Karen McClellan is an executive producer and co-showrunner of The Next Step, Family Channel’s No. 1-rated series and an international hit which has garnered multiple BAFTA awards and Canadian Screen Award nominations.
Karen’s other credits cover an array of drama and comedy, including the award-winning series Cracked, Being Erica and Robson Arms. She has developed one-hour and half-hour shows for all the major Canadian broadcasters. Karen has been nominated for several Writers Guild of Canada awards for her work and won the award for her web series, Spiral. She is an alumna of The American Film Institute.
I predict CLAIREvoyant will be a hit. No, I don’t need tarot cards or mind-reading to come to that conclusion. The key to the web series’ success—the first 10 episodes are available now on KindaTV—is in the story and relatability of the lead characters created by Annie Briggs and Natasha Negovanlis.
There is an instant likeability to Claire (Negovanlis) who, on her 25th birthday is handed an eviction notice. Now she and roommate/best friend Ruby (Briggs), have to collect back rent—fast—in order to keep their place. Their idea? Pose as online fortune tellers to cash in quickly. Easier said than done, especially when Claire discovers she may actually be, well, clairvoyant.
I spoke to Negovanlis and Briggs about CLAIREvoyant‘s genesis, writing and producing their own projects and representing the LGBTQ community.
Before we get into the story and characters, congratulations on the production values. CLAIREvoyant looks amazing. Natasha Negovanlis: Thank you. We were very lucky to have Shaftesbury attached to this and I think it really added to the high production value.
Natasha, you and Annie came up with this idea while you bonded over your mutual obsession with fortune telling. What fascinated you about fortune tellers?
NN: It’s a number of things. Both Annie and I are interested in certain aspects of spirituality and divination. It was an interest I’ve had since I was a little girl. We grew up in the 90s when witches were very popular. [Laughs.] I think why supernatural-themed shows really resonate with a lot of LGBTQ folk like myself is this feeling of being the other. A feeling of being an outsider. I’ve always felt like that so I think that’s why I gravitated towards topics that were a little less mainstream. And, also, the way Annie and I were both raised; we both have family members who are a little bit spiritual or into these things as well.
But the seedling to CLAIREvoyant was that I was getting my nails done in this salon and I saw this woman and overheard her talking. She had read my tarot cards before and it was one of those $10 neon sign walk-in situations. I went mainly for the entertainment value but I was so fascinated with it. I started eavesdropping on her conversation. One day when Annie and I were hanging out and talking about that, I said, ‘Are they able to sustain themselves doing that?’ ‘Do they really have a gift or do they believe they have a gift?’ I was so interested in who they were as human beings outside of that work and we started talking about it, spitballing it and coming up with these really silly characters. The next day we texted each other and said, ‘I think we’re on to something.’
You have a built-in fan base thanks to Carmilla. How do you keep them in mind when creating something new?
Annie Briggs: The online community has been very vocal, in a very positive way, about what speaks to them and in terms of what makes them feel heard and what’s hurtful. For sure, we wanted to maintain that audience and honour them. But then, it’s also our responsibility as creators to maintain the integrity of these characters, their own traits and plotlines.
NN: It’s very much a balancing act as well. As a creator, you have a responsibility, I think to change the narrative. As two very progressive female creators, we certainly feel that. Something that was very important to us was having a female director in Simone Stock, for example. There were those aspects to it as well. And then, of course, the Carmilla audience is largely an LGBTQ audience and being a queer role model is very important to me personally, so we did write Claire as a queer character who is vastly different from Carmilla. We wanted to create a show that would expand our audience as well.
You’ve already spoken about queer characters. There are a few TV shows out there, like Wynonna Earp, that features queer characters but the web series seems to be the place to go for queer characters. Why do you think that is?
NN: I think that when you don’t have the extra layer of a network or broadcaster, you have a little bit more freedom to tell the stories you want to tell and I think digital allows people to tell stories that don’t fit into a neat box. More and more we’re seeing networks take on stories like Wynonna Earp, but the people who are in power for a long time have fit into one particular group for a long time. I think that’s starting to change, and as a digital creator, you can tell the stories you want to tell.
AB: And with digital, we’re seeing more risk-taking because of all of the things Natasha just spoke about. It’s a great incubation and testing ground. On a lower budget, you can tell a story, see where it lands, who it resonates with and if it has legs to extend beyond if that’s the trajectory of the project.
Natasha, this is your first writing and producing credit, correct?
NN: This is the first time I’ve been able to work as a writer and producer. I had always written poetry and short stories and used to write sketch comedy, but I had never been able to work on a set as a writer. It was a really wonderful experience for me and I was fortunate because I was working with Annie, who is so talented and has written before. She wrote Luvvie, which is an amazing short film, and we had another writer on board too. It was really nice to bounce ideas off one another. Our skillset really compliments one another.
