Heather Taylor interviews Sherry White, Showrunner of CBC's Little Dog about writing room tips, breaking into television and more!
In our next installment of our Running the Show series, featuring interviews with showrunners, we spoke with Sherry White at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Sherry is a writer and filmmaker based in Canada. She recently finished showrunning and directing season 2 of Little Dog for CBC. Previously, she worked as an Executive Producer on ABC's drama series 10 Days in the Valley. Other recent writer credits include Frontier (Netflix/Discovery), Rookie Blue (ABC/Global), Orphan Black, and Saving Hope (CTV).
In your career, you’ve been a very successful multi-hyphenate: actor, writer, director. How do you balance all of that work and what takes priority for you?
When I was starting out, it's like there was a race going on at first. I started as an actor and then was writing to give myself opportunity to act. Then the writing got its own traction. Even in the beginning I was directing, and I wasn't making a choice. My success in one field over another made the choice for me. Even when it came to writing, I was writing features, and then TV. So it wasn't really a choice I made until I thought I couldn't juggle all this anymore. I need to focus.
I do feel it's important to learn how to master something, and choose at a certain point because you have to make yourself available. If I wanted to work in TV and learn that craft really, really well, I can't be off directing or doing theater or doing auditions and trying to act. You just can't do it and really make yourself available for what it takes to learn.
I wouldn't say that I've mastered television, but I feel like I'm quite knowledgeable in it. I can really succeed at it and I understand the craft. But I'm starting to move more into directing again. It's an extension of the storytelling, of even showrunning to a certain degree. But it's also because I have a kind of hunger to learn more and to broaden my experience. That's how I juggle it. I just go with the waves.
When you moved into directing, how did you find the difference between showrunning, where you’re the main creative voice, verses directing, where you��re the one who brings it to life?
My only experience directing where I wasn't the producer or the showrunner was when I directed a recent episode of Nurses. I wasn't sure how I would handle that because I was just dropping in. I actually loved the experience so much, I loved working with the writers to find out if what I'm feeling in the episode is what they intended. And if it is, then I’d know what ways I feel like it can be strengthened a little bit. It also informed some of my ideas about how I would shoot it. It was a really collaborative experience in that way. I didn't come into the process with ideas that I wanted to try. My ideas came to me while I was there working with what the bigger picture story was. It worked really well.
When moving from ideas to development, what advice do you have for writers?
I develop a lot. I've helped shows get to a place where they’re green lit, but I haven't really had my own show green lit other than one Tassie Cameron and I have, but we haven't shot it yet. I'm often hired to develop as opposed to have my own idea. I think a lot of times when people are developing an idea, they spend lots of time creating the inner life of the characters and their backstory. There're just all these details that they're figuring out but not strongly figuring out the what the show is about. When somebody tells you a show idea in two sentences, you know if it's an idea that has legs. If you tell somebody your idea and they're like, I don't quite feel it, then you don't have the core of your idea.
So when you come in to develop other writer's ideas, what are you looking for personally?
I got hired to be a writer for a pilot for a show idea that somebody else had. They had several pages. I thought: what is it about this that is interesting to me? And then it dawned on me. Though it wasn't said in the document, I thought one of the characters was incredibly curious. She's an incredibly curious person. I thought about curiosity and I remember somebody said to me once that curiosity kept her young. And I loved that this character's curiosity was what made her really vibrant and exciting. It's also what got her into a lot of trouble. That was an idea I was interested in exploring: the good and the bad of a quality about a person.
I have another show that is fundamentally about trauma. How does one live with and move beyond trauma. As long as there's a question in it that I'm interested in that I don't know the full answer to and can be turned over and over in a way, then I feel like I have the beginnings of how I would pitch me to make that show.
When you are finally in a place of developing a show, what kind of people are you looking for as staff writers? What skills does a writer need to think about or things they have to bring to the table that they can start working on now to get ready for staffing?
You might be a great writer. You might have a very unique voice, and speak from a real strong outsider point of view with super quirky characters, but I might have another writer who I'm already hiring who brings that quality. Then you might not get the job. It really does depend on who else you have. For most showrunners, I think you come to every show knowing a few of the writers that you want to work with. Then it's about filling it out. For instance, I always want to make sure that I have one writer who is the kind of writer who watches every single show and is totally up on television. What's out there, what's been made, and what's going to be made. But that’s because I’m not that person.
Now I love television, and I'm not saying I don't watch television, I just don't watch as much television as I should. And there are some people who are so passionate about it that they watch it all the time. I do want to make sure that the writers I have are not all that type. Those people, as valuable as they are in the room, they're often people that are not bringing a lot of their own life experience in. But you also don't want people who are all just bringing it. I've been in rooms in Newfoundland where everybody was a character. We just sat around and gossiped and told stories about ourselves and you could never actually get work done in the room.
I also want to make sure there's diversity. I do want to make sure there are people of color in the room, but I also want to know what their voice, and point of view is. It’s about not just ticking boxes, but about finding the voices that you feel can add to your room.
What are some of the pitfalls you think that writers have come like fallen into?
