Christopher Reeves once said, “so many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” For esteemed writer and screenwriter, Varunn Pandya, this mentality is all of the inspiration he needs to remind himself that with the right amount of hard work and dedication, he is able to achieve everything he sets his heart to. Growing up, the talented creative found himself inspired by Reeves’ interpretation of one of society’s token superheroes and credits his ability to play Superman as being one of the characters that initially sparked his interest in film. From there, he immersed himself into every avenue that the industry has to offer and found a love for the profession he now calls his own. As for his desire to create, it is stronger than ever before, and he has a knack for finding unique ways to showcase that will to the world.
“As a writer and screenwriter, I develop stories that I aim to show or display to the world in a way they’ve not necessarily experienced before. As I also like to direct, I try to write stories that I can bring a unique perspective to. Because I was born in India, I like to think that I bring some unique ideas to the United States and that I help to break some of the stereotypes associated with living on the Eastern side of the world,” told Pandya.
As he continues to navigate his way through the arts and entertainment industry, Pandya often finds himself taken aback by the breadth of opportunities and the amount of creative freedom he is allowed to use in order to imagine without limits and tell truly compelling stories. He has a reputation for finding areas of film that touch his audiences and he manages to do so in a way that keeps content fresh and engaging. In addition, he takes great pride in knowing that through his words and the stories that he brings to life, he has a grand platform to challenge the minds of his viewers and allow them to open their eyes to societal issues that they may or may not even be aware of. For instance, in his script XYZ where Pandya, alongside Badar AlShuaib, cast an important light on the unconscious, and sometimes conscious, bias that human beings exhibit toward their own race. In another of his scripts, The House, Pandya attempted to step outside of himself and allow his audiences to see the world from a perspective other than their own.
The House tells the story of Carl, a homeless man living in Los Angeles struggling to find a human connection amidst the repercussions of a rough upbringing. The storyline follows Carl’s daily routine as he collects metal scraps from the areas surrounding him and food from the trash in order to sustain himself. One fateful day, however, Carl comes across a family in his neighborhood and he grows a fascination for them. As the story progresses, viewers are taken on a journey through Carl and the family’s interactions. The story reminds us that regardless of our life circumstances, our skin color, our nationality, or whatever other features we use to distinguish ourselves from others, we are not all that different on the inside. We share similar emotions and at the end of the day, we are all human. Sometimes it just takes a little reminding from people like Pandya.
For The House, Pandya managed to develop a script in just four days. Writing it felt natural and he did everything in his power to keep the content as raw and powerful as possible. Wherever he could make the script seem realistic, he did just that and attempted to ensure that the script demanded empathy from its audience. He also made a particular effort to cast Carl in a different light than most homeless individuals are seen in. He wanted to show the world that not all homeless individuals intend to be, nor does their living situation make them any less human than the rest of us.
Up until The House, Pandya had only really ever worked with thrillers. What he loved most, therefore, about this project was the fact that it allowed him to step into unchartered territory and to explore an area of society he hadn’t otherwise given much thought into. He takes great pride in knowing that his script has the power to change the minds of many as they engage with the script and consider their actions from there forward. In the end, Pandya was not the only one who found a love for the script. In fact, The House went on to win a number of prestigious awards, such as Best Short Screenplay at the Five Continents International Cult Film Festival in June 2018 and at the Calcutta International Film Festival in September 2018.
“It feels great to know that the script has been widely appreciated by people all over the world. This script will always remain one of the most memorableprojects I’ve written as I think it’s the most personal story I have written despite it being based on a character that is very different from me,” he concluded.
Writing has always come naturally to Claire Leona Apps. She loves telling stories and loves how they serve society; they can teach us and warn us, they can entertain while serving a greater purpose. A good story can create conversation and express ideas that help us relate to new points of view. It’s a powerful tool, and Apps understands that. Her passion for storytelling translates directly into her work as both a screenwriter and a director, from the words she puts down on a page to the way she puts it together in front of a camera, and she captivates worldwide audiences with films.
Apps is an in-demand writer and director, with a series of decorated projects highlighting her esteemed resume. These include her acclaimed films Gweipo, Aceh Recovers, Ruminate, and And Then I Was French. She is known for her ability to showcase the lives of underrepresented characters and bring a dark sense of humour to a story.
“I try not to get so caught up on the real world with my work. I have to deal with that every day anyway. I like a little surrealism, a little irony, and films that are a little self-aware,” she said.
That is exactly the message Apps puts out with her film Girl Blue Running Shoe. The film follows the daughter of a runner participating in the Bupa Great North Run as she makes a film as he trains and runs the race. The film begins calmly with a serene domestic set-up, building pace as the race begins, cutting between the training day and the marathon. At points which demonstrate the intensity of running, a special zoetrope effect is used, breaking down the movement of running into paused actions, reflecting the rhythm of the action – the steady thumping of shoes on gravel, a beating heart, breathing. The piece is shot solely on Super 8, edited to emulate both the excitement of the daughter as an observer and the adrenaline of the participator. With a soundtrack of enhanced natural noises, Girl Blue Running Shoeis an evocative celebration of the human body whilst also telling the simple story of a father-daughter relationship.
