Arts·Canadian Screen Week

How Emily Andras and the team behind Wynonna Earp built their own magical world

"What a gift, in 42 minutes, to take your audience on that journey."

'What a gift, in 42 minutes, to take your audience on that journey'

Emily Andras at the Wynonna Earp Media Mixer and Fan Appreciation Party during Comic-Con International 2017. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

In anticipation of Canadian Screen Week and the Canadian Screen Awards, Johanna Schneller, co-host of The Filmmakers, talked to five nominees about what they do, how they do it, and why they love it.

At this year's Canadian Screen Awards, Wynonna Earp creator Emily Andras is nominated for her writing on the show — a woman-forward, queer-positive supernatural western series that struck such a chord with fans that they created a social media clamour, and even bought billboards in Times Square, in order to keep it alive. As the series concludes its fourth and final season, we chatted about why Canadians excel at genre, and why it should not be underestimated.

Johanna Schneller: What's your definition of genre?

Emily Andras: Genre is anything where the Earth is not the world we know. It includes fantasy, time travel, horror, scifi — anything where the world is othered.

JS: It doesn't surprise me that Canadians are good at something that's frequently underestimated.

EA: Given our limited budgets, genre is not where you'd think we would excel. But we've really carved out a niche. Our genre properties — Orphan BlackContinuumEarp — are extremely well-received around the world, maybe more so than at home.

JS: Why are we good at it?

EA: Scifi and fantasy dwell in the world of possibilities. They're about hope — what could be, instead of what is. Canada is a progressive country. We're not perfect on queer rights, feminism, diversity, social justice, but we're trying.

JS: Does it help that we think of ourselves as outsiders, underdogs?

EA: We literally live the shadow of — depending on your point of view of the U.S. — either heaven or the Death Star. Everything we do is in that shadow. And that's where genre thrives. Time and again, heroes of genre are underestimated, outgunned, outmanned. Canadians know how to live in that space. We know what it is to try to make your mark on the world through a path of goodness and righteousness — with a lot of mistakes along the way — and to try to define yourself on your own terms in the face of something so much bigger than yourself.

JS: The biggest properties in the world now are genre: Marvel, Star Wars. Why?

EA: The modern world is hard. People need an escape. And genre is just another paint job on storytelling we've always had. From Jesus Christ to King Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, it's the same story. Orphan discovers she's not nothing — in fact, she's special, the chosen one. It taps into something deep in all of us. We all want to be particular, to have our life to have purpose and meaning.

Genre is also cool. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It's comedy, and fun, and Luke-I am-your-father pathos, and loss, and death. It feels more like life does.

JS: Why does it appeal to you, personally?

EA: It's a playground for a writer. You can talk about big philosophical ideas, and how we see and define ourselves, but in a way that's super fun and not pretentious. You're kind of tricking the audience. You're in a world that is un-human, discussing what it is to be human.

And it's an opportunity to have amazing shifts in tone. One of the things I'm most proud of about Earp, I always wanted you to be able to turn it on at the end of your long day at work and know you were in for an hour that made you feel everything. A superhero adventure, a girl kicking ass, you're laughing out loud at the antics and jokes, and maybe at the end you're crying over an emotional, resonant scene between two sisters. What a gift, in 42 minutes, to take your audience on that journey. That's all you can hope for as a storyteller, to make people feel things. [laughs] Even if they come for me on Twitter, which happens a lot.

JS: When did you know the fans were into it?

EA: Before we aired, I was worried. I thought we had an interesting show, and a phenomenal cast with a unique chemistry. But not everyone is going to get it. It's a bit of a commitment. There was no easy elevator pitch. Our first season, we went to a fan expo in Toronto. We kind of invited ourselves — we didn't have a green room; we were sitting in some weird storage closet waiting for our panel. And then we went out, and 6000 people were waiting for us. It was like watching my cast turn into the Beatles.

The same thing happened at an LGBTQ expo in Las Vegas. I was there with Dom [Dominique Provost-Chalkley, who plays Waverly Earp] and Kat [Katherine Barrell, who plays Nicole Haught] — fans call their characters WayHaught. I saw it register on the actresses' faces that all these people were screaming for them, that they had become a touchstone for the queer community, who don't always see themselves represented in genre in such a three-dimensional, warm, complicated way. That was magical.

Wynonna Earp executive producer Emily Andras speaks onstage during the GLAAD and the Future of LGBTQ Inclusion on TV portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

JS: What did it feel like for yourself?

EA: I still can't describe it. I think women in particular have this feeling they should be grateful for their success, so I want to say that I worked hard. But the fact that people understood what I was trying to do — the nuance, the themes, that they thought it was fun and funny — I'm not kidding when I say it's beyond my wildest dreams. It made me feel confident in my writing, and also want to do better. Right now it feels like this is a once-in-a-lifetime for my career. I'm looking forward to what's next, but I'm not naive enough to think it will be replicated. Earp was some sort of magical sauce that all came together.

JS: Does fan passion ever take a dark turn?

EA: Not everyone who loves something wants it to be the same thing. It's about giving the audience what they need, versus what they think they want. It's a bus, and I drive it. You can get on; you can yell at me, storm off. But if we all try to grab the wheel, the bus is going to crash. That's my deal with the fans. Enjoy the journey or flip me the bird, but I'm driving.

JS: Did you ever take a note or a suggestion from a fan?

EA: It was more a feeling. What marginalized genre fans want, what they think they deserve, what they're no longer willing to settle for — those are the notes I tried to honour.

Melanie Scrofano in Wynonna Earp. (Syfy)

JS: What do you say to people who turn up their noses at genre, who think it's less-than?

EA: "Ok. I'm going to go to the bar." [laughs]

I have well-meaning friends who ask me, "What are you going to do next? Are you going to do something serious?" I hate the notion that what I was doing wasn't hard, or didn't have any literary value, or didn't matter to people. So what I would say is, content is rarely judged correctly in its time. Shakespeare was pulp. Van Gogh was penniless. Not that we're on the same level! But that stuff doesn't bother me anymore.

Plus, you can no longer make something for everybody. Audiences are too fragmented. It's better to make the absolute best show you can for a group of people who love it. It's okay if your Aunt Sally doesn't love it. Find your niche. That's a good place to be.

JS: Do you really refer to your characters as "a posse of dipshits?"

EA: Yes! [laughs] That's part of the fun — these dysfunctional people trying to act as heroes, under ridiculous circumstances. Like, a bunch of vampires have come to town? Without being too meta, there's a sense of, "This is ridiculous."

At the same time, when we're presented with the chance to pick up the light sabre or the sword, there can be no irony there. When it's a chance to truly rise up and become your best self, those moments need to be preserved. Because people hope to have one moment of that in their own lives.

The Canadian Screen Awards will be held over four nights from May 17-20, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Johanna Schneller is one of North America's leading freelance journalists specializing in entertainment features. Her work has appeared in major magazines, including Vanity Fair, In Style, Premiere, More and Ladies Home Journal. She was a senior writer in the Los Angeles bureau of GQ magazine from 1990 to 1994. Her Bigger Picture column in The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, has been nominated for five National Newspaper Awards, and won in 2021. As the co-host of CBC Arts' The Filmmakers, Schneller interviews directors and film experts about classic Canadian films. She also hosted TVO's renowned film series Saturday Night at the Movies.

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