6 Questions With “Orphan Black” Creator John Fawcett
Orphan Black co-creator and director John Fawcett discusses writing retreats, his multiple collaborations with Tatiana Maslany and glue guns.
Q: How do you prep to shoot a new season of Orphan Black?
A: It basically starts with [co-creator Graeme Manson] and I… Graeme is a writer and I’m a director. The way we’ve managed it through this entire period of time is that him and I will kind of sequester ourselves. We usually go off to a cabin somewhere and spend a week or so together talking through the season, the direction the season is going to go into, and how that season fits into our bigger picture… When we [originally] pitched the series we really had two seasons. We definitely knew what we were doing in Season 1. We loosely knew what we’re doing Season 2, and we had very, very spotty ideas of what to do with Season 3, but we knew how to end the show. So after the success of Seasons 1 and 2, we realized, “Oh my god, this is going to go more than three seasons. We’ve really got to figure out how to now elongate the story so that we can tell it over a five season arc at least.” So really last year when we sat down, it was a much bigger deal than just figuring out the season. It was figuring out the next three seasons… I think it’ll be a little more focused this year. But that’s kind of what we do. We go to a cabin. Graeme brings great books, and we just hang out and work on ideas all day. It’s nice. It’s a nice way to relax, especially after having put so much time in on the show.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode or scene that you’ve directed?
A: I still think my favorite episode, probably that I’ve ever directed of television, was Episode 6 from Season 1. That’s the Alison glue gun torture of Donnie. When I look back, that’s still probably one of my favorite episodes. It was just so fun to do. So many great elements. There’s the whole Cosima-Delphine storyline, and you meet Dr. Leekie for the first time, and they’ve got a little weird budding romance, even though Cosima’s barely flirting with Delphine through a monitor. And Alison tortures her husband with a glue gun. And then the whole party at Alison’s, the potluck upstairs, while she’s got Donnie tied up downstairs. The upstairs-downstairs quality to the episode was really fun.
Q: Where did you find Tatiana Maslany? Had you seen her work before?
A: I directed a movie [cult horror classic Ginger Snaps] that Karen Walton wrote from a story I had [conceptualized] and it was sort of successful, so we were asked to do a couple sequels. In the first sequel we were looking for a kind of psychotic, crazy, weirdo 14-year-old girl, and I was casting in Canada because that’s where I’m from. It was interesting because that casting, after I’d seen a lot of young actresses, came down to either Tatiana Maslany or Ellen Page. And I picked Tatiana. Y’know, both actors are great, just for this particular role, Tatiana was the winner. So I met Tatiana, I think she was about 17 or 18 when she made Ginger Snaps 2, and she has a very young face, and she’s an exceptionally gifted young actress. So we stayed in touch a little over the years and eventually when it came time to look for our lead in Orphan Black, of course her name came up again. She was a frontrunner for the part even before she auditioned, and we auditioned everybody. I mean we went looking. We slowly went looking all over the country, because we needed to cast a Canadian. That was an important part of casting to us, that we find a Canadian actor. And we were in California—there’s a ton of young Canadian women in California, we went through them as well… and in the end, Tatiana killed all of ‘em!
Q: Are there any scenes that were planned but which ended up on the cutting room floor?
A: We had a whole Alison-Donnie scene that never made it into the finale last year, but I finished the scenes and put them on the Season 2 DVD. Beyond that, tons of dialogue, like whole parts of scenes have hit the skids in an effort to make scenes just move faster and get to the point quicker. That happens all the time, because inevitably when you write a script, you’re really trying to make sure you’re covering all the information that needs to happen, and sometimes they get overwritten. In an effort to keep our show moving at as quick a pace as possible, a lot of that extraneous writing gets dumped. It gets cut right down to its true essence, and you do it because the audience doesn’t need to be hand-held. If you’re coming into our show, you really need to be up to date.
Q: How did you and Graeme Manson start working together?
A: In early 2000, maybe 2001, I had a TV movie that someone had asked me to do and the script really needed a page-one rewrite. The original writer wasn’t around to do it, so I asked Graeme if he’d do it. Graeme did a page-one rewrite on this little TV movie in like three weeks, and we worked on it together, and it was a really, really good experience. Together we took this so-so TV movie and made it really good! And at the end of the day I was like, “Dude, we killed it. We should find something to do together.” And I explained where my tastes lay. He had seen Ginger Snaps. He had done a big rewrite of Cube for Vincenzo Natali I had seen. Our tastes lay in similar genres. So eventually I pitched to him. We wanted to make a feature film, and I had the beginning of Orphan Black—the opening scene and some basic ideas. And he got excited about that, even though we didn’t really know what the story was at the time… In 2001 we sat together and broke through all of the story beats for the feature film version of Orphan Black, but the problem was we just couldn’t figure out the ending. We had the first two-thirds of the movie and just couldn’t end it… It didn’t reemerge until 2007, I’d say, when Graeme said, “Hey, dude, maybe this isn’t a feature film. Maybe it’s a TV series.”
Q: You are simultaneously working on three TV shows, Orphan Black, Saving Hope and Rookie Blue—is there anything in particular you do to shift your focus to Orphan Black in particular?
A: Well, Orphan Black is my baby. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years. I’ve been doing Orphan Black full-time pretty much since we got green-lit in 2012… But prior to that, I was a gigging television director, so in some ways there’s some part of me that still thinks of myself that way. I mean, I love that. I have so many friends that are producers that have shows I enjoy and crews I like, and a lot of the time going back to work on shows is like going back to other people’s families that you used to spend time with. Like Xena was one of my shows, and then Xena became Spartacus. That same family… All these places and people that you’ve spent time with and you know. So Saving Hope and Rookie Blue—there are producers and crew there that I love and actors that I have relationships with and so… just because maybe I’m a workaholic, I’ll just go and do an episode. Like last year I did one episode of Rookie Blue and one episode of Saving Hope, and it was just because I love those people. That’s the real reason. I love those producers and Alanna and David and all the people who make those shows, so you go and hang out with them!