Women Behind Canadian TV: Tassie Cameron

Photo courtesy of Tassie Cameron
Photo courtesy of Tassie Cameron

Those who are fortunate enough to earn success from working in the harsh business of television have a right to give back, says Rookie Blue creator Tassie Cameron. Having served as showrunner on the cop drama for six seasons, winning the WGC Showrunner Award in 2011, Cameron says that she not only sees it as her responsibility to mentor younger writers, but it’s something that she gets a lot of enjoyment from doing. A prime example of that is the recent announcement that her new production company, Cameron Pictures Inc., will be producing the new Global series Mary Kills People, coming in January 2017 from Tara Armstrong, winner of the 2015 Shaw Media Writer’s Apprentice Program.

A graduate herself of Canadian Film Centre (CFC), prior to creating Rookie Blue, Cameron wrote on shows such as Flashpoint and The Eleventh Hour. She is currently shopping her new project, 10 Days in the Valley starring Demi Moore, to networks. The show will feature Moore as Jane Sadler, an overworked writer and single mother, whose 5 year old daughter is taken from her bed in the middle of the night.

Cameron recently spoke to The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss the strategies she uses when filling out a writers’ room, as well as how those choices get reflected in the characters that come across on the screen. She also discusses her new ventures, and the benefits women can get from supporting one another.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: You’re at the point in your career where you are the one now putting together writing rooms, but what was the gender makeup of rooms you were in early on in your career?

Tassie Cameron: My first real job was on Degrassi and that was pretty equal, 50/50. I then went on to Tom Stone, a show for CBC that was set in Calgary. That was my one and only experience being the only woman in the room. It was a bunch of alpha male writers and me – and was run by Andrew Wreggitt, who was one of my first real mentors and to this day, remains a close friend of mine. I was definitely the token girl on that team. One of the main characters on that show was a woman from Toronto; it was a fish out of water story of her being out in Calgary and I think they wanted to replicate that experience by hiring a city girl from Toronto to come out and provide a female perspective on cowboys and Calgary and life out west. That was the only time I’ve ever been the only woman in a room. And I loved it. I loved the guys I worked with, and it was complete baptism by fire. But since then it has been much more equal, both in the rooms I’ve been in and the rooms I’ve run.

TTVJ: Your writers’ rooms, especially on Rookie Blue (where 74% of the episodes were written/co-written by women), tend to have more females than males. Is that a conscious effort on your part and what strategies do you use when filling out a room?

TC: I wouldn’t say it was conscious, in that we weren’t going for 75% or anything. Although I think those numbers are super-cool, and I’m proud of them. I think consciously I’m aware of the challenges that women face in this industry. So on that level, I’m always trying to find new female writers to work with, to mentor, to help get their careers off the ground. I think that’s reflected in the numbers on Rookie Blue. I’m conscious of it on that level; but I’ve never said ‘Oh the room needs to be 50/50,’ and never made those rules for myself.

That said, I’d be very surprised if I ever designed a room that didn’t have a couple of women in it. That just seems completely unlikely to me, partly because so many of the writers that I love working with are female, and so often I’m working on shows that have complicated, strong female characters in them. So of course you want to be staffing your room with strong, complicated female writers. But I’ve never made a rule of it.

TTVJ: Speaking of “strong female characters,” Rookie Blue gave us such a wide variety of them and yes, they had guns, but they had all these other layers to them and viewers really saw them, flaws and all. Do you attribute that fact to having so many women in your writers’ room?

TC: Absolutely. When you sit around with writers like Sherry White, Semi Chellas, Esta Spalding, Adriana Maggs, Noelle Carbone, Ley Lukins, Karen Moore, Katrina Saville, Shelley Eriksen… These are amazing women with vast ranges of experiences, and the one thing that unites everyone is a strong sense of humor. So in an effort to amuse each other, we all get very honest; and those very honest stories often find their way into our characters. So yes, I think having strong, complicated and honest women in your room means that your female characters are going to reflect that.

