Tag Archives: The Listener

The amazing race to make Family Channel’s Backstage

Lara Azzopardi has been a producer on such shows as Lost Girl, The Listener, The L.A. Complex and Combat Hospital, and totally switched genres when she became showrunner, writer and director on Backstage, Family Channel’s series about the artistic kids attending an arts high school.

Pregnant with her third child, she expected the usual six to eight-month show development so she could give birth before filming would begin. Nope: Producers Fresh TV accepted her series bible and pilot script on a Friday and greenlit it the following Monday. Filming 30 episodes of Backstage in 30 days was tough enough, but Azzopardi had just given birth, meaning baby was on-set through the entire process. Combine that with the fact her cast was made up of singers and dancers with little formal acting training, and Azzopardi’s ride has been a wild one.

I’m fascinated with the behind-the-scenes of television, and I think you’ve got to be the only showrunner I know that was hauling a newborn around during production.
Lara Azzopardi: It was not planned that way! [Laughs.] I would never have been able to do that if it was my first baby. I don’t think I would have had the courage. It all kind of worked out in a crazy way and I felt I knew kind of what I was doing. But when I think about it now, it was pretty insane.

Fresh TV pitched this “Fame for kids” idea to you. What was it that excited you about their idea?
They had put together a two-page document that had a very general synopsis of the school and stock characters of the people they wanted to see in it. I had never done a kid’s show before. I had written a freelance script at the beginning of my career for Degrassi and that was eight years ago. When I met them, they had read a spec script and a script from The L.A. Complex, and they wanted to meet me from that. I’m a huge fan of shows like My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights, and I told them, ‘I’m interested in doing a Fame that’s grounded and, as a parent, I’d love to watch too.’ I went off and wrote a pretty big bible. I wrote fast. I’m a pretty big fan of ensemble series, so I was excited. We sent in the script on the Friday and it was greenlit on the Monday and I was due three weeks after that.

I’ve been in development before, and it usually lasts at least a year if you’re lucky. So, when I took this on I figured I had time to get notes, do re-writes and see what happens.

Lara Azzopardi
Lara Azzopardi

Not only did they greenlight it, but they greenlit it for 30 half-our episodes.
Thirty episodes.

I’ve seen the first two, and you pack so much into those two episodes that it seems daunting to write 30. Was it daunting? How did you do it?
At the time, I didn’t know what I was in for and it was happening so fast. By the end of it—and we have three stories per episode—we wrote about 97 stories. That’s credit to my writing team Kate Hewlett, Lauren Gosnell, Matt Schiller, Scott Oleszhowicz and Jennifer Pertsch. I had my baby in my arms when we started the room and were breaking an episode a day, sometimes an episode and a half a day. We wouldn’t leave the room until it was done. The baby was in the writers’ room in a sling and we were breaking from 10 a.m. until, sometimes, midnight.

The reason for the rush, too, was that we wanted to get that Friday Night Lights look, which meant filming on location, which meant a real school … which meant we would only have the school from when it let out in the spring until it went back in for the fall. We shot using two crews at the exact same time in the same location shooting four episodes as a time. We filmed 30 episodes in 30 days. I have to give credit to the cast and crew; these kids had four scripts in their heads and once and the crew were passing the scripts between them.

At the end of the day, Backstage is a coming-of-age story for all of these kids. They are figuring out who they are until graduation and even then some of them might not know who they are.

Do the 30 episodes represent one year of studies at Keaton School of the Arts?

Let’s talk about working with the kids in your cast. I’m assuming not very many had acting experience?
We cast real dancers and real singers, so I think because they all had a discipline they had worked at, they brought a drive and professionalism with them. I was nervous because we were casting non-actors and had a crazy schedule. They were up for the challenge. We had two acting coaches on hand and had done an acting workshop beforehand and I was available anytime they needed.

I like the usage of the characters speaking to the camera, like a confessional.
That came from necessity and from creative. For me, it was backstage not only in these kids’ lives but also backstage in their heads. It’s what they’re really thinking and feeling. It allowed us to be very subtle when we’re in the moment in the show and that subtext is said in the confessionals. We shot all of the confessionals at the end of production.

