This is part one in a two-part series of my conversation with Jill Golick.
Jill of Many Trades
Women in View Executive Director, Jill Golick, is a self-professed Jill-of-many-trades. Golick is a veritable Grande Dame of storytelling in the Canadian industry. The former Writer’s Guild of Canada President has over thirty years of experience spanning writing and producing, showrunning, and transmedia storytelling. She was one of the first Canadian screenwriters to experiment in transmedia storytelling over a decade ago and has created, written, financed and produced four original multi-platform series. Her most recent being the internationally-acclaimed, award-winning digital detective series Ruby Skye P.I.
Her behind-the-scenes political advocacy over the decades has helped transform the industry. Her current focus – creating equity for all women – sees an emphasis on voice: how we develop it, why it’s important, and how it affects culture.
The following are highlights from our conversation: an open sharing between two women; artists, business women, and devout yoga practitioners with a shared love for meditation and headstands.
In an industry largely based on scarcity, competition, and ego, Jill’s ethos is what makes her special as a leader and mentor. She’s in the trenches with you. She’s divergent and fully engaged. She cares about this art and she cares about everyone having a seat at the table.
A Shift in View
E: Have you noticed a shift now? I presume you would notice a shift of people wanting to consume content in a very different way.
JG: A lot of factors are playing into this system right now. Part of it is the collapse of the cable advertising industry. I’ll talk primarily about television because I think it’s the more important industry in our country and it’s the relevant medium. (Canadian) Television began as a business that sold eyeballs to advertisers. The audience was the commodity being sold. The content you were making as a creator was like sugar to draw as many flies as possible to be sold to the advertiser. So really for Canadian broadcasters what we did as creators was not important. They weren’t interested in creating art. They were interested in creating something that would draw as many people as possible. It’s McDonald’s, right?
But now with the internet what’s happened is that the audience has risen and become more important. They have a voice in the equation. Creators can reach them and re-establish that relationship between audience and storyteller which is the natural and important relationship in the storytelling equation. That’s made both the audience and the creator far more important.
One of the cool things about working at York (University) was having access to all these young people every year. I always attempted to learn more from them than they would from me. The first thing I did in every class was go around the room and talk to each student about how they consume media: what do you watch? When do you watch? How do you watch? And then also, what do you make? What I learned is the way we consume, particularly television content now, is so different. It used to be the whole family would watch together and now it’s a very personal experience, like reading a book. To me that kind of consumption hearkens back to when I was a little kid and I would have a novel under the covers with the flashlight late at night.
E: You know Thomas Edison, when his lab invented the Kinetoscope, he believed that – well what was understood to be viewing entertainment at that time – it was meant to be a very intimate experience. You watched through a peep-hole so only one person could view at a time. It wasn’t about the big projection. And then the Lumière Brothers and their cinematograph came along. They deliberately wanted to make something that would allow many people to watch at the same time. When they held their big screening event in Paris – their ‘here we filmed people outside our factory’ screening – their film was this static shot. They succeeded in projection but there was no story. Alice Guy was there in the audience and was like, “I could do better than that.” And she did. She went on to create over a thousand films.
So from then on, everything was experimenting in storytelling via screen projection for a group audience. I can’t remember where I read it but someone argued that we’re going back to the Edison way of viewing a story where it’s a very intimate experience, watching it on your tablet or your computer or what have you.
JG: That’s interesting research because I don’t have that history of film but I love that you know that. If everyone has…how many personal screens do you own? You own your phone. You own your laptop. Do you have a tablet too? Those are all personal screens. Of course everything is going to personal viewing.
Democratization of Voice
E: Do you feel that the shift in content viewing has democratized audience access for independent creators? Some people argue, yes, it’s given more access but it doesn’t mean the content’s any good and then, of course, there’s the issue of getting your content seen.
JG: As artists, we’re still cut off from the money we need to make our original stories and the distribution channels. Even the internet: I was so optimistic about it but it’s really been corporatized. It is easier to reach people all over the world than it was before but not on the scale as some of us had dreamed. And certainly the profits aren’t there in the way we had hoped. Now, as a creator, you could be like the artisan cheese guy at the farmer’s market. You could develop an audience that way; where you go to the farmer’s market – or the story market – and give away little bits. And the next week when they come back you say, “Oh I saved you this little piece that I know you’re really going to like.” And they begin to buy your product and bring it home and serve it to their friends because there’s a story to tell: I know the guy who made it. And that relationship that they have with you becomes very important. That could be one way to go.
The other way is having voice be a very important part of content in the corporate mainstream vision of distributing. When you’re in that personal intimate space of storytelling as an audience member, what are you looking for? You don’t really want another doctor or lawyer show. You know the rhythm of that so well. What you’re looking for is a show with a world that’s going to evolve; a world you haven’t seen before. We’re seeing in the half-hour comedy world a lot of that: Atlanta, Broad City, Insecure, Fleabag; shows that only its creators could tell. Those kinds of stories can only come if you’re deeply connected to your own personal voice. That’s my new optimism for creator control and telling the stories that really make us happy and make us willing to dedicate our lives to this industry. Distributors are finally going to need us for the thing that we really want to give.
