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In Conversation with: Jennifer Holness & Sudz Sutherland

In Conversation with: Jennifer Holness & Sudz Sutherland

DGC
September 3, 2015

Entering the Hungry Eyes offices of Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland, you immediately feel an upsurge of excitement and activity. The three people in the large reception area are dishing the dirt about TV, munching on late lunches and making sure that the Montage writer is feeling OK. 

Soon enough, I’m ushered into the corner office on the main floor of the solid 1920s Toronto building, with wood flooring and charmingly old-fashioned interior décor, where Sudz Sutherland and Jennifer Holness greet me. As befits a producer, Jennifer is seated behind an imposing old desk while Sudz is perched on a seat on the other side of the room, writing on his computer. It’s a typically hectic day for them, with production beginning to gear up for Shoot the Messenger, their new CBC-TV thriller. 

Sudz Sutherland and Jennifer Holness are life and business partners. Besides their finest project—three daughters—the duo have made award-winning TV movies and series for over a decade. Two long-form TV movie series—Guns, about the proliferation of deadly weapons in Toronto and Home Again, about a draconian deportation policy which has forced overseas Caribbeans to return “home” to lands that are foreign to them—have provoked debate and garnered prizes. 

Sudz Sutherland and Jennifer Holness are passionate about their work, expert at their craft,  and responsible citizens of Toronto and Canada. Montage talked to them about their new TV series Shoot the Messenger, making film and television work and representing their community (and beyond) in what they create.

—Marc Glassman

 

Montage: Marc Glassman

Sudz: Sudz Sutherland

Jennifer: Jennifer Holness

  

Montage: Sudz, I know you’re the director and Jennifer is the producer, but both of you write and you are life as well as business partners. It’s the obvious question—and I’m sure you get this all the time—but how do you two work together? And, in particular, how is it working on your new project, the forthcoming CBC series Shoot the Messenger?

Sudz: It’s always a collaboration. The biggest thing in terms of how we work is that the best idea wins. We both have good ideas and we both have strengths. Jennifer is amazing at story and amazing at character. We work together very well, and somebody’s got to take the heavy end of the lifting, so for Shoot the Messenger, that was Jen. This is a very large, voluminous story with a lot of twists and turns. We’ve done a ton of research. [The show deals] with journalists and cops and criminals and politicians, so there are a whole lot of different worlds of Toronto that we’re showing.

It’s very much a mom and pop shop—it’s the two of us writing. We brought in other writers on this, but in the beginning we had to create a bible and the pilot, and we did that together. I’d write some characters, and she’d write some characters. 

Montage: As an example, in this case, which characters did you [Jennifer] take and which ones did Sudz take? 

Jennifer: I wrote Daisy, the journalist, who is the lead.

Montage: There’s a cop, Lutz… 

Sudz: I did the first pass on the cop. We both know cops, and we do a lot of research, and we have cop consultants on the show, so at various times we’ll talk to these guys—girls as well—and have lunch, and ask, “Hey, how about this?” It’s really important to bounce stuff off of them. 

Jennifer: With Daisy, I had given thought not just to [her character] but also to her entire family and her dynamics. The process was, CBC gave us the green light to write two scripts, a bible and six outlines, so that the whole eight episodes would have some kind of creative development. I asked for a room for two weeks because we were writing the bulk of the show. Our outlines are essentially the biggest part of the script—we’re talking about 20- to 25-page outlines, not seven pagers. We hired veterans who could help us develop the stories: Larry Bambrick, Carol Hay and Ian Barr, who is our story editor and who we’ve worked with on many projects. We came in with the character stuff; we had the bible done, and the story beats and arcs. We had a very clear vision for episodes one and two, and for the rest of it we had an arc.

Sudz: When we came to the room, it was like, “Okay, where do we go with it?” We could have written it ourselves, but it would have taken us a year—we wouldn’t have been able to do any other work. That wasn’t really what we wanted to do. I make my living as a director for hire for movies and episodic TV, in addition to what we do in-house. In terms of developing the show, we also wanted the writers to feed in, because we think it’s a collaborative medium. 