“It’s a story about loving and sharing in the experiences of the people you love. It also dissects the movements of running,” said Apps. “Usually I do pretty dark things. It was nice to do something that ended up in a children’s film festival line up. It’s nice to just show love, simple straight forward love between a father and daughter,” she said.
Apps wrote the story and pitched it to the British Arts Council to commission the film. When she got the commission, she immediately began directing, coming up with a new camera technique for the film. The story has two components. One is a daughter watching her father run the race. He is doing his hobby, running, and she is doing hers, filmmaking. She films him running on a Super 8 camera. Therefore, as the director, Apps decided to shoot the whole film on Super 8 cameras. This truly allowed audiences to immerse themselves in the girl’s point of view. Apps also had the idea to use the sprocket holes of the physical film and the division between the different pictures to create a zoetrope like film effect. She did this all by hand: slowing the footage down and cranking it through a projector to be re-filmed.
Shooting took place at the Great North Run in Newcastle, England, one of the biggest half marathons in the world. This presented a unique challenge for Apps, who had to shoot a fictional story around a live marathon. Therefore, the actual shoot was extremely fast. She had to make quick decisions to deal with whatever came their way. There were roads shut off, spectators everywhere, and of course the runners themselves, and they had to move all around them with a child actress.
“The hardest thing about this project was finding the right kid to play the lead. It is a large ask to have a child give you full energy for a few hours of extreme intensity, but Adrianna Bertola, who played the lead, was a dream,” said Apps.
The film premiered on BBC during the Great North Run the following year. It went on to be at the Great North Museum for an exhibition. It was also an Official Selection at the Cork International Film Festival. The success was wonderful for Apps, as the shoot was a chaotic and fun experience.
Now, Apps is currently working on another feature film. She is a truly exceptional filmmaker, engaging viewers of all ages, which is evident with her work on Girl Blue Running Shoe. She knows the key to her success is working hard, and she encourages all those looking to follow in her footsteps to do the same.
“Prepare yourself for a lot of hard work and don’t expect anyone to discover you. We live in a world at the moment where you can generate a lot of attention by yourself and you can make films on your phone. Make something and keep going,” she advised.
As far back as Shaan Memon can remember, his family had a VCR player at their home in Ahmedabad, a city in Gujarat state in India. Every Sunday, he would watch all of his favorite cartoon shows, and his father used to help him record the shows on video cassettes. When his father would travel to Bombay for work, he would return with movies for Shaan and his elder sister. It was then, in his living room in his childhood home, that his love of film was born.
Now, Shaan is an in-demand Screenwriter, Director, and Editor. He first impressed international critics with his work on the horror The Unreal and continued to do so with his films Fitting In and Bullied, as well as the documentary Purpose Driven Study for Dharoi Canal Command Area. He is extremely knowledgeable in every aspect of filmmaking, from pre-production to post-production, and using this knowledge to expand his skillset. At the end of last year, his work on a commercial for the Dickens Christmas Fair showed that in addition to Director and Editor, this versatile filmmaker can even take on the role of Videographer and achieve tremendous results.
“I found Shaan to be reliable, assiduous, hard-working, and intuitively creative – as well as being extremely patient in performing multiple re-cuts of the material. Shaan impressed me so much that I recommended him for other work and hope to engage his services next year on a separate video for the Dickens Fair,” said David Hakim, Producer/Director who worked alongside Shaan on the commercial.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a one-of-a-kind holiday adventure into Victorian London and is an elaborate party with around 800 of costumed players performing and interacting with patrons in over 120,000 square feet of theatrically-lit music halls, pubs, dance floors, and Christmas shops. It’s a twilight evening in Charles Dickens’ London Town – a city of winding lanes filled with colorful characters from both literature and history. Enticing aromas of roasted chestnuts and hearty foods fill the air. Cries of street vendors hawking their wares ring out above the bustling crowd. Dozens of lamplight shops are filled to overflowing with Christmas gifts. The Dickens Christmas Fair is a treasured Bay Area tradition since 1970 and a splendid way to celebrate the holidays. Thousands of people attend this event every year.
“I had never visited the fair before, so the first time when I visited it, I was spellbound. They have created a different world in itself. One can never imagine what would it be inside until they visit it, and that is exactly I wanted to capture. I therefore insisted on not visiting the fair before shooting, as I wanted to feel like a traveler who is experiencing it for the first time and I captured those moments,” said Shaan.
