Ink Canada Interviews Gray Jones

FQU: Five Questions for Gray Jones

– Email interview – questions by Karen Walton of Ink Canada – reprinted with permission

1. Gray, your bio is deceptively succinct and having watched you in action, I confess myself and many inkies want to know more about the man behind the computer cam. Can you tell us something about how you came to your infectious passion for writers, and television writing in particular?

I had a crazy childhood. My family moved from Edmonton to Calgary when I was three, because my dad was having affairs, and my mom had asked him to choose between a fresh start and a divorce. He chose the fresh start in a fresh city, but the problems continued.

There was violence and abuse, and my older brother, younger sister, and I were often in the crosshairs of the struggles. There were happy times, but also really scary ones, like when an ambulance showed up at my 8th birthday party because my brother had broken my mother’s nose and then tried to kill himself… or my dad not speaking to my brother for eight solid years because of an argument they had.

Divorce did come… over the next 15 years my parents were divorced and remarried three times each. I loved both my parents, and later was able to reconcile with my dad, but this was a tumultuous time.

My brother and my sister both had big emotional scars, complicated on my brother’s part by adult-onset bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Somehow, I escaped relatively unscathed. How? By immersing myself in stories, having high expectations of myself, and by dreaming.

I would bring stacks of novels home from the library… I devoured hundreds upon hundreds of books, creating the worlds of the stories in my head as I read. Imagining myself as the hero of the story, I would forget the troubles of my own life and dream myself as the one overcoming the obstacles and taking charge of his destiny.

In the fifth grade, I won a short story contest and was published in a kids’ magazine. I wrote other poems and stories over the years, and was particularly inspired by an eighth grade English teacher, both to love writing and to be a renaissance man. Around that time, I read George Lucas’s autobiography, “Skywalking.” The seed was planted for working in film and television, but it didn’t seem like something a kid from Calgary, Alberta could do, so I focused instead on being a renaissance man.

I’ve never been a big sleeper, and this was especially true in high school, when I suffered extreme insomnia. At night, when everyone else was asleep, I would learn juggling, practice music, read encyclopedias, study languages and advanced math – anything to be productive.

Insomnia paid off… I placed 24th in Canada in a national math contest, was on a city champion rugby team, had the highest marks in my province for the final math exams (which I wrote in French), and was not only the class president but was chosen to be the chairman of an inter-school council representing over 20,000 public high school students to the board of trustees.

The sky seemed to be the limit… Harvard University offered for me to skip first year and enter at the second year level. However, I had been playing in a rock band during high school, and wanted to take a year off to see if we could make music work.

We achieved great success in Alberta, and released an independent album in A&A Records. I wasn’t convinced that music was a viable career for me, and still had the film bug brewing. I was offered a scholarship to the York University film school in Toronto, so I convinced my rock band to move with me there.

The band continued to enjoy success, including radio play, and radio and television appearances. Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies was a classmate of mine, and a good friend. We would often talk about our goals, and he helped me decide to focus on one… when he left school to pursue his music full time, I left music to pursue my schooling full time.

→ The next question follows this point of the story; I’ll answer that and pick up where this left off.

2. In 1994, you graduated with distinction from Toronto’s York University, clutching a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting. Several of our core members are fellow alum or current students. How has taking the time (and resources) to grab a formal education in writing impacted your career?

I actually went through both the production and screenwriting tracks at York, as well as a minor focus in languages and creative writing. Because I had not previously believed that a film career was possible, I had done very little research, and wanted to try everything. I edited, did sound, produced, directed, and shot on both film and video. I even volunteered on other students’ projects, to get as much experience as I could. I learned Spanish and some German, and had a lot of fun writing poetry and short stories.

I loved producing short films, and one film I co-produced and shot there with director Benjamin Wilchfort went on to play and win awards in festivals around the world, including Best Public Affairs Short at the Canpro Awards, Best Documentary at the Montreal Student Film Festival, and a Bronze Plaque at the Columbus Film Festival. However, as Wil Zmak attested in a recent podcast, shooting and editing on film was very expensive, and as I already had enough credits in production I decided for my fourth year I would focus on screenwriting.

I’ll circle back to this point, but would like now to answer the question on how York impacted my career.

Film school was a chance to try a lot of things that would have been very difficult to try elsewhere, and it was a great place to learn about working for deadlines, receiving feedback, and expanding my horizons and knowledge of classic films and techniques. However, it was also a chance to work with a lot of different people, and figure out whom I worked well with and who had similar tastes.

Some of the greatest steps forward in my career have come through people I knew from film school. Almost 17 years later, we still get together for birthdays and movie nights, weddings and baby showers, Oscar and holiday parties. And when anyone in our group knows of a job, guess whom we call? Often I don’t even need a résumé or work samples. The conversations go something like: “Steve recommended you. When can you start?”

And back to my 4th year at York, now focused on screenwriting…

There are different schools of thought regarding the importance of reading books on writing, and other people’s scripts. Many would say, “just write,” and others read as much as possible. Looking back now, I realize that the way York’s screenwriting program was focused was not what I needed for my learning and writing style.

Through the course of 4 years of university, we read one single 137-page screenwriting book (I still have it; it’s terrible), and one single film script. TV writing was not mentioned once.

I’m not the type of person who can work in a vacuum, and I was particularly not able to at 22 years old. I do tons of research, and like to see examples to get a frame of reference before I set into motion on a creative project. Also, I have learned that I work best in a collaborative environment, as is typical in television.

I wish I had known that then! There was no discussion of other learning styles or methods, and ignorant as I was, I thought the way they taught was the only way to write scripts.

I graduated with distinction in 1994, and was accepted to the prestigious USC graduate film program in L.A. However, I was at a crossroads.

I had finished one feature script while in my fourth year. I wasn’t happy with the story, because I felt the characters were flat. I felt insecure, thinking that at 22 years old I didn’t understand people well enough to write. To complicate things, I could not get financial assistance or loans as an international student at USC, and the fees and expenses for the three years would be upwards of $120,000.

At that time, I was offered a paid job to train in Christian counseling and ministry. While it seems on the surface that it was a total change of direction, I thought (quite accurately) that there could be no better way to find out what was at the heart of people. After all, people will tell a minister or counselor their deepest secrets, things they won’t tell anyone else. Also, I have always wanted to help others with my work, and this was a chance to do so in a very direct way.

I worked for six years in various ministries, helping many people to overcome obstacles in their lives. However, as the new millennium approached, it became clear that my heart was yearning for more creative pursuits, and that I had been on this path a lot longer than I had originally intended.

I left the ministry at the end of 1999. Both my parents were dying of different diseases, and I spent a lot of time with my family in Calgary and Vancouver. My mom passed away in March 2000, and then three months later my dad also died.

It was a tough time! While I had been in the ministry I had lost touch with my film school friends, and the technology for TV work had totally changed. At York we had been shooting and cutting film; now everything was on computer.

Financial needs were pressing, and I decided that the quickest path to a paycheck was video editing. Using an inheritance, I bought a computer system and took a crash course in Avid editing.

After about a year of doing corporate videos and reels for commercial directors, I got a lucky break from a résumé I had sent… bypassing the usual process of being an assistant first, I became a full editor for the popular lifestyle series “Spectacular Spas,” and when that ended, worked with the same company for 60 episodes of an inspiring lifestyle documentary series called “Second Chance: Making it Work,” chronicling women who overcame significant life challenges.

I absolutely loved the subject matter, and invested my heart into it. Of my own initiative, I did story research for many of the episodes, and wrote the scripts for several of them. Incidentally, while I have done un-credited writing on many of my later shows, these scripts from Second Chance are so far my only produced writing credits.

In 2004, the show was cancelled. I was in a bit of a panic, as I was now married and had a stepson and young baby to support. I decided to take a steady job as Vice President of Post Production / Senior Editor for Prisma Light, a company that did corporate videos, TV commercials, and the occasional TV documentary.

During that time I did a lot of soul searching. I yearned to get back into episodic television, but I also felt I was missing something.

At the time, I had been editing a documentary on people who survived the holocaust and passed stories down to inspire their children. I realized that because it was stories that got me through the toughest times in my childhood and life, that I would never be truly fulfilled until I was telling stories that reached people and helped them.

I buckled down, and set a 10-year plan in motion. I read dozens of books on screenwriting, listened to podcasts, purchased training. I reconnected with my film school friends, and through their help got back into editing episodic television, which I have been doing consistently for the last 3 ½ years, including Gemini-nominated and Gemini-winning shows, and well-known shows such as Property Virgins on HGTV.

Listening to podcasts gave me an idea…

3. The TV Writer Podcast is a truly unique and extraordinarily insightful resource for writers and fans alike. How did it start?

I had been inspired by the amazing networking results I had seen on some podcasts I listened to. With very little experience, and living in the middle of nowhere, the producers of a Smallville podcast got the opportunity to travel with star John Schneider as he toured with his independent film, and shot a behind the scenes video that ended up on the DVD release. They even had an opportunity to come to Warner Bros in Los Angeles to pitch their take on the new Superman movie.

In late 2007 I fell in love with a new show on NBC, called “Chuck.” There was no podcast for this show, so I decided to start one, along with Mel and Liz, the creators of the most popular Chuck fan site, ChuckTV.net. Because of my experience in TV and a newfound conviction in networking and using social media, I was able to launch this podcast with great success.

Since December 2008, Chuck vs. the Podcast has been voted consistently every month as the world’s #1 television-themed podcast (in the TV & Film category at the Podcast Alley ranking website). With as many as 70,000 viewers per episode, the podcast has featured over 115 interviews with the cast, crew, and writers of Chuck, including stars Timothy Dalton and Scott Bakula. I was the originator of a network-friendly fan campaign, which is credited as a major factor in Chuck’s season 3 renewal. As part of this campaign, I submitted an iReport to CNN, and was chosen to appear on CNN Live with the stars of the show as a result. The Toronto Star ran a two-page article on my efforts, including the cover page of the entertainment section!

In September 2009 I was invited to L.A., and spent two weeks with the Chuck cast and crew. It was an amazing experience; I dined with the co-creator of the show, writers, and directors, and even spent a couple of days at the house of composer Tim Jones, who has become a good friend.

In 2010, Chuck’s renewal came late, and many of their writers had to take offers on other shows. Suddenly people I had met personally, interviewed and corresponded with were spread out among a number of popular shows. Scott Rosenbaum was the showrunner of V on ABC, Matt Miller was the show runner of Human Target on Fox, and I knew writers from Undercovers on NBC and No Ordinary Family on ABC.

In keeping with my ten-year plan, I thought it was the perfect time to start a new podcast, this time focused on writing. As with Chuck, I had noticed that there were no podcasts devoted to exclusively to TV writing… as a matter of fact, there seemed a disproportionate amount of resources available. Most of the books, training, conferences, and magazines were focused primarily on features, when there are far more people working in TV.

I don’t regret any of the experiences I’ve had along the way, but if I had had better resources when I was starting out, I could have seriously shortened my path to a successful writing career. Giving back is important to me, and now I had the chance to give young writers what I didn’t have. My mind was set.

A TV writing podcast would accomplish many purposes… I could keep in touch with these writers I had grown to respect, and have them introduce me to other writers on their shows. I could use these as a springboard to land interviews with writers on other series. It would be a tremendous way to learn the craft of scripted TV writing from the horse’s mouth – from people actually doing it. And I could share this with others.

But something else happened on the Chuck podcast, which will forever affect my view of what I do. One writer on the show wrote a particularly poignant episode. I decided to solicit on the podcast for fans to submit encouraging letters for her, and sent them.

She emailed back… crying. She told me that in 20 years in the business, she had not once received a fan letter, and was overwhelmed with gratitude.

I realized then that despite TV writers having more respect than film writers in the industry, that the creators and writers of the shows that we love were not being recognized for their work. They needed an opportunity to share the limelight, and share their passion for what they create.

I floated some feelers on Twitter, and received a very unexpected one back… Script Magazine had heard what I wanted to do, and they were interested in partnering on the project! Thus the TV Writer Podcast was born.

4. I truly admire The TV Writer Podcast for placing two suggestions from you, its host, front and centre. You ask for suggestions on enhancing, improving the experience. And, you ask us to let you know if we’re working writers — or know one — who may be interested in giving an interview. I’m such a fan of the interaction and archiving of motion picture and broadcast writers being seen and heard – in their own voices – had not five years ago seemed so rare, in Canada. I’m curious though, which of these two encouragements from the Home Page has induced the most surprising reply, so far?

Thanks so much! And backatcha… 😉

Nose whistling. Yep, that was the most surprising. I hadn’t realized that when I breathe with my mouth closed, that my nose emits a little whistle, and someone commented that it drove him crazy and that I should edit it out!

OK, you probably want something a little more substantial than that…

Actually the most surprising was the response of the Canadian writers. Sadly, my previous experience with Canadian TV writers (other than my friend, animation writer Dave Dias) was limited to one bad experience with a very unhelpful writer.

Much later, when I began contacting Canadian writers for the podcast, I was blown away by how receptive everyone was, helping me to contact other writers, promoting the podcast in various places, and inviting me to be a guest of honour at inkdrinks! And everyone I’ve met and corresponded with has expressed great gratitude for what I do. This means a lot to me, as I don’t always get feedback for my podcasting.

5. This one, I’m sure you know, is inevitable. You’ve met and engaged with some truly awesome writers. Who’s your dream interview?

To be honest, my favourite interviews have been some of the lesser known ones. It’s when I click personally with a writer, and the correspondence continues long after the interview – that makes it all worthwhile.

Also, I have already had my dream interview – personally having lunch with and interviewing Chris Fedak, the co-creator of my favourite show, Chuck.

One caveat – a bigger dream would have been to interview Stephen J. Cannell, had he not died too soon. I had tweeted with him a month before he died, but I never got to do an interview. He continues to be a great inspiration for me.

All that said, I have a long list of A-list writers I would love to interview: Tim Kring, Joss Whedon, Greg Berlanti, Ryan Murphy, Kurtzman & Orci, J.J. Abrams, Matt Nix, and lots more!