Jennifer: We submitted our entire package, with revisions on the bible and some new characters, and in February CBC came back and said, “Your show is being greenlit.” But just before that happened, I was talking to a very good friend of mine who works in the U.S. at one of the big networks. I was pitching her the idea, and she said, “It sounds really, really good, but what’s the hook?” So I went back to Sudz; we had been talking about the fact that we liked Daisy, but we didn’t love her—there was something missing. Then Sudz said, “What if she had a habit, like a drug habit?” and my first reaction was, “I don’t want her to have a drug habit!” Sudz said, “I’m thinking more of something that she’s had in her life and that she’s dealing with.” So we started to game out the parameters of what that could be, and then we called back the CBC a day later and said, “We’re changing our baby! What do you think about this?” and they said, “Okay…well, let’s see it.” They were really good about it. 

Sudz: They didn’t want it to go super dark, and neither did we, but we wanted to have a character with some flaws. As Canadians, sometimes we are a little precious with our characters—we want to wrap them in bubble wrap.  

Montage: But you do that. In Home Again, the main characters had big flaws—they wouldn’t have been deported if they didn’t—and that’s true of Guns, too. Is the Daisy character partially inspired by Eva in Guns, who is a journalist who has a relationship with a cop?  

Jennifer: Guns wasn’t really about Eva; it centred [on] this young man trying to move forward in his life. 

Sudz: There were too many characters to really concentrate on her. This time, we wanted to do something that’s not too much of a big ensemble. 

Jennifer: Really? I would say it’s a big ensemble. 

Sudz: Everyone’s always saying, “You guys always want to do these big ensemble things—concentrate on fewer characters.” So that’s what we were trying to do, constructing the story around Daisy, Lutz and Simon, another journalist.

Montage: Shoot the Messenger is an eight-part series, so there is a lot of screen time for characters. 

Sudz: And that’s the great thing about what we’re doing, which is trying to mine those character moments. We have a very tightly serialized arc, and we’re able to actually spend time with Daisy and her family. Daisy’s father has had a traumatic brain injury, and there’s a whole host of things that go around that, and there are a lot of reasons why Daisy had a drug addiction. There’s a lot of stuff to mine—those two cataclysmic events affect the family in a huge way. We had to re-orient our brains to not write just a procedural plot-plot-plot-plot, as well as our concept of an act break to include character beats that move that story forward.

Montage: How was it writing for eight parts, where you actually have to move your story along, leaving you somewhere hanging at the end of each hour?

Jennifer: It’s a big story. It starts off with a murder, which seems to be a standard drug-related thing, but then as it grows we find out fairly quickly that there’s more going on. My brain is very analytical; that’s helped in terms of mapping out stuff. The difficulty is making sure that you are clear, and mining more of the character beats, because I can sometimes veer too far toward, “Look at the story! The story is so awesome!” Sudz has a great sort of bullshit detector in writing, so when something feels false, he’s always the first one to notice.

We have the vision together and are supporting each other, whether in the room or elsewhere. It’s been a really great experience, but it’s been a lot of work, and it takes a lot of mental energy. 

I am one of the producers, and I actually put the financing and the distribution together for the show. For the first time in my career I’ve hired business affairs people, which is kind of nice but necessary. I ended up doing a lot more writing on the show than we expected, mostly because Sudz has been directing a lot in the past year—you know, at the end of the day, we have three children, and they like to be fed.

Montage: So you’ve [Sudz] been doing a lot of episodic TV?

Sudz: Yeah. It speaks to our relatively miniscule feature film productions. We’re going to be moving back to more feature films, but having TV as a base is really good, and hopefully we’ll have more seasons on Shoot the Messenger after this year. 

Montage: How do you expect to shoot the show?

