By Rachel Langer for TV, eh?
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Simon Barry, the showrunner of one of my favorite new sci-fi series: Continuum. Barry has written for feature films and television in both the US and Canada. He was gracious enough to let me dissect his views on the writing room, TV in Canada, and the voracity of the science fiction fan.
You’ve written for both features and TV; can you talk about the difference in your process between those two things?
As far as movie projects go, a lot of the movie work is driven by assignments, adaptations, rewrites, and polishes, so the majority of that work tends to be, for me, taking other material and managing it into feature film mode, and it’s good work! I mean, it’s great work for developing good habits, but it’s not the most creative work because you’re working within the constraints of previous material.
Whereas for TV, from my experience (and this is probably unique for me because I haven’t worked for anyone else in TV, I’ve only ever worked either developing original ideas or executing them), I find it to be more creatively fulfilling in that sense. Not to say I don’t want to do movies — I absolutely love doing movies — but there is more on your shoulders in TV in terms of thinking everything through from not only the inception of the idea, the execution of the pilot, the planning of the series and then the management of all those other scripts, it’s a much more encompassing writer’s job.
In a movie job you can sort of be a cog in a bigger machine. In TV you’re part of the machine, so it’s a bit of a different approach. It’s the same craft, it’s just applied differently.
You are now deep into Canadian Sci-fi. Were you always a sci-fi fan, or did you have a sci-fi epiphany somewhere along the way?
I was always a sci-fi fan. I was actually trying to work my way back into sci-fi because when I started writing I started in the thriller action genre and I was always looking for a road back in. The problem is once you get established in a genre, it’s really hard for the business to see you otherwise unless you instigate the change yourself.
I had written a sci-fi movie for Dreamworks a couple years ago that never got made, but they bought it and it reminded me that I wanted to keep working in sci-fi. So after I wrote that movie, I started thinking very clearly about developing sci-fi ideas, and TV was a much more obvious direction than movies. Movies were a much harder thing at the time. Movies were really being built on the backs of things that were pre-existing, and without access to any of those titles it was really hard, whereas in TV there was a much bigger appetite for original content.
What’s your favorite sci-fi series?
In terms of TV? They keep changing! I mean, I grew up watching the original Star Trek. I was a real fan of that show and it probably informed a lot of my social understanding of what sci-fi can do as a template for other ideas. As a kid I used to watch whatever was available: the original Battlestar Gallactica, reruns of that old show UFO, Thunderbirds and Time Tunnel. And then I was just big into sci-fi movies. Star Wars kind of got me into the idea of being a filmmaker.
Obviously we know that sci-fi fans have rampant opinions which they are never afraid to share – often very loudly. Do you find that challenging to work with?
I actually embrace it. I think being held to a high standard is a great thing. It makes you work harder, and think in deeper, more complex ways, so I welcome it. I’ve been burned by it already in season one so I don’t mind. I think that with sci-fi there is an expectation to push beyond just basic entertainment and that’s just good for TV in general, it doesn’t matter what genre you’re doing. Feeling like you have an opportunity to do more than just basic drama makes the job better.
Do you feel that it’s harder because people want you to break the mold, but the people on top are very comfortable with the mold?
Yeah, well the business drives everything. I mean the last people you want to disenfranchise is the network that’s paying for your show, so I think it’s finding the balance. In that balance there is a built-in safety of not going too far in either direction. The sci-fi genre keeps you honest in terms of telling stories and what kinds of stories you tell, and the business model of TV keeps you from going to the point where you’re alienating people and making it so that the show is too narrow. In that balance you find a really strong model for entertainment.
Also the standard of production for sci-fi fans keeps you not taking things for granted or letting things slide. The production value in sci-fi is essential for buying into the world that’s being created.
Tell me about your experience as a showrunner in Canada and the differences you’ve had between the US and Canada?
I don’t think of myself as a different person in Canada. I’m the same writer in the States as I am in Canada — I don’t really have a switch that says “Oh, I’m doing this in Canada.” I don’t think of shows as “Canadian” either. I think the show is the show and it exists for the audience wherever they are. Because I haven’t been a showrunner before this show, it’s hard to compare the experience. I’ve developed a lot of TV in the States and I would say that at the end of the day the focus should always be on “what is the show?” not “which marketplace the show is being produced in.”
When I think of making a TV show in Canada, I don’t really think of a specific approach that’s different to a Canadian audience or a worldwide audience, it’s exactly in my mind the same approach: good stories, great characters, well executed. I don’t know how to do it any other way, at least from a country point of view. I know that Canada is unique in the sense that we do think of ourselves that way, but you never hear anyone say in the States “Oh, this is an American show.” Everyone talks about the show as having its own identity rather than being from the country.
The other difference for me would be that the development part of it has been different in Canada. It’s been much more collaborative, in a way, working with Shaw and Showcase. Because they make fewer shows, they have a much more hands-on approach. That isn’t to say they interfere, but that they care much more about the shows they’re making because there are fewer of them.
In the States, I was working with people who are developing slates of 60 scripts a year; the volume is much higher in terms of what’s put into development. In Canada there is much more care put into the shows that they actually put into the development pipeline. I appreciate it as a creator because I get attention that helps the show to be better, and there is less noise from other shows. The stakes of competition with other showrunners – there are just no politics, it’s just really about putting all the resources into making the show as good as it can be.
Have you found that other showrunners are supportive and excited for you?
Being in Vancouver I’ve only encountered a couple, but I think in Canada when something does well, it’s good for everyone because the next one will have that much easier of a time getting through the pipeline, and hopefully the show’s success internationally only makes the business model stronger. There is a great business model in Canada that makes the global marketplace available. Canadian TV writers and showrunners really are going to have a much easier time getting product out there into the world when shows, like Continuum, get seen internationally, because it provides a reminder that good content is universal – it doesn’t matter where it’s from.
Have you found working in Vancouver, where there aren’t as many writing rooms, do you still have access to the kind of talent that you need?
Absolutely. We haven’t had any issues finding good writers, and most of our writers are locally based. We have a couple of writers that have come from Toronto but the majority of them are based here — the room is predominantly local people, starting with me. I think that there is plenty of talent here to get the show done. You always want to get the best people who fit not just the style of the show but also the chemistry of the room. If you do need to look outside, you try to find the right person regardless of where they live, but it’s been nice to find the majority of people who live here to be a part of the process.
Showrunning involves more set presence than a lot of people realize. People tend to classify writing and producing a show as separate jobs. What has been your best on-set experience so far?
I’m very lucky in that sense because I have a really strong partnership with the other executive producers: Tom Rowe and Pat Williams. Tom handles a lot of the business and financial aspects of production and Pat is much more on top of the hiring of directors and physical production of the show, so it’s nice for me in that sense that I don’t have to focus too much energy on those other things. I do obviously spend a lot of time on set when I can.
The best part of the set is seeing what you planned play out better than you thought it was going to be. Things like the execution of the set designs and the staging/blocking of sequences that you thought on the page would be just OK but actually play out in a way that is much more interesting and much more dynamic than you’d imagined is always the best, and that’s happened many, many times.
Ideally what you want as a show runner is a partnership with people who take your ideas from the page and go way beyond what you’d imagined. My job as a showrunner is to let people do that, and encourage them to do that. The only thing I’ve really done well is to get out of the way.
Where would you like to see Canadian TV in 10 years?
I would just love to see Canadian TV expanding the style of storytelling and the kind of storytelling that is being reflected on cable TV right now in networks like AMC, Showtime, HBO, even some of the major networks. The comfortable box of TV has now been blown open. Audiences, because of the way TV is being delivered, are changing their viewing habits. I just wouldn’t want Canada to fall behind because the appetite for interesting, dynamic television is only going to grow and it is going to be better for TV, and better for viewing. I would hate to think that we as a culture or a business missed that opportunity to push the agenda of TV.
I think about shows like Homeland, which was developed in Israel, and some British shows that tend to inspire the US market into new ways of storytelling. Wouldn’t it be great if Canada could put a show out that actually had the same value on a global marketplace, that inspired an American show through its approach to storytelling. The world is so connected now that we don’t have to think of ourselves as Canadian anymore, we can just be TV producers and writers and think of the marketplace as global, but that Canada is rewarded for the global success and that we enhance the business as a result of it. That’s what I’d love to see, that success in Canadian TV means more opportunities for Canadian producers, and more money, and a bigger slice of the action.
If you think of all the money that is out there in the world, it’s quite a bit. So the idea that a Canadian budget needs to be small just because a show is only being broadcast in Canada is a really outdated notion. If we can think of the skills that we have in Canada as being on par with any other country, then there’s really no reason to think of television necessarily as Canadian, it can be whatever you want it to be. If you want it to be straight up Canadian it can be that as well, there’s just no limitation.
Every writer has a few moments in their journey where they say “OK! I’m getting there, I’m in the right spot!” What have been your top moments?
The thing about writing that most people don’t realize is that you’re never “there.” I’ve been writing since 1995 full-time, and I’ve had really good years and really bad years. I always find those moments are when you get a job after you haven’t worked for a really long time. Or when you find yourself in a situation where you think “Oh, I might never get here” and then suddenly you’re there. Getting Continuum season one was certainly a moment for me where we were like “Wow, we did it.”
You have to expect that things are temporary, no matter how successful you are, and eventually you’re going to have to hit the reset button.