Writer/director Heather Taylor interviews showrunner Morwyn Brebner, creator of CBC’s hit series Coroner, and co-creator of Saving Hope and Rookie Blue.
In the first of our Running the Show series, featuring interviews with showrunners, we had the opportunity to speak with Morwyn Brebner at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Morwyn is a Toronto-based screenwriter and award-winning playwright. She is the creator and showrunner of CBC’s hit series Coroner, and co-created Saving Hope (CTV/ION), on which she was an executive producer and showrunner for the first three seasons. She also co-created the ABC and Global Television drama series Rookie Blue. Series work includes Mary Kills People (Global/Lifetime) and Bellevue (CBC/WGN America).
You came from playwrighting. How did that experience serve you in the world of screenwriting?
I think playwrighting has served me in a number of distinct ways. One of the great things about playwrighting is you develop your voice before you ever get notes. So, when I came into working in television, I’d been a playwright not that long, but long enough I had a sense of who I was. I think when you have a strong sense of who you are, it also allows you to be flexible. You go onto a show, and you want to adopt the showrunner's voice, but what I think is really valuable to a showrunner is to give something they don’t have, obviously funneling it through the tone of the show.
For me, that time that I spent figuring out who I was as a writer and my own particular way of being was really valuable, and has served me well. I don’t have a sense of being buffeted by what people want because I’m just myself. But I learned how to be myself, because when you go through theater it’s really focused on your own individuality as opposed to more of an idea of what people want to buy. So that was really useful.
The other thing you learn when you come from the theatre is that you have to write less as a screenwriter, which is hard to do as you’re used to writing so many things. But there’s the camera, and it’s so economical. In theatre, you really do learn how to tell stories through dialogue, the difference between dialogue as a storytelling medium and a conversation, and you learn what to leave out. For me, a that was my formation and it has really been helpful in both those ways.
Looking at your body of work, you’ve co-created a few shows like Saving Hope and Rookie Blue. What is the co-creating experience like for you? What are the benefits of it and the pitfalls?
Co-creation can happen in a bunch of different ways. You can co-create together, you can take over a show for someone, or someone can take over a show from you. With Rookie Blue, I began co-creating that show with Ellen Vanstone, and then Tassie Cameron, who was already a showrunner, came into the picture and then that sort of exchange began. I didn't run that show but it was incredibly formative to learn from that experience.
With Saving Hope, Malcolm Macquarie had already began creating that show so I was on the opposite side of that and came into that show later. Coroner’s a different situation because I created it by myself, but it's based on a book series. So I've had all very varied ways into a show coming into being.
Where do you look for ideas when you're looking for inspiration?
I'll take any idea from anywhere and from anyone. I won't steal it, but I'll take it if I see it. I also eavesdrop a lot and read widely. I'm interested in the world. When projects come to me, I feel like I either feel something about them, or I don't. And if I don't, I don't try. I've learned not to try and force it because it's always been a disaster. I've learned that if someone brings you a project, and they have a very strong idea about how they want to make it, they want you to kind of make their vision that for me, that's not a good situation.
I write a lot. I write pilots for myself and some of them get developed, and some of them don't. But I write to check in with myself, and see what I'm interested in, and where I am. I feel like, as a writer, you're like a magpie, right? You're always like, that can would be awesome in my nest. No one else likes that can, but I know how to weave it in.
For instance, I took a cab, and the guy was telling me gruesome stories about working in a hospital, and I was like, "Keep going. Just tell me your thing!" I try to have a line between stealing from people and just being interested in people. But there's something everywhere, and I think you're funneling it through your own feeling about the world and your own evolving relationship to the world.
I feel like now we're in what feels like pretty frightening times. I'm trying to figure out how to respond to that in a way that feels engaged but not despairing. And that's a new energy. I feel like you write to explore what you have, and then you look for things that you can put yourself into so that you can explore them fully.
In America I feel like it's been really hard times at the moment. We’re seeing it ricochet into other places, places where we think we’re safe, but you’re never safe from that. So how do you approach that as a writer? What are you looking to bring to the world in a world that's this fractured?