Sudz: We’ll use a handheld aesthetic. Our inspiration comes from TV series like Luther, The Bridge and True Detective, which aren’t handheld, but do have a less formal way of shooting than conventional shows. Generally here in Canada, we use a tripod—as a director, you’re on a dolly. What I wanted to do was liberate the camera a bit. We’ll be using a mix of handheld and Steadicam. 

Our camera will be a participant observer, so you’re the third person in the room. The idea is shorter lenses that are wider and physically closer to the actors, as opposed to longer lenses that are further away. It gives you a proximity to the actor so that you can actually feel them a bit more. When you work on a shorter lens, more is in focus. I really wanted to have that fly-on-the-wall feeling for the audience, so that when we’re in interrogation or close proximity to the characters, you feel like one of them, or like somebody looking over their shoulder.  

Montage: And the Steadicam?

Sudz: We want to go in spaces and really see Toronto. I’m thinking shorter lens on a Steadicam, with less depth of field, so you’ll be able to focus on the actor.  

It’s about freedom. In our lookbook, there are moments of that. Luther was a stylistic touchstone for all of us, because it was so freeing and so crazy. It was London in a way you hadn’t seen London shot before, and we want to do the same thing for Toronto.  

Montage: It’s so rare that people truly put Toronto in the stories. Were you inspired by what was happening politically, emotionally, culturally and socially with the previous administration in city hall? 

Jennifer: Absolutely. The most fascinating thing to me about the Rob Ford fiasco was the Somali kids. I was fascinated at how these young boys got in the middle of the world of the power brokers of this city.  

Sudz: Rob Ford is a bizarre sort of collective reaction from the suburbs to downtown. We even found that our family members voted for him. 

Montage: Really? Why?

Jennifer: My mother’s from Etobicoke, and he comes to our door when something’s wrong…

Sudz: Because they drank the Kool-Aid about downtown sucking up all the resources. It was this whole thing about the elites—us vs. them. 

Jennifer: The long and the short of it is that I was fascinated by that whole thing, and I am actually fascinated by politics. When I went to York, I got a degree in political science, and politics has always been supremely interesting to me. For Shoot the Messenger, we wanted to look at the city in a gritty urban drama. We’ve seen a lot of stuff with black ethnic groups, but I have never seen anything with an urban Somali community.

Montage: How did you do the research? 

Jennifer: We talked to young Somali people and discovered that we knew very little about their community. They cocoon themselves off a lot more than other cultural groups. There were only a few in the Somali community that were willing to talk about what life was like here—the hopes and dreams and the failures. It was surprising for me. I was born in Jamaica and came here as a very young kid and spent most of my life here, so I always thought that I was in tune with a lot of the culturally diverse groups in Toronto, and particularly with the ones who are black.  

Sudz: We weren’t looking at the folks we talked to as giving evidence of black criminal pathology. Our research did get culturally specific at a certain point, though. We developed key plot points from our research into culture. You’ll see in the first episode that there is a cultural misunderstanding that is a cause of Daisy’s great error. We’ve been on a journey of exploration, and I’m glad that we’ve gone outside of our cultural comfort zone, because I think it’s been a rich journey so far.

Montage: If we can stay on politics for a bit longer, how do you feel now that Ford is gone? There still are a lot of racial and cultural issues here. Has Toronto changed or is the city simply putting a different face on things that haven’t changed?

Jennifer: The face is certainly a lot slicker and I think more trustworthy. I am more lenient to a society that really takes care of its people, so I don’t know if I’m seeing that, to be honest, but it’s early days yet. 

Sudz: Anybody would be a better mayor. He provided many people with lots of laughter and lots of fodder for stories. Rob Ford is the gift that kept on giving.

Montage: Does it provide material for Shoot the Messenger?  

Jennifer: We really aren’t doing his story, but there are so many elements to Ford’s years that you can actually cherrypick some things that are interesting to dramatise. 

Sudz: He opened the door to say that people up here on this stratum can mix with people down here on this stratum, and the lines that we thought were so absolute and would never cross are not really so. The great thing about Shoot the Messenger is that you’ve got these people bumping up against each other, and then when the full mystery is revealed, you’ll see exactly how it all works. And that’s a great thing to see because it’s a window into the world behind closed doors, something that you never thought would happen.