Shaan is a multi-talented filmmaker with an outstanding about of expertise in writing, directing, editing, videography and sound design. Because he has so much experience in such a variety of roles, he is a one-man army who can execute a project as clearly and as nearly to how it was conceived during the consultation. Having thorough knowledge of different fields makes him a force to be reckoned with and proved vital while shooting this commercial.
“Every filmmaker works hard with his/her sweat and blood to make a project the best it can possibly be and make their name in the industry. I had huge responsibility as Diane Baker put trust in me and suggested me to work on this project. I’m happy that I could reach her and David’s expectations,” said Shaan.
When Diane Baker and David Hakim were trying to find someone who could make a captivating commercial for Dicken’s Christmas Fair, they immediately thought of Shaan and approached him to take the lead on the project. Initially, Hakim had planned on creating a competition to decide who would create the commercial, but after seeing Shaan’s work, he knew he no longer needed to find someone to take over.
Working closely together for the entire shoot, Shaan consulted Hakim regarding what kind of shots, pace and feel would be required. After brainstorming, they decided on getting more front faced shots of the visitors, showing how happy they were and enjoying their time. Getting the best shots of artists performing, vendors selling beautiful products, the decorations, the grandness of the fair and much more. Shaan then attended the fair with his assistant to get as many shots as possible. During the editing process, he consulted with Kevin Patterson, Executive Director of Dicken’s Fair. He edited the best possible 30-second commercial. He is now working on the 90-second advertisement after the success of its predecessor.
“This is what I love about filmmaking. I never get bored of being a filmmaker. I enjoy working every time I have to go through this process of starting a new project, working on it and at the end looking at its result. Every project takes me on a whole new journey. In this one I met around hundreds of artists working together at same place. Watching Dickens’s characters alive and performing in front of you was a treat! This project was great to work on and entertaining also. David was very supportive throughout and I’m happy that he trusted my creativity and I could deliver up to his expectations,” Shaan concluded.
Growing up, Sarah Stunt always loved stories. The Toronto native was always a big reader, reading her first novel, Little Women, at just nine years old. She loved the history and romantic setting, drawing her to the visual, and she was immediately taken by the characters, seeing herself in the passionate and independent writer Jo March. At the time, the only way she could describe the feelings the book gave her was on paper. It was something that changed her life. Now, her talent communicating through the written word, and that passion that started at just nine-years-old, has propelled Stunt’s career, and she is recognized around the world as an outstanding writer.
Stunt’s work has impressed international audiences for many years, but it was writing the impactful documentary Girl Unbound that she considers the highlight of her career. The film is about an exceptionally brave girl living in Waziristan, Pakistan, “one of the most dangerous places on earth.” Maria Toorpakai defies the Taliban, disguising herself as a boy, so she can play sports freely, something the Taliban strictly prohibits girls from doing. However, when she becomes a rising squash star, her true identity is revealed.
“I love working on documentaries as a writer. It’s always a long-term, nurturing relationship that changes and grows as time goes on. The lives of the characters are real. You don’t have to envision the conflicts, the inciting incidents or arcs, they evolve naturally on their own. Being able to capture it on the page is where the magic before the magic takes place, because in a matter of pages, your essence of the film presents itself and sets the stage moving forward. Being able to create some sort of affect, as the subject matter is usually from a human-interest point-of-view, is always the greatest outcome. You learn to champion your characters and unlike fiction, their stories continue to evolve after production is complete. It has a long-lasting affect,” said Stunt.
As the film’s writer, Sarah worked closely with the Producer, Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, to develop the film’s basic concept, and from those initial ideas, she wrote the film’s script. Rosenthal says without Stunt, the film could never have been possible.
“Sarah is an exquisite writer whose skill and talent for her craft is obvious. Girl Unbound could not have been made without her guidance and her amazing abilities. The fantastic record of success the film had could not have been achieved if not for Sarah’s prodigious talents,” said Sanford-Rosenthal.
After being asked to premiere at the world-renowned Toronto International Film Festival last year, Girl Unbound received rave reviews from such top industry publications as The Hollywood Reporter and screened at more major international film festivals such as the DOC NYC (where the film was nominated for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize), Cleveland International Film Festival (where the film was nominated for Best Documentary), Athena Film Festival, and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
“I am so proud that the film has done so well. So much work, dedication and time went into the making of this film. With all the ups and down, everything from capturing the characters and their lives to the struggles of filmmaking in general, the final film is beautiful and powerful and executed in a way that will continue to generate a conversation after the film has been screened. This, in my opinion, is the true purpose of documentary film,” said Stunt.
With experience in writing for documentary, which for obvious reasons does not have scripted lines but requires a strict outline, Stunt was asked to join the film. The filmmakers knew they needed an experienced and skilled writer to properly tell such an important and captivating story. Originally, Stunt came to work on the film for a short time, but ended up as the lead writer, watching over the process from start to finish.
“The messaging is inspiring. The themes are varied with a focus on human rights, girls in sport, the right to education, and identity, but the courage of this one girl and the support of her family to use their platforms to inspire and make change is why it’s so important. Our main subject Maria is a force to be reckoned with, and if she can win and continue to do so, then it spreads the message of hope for others to do the same,” said Stunt. “The story was so strong and ever evolving. It took a lot of risk, courage and strength for all involved to actualize the final product and it inspired me to do my part as a writer, even though I wasn’t on the ‘frontlines’ of it all.”
In a world with a growing stereotype towards the Middle East, the story of Girl Unbound is of increasing importance. For Stunt, working on the film was not about the many awards and recognition both she and the film received, but about educating the viewers and inspiring audiences through Maria’s story.
“I loved working on this project. It took on many lives but the story that is out is the one that needs to be told. It has so much heart and invites viewers into a world that is both complicated and beautiful. It expels Western notions of Pakistan, sheds light on the lives of many but especially women and children and challenges old world notions that this generation of youths are trying to identify with and evolve from,” she concluded.
It takes a very rare individual to not only be able to write a successful script for a production, but produce it as well. When it comes to getting a project off the ground and actually bringing it to the stage or screen, the writer is the person who knows the ins and outs of the story they’ve created and feels the most passionately about it, at least initially; so, in an ideal world it makes sense that they’d be the best person to pitch the project to networks and ensure that the world they’ve created comes across accurately once production begins.
Unfortunately for the many writers who want to make it in the highly competitive entertainment industry, the differences between being the writer and the producer on a project call upon two very different personality types. Whereas the writer can retreat into their imagination creating their work without having to interact with other people—the producer has to be able to pitch the heck out of the story getting financiers and network executives on board, and if successful, then they have to communicate and guide everyone involved in the production towards the end goal.
While these individuals are understandably few and far between, Canada’s George Reinblatt is undoubtedly one of them. Over the last decade the unique and multifariously talented producer and writer has transitioned between the two roles with ease, consistently creating successful productions along the way.
To get an idea of the success Reinblatt has had as a producer, just look at the multi-award winning production “Evil Dead: The Musical,” which he wrote as well.
The production, which initially opened at a small theatre in Toronto in 2003, was an instant hit, and by 2006 the show was running as an off-Broadway production in New York where it received extensive international acclaim. After watching the show on opening night in NY, New York Times’ critic Anita Gates wrote that the show had the makings to become the next “Rocky Horror Show.”
“This was really special for me, as it was my show – I wrote the book and lyrics. So it was important for me to be on the producing side to make sure I could have a hand in all aspects of the production — from casting to merchandising to ticketing to even choosing the venue,” explains Reinblatt about producing the initial run of the show.
As the writer of the musical, Reinblatt created a masterpiece on paper, but it was his capacity as a producer that took that hilarious cult world from that which could only be experienced in the imagination and erected it into something audiences could collectively enjoy as he intended it. Prior to going into production with the hit show, Reinblatt reached out to the movie studios and secured the rights to the Evil Dead franchise in order to make the stage production the official stage adaptation of the film trilogy.
“Evil Dead: The Musical” won the Dora Audience Choice Award as Toronto’s Favorite Show, and after having several extended runs, by 2008 it became the longest running Canadian show in Toronto in over two decades.
Over the last year Reinblatt has been working hard producing a slew of comedies for international television networks including the Comedy Central special Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live from Brazos County Jail.
“It was amazing how much time and effort had to go into this one comedy special,” admits Reinblatt. “I came up with the idea of doing a comedy show in a prison. Jeff Ross thought it was a great idea. Comedy Central thought it was a great idea. But finding a prison willing to let us come in there and roast them, that was the hard part.”
Reinblatt and everyone on board knew they had something special on their hands, and after a year of planning and researching prison life, Reinblatt helped bring the eye-opening special to the screen.
The special, which aired in June, offered audiences more than just a few good laughs as they watched renowned comic Jeff Ross, known to many as ‘The Roastmaster General,’ roast the inmates at Brazos County Jail though. Along with Ross’s satirical jokes, the show included shocking facts about the American prison system making it a valuable source of information as well. Reinblatt’s brilliant idea for the show coupled with his ability to make the project happen as a producer made the release a resounding success.
As a writer on the series The Burn with Jeff Ross, and the popular Comedy Central roast specials of Roseanne, James Franco, Charlie Sheen and Justin Bieber, Reinblatt has worked with Jeff Ross multiple times over the years. He is also known throughout the international entertainment industry for penning the scripts for an impressive list of productions including the series Just for Laughs, George Stroumboulopolos Tonight, The Arsenio Hall Show, the 2012 and 2013 MuchMusic Video Awards and more.
“Different is what I do. I’m always looking for my next project to be different from my last. And jumping from a musical to a prison comedy special to a sketch show is about as different as you can get,” admits Reinblatt.
From the standpoint of producer, George Reinblatt knows exactly what story ideas will sit best with audiences, and earlier this year he began producing yet another exciting comedy series. The new 20-episode series Almost Genius, which is slated to begin airing on Country Music Television Canada in 2016, combines popular YouTube videos with some of the best comics in the entertainment industry today. Using highly innovative production technology, the show actually inserts the comics into the YouTube clips using green screen.
Reinblatt says, “It’s going to make people look at their favorite YouTube clips in a whole new way.”
With inimitable creativity, Reinblatt has continually displayed his capacity for producing starkly different projects for both the stage and screen, all of which reveal him as someone who is not only capable of creating captivating stories, but ensuring the production process goes off without a hitch as well.
“I just want the overall experience for the audience to be a great one, so I love being involved in all aspects of a production to ensure that happens,” explains Reinblatt. “Sometimes as a writer, you write something, hand it in, and what happens from there in performance, or editing, or anything else, is completely out of your hands. As a producer you get a say in the overall direction. You may not always get exactly what you want. But your voice is always heard and you can help navigate the direction of the final product.”
Hundreds of people across various departments behind the scenes work grueling hours day in and day out in order to bring us our favorite television shows; and, besides the cast, few of these individuals rarely get the recognition they deserve.
Over the last week at Tinsel Town News Now we’ve brought you inside interviews with some of these incredible professionals who continue to dote their unique talents upon the entertainment industry, not for the praise, but because this is what they love to do.
This week we are excited to give you an exclusive look into the world of writing for television with Writer’s Guild of Canada Award winner and Gemini nominated screenwriter, Nicole Demerse.
Over the course of her astonishingly successful career, Demerse has written episodes for over 45 television shows. From laugh out loud comedies and teen dramas to action-packed sci-fi adventure and animated shows Demerse has done it all, and she knows exactly what it takes to keep television viewers engaged.
Some of the shows she’s written for over the years include the hit dramas Degrassi: The Next Generation, Radio Free Roscoe and Instant Star, the animated shows Fugget About it, the Total Drama Island franchise, Braceface, Ruby Gloom, Atomic Betty, I Spy, Producing Parker, Chirp, and Totally Spies!, the comedy shows She’s The Mayor, Majority Rules, The Blobheads, and many more.
Demerse has also written several movies of the week including Mixed Up!, and The Invisible Rules of Zoe Lama, as well as several others that are currently in development.
To find out more about what it takes to become a successful writer in the television industry, some of Demerse’s personal career highlights and how she got to where she is today, make sure to read our interview below.
You can also check out more of Nicole Demerse’s work through her IMDb page.
TTNN:Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?
ND: I was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I have lived in several places (London, England and Vancouver, British Columbia). Toronto is the fifth largest city in North America and pretty safe city as far as big cities go, so it’s a great place to come of age – all the benefits of a big city and few of the risks. We also have a large film and TV industry here, both foreign and domestic, so I was exposed to the business growing up.
TTNN:How have your early experiences influenced some of the work you create today?
ND: I grew up watching WAY too much TV! Thanks, Mom and Dad. But seriously, in my case, that was a good thing. Even though I lived in a big city, television is what introduced me to the rest of the world. I always laugh when my friends say they don’t want their kids to watch TV because as long as you pick the right stuff, television can be highly educational and can help foster a great imagination in children. I used to love watching nature documentaries as a kid – especially anything to do with the ocean. Toronto is situated on the shores of Lake Ontario and while it’s a huge lake, it’s no ocean. We used to take trips to Florida every year as a family and I’ve always loved the ocean. So between yearly family vacations, I’d get my fix watching NOVA, Nature on PBS, old episodes of Jacque Costeau, The Discovery Channel, etc. It actually inspired me to get a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology. Of course, once I graduated I realized that I actually didn’t want to do hardcore research and become a professor, I wanted to explore the world and make great television and write. As a kid, I also loved watching sci-fi and action adventure, anything that was out of my normal sphere of experience. I also read a lot, but I was always a very visual kid and television was a medium I loved from a very early age.
TTNN:When and how did you get into the industry as a screenwriter?
ND: After doing my four-year Bachelor of Science degree… and make no mistake about it, “Marine Biology” may have an artsy sound to it, it is a hardcore science degree that involves tons of math, statistics and physics. My program started with over five hundred people and only 30 graduated. I did my fourth year thesis on “Ion regulation in a population of migratory Lake Sturgeon from the James Bay Watershed.” And as I was standing there, in a northern Ontario river, waist deep in hip-waders in freezing cold water, I had this moment of realization that without a camera to document this stuff, what difference was I really making. Sure, our research would go into some periodical and hopefully it would be useful to somebody, somewhere, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to inspire kids like me to learn and think and dream. I hope to write my “Finding Nemo” or “SpongeBob Square Pants” someday so I can put my degree to some sort of use. It would make my parents proud.