We meet Vanessa and Carly right away and see the first day of school through their eyes. But they have a major fallout and are at odds. Will they become friends again?
It’s a journey. I have three daughters and I really tried to write a friendship in terms of how I’d love to react with my girlfriends or daughters. There are going to be arguments and I just hope we made a show where both girls are right and wrong. There will be lots of ups and downs.

Jax is an interesting character. You want to like him, but right now he’s an arrogant jerk.
Jax is someone who has had some success and then goes to a school where everyone is good and he’s not better. There is quite a journey that he goes through over the 30 episodes and he learns a lot about himself.

At the end of the day, Backstage is a coming-of-age story for all of these kids. They are figuring out who they are until graduation and even then some of them might not know who they are.

Backstage airs Fridays at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Family Channel.


Review: Mystery lingers in ‘Listener’ finale

There was a definite sense after last week’s episode of The Listener that the finale would have plenty on its hands—the IIB was faced with one stunner of a weekly case while Tia and Oz still had to provide closure to the series’ longest running mystery. While Becker’s storyline offered up a meaty intrigue, things fell a bit short when it came to Toby’s reunion with his mother.

The Rookie Blue fan in me was excited to hear Noam Jenkins would be appearing in the finale as the Becker-thwarting baddie, although his tense posturing quickly tipped me off that we didn’t actually have two dirty cops on our hands, or even one. But the incriminating evidence Griffin (Bruce Gray, All My Children) was able to build up had me wishing this sort of investigation could have gone on for a bigger lead into the finale, especially when Becker had to negotiate how much he trusted his new team with how important it was to protect an old friend. He and Michelle have been getting closer throughout the season, but despite all his talk it wasn’t until this episode that Becker and Toby finally sorted their issues out.

As for Michelle, after the expectation she’d had at the beginning of the season that she would become head of the unit, it was interesting to see how she ran the team once given orders to investigate Becker. Much as I lost most of my respect for Griffin when he dangled that promotion back in her face, at least she finally got her chance to lead before the show wrapped. And I would not have wanted to be Griffin considering her expression after he threatened her family, guaranteeing that however they might stack the evidence against Becker, Michelle wouldn’t just roll over. Of course, with the way things ended Michelle seems to be going a more traditional route by clocking in two months on the road with her family instead of leveraging her big bust—but after four years of high–intensity work, she’s probably earned that vacation. How long she’ll be able to keep herself in vacation mode is another matter entirely.

In fact, even though this has been Toby’s show from the start—he and Oz being our mainstays over the past five years—the finale felt more like it belonged to Michelle, or even Dev and Alex, more than our teal-sporting lead despite the big reveal at the end. What the episode did show us was how far Toby and Michelle have come as a team as he trusted her when she asked him to read Becker (not to mention a few episodes back when she trusted him to read her). Outside the office offered more as Tia, taking advantage of Dev’s open computer, finally found Toby’s missing mother only to be misled into believing she was dead. After all these years, that couldn’t possibly have been the ending, so Maya’s perfectly-timed reappearance in Toby’s life didn’t surprise me as much as it did him.

But instead of offering the answers about why the pair had been split up for so long, or what role The Institute had to play in everything, the two sat down for tea as The Listener rolled to a close—leaving us with some mysteries still unsolved. Given the way the show changed over the years, it’s entirely possible the writers weren’t interested in going there anymore, but without any resolution that half of the conclusion felt more rushed. Even Dev and Alex suddenly and awkwardly admitting their feelings and running off to the dance floor together at least had enough build to it that Alex’s “that took way too long” came from us as much as herself. Then again, in a world where a mind-reading paramedic can end up cracking the nation’s highest-ranking corruption ring, maybe there are only so many answers we can expect.

What did you think of The Listener finale? Let me know in the Comments below!