TTVJ: What responsibility do experienced writers have to young women who are just starting out in their careers?

TC: We have a huge responsibility to help people along, to mentor them, to make sure young writers are getting their names on scripts, to make sure they are getting paid properly, to make sure they are getting the opportunities they need to rise up to become the next generation of television writers. It’s something I take very seriously. Partly just for job insurance. When they are all running shows and I’m 100 years old, maybe they will hire me.

Honestly, I had incredible mentors that helped me every step of the way – men and women, writers, producers, executives. So I guess I’m just trying to pay that back as much as I can. And not just with women. There are obviously some remarkable male writers out there and young guys I’m trying to help out. It’s not a gender thing; it’s about helping talented people that need a break, and it just so happens that a lot of the people I’ve been able to work with have been women.

I think it’s also important to model a collaborative approach to this, versus a competitive approach. My closest friends in this business are all women I’ve worked with, people who you might’ve thought were your competition but we never let it go there–an incredibly collaborative group of women who have never let the competition thing get in the way and who help each other out on everything. I think it’s crucial to model that for other young women starting out in the business. You don’t have to be a cutthroat, insecure person to get ahead. You’re going to get way further ahead if you have supportive, sympatico friends who will help you get there.

Global
Global

TTVJ: Often when women are put in leadership positions we can worry about how we’re going to be viewed. Do you worry about that at all and what’s your leadership strategy?

TC: When I was young somebody said something to me that always stayed with me. ‘You can run a creative enterprise in two ways: fear or love.’ And for me? Fear is not an interesting place to work from, creatively. While I can see how it works for certain people, for me, the writing room needs to be very safe, very collaborative, and very honest. And I think my relationships with directors and actors and crew work the same way. I hope that I’m inspiring people to give me their best because we all care so much about each other and about our collective project, and not because they are scared of me. It wouldn’t be true to who I was if I was trying to scare people.

TTVJ: You’re now running your own production company, and developing a show by a young woman, Tara Armstrong, with Mary Kills People. Is that something you want to keep doing with your production company, specifically look for shows from young women?

TC: I love working with other writers and I love finding new talent and trying to figure out what the right material is for them to be developing and how I can help. I love being surprised by voices that are so different from mine and stories that are so different from stories I’d ever think of telling. I find it incredibly gratifying to work with emerging writers; and if I can be useful by producing with them, well then, why wouldn’t I do that? Tara is exactly the kind of person I want to be working with–hard working, intelligent, with a fiercely unique vision and a strong point of view–and I have been enjoying it immensely.

TTVJ: You’ve had to pitch multiple series to networks in the past and you’re actively pitching a new series at the moment. Can you share a little what that’s like and if you ever feel like you’re getting treated differently during that process because you’re a female?

TC: I don’t feel that I have been treated any differently in the pitching process, not at all. In fact I was at HBO today and there was only one man in the room: seven powerhouse women, and one very lovely, brilliant man. I’ve never felt like it’s a big liability. I think what I do feel is that I’m grateful to be a female writer and not a female director. Those are the people having a really challenging time breaking into this industry–female directors and female writers of color is really where the work needs to be done.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for young women looking to get into the television industries in these behind the scenes positions?

TC: It helps if you have a great script and a great sample. So sitting down and writing a strong original sample that really represents your voice and what you want to say, without necessarily worrying about whether that script will ever find a home or get made, is a huge piece of the puzzle. I think a really strong sample of original work is crucial.

Beyond the usual pieces of advice, a sense of humility is a helpful thing. Don’t be afraid to take a job as a writers’ assistant or as the assistant to a showrunner or producer. Almost every single person that I’ve had as an assistant—and I mean someone who’s literally picking my kid up at daycare–has become a writer with me, if that’s what they wanted to be in the first place. Become a coordinator and then become a junior story editor, then go from there. There are ways to prove yourself in those jobs that really make a difference and make you somebody that people trust and somebody people will take a chance on. If you’re smart, motivated, hard-working, and talented, the world really will take notice.

 

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