The Writers: Tick & Barwin: talent will out

Dr. Robert Gardner is a professor of media writing and the chair of the School of Radio and Television Arts, Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto.

Who says this business can’t be generous? The remarkable success of two talented young men relied, almost completely, on a series of mentors and industry professionals who recognized outstanding ability, and then took the time to encourage a tandem career that is taking off like a rocket.

I first came into contact with Gabriel David Tick and Steven Barwin in writing classes at Ryerson. These two twentysomething writers combined engaging personalities with a drive to write professionally that was searing in its intensity.

When executive producers from The Simpsons and a new show, The Critic, came from Los Angeles to speak to the students, Gabe linked up with Steven to write an original episode of The Critic. They got hold of the pilot script, analyzed it to death, and wrote a version that stunned me. They did it in record time. It was brilliant.

Mike Reiss and Al Jeans (The Simpsons producers) were surprised by the material. Mike said, ‘It’s so close, we can almost buy it.’ Those words of encouragement confirmed Gabe and Steven in their desire to write. They never looked back.

The same speculative script brought the twosome to the attention of Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson at Royal Canadian Air Farce. They were brought onto the show. Here they were, recently graduated from Ryerson, hobnobbing with the folks who put together one of the most successful comedy shows in Canadian television history.

Roger put Gabe and Steven in touch with the producers at Street Cents, and again that vote of confidence paid off with a good, realistic script.

Then came the moment of truth. Roger sent them to meet William Laurin and Glenn Davis. Over the next three years, says Steven, ‘we developed a relationship/mentorship that started us on the road to understanding the intricacies of the continuing dramatic form.’

When William and Glenn became the executive producers of Alliance series John Woo’s Once a Thief they remembered the fledgling writers and gave them the opportunity of a lifetime. Suddenly Steven and Gabe were on board one of the most expensive dramatic tv series ever mounted in Canada. It seemed they were living a charmed life, buoyed by encouragement from some incredibly talented producers and writers.

They were given a crash course in putting together the one-hour form, learning more ‘in a week’ (says Gabe) than they learned in their years at university.

They scouted locations, sat in on casting sessions, went to sound mixes, and they wrote draft after draft under the watchful eyes of people they describe as ‘the best in the business.’

It was tough, they say, because Once a Thief tends to mix genres: it combines action-adventure with comedy.

‘The show,’ says Steven, ‘takes incredible chances. One week it will be film noir, another it will be a rat-pack parody. It’s an incredibly rich canvas with lots of opportunity for experimentation.’

They watched in amazement as William and Glenn, as well as supervising producers/writers Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde, broke every rule in the book and made the show work. They learned that just as in situation comedy you don’t write to the joke, in action-adventure, you don’t write for the action. Everything, says Gabe, should come out of character and situation.

On the surface, it may all seem a bit of a fluke. The reality, though, is more interesting. First of all, Steven and Gabe made a pact that they ‘would only do good stuff.’ They’d wait for the big opportunities. And they worked like crazy. They’d spend hours in restaurants and hotel lobbies with their laptops, polishing material until they were almost exhausted.

Says Gabe, with a smile, ‘We were thrown out of more places than you can count.’ They wanted to be ready when the opportunity came.

In the dark days they could always remember that The Simpsons producers felt they had unusual talent. That protected them from some of the inevitable problems that writers always seem to face.

Steven recalls the first time they pitched some ideas. They had six lined up, and each one was turned down. Then, right on the spot, inspiration hit and they outlined an idea that was accepted.

In some ways they can’t believe their good fortune. Here they are, at 26 and 27, in the big time. They even lined up an American agent and found themselves being squired around all the major studios in l.a.

They said that the spec scripts talked for them. People had respect for the accuracy of the material and wanted to meet to see if the duo would be easy to work with. Gabe and Steven claim you can’t overemphasize the importance of a good speculative script. It’s worth every hour of effort you invest in it. They said it has be great, or you’re just wasting your time.

The dynamic young writing duo may represent a new wave here, one that is more in keeping with a stateside sensibility. There, most of the writers on any given show are in their twenties; here, writers tend to be significantly older.

In l.a. there’s a feeling that talent will jump start chronological age; in Canada, we tend to think of writers serving a long apprenticeship. In Toronto, especially, the writing pool is dominated by a few recognizable names, whereas in l.a. no one wants to miss out on the next big talent. You can always get a first meeting, you may never get a second.

Steven shakes his head, ‘We can’t believe that these front-line people have taken the time to bring us up to speed. It’s tough, but it’s exhilarating.’

Mind you, they’re working their hearts out. The days are long (often 17 hours). Frequently rewrites go far into the night so that the revisions can be distributed early the following morning. The demands of a major television show are incredible, and they are remorseless. Clearly, they have the stamina to keep up.

Says Gabe: ‘It’s like being in a war. But it’s so much fun.’

Recently they invited me down to the set of an episode of Once a Thief they had written as a team. What I found gratifying was that they fully realized that their early success was unusual and that it was due – in large measure – to the generosity of a lot of great mentors.

Who says this industry isn’t gracious and kind? Talk to Gabe and Steven for a few minutes and some of the cynicism which passes for lifestyle in this country will be blown away.