Playback’s 2018 TV Director of the Year: Kari Skogland

Kari Skogland Photo Credit David Leyes
One of Canada's most respected directors, Skogland's career climbed to new heights in 2018 with The Handmaid's Tale.

It’s not often that a TV project comes along that allows you to push yourself to your creative limits. For Playback‘s TV Director of the Year, Kari Skogland, it was The Handmaid’s Tale. The series’ deft mix of raw emotion, political statement and unsettling vision garnered international attention and in 2018, vaulted Skogland beyond her long-held industry acclaim and into the pop-culture conversation.

This aspect may be quite new for Skogland, but her star has shone brightly in the industry for two decades now, across film and TV, one of few women directors to achieve such status. She was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award three years running for her work on series including Vikings, The Borgias, and The Listener and she’ll tackle Showtime’s Roger Ailes limited series The Loudest Voice in the Room, starring Russell Crowe and Naomi Watts, and AMC’s horror series NOS4A2, starring Zachary Quinto. Alongside all of this, Skogland runs a production business and maintains a robust family life – no mean feat in an industry that often demands long and unusual hours.

Here Skogland discusses the validation and relief that comes with awards success and telling stories that embrace difficult topics through her company Mad Rabbit.

Playback: Can you tell us what it was like working on The Handmaid’s Tale in comparison to other projects you’ve worked on?

Kari Skogland: [On Handmaid's] there’s tremendous trust that they’ve hired you to do what you do and that’s not true of every project. There’s plenty of projects that micromanage and therefore, particularly as a director, your muscle isn’t being used to the extent that it can be. So it was a real joy to be in that arena because I came from features.

The whole mantra of the set was, ‘if you’ve done it before, don’t do it again.’ Push the envelope. Creativity is our middle name. Don’t be afraid to push it. Try something. Be bold. And I hadn’t heard those words for so long because television can be quite corporate, which can also mean that the voice is a bit lost through the homogenisation of so many opinions. So to have that ignited again was not just a joy… I connected with the material. I was so proud to be a Canadian as part of that world, and shooting in Toronto where I live was an utter joy.

PB: Talk a little bit about what this year has meant in the context of your career overall:

KS: I think it all came together in terms of being recognized so suddenly. I’ve been doing the same work with the same energy and the same focus for a very long time. And then with the #MeToo movement happening and the blinders coming off I was caught in a perfect storm where suddenly people are going, ‘Oh, wow! That’s pretty good.’

I won a BAFTA, which I didn’t even know I was nominated for. It’s quite funny. And that win was particularly sweet because I do so much work in Europe. Then the Emmy nomination on top of that was just icing.

I think an Emmy nomination, or any kind of awards nomination/win, is the community saying, ‘Good for you, keep going.’ This is a real validation, because what we do is hard. I think the last year has been incredibly satisfying because it feels for the first time that the boulder you’re pushing uphill [has] moved by an inch. That’s been the biggest surprise: with a certain amount of that kind of validation, you’re allowed, or I’ve been able to allow myself, a little bit more of a relaxed approach because it’s coming a bit more of a settled place.

“I want to tell stories that engage discussion, move the needle and embrace difficult subject matters.”

PB: What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in terms of more safe work environments?

KS: What I notice more than ever is empowerment to call people on their shit and I have done it myself now. I would never have done it two years ago. My job is to protect the project and make it as big and as fabulous as it can possibly be under the constraint of time and budget. I don’t fold up. I don’t take the word ‘No’ easily. Does that make me difficult? Or does that make me passionate and committed? Now when I spot someone who is going to be that old-world, unreasonable, misogynistic voice, I’m now pointing it out and saying, ‘I will not tolerate that.’ And that’s very empowering.

PB: What are your thoughts on Canada’s role in the international media business?

KS: English-speaking Canada from way back 10 years ago and earlier Telefilm days switched gears and veered away from the creative, meaning the creators, and looked to the business model. And the business model of course includes producers, not creators. I recognized the day that it changed, when Telefilm could not meet with the creator without a producer in the room, that we were in a different business.

That was a switch in policy and that was not the case in Quebec. You can see how the creators in French Canada have blossomed, and in English Canada it’s been a struggle. We left. We couldn’t get traction, because we were behind the business model and that business model didn’t want Canadians, by definition. They wanted world-stage people. Well, how could you be a world-stage person if you couldn’t get into the world? So, I realized I had to go out and frankly The Borgias was part of that kind of a zeitgeist, going, ‘oh wow, there’s a world out here.’

We haven’t respected that the people like me, we make the widgets. Now we’re not necessarily very good at selling them. But we do create them. And so if you’re going to create an industry that is about ideas, you have to foster the idea makers. And if they can’t make a living… you’re not fanning the flames and you’re always going to be a sophomoric industry, because the people who get good leave to where they can make money or they’re at least acknowledged and sought after.

I think all of us still define ourselves as Canadians and are very proud of our Canadian roots. And I’m very thankful that Canada really helped me get my career going. But they didn’t know how to support what they built.

PB: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced this past year?

KS: I think the biggest challenge and the most satisfying challenge has been raising a family. Because from early on I was told as a female I could never be a director and have a family. [My kids have] seen struggles and they’ve seen the politics. They’ve seen me crushed and they’ve seen me elated. I was able to walk down the red carpet with [my kids] at the Emmys and I think it really resounded because this has been a family adventure.

PB: What has been your biggest opportunity in the year ahead?

KS: My company Mad Rabbit, we’ve been developing shows and stories that I want to tell. I feel I’ve had wonderful support of Red Arrow Studios out of Europe and we are ready to rumble on many projects which I’ve been out selling and pitching.

[Through my company Mad Rabbit] I want to tell stories that engage discussion, move the needle and embrace difficult subject matters. In this world where we can find niche audiences, I think they want to be engaged in entertainment that really informs them of a world that they would otherwise not be part of. I think Handmaid’s proved that tremendously. It has started a political dialogue. It’s been a wonderful counterpoint to what’s going on in the world and I think it’s been very important. That’s the kind of entertainment I would like to do: vitamins in the ice cream.

This interview has been edited and condensed; selections from this interview appear in Playback‘s Winter 2018/19 issue