The old adage “write what you know,” certainly applies to Susin Nielsen’s latest creation, Family Law. She admits that she didn’t know anything about the law, but knew plenty about family. In fact, what happens to her lead character happened to Nielsen.
Debuting Friday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Global (with a special preview of the premiere episode on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT), Family Law stars Jewel Staite as Vancouver lawyer—and recovering alcoholic—”Abigail “Abby” Bianchi. As a condition of her probation to return to her legal duties, Abby must work at the firm owned by her estranged father, Harry (Victor Garber), alongside her half-brother Daniel (Zach Smadu) and half-sister Lucy (Genelle Williams). Throw in Abby’s husband Frank (Luke Camilleri), mother Joanne (Lauren Holly), daughter Sofia (Eden Summer Gilmore) and son Nico (Brenden Sunderland), and there is plenty to mine for drama and laughs.
With legal dramas a popular genre, what truly sets Family Law apart is sharp writing and stunning performances by the cast, led by Staite.
We spoke to Susin Nielsen about about the road to making Family Law, which has already shot its second season.
How did Family Law come to be?
Susin Nielsen: I actually first came up with this idea about a decade ago, and brought it to SEVEN24 — they’ve always been my partners with it — and we got it into development at another network, but they didn’t move forward with it. And then flash forward I guess about, five years and Jordy Randall at SEVEN24 called and he said, ‘We’ve never stopped thinking about Family Law and we see another opportunity to pitch it.’
So I went to [the] Banff [World Media Festival] and I pitched it to Susan Alexander and Rachel Nelson at Corus in 2018, and I think it was a lot of serendipity, it was right time, right place. I think I had made the idea stronger and better as well, and they put us into development and then they gave us more development, and then eventually they green-lit us.
In terms of the creative origins, when I first came up with the idea, there was a part of me that was trying to be shrewd. I’m not usually very shrewd when it comes to my writing, but it seemed like what was selling were procedurals, and I knew that for me and my sensibilities, I was probably never going to do a cop show. A hospital show just felt so out of my area of expertise. And certainly, I also really know nothing about law, but I knew a lot about family. I know a lot about family function and dysfunction, and my own family background somewhat mirrors Abby’s in that I didn’t meet my father until I was a teenager. At which point, I also met my half-brother and my half-sister.
I think that’s kind of always informed, probably, a lot of my writing. It just felt like a premise that I got really excited about. What if there was this woman who had been estranged from her father for all of these years, carried a huge chip on her shoulder, is almost disbarred because of her alcoholism and the only lawyer in town who will take her on is her dad? What I really loved about it was that I could explore family on three levels. I could explore the cases. I could explore Abby having to work with these people who she’s really just getting to know, and at the same time she’s trying to salvage her marriage and her relationship with her children.
The cast that you’ve got is incredible. Victor Garber, Jewel Staite, Zach Smadu, Genelle Williams, Lauren Holly. You must be pinching yourself every day that you got to work with these folks.
SN: Thank you for bringing all of them up. I do pinch myself. What’s interesting is that not only are they obviously exceptional actors, they’re also incredibly lovely people and Jewel really sets the tone on set for all of our actors coming in. They all hang out all the time during the season, like every single weekend they were doing things together, doing dinners, it was hilarious. They don’t have to do that, they could just say, nice to see you, see you on Monday.
What was so interesting about Jewel was that she could just elevate whatever was in a scene. She could take a comedic scene and just — with a look — make it that much funnier. And a heartfelt scene, again, just with a look, and make you tear up even more. The three siblings, they got their rhythm together so fast and the looks that passed between Abby and Daniel all the time, they all just add all sorts of layers that are obviously not there on the page.
And then Victor. I, in a million years, never ever thought we’d get Victor Garber. Like he was like my dream Harry, but I just thought, ‘Well, that’s fantasy, but you’re never going to get Victor Garber.’ And it’s just been such a pleasure working with him, he’s just a consummate professional. I think he’s had two questions for me about script. He just comes in and he delivers.
Let’s switch over to the writer’s room. In addition to you, we’ve got Corey Liu, Damon Vignale, Sarah Dodd, Ken Craw and Sonja Bennett. What’s your writing process with the team?
SN: I knew I wanted, if I could, a 100 per cent a Vancouver-based room because we have a lot of really talented writers here. Everybody in that room had a story of their own, and certainly when we were developing Season 1, there was no such thing as a worldwide pandemic yet, so we were able to do all of it in person.
We would meet at Lark Productions, which is our producer here on the ground in Vancouver. We would just meet in this big, open boardroom and start hammering out ideas. First, we would talk about character arcs for the season and I had initial documents with things that I had been thinking about and case ideas that I had had since 2011, and the writers brought their own ideas to the room. Then we just started talking about case ideas and what excited us, and how could a case relate back to the family?
What do you look for in a writer?
SN: You’re looking for a group that are going to compliment each other for sure, and different people bringing different strengths to the table. The one commonality I was looking for were people who could write believable, compelling dialogue, people who could do both drama and comedy, comedy coming out of character. I felt very blessed to get Sarah Dodd because Sarah has, frankly, a lot more experience than I do, particularly with procedural. She’s done a lot of procedural. So it was fabulous to have her there just to make sure that we were structurally sound as well. Sarah is all those other things as well, but she brought oodles of procedural experience.
Sonja Bennett is so funny and she can make it look effortless with her lightness of touch with her dialogue; her dialogue’s fabulous. And then Cory Liu … I have a real soft spot for Corey. Seeing him grow over the last two seasons has just been exceptional. He is so talented and he will rule the world one day, I am sure. It’s been such a pleasure to watch him grow into his own confidence, because I don’t think he understood just quite how talented he was.
Family Law airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Global.
Images courtesy of Corus.