David Barlow on the Toronto Screenwriting Conference & the past and future of Canadian TV


David Barlow (King, The Border, Seeing Things) is one of the speakers at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference on March 31 and April 1. He tells TV, eh? about his early big break, how storytelling has changed over the years, and his wish list for Canadian television.

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?

Bill Mustos, the moderator for our panel on procedurals, has posed the key question: “What distinguishes your series and makes it different from other procedural series?”

It’ll be interesting to hear four different producer/writers respond to this question. It’s really a fundamental consideration when embarking on developing a procedural series, given the deep history of the genre and the competition with the number of procedurals on air.

I’ll talk a bit about The Border and King, two distinctly different procedurals, and how the creators of those shows tried to create fresh and specific personalities for their series. And I’ll probably throw in my two cents worth about what makes for a successful series.

What do I hope to get out of it? Well, selfishly, I usually learn more than I impart at these conferences. The basics of screenwriting are comparatively simple, it’s the execution that’s complex and demanding. No matter what side of the podium I’m sitting on, I always welcome the opportunity to hear how others address the challenges — what methodologies they use, what questions they ask themselves — it’s like taking a refresher course. What’s more, having to describe my own approach forces me to reflect on my own process. A little self-analysis can be a good thing.

Where are things at with King? The second season just started on Showcase but is the season finished shooting? When do you expect word on a possible season three?

Thursday the 29th (today) is our last day of shooting for this season. We’re on Showcase Friday and Saturday nights now, episode six coming up next week. We’ll probably get word on season three by the end of April.

How did your TV writing career start? Was it with Seeing Things? If so, how did it happen that your first major TV writing credit was a co-creation? And in any case, how did that show help shape your career?

I started sitting in on late-night rewrite and punch-up sessions when I was a production manager on a CBC sitcom. Then one of the head writers — Louis Del Grande — and I teamed up, went to L.A. and wrote pilots and episodes for a year and a half. Then back to the CBC when Louis pitched Seeing Things. We wrote the first three episodes, then story-edited and produced with Louis playing the lead. Really, really fortunate to have had that opportunity that early in my career.

How did it shape my career? Well, for a period after Seeing Things I had to persuade people that I didn’t have to be the top dog, I would be just as happy being a worker bee in a story department. But it also taught me that television series are about the entire process — from writing through design, casting, shooting, editing and mixing.

You’ve worked on successful and critically acclaimed shows — do you have any thoughts on what resonates with audiences today? Has it changed over the years?

It’s a cliché, but there’s truth in most clichés. Audiences want compelling stories featuring central characters they can invest in. In some cases the investment is through identification, in others empathy, in still others antipathy. But whichever it is, the characters’ actions have to provoke an emotional response. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it?

The basics haven’t changed, but I think the storytelling in series drama is more complex now, more nuanced, in some cases more sophisticated. In other cases, not so much. I can’t think of an equivalent of The Good Wife or Mad Men from thirty years ago, but I can draw parallels between today’s NCIS and Hawaii Five-O and such 70s shows as Starsky & Hutch, Streets of San Francisco and, well, Hawaii Five-0.

What do you think the Canadian TV industry needs to do to thrive against competition from US shows?

I hope there’ll always be the three levels of dramatic production in this country. The more economical and out-of-the-box stuff like Trailer Park Boys, series like Arctic Air and Murdoch Mysteries that have distinctive Canadian settings and characters, and international co-productions like Flashpoint and Combat Hospital that have the benefit of larger market exposure and higher budgets.

What the industry needs to do is continue to sell itself as a valuable cultural resource, an industry worthy of continued public support, and a community of artists and technologists that person for person can match any in the world.

What I’d like to see is a little more confidence on the part of broadcasters that big international mini-series can be based on Canadian best sellers and Canadian historical characters. Not that there’s anything wrong with Canadian actors getting the chance to play Medieval Brits or Renaissance Italians.

Anything else to add?

I think the Toronto Screenwriting Conference is going to be a dandy place to spend a couple of days. It’s a terrific opportunity to hear both experienced practitioners (present company excepted) and leading theorists from several different countries talk about the process and the craft.