Interview with Brad Simpson, creator, writer, and producer of Burden of Truth, in Toronto, conducted by Pauline Greenhill and Heidi Kosonen over Zoom and audiorecorded, July 2, 2021, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Transcription by Maria Mikaela Biteng Castro, edited by HK and PG.
Pauline Greenhill: Please tell us anything you would like to share about your personal and educational background especially with respect to media making, but specifically related to Burden of Truth.
Brad Simpson: I did an undergraduate degree in Film and Drama at Queen’s University, Ontario, in the Stage and Screen Program with a focus on playwriting and screenwriting and then I did a Juris Doctorate of Law at Brooklyn Law School in the United States and passed the New York bar exam. And then I completed the Canadian equivalency law degree at the University of Ottawa and wrote the Ontario bar. I articled, but that was really the end of my legal career. It was very clear after a year on Bay Street in Toronto that it wasn’t for me.
Pauline: I hear you.
Brad: I really liked law school. It was very engaging and lively, but I knew legal practice wasn’t going to be like that, but I really enjoyed those three years and I liked studying the law. I mean I love writing about it, because I find it really fascinating. But once I was hired at a law firm, I was miscast as a corporate lawyer. I just went to the firm with the best offer because I was in my 20s and I was lured by the promise of success at a big law firm and I was not really sure what I wanted to do. I think there was probably an area of law that I might’ve enjoyed, but it was not corporate and securities law. That was not it, you know. I think I was voted “the associate most likely to quit and write a legal drama.” I think it was very clear. I wrote a feature film script while I was articling. I was supposed to be working, but that’s just clearly what I wanted to do.
Pauline: How did you get into media-making, other than writing a script while you were articling?
Brad: I would say it was a lot of writing scripts, particularly bad ones, early on. But actually, my father was a film producer, so I grew up in the film business. I feel like if that’s how you’re raised, it’s hard to work in any other job because it’s so alluring and it seems so much fun. He just loved his job and he loved doing it. So as soon as I became a lawyer I was like “this is just not interesting enough.” So that’s how I got introduced to the business. It’s all I ever saw growing up and it’s all we talked about in our house, so I think it was just inevitable. But then it takes a long time, especially in the craft of writing. I think there are different ways to get in the business faster, but writing is really hard. Even bad writing is really hard, so it does take a long time to get that craft and then work your way up.
Pauline: So how long did it take you? When did you move out of being in the law business and then move into media?
Brad: I wasn’t in a hurry. My wife and I moved to Mexico. I wrote a lot there. There were no distractions. It was such a great place to really get started. We lived there for three years and then we had a family, and because she was teaching I raised our daughter. So I was having a meandering experience getting into the business. We moved back to Canada when I got a deal to write a pilot for one of the networks. It didn’t get ordered, but it was clear I couldn’t live in Mexico and be a TV writer. I set myself a goal on my first show as a staff writer. I was hoping within five years to get a show ordered that was mine, and I set myself a goal for ten years to be a showrunner and that felt realistic. And Burden came about five years later.
Pauline: So tell us about your interest in crime- and justice-related media.
Brad: Crime and justice have just the natural stakes for writing. My dad loved film noir. He showed me lots of great old movies and it was just something I was drawn to, but I think it’s just the natural stakes of drama of writing. It’s very clear for the audience what the situation is, and I think it’s why we’re all a little bit drawn to it. It’s just very natural for storytelling.
Pauline: What makes crime and justice a good subject for you as a media creator?
Brad: For me I think there’s a few parts to it. I love the David and Goliath of it. I love the underdog, and in particular being able to portray the legal system the way I saw it, which in my brief experience was that it was so impenetrable for people without resources and without an incredible lawyer. Every time we would read about a big civil case, it would take 20 years for any resolution. A lifetime would pass. And so, the idea of justice seemed to be so unachievable for the average person and then so easily found for people with wealth and privilege. I remember getting into corporate law class and reading the New York State Corporate Law Statutes and it was just very clear to me: this is a license to steal. It felt like “oh these are the rules and it’s so rigged.” And I remember my classmates just feeling fine with it all, because they knew they were going to be on the winning side. I think that’s what drew me to corporate law. I felt like someone has to get in there and learn all the tricks to warn people about it, because it just felt so impossible to succeed if you weren’t born to wealth. And I think that’s what’s always attracted me to it.
