Canadian television director James Genn likes to point out that the French word for director is “realisateur.” And that’s how he views the job: as helping realize someone else’s work.
“Your job is to take a script, a work, and realize and adapt it,” he says. “That, to me, is an endless source of challenge and joy. I’m forever a student of that.” Directing, he adds, is “an interpretive art.”
The Vancouver-based director would know. After starting his career by making short films, then working in sound editing and post production for a number of years, Genn has spent the last 18 years directing television series, working on shows ranging from Kim’s Convenience to Ginny & Georgia to The Good Doctor.
That’s part of the beauty of working in television for Genn: the ability to work across multiple genres. His latest show is Wild Cards, for which he’s the director of two episodes, including the pilot.It’s a police procedural with hints of comedy, about a demoted detective who resurrects his flagging career by teaming up with a con-woman.
“They’re each other’s yin and yang,” he says. “It’s just really fun seeing these two go and bust bad guys together, because they’re going out in the world and doing things with each other that they couldn’t ordinarily do on their own.”
He adds that one of the things that attracted him to the script was its “optimism.”
“I loved it for its joyful, playful way of approaching an older, tried and true genre,” he says. There have been times in the last a bunch of years where I’ve worked on a project where, whatever I was putting out into the world [didn’t align with] how I see the world. So I really appreciate material that has a worldview that I share.”
Another thing that appealed to him about Wild Cards was its setting: Vancouver. Genn, who grew up in the city, says that having the chance to show off his hometown, and not have to pretend it was Seattle or San Francisco or Chicago, was one of the things that appealed to him about the project.
“Part of my great love for the show is that I was able to shoot Vancouver for Vancouver, and to find those visual cues that express the personality of our city,” he says. “In the first five minutes or so of the pilot, there’s a scene that’s shot on boats out on False Creek. I’ve spent my life either looking out there, or on boats out there. It was fun to be able to see Vancouver for what it is.”
Genn says that every time he starts working on a new genre, he immerses himself in it in order to learn its rhythms and conventions. For the last year, since receiving the script for Wild Cards, he’s been diving deep into the world of police procedurals and detective series, drawing inspiration from shows like Castle, White Collar, and last year’s Peacock hit, Poker Face.
Directors can join a series at any point in its development. Genn says that when you come to a series that is already three or four seasons deep — as was the case when he directed episodes of The Good Doctor — you have to try and colour within the lines set by someone else. You have to match the show’s visual tone. But when you’re a show’s first director, like he is with Wild Cards, you have the opportunity to set that tone yourself.
“You have to invent something from a blank slate,” he says. “You’re looking to elevate [the script] as best you can. We interpret the script. You make the script the way you see it. And there’s an incredible amount of challenge and excitement and joy in that process.”
Wild Cards starts Jan. 10 on CBC, streaming on CBC Gem.