CALL ME FITZ is a new HBO CANADA series about a sleazy used car salesman (played by Jason Priestley) whose life spins wildly out of control after a strange man claiming to be his “conscience” starts interfering in his life. I was fortunate to catch up with creator-showrunner Sheri Elwood for some crafty chat.
CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: Let's start with you. You went to Ryerson – what do you feel you got out of film school?
SHERI ELWOOD: I don’t know if it was worth it. Being an undergraduate in film – unless you're setting out to be a technician, I'm not sure if it's worth it. So much of being a writer is about what is it that you have to say – what are the stories you have to tell? What is your life experience? And we were making a lot of little knockoffs of chase movies and things like that. I was so young, I didn't have a hell of a lot to say. I sometimes think I would have done better to get a degree in philosophy or literature.
People are always coming up to me and asking, “Should I go to film school?” And I tell them, learn with as much breadth as possible, and then get a masters in screenwriting. Or go get practical experience.
CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: So what was your first practical experience?
SHERI ELWOOD: I was given a National Apprenticeship award through the Academy. They sent me to John Brunton to work on READY OR NOT for Showtime [in 1995]. John’s a great supporter of young upstarts and he asked me what I want to do. I said I wanted to write, so he stuck me in Pete Mitchell's story department.
CS: The famous mentor Peter Mitchell... [Peter Mitchell won the mentorship award at this year's Canadian Screenwriting Awards.]
SE: Yeah, John was the deal maker, he put me with Pete the showrunner.
CS: I wanted to ask, what was the job or person you learned the most from. Was that it?
SE: I don't know – I didn't know what it was that I needed to learn at the time. I picked up the carpentry on READY OR NOT. Then for a long time I was mentorless. I guess the show I learned the most on – I recently worked on a series called DEFYING GRAVITY with Jim Parriott. I learned a lot from him about running a show, how to treat your staff, how to deal with politics, and most of all, how to put character before plot, always.
CS: You were a producer on DEFYING GRAVITY...
SE: I was a writer-producer. It was an American-financed show, developed in the States. Fox financed it, and CTV came on board afterwards. So we were working in the American model where writers produce their own episodes, they're on set for their own episodes. And I was running the writing room in LA while Jim shot the show in Vancouver. So I learned management skills and a lot about network and story room politics.
CS: What was different about working on an American show?
SE: The stakes were a lot higher. There was more money. And the jeopardy was greater: if the show didn't do well, we'd be cancelled immediately. There were more people weighing in. This was the studio system, so we had network notes and studio notes.
CS: Are you trying to implement the American model on FITZ?
SE: In terms of having more writers on set, yes, I would if I could. I just don't have a big enough staff. We have a good-sized writing staff when we're developing the, but once we're in prep and shooting, we're down to four people. So we can't afford to have a writer on set at all times, plus we're shooting blocks of two episodes at once, so the pressure to have my peeps at their keyboards is fairly intense.
But I think it’s essential to have writers on set – it's not a luxury. We’re lucky in that we’re building writer’s offices into the studio we’re shooting at, so the set will be just a walkie away.