Pauline: And hence perhaps the extensive corporate law content in Burden, of uncovering aspects that people who are not familiar with law might not know about corporate law and how it works.
Brad: Yeah! I think what I learned going into that law firm experience was that our job was to defend assets. No matter what area of law you are in at a big firm, the goal is the same. When you’re an articling student you rotate through all of the firm’s practice groups and I was very excited to get to environmental law, because it was an area of interest and I got there and I realized “we’re defending the polluters.” Of course we are! Because the other people – the ones affected by the pollution – can’t afford us. And so you’re always looking for a way to make sure your clients maintain what they have. There’s a line in the pilot of Burden when Billy says to Joanna “you know you’re the bad guy”. That’s just how I felt. So I ended up writing stories about that feeling. And I know that I could have gone out and joined the other side as a lawyer, but I just don’t think I was a good enough attorney. I wish I had been Joanna Chang, but I wasn’t. So I was like, “oh I’ll create a fictional lawyer who could do all of that.” That seemed easier to me as a way to fight against a system.
Pauline: What would be your idea of justice?
Brad: That’s a very hard question, and also such a great question. I feel like for me justice is having a chance or an opportunity to be heard, to be listened to on a reasonable timeline, to have reasonable access to counsel and chance to tell your story. The Charter gives us important legal rights, but as the years go by those protections have eroded in practice. Like the right to counsel has become you get a person, he or she may not be very good, but you get a warm body sitting beside you. That wasn’t the intention of the right to counsel. And so, I think we had some clear ideas about what these legal rights were, but no one’s checking up on whether we’re actually offering any of those protections in practice. People are in detention for years waiting for trial, so many plead guilty because it’s faster. That’s not justice. So, for me I think justice is about an opportunity to have someone hear your story.
Pauline: And how does your idea of justice fit with your ideas of media creation?
Brad: I think it’s a similar problem. Most of the TV shows that we’ve watched, they’re not unlike the lawyers defending the assets. Most of them work towards bolstering that system. They’re going to make you feel that there’s justice, because at the end of the hour the bad person gets caught and only the guilty get convicted. Like the way TV teaches us about the way police do their jobs. I’ve written on a couple of police dramas. They’re really fun to write, but I’ve looked back at some of the harm we’ve, at times, caused by portraying police officers or the legal justice system as efficient and functional. You know in Law and Order they find justice at the 47 minute mark at the last commercial break. And we’ve all been watching for years with an uncritical eye, but those ideas seep in.
Making a television show is such a huge financial endeavour. You need so many people, you need so much money, people just can’t just make it themselves. They could write a book or a short story, but to make something this big and have it on the air, there’s so many people who need to be involved and so many big companies. At every stage, you’re negotiating, particularly with the big companies, whether you’re going to challenge or enhance the system. For a show like Burden I feel like we snuck through the cracks and no one said we couldn’t write a show that took the system on directly. I did feel the whole time like I couldn’t believe we were addressing the issues we were addressing and a corporate master wasn’t telling us to make changes. I was very grateful to be on the CBC.
Pauline: So it was pitched directly to CBC? Can you tell me a little bit about the whole process of getting involved with Burden, with the story, with your concept? How did it come about and what was your initial idea?
Brad: My agent was always pushing me to pitch a legal drama because of my background. So I had pitched several different takes on a legal show. We hadn’t made a legal drama in 20 years or something on Canadian TV. The networks were always concerned about the distinct Canadian elements – the court room, the robes, the flag, hurting international sales. In a police drama you could hide it better. That was the theory, that you couldn’t hide it’s Canadian-ness. The first question was always – “what will you do about the robes?” So I kept trying to figure out a way to pitch a legal drama where we didn’t have to go into court. I was hoping to do a bait and switch or something. Sell them on no court and then convince them to do court later. My theory was we should just wear the robes, they look amazing. We should put a Canadian flag. I’ve always been the person in the writers’ room who’s asking “why are we pretending this isn’t Canada?” That’s what I like when I watch a show. I want to know where it’s from. I want to know if it’s an Australian show or if it’s a show from France. I want to know the specificity of it.
So I was trying to figure out a way to have the lawyer as an investigator cracking the case. And Broadchurch had just come out so everyone was pitching full season serialized murder stories. But I was tired of series that open with a dead kid or a dead woman. So I thought what if they were just sick? Could we create the narrative drive with a whodunit mystery over a legal case? One case a season? And that was where it started. And then I had this case in my research I could never let go. It was this mysterious illness in Leroy, New York, about 2006. Some teenage girls had developed mysterious twitches. It was this crazy story on Good Morning America. And I had researched it at the time. They never really came up with a definitive solution for it. But one theory was that there had been a train derailment years before and toxic chemicals had spilled into a river that ran down to the girls’ sports field. And I thought “I don’t care if that’s the reason, but that should be the reason.” The environmental angle was dismissed quickly because it was so hard to create the causal connection between the spill and the harm, so I used that in the show pitch. The show became about the dilemma in law of proving cause and effect, and what if that lawyer was also looking into her own life, trying to figure out how she got to where she was in life – and trying to determine the causal connections in her own life, and I put the personal and procedural stories together – with the toxic secrets of the past bubbling to the surface in both. The main character tries to solve the case and tries to solve herself in Season 1.
When those elements came together I felt like “all the pieces are fitting.” I pitched it to eOne and they really liked it and they put it in development. Development can be slow, but then Kristin Kreuk came on board. They asked her to look through a pile of projects they had in development, to see if any of them interested her, and she picked this one out. She said “I like this one. I like this character, I like this story, I want to attach myself to it.” That was such a huge boost for the project. We still had to pitch it to the networks, but it changed everything, because she has a built-in audience, she brings credibility. She came to all the pitches with us and spoke to the reason she liked the show and the character and I think it helped them picture the show. It changed the project forever. We were very lucky.
Pauline: Wow. I’m interested to what extent your original vision of Burden had extensive participation by Indigenous actors, extensive attention to Indigenous issues. Was that something that was there right from the beginning or was it something that came later?
Brad: The first pitch has the character of Luna Spence and in the pitch she’s Indigenous. I would say that where we went with the Indigenous stories in Burden was something I wished for and wanted, but wasn’t really prepared to reveal, at the time. I certainly couldn’t have pitched or promised that as a white creator and writer, but it was something I wanted. When I was researching the story, I kept coming back to Grassy Narrows. I read a lot about it and about the legal challenges they’ve had getting compensation. It was exactly what I wanted to write about. But the Grassy Narrows case is so clear; there’s a factory that used mercury and there’s mercury poisoning. I couldn’t build a mystery out of Grassy Narrows. I needed a harder case to crack. But every time I considered any of the potential season-long legal cases (and I already had in my head the Season 3 child and family services and Season 2 where a character is wrongfully accused of murder), it was just very clear Indigenous people were overrepresented and disproportionally harmed. So I felt it was really hard to do the series without speaking to that, but I didn’t want to scare the networks or producers off because I still wasn’t sure, and they weren’t sure about me and what my approach to it would be. I guess the other part of it was, I was never sure if the show would actually get made, because I didn’t know if you ever, as a Canadian creator, can be confident about that, because we make so few shows in this country. Often, when we write a pilot script or pitch a series, it’s just a networking opportunity. But I did think “well I’ll investigate the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in all of these legal issues, and I’ll learn about it.” I felt like I needed to know more. I felt a duty to be more active and informed as a citizen, but to make a difference at all, I only have a few skills to offer to positively contribute to the cause, and writing television is the only thing I feel like I’m really good at. So, I thought if I include this character I’ll learn about it, I’ll know about it, and then maybe we could build on it, and maybe we could get to ultimately where we did.
The original plan/pitch was set in Nova Scotia, because I had been out on the east coast and I was in a town, where I saw a train tracks running behind a school, and some heavy industry and I thought “Oh this could work! All the pieces could work in a place like this. This is really beautiful.” And then, after CBC ordered the show, the producers went and shopped around for the best place to shoot for the budget. I never thought we’d end up in Manitoba. It wasn’t on my radar at all. But what a gift it was! What an opportunity. It changed everything because it opened the door to all of the things we wanted to explore. I’m not sure the show would’ve developed the same way anywhere else.
Pauline: I just reread an interview with Meegwun Fairbrother and he had mentioned that originally his character was supposed to be a bad guy. And he was certainly one of the characters that I identified as potentially not initially having to be an Indigenous person.
Brad: Yeah, he was not originally. And actually he was two characters initially: Billy’s best friend Owen, and then there was Officer Beckbie, who was a bit shady. One of things that happens early in a writers’ room is you have to make the world smaller, tighten the elements because you can’t have a big cast, just for budget. And you want people in your world to have more than one relationship and to do several things. So you’re more efficient with your characters. So, he was Billy’s friend, but we had this other character who used to date Luna’s mom, so Luna was kind of his stepdaughter for a while and he longed for that relationship. So yeah, we did end up combining them. But it actually started when Meegwun went to a costume fitting and the costume designer was amazed by how nice his eyes were and said “This guy can’t be a bad guy.” Meegwun has played a bad guy before and I think he could’ve played it really well in Burden, but he was too big an asset so we did tweak the Owen character. We ended up with an Indigenous police officer trying to make it in the colonial system, which gave us so much story and character. We ended up creating a new shady cop who was played by Paul Braunstein. The other thing that developed in the writers’ room was when we started to explore Luna’s life, we created a family and characters. Luna’s mum’s, Gerrilyn Spence, wasn’t specifically in the pitch document – only that Luna’s mother had been the victim of a crime. So, we got to create that character and that took us to an extended family and to a Reserve.
Pauline: So, you told me Burden was not originally meant to be shot in Winnipeg and Selkirk. But having become Winnipeg and Selkirk as Millwood, things moved into a new direction?
Brad: If I go back and read the original pilot, the biggest thing that’s missing is the town has no identity, because you don’t know where you’re going to be shooting when you’re writing. I’ve never lived in a small town so the pilot also wasn’t very grounded. It was definitely a city kid’s idea of a small town. We flew out to Manitoba to meet the Eagle Vision group and they took us on a location scout. When we went to Selkirk, I just remember getting out of the van and looking around and feeling like “Oh Millwood. Let’s write this, let’s just make it this, now we have a place.” It’s not exactly what Selkirk is, but it’s a prairie town, and making Millwood a prairie town made so much sense. So yeah, I think a huge part of Burden’s development took place after we got to Manitoba.
Pauline: What was it like working with so many Indigenous creators, producers, writers, and actors? What was that experience like for you? Was it what you expected? Not what you expected?
Brad: It was both. And it was better than I could have ever imagined and it has changed the way I look at everything. In Season 1 we had one Indigenous writer, Shannon Masters, in our writers’ room. That was the way rooms were built at the time. We had one Indigenous character in the pitch, so we hired one Indigenous writer. As the Indigenous content grew, and the number of characters grew, it was just clear that one wasn’t enough. We were getting Shannon’s perspective, but then as a writer, she’s in the writers’ room trying to write scripts, and pitch stories, and do her job, and also has to represent all Indigenous people and all of the different opinions and voices. It’s a uniquely unfair situation. But one of the challenges is writers’ rooms are small because we don’t have a lot of money. But it’s also hard to have a bigger writers’ room because it’s not efficient. The bigger the writers’ room gets, the harder it is to manage the group. Everyone needs to pitch an idea and everyone has notes, so a smaller room is more nimble, but then you end up with not as many voices. There are no easy solutions. So, as we went on to the next season, we brought in more voices, because it wasn’t fair to Shannon. So then we just added every year —I mean the writers’ room experience on Burden was pretty life-changing for me. To be able to sit and discuss those issues, to talk, to learn.
I had lived for decades in Toronto and never met an Indigenous person. Or well, like Meegwun told me, “You have. They just didn’t tell you they were.” I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have any personal relationships, and I felt like there’s a huge hole in my life experience and my knowledge of the land and the history. I’m a voracious media news consumer, but that wasn’t enough anymore. I read novels by Indigenous writers, but I was craving human experience and friendship. I guess. So personally, it’s been totally life-changing, and for my family too. My kids came to Winnipeg to visit set and they went back to their schools with their perspective on this country’s history changed forever. They’re now fierce allies and advocates. I don’t think that would have happened if they had learned from a textbook like I did.