Montage: You had a bit of this in Guns too, right?

Jennifer: Absolutely; this is the world we love. Shoot the Messenger is about a sex scandal. It doesn’t start off feeling like a sex scandal, but then it becomes this gigantic thing: there’s politics, there’s sex, there’s crime. The people in the different strata are bumping up against each other, and you realise that we are actually part of a connected city, and what you think is the case—that these people are not interacting—is not true. So when we think about social justice and about how we want to live, if we continue to have disparities in income, we are inevitably going to bump up against these people. I think I’m probably a bit more political in that sense, but I never try to make it weigh down the work.

Sudz: Jen is a very empathic person, so it’s not just coming out of a political will to do this or say that, but more out of a conviction to bear witness to the truth. People are walking around with their visions of the world but too often they’re looking through blinders. I think that our job as artists is to say that the emperor’s got no clothes—Rob Ford is doing crack—that’s the real, true thing. 

Montage: This is a question for you two as parents as well as producer-director-writers: why Toronto? What makes this the city where you’ve decided to be located, to be with your kids and to do your work? 

Jennifer: That’s a very good question, because I sometimes struggle with it. I came here as an immigrant as a little girl, and I remember people making fun of me because I had a Jamaican accent—I was five, maybe six—but I also remember playing at Christie Pits and having friends of all different stripes, and that was fine and nobody cared. I feel such a warm, loving feeling towards this city; I love being here and I want to contribute in some way. I want to contribute in saying that we can do better, for example, and potentially through the work we do. We’re raising three daughters, and we have great schools here. We have a beautiful home; we have wonderful friends, and my entire family is here, but it’s not lost on us that most Canadians who become very successful in this industry have done it south of the border. We have certainly struggled with it, but every time we look around at this beautiful community and how warm and how truly embracing a lot of this city is—we don’t want to leave! Damn it, Toronto!

Sudz: I think Toronto’s cool. We can talk about this city and be specific but also universal within that specificity. Those borders are the old ones that people had, and this new generation is ready to blow those borders away. Those old ideas about looking “Canadian” are gone now. We can do great work here, telling stories about people who live in Toronto. Everyone says “Write what you know,” and my mantra is “Write who you know.” I think that really you’re writing characters you grew up with; you’re writing characters you interact with—memories of real people are showing up constantly in your writing. I want to be honest to that in our storytelling. We love this city, and we want to do some art in this city. 

Montage: What would you like to see happen in the next five years, for yourselves but also for this city and this country? What would make a difference? 

Sudz: [For us,] I’d like to see greater artistic success—being seen on a global level. We’ve been kind of a secret in Canada for a while and so we want more people to see our work here and in the U.K. and the States. In terms of the city and the country, for years our filmmakers in English-language cinema have been getting their asses kicked by Quebec, story-wise and aesthetically. I think that we are now coming into a place where our stories are getting better, both in terms of our television and in terms of our cinema. I want to see English-language cinema flourish. 

Jennifer: And I want Sudz to be a part of that in a bigger way, of course, because I think he’s tremendously talented.

Montage: As a producer, Jennifer, are things changing? As much as we say it’s the golden age of television, and it is fantastic, how are things really working as a producer in terms of television and feature films? Where are we at in English Canada?

Jennifer: I do think that in some ways it’s tougher, and that’s because we have a federal government that doesn’t always see the value in the industry. The cuts to Telefilm, for example, and the cuts to the NFB and the CBC hurt. Whatever you want to say—yea or nay or whatever—CBC-TV, CBC Radio, and even the new plan that CBC has been unfolding, all of this is because they really believe in and are trying to support Canadian creative and business talent. So with these massive cuts, it is super challenging. 

