Sean Jara began exposing Super-8 film at the Hart House Film Board while attending the University of Toronto. Upon graduating, he landed his first professional film job as a volunteer PA on The Michelle Apartments. Having mastered the arts of high-speed driving, high-speed photocopying and the production office "lunch run", Sean moved on to work as an assistant director on shows such as Long Days Journey Into Night, La Femme Nikita,Wind At My Back, and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
While working on Earth: Final Conflict as a production coordinator, Sean pitched and sold a story idea to the producers that was produced as the episode Bliss. He graduated from the Canadian Film Centre's Prime Time TV Program in 2000 and is currently working as an Associate Story Editor on Screech Owls. When not thinking about or writing scripts, Sean likes to drink copious amounts of coffee and throw himself into paranoid fits by researching conspiracy theories.
Q: Sean, why do you write?
A: The simple answer is that I enjoy telling stories. The more complicated answer is that I'm an observer of people, things, and events. And when I observe something, and indirectly experience it, I write about it to bounce it back on others so they can see what I saw ( filtered through my own warped little brain). I think writers are like mirrors - they reflect experiences back on others for consideration and reflection. However, whether people decide to reflect upon those mirror-images is another question.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your beginnings. We both met at the Directing Acting and Writing for Camera Workshop (DAWC) and I was introduced to you as a director. It````s very difficult to break into professional writing, to sell a story idea to a major network and to become a member of the Writers Guild at such a young age. Can you tell me how you got there?
A: I didn't have any formal film school training when I graduated from university but knew that I wanted to write and direct films. So I decided to try an entry level job in the industry. After about three years working on sets and in production offices, I figured it was about time I took things more seriously. I signed up for the DAWC program, was accepted as a director, and this was my first bit of formal training.
After DAWC, I was broke and had to make money again. I ended up landing a gig on Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict for a year. I worked in the office and one of my responsibilities was to liaise with the script department in LA. They would email scripts to TO, I would print them out and give them to the producers and writers up here. After reading several scripts, I knew I could do better; Science fiction comes very naturally to me.
It turned out that the show was in desperate need of scripts because the story department had run out of ideas and had to fill an order of 22 episodes. A good friend of mine slipped word to the showrunner that I was an aspiring writer. He came into the office and asked if that was true. I said yes. He said show me something. I said give me the weekend. Thankfully, it was a long weekend. I blistered through my first sample television script, gave it to him to read. A few days later, he called me into his office and asked me to pitch a few ideas. In the end, EFC bought one of them - my first TV writing credit.
After that season, I landed a great agent, but quickly discovered that the Canadian TV writing scene was a tough nut to crack. I didn't know any of the Canadian showrunners because most of the shows I worked on were run by Americans. So I had to go back to a little more training. I applied to the Prime Time TV Program at the Canadian Film Centre and was accepted. After the Centre, I had to go back into the industry again to work as a crew member to pay off some debts, but was forunate enough to hook up with a show called Screech Owls. That's where I met Moira Holmes, the producer, and where I was reaquainted with Christina Jennings, the executive producer of Shaftesbury Films, whom I had worked with a few years back as an office PA on a different show. I coordinated the first season of Screech Owls and when the show was renewed, they generously asked me to come back as an Associate Story Editor.
Q: Do you consider yourself exclusively a television and film writer or is this just one aspect of a contantly developing repertoire which might include fiction, poetry and short stories?
A: I've dabbled in poetry and short stories but I'm just too indimidated to attempt a novel at this point. I'd hope that I'd be able to branch out into different forms of writing, but I think that right now, screenwriting is it.
I'm a visually-oriented person and screenwriting allows you to express things visually even before the stuff hits the screen, while writing novels is more of an interior journey of sorts. I personally don't think I've matured enough as a person to attempt a novel. But give me a few years and I might be ready to write one. I'd like to write a novel in exile, actually. But I'm not sure what I'd have to do to be exiled from Canada.
Q: I know that you spent some time at the Canadian Film Centre and workshopped with some other writers and DAWC alumnus. What was this experience like and did you feel like you learned a lot of valuable lessons about honing your craft? Do you think that the film centre is effective in helping develop artistic voice or is it better suited for getting people jobs in the industry, as has been widely argued?
A: I went through the CFC's Prime Time Television Program which runs about four months. The experience was amazing. It was a privilege to be able to focus on writing and nothing else for a four month period and it was an even greater privilege to work under the mentorship of David Cole. The success of each year really depends on who the mentor is and the group dynamic in the two or three groups of people that are chosen. David was amazing and our group was pretty tight. As a result, the experience was very positive.
I think the Centre is definitely a place where someone can hone their artistic voice and craft, but it also helps to facilitate people's careers through the CFCs extensive network of contacts. A lot of people have gone through the doors of the Windfields Estate and are working in all areas of the industry. The most valuable networking lesson I learned is "It's not about who you know, but who knows you." Because that's how it works in the real world - everyone knows who Robert Lantos is, but until he knows who you are, you aren't going to end up working on any of his shows. Simple logic.
But back to the artistic stuff and the program itself: The Prime Time Program is set up to be an as-real-to-life simulation of what it's like to work in the story department of a television series. The mentor (showrunner) has a project that he/she wants to develop and the five students act as story editors. Collectively, the story editors help the showrunner to focus the original idea and shape it into something palatable to the networks (like CTV, Global, or the CBC). Each of the students writes an episode for the series, going from pitch, to outline, to 1st/2nd/3rd drafts, and during the four months. Each of those documents is vetted and rewritten endlessly until they meet the showrunner's approval.
The thing about TV writing that is vastly different from writing novels is that when you work on staff in a story department, your material is constantly poked and prodded at by dozens of different people with all sorts of ideas about how to make your script better. I don't think you have to check your ego at the door and whore yourself to get your script done, but I do think you have to learn to keep your ego and creative sensibilities under firm control. If you can't handle criticism, then TV is not the place for you as a writer. This is something you learn quite quickly at the program.
As for specific examples of the tutorial, that's a tough one. The way you learn to write is the way artisans learned their trades - through direct experience, observation, and practice. David Cole would read our scripts and say "this dialogue doesn't ring true" or "the structure's not right, let's re-arrange it", and after changing things a hundred times over, you kind of know the next time how to do things right. There are no multiplication tables or easy equations when it comes to writing.
Finally I'd like to address what I suspect is an implicit question in your original question. You asked if the CFC gets people jobs or whether it teaches them how to be artists. I don't think those two choices have to be polarities. I think you can make a decent buck and put out good writing. Of course, not every project is good and it's more difficult to maintain your creative voice in the TV/film world, but it's not impossible. True, most shows out there suck, but I'll bet you that on those suckie shows the writers are secretly pounding away on their Hamlets and Catchers In the Rye while handing over their schlocky TV scripts to network execs who are, often-times, wannabe writers without the requisite skills or creativity. I guess what I'm trying to say is that just because a writer works in TV and is making money does not mean he or she's a bad writer. I know plenty of poor, unemployed, bitter, bad writers.
Q: Dialogue is such an important aspect of writing screenplays and teleplays, both to give the story its stamp of individuality and to make the actors understand the character they are playing. But structure is also vital to get tell the story. What are your own weaknesses and what are some of the challenges that you find in screenplay writing?
A: I've been told that my dialogue is pretty strong, but after working with David Cole, I realized that I still have a long way to go in terms of making it stronger. David's a masterful writer when it comes to writing dialogue and it's great just listening to his characters speak. You can really hear them when you're reading his scripts.
I'm pretty good at 1/2hr and 1hr TV structure but find it harder to structure features. I'm working on strengthening that right now.
One of the recurring criticisms I get is that my material is too plot-driven and less character-insired. It was actually something that another showrunner, Peter Lauterman, noticed when interviewing me for the Prime Time Program. He ran the other group and read my sci-fi sample script that I submitted. He liked it, said it was obvious I could write sci-fi stuff, but said it was still plot-driven. When it came to picking people for the two groups, he suggested that I be placed in David Cole's group because David is a very strong dramatic writer with a good sense for character. I learned a lot about bringing characters to the fore while studying under David, but, like I said, I still have a lot to learn.
Q: Recently Maruschka Stankova, the artistic director and principle force behind the DAWC workshop, passed away. At the memorial Atom Egoyan, an alumnus, said that the workshop was the place where he met the people he was going to work with for a good part of his career. Since he hadn`t been to film school, the workshop was where Mr Egoyan met people with the same passion and interest in filmmaking -- at the beginning stages of his career. How did you find the DAWC workshop -- working with actors, another writer, not yourself, working on such a tight deadline, etc.
A: Again, the DAWC program depended on the group dynamic. And again, our group was pretty good. I had the opportunity to work with a writer (Anthony Wong), a producer (Dianne Robinson) and three great actors (Maureen Welch, Heather Salmon, and Al Polo). Besides Maruska's guidance, we also had the support of two awesome people who are well-respected in the industry - Jane Thompson, the directorial advisor, and Jill Golick, the story editor.
It was interesting directing a script that was not written by myself. Anthony and I clicked from the beginning, so we didn't have any bang-out confrontations or anything like that over how the script should read. I trusted Anthony to write a good script and he trusted me to direct it. And as far as I could tell at the time, Anthony wrote a pretty good script.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot - I met you there and that made the entire experience worth it. Even though you passed on me as being your director.
Q: Sean, I know that you now writing for a new television series. Can you tell me what it is, what that is like and what you are presently working on?
A: I am currently working on the second season of Screech Owls. It's a kids' show for the 8-14 range that airs on YTV in Canada and Discovery in the States. It's about a hockey team, the Screech Owls, who, when they're not playing on the ice, are solving mysteries.
It's a privilege to be working on Screech Owls. As I mentioned earlier, I worked the first season in the production office as the coordinator. They brought me back as an Associate Story Editor, which is a junior staff position, and I've had the opportunity to learn a tonne of stuff.
Fortunately, the showrunner that was hired to run second season was David Cole, who was my mentor at the CFC. As a result, David included me in all aspects of the show, so my learning curve went off the chart. I also had the opportunity to meet another great writer, Anita Kapila, who was the Executive Story Editor. She was very supportive of me and I learned a lot just from watching her work and reading the various drafts of her scripts. I think that all of our respective skills complimented one another.
I've got two other projects on the go. One is a short that I'd like to direct called Higher Order. It's about a writer who lands a job on a sci-fi show and then starts to have paranoid delusions that the aliens he's created are conspiring to kill him. It's very Twilight Zone in tone.
The other project I'm working on is called Axe Ridge. I got Telefilm funding to write the outline for it which I'm pounding away at now. It's basically a western that takes place across Canada and I describe it as the Matrix meets Palerider.
Q: How hard is it to switch back and forth between genres. i.e. you wrote kids script for DAWC and Sci-fi idea for Earth Final conflict. What do you think you`re best at?
A: I don't think it's hard to switch between genres. However, there is a slight adjustment period as you try to get into the headspace of a new show - you just inundate yourself by watching as many episodes as you can and try to simulate the voices of the characters and the tone of the show. You have to be like a chameleon to work in TV.
But to be fair, I'd have to say my strength lies in sci-fi/fantasy/action scripts. That stems from having played thousands of hours of role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, etc.) and having a natural affinity for those genres. In fact, role-playing games, which I played from the age of 10-18 are the closest experience to writing for television that you can have besides being part of a story department. The skills I developed as a kid being a dungeon master (creating strong characters, creating realistic fantasy worlds, arcing the adventure path from beginning to climax, etc.) are the same skills I use today while working on ScreechOwls.
Q: Music has played an integral role in my own writing career. Can you tell me how music influences your own writing, if it does?
A: I think music is hugely important. I usually pop a CD into my computer while I write. I'll put something in to get me in the mood for whatever I'm writing. For example, for Higher Order, I stuck in a CD with weird digital and ambient tracks. Axe Ridge, was actually inspired by a CD that I was listening to at an HMV listening post.
I also think that if you have a sense for musical structure, you'll have a similar sense for writing structure. They're very similar in the way they flow and I always think of writing sequences in terms of crescendos, decrescendos, staccatos, etc. I mean, music is about expressing and conveying emotions and that's what good writing is about as well.
Q: Sean recently you asked me if I has seen Sexy Beast. Now the reason I loved that movie was because of that goddamned demented bunny rabbit. You know I love my rabbits. Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. What is it about Rabbits?
A: I think it's an East Coast thing, really. That is, the enigma of the rabbit as something loveable yet dangerous. The reason I say it's an East Coast thing is that someone I know (hint: he's known for his masterful dialogue) who is also from Nova Scotia, told me a rabbit anecdote. He was growing some pot in his backyard in Nova Scotia and he had some rabbits. He came out one morning to find his crop of pot gnawed at and immediately went searching for the rabbits. He found them in another part of the field running endlessly in circles, getting faster and faster with each passing second until they collapsed from exhaustion. Turns out they had eaten the pot which put them in that frantic state. I couldn't tell you what sound they were making, but I can only suspect that it was Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...