A Distorted History: Representation Matters
E: I met filmmaker Pamela Green years ago when she was crowdfunding for the documentary ‘Be Natural’ about Alice Guy. Pamela introduced me to Alice. In a nutshell, Alice and women like Lois Weber were pioneers in the film industry but then Wall Street discovered, ‘oh we can make money off this.’ So everyone that didn’t have rights – white women and all people of colour – were pushed out of those primary creator roles and their contributions erased from the history books. And so then the history that students learn – if they even learn it – starts with Edison, the Lumière Brothers, then it jumps to DW Griffiths and Chaplin, and then you study ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ or something, right? So for me, as a young girl, it didn’t occur to me that I could do these things because I didn’t see anybody like me that was doing that. I think it’s infinitely worse if you’re a woman of colour.
JG: Infinitely worse! And then for an indigenous woman…Like who’s your role model? How could you even conceive that this is possible for you? When I taught the fourth year course of developing a TV series at York the classroom would be largely white males. What happened to the women? Where did they go? I know that York was choosing women for the screenwriter program but somehow they seemed to be dropping out before they got to fourth year. So I started to ask them what happened. And they were saying exactly this, “I don’t see any role models for me in the industry. I don’t see anyone telling the stories I wanna tell.” So the next year I got to teach the third year TV writing course. I specifically created a curriculum of diverse creator-driven and female-driven shows. In that course we make you do your spec scripts. Traditionally we choose a procedural because that’s really the bread and butter of television work – like a cop show, a doctor show. But I threw all that stuff out. I said, “who needs structure if you’re not gonna stick around to actually do the job?” They had the choice to spec a Broad City or Atlanta script. Not heavily structural shows. But the point was: this is going to be your industry. Stick around. And they all stuck around. It was the most diverse female oriented fourth year class that I ever had.
E: I wrote a lot, drew and painted and studied music as a kid. Reflecting on that now as an adult, I didn’t see myself in anyone we studied as a kid – literature, fine art or music. You know, I learned to worship the likes of Mozart but I never learned that he had a sister who was arguably more talented than him but had to stop playing in her teens because a girl in her teens wasn’t allowed to perform. She had to focus on getting married. If a woman made money as a composer, she was basically a prostitute. But no one even knows that…
JG: Don’t you want to tell that story!? Come on! Stop the interview. We’re working on a new show! Mozart’s Sister.
E: I think that would be brilliant, actually. Let’s do it! But honestly, when men, fast forward to now, say, “Oh we just, we don’t have enough women who are interested,” I’m thinking, “There’s always been women!” They’ve just been deliberately kept out or erased in nearly every industry. Are the young men you mentor aware of this? Or are they still a bit oblivious that the narratives have been revolving around them?
JG: Well, you know, you say, “is there a woman in your show at all?” I talk to a lot of young creators and shoot my mouth off in various ways. I met with a couple of young men recently and said, “Yes 80% of the business is still white male and you’re not going to lose your work so fast. But there is pressure on every producer and broadcaster to deliver on diversity and women so when you pitch be prepared to answer that question. How are you going to solve that problem for them?” I can’t honestly say to them, “yeah, your turn is over.” It’s wishful thinking that we’ll be 50/50 soon but there’s certainly much more awareness.
A whole piece of my career, of my working years, has been devoted to political action whether it was on behalf of screenwriters or more recently on behalf of females in the industry but I actually think that there is more work to be done in actually creating these stories that we just talked about. Being the role model for younger women to see that there’s a place for them in the industry and telling the stories that broaden our possibilities as women.
Make More Pies
E: There are men who feel very threatened that things are going to be taken away. I like the idea that there isn’t just one pie to fight over. We can just make more pies. We just keep making as many pies as we want.
JG: We have to shift from thinking that we live in a world of limited options. I think as soon as we open the world up for more voices we will actually create more opportunity. Yes we’re used to living in a world where, you know, we only make this much Canadian television and we only have this many TV slots for shows and so it’s a very limited number of things that can be made. But actually when you move into the world of streaming and the global market place there are infinite possibilities. And we’re in a world where everyone keeps saying content is Queen but we still have this very competitive mindset that says there’s only limited space and we need to compete with each other to get it.
E: There’s a lot of sexist and misogynistic conditioning deeply embedded in the psyche of a lot of men that they aren’t even consciously aware of because we’ve grown up with patriarchal ideas about gender. And that becomes a challenge when it comes to creating the voice of women characters – the male-gaze.
JG: I was at ImagiNATIVE and Jesse Wente who’s the head of the Indigenous Screen Office used this great phrase: narrative sovereignty. Narrative sovereignty is a brilliant idea for indigenous stories because it’s time for the rest of us to stop telling their stories and let them tell their stories because we’ll never get to the truth of it.
But I think that’s a phrase women could own as well. We are media creations. Men have ‘created’ us. We have been raised on these images of who we are and it has shaped our lives and we don’t know who we are. So again it comes back to, for me, the real voice. We should all turn off male-dominated media and go meditate for the next year just asking ourselves the questions: who are we? What do we want? What do we like? What do we love? We should mine history for the stories of the women who are missing from the world, and begin to tell ourselves our own stories and find out who we are.
And, in fact, the statistics show when you put women in leadership positions they hire more women. I think this is the solution for the entire industry. We tell, we focus on, we commission women’s stories. If we put women in the role of showrunner, leaders of their own shows, they will hire more women. The work spaces would become safer places and we will create a body of work that reflects a more equitable society that has roles for women in it. Good roles. Not sex roles. Not boob roles. But roles that are deep and emotional and real. And that will give our children a whole new vision of the world. This is the solution, right there, to everything.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview.