How did you get involved with Wynonna Earp? It seems such an unlikely show to have actually made it through the TV mill.
That’s how I feel. I feel like I’m still being tricked. Our premiere was April’s Fools, but if it hadn’t turned up on my television set, I would have thought right till the bitter end, I can’t believe anyone is letting us make the demon hunting cowgirl show. I have been very lucky, particularly as a female writer, that I’ve done a lot of writing for genre, which is where my heart lives. Now that I write for genre, you guys are going to have to take me out kicking and screaming! I love it.
I was very lucky in that I showran – I was the head writer – on a show called Lost Girl. I was the showrunner for three years. That was a fairly big hit for Syfy so I have a very good relationship with that network, and then I segued into a bit of a gig on a show called Killjoys, with my friend Michelle Lovretta, a great writer, who created that. I just have a lot of genre under my belt and in particularly I have been fortunate enough to write really strong female protagonists. IDW, a big North American comic book company, had this property called Wynonna Earp, written by Beau Smith, who’s a great person and a great writer, and they thought it would make an incredible genre show. They went looking for a female showrunner, and got in touch with me.
And the truth is, when I got the comic, I honestly got tingly. I felt like it checked off so many of my boxes. I liked that the lead was this batshit crazy girl who is kind of a hot mess, takes no prisoners and was really really witty. I loved the paranormal aspect of the government agency, the Black Badge division, hunting down paranormal fugitives. And it was also set in the American West. I actually grew up in the West in Canada, so it was a chance to get back there and do a show that takes place not in the claustrophobia of a spaceship or in an urban landscape. We could bring all these demons running around the mountains and the plains and the Badlands. It felt really fresh to me, the idea of a supernatural Western.
I took the 22 page comic and thought, “How are we going to turn this into 13 hours?” as you do, and came in with a really strong pitch. I basically pitched “Buffy meets Justified” – which is kind of okay – and then I said “…meets Frozen”, because I was really fascinated with the idea of sisters. When you think about the West, you think about all these cowboys running around, so I thought, “What if they were all girls?” I thought that was interesting.
IDW loved it, and more importantly, the network liked it. Syfy were like, “Wow this is something we definitely don’t have and haven’t seen before. It feels really fresh.” They really wanted a 10pm fun, Buffy vibe, a little bit more gory, a little bit more action but also very much character-based. That’s what we went for.
Then casting happened. We knew Wynonna was going to be difficult but we found Melanie Scrofano, who was transcendent. I don’t think anyone else could play Wynonna in the entire world; likewise the rest of the cast – Shamier and Tim and Dominique and Michael Eklund who plays Bobo Ray: I feel like the cast is so extraordinary that they have really elevated the show.
I’ve never had a project where everyone fell in love with it together. It’s still a job for a lot of people, but it feels like you can feel the joy and the commitment and the passion coming off screen. Everyone is so committed, and they’re having a ball, but they’re also hitting all those emotional notes.
As a writer, you often have to adjust – you may write a character who you think is going to be comic relief, and then you hire an actor after you’ve seen them once in an audition, and maybe they don’t actually have the comic timing. But in this case, I feel like the actors are so strong. When we got the dailies, we were just blown away with what the actors were doing with the material. It allowed us to lean in even more, and write even more hilarious one-liners for Wynonna; make Doc even more amoral and sexy; make Dolls even more dry; make Waverly even more adorable – if that’s possible! It was such a joy to work with this cast on the show because it felt like – and it’s a cliché – that we were all in it together, and that we were making something special.
Honestly, though, the most gratifying thing is that the fans seem to think so too. It’s like when you give birth – it’s a horrible painful process and then you get your beautiful baby. You think your baby is the most beautiful baby in the world, even if it has kind of a smashed-in head, or wonky eyes, but I’m just so amazed that the fans are in love with this beautiful baby. They get it. That’s been pretty incredible.
Glen is an amazing guy. He’s my people. He doesn’t take himself too seriously but he cares.
I’m not just paying lip service when I say, if I could write any project, this would be it. That was it for me – if I only ever get to do this, I am just so lucky. It’s not just a job for me.
How far in advance had you written material before you started shooting?
Never far enough! Screaming and writing at 4 a.m. – it’s very glamorous, Hollywood!
The truth is, we’re a little bit of an underdog show. We’re a sci-fi show shooting in Canada with not the hugest budget. We don’t have a team of 50,000 and we’re not a cable show, so we only had written about five episodes before we went to camera. But I had a very strong writing team – very small, but so dedicated.