If social media presence is a bona fide measure of success, Chateau Laurier is simply killing it. The web series has just crossed the three million views line on Facebook—in just two months—and shows no sign of slowing down. Couple that with 65,000 followers on Facebook … clearly, creator-producer-director James Stewart and co-writer-producers Emily Weedon and Kent Staines know what they’re doing.
What the trio has created in just three episodes of content—Season 1 of Chateau Laurier can be seen on the show’s Facebook page—is a sumptuous, gorgeous tale of a couple on the cusp of their arranged marriage taking place against the backdrop of Ottawa’s historic Chateau Laurier. Hattie Bracebridge (Kate Ross) is accompanied by her aunt (Fiona Reid) to the storied establishment where they meet Mr. Mutchmor (the late Bruce Gray, in his final role) and prepare for Hattie’s impending nuptials. But with one errant glance and a few steps away from the lobby, Hattie goes on an adventure that leads to a major twist.
We spoke to creator-producer-director James Stewart about Chateau Laurier, why it’s become a smash hit online, the challenges of filming in a hotel and what’s next for the project.
Why do you think Chateau Laurier has resonated so much not only in Canada and the U.S. but around the world?
James Stewart: I wish I knew the secret sauce. I think there are a number of story reasons and a number of technical reasons. I think the story reasons are people love period dramas. That whole fanbase, with Downton Abbey ending, there is a real hunger for it. I think, specifically in Canada, there is a real hunger for it. As John Doyle pointed out, because of NHL hockey there is no Murdoch Mysteries and no Frankie Drake Mysteries and we landed right in the middle of that. For a technical reason, we decided to launch it as a web series in three-minute episodes and I think that makes it highly shareable and highly viewable. And, once viewers watch it, they’re hooked and take another until they’re done in nine minutes. They say that brevity is the soul of wit. I think brevity is the soul of the Internet.
Facebook is highly shareable and that demographic, women, older women and girls, they are all on Facebook. My mom is on Facebook, my aunt is on Facebook.
How much of a learning curve has it been, for you as a creator, making something in short-form for Facebook?
It absolutely is a learning curve and it changes every year. I did a short film called Foxed and it did the film festival circuit in what I would call a traditional way of distributing something. Then I said, ‘What else is there?’ I put it on iTunes. Then, I was out of outlets for it to create revenue of any kind and I put it on Facebook. It got five million views. It was nuts. Why is that? Because people share, share, share on Facebook. It’s very easy to hit that button.
When we came to Chateau Laurier, I think I was able to really harness all of my social media followers. The Foxed Facebook page has 30,000 followers and I have about 80,000 Twitter followers. We were originally going to launch Chateau Laurier in the fall. We were going to throw a party and have a launch event. I wanted to do it at TIFF Bell Lightbox and they were busy and then Bruce Gray passed away. There was a celebration of his life and then about a month later I said, ‘OK, let’s launch it.’ At that point, we already had 30,000 followers on Facebook.
Give me the background on Chateau Laurier. You grew up in Ottawa in awe of this building. How long has this series been in the works?
I’ve always wanted to do a series on Chateau Laurier and kind of peel back the layers on Ottawa the good. It has a very dangerous history. In the 1800s it was a very dangerous logging town and then it became the capital and all this power and prestige was dumped into this kind of frontier town. Then they opened the Chateau Laurier right in the middle of it and the Titanic went down in the same month. The owner of the hotel went down on the Titanic. The furniture for the opening of the hotel was on the Titanic and they had to delay the opening. It was supposed to open in April and they opened in June in a very subdued way. They didn’t throw a big party. I’ve always known that, liked that, and if I’m in town and don’t stay with family I’ll stay there.
And then, a few years ago after Foxed, I thought, ‘I want to do this show. We have a bit of momentum.’ So we got some BravoFACT money to do a short, a sort of proof of concept for a primetime drama series. We did that and then decided to launch it as a web series because that has it’s own cache and is a genre now. We had very little money. It looks very expensive because we shot it at [the Fairmont] Royal York.
It looks stunning. Not only is it impressive to look at but you really pack a lot of story into just under 10 minutes.
Thanks. Arthur Cooper shot it and we really just phoned around and asked who was available and wanted to do it. Everybody was a pro, including the cast. Fiona Reid and Bruce Gray and Kate Ross and Luke Humphrey … we had a connection with them all and they loved it. We shot overnight in the lobby of the Royal York. I wanted to film it in Ottawa, but logistically we just didn’t have the money.
Did you have a traditional writer’s room with yourself, Emily and Kent?
No, we didn’t. Essentially, Kent and Emily wrote the screenplay that became the web series. It was more of a writer’s booth. The love story was based on an idea that Emily came up with.
I saw a picture of you, on social media, at the CBC. Are you actively pitching Chateau Laurier as a series?
We are. We are talking to everyone. Plan A is we are going to broadcasters to say we have a hit on our hands. We have an unabashedly Canadian story, we have a great cast, we have established our characters and they have three million fans. And we’re going to do Season 2 of the web series where we introduce two more of our lead characters in the Mutchmor family and have some great drama. And if we get a primetime series the web series will serve as a prequel.
Season 1 of Chateau Laurier can be seen on the show’s Facebook page.
Web series have taught me that if you’ve got a great idea and some gumption, you can create something wonderful. Maddy Foley and Sharon Belle have gone one further, proving you don’t need a huge budget to create something wonderful.
The duo needed just $500 to write, direct and produce 17 episodes of Step Sisters, a raunchy, biting, hilarious and heartfelt sketch comedy web series—available now on YouTube—about two best friends, Maddy and Sharon, who discuss life while sitting on the steps outside a house. Belle and Foley met on the set of fellow web series Allie and Lara Make a Horror Movieand made offhand jokes during downtime in production. Belle says the idea of “Step Sisters … they sit on steps,” was laughed about and then dismissed. Three months later the pair reunited and decided to write something.
“We didn’t really know where to start and we were like, ‘What about Step Sisters? Was that a legit idea?” Belle recalls with a laugh. “Was that anything at all? We explored it and it turned into this world.” It’s an odd and realistic world. Sandwiched between an infectious musical theme written by Adam Parkinson, Maddy and Sharon analyze the minutiae of the world from the steps in front of their apartment.
In Episode 1, Maddy is shocked when Sharon emerges from their place wearing a patch over her right eye. When Maddy blurts out, “Oh my god!” Sharon waves a dismissive hand and thinks Maddy’s shock is at the ugly sweater she’s wearing. Nope, it’s the patch Maddy noticed. Turns out there is some major pink eye going on under there. Minutes are spent talking about the eye infection, and whether Sharon should be going to the party or a doctor before the patch is lifted and Maddy throws up. The five-minute instalment is simple, effective, funny and totally relatable.
Basic plot points served as outlines for each episode of Step Sisters, but everything else was almost completely improvised and delivered in a single take, giving the series—filmed over the course of four days in Toronto—a realistic and frenetic feel.
“Ever since we met, we realized that the best stuff that we got in a scene was always the improvised bits,” Belle says. “Going into this we said we needed to keep that freedom because that’s where the funny comes out.” There was no writer’s room for Belle and Foley; they met in the former’s living room to hash out initial ideas before taking advantage of common room space at the University of Toronto to talk about their lives and improvise scenes. Friends were called upon to help in the production of Step Sisters; the pair admits they owe a lot of favours.
And while the $500 budget was a challenge, it didn’t stop the pair from creating something great.
“I feel like the budget really helped,” Foley says. “We went into this project knowing we wouldn’t be spending any more than that. It clarified the vision and it put limits on what we could do that was almost freeing.”
CBC’s My 90-Year-Old Roommate—all 12 episodes of Season 2 are available now on the network’s website—is a comedy series created by Ethan Cole (he also plays Ethan in the series). Based on the viral web series starring Ethan and Joe Cole, Explaining Things to My Grandfather, Season 1 oaired in 2016 (catch up on Season 1 here).
If you are a newcomer to My 90-Year-Old Roommate, here’s a little flashback to what happened in the first season. Ethan (Ethan Cole) moved in with his grandpa Joe (Paul Soles). Jobless, slacker Ethan is always seeking love via dating apps. The one thing he wants to do for sure is get laid and have fun. On the other hand, his grandfather is more traditional. He tries to teach his grandson how to be a well-mannered man in modern society. The combination of watching these two worlds, modern and old-fashioned, through the lens of My 90-Year-Old Roommate is truly addictive. But there is more than just a relationship between a grandson and grandpa. It’s a mirror of two generations that try to coexist.
The first season was lively, bright and unfortunately ended really quickly. I’m thrilled CBC greenlit a second season.
Season 2 starts with an episode about live streaming when Joe learns what it is and its potential. And Ethan, the wonderful grandson that he is, makes live videos from all the important occasions Joe doesn’t want to attend, whether it’s a funeral (if you’re watching from home you can eat candy!) or a circumcision ceremony. One of the live streams doesn’t end very well, but it’s for you to find out which one! Upcoming storylines see Ethan and Paul double date, transform a knitting club into an e-commerce venture and explore self-diagnosis via Web MD.