After University, I did science journalism for about a year and again had a crisis of conscience because I didn’t want to do research, I just wanted to tell good stories and make stuff up. Journalism tends to frown on that… unless you work for Fox News. Then I heard that the Canadian Film Centre, founded by the iconic Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison as a film school in 1988, was venturing into television in the early aughts (2000). They were starting their “Prime Time Television Resident Program” and it sounded like something I wanted to be a part of. So on weekends, I wrote a script called “Interns” about four interns who were friends. It got me an interview and I was later picked from across Canada to be part of the program.
I recently found the script and to my horror realized I hadn’t even formatted it properly! I was totally untrained in television writing and had no clue what I was doing. I guess they saw something in there and decided to take a chance on me. I graduated from that program several months later with huge college loans to pay for and some local animated shows were hiring… and the rest is history. Kids, youth and animation are thriving industries in Canada, and we do it very well. Our stuff sells all over the world. Some of the shows I have written for have sold in over 200 countries.
I started out writing boy’s action-adventure, and then aged up to tween sitcoms, teen drama (Degrassi: The Next Generation), then adult-comedy, both live-action and late night animation. So I feel like I’ve kind of grown up along with my audience.
TTNN:How did your interest in writing for youth audiences develop?
ND: When I was a kid, the original Degrassi series was on TV and I loved that the kids looked like regular kids and were facing regular kid issues, though with hugely heightened stakes. So it was a real honor to get a chance to work on the new incarnation of the show when I was older, Degrassi: The Next Generation.
I also used to watch a CBC/Disney co-production called Danger Bay. It was a scripted show about the sea and saving wild animals in peril. Dr. Grant Roberts was a veterinarian who specialized in marine mammals and he and his family lived on a private island off the coast of British Columbia, they had a Jeep and a floatplane, which as a kid, seemed like the best life ever. I also used to love watching animation as a kid. Shows like The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy definitely shaped my sense of humor.
TTNN:Why are you passionate about writing television projects for this audience?
ND: I’ve always wanted to inspire kids to dream and see the world through the scripts I write. Sure, people might argue that ninety percent of the stuff I write doesn’t have much ‘educational benefit’ in the truest sense of the world, but I think fostering a kid’s imagination is the best thing you can do as a parent. What’s that famous Einstein quote– “Logic will get you from A to Z, Imagination will get you everywhere.” If it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me!
Humans also love good stories, it’s ingrained in our DNA, and kids are no different. A good story can help you through a rough time, inspire you to take risks and to grow, or just make you laugh or cry. I think it’s really important to tell good stories to kids, stories that spark their imaginations and get them to dream and believe that the world out there is so much bigger, cooler and more exciting than the little place where they grew up, that the world is full of possibilities.
TTNN:Can you tell us a little bit about some of the projects you’ve written for television?
ND: Degrassi: The Next Generation was definitely a seminal show for me. Like I said, I used to watch the original when I was a kid, so to grow up and write for the new incarnation was a full-circle moment that was not lost on the inner kid in me. Degrassi: The Next Generation never shied away from tackling tough issues. Myself and two other writers wrote a two-part episode on abortion that was so controversial, it was banned in the U.S. and even the New York Times wrote a piece about it. I don’t want to get too heavily into politics here, but our storyline just told the story of a normal, average 16-year-old girl who made one mistake one night and didn’t want that mistake to be the end of her life. It was about her body, her choice, and her ability to determine the fate and future trajectory of her life… and well, it caused an uproar that no one thought a small Canadian show could ever cause. That’s the power of TV!
Like I mentioned above, I grew up watching great primetime animation, so the chance to work on two late night animated properties here in Canada was definitely a highlight of my career. Producing Parker was about a woman trying to balance family life and work, though somehow I got to write the prison episode. That’s the third ‘prison episode’ I’ve written in my career. Not sure what about me says: “hey, that blonde girl would know what it’s like to be in prison… but that’s the best compliment I can receive. It means I have a healthy imagination… or unhealthy, depending on your perspective.
Even though I’ve never been in trouble a day in my life, I can’t even let a parking ticket sit for more than a week without paying it, it’s amazing to be able to stretch the creative juices and write about a world so far removed from my own life.
Fugget About It was another late night animated comedy about a New York City mobster who was forced to live in Regina, Saskatchewan as part of the Witness Protection Program. Again, it was another opportunity for me to stretch my creative muscles and dive into the shady world of mobsters, and then make fun of it for a living.
Totally Spies was also a career highlight. It’s an animated show about three Beverly Hills teens who might look like your stereotypical beach babes, but they kick some serious ass as spies on the side. Honestly, I will write anything about spies! I love that entire world… again, it’s so far removed from my daily life and that’s what makes it exciting to write. I also love when a show takes a well-known stereotype, plays with it, and then turns it on its ear without being preachy. Totally Spies didn’t apologize for what it was – it was just good, campy fun! – and audiences in over 200 countries fell in love with it.
