Women Behind Canadian TV: Stephanie Morgenstern

Credit: Jan Thijs
Credit: Jan Thijs

Stephanie Morgenstern’s path to writing and directing Canadian television was not a typical one. Originally an actress with a long list of successful credits to her name, she turned heartbreak into success, and in the process co-created two of Canada’s most successful and critically acclaimed series. Along with her husband Mark Ellis, Morgenstern ran the SWAT team drama Flashpoint for five seasons, with the duo winning the Writers Guild of Canada Showrunner Award in 2013. More recently they are responsible for the CBC WWII spy drama X Company which will premiere its second season in early 2016.

Morgenstern recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series, which looks to shed some light on the continuing lack of gender diversity in many positions behind the scenes. She shared some of her experience in transitioning to behind the camera, how she looks to incorporate diversity when hiring for and running her shows, and what she sees as some of the biggest obstacles still to overcome before there can be gender equality behind the scenes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: You spent many years in front of the camera as an actress before going behind the scenes. Was that just a natural progression or was there another reason for you to make that change?

Stephanie Morgenstern: There was no master plan. I would not 10 years ago have imagined that I’d now be a full-time writing person and television person. I had foreseen since I was 12 that acting was my destiny and the transition actually only happened because my heart was broken. I started to write as a response to that and it was a purely therapeutic thing. It was ‘I’m experiencing a complete collapse in faith in both love and creativity and being an actor, and everything I thought I believed in has fallen apart around me.’ As you can see I was taking the drama very seriously at this time. That became the script for a short film. It was the first experience that I had where words that I chose mattered and the specifics of what I felt–my loss, my suffering, my own personal experience of something that is such a cliché and so widespread–which is heartbreak. It was, as a lot of first films are, very self absorbed but it taught me enormously.

One of the things it taught is you can have a thought, and follow up, and gather people by your side and around you that give it shape, and give it a voice and make it something you can share. It made me believe that I could redefine what I thought I was just by doing it. It was probably the most empowering heartbreak I’ve ever had. That’s what it was, it really wasn’t ‘It’s time for me to redirect my time attention away from acting.’ I never expected to step away from acting, that’s always what I believed I was. It was a way of using different sides of myself that I didn’t have an outlet for before, including the side that likes to get things going and get things organized.

TTVJ: What were some of the big challenges then in moving behind the scenes and learning those roles?

SM: I think anyone who is trying to redefine themselves is going to pass through a stage–it can be a long one or a short one–of feeling like a complete fraud and feeling like an imposter. ‘Who are you to say Action?’ The first time I said ‘Action’ I blushed. Who am I to say ‘Cut?’ Who am I to say we need one more? There’s a level of authority you always assume is naturally other people’s and not yours–especially as an actor. Your whole profession is waiting for permission to perform. You so rarely get to say ‘Today I’m going to act.’ You don’t get to do that. So just adjusting to the notion that you’re the one who gets to make a decision or share decision making.

It’s adjusting to the fact that you are not fundamentally different from anyone else that had to start somewhere. No one was born knowing how to say ‘Action’ and feel like they deserved to say ‘Action’ or to say ‘This is a new idea. I want to create a show.’ No one but you can say the things you want to say. If what you were writing comes from something personal–which I think everything I’ve worked on does at some level–if the starting point of a project is something very specific to you, that only you can provide, then you are entitled to lead it.

Credit: Jan Thijs
Credit: Jan Thijs

TTVJ: Now your husband was also an actor, did he have similar feelings or is that something you think you felt more as a woman?

SM: I don’t spend every day wrestling with my secret identity as a fraud, but I think he’s as aware as I am that being a showrunner is a role you play. If it’s a role that you’re performing well then your show flourishes and people bring their best work to it. If it’s a role that you play poorly then you drop the ball and it’s very, very easy to fail. It’s funny because I’ve never thought of it along gender lines between the two of us. It doesn’t feel as much going against the stream for a man to stand up and say ‘OK, let’s get this meeting started.’ Culturally it doesn’t feel as odd and he probably didn’t blush the first time he did that.

TTVJ: Since you have always been co-showrunners has there ever been any difference in the way he’s treated versus the way you’re treated?

SM: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s partly because we really work as a 50/50 unit. We will attend pretty much all the same meetings. I think we quite deliberately play this role as a pair so that when an idea comes, it comes from the pair of us. If something needs to be changed or discarded or shot down it comes from the pair of us. There may have been people out there who saw him as my credibility factor, but I’ll never know. In meetings, pitches, public speaking, even in business emails where we always jointly sign as “M&S”, we have always played roles of equal status.

TTVJ: How does diversity factor into your hiring practices, whether it’s filling out the writers’ room or hiring directors and other positions?

SM: It’s something that is on our minds each season. The same applies to casting as well, but to look at our cast that’s not the most obvious thing that comes to mind. To some extent in casting the five leads we are dealing with a historical situation where the people who would have been recruited and sent to blend into the white European society can’t really be as diverse as we would like and still get away with that job. It might be different if they were soldiers, but in the case of spies who have to blend in and be invisible it’s a different thing.

