Michael MacLennan

mmaclennan-lgInterview by Steve Neufeld

Born in Vancouver, Michael Lewis MacLennan now divides his time between Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, working as a playwright, screenwriter and TV producer.

He began his screenwriting career as Writer and Story Editor for CBC’s Wind At My Back, then went on to be a Co-Executive Producer on Showtime/Showcase’s Queer As Folk, a ground-breaking drama about urban gay culture. After that he became Co-Creator, Executive Producer and head writer of City TV’s flagship dramatic series about a high-end restaurant in Yaletown called Godiva’s. Currently Michael is helming his new series, Global TV’s Bomb Girls, which chronicles the lives of the women who worked in a Toronto munitions factory during World War II.

I get Michael on the phone on January 16th, 2013, just before the latest episode of Bomb Girls airs on Global. Michael has just arrived home after a pitch meeting that ran long. He takes a moment to pour himself a drink, while I unsuccessfully attempt to set my phone to speaker. Then he sits down, I jam my phone between my shoulder and ear, and we get to talking.

After my first question, he says, “Oh man, I haven’t thought about this stuff in years. I didn’t realize it was going to be this kind of interview.” I apologize, hoping he doesn’t feel like I am trolling, Barbara Walters-like, for tearful confessions, but Michael assures me it’s fine, and we slide into an easy conversation.

What TV and film did you watch growing up?

I was born in ’68, so I watched a lot of banal television ranging from re-runs of My Three Sons to Gilligan’s Island. My favourite shows were Lavern and Shirley and Loveboat. I loved the old middle-America, you know, garbage television.

I stopped watching television in my last year of high school. Then between moving out at 17 and going to film school in 1997 (at 29) I didn’t watch television. I didn’t own one. When I went to film school I’d never seen an episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons. I had missed a generation’s worth of television references. When I went to film school I had no interest in television, but they made me buy a TV. I said, “Why? It’s stupid; I never want to write for it.” But I went and bought a cheap little television. Until a year and a half ago, that was my TV. I had this piece of shit TV, and I started watching and really studying television, and found out that there was good stuff out there.

As for cinema, I did not come from a family that celebrated ingenuity in cinema. It wasn’t until I went to the University of Victoria that I realized there was good shit out there.

If you want to write for TV, you have to know the medium. I dove deep. But I will say I did know theatre better than anybody. I had a real and deep understanding of that medium.

When you were a kid, what did you think you’d end up doing for a career?

I dreamt of being an actor, but that had a lot had to do with my sense of the possible. I didn’t really understand that there were writers. In high school I didn’t get good marks in creative writing because I wouldn’t do the assignments; I’d get side-tracked with other ideas. I worked ten times as hard as anyone else, but I didn’t get good marks, so I thought I wasn’t good at writing.

So it was acting that first got me involved in the theatre.

I thought of being a lawyer, perhaps in part because I saw the world in terms of arguments, which is to say conflict, and I thought, I’m good at arguing a point of view. That skill served me well because the point of drama is to let the truth exist in this vibrating middle of a constellation of points of view. Writing allows me to embody different aspects of an issue. I can win arguments in writing in ways I couldn’t in person.

What did you take in college?

English Honours at the University of Victoria. I went thinking I was going to study law. Then, after my first year, I had this idea that when I eventually retired, I’d go back and take English Literature. Then I thought, why the fuck am I going to wait till I retire to do what I want to do, which is to study great literature?

So I had to make the unpopular decision to study English. My honours degree was geared towards preparing people for academic careers. I took one theatre course, and one creative writing course – and I must say, I got A-pluses in both. I should have taken the hint.

I do feel that taking English Literature was the right thing for me, because I got to study the great works, rather than discussing poems my peers dashed off the night before. The problem with the creative writing classes was the amount of attention we paid to the work of peers, when most of them never ended up doing anything. On the other hand, studying literature means you’re studying the mechanics of genius.

My one creative writing class was poetry, which was useful, because drama is meant to be heard, as poetry is. Screenplay is condensed meaning, as poetry is. A good screenplay is a kind of poetry of our time.

What did you do before you became a writer?

I put myself through university by doing inventory for Fletcher’s Meats (as a vegan). I was also a waiter, and not a very good one. This is probably the key to my success – if I was a better waiter I wouldn’t have become a writer.

During university, when I informed my family that I’d no longer study law, they no longer supported me. After my degree I worked as a tour coordinator, managed theatre festivals, and was the managing director of the Open Space Art Society. I was a very successful arts administrator, which is perhaps a reason why I’ve succeeded as a showrunner — I understand the administration part of the job.

Most people who want to write for a living face that chasm of needing the time to write, but also needing to make a living before their career is off the ground. How did you cross that chasm?

I think most writers come to a point of reckoning. They have to be willing to pay their dues while honing their craft, but there’s a point at which, if you really know yourself, you have to make the leap and put all your chips on one bet. For every writer that’s a different point. For some people, that point never arrives. Some writers continue to have day jobs and have success as writers.

