Working in the television industry isn’t all glitz and glamour. For those working behind the scenes in the trenches, life on set can be quite unglamourous, with many long days that are sometimes spent debating the most minute details that go unnoticed by viewers. It’s a lot of hard work, with a lot of sweat put in that isn’t always recognized by those consuming the final product. However, that’s totally fine with first assistant director Sorcha Vasey, a veteran of the Canadian TV industry, having worked on shows like Lost Girl, Bomb Girls and Flashpoint, and who just wrapped Season 2 of CBC’s ANNE.
Vasey originally set on a career in journalism in her native South Africa, but through twists and turns found herself working in the Canadian TV industry. She recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to share more about that journey. Vasey talked to us about her role as 1st AD on shows such as Killjoys Season 3, Workin’ Moms Season 2 and X Company Season 2 and 3. In that role, Vasey is responsible for orchestrating the crew behind the scenes, keeping things moving along on set and making sure everyone sticks to the schedule for the day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you got into TV? Did you always want to work behind the camera?
Sorcha Vassey: It’s really convoluted. I think most people, especially women in positions of power in film, have had to have that dream, as well as a drive, from an early age to get into a position of power in such a male-centric industry. For me, it was kind of weird because I grew up in tiny mining towns and god-forsaken deserts around the world. I had no idea the film industry was even a job, but I did know we had was movies. I’ve seen every karate movie or western ever made. For me, movies weren’t real. They were just something we did for entertainment and made up stuff.
I started off though as a journalist in the early 90s in South Africa. Not only was it gender swayed in terms of male, but color swayed in terms of story. If I was doing a story that they thought was OK for a young, white woman journalist to go off and do — probably interviewing small business owners in township — and then a war would break out, or I’d get a picture of someone being necklaced, I’d call the head office and say ‘The taxi war is back on. Here’s my story. Put me over to a copy editor.’ We had a three edition paper, and by the next day the black journalist on staff would have the story because they felt like it was too dangerous to have me follow it.
I did a year of working on the newspaper in Cape Town. Then I got invited by the Taiwanese government to Taiwan for six weeks to be entertained and fed, so I’d go back and write generous stories about Taiwan. By the time I returned to Cape Town, the country was completely burning and the Mandela deal hadn’t been struck yet, so everyone was reticent about hiring, especially in newspaper, television and radio. They were terrified of where everything was going.
That was the early 90s in Cape Town, and it had become Europe’s winter darling to film commercials, and money was no option. Every single friend I had worked in the commercial industry, so I got into doing those because everyone kept telling me I’d love the film industry. My first job was a Bible movie and the very first day was Jesus overthrowing people in the temple. We had a lot of foreign money and like 3,0000 people. Immediately on day one, I was completely seduced. I was supposed to be the third AD, and started thinking what was going to happen in the crowd that would clue people into it being fake — things like watches, glasses or contemporary jewelry. I pulled out my binoculars and started scanning the crowd, dividing it into quadrants and started shouting out names of people wearing those things. The director came over and said ‘who are you and what are you doing?’ I told him ‘it’s my first day and I’m in charge of the crowd.’ The next moment I knew I was his assistant. [laughs] I literally never looked back. I loved journalism when I did it, but I loved film more.
TTVJ: How does one start in South Africa and then end up in Canada?
SV: In the mid-90s my friends in film said ‘OK Sorcha, you’ve been on the floor about six years non-stop.’ I never took a break and just always worked. It was work all week and show the clients a good time on the weekends. A real non-stop whirlwind of mayhem. So they made me take a break, and I took one last job on a Canadian production where I was casting the background and bit parts. I met the first AD and we immediately hit it off. He said ‘you have got to work for me,’ and I told him I had been forbidden by my friends. We became incredibly good friends, and within six months of him leaving he called and said he was doing a show called Traders and wanted me to be his second AD.
However, in order to work, he said I had to talk to the producers on the phone and if all goes well I had to be there in 2 weeks. I told him that’s impossible because I was going on a surf vacation. The next 10 days I played phone tag with a sack of coins on the side of a road by the beach trying to connect with this producer. It was probably the worst thing ever. Luckily, the 1st AD had said he wanted me so I don’t think it all mattered that much.
Cut to me coming over and arriving in Canada with almost no money. That was Traders Season 4 and at the end of the season, the AD who brought me over had made the switch to directing. I thought it was a great experience, but didn’t know anyone in Canada so was ready to head back to South Africa. I went back, and then because I had been away for so long decided to do a bush trip. That meant jumping into my Dad’s land cruiser and heading into the bush for two months where I didn’t contact anyone. There was a message left for me saying they were having a Season 5 and that they’d like me to come back. I was amazed and confused, and said ‘I’d love it!’ They said I had to be back in six weeks and went again! Life then took over in Canada and I just never went back. It was never a plan, but I suddenly woke up 20 years later and have realized I spent more time here than the place I still call home.