Whatever you are making should bring some news to the world. To make something that is not acknowledging in some way the historical moment that we're in, there's something retrograde about it. It feels disengaged, and it feels willfully cruel in a way.
One of the things that I believe in is community. We're in times that are very individualistic, where everyone's just responsible for themselves. And I don't think that that's how we're going to get through the world. I believe in not just positing the dire thing and not just saying, this is terrible, we're going to live in this terrible thing. We're going to just re-traumatize ourselves constantly. I'm trying to figure out how we get through something in a way where we're allowed to rise. Ignoring something doesn't make it go away. Even to acknowledge it, truth doesn't negate it. I don't really have a plan, but if anyone does, oh, I wish, I wish I knew what the plan was.
What's your day-to-day process like?
It really depends because I'm not a multi-tasker. I do the thing I'm doing, and I can only do one thing at a time. I'm not like one of those superhuman people who sleeps for four hours and then does everything.
In the room, it has its own particular energy. Right now we're working on season two of Coroner. I’m with this amazing writing team, and we are breaking episodes, and we're writing. It's like the machine you get in, but it's not a machine in the sense that you're stamping widgets or whatever (not that there's anything wrong with widgets).
It’s different when I'm writing by myself. When I was a playwright, I would feel the impulse to write, and then I would lie down until that feeling went away. Now I don't do that. So when I'm writing, I just write. Sometimes if I'm on a deadline, I give myself a page count per day. I know that sounds like a weird thing, but I do it because you have to know how you're going to get where you're going. But I don't really procrastinate anymore. That was a life's work for me to figure that out. Now a great writing day is where you wake up and you write, I like to write in the morning, take the afternoon off and then write again at night so you get the day energy and the night energy.
You said you now don't procrastinate. How did you break yourself of that habit?
I had kids. And it’s also practice. When we did Saving Hope, we did 18 episodes for that season so when are you going to procrastinate? The doing of the work teaches you how to do the work and this is going to sound very flaky, but that place where you go to write becomes more and more accessible the more you visit it.
When you're running a room what are you looking for on your team? And what can writers do to better prepare to be in a writers room?
Every writer in our room is an amazing writer, and we have a diverse writing room, which I think is an immeasurable addition to any room. I like to read someone's original script as opposed to a spec of another show where you feel somebody's voice than where it feels formulaic. People focus on technical qualities, but I like a mix of energies and people who bring their own unique perspective. In my mind, it's like the scene in a heist movie when they assemble the team. Mostly I’m looking for great writers, good thinkers, interesting people. I believe that a writing room should be a safe environment so you need people who are willing to embrace that. You have to spend a lot of time with people literally, in this case, in a small room. And so every, every writing room’s different.
What are the things you focus on as you develop your work in preparation to pitch it? Are there any words of advice on how to sell your idea better?
It's important to think about your constellation of characters. For me, I always like to think about what the idea underneath is. What is it really about and how does that connect to some aspect of the zeitgeist or the world as it is. I try to imagine the future of it. You try and figure out if there is enough stuff to sustain itself.
Any hard lessons that you've learned and would like to pass on. Sometimes we think we look at someone's success and think, how can I get there? But what are the things that I can learn that can maybe help me get to a place that I want to be at?
The thing about screenwriting is that you do get a lot of feedback from other people at a certain point. One of the hardest things to learn is how to not be defensive about taking that feedback, but also learn how to retain your core feelings about the project. Your core connections to what you're writing. One of the things I wish I'd been able to tell myself was to be both less defensive and stronger about my own vision. I also feel as a woman you have to protect yourself from inadvertently being cast as a helpmate and subsuming your own power into someone else's. I think it's trying to figure out how to remain an individual and also become a collaborator.
A lot of people want to be a showrunner, but how do they get there? How do they navigate these waters?
We focus a lot on becoming a showrunner. A showrunner as a position where you manage the flame of the creative direction of your show. It involves a lot of components that you don't necessarily learn as a writer or creative person. It's actually a sort of long road. And I feel like focusing on becoming a showrunner is a strange thing to focus on, in a way. The one thing I would say is that if you have a show that you're writing and you're the creative force behind it, find a way to be the showrunner. That is really how you'll be able to keep that feeling alive.