You have to sit with someone and hear their stories and create a personal connection. It’s those personal relationships that I found through the show that made me feel like it’s an honour to write this show, but I was not obligated to make sure it was done right. And I felt like this is a unique experience, one that most people don’t get, so I’d better not mess it up. I felt honoured to be trusted with these stories, so I worked to make sure I didn’t let anyone down. I’m so proud that we have been able to create a writers’ room where writers share those stories about their families and about their experiences. I hope we get to a time when it doesn’t feel like the Indigenous writers need to spend 20% of their day educating the other writers. That we do that education ourselves, and then can just start the day creating television.
Pauline: I know that historically the excuse for not hiring Indigenous actors and people of colour actors is “well they don’t have enough experience.” So, because they don’t have enough experience, they don’t get more experience, it’s a vicious circle. We talked with Rebecca Gibson and she was talking about bringing in actors who don’t necessarily have a whole lot of background. They’re not the most seasoned, they’re not Kristin Kreuk for example. I don’t know how much you were involved in that kind of process, but I wonder how that feels for somebody in your position who’s creating a show. Was that a concern? Is it an issue? How did it work out?
Brad: It’s always a concern when you bring in a person without a lot of experience, especially for big parts because so much is at stake, but that can’t be an excuse not to cast Indigenous actors for Indigenous roles. We used a lot of very inexperienced Indigenous actors over the four seasons and what I learned was that I’ll take authenticity over experience any day and that the writers – and the rest of the production – has ways to make sure they succeed. I think two good examples are two of our young leads Star Slade and Anwen O’Driscoll. They were both very young when they came onto Burden. Anwen had a lot more stage experience, but in the original pilot, the character of Taylor had almost no part whatsoever. She had a couple of lines, but Anwen was very advanced in her craft after years on stage, so we wrote her another scene, and then we gave her a few more things, and then we created this entire storyline for her character. It allowed us a lot of freedom and flexibility with our stories and her experience did give some comfort to the producers and networks.
Star Slade wasn’t as experienced, but in the audition, she was just so clearly the perfect Luna. I’ve never been more sure of any casting choice before. I didn’t make the casting decision, but the producer felt the same way. When Star came to set to shoot her first scene, she was very nervous. Luckily, in that scene, she had to be nervous, because she was hiding a secret. I knew that she had to succeed for the show to succeed, particularly with the storyline planned for Season 2, so if there was a line that was too wordy or didn’t feel right, I just reworked it to something she was more comfortable with. The words weren’t as important as the story. There were early scripts where she had lots of dialogue, so we reworked them and let other actors carry the scene, like Kristin, Peter or Meegwun. We knew that on camera she just sparkled, like there was just an incredible raw energy, she just needed a chance to get comfortable on set, with the crew and the character. Maybe when I was younger, I may have been more precious about the writing, but you can leave young actors vulnerable.
It didn’t take Star long to get comfortable, but it was a good lesson for writers – rewrite to make your actors successful. Everyone’s on the same team. Also Rebecca (Gibson) was so amazing with them. She gave them acting lessons and supported them. Everyone on the crew did their best to make sure all those young actors could succeed.
Pauline: And it definitely worked.
Brad: Yeah, they were remarkable! And it’s amazing they had just turned 18 the first season. Unless you’ve seen it, you have no idea how hard that job is for a young person. There are so many things to learn and so much pressure. We just got so lucky. In all of the casting decisions. A lot of the success of a show is how good the cast is. All credit to our casting director and producer – this show was so well cast. Hopefully, experience won’t be an excuse not to cast people anymore. There are a lot more newly experienced young Indigenous actors actor now after Burden.
Pauline: Definitely. I certainly see some movement from Season 1 to Season 2 and Season 3, in particular looking at Indigenous issues and class issues. So you said that originally you had planned on having Luna be the focal character for Season 2 but I’m wondering about that kind of movement to really be looking at Indigenous issues and class issues that happened in in Season 3. Looking at custody and systemic racism and systemic classism and so forth. Was that something that kind of grew out of what you had already been working with? Or was that in your mind when you originally thought of it?
Brad: Yeah! I did have 4 seasons planned which I never said out loud because it just felt so bold. I only pitched two seasons to the CBC, but I pitched them the idea that the show could keep going each year by taking a case from the headlines to remain timely and topical. But I also felt like I couldn’t pitch systemic racism to the CBC. It feels, now, like people are comfortable or aware of that term in a way they weren’t four years ago. Then it didn’t necessarily feel like good drama to write about the system. The Wire is a show about the system, and it’s very successful, but I don’t think they would’ve picked our show if it wasn’t rooted in a personal story. So, we were very careful, talking about those things. But we certainly felt those things and we talked about those ideas in the room. They were just underneath the story in Season 1, but as we went on and got bolder, we started putting more of it in the show.
There was a big discussion in Season 1 about where we were going with the toxic dump story and originally we were going to find that there was a bigger toxic dump at our fictional Reserve, Long Grass. That felt truthful to us, because those communities often take the brunt of the harm. But we ran out of episodes and couldn’t make it work. A lot happened in Season 1, as we were launching the show and it wasn’t as well planned as we would have liked. A lot of it was just survival. If I had one wish about the show, it would be to make Season 1 again with what I know now after making four seasons of television.
Anyway, we had to break a promise to Shannon about turning the story back to the reserve. So Season 1 was supposed to have a slightly stronger Indigenous storyline. When we started to plan for Season 2 we wanted to repay that debt by telling more stories. We knew we wanted to write about racism in the legal system, but we also wanted to show more positive and smaller, personal stories. At the end of Season 1, Luna goes off to Montreal to school and my instinct was that being on campus hardened her politics and opened her eyes to things that Millwood had shielded her from. I saw a documentary on the Bear Clan and we thought that was a perfect thing for Luna to get involved in. The writers, producers and some actors went on Bear Clan walks to learn about what they do and we met all these amazing and dedicated people, and we decided to put them in the show.
I think Seasons 2, 3, and 4 also reflect the personal experiences of the writers who came out to Manitoba, the influence of going and meeting people in the city, and being on set and hearing stories from crew and actors and incorporating them. Meegwun came in the writers’ room in Season 2 and consulted for us, and we were just exploring what we were learning about. And I think we were all very excited to learn about it and to collaborate.
Pauline: We’re interested in the inclusion of Indigenous people. How skittish are mainstream companies—even CBC—about creating content about Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and including actors who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour? The presumption tends to be that our biggest audience is white people, and white people only want to watch other white people, and only care about white people problems—whatever white content might be, who knows? And so, if we create a show that has so many Indigenous characters, that has so much Indigenous content, white people won’t watch it, and those are the audience that we’re looking for. I’m wondering if you ever explicitly encountered that, if it was sort of in the background, if it was ever a concern or an issue? Or once you proved that you could do it, they gave you your head and “Go ahead and do that”?
Brad: I think we waited to test the waters a little bit to see how far they were willing to go. CBC never said no to anything, and they were very positive about our show, and the Indigenous characters. But we didn’t fall into the category of a show that was about any group in particular. We weren’t an Indigenous show, but we also weren’t a white show. Of our six or seven main actors only Peter and Anwen are white. But I was aware of the presumption about white audiences and I had a strategy to address it that I picked up on a show years ago. I was on a police drama and a junior writer wanted to write an episode about a mother and daughter and she wanted them to be Indigenous, but she never wanted to make any reference to it. I think she felt TV shows and white writers were always pointing out things to get credit for using non-white actors, which was probably true. And so, I pitched that approach to Shannon when we started, and she loved it. We decided we were just going to start our show and we weren’t going to say anything about who Luna is, or Owen. We were just going to let them be in our world and let the audience understand them as people first. The first time there’s any mention is they go to a Reserve in Episode 4. For almost all of Season 1, it’s just a story about people. Then in Season 2, we felt like Luna’s identity is imposed upon her by the legal system. She’s picked out of a line up or there’s an eyewitness report of an Indigenous woman and she simply fits that description. And that’s the first time our show says “Oh, you know, she’s Indigenous.” Before it’s just Luna, and her mom, and this nice police officer, but we never wanted to say what we were doing. I’m not sure it was consciously to sneak past white audiences, but if you look at the promotional material for the show, there’s no mention of anything Indigenous. Maybe we were wrong to be nervous about it. At least among my friends, it was the part of the show they loved the most.