We were block shooting – shooting two episodes at once. It was really gruelling – I know, boo hoo hoo, people have to work in a mine. I chose to do this! – but it’s incredible that it all adds up to something. We were so on the edge about when were we going to go, were we going to do this. Also for the first season it’s hard because you’re building new sets, you’re casting, you’re finding locations, finding all your personnel and the crew – it’s a lot of work as the showrunner. It’s not just about the writing.
We were based in Calgary, which is out west. I moved my whole family there for six months. Coincidentally, I did grow up there; I haven’t been back for about 15 years before this and my family’s not there any more.
That’s the other thing: people had to move across the country, find houses, schools for kids and all that stuff. I think though that helps with the family atmosphere – when you all move together and you’re in a place that isn’t home, you do bond just that much more. That’s the Lord of the Rings story, right – they went off to New Zealand and became best friends.
You have to have a plan about what you think the season is but during the first season, when you’re getting the dailies, I think you have to put your ego aside as the showrunner and kind of embrace what you’re getting. You need to lean into what’s working; you can’t be so rigid about the plan that you don’t pick up on chemistry that’s happening between two characters that you didn’t expect. And it’s okay to have a better idea in the middle of the night – I just think you have to be open and trust yourself, and trust your team. As long as you have that blueprint it’s okay to try things. Because otherwise why are we doing it?
It’s really hard but that’s the fun part – “let’s do something crazy, I think these guys can handle it”. As long as you land the plane, so to speak, and it all makes sense to the audience at the end of the day, which hopefully it does, and they fall in love with the characters, that’s part of it.
And of course the audience are falling in love with the characters during this fine-tuning process…
That’s very much the cable model. If you’re doing a network show and you see the audience going down a path, you can sort of veer left. That’s why it’s such a leap of faith – it feels like you’re writing in a bubble, and you hope it adds up, and that people will see it the way you see it. That’s why television is so collaborative: you need a team of people, and you should believe in people so you can ask very many people if they think it’s working.
Have there been elements of the character relationships that people are picking up on that you’re surprised they have, or that you’re very pleased they have?
I’m definitely pleased – the fan response has blown me away, and it happened so quickly!
What is so gratifying about genre right now is that I feel like things are changing. Genre used to be kind of made fun of and marginalised: the “nerd community”, this niche that wasn’t taken seriously. But the truth is, some of the best storytelling anywhere in any medium has been happening in genre, quietly, and less quietly now for the last 25 years – back to Star Trek, back to whatever. Because of that, what I think new writers don’t understand is that the genre audience is particularly savvy. They’re very intelligent, they’re exceptionally observant, and they’re sophisticated – they’re not intimidated by fast-paced storytelling, nuance, subtext. And again, not just paying lip service, as a rule I find people who really enjoy crackling storytelling, leaps of faith and big imaginative kind of commitments just gravitate to genre.
So I’m not that surprised that the audience has discovered our little Easter eggs that we’re planting along the way as far as story. I love the theories that people come up with about how it’s all going to shake down.
I think the thing that has been the most surprising to me is how much people love the sisters together. I love that they understand that that is the real romance of the show. It’s about Wynonna and Waverly – it’s about them sticking through thick and thin, even thought they’re incredibly different, and they don’t really know each other that way. They love each other but they haven’t been together for years. More than anything, that people have latched onto them has been wonderful.
And honestly the love for the actors – the fact people are quoting back the lines, that they love the humour, that they’re into the one-liners. I feel like everybody has a favourite character and it’s not all the same character, which makes me really pleased for the cast. There’s something for everyone.
As far as surprises? I love seeing the theories. I think we have a few in our back pocket that we’re going to deliver, but I’m always astonished by the theories that people come up with. Sometimes I’ll laugh when I see a fan theory and think, “What a great idea, I kind of wish we had that!”
You have any authority? You just tell me we’re going and we’ll keep making the show for years. You just tell Syfy! We’ll just make a decision on the phone now – you and me!
I think the show has a ton of buzz, and it’s growing everyday. I think it’s really getting noticed. But it’s a tough time for television right now. In North America there’s something like 460 scripted series on television. It’s a great time for audiences, but a crazy time to stand out and get noticed. But I definitely think we’re getting noticed. I think that the fan base has been so passionate. I would encourage the audience to keep fighting for it and asking for it.
But I also think IDW is committed to making it work. I think we all feel that we have something special on this show, so I’m optimistic!
Wynonna Earp airs on Syfy in the US, and begins on Spike in the UK on Fridays at 9 pm from July 29
Check out our other interviews: