Tag Archives: Screenwriter Interview

Varunn Pandya talks finding the right dream and pursuing it

XYZ_Headshot
Varunn Pandya, photo by Chaaritha Dheerasinghe

When Varunn Pandya, 21, was growing up, he watched all kinds of movies and found himself enamored by the different journeys they took him on and the different perspectives he felt towards the world. Today, he can proudly say that love for film has only flourished and he has since established a reputation as a talented, unique screenwriter and director. He finds the concept of writing down his thoughts and ideas to be cathartic and he has spent years attempting to learn as much as possible about the arts in order to better himself for the benefit of his eventual audiences. For Pandya, the true luxury that his profession affords him is the luxury of getting to explore different characters and different worlds. Not only is this what attracted him to writing in the first place, but it is also what keeps him coming back for more time and time again.

Throughout his career, Pandya has allowed himself to pour his heart and soul into a number of phenomenal scripts. He is his own toughest critic and his own strongest motivator, pushing himself to ensure that he only brings high quality content before his viewer’s screens. For Pandya, there is no room for slacking in screenwriting and he feels as though giving 99 per cent just simply doesn’t do justice to the tales he aims to tell. He is well known for stories like Dilemma and Homeless and he has made a prominent name for himself in the industry. He has even earned a number of competitive awards, including Best Short Screenplay at Five Continents International Film Festival and at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival in 2018. What the talented young man lacks in years of experience, he makes up for in sheer talent and so long as he has a pen and paper, he hopes to continue creating compelling stories to share with the world.

Later on in September of this year, Pandya earned himself even more recognition when his script XYZ was chosen as an Official Selection at the Trujillo International Independent Film festival and also when he won the award for Best Sci-Fi Short Screenplay at the Hollywood Just4Shorts Film and Screenplay Competition. When he sets his sights on a script, there is very little he won’t do to make it a success and these awards are a testament to that commitment.

Alongside his friend and colleague, Bader AlShuaib, Pandya developed a concept for XYZ and carefully but considerately determined how best to showcase it before the eyes of thousands. XYZ is about the human tendency to be inherently racist and biased towards people with a certain body type or complexion. In an uncertain future, it centers around Martha, a newly-wed African-American woman who convinces her husband to make her dream of having Caucasian children come true. To achieve this dream of hers, they undergo a special experimental procedure so as to be able to select each and every trait of their future children. Slowly, Martha realizes that in the process of making her dream come true, she ends up destroying everyone around her.

When AlShuaib and Pandya began brainstorming for the script, they pulled inspiration from films and shows like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Black Mirror. As both works have successfully done, AlShuaib and Pandya wanted to delve into the scientific fiction genre and determine a way to challenge the minds of their audiences with a thriller-like, psychological spin. Ultimately, they wanted to explore a deeply human story against a futuristic setting. It was unlike anything Pandya had done in the past and he was awoken by the enjoyment it brought him.

“Unlike my previous work such as The House, a futuristic setting was something I hadn’t ever tackled before. The novelty of this itself made this script an interesting challenge. Even my co-writer, Bader, had not written anything like this before and, hence, was equally passionate about diving into a new world and figuring it out. The writing process was very different to my previous projects. This was the first time I was collaborating with someone and it was important to make sure that I wasn’t curbing his creativity. In my opinion, our writing relationship was very smooth. I would write a draft and send it over to him. After a week or two, he’d tweak it and send it to me. This back and forth eventually resulted in the final script – one that we’re both very proud of” shared Pandya.

Writing XYZ and having it achieve such success in its early days served as a reminder that Pandya has what it takes to pave a change in the film industry. He considers himself fortunate to have found what he truly loves to do so early on in his career. To others out there aspiring to follow their dreams and do so with success, Pandya had the following advice to offer:

“To anyone looking to pursue a career in this industry, I would advise them to be ready to have sleepless nights, go a few months without decent work or pay, and face rejection. If they can accept this, theirs is going to be a smooth ride. I would also ask them to only pick this industry if there’s nothing else they would do even if it paid better. This industry demands that kind of a passion.”

 

Written by Annabelle Lee

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Q & A with Award Winning Screenwriter Thomas Pound!

On set of series MOTIVE with Actor Dylan Walsh and Executive Producer Erin Haskett
Actor Dylan Walsh (left), writer Thomas Pound (center) & executive producer Erin Haskett (right) on set of the multi-award winning series “Motive”

 

Since breaking onto the scene in 2008 with a win as Best Writer at the Vancouver 48 Hour Film Festival, Thomas Pound has written, created, and produced some of the most groundbreaking TV series and films to date.

Tenacity and persistence are vital to make it as a working writer and/or producer in the entertainment industry, and Pound has certainly exhibited both qualities in droves with the projects he’s brought to the screen. In the early stages of his career, immersing himself in the writing process and building experience were his primary goals, something he achieved in 2008 with Universal’s third installment of the cult classic Slap Shot, Slap Shot 3: The Junior League.

In 2010, Pound went on to write, direct, and produce the film The Wilderness Within, which earned him a Silver Ace Award the following year at the Las Vegas Film Festival.

On a hot streak, there was no stopping Pound as he continued to write feature films including Anomalies, The Cold, and Nextworld until he landed his first television series Motive. Working with an established writer and executive producer like Dennis Heaton (Fido, Call Me Fitz) helped give Pound the confidence to evolve his craft and provided audience members with a deeper look into the show’s main characters, and by dong so Pound, and the Motive team, received a Canadian Screen Award’s nomination for Best Dramatic Series in 2014.

Following ABC’s Motive, Pound took on the hefty task of re-writing and executive producing the horror film Torment, with only six weeks before shooting. He ended up doing major rewrites on the script and eventually came up with a new story and screenplay in just three days, which is a major feat, and one that Pound claims he will never attempt again but definitely well worth it since the film premiered at Los Angeles Screamfest.

The next couple of years proved to be very busy yet successful ones for the Calgary, Alberta native as Pound went on to write, create, and produce his most challenging TV series to date, Rookie Blue. On Rookie Blue, Pound acted as executive story editor in addition to his usual duties as a writer.

He is currently in the process of developing two new one hour drama series for Canadian TV: The Brick and The Faculty. Both shows are currently in production and are slated for a 2016 release date.

To find out more about the multitalented screenwriter and producer, check out the interview below and visit his IMDB page at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3281909/

 

Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?

TP: I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It was like growing up in a giant small town. The people there are salt of the earth and humble. The town is victim to subzero winters and urban sprawl, which has resulted in the people bonding much tighter and becoming much warmer than many other cities I’ve spent time in. At the time, I likely would have said the town was too quiet and too wholesome. Only since leaving have I realized the rest of the world could use a little more wholesome.

How have your early experiences influenced some of the work you create today?

TP: Everything I create today goes back to my roots. Growing up in the prairies instilled a strong sense of community, family, and wholesome living. The Brick started as a love letter to the prairies. Witnessing a small town I would spend summers in, Brooks Alberta, become hit with big box-stores and chain corporations changed the simple small town memories I had from childhood. This town was no longer what I remembered. Knowing the people from that small town and their polarizing opinions on what this means for their way of life, it was an easy creative leap to build a fictional world using this prairie touchstone. Peppering in the organized crime elements was creative freedom and no reflection of Brooks Alberta to my knowledge. The Brick became my attempt to reclaim the small Alberta town I remember fondly spending summers at the lake in.

When and how did you get into the industry as a screenwriter?

TP: I moved to Vancouver, BC immediately after high school to attend Vancouver Film School and study Film Production. I started writing feature screenplays on my own time, trying to better understand story and how to manipulate it. It was the series Lost which sparked my interest in television. I also worked in the industry as an assistant in every capacity for four years following film school.

Relocating to Toronto, Ontario was the first step towards making a concentrated focus to write full time. The few working writers I did know lived there and the executives who could hire me had offices there, so I had to move. There’s something to be said about persistence, because that’s all I shelled out for two years. Writing spec script after spec script, I knocked on doors of producers, agents, broadcasters, to learn who was being read and what projects were coming up. Eventually, pilots I wrote found homes: Anomalies was first sold to Gearshift films, and a short while later The Faculty found its home at The Nightingale Company. The relationship with Gearshift Films presented an opportunity to co-writer and executive produce a horror film they had in the works, which turned out to be Torment. Through the effort of simply trying to meet people, I suddenly had a produced feature under my belt. That same year, I was hired on as a writer for the CTV series Motive, and where I was able to co-write my first produced hour of television with Dennis Heaton. After that year with Torment and Motive, I felt comfortable introducing myself to strangers as a writer.

