On Monday, the Writers Guild of Canada held their annual awards ceremony and handed the prestigious Showrunner Award
creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern.
What does winning the Showrunner Award mean to you, coming off the heels of Flashpoint’s final season?
Five years of working on a show you love, that’s like five giant scoops of ice cream. Having the luxury of ending a show on your own creative terms, that’s like getting whipped cream on top. Seeing so many colleagues rewarded with nominations and awards for the bar-raising work they did on the show – work that made the rest of us look great just by association – that’s covering the whole thing in sprinkles. And we couldn’t imagine a sweeter cherry on top than this very unexpected award … the most prestigious thing a TV writer can hope for.
When you started Flashpoint, did you ever think the series would get to the level it did, and find the audience reach that it ended up with?
Not at all. Especially as the show was originally a two-hour MOW about a sniper dealing with the traumatic aftermath of his first kill … a very different project than the 75-hour episodic series it turned into.
From the beginning, we aspired to the white-knuckle suspense of 24 and the succulent, saturated production values of CSI Miami – which we explicitly referenced when we first pitched our ideas to CTV. But the transformation from the slightly darker original premise into a more commercial “action procedural”‘ happened fast and smoothly, once CTV reconsidered it as a series. That groundwork was laid in intense creative collaboration with EPs Anne Marie La Traverse and Bill Mustos, as well as our original executives from CTV – and when CBS joined up early in the process, they obviously brought a lot to the table as well, based on their strong track record in sustaining procedurals over many years. What emerged from this was a formula that we hoped would welcome new viewers every week with a self-contained story, while rewarding the more committed fans with “loyalty points” – those story moments that add up to the more complex, slow-burn, (ideally) addictive character arcs where you have to keep coming back to find out what happens next.
We had ambitious hopes of course, but from where we stood, the level of success the show eventually hit wasn’t even on the landscape of realistic possibility at that time. Especially for a show so firmly resolved not to pretend to be American. But these were (and are) changing times in TV. And the mountains that our EPs moved to make it happen, the way they pushed for the highest standards from every technical and artistic department, and the awesome, visionary talent of our signature director David Frazee launched the show with a level of polish and unapologetic swagger we didn’t often see then on homegrown shows. US and international audiences aside, what we’re proudest of is that Canadians watched it in serious numbers, and (from what we hear from the fans) that they felt it was theirs.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced as showrunners in making this series?
When the pressure hits – and pressure is pretty much a constant on a speeding train like a TV show – it can feel overwhelming. There’s so much time-sensitive business to stay on top of. The toughest thing to remember, even in the darkest times – when you’re sure this is the episode that’s going to break you, when you literally don’t know how you’re going to keep breathing – is that it’s just a show. It’s just TV.
Your blank computer screen may not fill fast enough, you could fail to find a brilliant yet diplomatic compromise between all the creative voices needing to be heard, you could disappoint everyone and never work again. But there are human beings out there who risk a heck of a lot more every day than a missed deadline, some who are busy facing life-threatening danger in fact, not in fiction. So you get over yourself and get back to work.
We learned the best way to do that is to step back, breathe deeply, and remember why you love what you do. Re-read your original pitch document, the one that was so full of passion and ambition. Remember that your dream to have a shot at making a show actually came true. The risk of a long-running show is that in the chaos and storm of its practical demands, you forget why you began, the fire you once had to push this boulder up the hill. In our own case, every time we reconnected with the real people from our fictional world, every time we dipped back into research, the inspiration came back stronger than ever, which made the struggle feel manageable and (ultimately) worthwhile.
Tell us about the experience of being honored in front of your friends and peers at the WGC Awards.
We were very, very moved hearing Larry’s heartfelt introduction, and Denis McGrath’s fiery followup. It meant the world to us to be embraced this warmly by the community – especially given that we’re relative newcomers who’ve been blessed with a nearly obscene amount of good fortune.
We’ve heard that you may have a new series in development – is that correct, and if so what can you tell us about that?
We actually have two – one with CBC, one with CTV, both dramas – and we wish we could tell you more but we’re going to have to wait…
If you could step in to a “guest showrunning” position, past or present, on any Canadian show, which one would it be and why?
There are definitely shows whose writing rooms we’d have loved to hang out in and observe from the inside – not as “guest showrunners,” more for the great company, and to watch and learn. Like The Eleventh Hour for the dazzling convergence of talent in the room. Bomb Girls for the great female-fuelled stories set in a fascinating time. Slings and Arrows because of its smart and subversive take on classical theatre, a world we’ve both known from up close as actors. Among the shows in the works right now … the rooms of Orphan Black and Played have some Flashpoint alums on their staff and both sound like a lot of fun.
In the meantime, we’ve been many reading scripts from emerging TV writers and we’re struck and inspired by what a huge wave of great material is coming down the pipes …
What are you watching these days?
We try to keep up with all our Canadian shows. Orphan Black is audacious and exciting. Our daughter likes Modern Family, Stephen Fry’s QI and The Office, so we watch those shows with her. LovingHomeland, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead. Also … a ton of spy-themed films, docs and series.