Koliah Bourne recently had the opportunity to chat with Sudz Sutherland and Jennifer Holness, producers of CBC’s latest drama series Shoot the Messenger. Canada’s top TV production duo talked about diversity in film and television, the recent U.S. election, advice for up and coming producers, and their latest and biggest project.
Koliah Bourne: So thank you first off. I am just getting to know you. I love your stuff.
Sudz Sutherland: Thank you so much.
Jennifer Holness: We appreciate you saying that. Thank you.
Koliah: So you both are becoming one of the more well-known producers in Canada. Tell us a bit about your journey into the industry.
Jennifer: You know we started out…we met in the university first of all. You know we are married.
Jennifer: And we met in university. And at first we were dating. We actually dated for about seven months. Sudz was in film and I was in politics, and after about seven months of dating, he proposed.You know I did not expect it. We were in a world where the world can be funny. We were in our early twenties. As young Black people you have a certain idea about how to run your world. You hope you graduate and then get married. So I was quite surprised. So we thought, we love each other and then the “yes” and we got connected. I actually got quite sick, I had a brain aneurysm.
Koliah: Oh my goodness.
Jennifer: Two days after he proposed actually.
Koliah: Oh my goodness. Wow!
Jennifer: Yeah absolutely. The part of the story that’s really lovely was that Sudz was there for me every single day.
Jennifer: At the hospital, he even convinced the nurses to let him sleep over. When I came out of the hospital, I was contemplating going back to law school and decided, “No”, I was going to figure out what I really want to do with my life. We decided to move in together, like about a year after I had the operation and I was like you know, let me try the film thing. That was really it. I didn’t know anything about or have any courses on the film thing but, being a resourceful Black woman I thought, “Well, if you want to do film, you got to join organizations”. Sudz and I joined all of these independent film organizations like the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, we found out about things like the Ontario Arts Council, and so we actually started putting together little projects and tried to get funding and then we did. And Sudz being in film, he wanted to be a director. So when we first got together as a team, Sudz was directing. He was doing the writing and I was doing story editing and producing. And then from there it evolved where I started doing some of the writing as well. Then I started doing more of the writing and we continued with the producing and then we went from small projects to documentary projects. We did an award winning short film that won an HBO prize and we did a one hour documentary for the National Film Board, and those two projects led us to Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, our first feature film. We wrote the story together. He wrote the script and directed and I produced. And then from there on, we filtered into television primarily because at that time we had our first daughter and by the time Love, Sex and Eating the Bones was done, I had our second daughter, a year and a half later.
Jennifer: And that’s kind of how we got started. Once we did that film and we had our third daughter much later, we just thought okay, we are going to make a life together. We are going to do this and we go forward. That’s kind of a bit about us in a nutshell.
Koliah: That’s a great story. Wow! So given that you are life partners, how do you find it managing both the life partnership and your business? How do you wear both hats?
Sudz: Yeah, it is something that we have to continually work on and it’s hard because we have three daughters. Our daughters are 15, 13 and we got one that’s nine years old.
Koliah: Wow, busy.
Sudz: And so we are parents and you know partners, also business partners. So we have to come at it from the point of view where it’s kind of the best idea wins. And that’s a work practice that we have involved into our personal practice and it has to be the best idea because we’ve got to balance all kind of things. There is obviously the film and television aspect. We have also gotten into new media; we have a mobile app that we developed.
Sudz: Called the Music Biz which is a mobile game for iOS and Android devices. But there’s a lot of different things over a bunch of different media and in terms of the work we do in the house, we have to be clear. We have to work it out and support each other. This is a peer marriage. We are very close in age and we are coming at it as equals and we have to respect each other and respect each others’ ideas as equals. And that goes down to the type of language we use with each other. All that stuff about keeping a healthy relationship is really important to us because we are also modelling for the girls. We have to not use what we call angry language. Sometimes it’s hard because we are both very passionate people. That is not to say we don’t fight or we don’t fight in front of the girls; we do but we just want to make them understand that we love each other. So it’s okay to agree to disagree and okay to fight…We have passionate arguments but we are all over each other, climbing each other, hugging each other, you know.
Koliah: Yeah. You love hard.
Sudz: We love hard. That’s our family so that’s how it has to be.