It’s a complicated alchemy of who makes the best room together. We always look for a diversity of perspectives and of experiences. We don’t line people up according to categories of ‘We really should make sure we have this represented and this represented.’ We just look at the page and we read. We love having as many female voices as possible because it enriches the stories and it enriches the areas of interest.

TTVJ: You’re not hiring female writers though to come in and specifically write those voices.

SM: We don’t set out with a quota, it just in a very basic and fundamental way feels wrong if there aren’t a lot of females in the company. It just makes no sense. As a creative person, it’s a no-brainer to me that the ideal writing room has a balance between men and women. As an employer–that’s a hat that’s still pretty new to me–I’m seeing this isn’t so simple. The reality that keeps colliding with the ideal is that the available talent pool is rarely a 50-50 split. Same goes for lots of behind the scenes jobs as well, like directing. So what do you do when about five times more résumés or scripts come from men than from women?

As a showrunner looking for a writing team, I try to treat all scripts equally, to let the words on the page speak for themselves. I also hope to push against the weight of the discouraging statistics. In the case of X Company, it’s not easy to integrate female interns or newcomers into the writing room when most of our work happens in Budapest. But in the early stages of the development of the show, while we were still in Canada, we did have a rotating ‘diversity’ spot where we were able to invite a number of emerging writers to join us for a while. We enjoyed what they brought to the table, and we hope that this experience was valuable for them too as they took the next steps in their careers. That’s on the writer front–in directors, we were really excited this season to bring on Amanda Tapping as director for two episodes. Her work was brilliant and as a former actor herself she had a special bond with the actors.  

Credit: Jan Thijs
Credit: Jan Thijs

TTVJ: What are some of the biggest obstacles to overcome to get to equal representation behind the scenes and what can be done to get there?

SM: What we’re all up against in every area–whether it’s writing, directing or other areas where traditionally it’s been driven by males–is that it’s hard to get experience without experience. A leap of faith whether it’s for a newcomer who’s male or female are always required, and leaps of faith may be harder for some showrunners to take.

It’s been making me wonder, what if the unbalanced talent pool is just the result of young women preferring other kinds of career in the first place? If it is, where’s the injustice? Why are we more indignant about this than about the drastic gender imbalance in taxi driving or Arctic fishing? And that got me thinking about the feedback loop between what we are, and what we do, and what we imagine, back to what we are. When you’re working anywhere on the conveyor belt that cranks out culture–whether it’s pop or highbrow–you’re building the environment people learn identities from. I keep thinking of that female cop I met, who knew what she wanted to be, as a kid, as soon as she saw Charlie’s Angels. We need to work in culture to get the word out about what we can be, that we’re not yet… because until we do, someone else is speaking for us.

Even just in a microcosm, this happened to my daughter who is 14 and just started high school. They had a day where all of the clubs set up their tables. There was a film club and she went straight to that table and said ‘What are you guys doing?’ It sounded super exciting and ambitious. I was right there beside her so I said ‘What are you guys looking for? Writers, camera operators, editors?’ They said ‘Yeah, yeah, all that’s great,’ and they looked at Lucy and they said ‘Oh and you know, makeup too.’ Lucy has been on film sets since she was about 11. She has been paid to act in professional television. She has edited about 75 short films of her own with her female friends, but they looked at her and said ‘Oh yea, makeup too!’ We both kind of bit our tongues and I suppressed the urge to say ‘How about sandwiches? Maybe she can make you guys sandwiches while you get on with your boy ideas.’

So it’s a bit of a struggle because Wednesday afternoons she goes to film club, she has dragged two more females into it with her who are super excited and ambitious and very experienced with cameras and digital photography, but they are still talking about ‘OK, so we’ll do this film and it’s about this guy. He talks to his friend, and he’s friends with this guy. And it’s a world of guys.’ So at one point she said ‘Well maybe I don’t need to be in film club,’ and I thought ‘Damn! This is a boys’ club incarnate.’ It’s discouraging because we’re not talking about ‘So this girl does this and she talks to her friend who’s this girl.’ So I said ‘Please don’t leave. Stick around and support their film and bring your idea in next time. Just casually assume their support will be there for your idea as well and see what happens.’ This is very much a microcosm of the bigger picture. It’s not because they are sexist in any explicit way. It just doesn’t occur to them.

TTVJ: What advice then do you have for young women trying to break into the business behind the scenes, specifically young screenwriters?

SM: Nothing earth-shattering, just if you write something really truthful, intimate and personal, you’re less likely to get replaced by a more experienced person when your project goes forward. Mentored maybe, which is great, but not replaced. If your story’s not intimate and personal, but if you’ve done insane and passionate amounts of research to get a story into a script, you can get the same result when you’re green-lit: you’ve arranged to be the expert, the insider. This makes you much less replaceable.

In the big picture: You already are the complex, conflicted, fiercely driven protagonist of the life story (including career) you’re engaged in. Claim your agency. Provoke your own inciting incidents. Raise your own stakes. Throw in your own plot twist.


Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

X Company returns for Season 2 to CBC in early 2016.