Women Behind Canadian TV: Noelle Carbone

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While still early on, it’s safe to say that writer Noelle Carbone is having a pretty great start to 2019. She’s busy working to help develop Season 4 of fan favourite supernatural western Wynonna Earp, while episodes she wrote for both Coroner and the latest season of Cardinal are currently airing. A veteran of shows such as Rookie Blue and Saving Hope, Carbone has been a part of some of Canadian TV’s most successful and beloved series of the past several years.

She recently joined our Women Behind Canadian TV series to share what she’s learned from working with some of Canada’s most prominent showrunners, as well as how they’ve each made her a better writer. Carbone has also worked on many shows that are actively trying to diversify TV and avoid harmful tropes. An advocate her entire career for diversity, most prominently in regards to LGBTQ representation, she shares the areas where work still needs to be done and what she sees as some of the biggest challenges the industry still faces.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Tell us a little bit about your background. Did you always want to write for television?

Noelle Carbone: I’m not sure anyone growing up in Windsor, Ontario knows that writing for television is an actual job a person can have. Certainly not when I was growing up. When I was a kid I was good at two things: sports and writing. And it’s easier to tell if a kid is good at sports than it is to tell if a kid is good at writing – and way easier to help them pursue their athletic talents than their creative ones. And that’s something that I’d love to change. I’m sure there are absolutely brilliant kids in blue collar or rural towns all across this country who never get to pursue their creative calling because they just don’t know how to get started. And their parents can’t help them because they don’t have the resources or access to programs to help nurture their children’s passions. If anyone has any ideas or inside scoop on how we can change that, please DM me.

BTS on Coroner
BTS on Coroner

TTVJ: Over the course of your career you’ve worked under some very prominent women like Tassie Cameron, Morwyn Brebner and Emily Andras (just to name a few). How did  they help shape your career and what were some of the most important effects working with them had on your career?

NC: I consider myself profoundly lucky to have learned under three of the best writers in the business, let alone three of the best showrunners in the country. I could write a book about how inspiring and brilliant and nurturing these women are and I know with complete conviction that I would be a shell of the writer I am if not for their guidance and support. Here are the most important lessons I learned from each of them:

Tassie has no ego when it comes to her writers. So if you pitch her something and it’s confusing or doesn’t work, she’ll assume that she’s misunderstood the pitch. She always gives her writers the benefit of the doubt that they’re right and she’s wrong. I remember there were times when, as a junior writer, I’d be hearing a pitch and thinking, “That’s totally dumb.” But Tassie would make the writer explain why they made the choices they made with a particular story, and what would emerge was that the idea was good – that the story itself was worth telling – it was just the execution that was wonky. So instead of throwing out the story (and making the writer feel like shit), we’d all work together to help the writer tell the story in a clearer way. That may not sound like a big thing, but it’s HUGE. And it’s a great lesson for a young writer to learn because when you’re new ALL your ideas are overly complicated and your plotting is jacked. Her patience and nurturing created a safe room for us youngins’ to try and fail and learn and thrive.

Morwyn is a champion of unique writers with unique voices and visions. So you never have to worry about pitching her something that’s too bizarre. She leans in to the weird, as long as it’s grounded in something true. Working for Morwyn taught me to stop censoring myself and stop worrying about the possibility that some producer or network executive was going to read something that I wrote and say “that’ll never work on network TV.” Morwyn doesn’t believe in “that’ll never work” so she fights like hell to preserve the wacky and wonderful impulses her writers have and to get those unique story beats and characters on the air.

From Emily I learned the joy that comes from writing fucked up, complicated, and unapologetically badass female characters. She taught me to leave all of that “honourable woman” bs at the door and write women that are real – even if that means they’re sometimes “unlikeable,” Which is a word I think should be banned from the lexicon. That’s really liberating for someone like me who comes from a network TV background. The other thing with Emily is that her writing is so charming and funny that I figured out pretty quickly if a scene wasn’t making me laugh (or cry) while I was writing it, it wasn’t going to be good enough to stand next to her writing. So I really had to push myself to keep up with her, which was a really fun challenge.

The other thing is Morwyn, Emily and Tassie are all moms so they run very family-friendly rooms. They understand if you have to take time off to parent a sick kid or go to a school concert. They work you hard but they don’t keep you late or hold the room hostage. And that’s a blessing in an industry where many people struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

TTVJ: Shows like Wynonna Earp and Coroner are actively working to increase the diversity of characters on screen and avoid harmful tropes. How do you as a writer take that responsibility on and incorporate it into your work?

NC: I’m always looking for ways to tell more inclusive stories so that members of marginalized communities can see themselves represented. I know how important that was for me when I was younger – and how little positive queer representation I saw on TV before Buffy showed up. I think what all senior writers and creators need to do – and some of them are doing this – is look around and see who’s not being properly represented on screen. Then we need to find writers who can tell those stories authentically and try and help them get their foot in the door.

I’ve been inspired by women like Sherry White and Morwyn Brebner and Adrienne Mitchell who are always looking to elevate diverse and underrepresented writers and directors. This past year on Coroner – which was hands down the most diverse story room I’ve ever worked in – I had the pleasure of working with a female director for only the second time in my 10+ year career. Working with Winnie Jong was the first time I’d ever worked with a female director of colour. Actually, it was the first time I worked on a show that had a WOC director at all, and it was incredibly rewarding. I was thrilled with how the episode turned out. So there’s still a lot of work to be done elevating writers of colour, queer writers, and writers with disabilities. But there are a lot of people out there invested in doing that work.

BTS on Coroner with Seneca Aaron
BTS on Coroner with Seneca Aaron

TTVJ: The Wynonna Earp fandom is a very active and astute one. They seem to take note of all the work being done by people behind the scenes, as well as discussing on-screen developments, diversity and use of tropes. How does a fandom like that affect you as a writer and how do you keep from letting fans drive the story?

NC: Wynonna is a very special case because the way those fans have embraced the show and the people who make it… it’s jaw dropping. Even the New York Times wrote a feature about this fandom. Working on a show with this kind of support is definitely intimidating, but the upside is the fans are very vocal about what they like and don’t like. Your job as a writer is to use that feedback smartly and not be totally reactive. We’re not making fanfic here, or letting the fans choose their own adventure. But we do have to give them what they want to a certain extent. Especially when these fans are devoting huge chunks of their day-to-day lives using their own social media platforms to promote the show and winning us a People’s Choice Award.

TTVJ: Wynonna Earp was your first time writing for genre TV. What do you like about genre writing versus some of the more traditional procedural shows you’ve written on? Does it allow you more freedom as a writer?

NC: For me the main difference between writing for genre and writing for network is what you’re allowed to do with your female characters. On the network shows I’ve worked on, the women had to be beyond reproach. They weren’t allowed to be messy or petty or bitchy or sex-positive. They had to be noble and chaste, and the ones that were moms had to be thinking of their children at all times, otherwise the audience would react negatively toward them. Interestingly enough, it was the female audience who was the most judgmental of the female characters. Did I say “interestingly”? I meant “depressingly”. [laughs] So yes, I do think working in genre does offer you more freedom as a writer.

TTVJ: Coroner also seems to be very female-driven and unlike standard procedurals. What can you share about it and what drew you to that project?

NC: Firstly, I’d work on anything Morwyn asked me to. She’s a wonderful boss and a wonderful person and her instincts are often completely contrary to my own so it’s really fun collaborating with her. But I also really responded to the Coroner pilot when I read it. It was that thing I just mentioned: the rare example of a network series with an unabashedly messy and complex female lead. Plus it wasn’t a straightforward procedural. Jenny’s relationship with her son – and later, with her father – is just as integral to the series as her job as coroner. It was clear that Morwyn and Adrienne were making something different and that excited me.

TTVJ: You were also a part of the new season of Cardinal that airs this winter. Can you share a little about your experience working on that show?

NC: Patrick Tarr, who was the showrunner of Season 3, is another person I’d work with at the drop of a hat. We worked together on Saving Hope and shared an office for 2 years and the only thing we ever disagreed on was my penchant for smelly candles.