The reality is, a lot of Canadian producers who don’t have giant production companies are having a difficult time. We are extremely lucky to be given the green light on this show. Guns was in 2008, you know what I mean? Since then, we’ve made Home Again and She’s The Mayor, but there’s nothing consistent. In some ways it’s a bit terrifying actually. There have been successes—for example, I’m tremendously pleased to see all that Temple Street has been able to accomplish, and Shaftesbury continues to do well—but it’s very, very tough. 

I’ve never wanted to be an independent producer [with] a massive company. The whole notion of having ten things in production at any given time is terrifying to me, because I’m committed to being a mother as well. So as a producer, when you are trying to make quality work that will stand the test of time and that has a voice, it can be difficult to find people to buy in when the resources are shrinking. The good thing is that unique voices now seem to be what people are looking for, and I think we’re poised to do very well because of that. I’m not fooling myself into thinking it’s not difficult, and on the feature film side… 

Sudz: It’s gone down to nothing—not nothing, but now it’s just kind of a token thing. I think that we’re at a situation where the wheat is being separated from the chaff.

Montage: You two made Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, which won the Best Canadian First Feature award at TIFF in 2003 and received prizes at festivals in the States. Since then there have been some great TV projects like Guns and Home Again, but have things progressed as you hoped they would?  

Sudz: No, they haven’t. After Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, we very quickly said, “Okay, let’s go into television,” but it wasn’t because we weren’t trying to do feature film; it was just where the opportunities opened up. Now we’re turning our eyes to serious, serialized productions with Shoot the Messenger and we’re also developing some film properties. We are cognizant of the fact that this is a golden age of television, and we are making television that attempts to have some sort of artistic pretension. One of the things that I loved last year was watching The Affair, and I thought that that had moments of art in it. 

Montage: Brilliant acting, mood and characters.

Sudz: I loved it. They swung for the fences, and there were some choices there that were just superb, so we want to do a similar thing. We know that Shoot the Messenger is not a cable show. It’s a murder mystery. But after seeing these high watermarks in television, we’re aiming for the same thing, because we want to contribute something to the conversation.

Montage: When you two started out in this business, the NFB and the CBC had a lot of power. That power has been diminished and it seems that especially with the current federal administration, there is a real rancour toward the CBC—perhaps not so much toward the NFB. I’m wondering about your thoughts on the election: what would you like to see happen after this election? What kind of cultural changes would you like to see? 

Sudz: Of course I want to see a new administration. I think that’s painfully obvious. I think you want to see something where people are saying, “Okay, we’re going to actually invest in the future of [this country’s culture],” and not have this animosity toward organisations like the CBC and the NFB, which really make us Canadian.   

Jennifer: I feel the same way. In addition to the creative voice and the presence that this kind of work gives the world, it actually employs a lot of people. In Ontario, the film and television industry is important. We’ve lost manufacturing, and sure, the digital industry is building up, but this part of the creative industry is significant, and why would you destroy people’s livelihoods? We bring jobs—there’s so much that’s brought to the economy of Ontario through film and television. I know it’s a national thing, but there seems to be a particular vitriol toward Ontario and Toronto.

Montage: So, Shoot the Messenger—is it cast?

Sudz: Elyse Levesque has been cast as Daisy, and we’re very excited about her. She’s been on Cedar Cove and Stargate Universe and she’s really ready to have her career take off. We’ve got Lyriq Bent from The Book of Negroes and Home Again playing Lutz. For Simon we have Lucas Bryant from Haven. We’re very excited to have him. 

Montage: On shows like Home Again and Guns and now Shoot the Messenger, you shoot a lot of scenes on location. Tell me how you prep, because it’s different from shooting in-studio. Everything is a little bit at play—you’ve got a script, but you have to deal with what’s happening with the weather, what’s happening when people aren’t quite doing their lines properly, if something isn’t happening technically… 

Sudz: You just have to roll with it. You have to think in the moment and remember, “Be here now.” I am a big believer in the flow and that state of being that we call flow. When everybody is working in concert and we are moving, and just executing—that’s what I live for. I’m trying to direct people to their best possible performances; I’m trying to set that stage up and put all of the blocks into play so that people can do that, wherever in the world we are. I make it a quiet work environment, and make sure that we all know what it is, so we can block it very clearly. I’ll say very clearly what the shot is so that everybody knows what we’re trying to do and what’s going to be in the rectangle. 