Sudz: I’m really happy with the discussions that we have. We listen to podcasts. We watched that documentary 13 by Ava Duvernay. We have discussions on social justice issues, about having a racial consciousness, about the girls’ friendships and all these things are a part of our lives because in terms of our writing and in terms of the ideas we are trying to drill down deep with it’s all of the pieces right.
Jennifer: You know what, it’s interesting. The girls, they know I am very passionate about social justice. We try to raise the girls in a fair environment and that’s really important to us. And what’s interesting is I think at some point I realized that they weren’t inherently absorbing the lessons that I grew up with because their lives were so much more privileged than mine. What I mean by that is that we live in a nice home, we have a dog. You know this is Canada where young people for the most part are nice to each other. Even if someone said something, and the girls have all had one or two incidents where someone said something. Someone said to one of my daughters, “Your skin looks like poo” and she said “That’s too bad because that’s how God made me”. She was four years old.
Koliah: Wow, my kind of girl.
Jennifer: You know what I am saying.
Jennifer: But other than those once in a while incidences, they just never had to deal. I grew up in Ontario housing until my mom bought a house when I was 16. We had people peeing in the stairwell. They didn’t have none of that. So, you realize that they were living in a such a different reality. Even though we are reading them Harriet Tubman, we realize that they saw that stuff as so far in the past. So what we realized is that we had to actually take an active role in exposing them to content out there around some of the social justice issue and make a real effort to really drill in stories and things even though far from them, they can relate to. So the whole part of our film work, we try to do entertaining product. Products that for an audience, Black or international or white audience, that will entertain but at the same time bring forward a point of view, bring forward something about our diverse, many many diverse communities. So like with Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, what we wanted to do was to show, it was a comedy, even in insurmountable odds, Black couples could respect each other and love each other and overcome major hurdles. Now did we make it funny, and kind of silly and really interesting? Yes, in my mind we did but that was part of what we wanted to show. With GUNS, it was about how we as a Black community use these tools of the trade and we have a humanity and compassion and that sometimes your circumstances lead you into that and also that there is a larger structure in place that is feeding why young Black men might have guns in their hands. GUNS was a project where we won five awards from the Canadian Academy including for best writing. Then with Home Again it’s being an immigrant. Sudz was born here but I am an immigrant. I couldn’t fathom…
Sudz: She got to marry me for her citizenship.
Jennifer: Oh, that’s nonsense.
Jennifer: I was a citizen when I was seven years old. Don’t listen to that crazy man.
Sudz: Because she was being deported. That’s why we were making it Home Again, it was actually about Jennifer.
Koliah: Oh my goodness (laughing)
Jennifer: And then with Shoot the Messenger, our first drama series, you know it’s no different, we wanted to look at journalism and every season there would be a different element but we wanted to look through the lens of that and look at how communities are perceived; even in this show we deal with a Somali community, and off the top you see a young man get shot. Have you seen Shoot the Messenger?
Koliah: So I was going to go there a little later but you are already there. I absolutely love Shoot the Messenger. Absolutely love it, so go there.
Jennifer: Wonderful, you see a young Black man in a park with another Black man and a journalist observing this. If you look at it, like everybody in that situation goes to drugs and that’s okay, because we were playing on those stereotypes. So even though Daisy says, “I don’t think it’s drugs”, I mean why bring me to the park, so what’s the logic of it, why would you bring me to the park for meeting or something just to do a deal? And even the Black kid, like the other Somalian, it’s a family thing you know, so his belief is that it’s a gang thing. While this story veers off into politics and the other things of the other members of the community, and we made a point of doing those things to see through the lens of these young kids and to show that even in the context, you have Khaalif for example who is watching the news and the tears in his eyes is saying that even when these things happen, these are not monsters devoid of emotions. Even though we’re portraying the story in a certain context, we are looking at how we can bring humanity to our characters. You know let’s understand why they’re doing this, and also let us understand our own perception, such that when we see these things, what do we think? It probably looks more complicated than the show looks but that’s the kind of thinking that we were doing when we’re creating this.
Koliah: But that’s exactly what my next question is, what was your creative inspiration for Shoot the Messenger? It sounds like that’s part of the answer.