The Listener cast says goodbye

It’s the end of the road for Toby Logan and The Listener gang. After five seasons on the air, the drama–about crime-solving telepath Toby (Craig Olejnik)–signs off this Monday night. The situation is bittersweet for a cast that includes Lauren Lee Smith, Ennis Esmer and Rainbow Sun Francks; after all, the show is closing down after delivering consistently impressive ratings of over a million viewers each week. Still, the cast realize television is a volatile business and though they’d have loved to see the show go on, they’re not dwelling on it.

Monday’s “In Our Midst” sees Toby, Michelle and Dev investigating possible dirty dealings between Becker and disgraced former cop Curtis Maynard (Noam Jenkins). And while the cast were mum on the details, they were more than willing to reveal their thoughts on The Listener, their message to the loyal fans and hinting as to what’s next for each of them.

Lauren Lee Smith (Michelle McCluskey)
Thoughts on playing Michelle

“Michelle has grown so much. Every season there have been these crazy changes and the show has really sort of re-invented itself, which as an actor is really fun to play.”

Message to the fans
“The fans are the reason we’ve had any success. The fans are the reason that we make this show. A giant thank you from the bottom of my heart for watching us week to week for the past five seasons. It’s been an incredible journey with them and without them we wouldn’t have had five seasons of a Canadian show.”

What’s next?
“I’m in Montreal doing a show called Ascension [for Syfy and CBC] where I have a five-episode arc as a really dark, dark, dark character. I have a movie coming out called If I Stay and then Ennis and I are doing a movie called How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town. The title alone gives you an impression of what that’s all about!”

Rainbow Sun Francks (Dev Clark)
Thoughts on playing Dev
“Dev is one of those characters that could just go and do his job and be a robot. It was a new skill set for me to play a techie guy, so it took me awhile to get his story and bring out his humanity. It was all about the writing and finding those little moments in myself and having the writers see that and give me some more. It was a really interesting journey with this guy. He turned out to be a really likeable, fun character.”

The importance of Twitter and connecting with fans
“I love connecting with my Twitter friends. It’s so quick. The thing about the 140 characters is limiting but a great thing because it doesn’t allow you to be too long-winded. One we did the live tweeting, or ‘twatching’ as we called it, it really changed the effect of the show.”

What’s next?
“I’m having a viewing party on Monday at my [Toronto] bar, Ravage & Rumble and I encourage anyone to come down. It’s not a giant entertainment space, but it’s a quaint little space on Queen Street West and I’m going to set up a big TV and a projector and we’ll have a last ‘twitch’ together and have a really, really good time.”

Ennis Esmer (Oz Bey)
Thoughts on playing Oz
“This is the first time I’ve been a regular character on a series and it’s made my career, basically. That’s something that I’ve always appreciated. We had great people on the set all the time that kept you honest and reminded you that it was a team effort. I will miss everyone.”

Message to the fans
“I have come to fall in love with every fan of The Listener over the last five years. The FanExpo session that we did last year really made me realize what the show meant to people. I got this email from a girl in Slovenia who emailed me to say she was a huge fan of the show and watching you guys got me through some tough times and you were always good for a laugh. I really appreciated that. Even people who come up to me on the street and say, ‘Wow, you look thinner on the show!’ it’s all appreciated.”

What’s next?
“I’m looking forward to the Oz spinoff that we’re working on right now. It’s called Look Who’s Listening Now. Oz moves to Seattle … well, rural Washington … and he starts up a phone-in therapy chat show. Aaron Abrams is playing the studio manager is a real rough and tumble guy sort of producer who clashes with my dainty, refined sensibilities as an on-air therapist. I’m looking forward to it, and we’re breaking scripts next week.” [Editor’s note: he’s kidding.]

Craig Olejnik (Toby Logan)
Thoughts on playing Toby
“I’ve held on to Toby Logan since the pilot and it ebbs and flows and changes. It is still slowly trickling out of me. I said to my girlfriend, ‘I think Toby Logan is dead!’ It’s like I was possessed of something. [Laughs.]”

Message to the fans
“A deep thanks. Thanks for sticking with us and supporting us and watching us loyally every week and for bumping into us and showing joy for the show. It’s been incredibly rewarding. We do these things in closed sets and environments and to have people come out in your day-to-day life in the grocery store or whatever and tell you that they love the show really makes it all worthwhile.”

