Mark Leiren-Young

Mark Lairen-Young Colour head on hands high resInterviewed by Max D’Ambrosio

Mark Leiren-Young has worked across many genres and media. He serves as editor for Reel West magazine, and his journalism has appeared in the Walrus, the National Observer, TIME, The Hollywood Reporter, Maclean’s, and many other publications. Never Shoot a Stampede Queen – A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo (Heritage), his account of working at a small town newspaper during his early career, won the 2009 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. That book and his more recent memoir Free Magic Secrets Revealed (Harbour) are both being adapted into films. Other nonfiction works including The Green Chain: Nothing is Ever Clear Cut (Heritage) and This Crazy Time (Knopf), written with activist Tzeporah Berman, addressed the subject of environmentalism. His debut feature film The Green Chain, which he wrote, directed, and produced, earned him the most recent of his three nominations for the Writers Guild of Canada Award, and won the El Prat de Llobregat Award at the International Environmental Film Festival (FICMA). His stage plays have been widely acclaimed and produced in at least four countries, and translated into four languages. He has also written for a large number of television shows, including beloved Saturday morning cartoons such as ReBoot.

Shortly after meeting Mark in person for the first time on the streets of Victoria, I encountered him again in Vancouver, as we were both new students working towards the University of British Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing. Having enormous respect for his work, and for how he has handled himself as a working writer, I wanted to glean as much insight as I could from his extensive experience. Hence, this interview. 

You’ve been writing in one form or another since the 80s. What are some of the most significant changes you have observed in the industry? Have journalism and entertainment writing changed to a similar extent, or in the same ways?

I started working for “real” newspapers while I was still in high school (not sure that can happen today). As a journalist the most significant and shocking change is the implosion of mainstream and alternative media. When I worked at the Williams Lake Tribune in 1985/86 we would complain that it was impossible for a staff of seven to properly cover a town with as much news as Williams Lake. 

When my book about working at the Trib was published about two decades later I was interviewed by a student at the University of Victoria who’d worked at a paper in a Victoria suburb and she was in awe of the idea of a seven-person newsroom. 

A few years later that same student (who I’d hired briefly as a researcher) went on to work in Nelson – a pretty sizeable town – and I think she was one of only two people at the paper there. And she was also expected to do video files.

Staff jobs have become freelance gigs; freelance gigs have become free copy from people with a product to shill or an axe to grind. I used to write freelance op-ed pieces – mostly humour columns – for newspapers across Canada. Now freelance op-eds are almost always “free” content. 

When I was starting out I wanted to make my living doing more creative work – writing plays and books (while still dipping into journalism whenever there was a story I was dying to tell or someone I wanted an excuse to meet) – but I always believed that if I ever needed a job to pay the bills newspapers would be there for me. I always figured journalism was the one gig that couldn’t be outsourced, automated or handled by amateurs. Wrong on all counts.

The flip side is, of course, that anyone can get published or publish themselves. And anyone can become a rock star. And yeah, journalism jobs still exist – but the rules and markets are being redefined on an almost daily basis.

The Canadian entertainment industry – TV/film – is in such flux right now that anyone who tells you what it’ll be like next year, never mind next month, is either delusional, lying or trying to make a funny. On some level though that’ s not a new phenom. The all-time great quote on showbiz is screenwriter William Goldman’s line from his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, “nobody knows anything.”

And not to be too melodramatic… okay, fuck it… this’ll sound melodramatic, but it’s reality. The last federal election determined the fate of the Canadian film and TV industry. The Stephen Harper Govt.™ was ideologically opposed to the existence of the CBC and they spent ten years treating the Mother Corp like Jian Ghomeshi treated his dates. Too soon?

One more term, and everyone I know believes the Tories would have put CBC TV out of its misery. 

Almost everyone I know in TV/film-land also feared for the continued existence of Telefilm, the CRTC and other funding bodies. At the start of the campaign Harper talked about never taxing Netflix. What that really meant: he was cool with American Internet broadcasters running in Canada with no regulations. Nobody has proposed this because it’s the type of dumb issue that costs a party votes, but I’d love to pitch it… Up Netflix subscription costs by a buck or two and you could fund a lot of Canadian content. 

A handful of recent regulations – actually deregulation – has dropped Canadian content restrictions on some broadcasters from pathetically low to nonexistent. The thing most people don’t realize as they binge on the latest CSI franchise… I don’t think there’s any other nation on earth that allows another country to control their airwaves. 

And does anyone out there truly believe Harper was a fan of the Canada Council?

The changes that have come with the Internet are having a huge impact on writers and artists, as they continue to adapt. What do you think of the arts industries’ requirement of self-promotion, often through social media? What have been some of your personal experiences with advertising and finding niches for your own work?

I love writing and performing on-line – the idea of having access to a global audience is mind-blowing – but I was never keen on social media and had to be dragged to that particular party. When I was making my first movie, The Green Chain, my producer informed me that movies could no longer be sold without Facebook & Twitter. He informed me that I was joining Facebook and Twitter immediately.

Now most filmmakers are also expected to do crowd-funding campaigns – whether they need the money or not – in order to build “community engagement.” Star Wars and Corner Gas did crowd-funding campaigns. I’ll likely be launching a campaign soon for my new documentary (FYI our movie does need the money). Almost all writers and creators of any stripe are now expected to live online. Hey, if Margaret Atwood can do it…

Publishers and producers check to see how many Twitter and Instagram followers you have and whether you’ve got enough likes on your “fan page” before making an offer on a project. Casting agents recently admitted that social media following now plays a major role in their decisions, possibly a bigger role than an actor’s talent. To Tweet or not to Tweet? We really don’t have a choice.

As for finding a niche…  You’ve asked me two questions so far and I’ve already lost track of how many mediums I’ve mentioned. I understand how branding works – I’ve interviewed people who are experts at it – and I’m their worst nightmare because my approach to writing about whatever intrigues me is toxic niche-repellant. I’ve had marketing people ask if I’d be okay doing fewer things – or at least taking on a pseudonym for some of my work – so they could create a clean image of whoever it was they thought I should be to hustle a particular project. Um… no… 

That said, when I’m in marketing mode for a book or movie or play I tend to tailor my bio info so that it keeps the spotlight on the project (and medium) at hand. If you were interviewing me about, say, a new play I likely wouldn’t be admitting that I do much besides theatre unless you’d done enough homework to push me off message.

Your work is spread across almost every discipline and genre, from journalism to prose fiction to television scripts. Did this come about mostly by accident, or by design? Are you generally happy about the way things have turned out, or have you ever found yourself wishing you could spend more of your time and resources on a particular pursuit?

Happy accident? I tend to get hooked on stories and go where they take me. Journalism and playwriting were intentional. TV and movies came out of playwriting – originally through adapting my own scripts. Documentaries and books both evolved out of journalism.

Recently I’ve found myself working on stories that I’ve been playing through in multiple mediums. I’m currently editing a feature documentary about Moby Doll, the first killer whale in captivity and how that whale changed the world. Right after I started working on the doc, I sold a feature on Moby to The Walrus http://thewalrus.ca/moby-doll/ and CBC offered me the chance to do a radio doc for IDEAS. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/moby-doll-1.2913866

The night the radio doc won a Webster award I was approached about writing a book. Thing is… each of these pieces covers different aspects of a story I’m completely hooked on. 

I almost always wish I could spend more time on every story I work on – but I love flipping between mediums and genres.

Assuming that you had as much time as you could want for polishing, how would you bring out the full potential of your work? What makes the difference between a good piece with a solid core concept, and a truly publishable piece with a concept that comes through clearly? 

I grew up in newsrooms writing on tight deadlines and in theatres where I was often doing up-to-the-minute topical satire – so I know that some pieces can be totally fuelled by inspiration, adrenaline and too much Coca Cola – but for longer projects and/or when I’ve got the time… I’m a huge fan of road testing work, reading it out loud, getting actors I trust to read scripts out loud and especially finding smart people I trust who are willing to rip my stuff to shreds and paying attention to what works for them and what doesn’t. 

I’ve got a handful of trusted friends who I trade projects and critiques with. Some people are great first draft readers; some people are great readers for the polish stage – or at least the polish stage before I deliver something to a publisher, editor, director or producer. I’ve run almost all of my major projects by at least one person I trust (and often up to more like a dozen people I trust) BEFORE delivering it to the person who either is paying for it, or the person I hope will be paying for it. 


Max D’Ambrosio is an MFA Writing student at the University of British Columbia, and is an arts critic for the Marble Theatre Review at www.marblevictoria.com. He is also part of the team of poets representing the Victoria Poetry Project (www.victoriapoetryproject.ca) at this year’s national competition at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word.

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