Sudz: One of these things is how do these stories get into the newspaper? How does the news become news? Who gets to tell those stories? And the other thing is, part of the overall thinking, we were a little bit inspired by the Rob Ford story but the thing is that the show was an interesting intersection of a bunch of different things. That was a really rich politician who had a common touch, a man of the people. He was also spending time with these guys who were kind of on the bottom of the underclass. This was a guy who wasn’t spending time with them, mentoring them, and showing them the inner working of power, helping them navigate the system; this guy is smoking up, getting high. The thing is that we had a lot of background information from the cops that we have in our contacts, and our consultants because in doing a show we were always interested in how the real world is so much more complex and interesting versus the stories you get in the newspaper which has been smoothed and sanitized. And so those are the things we want to tell in those stories because again our company is called Hungry Eyes Film and Television the original name was Hungry Eyes Film Food but we were getting confused with caterers. So people are like hey are you doing film catering?
Sudz: No. It’s Hungry Eyes Film and Television. The original intent is we were making film food for hungry eyes and we were growing up in this culture, we were starved for entertainment that had Black people in it, that had people of colour in it, telling interesting stories. And it was like Little House on the Prairie over and over again that was the thing we wanted…we wanted to blow that shit up. We wanted to tell our stories. And that was the thing we fought to do. So you know our first short film was My Father’s Hand. That was a personal story about my father and me, a personal relationship; it was based on that. And that premiered at TIFF and did very well but we were quite poor. It was a film festival, $65 entrance, and I remember I was still like, “Jennifer can we afford to send this off?” And we said, “Okay, let’s send it off”. Sixty-five bucks U.S. and eventually we won the HBO short film of the year award.
Sudz: Only non-American ever to still do that and that was one of the first things that put us on the map. A healthy prize, a $20,000 USD, that the film played on cinemas and that kind of set us on the path that we could do this and people liked our work.
Sudz: That’s the driving force behind this, that these stories need to be told no matter how much of the dominant culture is saying that they don’t; we have to continue.
Jennifer: You know someone said something which is very important. When you don’t see yourself represented, it means that you don’t exist, that you don’t matter. That’s one thing that motivated Sudz and myself because I tell you, getting these shows made, it’s such a tremendous effort. This is probably the first year in my life since I started in film, that I didn’t work around the clock. Once we wrapped in July and I finished delivering the show, I actually took…not time off per se, but had an easier schedule than I usually put myself through. We work like dogs sometimes. It’s so difficult sometimes and we are really so passionate about what happens when your voice is eliminated entirely from the culture. But you know, then the election happens and why it resonates with us even more so is the apathy. We put a show out like Shoot the Messenger and it’s not like the Black community is beating down our door saying we’re supporting this. So it’s so frustrating because I think this might be the second drama series to be produced in Canada brought by an African-Canadian woman, by a Black woman. What am I saying? It would actually be the first drama series to be produced by a Black woman in the entire country and the first to be co-written by or co-created by two Black people right here and it’s like we try to get the word out through G98, Share and I still meet some people who are like, “Oh yeah, you know what, I didn’t hear about it. I am going to go check it out” and we’re four weeks in. You gotta know that if the numbers aren’t there, we don’t get renewed. And you gotta know that the context by which we are presenting these stories, it’s not one that even though we have a white female lead, that character is a complex person, not like the heroin we usually see in white shows. So normally, they have an issue with a character like that. Probably because she has drug issues, she is not like solving everything. She is a young person trying to figure out life. A realism vibe. To be honest, I actually feel like a lot the young white women I come across, they are closer to her than they are the other way. But when we look at the shows, we can see it’s from a white creator. It’s the white characters that are super heroes. They figure everything out. They see everything, they get everything. They understand everything. We really wanted to avoid that kind of creative point of view, so you create something like this and you hope that Black and Brown audiences would jump to it and we have had some feedback from members of the community but the vast majority of it, is not sort of there for the show. I think I am being a bit more cynical today because of what happened with the election.
Koliah: But at the same time that’s still an issue within the Black community. I mean we are not quick to jump on too many things though we would be the first to complain and say no one is supporting my stuff, right?… I am loving this conversation though. So keeping with the show, it is a little bit more graphic and edgy than I think Canadians may be used to. So what was the thought process behind going in that direction?
Sudz: Well, part of it went to the fact that, you know, we watched these shows. We watched shows like Shoot the Messenger, shows like True Detectives, shows like Luther, The Killing, shows like The Bridge. Like these are the shows that really inspired us, like Broad Church.