In the room and as a junior writer, there are several pitfalls. One is showing your defensiveness or unhappiness with notes. Nobody likes getting criticized. Nobody loves that. But depending on how it's positioned to you or how much you disagree, sometimes you'll get writers, even senior writers, who, even if they don't say anything, they behave passive aggressively. You can see it in their face. They're shutting it down. I don't want to work with that person because if I have to give you notes, and I start to get a passive-aggressive attitude from you, it just makes me not want to give you notes. And if I can't give you notes, I just have to rewrite your script as you're not going to rewrite it. Then I just want you out. Everybody feels it.
You have to know yourself and know that you are giving off the vibes. And some people don't know, and if you ever confronted them, they’ll say they never said anything. No, they didn't say anything but they were quiet for the rest of the day and pouting a little bit. So you can feel that vibe. If you are that person or if you've done that (and I've been that person at some point), but you need to know yourself enough to know how to sort of adjust that and put on a brave face. Whatever you need to do to be a team player.
Then there's a pitfall of not speaking enough in the room. Not finding what makes you valuable. That's just a hard one because sometimes you don't have the ideas. But you have to somehow find a way to get your ideas out there because you are hired to come up with them, even if you have to go home and think about it and email your ideas after the fact. Another pitfall that doesn’t happened as often, is just talking too much, not reading the room, and not understanding when it's too much.
The story room is so much about being able to read the room: Am I dominating? Am I arguing? Am I pushing back? Am I distracting by talking about my personal life too much? So self-awareness is so important.
As a writer, what's your ideal day look like? And what's your typical day?
My ideal day is the day that is diverse where I have some work, some exercise, some social life, and some domestic life. I don't have those very often but I try really hard. I wake up everyday with the feeling of being behind. And that's hard because I wake up and then it's like, what time is mine? So even if I get up, and say I'm not going to start to work for a couple of hours, I'm feeling like I'm pipping off. Then you're not in a great headspace to create and feel. You end up having to birth it out because you need to do something, and that's just not good.
My typical day these days is I get up early, around five o'clock, I'll get a coffee and then I'll answer emails. I like to have a couple hours before I have to start work. So if I wake up at five, I might start work at eight or whatever.
Because I wake up with that pressure so much and it takes the joy out of the writing, the advice that my therapist gave me is that I should wake up in the morning and say what can I do today? What do I want to do today? What do I want to work on? What nugget is going to excite me to explore today? I ask myself that, and that's really been helping.
Especially if I have multiple things to do, I'm really reminding myself that it really is about creating things that make you feel something. And even if you're writing for somebody else, if you're writing stuff and you feel nothing, you're just putting up dead babies. It's not good work. You don't want that.
After my emails, I will go probably work in a cafe for a few hours, and listen to music. I end up probably spending two to three hours on the phone with somebody for one work meeting, either official or unofficial. I try to have meetings towards the end of the day so that I can have the writing time in the morning. By four o'clock, I'm not writing anymore. I might move from cafe back to the house, or if it's nice, I'll sit the back yard or just change my environment a little bit but keep working. Then by four, if I have meetings or whatever, I will do that.
Then at night I'm just looking at my watch, waiting to go to bed.
What are some of the hard lessons that you've learned that you'd like to impart on other writers?
I have said yes to projects that I felt nothing for and that was a mistake. That is like a lesson that I don't know if anyone fully learns because sometimes I like the idea, I just wasn't the one to write it. I said yes cause I thought the idea was good. I'm pitching something now and I don't see the idea on it, but because of the people that are involved, I think it's a good idea, and then I start to find an idea.
You have to ask yourself, is this an idea that you would you quit all other projects to work on this? Only if you had to. And if the answer is yes, then yes. Do that idea. If the answer is no, then you should really reconsider, because you might end up getting that project. Then you might have to work on it for a number of years and let the other passion projects go. But also, you need to make money. Very early on in my career decided that I would make money writing so I have not spent a lot of time writing for things I wasn't getting paid for because I just wanted to make my living doing it.
To a certain degree, getting the experience is good. It's especially hard if it's something that's totally out of your wheelhouse. And at a certain point in one's career, I feel like yeah, it's time for you to start going out of your wheelhouse. You want to learn and you don't want to get stuck in a rut. When you're early on, if you don't feel like you can really be the authority on something, maybe the thing is to team up with somebody who is. Don’t be greedy about it. Share the idea for the project with somebody if they will ultimately help you make it better.
You’ve already given some great advice. But what would you give a writer embarking on TV, specifically those who want to move into showrunning? What should they start thinking about now?
Learning how to be a great writer is great. Learning how to talk about what your story is and the meaning of it is great. One of the things that has come with experience is the ability to see the big picture of what your show is. It's crucial because that 30,000-foot view of what the show is. It's what you need to always be able to do. Then you go in deep on the detail, then come back out and see the big picture. That's really, really important.
I also think people management is really, really important. And that's something you don't get from writing. You can't sit in and learn how to do that. What gave me the confidence that I could do things like direct or showrun, was being the chair an Arts Organization board.
Chairing meetings is so close to running a writing room. You have to stay on the agenda, you have to make sure everybody's being heard, you have to delegate assignments, and you have to wrangle and manage and ref. It’s not just about getting up and talking the whole time. It's making sure everybody else gets an opportunity to speak and that you stay on schedule.