What kind of audience do you generally write for, and why are you passionate about writing stories for this audience?

TP: I try to write stories anyone can enjoy. I’ve always enjoyed commercial feature films and television, and enjoy delivering material which can reach the widest audience possible. That being said, every story I write has to have a human heart, an emotional anchor anyone can relate with or connect to. Whether it’s a sweeping science fiction epic or an ensemble character drama, I strive to find the heart at the core of every story, giving the audience something tangible to latch onto and pull them into the piece. I approach every story I write with the same simple question: “What would I want to feel?” The answer can be excitement, of heartbreak, or inspiration, but it always comes from a place within of what I want to feel. If I can tap into that emotion, I hope it is translated on the page and the audience feels that same sensation. That’s the beauty of television and film, the journey and triggering of emotions to audiences all over the world.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of the projects you’ve written for film and television?

TP: I was fortunate to be brought onto the horror film Torment when it was very close to start filming. There was a script, which was to be shot in six weeks, and it needed a lot of work done on the project. I was inspired by what the filmmaker, Jordan Barker, wanted to do with the film, but the existing script didn’t provide. We met in his office on a Wednesday and spent two days locked away reworking the entire story from page one. Once we had a new story and shape for the film we wanted to make, I went away and wrote the first draft of the screenplay in three days. The quick turnaround is not common, nor would I attempt or offer it again. However, with the deadline of filming starting within weeks, we needed a script to work off of. We were rewriting large chunks of the story as the weeks wore down to the start of principal photography, often turning around entire new drafts of the script within a day or two. It was an intense process, which left me feeling like my head was spinning. When filming finally began, I recall standing on set in awe. This was my first ever produced script, and dozens of people were committing incredible effort and time to make it real. I imagined a car blowing up and typed it on my computer in my tiny apartment, and now I was on location watching the flames grow and feeling the wave of heat from the vehicle engulfed in flames. Those lost weekends and evenings were worth it. Torment was my first produced film, which I also executive produced. It confirmed what I already knew: I’m in this for life.

Motive was the first series I ever wrote for. When I moved away from Vancouver to Toronto in pursuit of a writing career, I told friends I’d return one day with a show. The joke amongst us is that I had to move to Toronto to get a job in Vancouver. Low and behold, some years later, it finally happened. Working under Dennis Heaton on Motive was invaluable. He let me hit the ground running, co-writing my first episode of broadcast television with him: “Kiss of Death”. This was another case of being under the pressure of schedule. We spent weekends locked away together working out the beats of our story, a similar experience to Torment. We wanted to do something different with the show and take a deeper look into our killer’s point of view, experiencing his own hallucinations when we learn he’s been poisoned. This seems like an easy task, however, the show had never done something like this and with Dennis’ leadership, we were able to craft a story, which sold the emotion of the moment, bringing it to screen.

On my second year, I was able to write an episode I’m deeply proud of – “The Glass House”. The idea of this episode had been brewing since my first year on Motive. It started with a very simple emotional anchor “A Father trying to get his daughter back”. I didn’t know the story, I didn’t know the character, all I knew was the core emotional drive, and it was what I constantly went back to in crafting the story. I was given tremendous freedom on Motive to tell the story I wanted. I believe this came from always servicing the emotion of the story first.

You’ve also produced some of these projects, is that correct? Can you tell us a little bit about the projects you’ve both written and produced and how tackling both jobs draws upon your different skill sets?

TP: With Torment, I was also the executive producer on the film. In writing, you rely on the ether of imagination, allowing the story and characters take you wherever they need to go. As we were counting down to the start of shooting on Torment, my role as producer on the project involved constant collaboration with the production. If we lost a location, I would have to find a creative solution in the screenplay to make the new one work. I would work closely with every department to develop the ideas of how a particular action sequence would play out, knowing they wouldn’t get the new script for several days, but they still needed to move forward in prep. It was a constant juggling of guiding production concerns as the script changed and vice versa. You have to be malleable and see how things can shift if circumstances change on a film. Things will seldom go how you planned on a film, writing and producing to those changes is an essential skill set.