I never felt like we couldn’t tell a story with so many Indigenous characters, but I wanted to make sure we didn’t get stopped for whatever reason. I was nervous they were going to cut the Luna storyline. It seems crazy now, but I was waiting for someone to question it, the Luna character, all through the development process. Because I’ve seen the way casting used to be done. If a character was written as Asian-Canadian, then they could easily end up casting a Black actor with the idea being “well, you know, it’s a non-white character.” As if there wasn’t a difference. So I learned to write very specific characters descriptions. That was what we learned as writers, write really specifically, because you’re not in control of the casting, someone above you is just going to get an idea, or they’re not going to listen to what you say unless they have to. So we tried to be as specific as possible. And we always say to our writers “if you have a vision, write it in. Don’t be vague, because then you could lose. And put it in the DNA of the character, by putting facts in the dialogue. Make it undeniable that that person is who you want them to be, or you’re at the whim of others, because writers just don’t have that kind of power.”
Pauline: This is, I have to say, such a great answer, because we’ve been working through all of these issues and looking particularly at American TV’s notion of so called “colour-blind casting.” Do you just create any old character and then put any old person and does it really matter what they look like? The sort of Bridgerton effect. Or, you know, how do you actually create characters when you put someone on the screen and they don’t look white, but everything else about them is absolutely culturally similar to myself or to Heidi or to yourself? There’s a problem! And this is a really interesting perspective to bring us in to how you actually do that. How do you avoid casting a Vietnamese person to play what’s supposed to be a Japanese character? Or how do you avoid having someone who is Mexican playing a person that you thought of as being an Indigenous character? Does it matter? How do you make that matter? And I really like your perspective on that. What about creating content that would be acceptable to an alleged mainstream audience?
Brad: Yeah. Like so much of our industry, casting has changed so much in the past few years. When we auditioned Lunas, we were sent several Latinx actors, because they could conceivably pass as Indigenous. That probably wouldn’t happen even a few years later. As for the mainstream audiences, I think they’re so hard to figure out and to understand. That’s definitely not my area of expertise. I do think workplace shows or shows where you can blend a cast are a safer choice for networks. It’s easier to build a diverse cast. As opposed to family dramas.
Pauline: And I think to a certain extent too their model is not necessarily what the world is right now.
Brad: The demographics of this country are a challenge for all us making content, because our population is so small anyway. Then, the percentage of each particular group is so low that unless there’s cross-over, there’s a question if they can sustain supporting an entire show. We haven’t had a show that’s proven the case. And I don’t think America provides any guidance, because it’s huge, the numbers aren’t even close or comparable. So there you can make a specific show for a specific audience and get big ratings and not even need a white audience, but in Canada you do. It’s still such a dominant number.
Heidi Kosonen: From the perspective of international viewership, and international audiences, were there any particular challenges for gaining views with Canadian content? Or opportunities? You mentioned already that you wanted it to be explicit that Burden is situated in Canada, in comparison, for instance, to Schitt’s Creek, which pretends to be situated in New York.
Brad: Well, I loved what’s happened to our show thanks to Kristin having such a huge audience internationally. Smallville was so big, and she has so many fans all around the world. But I just thought of myself as an audience member and what I like about a show. When I watch a show, and I watch a lot of international television, I am very happy when there’s a local reference that I miss. I’ll just look it up. If they make a reference to someone as the mayor of some town or a local historical event, I’m going to learn about it. So, I just thought, “let’s be as specific as possible about where we are. Let’s mention the local minor league baseball team. Let’s talk about Canadian law and geography. Let’s make it exactly about where we are and not make it general. Let’s just send it out and test that theory.”
I felt like everyone else in the world does that except Canada, because historically our biggest sale is to America and we’re so afraid of Americans feeling something is Canadian, that we try to make it American and don’t succeed very well. And so, it’s the worst of both worlds. And because I had some measure of creative control, I just wanted to test that theory, that people like to hear about specific things. I love being rooted in a place. I love a show that shows me something I’ve never seen before; a part of the world I’ve never seen. And I couldn’t imagine a European show pretending to be American, pretending they aren’t where they are. An Australian show would never do what Canadian shows do. So I felt like we were in this unique position because we were making a show outside Toronto and our specificity was going to be special to Canadian audiences too. We could test the theory that it harmed international sales. I was pretty sure people were wrong about that, even the experts in international sales. And I do think more shows are doing it. I don’t know the sales numbers, but it feels like we’re selling well internationally, not just our show but all the CBC shows and all the other Canadian shows. Specificity is everything, I think, in drama.