I’ve always said that I work to surf. So I work really hard, do a couple jobs and then take off for 3-4 months to refresh my brain. My drive isn’t as huge as some others that reach positions of power, but I do love what I do. I do what is necessary and if it means jumping into a frozen sea, then I’ll jump into a frozen sea. I didn’t grow up in a unionized workplace. I grew up in a place where it was more about telling stories in difficult decisions, and that I still have inside me. My drive comes and goes, and at the moment I’m mad keen to do some directing.
TTVJ: Personally, I’d like to just go have a beer with you to hear some of these amazing stories! [laughs]
SV: We’ve got some good stories and one thing about being in the trenches is that you don’t get better stories. I’ve sat around a lot of campfires and film stories always take the cake! We’re really fortunate because it’s almost like being paid to have adventures.
TTVJ: I’m not sure a lot of people know what a 1st AD does. Can you explain what your responsibilities on a show are and what a typical day on set is like?
SV: A day on set comes to be because someone has decided you’re doing these five or 10 scenes. Right at the beginning I get the script we’re going to shoot and the producers tell me ‘you’ve got 10 days.’ I input that into the computer and try to group scenes by like locations. The continuity of the story is now all jumbled up, and it’s all about efficiency of how you shoot something so you don’t go to the kitchen 17 different times. You go once, light it, shoot it and hopefully that’s it.
Then we have to decide how many scenes can we handle? At the beginning I relied more on the director, but now I’ve realized they rely more on me now that I am experienced. Because of journalism, I can absorb and process things really quickly, and the director may have only read the script once or twice and more is absorbing it as overall tonal story, not at all as broken up chunks. So I’ll say ‘the kitchen scene where they make a cake,’ and they may not know because they are thinking ‘oh that scene where she says I love you but doesn’t mean it.’ They’ve completely glossed over the fact they are baking a cake at the same, whereas I’m not caring what the tone is going to be, but worried how long it’s going to take because we’re baking the cake and it falls to the floor. There may be only three lines of dialogue, but I’ll say that’s two hours. You might have only three shots, but you have to stop and clean up cake off the floor and do it again which takes time. So the director and I go back and forth and commit to a schedule.
Then you get to the floor and I’m the person that says ‘OK, this is all the things we are going to do today, and we’re going to get them all done in a timely fashion.’ We’ve had meetings with all departments beforehand going through things like the color of the cake, whether there are eggs broken in a bowl, or egg shells on the table, and then down to talking to hair and makeup about if there will be flour on their hands or hair. You take every scene and break it down to bare detail. That information all gets collated into the call sheet so everyone knows what they are required to bring to the table for the scene, and then not forgetting we promised ourselves we’d do it in two hours.
So without being a completely crazed person, I have to move everything along, as well as now that this is the first time the actors and directors have their first moment with the script, so they need time to find their tone and how they are going to play it. Is it a mistake that we dropped the cake? Or is it a purposeful drop of the cake? That’s all happening on the day while the time is ticking, the sun is setting, the child is running out of their allocated hours, or the donkey that needs to be in the next scene has colic, so it’s OK if you go over because we’re trying to find a new donkey. It’s about keeping ducks in a row and everyone marching to the same beat, as well as not losing sight of the fact that you’re telling a story, so there needs to be a little leeway for creative juices to flow. That’s where you get lucky if you’re on a good show where the actors know exactly who they are and where they are coming from.
TTVJ: Directors come and go throughout a season, but the AD is there for the entire run of the season. What is that like trying to work with different directors and how does having you there for the entire run benefit the process?
SV: In prep, I’ll often give the new director insights into things they could never know, even if they watched every episode ever made. So things like ‘Matthew would never sit in that chair,’ that aren’t written anywhere but just part of the bible of truth we create as we make the show. I also think, again going back to the journalism thing, that I’m good at getting the important facts in a very short period of time and then being able to lock them in my mind. Another example is ‘here’s an angle no one has ever shot.’ So you’re the keeper of truth, but also able to show them things that will make them different within the boundaries of being the same.
TTVJ: There’s a lot of discussion about the lack of women at the directing position, but what about as ADs. Do you find there’s still not a lot of women doing that job? Honestly, from hearing a lot of your responsibilities, it almost seems like one we’d not traditionally think of women doing since you’re giving lots of orders.
SV: It is kind of amazing how many responsibilities ADs have, but we are the least feted department. People will say ‘Camera was amazing! Hair and makeup was fantastic!’ I spend all my time keeping things chugging along, thinking ahead and I call it the entertainment coordinator. I have to make sure if we’re having a party that all the pieces are there, but it’s a very thankless job. Your achievements are only in the moment and aren’t long lasting. They are invisible things. I think that’s also got to do with ego. You have to have a strong sense of self, but a very deflated sense of ego. I know when I’ve had a good day. No one else does. [laughs]
TTVJ: It’s funny because when you were describing your responsibilities it made me think a lot of what I feel as a mother. I have all these thankless responsibilities, like making schedules or ensuring people are where they need to be at a certain time, but you get no credit, even though if you dropped the ball it’d be detrimental.
SV: It’s exactly the same! Expected but really not thought about. It’d be like if the mother dropped the baby and then everyone would stop and it’d be taken note of. A bad schedule could just ruin things. When film was film, directors were the general and their voice was God. Now with things being digital you never have to cut, or the actors can just reset themselves from the top. It’s more of a free-for-all and how I imagine student filmmaking would be. It’s more collaborative and loose.
TTVJ: In discussing that hierarchy, you’ve worked on several shows that have female showrunners — X Company, Anne, Killjoys. What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed when working on shows led by women?
SV: I am a little bit lucky in that I’ve been fortunate enough to choose jobs based on content. I did work with Stephanie Morgenstern on Flashpoint, but she and Mark [Ellis] are a real partnership and that’s a great thing about working with them. It’s so genderfluid on their sets, and you’re not forced to think about the gender because they are both represented. I love Michelle [Lovretta] and Karen [Troubetzkoy] on Killjoys and working with them.
Let’s be honest, I’ve worked with some absolutely horrific women, and I’ve worked with some absolutely horrible men. Then the reverse is true of both as well. It’s that weird thing where I grew up in Botswana, where as a white person I was in the minority. The words “minority” and “majority” were really difficult for me to understand as a child because the meaning was explained, but I lived the opposite. Botswana is an African country, so how can all the people be called a minority? How can I, as the only white person in my boarding school, be the majority? It didn’t make any sense.
It’s kind of the same for me in film. I’ve always only been the only woman in the van in prep, but because I have slight confusion there I never really noticed it. In a way I was well-suited for the job. I’m incredibly short as well, and I did not realize I was the shortest person in the world.
TTVJ: Is that changing? Are there more women now in the van with you?
SV: Yes! Yes! That is changing, but only about in the last year. 2017 is basically the first time I’ve been driving around with a woman writer, woman director and woman production designer. Needless to say, that was on Workin’ Moms with Catherine Reitman who is incredibly female-centric. On Killjoys I also had women directors, writers and that was the other show I had this year. I’m now on ANNE and they have female writers, some female directors and a location manager. Women have always hid in the AD and locations department because both jobs are ones that need multi-taskers. Women rose to the top of those departments more easily because of the demands.
TTVJ: What advice do you have for other young women looking to break into the industry and work in these behind the scenes positions?
SV: Nowadays you can do anything you’re interested in. There’s a real void in the technical departments like grips, electrics and sound. Those departments are almost completely void of women. It’s good to have women on set. You feel the lack of that energy when it’s not. In prep I’m so used to being the “man alone” in the van and so used to it that I don’t see it. Now though the tone of the van has changed completely. The sexist jokes was par for the course and I’d always hear “Oh Sorcha, sorry!” Now the conversation is far more different. Men are more quiet now. It is quite different.
In terms of women getting ahead, we could say the same for diversity because for such a diverse city that Toronto is, we are very white in our crews. It’s supposed to be a cool, free band of gypsies. but very much entrenched in the white man mode, even more so than other industries that have been forced to diversify in terms of gender and race. We haven’t and our industry is seen as so free-thinking and free-spirited, but we’re not. We’re a band of misfits that could go nowhere else and unfortunately, have held onto some archaic, white patriarchal ideals. If you’re a young girl of any color I think that anyone in their right mind would be looking to hire.
TTVJ: I know you’re in the middle of filming the next season of ANNE right now, but what’s next for you? You mentioned you may be interested in directing?
SV: I’m in a nice position where I feel confident enough in my own job that I now dare to dream bigger. I never studied in film and never had the idea that I could do anything, and I’ve worked my way up and in every department. So I never studied it believing that I could do it the way I did with journalism. I was always in far more awe and in reverence of the people in those positions.
Now I’ve been around many years and see how important it is for crews to help make directors look good. Crews don’t let directors mess up episodes. The scales are off my eyes and I started thinking I actually do have a lot of knowledge. Saying that, I still love my job very much, and I work with very good directors who know that I’m good. Things like them saying ‘you make me a better director,’ is enough for me. I know I’ve done a good job that day. I think I missed the ego part, but going back to journalism, I like the idea of telling good stories. I think that’s what good directors do is tell good stories. People always say ‘just go out and do it!’ So maybe it is as easy as that and you never know the next time we speak. [laughs]
Thoughts on Vasey’s journey from South Africa to Canada? Add them below!
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.