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Wayne Grigsby Sails on After Black Harbour

by Jo-Anne Macdonald

A former broadcaster and journalist for nearly 20 years, Wayne Grigsby turned his hand to screen drama with the CBC MOW And Then You Die. Following that, he wrote The Ties That Bind, the premier of the CTV/TF1 series Mount Royal, and served as executive story editor for the series. Grigsby teamed up with Guy Fournier to create L'or et le papier, later serving as executive story editor on CTV's E.N.G., and won a Gemini for Best Writing in a Dramatic Series for the episode, "Seeing is Believing." With Barbara Samuels, he created six seasons of the critically acclaimed North of 60 for CBC, and later, Black Harbour. The team also developed pilot scripts for FOX and ABC, including Dark Eyes, which starred Kelly McGillis. Recently forming Big Motion Pictures Inc. with David MacLeod, Grigsby is developing the drama series Sherpa Love for CBC and producing a longform drama based on the Swissair 111 disaster. Their production, Task Force: Caviar finished shooting in the fall.

You started as a journalist. How did you start writing for television and movies?
Most of the journalism I was doing was sort of arts and entertainment stuff. I'd always wanted to write, but it never really dawned on me that I could. But eventually I think what it came down to is that I watched enough movies and I said I'd like to give that a try so I wrote a script. My timing was good because I was showing it around to producers in Montreal at a point where Brian McKenna and Bernie Zukerman were trying to find a writer to do a movie of the week about this crime baron in the west end of Montreal.

How does your experience in journalism inform your screenwriting?
It has always been important to me that the work be rooted in some form of reality. Not necessarily a reality rooted in journalistic fact, but more an emotional reality. If you look at the stuff I've done, the common thread is trying to keep it as real as possible and as close to a dramatization of stuff we all go through. I haven't written any fantasy or romantic soap operas. It's all been rooted in some sort of emotional, political, cultural reality. I'm more intrigued by the way people are than the way they could be. I'm more from the school that observes and tries to bear witness than I am to the school that says, "let's make up a world where it can be different than it is."

How much of what goes into your scripts is quote-unquote reality based?
The whole idea of doing fiction is to make it up. It needs to be rooted in some reality I think, but it's a reality you invent or a reality. This one we're doing now (Task Force: Caviar) is based on real-life events in Montreal. A friend of mine was a detective with the Montreal police and by the end of his career he was doing these major task forces. So it's based on real events, but in the end the reality of it was a much longer investigation and probably less overwrought and dramatic. Much more of a chess match and a lot less a boxing match.

How did you come to work on E.N.G.?
I had nothing to do with the genesis of it at all. It was created by two guys in Los Angeles, and I think it ended up with Robert Cooper, another former Montrealer who had moved down there. He said, "Well, maybe we can do it as a series in Canada." So Bob Carney adapted this very American TV newsroom to a more Canadian TV newsroom. He did the pilot. CTV liked the pilot and said "OK, we'll order the series." So I came in as one of the story editors.

How did you find your way into writing for series as a craft?
The real trick of writing episodic television when you're a free-lance writer is you've got to put your feet in someone else's shoes and that's very hard. Because most writers want to write their own characters and write their own stories, but all of a sudden you're trying to see the world through Bob Carney's eyes. Bob did a terrific job of giving the writers room to make it theirs as well.

From E.N.G. you went on to form a partnership with Barbara Samuels and created North of 60...
Yeah. We'd done 44 shows so we were pretty tired and wanted to try to create our own series. That's when Robert Lantos stepped in. I had worked with him and he was at the point where he was trying to expand Alliance into a North American supplier of programming. So he wanted to get into kind of Hollywood style development deals where, basically, they pay you some money and they want you to develop stuff, but develop it for me as opposed to shopping it around. So we put in a couple of months coming up with stuff and pitched it and got a bunch of things going-pilots for American outfits.

How did that play itself out?
Basically between 1991 and 1992, we wrote a series pilot for ABC, a series pilot for Fox, and a series pilot for North of 60. North of 60 was the one that got picked up.

What was your experience with that show?
The writing was never a problem. Once someone picks up a show, boy, it's like sitting in a rocket seat. It was quite an experience. And neither one of us had actually run a show before. So now all of a sudden you're responsible for casting decisions, wardrobe decisions, and who the musicians are going to be and who's going to write the music.

It wasn't your culture, did you have to have advisers?
Sure, absolutely. We had cultural advisers from the north. We made a point of going up there and, boy, you didn't have to be in Fort Simpson or Wrigley more than 20 minutes to start to see the world in a slightly different way. If you're a writer, you sort of stand there and you feel the place and you say, "I want it to bring this feeling into the show." We made a point of very spare dialogue, said things between the lines, a lot of silence, because that's the thing that really whacks you right on the head when you get off the plane. Once the engine stops, there's this big sucking noise. It's silence and the vastness of the place is just overwhelming.

And so the series came to an end after five years when the funding was cancelled. You then went on to create Black Harbour with Barbara Samuels. Why did you decide to set a story in Nova Scotia?
Well, we were interested in clash of culture. California is relentlessly new. You go to California and pretend to be the last of the Romanovs and somebody will say, "Sure." The European tradition is you're a function of whoever's son, daughter, granddaughter's grandson you are. We were interested in trying to play those two off against each other.

What are you noticing about the next crop of screenwriters on their way up?
There's a whole generation of younger writers who just understand structure and characterization in a uniquely television way. I think when I came in, we were still dealing with the last wave of writers for television who either grew up in novels and short stories or playwriting. The gang that's now applying for jobs and training seems to be entirely formed by movies and television, which has its strengths and weaknesses. I think there's a reluctance to deal with big issues among younger writers, they don't seem to want to go near them. They're much more personal stories.

What drives that?
I think a reluctance to wrestle with big issues and disinterest too. Maybe they don't want to watch that stuff, so they don't want to write it. Maybe the stuff they're interested in is much more influenced by The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Ally McBeal than it is by Wojeck and Hill Street Blues, which were all influences on the generation of writers that I'm a part of.

For a full version of this feature, purchase the winter 2000 issue of Canadian Screenwriter, which is on the stands now.

Jo-Anne MacDonald is a reporter with The Daily News in Halifax, N.S.Additional reporting by Karen Hill.