Jennifer: Broad Church wasn’t graphic
Sudz: Which wasn’t graphical or edgy. These are the shows that inspire us but we wanted to shake it up a little bit and give Canadians and the world a different side of Canada, a different view of Canada than we’re used to seeing. The thing is we wanted to shake people up a little bit, like this is not something you can casually watch, you need to pay attention. It’s a serialized show and not just reset television. It’s something you need to pay attention to and every week it gets more and more intense. This is the kind of experience we wanted to bring to Canada. So that’s where it came from. The show’s DNA basically shows you the shape of the show. It’s not that graphic but it’s more graphic than Murdoch for example.
Koliah: Yeah. But totally for me, it plays like a movie. I feel like it was so intense. I tweeted about it then that my jaw just dropped at the first intense shot. I was like, “Oh my God”. It was so intense, but a good intense and it really isn’t something we’re used to seeing.
Jennifer: Sudz is really responsible for the look of the show and the feel of the show and that of course in talking with myself, but we really wanted to have something that will respect our sensibilities in terms of what we would have enjoyed. I know that I am very comfortable for example with Reggae music and dancing and all these kind of things, so for me whatever sexuality we are having in the show it didn’t seem to me like over the top because we live in a culture where people do a lot. Like, we don’t swing. We have never had any partners once we got married beyond ourselves. We are respectful. We don’t do all of this shacking up or on the side, but I feel like people do these things because they learn about all kinds of crazy madness all the time. Frankly speaking, it is realistic to life. And Sudz and I, we’ve always sought to be truthful in our storytelling. And also it brings an excitement because Sudz is directing like a cinematic feature film, and I got to tell you it’s way more expensive to do the work that we are doing on Shoot the Messenger than it is to deliver a regular series, you know what I am saying? In fact, it’s much more work, more expensive to give the audiences an experience.
Koliah: Okay so, maybe two more questions. So given all this diversity talk, as of late there is your show, there is Kim’s Convenience; two shows that I am loving right now. Diversity is a big issue and it is across the board right now and it’s hot in every media even over the last year. The whole Black Twitter thing, Oscars So White. So all of this talk of diversity, the lack of it and the need for more of it. Where do you see that diversity playing into the future of film and television in Canada?
Jennifer: Well, you know what I think? I think the diversity talk and the push for diversity has come about in a real way because Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America. I believe what he has done, even though African Americans don’t think he’s done enough, I think that by being a beacon in which white American could dump everything on. It made people aware that there really is a problem and that awareness has led to things like Black Lives Matter. The conversation is sort of happening and you know what? Black people have always been shot down on the street and guess what, for the first time I have friends saying, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize that this was happening to you”, and this has been happening to us for years. What I believe is that having a Black President of the United states has pushed this conversation and my big fear is that it will stop because speaking out and saying these are problems, these are issues, will be dangerous. I think people will be prosecuted for it, so I am very curious. I know that in Canada one of the things that has been pushed very strongly now is this conversation on diversity and gender diversity and so right now Telefilm is composing a statement on gender diversity and how it’s going to look at bringing that about in a more significant way in the industry. The CBC has a policy where for 50 percent of the production they want to have female directors. So what I am trying to say to you is that I think the conversation in Canada is cemented around gender diversity and I think that for cultural diversity things like Shoot the Messenger and Kim’s Convenience came at the right time.
Koliah: So, on your website I noticed you guys have a community element with what do you called Through Our Eyes Film Club. Can you tell us a little bit about the club and why the club is important?
Sudz: That was something we carry near and dear to our heart because we wanted to give back to the community and we wanted to affect some sort of lasting change because we always would go in for one day, one period and talk about being a filmmaker or whatever and leave. We were looking to do something out of a school, so we devised a program that would be once a week, one day in the afternoon, for about two or three hours after school for a group of kids between grade six and grade eight where we felt we could make an impact. The kids are kind of malleable at that stage. These were kids of colour. We wanted to show them the opportunity that film could afford them as a career. So every session we would start off by introducing an actual filmmaking professional, somebody who is key; a hair stylist, a makeup artist, a cinematographer, a writer, an actor. This is what we did and so we sought all of our connections and everybody was like, “Okay, no problem. I will do it. I will come over, take two hours from work and I will go and talk to this kids”.
In the beginning it was hard to get these kids to stay. They all signed up for it, they had all written their essays, “Why they want to be a part of it’’ and then we were struggling to keep these kids to 5:30. They wanted to go. After three weeks they began to trust us because we were there and they were like, “Oh okay, they are for real, they are going to stick around”, and so by the sixth week we had to get rid of these kids by 7:30 at night. They just loved being there you know and so what we did was we taught them how to write, shoot, edit, direct, produce; took us like 4months. We also took the kids out to DeGrassi for example. They got to meet Drake back in the day. He was so genuine to these kids; he signed autographs. I mean he wasn’t Drake back in the days; it was just before. The kids loved him. He was incredibly generous. They went to the National Film Board, they made a short animation at the film board. We then had a competition. We had eleven scripts submitted and chose seven. There was a good mix of boys and girls directors and there were some really hot stories, one story was from this kid who came from China about the one child policy, about why his mother couldn’t have a little brother because she was forced to be sterilized. I mean there were some really amazing stories that these kids were winding up inside. There is this one girl who had lost her father, she thought she had lost her face, so in the film these kids had no faces. It’s quite beautiful. These stories that these kids had inside them and they are like 12/13years old. It was really powerful. Afterwards, we made it an open source, so we showed everybody this is what we did, week to week, this is how the program worked, this is how much it cost and we put it on the net and gave it to people in terms of here is the program, run it in your own community. So hopefully that idea will spread. We haven’t been able to do it because we have been too busy right now.
Koliah: Understandable. Okay last question. What is your advice for the next generation of up and coming producers?
Jennifer: Well, I believe that you must do your homework. You must understand the world in which you are working and what that means is that you need to know the culture; you need to know what the broadcaster, the people with the money and the power, want or need. Take for example for me, when I was starting out, I decided that I was going to learn and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t go to film school. I went to the film organizations to learn; they had workshops. I found out about the art councils, and I went to meet the officers and I would ask for meetings, so when we went for grants I would have met them and ask them specifically what they were looking for. Once we started getting grants, and then started making those small short films, I would look and say there’s this giant industry here and I know nothing about it, I don’t even actually know how to do the things the way the industry does because I am just trying to figure it out. You know by then I had done like 15 music videos, I have put up a short film that managed to be picked and this is all because talking with Sudz who went to film school for three years and being to different places and learning from them. But then, like I said, I looked around and I realized there was this industry that existed and I knew nothing about it but I need to get an industry job and at the time there was an organization called Black Community Network and I contacted them. I became their Vice-President for a little while, while I was there, there was a partial grant. It was the only program that had a partial grant and the partial grant was for $250 a week and what you were supposed to do was get the other half and nobody wanted to touch it. And so I figured out the other half by getting a production company to hire me. I contacted them. There was an article about Alyse Rosenberg doing a show called Ready or Not.
Koliah: Okay yeah, Ready or Not.
Jennifer: Didn’t know anybody in the industry. I didn’t know Alyse. Didn’t know they had a producer and so I contacted them and said, “Hey, I come with a partial pay and I have made all this music videos and line produced a short film and would love to work with one of the producers. All you have to do is pay $250 a week”, and they called me in. I had a meeting with them and I got the job. And I am sure you heard what I said, I did not know a single person. No one was going to help me but my goal was to understand the larger industry. And from then on I had a plan and part of my plan was, “How do these people do this?”, let me figure that out and let me do the next thing. You have to do your research and see what the people want you to do. The other part is you have to be willing to do it at all cost. I never left that office before my producer. I was there until 9:00pm most nights and I was there like 9:00 in the morning. So, it’s like being willing to do that hard work. I do think that there is a lot of hope for young people right now because I think there is more ability to communicate more ideas and thoughts through social media and I think if you are willing to put the time in, if you are willing to try to figure out what is going on as opposed to saying, “I have an idea” and tenaciously following a plan. “I’m going to do this, and I need this to do it. I’m going to do this, and I need this to do it. I’m going to do this, and I need this to do it, and I’m going to make it happen”.
Koliah: Determination…Thank you so much. That was great.
Jennifer: No problem. Thank you, no worries, I’m very happy and I appreciate you reaching out and helping to promote our brand.
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