Twisting and Shaking – Writer-Producer, #FromOurDarkSide Mentor Karen Walton About Writing Genre

Karen WaltonWomen in Film and Television Vancouver is delighted to announce Karen Walton has joined the mentor pool of the #FromOurDarkSide genre lab!

Karen Walton is a critically acclaimed screen and television writer-producer, whose genre work includes the cult classic horror, Ginger Snaps and writing for the first two seasons of the hit sci-fi series, Orphan Black. A graduate of the Canadian Film Centre, her trophy collection includes a Canadian Comedy Award for Pretty Funny Screenplay, Canadian Screen Awards for Best Dramatic Series and Best Writing in a Television Movie or Miniseries. She was recently named the 2016 Margaret Collier Award winner for her outstanding body of work as a writer by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.

Karen spoke with us about what genre means to her.

Ginger SnapsHow did you get started in genre?
I met a director who loved genre, read my (dramatic) work and asked if I would like to try a horror film script. That became, eventually, a movie called Ginger Snaps.

Why is genre important?
The word genre refers to the classification of a variety of kinds of stories. So ‘genre’ is important, in that respect, as simply acknowledging that there are many kinds of stories — and many ways to tell all of them. To me as a writer, a world that embraces many genres invites all kinds of different tastes and values to find a kind of story that they especially love, that resonates for them. The popular use of ‘genre’ in film and TV today refers, most often, to mystery, fantasy, horror, sci-fi. In that vein, I would say genre is important because it cultivates stories that tend by design to challenge safer or more widely accepted views of the world. A genre story features something other than mainstream or purely commercial narratives, and features characters who might never make the cut in something tailored to reinforce accepted values, instead of poking them with sharp sticks and asking why they are so accepted. Genre tends to double, when done well, for social commentary. My favourite thing about genre is, I get to make traditionally un-heroic characters the starring roles. I get to take a standard form of a specific kind of story – tropes and all –, and twist and shake it into something I personally want to say. Genre to me as an artist is the most flexible story form, the easiest to personalize. The audience comes for what they expect and then my job is to surprise on those very expectations. It’s the most fun way to write stories, for me. It’s also supremely challenging, for the same reasons.

Why do you stay with genre?
For all the reasons above, and the fact that when I sit down to just watch or read whatever I want to (instead of what I have to, for work), I choose genre more often than not. So maybe I stick with it because I know it best as a fan. It has most often inspired and challenged me. The next thing I watch the most is documentaries, for the same reasons but to see the fantastic, mysterious or amazing manifest in the real world.

Orphan BlackWhy are you involved with this contest?
Selfishly, I want and need more creative people who identify as women in film, television and digital, generally — and that requires one to look for ways to help make that possible. My career as a woman creating and making genre (as well as drama, in both TV and film) is still an anomaly. Being an anomaly sucks. There are very few people you can call up and just talk about the unique challenges of the form, who self-identify as female. That matters to me in only this respect: the trick to making anything innovative is to invite in the voices and perspectives historically absent, or overlooked — and I like to aim for innovation, over reiterations of what’s already been done. So doing what I can to encourage other women to see genre as a very real possibility for their work helps me kick back and enjoy more innovation. Everybody wins.

Who are some of the filmmakers or artists who inspire you?
Oh it’s an endless list that changes every time I see something new, or return to the history of a genre and discover something I haven’t seen or have forgotten about. It’s hard not to be inspired by the acknowledged masters of the form like David Cronenberg and especially for me, Jane Campion. I’m inspired by photography and documentaries as much as books, science, essays by dead authors and opinion pieces in newspapers by people who live a world away. Everything is grist for my mill. A cookie package inspired the title and character names for Ginger Snaps. What can I say, what doesn’t inspire me is a shorter list: negativity, violence for its own sake, exploiting sexuality as sensational instead of individualized human experiences, those only inspire me to rail against them in my own work. Ha.

Thank you for the conversation!

Q&A by Katja De Bock

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