Director Tim Southam on getting into bed with good ideas

From studying economics, philosophy, literature and political economy in university and working in magazine ad departments, to writing and directing in television and film on both sides of the border, Tim Southam‘s diverse career has helped him mine some of his favourite themes. Highlights include The Bay of Love and Sorrows, Drowning in Dreams, One Dead Indian, Trudeau: Maverick in the Making, as well as directing for series such as Flashpoint, Rookie Blue, House and Bones. He answered a few questions recently about his career through a Canadian lens:

Some of the current Canadian series you’ve directed include Rookie Blue, Haven, Flashpoint – any highlights (or dirt) to share about working on those?

Flashpoint and Rookie Blue are great examples of pan-North American thinking in Canadian TV production, and of a real home-grown confidence about the kind of story that can appeal to audiences around the world. We’ve had this confidence for a long time in movies and documentaries, and we’ve always known that we had the skills and imagination to do it in series TV. It’s just harder in series because of the sheer scale of the enterprise. Witnessing the producing and creative tour-de-force that put us in this position has been exciting.

Haven is less explicitly home-grown than Flashpoint or Rookie Blue, but it is an example of our ability to work the genre card to a fairly exacting level and then play convincingly to a niche audience worldwide. All three shows know exactly what they want to be. For a guest director this is a critical factor in delivering a strong result. You want a capable production team that can state clearly what it’s going for, and one that’s confident enough to trust the director to deliver it. All three shows have these qualities.

What’s the process like as an episodic TV director? Is the role more to fit into the existing style of a show, or to bring a fresh view, or a combination of both? How do you collaborate with the producers and actors who have likely lived a show for a long time before you arrived?

On an established show I watch every episode or close to it. On a new show where I am shooting the first season or the pilot, I read closely and listen carefully to the writer. I can’t over-emphasize the value of simply knowing how to read. It is crucial. I work in television because this is where you find great scripts. Being a precise, engaged reader is my side of the process. I take it seriously.

Beyond this I work on shows that take the director’s creative contribution seriously — on casting, sets, locations, cinematography, edit, sound — I find the more confident the show, the more latitude I have and the greater my contribution as a director. Super-confident shows actually dare their directors to work aggressive variations on their style. I mean, if Hugh Laurie or Emily Deschanel or Missy Peregrym is in the frame, it will be a House or a Bones or a Rookie Blue episode, period — no matter how you shoot it and as long as you are actually reading what’s on the page. So there can be a huge degree of freedom for the director.

On a pilot or a new show the key to a coherent result is making sure that the stakeholders know what you are up to and listening to their notes. In addition to a smart read, clear communication is the next most important step. It’s the way to open up the palette for yourself as a director and to be able to work with confidence and full support from producers, studio, network, stars.

You work regularly on both sides of the border — do you see differences?

The difference between one show or another is less about the border between Canada and the US and more about the confidence, clarity and production experience of the show’s writers, directors, producers and executives. Certain networks, studios and producers cultivate strong writers and directors, and they have been able to fund them more consistently, so there is a confidence that lets everyone do their job. For one thing everyone in those environments knows what his or her job actually is. The trap is shows in either country where a producer or a network is not letting people do their jobs. Or where they are asking for the wrong things at the wrong time. That has nothing to do with the border. It has to do with vision, production-awareness and confidence.

You’ve worked on Bones and House … both US shows created by Canadians. Coincidence? Do you think there’s a “Canadian tone”?

Not only have I directed work written by Hart Hanson (Bones) and David Shore (House), I have written for them (Traders), and I have noticed a couple of similarities. I don’t know about a Canadian tone — House and Bones are radically different in tone and Hart and David are very different writers, but I can say that both men like ideas. Both have a tendency to slip compelling concepts into their very human narratives, and they attract collaborators and viewers who like that. Perhaps the Canadian thing is that we can get into bed with a good idea and have fun with it.

The other factor is humour. On both shows nothing matters so much that it can’t be funny, and some things matter SO much that they HAVE to be funny. Both shows are fearless in their use of humour for just about any purpose. Is that Canadian? Are we the kids in the peanut gallery taking the mickey out of everything? Maybe three centuries of being the first to freeze in the dark and first over the parapet in her majesty’s various armies have blessed us with our particular humour.

Do you think your writing and educational background have influenced your directing style or process?

I have been writing movies the entire time I have been chasing series gigs. Some of the movies get made. Some do not. I find screenwriting challenging. So I have sought out some pretty great scripts. It has given me working relationships with a wide range of truly gifted people. For some reason I never feel competitive with these folks. I just feel lucky. I like to read. I feel reading is one of the great art forms – albeit often a very private one. I could spend most of my life reading and daydreaming. Actually I pretty much do.

As for my educational background, when I look at it I realize that it’s a fairly conceptual background – economics, history, literature, philosophy. I tend to ask “What’s the theme?” when of course the more usual question is “What’s the story?” I look at David Adams Richards (The Bay of Love and Sorrows) or Michel Marc Bouchard (The Tale of Teeka) or Peter Edwards and Andrew Wreggitt (One Dead Indian) and marvel at their ability to channel fully formed people and events to the page. It’s a kick to watch them do it. I know I can contribute a facility with the film form. The whole dramatic, visual and rhythmic code of building a sequence is something I relish. There wasn’t much in my educational background that prepared me for this. Sometimes you just have to try something to see if it’s there.

What are some differences between feature and television directing?

Nowadays the only big difference between feature directing and TV directing is frequency! You get to do a lot more of it in TV. The two media have converged so aggressively that I sense little formal difference. People talk about a difference in creative autonomy – but that is not a difference between TV and film, it is the difference between possessing creative ownership of the project and not possessing it. You can be subordinated on either platform or you can negotiate the freedom you need on either. It happens that directors often write and produce their own movies, so that tends to be the form where we are seen as the prime mover — but it varies a great deal.

What would be your most memorable directing experience?

One memorable directing experience was filming world famous clown René Bazinet pretend to “swim” through shimmering light to join four contortionists in a beautiful and bizarre dance to Erik Satie’s piano number “Embryons déssechés.” It was a very pure dream.

What projects are coming up for you?

I am finishing an episode of House entitled “Love is Blind” (airing February 27 on Global and Fox.) Then it’s back to my desk with a couple of longer-term projects.


4 thoughts on “Director Tim Southam on getting into bed with good ideas”

  1. I am so impressed with Southam’s ability to articulate his experience as a Director. I am also impressed with the breadth of his experience. I can’t wait to see what he does next – I love his work.

  2. Obviously gifted with a thoughtful and intelligent command of language, I can imagine how invigorated his collaborators must feel to be working with a talent that is clear, generous and broad thinking. TV can be what artists make of it.

  3. Tim is a hugely gifted director, and one of the few with the ability to articulate what he actually means. It’s surely only a matter of time before he gets backed for bigger movies, he’s talented enough to be making A-List Hollywood fare.

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