Do you prefer to produce the projects you write?

TP: When given the opportunity, I prefer to produce the projects I write. I love the entire process of putting a television or feature project together. I have tremendous admiration of every department that it takes to pull off such an incredible feat. By producing the project I write, it gives me a chance to work as closely as possible with every department and collaborate our ideas. Producing something you write gives you, and the entire team, the opportunity to have constant transparency as to why a particular action or moment plays out a specific way. While production issues will arise, as the writer and producer, I can offer creative solutions, which maintain the sanctity of the story, yet allow us to film what needs to be filmed.

You’ve also been called in as a story editor on projects like the TV series Rookie Blue, and Motive—can you tell us about how your role as the story editor on these projects differ from others where you have been the main writer? How much influence do you have over the story in these cases?

TP: The difference between being the main writer and a story editor is that as a story editor, it is your job to fulfill the show runner’s vision of the show. On Motive, I would have countless meetings with Dennis Heaton to fully understand the big picture story he wanted to tell in the series. Once I understood his intentions, I would be able to craft my writing and my episodes to facilitate that particular vision. The same can be said for Rookie Blue, where I can bring my ideas to the table, but they ultimately must facilitate what the show runner wants to do with the characters. It’s a vital role in aiding to bring the voice of the series to the surface as easily as possible. I have a great deal of influence on the stories in these cases; however it’s an incredibly collaborative process. I may bring my seed of an idea to the show runner, and it may inspire him to take the story in a new direction. Together, we will arrive at an entirely new story. It’s still my job to write it, and it was birthed through collaboration, however as long as it serves the show, it is fulfilling its purpose.

From your perspective as screenwriter, what are some of the differences between writing for television and writing a screenplay for a film?

TP: One of the greatest differences between writing for television and writing for film is the pace. Television is a marathon. As soon as the gun fires and you’re off to the races, you’re cranking out story after story with the writing team and shooting a new episode every eight business days. It’s easy to drop the ball, but it’s an incredibly rewarding journey, which can create incredible partnerships with your colleagues. Feature films are much slower to produce and thus the writing can take quite a while as well. In features, you’re ideally writing about the characters most interesting day in his entire life. In television, every day has to be the characters most interesting day. You can concentrate a core theme or message much more succinctly in film; however you can build much broader and complex worlds in television.

Do you have a preference for one or other?

TP: I prefer the collaboration of television, writing with a team and building an entire world on a television landscape. However, I do love the intimacy of writing a personal screenplay and shepherding it through production on your own. I prefer whichever story idea more personally resonates with my soul.

What made you choose to participate in the projects you’ve done over the course of your career?

TP: In many ways, the project chose me. I have had the luxury of knowing talented individuals in film and television, and as soon as the windows opened to work together on their projects I leaped at the opportunity. For Motive, it was an incredible chance to work with Dennis Heaton, and join a show that expertly delves into the psychology of what drives an average person to become a murderer. I love studying psychology and this was a chance to look at the human condition on a deeper level. With Rookie Blue, the opportunity came to join the team of an already established series which I was a fan of. I believe writing should always be a fun experience, even when you’re writing about dark stories. Rookie Blue was an opportunity to play with wonderful relationship dynamics and romances on screen which I hadn’t done before. It became a wonderful experience which sought me out.

What have been a few of your favorite projects so far and why?

TP: Motive truly gave me my first opportunity in television. For that, I will always look back fondly on the project. I have remained near and dear to many of my colleagues on that series and became a part of a series I am incredibly proud of. Torment was a project which turned out far better than I could have imagined, through an experience that was incredibly draining and intense. I never imagined it would premiere in Los Angeles Screamfest, or be sold internationally in theaters. For this, I walked away with a tremendous amount of pride for what we accomplished together.

What has been your most challenging project and why?

TP: The most challenging project to date was Torment, primarily because of the timeline to write the entire screenplay when we were only several weeks out from filming. It was a real “sink or swim” scenario in many ways. With new information of casting issues, location changes, schedule shifts, coming in every day, the script was a constant moving target, at times to an overwhelming extent. In the end, we brought it together in a wonderful way and I have walked away with pride for what we did. It was a great lesson that the most challenging experiences can also be the most rewarding.

Can you tell us about some of the awards you’ve received over the course of your career and what you won them for?

TP: I was fortunate to win the Silver Ace Award from the Las Vegas Film Festival in 2011 for writing and directing my short film The Wilderness Within. It was a gratifying achievement for a project I solely wrote, directed, and produced on my own. I was also a part of the Motive team when we were nominated for the Canadian Screen Award for Best Dramatic Series in 2014. Seeing the season I worked on being honored with a nomination was a tremendous achievement.

Out of all of your awards so far, which one has meant the most to you personally?

TP: The Silver Ace Award means the world to me as it was the first award I received for bringing together a project that only exists because of the kind efforts of those who believed in me. I believe it’s important to remember where you started out, and this award embodies the person I was before ever getting the chance to make movies or television.

What projects do you have coming up?

TP: I have been currently developing two new series for broadcasters in Canada. The Brick is a one hour drama for TMN with Bell Media, geared to be one of their first original cable one hour dramas. It is a series about a fictional small prairie town, simple and untouched by big box stores of today, and what happens when a major city crime organization aims to turn this town into their new home base, and how the hardware store owner decided to take a stand. He’ll create his own mob to fight the big city mob. I have been developing this project with Bell Media and Pier 21 in Toronto since the summer of 2015, and aim to have an announcement early 2016 on the predicted release.

I am also continuing to develop The Faculty, a one hour drama series for Shaw Cable. The series is about life following a school shooting in a small prairie town, and how the faculty members return to work and strive to pick the pieces up and transcend tragedy through hope. We have been developing the series for a year, and aim to bring it out into American markets in early 2016.

As a screenwriter, where do you get your inspiration for the projects you create?

TP: As a screenwriter, I take as much inspiration as possible from my own life. Whether it be a particular experience or a specific relationship in my life, I always start inwards. If I can connect with a specific emotion I feel in relation to a story I would like to tell, I can build a script from there. I am always able to return to that place within me where it originated from. It’s as close to a “method’ approach to writing as one can get.

What do you hope to achieve with the projects you create?

TP: Ultimately, I simply want my audience to connect with the projects I create. If they are able to connect and feel the specific emotion I felt when writing it, that’s a pretty incredible journey. In anything I create, I hope there is always a personal honesty and deep truth which resonates to anyone, no matter what their background.

Why are you passionate about working as a screenwriter?

TP: I believe stories unite mankind. Films and television travel all around the world and leave immense cultural wakes, and soaring ripple affects through time. Stories challenge the way we think and how we communicate. Films and television have the ability to bring honesty and truth to an audience who may shy away or be unaware of it in their own lives. At the simple core of it, a story can help them escape and relive the sense of wonder we’ve all had at one point in our lives. My passion for screenwriting comes directly from the drive to share the wonder I have for the human experience. If I can find a way to share those stories in an entertaining way, then I’ve done my job.

Do you think you’ll stick to writing TV shows or is there another area of screenwriting you’d like to explore?

TP: I’ll absolutely stick to writing television, however I’d love to expand on the breadth of the TV I work with. I would love to be writing multiple television series as well as feature films at the same time. Of course I can only write so much, but the passion and ability to work with other writers, and find the stories they’re passionate about drives me. I’d love to explore an avenue of producing other material and using my experience to bring it to the screen and share their stories.

 

An Interview with Acclaimed Canadian Screenwriter, Mark Satterthwaite

Mark Satterthwaite
                                 Screenwriter Mark Satterthwaite (right) and girlfriend Carla Gallo (left)

Over the years award-winning screenwriter and producer Mark Satterthwaite has brought laugh out loud comedy to some of Canada’s most beloved television programs.

Satterthwaite is a master wielder of jokes who has doted his ingenious writing upon an array of TV shows ranging from live-action and animated series to awards programs and talk shows.

