You’re a writer, task manager, and chief decision maker. You wake up at 4am and get back to bed around...never. You time your days by the number of scenes to shoot instead of hours. The clock is your enemy -- always. The characters you create slowly replace the friends and family you have. Meetings. A lot of meetings. You write, get feedback, and revise -- over and over again. And you bear witness to the highs and lows of seeing your creative vision come to life.
That’s the daily grind of being a Showrunner.
Showrunner and Executive Producer Joseph Kay does all of those things for THIS LIFE. I could tell you about Kay’s time as a lawyer -- via Bay Street -- and his unlikely but ultimately successful move into screenwriting. I can recite some of Kay’s impressive resume, which includes writing for shows like Bomb Girls, Republic of Doyle and co-creating and writing for Living in Your Car. But to truly understand what makes him a quality Showrunner, you’d have to spend a day in his shoes.
For one fateful day in July, Rachel Langer, writer for THIS LIFE, (along with yours truly assisting) substituted for Kay in the whirlwind known as showrunning.
This summer was Langer’s first time spent on a network production set. I remember getting a hurried message after her first day on set, assisting Kay, maybe a week prior to our turn at the helm: What does SATOR, SATOR mean? I almost spat up my coffee I was laughing so hard. THIS LIFE uses a local, French-speaking crew so before the cameras roll, crew will yell “sa tourne! sa tourne!” , meaning “we’re rolling! we’re rolling!” to ensure silence during takes. Needless to say, Langer was entering a work environment that posed its fair share of challenges.
In a recent interview, when I pressed Langer about what makes Kay an effective Showrunner, her answer was simple but telling: “He’s the master of subtlety.” The balance of light-heartedness and deep introspection in a series that tackles life and death, love, coming-of-age, and grief might be Kay’s most significant impression on THIS LIFE. “He [also] has this intrinsic ability to see if we’re on track,” Langer continues. And therein illustrates the challenging duality of Kay’s job -- he’s got to be true to THIS LIFE’s creative base, while managing the constraints of the TV production.
In Canada, TV productions tend to block shoot, meaning you’re shooting scenes out of sequence -- you’re literally puzzling or “blocking” episodes together in order to better manage your budget. In any given day, you might be trying to produce the climax of episode one and the conclusion of episode three, back-to-back. This jumping from episode to episode on set required surefire focus and organization.
Langer’s job was to ensure Kay’s scriptwriting was fully rendered in each and every scene within the lightning fast pace of a Canadian block shoot and that’s no easy task.
We spent every waking hour of that day glued to monitors, which would transmit the action happening in the tight nooks and crannies of THIS LIFE’s on location, NDG set.
“[Kay] wanted range” from the actors, remembers Langer. We’d try to ensure that Kay and the editors in post-production would have more than enough to work with when all was said and wrapped.
In fact, we were so worked up that I recall taking rapid fire (and downright awkward) iPad shots of Torri Higginson’s face, via the monitors, when the crew was capturing a close up of a significant scene that happens in episode two. It’s the scene when Janine calls Natalie, knowing full well that something is off with her daughter.
“Did we get it?” I wondered. But before you can truly assess matters and reflect it’s already too late because you’re most likely onto the next important scene (we totally got it).
There’s a dizzying ritualistic tinge to these production days. Action, watch, discuss, cut, repeat went the rhythm of the day.
Although Langer’s still “trying to forget the sweat-ocalypse” of that toasty July day, she admits that it was an eye-opening experience.
What are the takeaways for Langer? “Writers can’t just write.” And that’s true from my limited experience as well -- all creatives need to expand on their narrowed mediated output.
Also, for Langer, the process reinforced the idea that THIS LIFE is much more than the sum of its scripts. Directors, Script Supervisors, Cast, Camera Operators, Catering, and other crew members are builders; they turn the words written by writers and Showrunners into tangible, visual stories.
I’m Max Morin, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE. Keep a close eye on this blog -- we’ve got many more behind the scenes treats to come!
Watch the making of the show's unique title credits: