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.