Recently, I worked on a cool teen show called Game On, which will begin airing on YTV in March, 2016. Game On stars Samantha Bee (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and Jonathan Torrens (Trailer Park Boys) as sportscasters who give color commentary on the life of a 14-year-old boy named Toby Martin as he goes through the normal trials and tribulations of any teenager. The chance to work on a show with Samantha Bee was definitely a personal highlight! I am such a huge fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Samantha Bee was always one of my favorite contributors.
I’ve also written three MOWs (“Movies of the Week” or Television Movies) in the past two years and I’ve fallen in love with the format. The Invisible Rules of the Zoe Lama was based on a book series by Tish Cohen and is set in a high school. It follows a teen guru who everyone goes to for help (the books were inspired a bit by Jane Austen’s Emma). Mixed Up!, my second MOW, is about two dolls who come to life and wreck havoc on a teen’s life. I just love any movie set in the world of high school! Perhaps I’ve never grown up. My third MOW, Committed, is about three sisters with commitment issues who must return to their small town and run the family bridal salon when their mother mysteriously disappears. Writing half hour comedy is great fun, but being able to really dig into a world and write a movie with a beginning, middle and end, a self-contained vehicle all on its own, has been a wonderful challenge. I’ve really taken to the MOW format and hope to do more in the future.
TTNN:Have any of these projects won awards?
ND: I was nominated in 2004 for a Gemini Award, which was recently renamed the Canadian Screen Awards – the highest television honor in Canada, for my work on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
I also won a Writer’s Guild of Canada, akin to the Writer’s Guild of America, Canadian Screenwriting Award in 2005 for my work on The Blobheads, a hilarious live-action show about a 14-year-old who discovers that his baby brother is the Emperor of the Universe, even though he can’t talk or even sit up on his own yet, and must now live in the same house as the three aliens who have come to be near their ‘chosen one’.
TTNN:From your perspective as screenwriter, are there differences between how you approach an animated series compared to live-action?
ND: Yes and no. It’s all the same when it comes to story. You want to tell a compelling, interesting, funny story no matter whether it’s animated people saying the lines or real, live flesh and blood humans. The only real difference comes at the script level. In live-action, it’s considered a no-no to “direct” the script, i.e. put too much detail into the action lines – therefore telling the director what to do.
In animation, you have to direct the script on the page and often, the more detail the better, i.e. props, sound effects, physical gags, you name it… it’s all there on the page. That’s not to say that directors and storyboard artists in animation don’t bring a lot to the table – they often add comedy gold! – it’s just a different formatting approach. And animation often allows you to go a bit crazier as you’re not bound by the laws of physics.
TTNN:What made you choose to participate in the projects you’ve done over the course of your career?
ND: I wouldn’t say I really ‘picked’ the projects when I first started out. I just felt incredibly lucky that anyone would want to pay me to write for a living! I basically said yes to anything and everything that came my way. Hence why I have written for 45 shows and counting. That’s a factor of several things… I had huge college loans to pay for and worked day and night to get out of debt. I’m also a type A personality and am happiest when I am insanely busy. Whenever I have some down time, I always start a new original project. I just can’t stop writing! It drives my husband a little nuts. He’s always asking me to shut my brain down so we can just chill for a bit.
TTNN:What has been some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?
ND: The biggest challenge in this industry isn’t necessarily at the project level – it’s more of a holistic problem that all television writers face. I’ve talked to many new writers about this. Basically, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. Not only must you be comfortable sitting alone in your office, by yourself, for 8-10 hours a day writing – just you and your imagination – you also have to be comfortable on-set when you’re running a show having hundreds of people looking to you for guidance and barking questions at you 24-7 for 6-8 months straight. Those are two very different people… one is a loner personality that likes being on their own, the other is a ‘people person’ who loves being in the thick of the action. Those two people must live simultaneously in the same person if you want to work in television, specifically. Then, on top of that, you have to be an excellent sales person who can go out and sell yourself and your writing. Agents and managers are a great help, but you can’t rely on anyone else to build your career, at least that’s how I feel. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, you also have to be good at public speaking. I am constantly asked to speak at events and have to be comfortable talking in front of crowds. Then, as if ALL that wasn’t enough, you have to be a performer because when you go in to pitch producers and network executives the people on the receiving end want a good show! They don’t want someone who blandly reads off a piece of paper, they want someone who brings the show to life. Those are the biggest challenges of being a Screenwriter in television.
TTNN:What projects do you have coming up?
