a variety of projects ranging from short films, feature films, television and digital series in both Canada and the U.S. A typical day on set can be very long and very tiring, so McGlynn places a high level of importance on creating a safe and welcoming environment that uses positivity to encourage creativity.
After beginning her career as a writer, McGlynn soon found herself directing projects, including her first feature film Mary Goes Round, starring Aya Cash. Soon after finding success with that movie, McGlynn moved into directing well known Canadian TV series such as Workin’ Moms, Little Dog and Bad Blood. She also directed the CBC digital series How to Buy A Baby, recently an International Emmy nominee for Short-Form Series.
McGlynn spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to discuss her experience directing episodic television. Not only has she directed on several different Canadian shows, but when we spoke, McGlynn had just completed directing an episode of ABC’s Speechless, which aired January 18. She discussed the differences she’s noticed between directing in the U.S. and Canada, as well as how she got that very important first opportunity at directing for TV.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Were you always interested in directing? How did you get into it?
Molly McGlynn: Directing didn’t occur to me until a little bit later in life. As a kid, I knew I was drawn to the arts and I really loved art history. I got my degree at Queen’s University in Kingston and majored in film, but minored in art history. There was even a point where I got in to do a master’s in museum studies in Dublin and was going to move there, but I ended up staying in Toronto doing postgrad at Humber College for writing and producing for television. That certainly helped me think about directing a little bit more.
But it was really making my first short film, I’m Not a Weird Person, with one of my best friends Marni Van Dyk who wrote, produced and starred in it. She really gave me my first push by saying ‘If you want to direct then you have to direct. This is what we’re going to do!’ To this day, I still attribute it all to her and putting a date on the calendar saying ‘this is when we’re going to shoot.’
From there things started to open up, even though I started off primarily as a writer. I wrote a bunch of shorts and a feature film called Mary Goes Round that I directed. During that time I started getting TV work for hire, so it’s been like a happy accident, which sounds like a really asshole thing to say considering how many people want to direct and only direct. I feel like a bit of a jerk for saying that, but it’s like writing was my old love and directing is the new shiny thing. It’s a bit of a balancing the two.
TTVJ: In addition to your TV work, you mentioned how directed some short films and then a full length feature. How is directing for TV different and do you have any preference?
MM: They are totally different. In film, the director is generally the head of the totem pole creatively, and on TV you aren’t. I don’t necessarily view that as a downside, because it poses a unique set of challenges to direct a showrunner’s vision of a show that you’re just coming in on. I say to people that if you don’t like the feeling of being the new kid in senior year of high school, and it’s the last day of school, then TV directing isn’t for you. You have to have the ability to walk into a room of people, who don’t really need a new person there, and not only do you have to convince them to like you, but also to trust you and steer in the direction you’re heading them.
There’s a misconception that directing is pointing fingers and shouting things, but someone recently asked what I learned by doing this work for a little while, and honestly, I’ve learned that I started to listen more as a director, and that it’s made me infinitely better. If you can really listen to the showrunner, the producer, or whatever the structure is, then I think it’s more in your favor and you’re going to execute something they are happier with. At the same time, it doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. I believe you are hired for a reason and there’s something they want you to bring. You’re the person to say ‘this is what you’re trying to get across, but what about this?’ Sometimes they’ll say ‘oh my god I love that!’ Other times it’s ‘that’s not really the look of our show,’ but most people are down to hear a suggestion. That’s what you’re there for.
TTVJ: Less shouting and more listening would help the world in a lot of ways right now. [laughs]
MM: Right? Absolutely! Plus, who said directing is a certain way? It’s different for every person, but I try to be empathetic and inspire confidence with positivity. I have gone into really scary situations that are tense and uncomfortable. I don’t like working in those sort of environments, therefore I want to create a space where people can enjoy coming to work. God knows we spend a lot of time there!
TTVJ: While things are getting better, and we’ve seen networks like CBC put a priority on hiring female directors, it’s still pretty hard to get that first break or foot in the door. How did you get your first chance directing for TV?