When I knew I was ready I quit my job to write a play. Everyone I knew thought I was insane. My deal with myself was, if my first play is not a complete and utter success, I will quit and go back to being an administrator.

I spent two weeks on this beach in the middle of nowhere on Vancouver Island. I went down there with nothing but a tent, food and basic bedding, and I wrote the first scene of my first play, and that was the first time I wrote anything that felt important.

I was 25 at the time. I did not want to be one of those struggling artists. As GM of the Victoria Fringe, I had seen the reality of what it is to write a play and tour the country for four months and $7000 and consider that a good year. After I quit, I read a ton of books and spent a year writing, directing and producing my first play [Beat the Sunset]. I would never tell someone to quit if their first play wasn’t a success, but luckily mine was and I never looked back.

How did you make the transition from writing plays to writing for the screen?

UBC MFA Grad Johanna Mercer saw Beat the Sunset and asked if I’d write a feature-length adaptation for her to direct. I wrote an original short instead. That’s what got me writing for the screen. I realized how completely different the two forms are, but also how compatible they are.

I applied to the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), and I got in. The CFC won’t really teach you how to write for screen, but they will launch you into that world.

What was the first project you were paid to write? How did this opportunity come about?

A lot of the early projects were ones I chose to do and I was not paid to write them. It’s important that a writer not come out of the gate with an over-inflated sense of their value. Your cohorts are also on their own trajectories. You need to develop relationships with those people. It’s important to work with people for free and develop those relationships.

The first project I was paid to write was my second play, for which I applied for grants. I should say that because the Canada Council invested a few thousand bucks in me, I have turned around and generated millions of dollars of economic benefit for the country. Even if every project they fund isn’t a winner, that money does come back when some beneficiaries do well. My job writing for Sullivan Entertainment’s Wind At My Back was the first screenwriting gig I was ever paid to do.

Was there ever a moment, or a project, that made you think “I’ve made it”?

There’s a moment where you realize “I am making my living as a writer” which for me was very early with the Wind At My Back gig, when I got hired back for my second season. That’s different from feeling like “I’m okay.” I’d say most writers go a good long time, if not their whole careers, not sure if they’re “okay”. I’ve just reached that point last year with Bomb Girls. The moment you realize you’re “in” does not coincide with the realization that you’re “okay.” Most writers never get that.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced in becoming a writer?

Just my own ability. It’s an industry that’s looking for talent. If you have it, people want it. I’m not a particularly schmoozy person, but the work always speaks for itself. There are mediocre writers who, at the beginning of their careers, have enormous success, and it goes against your sense of justice, but you can either be a tortoise or a hare, and I guess I’m more of a tortoise.

What are your goals now? What do you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

A major US network series.

What have you done that you’re most satisfied with?

On screen, Godiva’s and Bomb Girls. On stage, The Shooting Stage and Last Romantics. And some of the things I have coming up are really great. The hell of it is, you can write a great thing, but if it never sees the light of day…

When is the time for an emerging writer to get an agent?

Young writers are overly obsessed about that. The time to go to an agent is after you feel you’ve done all your training and you’re sitting on the hottest stuff you could imagine writing. Because you want the best agent.

When people send you samples of their work, would you rather see spec scripts of existing shows or the writers’ original pilots?

I want to see your original. I want to know what you bring to the party and the best way to do that is to hear your original voice. There is a caveat: it is important to prove that you can play by someone else’s rules.

Here I am, running Bomb Girls, and not every writer out there has a script that deals with a serialized show set in the 1940’s about women from various walks of life. So I have to mine the essence of a writer through their work, and my best way is to find out what makes them tick.

Who should emerging writers approach to read their work and what’s the best way to go about it?

I’d say be bold, and go to the top. But contact the right people. Know their work. Know their show. Be able to write intelligently about why you’re talking to them. You need to be able to say: “I’m talking you because I admire how you do this and I see myself fitting in this way.” Don’t just scattershot and think it’s going to work. There has to be a reason you’re talking to someone.

For playwrights, do the work and people will come to you. Do your work. Don’t spend the whole time pleasing other people. Write stuff you want to do, because you’re at a time you can do that, and if you think you’re so good, let’s find out. If you are, good things will come.

Here’s a little secret – Canadians love somebody who will say, “This is what I’m doing, this is what I’m about….” People want someone who has a bold point of view. If you don’t have that, it’s harder to make it.  Maybe the thing to do is to go travel the world or something. Live some life!

Just before we wrap up, Michael has me hold on while he lets a friend in, apparently to watch Bomb Girls with him. I apologize. “For what?” he asks. For cutting into his personal time, I say. “Man, that’s so Canadian,” he says. “It’s fine.”

Steve Neufeld is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and dramaturge. His first feature film, Tumaini, was released by Courtesy Productions in 2009 and he is about to release a documentary film (which he co-wrote and co-produced) called Ladder of My Life, about a former “Lost Boy” of Sudan (Unveil Studios). Set to complete his MFA in Creative Writing at UBC this May, Steve also served as dramaturge on two Simon Fraser University MFA student productions and is a Core Mentor for the Booming Ground writer’s mentorship program.

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