ND: In addition to the three MOWs I mentioned above that are in various stages of development and production, I also have two original hour dramas in development. Washington Prep is about politicians behaving badly and the consequences of raising the next generation in their exact image. Choice is a project about a young Doctor who goes down a very dark path. Neither one is a comedy and it’s been such a wonderful challenge to transition into the world of one-hour dramas. I also have a comedy in development, New Arrival, about a family whose baby mama suddenly shows up on their doorstep sixteen years later and needs a place to live.
TTNN:As a screenwriter, where do you get your inspiration for the projects you create?
ND: People always ask me this and it all comes from my brain… not to sound trite. But that’s where it all starts. That’s why it’s so important to find some downtime and go out into the world and try new things and travel, so I have things to write about. I will try anything once, as long as it’s not illegal and there’s a good chance it won’t kill me. Everything I try will end up in a script somewhere someday, guaranteed. It’s also very hard to be friends with a writer, because anything you tell me will also end up in a script somewhere someday, guaranteed. Of course, names and details are always changed to protect the innocent.
TTNN:What do you hope to achieve with the projects you create?
ND: World peace. Sorry, that’s just me being a smart ass. There is nothing better in this world than laughing your ass off! If I can make people laugh, then I’ve done my job. If I can inspire them to dream or to get off the sofa and travel someplace exotic or try something new, then even better. There’s enough shitty stuff in this world, so it’s an honor to be a purveyor of jokes.
TTNN:Why are you passionate about working as a screenwriter?
ND: I love the challenge of having to be so many different things to different people. If I wanted to just write alone all day, I’d probably be a book author or write films. I love that television demands you to be a CEO of your own show, running a huge team of people, keeping things on time and on budget.
TTNN:Do you think you’ll stick to writing TV shows for the youth audiences, or is there another area of screenwriting you’d like to explore?
ND: While I love writing television for kids and youth, and will probably always do it on some level, I also have other stories to tell now that I am married. I have written for several adult comedy programs and would love to do more of those, as well as write some one-hour dramas. I have two one-hours currently in development. One is in the older teen space (a la The OC or Gossip Girl) and the other is a character-driven drama (a la American Mary), so we’ll see what happens with those. I’d also love to write more MOWs going forward.
Israeli film directing phenomenon Onn Nir is taking Los Angeles and the international film scene by storm with several award-winning projects under his belt. This coupled with his passion to tell humane stories that provoke change, and his direction of characters with great authenticity make Nir a sought after director, and one to keep your eye on.
Serving as a combat medic in the Israeli army led Onn Nir to his true calling as a visual storyteller, with strong roots in the psychology and emotions of the complex world in which we live. Focusing on the primary concepts of image, mood and emotion, Nir creates a sense of social realism through his camera work and creation of real time intensity.
“I am utterly intrigued by the here and now, especially during extreme circumstances that expose the behavior of the characters with great authenticity,” said Nir.
Believing the true mission of a film director is to enhance the story telling on the page by mixing thought provoking story lines and emotional characters; Nir stands out as a director with true vision and spirit.
Born Guilty, one of Nir’s early films, tells a complex story of fear and prejudice. The film’s examination of prejudice through the experience of an unconventional victim caught the eye of the international audience. Born Guilty received the esteemed National Board of Review award.
Pressure Point, Nir’s follow up to Born Guilty, depicts and examines the complexity of the Middle East through a simple, emotional circumstance. Shot in Nir’s native Israel, and featuring the beautiful Judea Desert as its’ backdrop, Pressure Point is a visual and emotional tour de force. The film, which starred acclaimed Israeli actor Danny Geva (Sweets, Marzipan Flowers, Ha-Hamama, Kalevet), was an Official Selection of the Hamptons International Film Festival and the St. Louis International Film Festival.
Onn Nir’s most recent film however, Bamidbar, is one of his most powerful project to date. The film received the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and was nominated for several awards at the renowned Shanghai International Film Festival and the Champs-Elysee Fesitval in France.
A tale of a father and daughter’s strained relationship, Nir’s Bamidbar explores the subject of trauma in a society of constant war as one character prepares to join the army and the other struggles to forget the experience he had in the war decades before.
“Bamidbar is a progressively uncomfortable journey into loss and it’s consequences, a raw story about post trauma, and how one can heal from it in order to survive” said Nir.
Starring veteran Israeli actor Sabi Dorr, Bamidbar is a remarkable work of cinematic beauty that bravely depicts a psychologically complex relationship in a brutally honest way.
Nir has two hot new projects that he plans to begin production on very soon, The Drummers, and Kamel.The Drummers tells the harrowing tale of a lost US Army unit in Afghanistan. Following the real life exploits of famed Israeli spy Eli Cohen, Kamel is an intense thriller featuring the missions of the legendary spy. Onn Nir’s Kamel will no doubt prove an exciting tale of espionage in 60’s era Middle East.
Onn Nir is poised to take his work to the next level of cinema, and is truly an impressive and innovative filmmaker for our ever-changing society.
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