Montage: You’re very good with action, and not everybody is. You’ve obviously been working on it for a number of years. Do you have ideas of how you block? Do you visualize a lot of it in advance? How much of it ends up being a bit improvised?  

Sudz: I use some pre-visualization tools. I have a computer programme that I use, and I draw as well. I’m trying to learn through life-drawing classes how to draw better.  

Montage: So you sketch out shot-by-shot sometimes.

Sudz: Sometimes, yeah, I’ll do that. Just to be very clear, if it’s a complicated stunt sequence, then I’ll have it all on a black card so that everybody will see what the shots are going to be. The crew and cast will have their shots—especially if we’re doing four or five cameras—so that everybody knows what they’re getting. Even in terms of the script, I write in a very visual way. One of the things that I contribute is breaking a script down, so we know how it’s going to be shot. That’s one of the things that you learn from reading scripts. Paul Haggis, for example, writes in an incredibly visual way, and I borrowed a lot of his style from scripts like Million Dollar Baby and Crash.  

Montage: What have you learned from directing episodic TV? 

Sudz: One of the big things you learn is that you have to have the script ready. That’s why we want to give the directors we are hiring for the episodes I’m not doing on Shoot the Messenger a chance to see the scripts so that they can contribute something visually to it. That’s one of the big things I’ve learned—just get the scripts ready, and then you can ask people to contribute. 

Montage: In Shoot the Messenger and Guns, you’ve written major characters who are newspaper reporters. Why do you love old-style journalism? 

Jennifer: I love old things. I love old furniture; I love the craftsmanship. I look at some of the most important points in our history in terms of knowledge that’s been downloaded to a public, and a lot of that came out of journalists. I get the newspaper, and I love reading the newspaper. I love the actual tactile nature of opening it up. Even as uncomfortable as it is in terms of flipping the page, there’s something really organic about it. I can’t imagine reporting on the news ever being dead, although the form it takes may change. 

Montage: A final question for both of you, and I’ll ask Jen first: what’s the craziest thing about working with Sudz?

Jennifer: That’s a hard question. It’s not crazy, to be honest. I have a very supportive partner. We do have conflicts for sure, and I am very strong in my opinions, and I really try to be as open as possible. I am not a person who obfuscates stuff; I am very clear, and it’s sometimes really challenging for him, because I demand that from him as well. 

Sudz: Jen does so many things very well. Most people can do the business side or the creative side, but not both. But she does both very well, and that’s sometimes kind of overwhelming. 

You asked about the craziest thing—it is kind of crazy, because sometimes it is confounding. Since we are different genders biologically, and we’ve been socialized differently, I think that one of the great things that Jen brings to the work is a female point of view. She’s smart enough that she can analyse everybody in the room and see where they’re all coming from. She’s very good with motivations and the deep psychology that’s required for the shows we do—all of that stuff is ricocheting around in her mind very fast. That’s sometimes confounding, too, but I’m not an idiot—I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. That’s an incredible asset to have; it’s great to see it and great to be around it. 

Also, when I can try to make the script or the characters better, it really has to work before she’ll accept it. That is another confounding thing, but I think that’s because for a long time in my own life as a man—and I’m still grappling with this as I’m getting older and hopefully better—emotionally, it’s not like I had the language to talk about how I was feeling.  

I think a lot of people look at us from the outside and wonder, “How do you guys work together as a married couple?” We had big fights early in the game, but I think the best idea wins. We get better at it every single script and every show that we do.  

 

Marc Glassman edits Montage and reviews film for Classical 96.3FM. He is the artistic director of the Pages UnBound literary festival and teaches in Ryerson University’s Documentary Media programme.

 

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