MM: Catherine Reitman. I’m so grateful for her giving me my first shot. At that point I hadn’t even done my feature, but she had seen a short of mine called 3-Way (Not Calling) and I think that helped me get the interview. I had a great interview with her, but ultimately, she took a risk on me. I think generally in Canada people want you to have done at least a feature before you’re getting TV jobs, and she gave me one and it went well. I’ll always be grateful for that because no one wants to be first in.
TTVJ: I’ve heard many stories like that with Catherine. She seems to look beyond resumes and is willing to take a risk on people and give them a shot.
MM: For her, it has to be a good personality fit too and someone who understands the tone of humor. With Workin’ Moms, she’s a creative force on that show and I think a big part of it is understanding that, for her.
TTVJ: What was behind your choice to direct a digital series like How to Buy a Baby?
MM: I did How to Buy a Baby because I absolutely loved Wendy Litner who wrote it and Lauren Corber, the producer. It was just one of those meetings that was love at first sight. I really didn’t think of that as strategic ‘now it’s time to do a digital series.’ That was just project specific and it ended up being very successful.
TTVJ: In working in Canadian TV, you often don’t have huge budgets. How does that affect your directing choices? Do you think in some ways it may have helped you?
MM: I just completed my first U.S. directing TV job last week and am just starting to get a point of comparison. There’s always going to be a budget, even if you’re Patty Jenkins and doing Wonder Woman. I am coming from an indie, micro budget space so I actually feel a lot of freedom in TV. I’m getting more experience directing with someone else’s money and resources. That being said, it comes with a tremendous pressure to execute, but in my experience the best creativity can come within parameters.
There’s also a lot to be said about producers too. Certain producers are creative, and when you all sit down and understand what you’re trying to execute, then there’s a way to make it happen. I actually find that guesswork and that puzzle kind of fun. I don’t actually know if someone gave me an infinite amount of money what I’d do because then you’d feel pressure to use it.
TTVJ: I’m curious, what other differences did you notice between U.S. and Canadian TV?
MM: There’s a little more people involved [in the U.S.]. There’s still a showrunner, an episode writer on set, but there’s a producer director which was my first experience working with that. They direct the bulk of episodes but aren’t the showrunner, yet are very integral to maintaining the look of the show. That person was a big influence on how I was approaching the work. To be honest, I treat everyone the same and you have to approach everyone you meet with respect and kindness. That’s something for me that doesn’t change country to country or project to project.
TTVJ: Can you discuss what show you directed?
MM: It was an episode of Speechless for ABC. I think it’s a gem and the people that love it really love it. It was intimidating and my first U.S. job, but it was great. Minnie Driver is so smart, and I found her very supportive of women on set. They have a great showrunner [Scott Silveri] and everyone could not have been nicer. I had to say ‘are you sure you guys aren’t Canadian?’
TTVJ: You wrote Mary Goes Round and I heard that you’re working on a second feature. Is writing something you enjoy and want to continue to explore?
MM: Yes, and as I’m going on, I am realizing how integral it is that I keep writing, which paradoxically becomes harder when you start working more as a director. I just started boarding my second feature, much to my terror, and I texted my friend Marni saying ‘I have writer’s amnesia.’ I went to a writers’ program and know this, but I think the terror kind of makes me black out a bit. [laughs] Ideally, one day I would love to showrun.
TTVJ: There’s been a lot of strides to work on diversity, what initiatives or steps do you think have been the most positive or are affecting the most change?
MM: Honestly, I just feel like we need to hire women. The end. Initiatives are great and what CBC did with their 50 per cent mandate is great, but anything else, unless it’s getting you an episode, I don’t know. Ultimately, someone is going to have to hire you. It’s so important to have women showrunners and producers because they will hire women. It’s not just plugging in directors. We need more parity everywhere.
Thoughts? Add your comments below!
Little Dog airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBC. 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.