In 2006 Satterthwaite wrote and produced the highly popular single camera sketch comedy series The Morgan Waters Show. The critically acclaimed series, which aired on CBC and garnered a Gemini Award in 2006, starred Morgan Waters (The Amazing Gayl Pile, Cock’d and Gunns) and featured celebrity guests including stand-up comedian Gilson Lubin, Tyler Kite (Republic of Doyle, Instant Star), actress and musician Alexz Johnson (So Weird, Final Destination 3), Canadian television personality Ed the Sock and many other pop culture icons.

Satterthwaite, who has written several other hit television programs including the animated series Almost Naked Animals, Grojband and The Dating Guy, as well as episodes for MTV Live, CBC’s one-hour special Canada’s Smartest Person, and the second season of the game show Bet Your Ass, has a talent for sniffing out jokes that will stick with whatever audience he is writing for. As the writer, director and producer of the episode “My Brother, My Record” for the series Canadian Comedy Shorts, Satterthwaite’s work earned the award for Best Mocumentary at The World of Comedy Short Film Festival.

While his innovative writing has helped garner countless programs a long list of prestigious awards over the years, he has also written the scripts for some of Canada’s most beloved awards programs.

In 2007 he co-wrote and directed the Gemini Awards, which were televised on CBC and hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos (The Hour, Battle of the Blades, Chelsea Lately, Bystander Revolution). A successful awards program relies on strong comedy moments in order to keep audiences engaged while the hosts announce the awards for each category, and Satterthwaite’s unparalleled writing for the 2007 Gemini Awards kept fans buzzing long after the awards ceremony was over.

To find out more about this exceedingly talented screenwriter’s career and what’s next on the horizon for him, make sure to check out our interview below!

 

Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?

MS: I was born and raised in downtown Toronto, Canada. I loved growing up there cause it always felt like a *small* big city. Toronto’s super walk-able and is broken up into amazing neighborhoods, so I feel like I spent my youth on tree-covered streets with friends. Pretty good.

How have your early experiences influenced some of the work you create today?

MS: My parents used to take my sister and I to see plays when we were kids. A lot of sleuth-style, whodunit plays, and it was so much fun. I would always figure them out at the act break. Not sure what it means, but that gave me a weird confidence when I was a kid… That I could solve these scripted mysteries.

Growing up in Canada we didn’t have much of a star system so it never occurred to me that I could end up writing television for a living. It just didn’t seem plausible. When I got my first writing gig at 22, I was floored. I really couldn’t believe it.

When and how did you get into the industry as a screenwriter?

MS: Canada’s answer to MTV, a station called MuchMusic, held a yearly competition where one lucky Canuck got to work at Much for a summer, with a free apartment, a new car and $10,000. All you had to do was submit a creative video to show why you deserved it. Long story short, I wrote a short and got second place in the national competition. The next year, I wrote and animated a 3-minute short and got second place again. It was heartbreaking. But the creative director at Much, David Johnson, loved my video and hired me on as a freelancer. I owe my career to David!

What are your favorite genres and audiences to write for?

MS: I love absurdist comedy. I think that’s why I ended up doing a lot of writing in animation, because it’s such an anything goes environment. Want to create a new character? Do it! Blow something up? Sure. Morph anything into anything else? WHY NOT?!?! It’s very liberating.

I actually prefer writing animated shows to writing ALMOST anything else… Other than film. Writing big splashy, Hollywood comedies has my heart. I just finished a 90-minute ridiculous script. I’m really happy with it, and I hope you get to see it soon!

Can you tell us a little bit about some of the projects youve written over the years?

MS: Coming up as a freelance writer in the Canadian television system was tough but exciting, because I had to wear many different hats to keep the lights on and to stay creatively challenged. One week I was writing an animated series, the next I was writing jokes for a game show, and after that I was in a writer’s room, scripting a sitcom with a bunch of other writers. It was a great way to figure out what I liked.

I started writing and developing TV years ago with my friend Morgan Waters. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation asked us to put together a sitcom that would work for “tweens.” Something distinctive that could be a starring vehicle for Morgan. We were both very into an American comedy troupe called STELLA at the time (we still are) and we decided to emulate what they were doing, with our own twist, for a Canadian audience with The Morgan Waters Show. Our writing and development process was to push the humor and scenarios as far as we could, so we made sure we were challenging our audience, as opposed to holding their hands. It worked out. The show won a Canadian Screen Award in its first season.

Soon after The Morgan Waters Show ended, I was offered the job of helping to bring MTV to Canada by working on the creative for the network launch, casting the hosts and story editing the live, daily comedy show, MTV LIVE. This was such an incredible experience. We watched audition tapes from hundreds of hopeful hosts from all over Canada, worked on the creative for the launch to make sure that people noticed, and put together a live daily show like no other on Canadian TV. We had amazing leaders in Mark McInnis and Alex Sopinka, and they really trusted me to lead the team of 30 or so creatives, coming up with script ideas every morning. It was a blast. The show was a hit within a year and was doing something for Canadian comedy that hadn’t been done since SCTV.

The Canadian Screen Awards are Canada’s answer to the Golden Globes, honoring excellence in both television and in film. I’ve been lucky enough to work on dozens of projects that have won CSAs, but I also got to work on the other side of the stage when I was approached to write the awards show with a super talented writer named Paul Bates. Our job was to focus on making sure that the show ran smoothly and was super funny. This was at a time when videos were just starting to go viral, so one of our mandates was to come up with edgy sketches that could roll into the show and might get people looking online the next day. I wrote and directed a sketch about what happened to all the puppets from Canadian television shows after their shows ended, a retirement home for puppets sketch. The sketch aired in the middle of the show and the live audience roared with laughter. The sketch became a national news story and even ended up in the New York Times. Mission accomplished.

My break into animation came when a Canadian production company I had done a lot of work for, Marble Media, approached me about re-writing and punching up an entire season of a new animated series called The Dating Guy. The show had good bones but needed a lot of help in the comedy department. I had such a good time peppering in as many original jokes as I could, often pushing the limits of good taste and TV acceptability. I learned a lot from the project- namely, that it’s always better to push as far as you can with your writing and get pulled back by producers. If you come in soft, it’ll be near impossible to edge things up later on. The Dating Guy was my first foray into animated TV, and my writing and contributions were very well received, so soon after, I was getting offers to write on other animated series. I did three seasons of writers’ rooms, punch-ups, rewrites on an international hit kid’s animated series called Almost Naked Animals. It was a great show and I learned so much from it.

After Almost Naked Animals, production companies started coming to me to develop and write pilots and bibles for new animated series. I loved getting involved in the shaping and writing of these worlds early on. One of the shows I got to help bring to television was a kid’s concept called Winston Steinberger and Sir Dudley Ding Dong, a ridiculous absurd show about a kid and his cat in space with their alien guardian. I wrote the pilot and the bible for E1 productions, Sticky Pictures Australia, Teletoon Canada and ABC Australia. After two pilot scripts and a bible, we were green lit to series with me at the helm as head writer and story editor of the show. I worked with over 40 writers on 52 scripts to get the first season done and done well. It’s a distinctive, hilarious show and I think it’s going to be a hit when it hits the airwaves in early 2016.

What made you choose to participate in the projects you’ve done over the course of your career?

MS: Sometimes I would choose projects, and sometimes they would choose me. I always knew that Canadian TV isn’t what it should be. There is a lot of filler in there. And I made a decision early on in my career, not to write for shows that I didn’t care about. That was my goal. And because I could write jokes and scenarios for both kids and adults, I was lucky enough to move around in the business, writing on many different styles of shows. My goal was always to work on something new and different. I think that’s why I like film so much, cause you sweat onto the page for one great story, and then you move on to the next. My ADHD doesn’t allow me to do the same thing over and over.

Do you take a different approach when writing for animation opposed to live action?

MS: If I had my way, I’d be writing the absurdist style I enjoy so much for live action projects, but it really can be a different beast. So I try to inject what I can, where I can. I love that animated, “anything goes” sensibility, and I think live action could use more of it. But I also love dry British humor. I grew up with a British dad holding the remote control, so we were always watching Britcoms. I loved them all. Still do. I think my sensibilities really come from the absurdist styles of STELLA, old 80s flicks like Top Secret and Spaceballs, and dry British comedies like Alan Partridge and The Office. I think there’s a place for animated humor in live action TV. It’s just about finding a balance.

