Jana Sinyor (Being Erica, Dark Oracle) is one of the speakers at the upcoming Toronto Screenwriting Conference on March 31 and April 1. She tells TV, eh? about her unconventional path to screenwriting, her learning curve on Being Erica, and the project she has in development with ABC now.
First, tell me about the Toronto Screenwriting Conference –- what do you hope to convey there, and what do you hope to get out of it? What role do conferences like this play in career development?
I plan to show up and have an interesting panel discussion with a bunch of people I respect. I hope it will be a lot of fun.
As for what role conferences play in career development, for me, they were extremely important. I remember attending Nuts And Bolts — a weekend conference put on by WIFT-T when I was just starting out — and then later I went to a screenwriting weekend conference that was put together by the WGC. Both events were very important in that they connected me with people I would later work with. I learned a lot from the panels, talked to lots of different people — and felt that attending helped me better focus, better zero in on what I wanted to do and what steps I was going to take to get there.
Did you start your writing career with Degrassi? That seems like a training ground for a lot of Canadian talent –- what was your experience like there and how did it pave the way for your future career?
I started my writing career with Sesame Park, a 6-minute muppet show at the CBC. Tracey Forbes was a mentor through WIFT-T and I connected with her following the Nuts and Bolts workshop. It was her advice that led me to Sesame Park and my first credit. Tracey was incredibly generous with me when I had no experience, no credits at all. She story edited my Buffy spec, spent hours with me on the phone.
Then came Degrassi and the beginning of my relationship with Aaron Martin, who later co-ran Being Erica with me for its entire run. He hired me to write a few freelance scripts for Degrassi, and we hit it off. Degrassi was an important credit for me, but I didn’t spend a lot of time there. Just a few days really, and then I was sent off to write my script. It was interesting to see how things were done, I learned a bit about how you break a story in a room.
But I wasn’t on staff there — I have never staffed on a show actually. Which leads into your next question…
You then went on to create Dark Oracle and Being Erica, right? That’s a pretty good track record. How did you transition from staff writer to creator and showrunner?
I never had the opportunity to staff on a show. I did some freelance work — Sesame Park and Degrassi, and then I connected with Heather Conkie, who was instrumental in helping to get Dark Oracle made. I met her at a WGC event, and she was interested in working with emerging writers and I was pitching an early version of Dark Oracle to every production company and broadcaster in the country and being told “no” by everyone.
Teaming up with Heather was really a turning point, and it led me getting a producer role on Dark Oracle, and having the opportunity to learn every step of the process.
How did you get into TV writing as a career? How did your educational background and previous work prepare you for it?
I have a Religious Studies degree, and I speak a lot of languages. That was pretty much all I had going for me following graduation, so I got a call centre job and fell into a bit of a depression. One night, in desperation, I made a list of everything I wanted from my life, and next to it, another list of all my skills.
It was a pretty short list — I speak a bunch of languages, am friendly and outgoing, know a fair amount about Christianity. And I was a good writer, in high school.
As for what I wanted out of life — I wrote that I wanted to do something creative, to make a lot of money, and to have freedom — to not be tied to a desk.
After that it wasn’t too hard to figure out that screenwriting was one of the only things that fit. So I enrolled in a night continuing ed course in Screenwriting at Ryerson and that’s how it began.
I guess this is all to say that my educational background didn’t prepare me at all. And as a result, I don’t believe that you need a lot of education to become a writer — I think you learn that other places.
How did the success of Being Erica affect you and your career? Was there a period of mourning or did it feel time to move on?
I had a very steep learning curve on Erica. I got to write a lot, make lots of decisions and mistakes, work harder than I’ve ever worked before. Now that it’s over, I have the opportunity to take some time to develop new projects and have some adventures.
I was sad when it ended, but I was also relieved — Aaron and I felt at the beginning of Season 4 that it would likely be our final season. Erica’s journey was over, she was becoming a doctor, the story had come to an end and it felt like a real gift that we were able to wrap it up, answer questions and close out the series in a way that tried to be emotionally satisfying for people who’d been watching from the beginning.
You’re working in development with ABC on another project now? Is there anything you can share about that project? How does the development process differ with an American network versus a Canadian one? Do you sense a difference in how you approach a project?
I’m only at the very beginning with ABC, but it’s been a joy so far. It’s difficult to compare, since I have such a longstanding relationship with the CBC, which has also been so positive. I don’t think I’m approaching it any differently, the conversations about notes and characters feel like they are the same.
The big downside is that you’re never face to face with them because they’re in LA — I don’t like that — I would much rather have some of these conversations in person.
The project is a one hour drama — it’s got themes of personal transformation that in many ways resonate with Being Erica. But it’s set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and is a reincarnation show.