Cardinal was a really interesting challenge because it’s way darker than anything I’d ever worked on, or thought I’d work on. But they sent me a sneak peak of Season 1 and I absolutely fell in love with the characters and the tone and was so struck by what Aubrey had written. The biggest challenge was that I’d never worked on a show that spent so much time in the bad guys’ point of view. And in order to do that successfully you have to make your criminals as compelling as your heroes. And that part was really fun. Finding the humanity in these characters and giving them primal, universal motivations to do the wicked things they did. That part was awesome.

Caitlin D. Fryers and Noelle Carbone at EH Con Canada (credit: Lynn Rachels)
Caitlin D. Fryers and Noelle Carbone at EH Con Canada (credit: Lynn Rachels)

TTVJ: You’ve been outspoken over the course of your career about LGBTQ representation on screen. While studies such as GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report shows improvement and that the percentage of LGBTQ characters is higher than ever, what do you feel still needs to be done in that area?

NC: These days if you create a series with an ensemble cast, it’s kind of expected that at least one of the characters is going to be LGBTQ. And that’s good progress – as long as it’s not token representation. But we still need to work on representing the B and especially the T parts of LGBTQ. And getting queer characters of colour on screen. That’s a huge deal. Basically it’s time for us writers and creators to stop thinking that LGBTQ means just white lesbians and white gay men. People have told me that a network audience isn’t ready for trans characters or black bisexual men, or gender queer butch women. But how will we know if we don’t put them on screen? And further to that, isn’t it our job to show audiences something they’ve never seen before – and to show them that we’re all living the same universal human experience regardless of sexuality or gender identity? I think we need to break out of our comfort zones a little. It can’t all be up to Ryan Murphy and Shonda and Jenji and Jill Soloway to change the world.

TTVJ: I know you’re actively involved in mentoring young writers and working to increase diversity in many writing rooms. What initiatives or positive steps do you see being taken that are most effective and what are the biggest challenges that still exist?

NC: The biggest challenge is that there’s less money all around. Networks are ordering fewer episodes, which means story rooms are getting smaller. When we were doing Rookie Blue and Saving Hope we were doing 13, 18, sometimes 22 episodes a season so we had to have big rooms to get all the work done. That gave us the ability to carry 3 or 4 junior writers along with a writer’s assistant (who was also being mentored) and a coordinator who was usually given half a script to write. But now networks are sometimes only ordering 6 or 8 episodes and that means rooms have to be much smaller. And the first jobs to get axed are those mentorship jobs for emerging writers.

That being said, one positive trend that I’ve seen is that showrunners and producers are actively seeking out new diverse talent. It used to be you’d put a room together by hiring your most talented friends and then a couple of new people based on the recommendations of those friends, or the friends of friends. Which meant you were only ever hiring people from a very specific talent pool or friend circle. But I’ve seen great strides being made to hire new, diverse writers even if they’re virtually unknown. Showrunners are taking more chances with their hiring because they realize how important it is to have diverse voices in the room and that it’s now unacceptable to have a room of straight white men.

TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with those looking to get into writing for TV or other behind the scenes positions?

NC: Legitimize your quest. Go to school. Go to conferences. Apply for mentorship awards. If you actively pursue your passions, you’re more likely to find people who are willing to help you get your foot in the door. And once you’re doing everything in your own power to advance your career, then (and only then!) don’t be afraid to reach out to people who do the job you want to do, especially if they work on the shows you truly love. As writers, a lot of our week is spent collecting criticism. We get notes from producers, other writers, directors, and studio and network executives. So it’s nice to get feedback from people who genuinely love what you’re doing. “Hey, I love your show!” (if you mean it) is a great ice breaker. But keep in mind not everyone has the time and ability to respond to an email or a DM, or to meet you in person. But there’s always a chance that one person will be able to spare 10-15 minutes of their time to answer some questions. And if they feel like you’re out there hustling, and trying to get better on your own, then they might be inclined to help you out if they can – or to point you in the right direction.

 

Share your thoughts on Carbone’s experience below.

Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC. Cardinal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on CTV. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.