You’ve also written storylines for several commercials, can you tell us about a couple of them and how you came up with the storylines?

MS: Agency 59 came to me about writing and directing a series of PSA commercials about drinking and driving for Labatt Blue. The goal was to deliver a strong message without beating people over the head. It was an interesting challenge to keep the topic light but focused, and I was up to it. I worked with the agency writing over six spots that I think were pretty funny and delivered a strong message. Everyone was happy.

You’ve also produced many of the projects that you’ve writtencan you tell us from your perspective, how the roles of screenwriting and producing are different? How do you manage to successfully tie them together?

MS: I never used to understand what producing was in television. But yes, I would often be hired to write and produce on shows. I really enjoy wearing both of those hats cause I don’t always find it easy to write and then give a script away, leaving it up to others to execute/shoot/animate. I really care about the projects that I work on and I like to be able to see them through to broadcast, to try and ensure that they end up being as close to what I had intended when I wrote them. Sounds a little controlling, I’m sure. And I think part of it is. But I really do care and want the best product to hit the screen. I don’t think there’s any point in working in a creative industry if you won’t bleed for what you’re writing.

What have been a few of your favorite projects so far?

MS: My complete favorite project was writing the feature I just finished. Film has always felt like this elusive, glorious mountain peak that I just couldn’t get to. I almost wouldn’t let myself try. So much of writing, for me, is overcoming all the little demons in your head that tell you that you can’t do it. “Hit the couch, fat ass. Just watch some TV. It’s easier”. Being a freelance writer takes so much discipline and you really have to believe that what you’re going to write will be worth someone else’s reading time. The feature I just finished, I think, is super funny and a good heartfelt story.

Other than that, being the head writer on Winston Steinberger and Sir Dudley Ding Dong, story editing a show for MTV when it first came to Canada, creatively helming a commercial shoot in Argentina, writing absurd sketches for Funny or Die and writing award winning sitcoms with your friends is a pretty sweet gig.

What has been your most challenging project?

MS: Writing a feature, by far. It’s so impossibly hard. I’ve been writing television for over 15 years now. I really felt like I had a good understanding of structure. But 90-minute films, the good ones, are beasts. They need to have a good strong structure, characters the audience can get behind, a minimally saggy middle and a nice arc that keeps an audience active. It’s so difficult. That’s why most films aren’t that good. It’s a very difficult proposition. Honestly, writing jokes is by far the easiest part of writing. It’s the structure and guts of a good script that need your focus.

As a screenwriter, where do you get your inspiration for the projects you create?

MS: I get inspiration from so many different aspects of my life. To start, my girlfriend is one of the funniest people in the world and a writing/acting force to be reckoned with. She’s been successful in TV/film for 15 years now, so I’m always bouncing things off of her to see what she thinks. If she likes it, I like it. I also have never been able to turn off the part of me that loved 80s and 90s silly, absurd comedies- Mel Brooks, Zucker Bros, John Hughes. I just loved all of their movies so much. John Hughes found a way to make me laugh so hard but also really care about characters. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is such a perfect example of that- hilarious, heartwarming and redeeming all at the same time.

What do you hope to achieve with the projects you create?

MS: I’d like to make people laugh and feel good, and I’d like to get offers for new, challenging projects from people seeing the work I’ve done. Sometimes I’ll read comments on the Internet from people who have watched episodes of something I’ve written. “This is my favorite episode!” or “This show is the funniest thing on TV” or “WRITE MORE! MAKE MORE!,” and that always makes me feel like a million bucks. Writing scripts is hard work; it’s so nice to know that people like it.

Why are you passionate about working as a screenwriter?

MS: I’m passionate about screenwriting because it’s a huge, huge life test. All of the time. It’s fun and it kills me. Do I have the will to get this script done? Am I confident enough in myself that I can write something that stands out? Am I special enough to write a script? Do I have a point of view that will engage people? Every script is a gut check. I think that’s pretty remarkable. And sometimes the answers to these questions can be very sobering. Other times they can make you feel like a million bucks.