Will Canadian TV Be Even Whiter Post-COVID? A TV Writer Shares Her Worries

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The image of a writer hunched over their keyboard alone may be what you think of when you picture how fictional worlds are created, but in television, a writers’ room is the sacred space where people huddle together, convening over small talk and snacks (lots of snacks), to make believe as a collective. Physical distancing isn’t exactly conducive to this process, which is one of the reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many productions around the country, and in Hollywood, to a sudden halt.
At the same time, we’ve seen the demand for new shows rise (after all, there’s not much else to do during quarantine than watch TV), which means people behind-the-scenes have had to come up with creative ways to make TV from their homes. American Idol is doing live shows while Katy Perry video conferences in from her living room (dressed in various ridiculous costumes). Writers are now meeting over Zoom and some scripted shows are shooting remote episodes and even resorting to animation to finish their 2020 seasons. All these unexpected changes have resulted in job losses (the Canadian film and TV industry is projected to lose $2.5 billion in the wake of the pandemic). For people of colour — who already have an uphill battle in the entertainment industry — their futures are even more uncertain.
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To understand what TV writers are going through right now, Refinery29 talked to Toronto-based screenwriter Nathalie Younglai, an Asian woman who writes for Coroner, one of Canada’s most popular scripted dramas. Here, she shares the challenges of writing TV over Zoom, what sets could look like post-COVID 19, and how the pandemic may cause unfortunate setbacks for diversity initiatives in Canadian television. 
Walk me through some of the unique challenges your industry is facing. How has your job changed since the pandemic? 
It's a really scary time for people in the arts because our jobs are not salary jobs. It's all contract work. If we take a day off, we don't get paid. If production shuts down, there are thousands of people who are out of work. At the same time, people need us more than ever to provide an escape. It’s a weird duality. Pre-COVID-19, our jobs were seen as frivolous or not essential. Maybe people now have a new appreciation of the arts

It's a really scary time for people in the arts because our jobs are not salary jobs. It's all contract work. If we take a day off, we don't get paid. If production shuts down, there are thousands of people who are out of work. At the same time, people need us more than ever to provide an escape.

As for the work, my show is in development for a new season right now. We’ve moved our writing sessions to Zoom. As I’m sure everyone knows, it's very difficult to have the same type of communication over Zoom. We usually write ideas (storylines or character arcs) on whiteboards to keep track. In my office at home, I have painted a whiteboard on my wall. I think the thing I miss the most is the little informal side conversations that you can have while you're taking a quick break, running to the bathroom or grabbing a snack. That will spark other ideas. Because Zoom is so intense, you feel like you have to be on task all the time. You can't walk and pace the room or do all these other things that usually get your creative juices flowing. 
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What role will the pandemic play in the upcoming season of the show you’re working on? 
We're drawing on our own experiences of living through it, taking in the fact that, even when we're beyond it, the world is still going to look different. I think in general in TV production, there will be shows that lean into the stories of living through coronavirus, and then the shows providing escapism. Personally, I want to see stuff that’s not related to the pandemic because we're living in it and parts of it are really violent, like all the anti-Asian violence and the fact that Black people and people of colour are disproportionately affected. It's like, Do we need to re-traumatize ourselves later when we're going through lots of trauma right now? When it comes to storylines about coronavirus I want to see stories that wouldn't normally be reflected on TV. So, I want to see it from the perspective of people of colour. I want to see stories from an Asian perspective.
Some shows are doing remotely shot episodes, like the legal drama All Rise, which incorporated a livestreamed trial into its finale that the actors shot from home. The Blacklist is doing an animated season finale. What do you think of these solutions? 
I thought All Rise was really, really brilliantly done. It’s fascinating to see that creativity can come out of limitations. But overall, I think it's going to be a strain on everyone. I like doing remote or animation for one or two episodes because it's an interesting solution. To shoot remotely for an entire series though, I think I’d be tired by the end of it.
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Some soap operas have resumed filming in the U.K. and they're practising social-distancing while on set, which means no kissing or sex scenes, etc. What do you think returning to set in Canada will be like post-COVID-19?
Every time I think about it, I get very stressed out. The way that we used to work we were very close to everyone — even where you stand to look at the monitors in between takes. You have to go and talk to different departments. We all pile into a little craft truck to grab food throughout the day. It's hard to think about how that's going to look without compromising the content of the show. 
Do you think making actors work six feet apart will work?
I think that's actually probably going to be the easiest part. You can block the actors so that they stand six feet apart and you can shoot long lense, so the crew is not close to them. The harder part is going to be the stuff that happens behind the scenes — there are makeup people, crew members climbing up on things, loading and unloading trucks together, the director talks to the actors to show them stuff on their script. Say there's a prop that needs two people to lift it and they can't keep their distance. How do you do that? It sounds like really trivial stuff, but that's the stuff I'm obsessing about. How do we use the bathroom when we're on set? Is someone going to go in and disinfect it after every single person uses it? 
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You're one of the few women of colour TV writers in Canada. We know that the industry has problems with diversity. What are your worries for the future of inclusion in the industry post-pandemic?
I worry that now it's going to be like, "Oh, we can only hire half the people because we can only have 50 people on set instead of 100.” I hope that doesn’t become an excuse not to hire people of colour. I'm really lucky that, in my writing room, I'm not the only woman of colour. The opportunities are already pretty stark in terms of getting into a writing room, getting your first gig, moving up to becoming story co-ordinator, and then eventually getting your very first script to air, so I just hope this doesn’t make it even harder. 
When I look at crews and how hard it is for people of colour to get hired for sets and move up the ladder and get into unions, I'm also afraid. Now that everyone has been off for so many weeks and months, the first priority is going to be to those who are most experienced, those who have the longest relationships. Traditionally, those are white people because unions have traditionally been white. So how do we ensure that the people of colour who need to put in those hours to move up the ranks are going to get those hours? How do they get opportunities to get their foot in the door?
Are you worried about your own job?
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I’m less worried for myself getting work because I write in different genres and, if the worst-case scenario is that we can't go back to production for three years — which is a total horrible scenario — I have a background where I can also pivot and write animation. I’m more worried about the future [of other writers]. I run an organization for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in TV. We've been doing a writing bootcamp for writers of colour who want to write for kids' TV. That's two evenings a week on Zoom and trying to help these writers feel connected and feel like there's still hope for them to come into the industry. 
I just realized that I downplay fears of my own future with a healthy dose of being in denial so I don't panic. I am worried, but try not to think about it!
How can people support the Canadian entertainment industry right now? 
Support Canadian-made TV by watching Canadian content. Viewer numbers matter and they show network executives that TV shows created by Canadians are in demand, which translates to jobs for Canadian writers, directors, and crew when the restrictions lift. Now is a good time to offer mentorships to those particularly vulnerable in the industry: those who are junior or emerging, in particular those who have been traditionally marginalized — BIPOC folk, LGBTQ2S+, disabled people. [If you have the means] put a post on social media, offering funds to those who need it. They can DM you and you send them an e-transfer, no questions asked. If you want to get fancy and have the time, set up a Patreon for the artists in your life and send them funds on a regular basis.
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This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food-industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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