What’s next?
“I’m down in California laying my roots here to move on to the next level. Once you’ve been the lead on a show in Canada, the next thing is you gotta come down here to go a little higher and then you can reach another threshold in Canada. We’re lucky to be Canadian and have access to the Canadian and American market. I don’t want to really produce or write or direct or anything like that. I just want to be a for-hire actor.

The Listener series finale airs Monday, Aug. 18, at 9 p.m. ET on CTV.

Do you have a message for the cast of The Listener? Let them know via their Twitter feed! Follow Greg on Twitter.


Review: The Listener goes undercover

There was plenty going down in this week’s The Listener—including a revelation that Toby’s extra-aural abilities might be a family affair—but I don’t think I’d be doing the episode any justice if I started with anything other than the amazing undercover outfits the IIB team pulled off on such short notice. After Dev’s wig and stilted lawyer-speak and Michelle’s turn as a car jacker’s winking goth girlfriend, I really wanted Toby’s stint in the big house to stretch on long enough for the whole team to stop by. Maybe Becker in baggy pants and a sleeveless top, or a matching lawyer outfit for Alex?

Understandably, Toby was less keen on that idea after Vince and McManus decided to get proactive about blocking up a leak that was going to foil Borman’s desperate final attempt at freedom—even if he showed off some impressive fighting skills while deflecting the attack. I was expecting a few more moments with The Incredible Hulk‘s Grant Nickalls as Borman, especially after the buildup about him in the beginning, but I guess since he wasn’t actually the mastermind of the coup, Nicole taking centre stage during the interrogations made more sense.

And I did really enjoy watching Michelle and Becker work together on a case again—in part because while she and Toby are a well-oiled savant team, there’s an extra sense of accomplishment between Becker and Michelle when they suss out a secret on their own, or pull off a sting the old-fashioned way. This season, despite taking on another revamp, has done a great job of giving Toby and everyone else plenty to do—building up to what I hope is going to be a satisfying finale for all the characters.

Because what was really hanging over “An Innocent Man” was the sudden news that this was the second-last episode of The Listener, ever. So even as the case of the week added tension and some undercover twists, a part of me was looking for the first signs of closure that next week’s finale should bring. Namely that Alex was back and she and Dev still haven’t made any progress with their not-so-secret crushes on each other’s brains (and, presumably, faces).

Or more importantly, the resolution over Toby’s history with The Institute and the mysterious whereabouts of a mother he’s not all that interested in finding. I know it’s all coming to a head next Monday, but I was left wishing Tia’s mysterious tip would have led to something more. Instead, it seems like Maya might have the same abilities as Toby but is leading a far less risky lifestyle—or at least one that’s seen her successfully stay one step ahead of ominous cable vans in the years since she and Toby split up.

And that’s putting a lot of pressure on the finale for fans like myself who were expecting The Institute’s resolution to play a much bigger role in the show’s conclusion. It’s looking like Toby’s going to have his hands full with internal problems at the IIB along with whatever revelations Tia and Oz bring—and how exactly he’ll handle the news that both his girlfriend and his best friend went behind his back on this after he told them not to is just one more mystery to add to next week’s pile.

The Listener finale airs next Monday at 9 p.m. ET on CTV.


Tara Spencer-Nairn Talks Writers at the Canadian Screen Awards


Tara Spencer-Nairn (The Listener) on Writers 

(Photo by Derek Langer)

I caught up with Tara at the second Industry Gala of the Canadian Screen Awards. She had some wonderful things to say about the writer’s she has worked with.

“I would be nothing without the writers – that’s where it all starts, the vision becomes reality. That’s where it all happens is the writing. As an actor I’m always very anal about my lines, I try very hard to stick to the script because I respect the time it took for the writers to pick a word, pick a line, there’s so much that goes into it, and enough of it is already thrown to the wayside once we get onto set. You have to remember, that’s where it all started – they’re the base of the pyramid.”