June 22, 2010 Jill

Barb HaynesThe first people I ran into when I got to the Banff Television Festival last week were the participants of the Canwest Showrunner Training Program.  Barb Haynes is one of my favourite people, a must-read-tweeter and the author — along with partner in crime and life  Brent Piaskoski — of I Do Already, the blog and Twitter feedAs soon as I laid eyes on her I knew I had to get her to write something for this space about the showrunner training program and the Banff experience.  And she has and it’s great.  Read on:

As I come down from my Rocky Mountain High and wean myself off great quantities of caffeine, booze and delicious gamey meats, I’m left with the fuzzy afterglow of an incredible week. I was lucky enough to be selected for the Canwest Showrunners Program at the Banff Television Festival. Together with four other writer-producers, I got a crash course in the many facets of running a show.

We spent our days in a hotel room, sequestered like monks — well, rare monks who’d convinced the friar to ditch all that chanting and praying, and let us worship at the altar of good TV instead. We scribbled in notebooks as line producers, broadcasters, casting directors and agents spoke of their wishes and challenges in putting together a series. Getting such a varied perspective on one thing was valuable and hugely appreciated, but I’ll be honest, the flat-out thrill of meeting top showrunners from series you adore was the high point of the program.

James Manos (Dexter), David Zucker (The Good Wife), Peter Murietta (The Wizards of Waverly Place), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) were all passionate and engaging storytellers. Despite the differences in personalities and shows, however, they all said the same thing in one form or another: communicate and be kind. Thinking back, I guess this means my nana would’ve been a great showrunner.

Communication: Have a strong vision of the show you want, and communicate it as clearly as possible. Don’t assume anything. If you don’t understand, ask. In the words of Peter Murietta, “give yourself every opportunity to succeed.” Pay attention, notice details, and act on them.

Kindness: Treat people with respect and recognize that making a show isn’t a solo venture. You need a lot of people to turn your vision into reality, so don’t crap on them along the way. Every showrunner had a story of that brilliant writer with the great script who couldn’t get work. Why? One word. Rhymes with gas pole. (I don’t know what a gas pole is either. I’m just trying to be polite.)

Vince Gilligan and Bill Prady also advised hiring your mentors — enlist people smarter and braver than you. And they both stressed that listening to notes didn’t necessarily mean taking notes. A note means you missed a piece in your story telling, so it’s your job to make it clear. Heed the note; ignore (if you can) the proposed solution.

They stressed the need to create real, deep characters whose behavior makes sense. Prady went further and talked about the difference between (some) Canadian comedies and US comedies: comedy is rude and Canadians are not. (Psst: I can be rude! The word I meant earlier was asshole.)

But! If you’re going to have a rude character, for God’s sake make sure he’s in pain. Otherwise he’s just a jerk we don’t care about. Give him a childlike sensibility, some vulnerability, then set aside manners and decorum, reach deep into your own pain, and you’ll create something funny. Not quirky or cute, but actually funny. This piece of advice was the highlight of the week for me, so once Prady admitted he shares many characteristics with his creation Sheldon, I may have been floating off the floor.

The program is a terrific tool for a country that’s still figuring out what a showrunner is. If you’re lucky enough to get a group like I had, it’s even better:
– Dennis Heaton, a man who never walked a straight line the five days we were there. Not because of booze, but because everyone, everywhere, wanted to talk to him.
– Russ Cochrane, stylish, gracious, kind and confident, he proved every day why he’ll be a speaker on this program in five years or less.
– Adam Barken, a guy whose easy smile, sense of humor and wealth of experience made all of us a little braver and a little more relaxed, and
– Craig David Wallace, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met with the craziest, most out-there and awesome show, a combination he shares with Vince Gilligan

So big thanks to Canwest and our group’s lovely, fearless leader Brenda Greenberg. Here’s to the next generation of Canadian Showrunners!

Find Barb all over the web: on Twitter, I Do Already blog and Twitter.

Comments (3)

  1. Karen McClellan

    Great post! Very inspiring. Thank you, Barb and Jill, for sharing.

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