Heidi: What are the main challenges in creating content that fosters change in terms of gender parity, accessibility, and Indigenous peoples’ inclusion?
Brad: Well I think historically the biggest challenge is who has creative influence in the room. Who has the power to make choices? Who creates your cast of characters? Who do you give the best lines to? Who are your guest stars and so forth? I’ve worked for a lot of different showrunners, and I’ve seen different levels of importance they put on the need for a show in making change. I think for me it was about just finding a balance, or a way of telling the best story and doing our best to fulfill the promise of the show and of positive representation, while still creating the best drama we could. We’re always balancing what’s the best story and what’s the right thing to do. Sometimes those things are at odds and our job is to write the best show we can.
And I think it’s probably the thing we argued most about in the writers’ room. How do you have a positive portrayal when, in drama, mostly we’re watching people who are worse than us, or people who are in conflict? It can’t just be showing people being good people. We need to have some bad people, and we need to have bad things happen to good people. Drama is conflict. So I think it’s a constant challenge. Our biggest argument is Season 1 was whether Millwood was a homophobic town, and what Molly’s and Luna’s experience was as couple. We had two writers who had similar experiences and they were on opposing sides. And so, we debated, what has it been like for Molly and Luna? Do we want Millwood to be that kind of place where they are free to be in a couple and be out? Or were things yelled at them from a truck window? Were they afraid to hold hands? The argument was, do we want to show the harder experience, which makes for better drama, or do we want to show the more accepting one that was more hopeful. Do we want to be aspirational, or do we want to be representational? And do we want a part of the drama of our show to leverage the trauma some people face growing up, or do we want to show to young queer teens this is what it could be like? We went with somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the positive, and we felt that was right for our show. There wasn’t an appetite in our room to give a voice to homophobia, but we feel like there’s an undercurrent in Millwood. Maybe Luna and Molly pick their spots to be publicly affectionate, but we knew among their friends they were out, they’re in love, they kiss at school. I would say in Season 1 that was the one question we wrestled with the most.
Heidi: I’m glad that you mention the battle between the positive and the negative representation, because I loved in Burden that its take on the world is so positive. Like this story between Luna and Molly happens! And that these positive representations happen in so many intersections. Did this diversity come from the writers’ room? Or did it already exist in the pitch?
Brad: Some of it existed in the pitch, but we definitely built it in the writers’ room. We talked about representation a lot in the writers’ room. Everyone saw this show as a chance to do better. On the topic of Molly, we put put Molly and Luna together in the early days of the writers’ room. Molly’s sexuality wasn’t in the pitch. A senior writer on our team told me that whenever she gets on a show, she looks for the character “who is gay but doesn’t know it.” When she came aboard the show, she read the documents and said “Molly’s gay”. I loved it. What an amazing gift. That’s why I love writers. Someone like me probably would never have seen that in Molly, but when you have key influential decision makers who are not straight white men you get different and more inclusive creative results. It’s hard to imagine the show without it.
Heidi: How was finding Indigenous actors in an industry that we know mainly promotes white actors and their careers. How was it in Burden of Truth?
Brad: In the beginning, you had to push the casting directors to send you only Indigenous actors. And then we also started looking beyond the actors who were auditioning. At the same time, the casting directors started to push themselves to look elsewhere, too. We let casting know we were going to need a lot of Indigenous actors. With procedural shows, they might do one episode with Indigenous characters, so a show would only need a couple of actors for a season, and only for a day or two. But we were asking for new faces every season and in big roles. We challenged them to look at people they hadn’t looked at before, or to look for people who were just entering the business, or who were thinking about trying acting. There’s a lot of talent out there, but getting into the auditioning process isn’t easy, so it’s important to try to go and find them. A lot of our cast of our cast came through Toronto, but then in Season 4 with COVID no one could travel, so it was like “OK every actor we haven’t used in Manitoba, we need you to step up.” And we got amazing people. One of our writers and directors Madison Thomas is really tied into the young Indigenous arts community in Winnipeg and she brought us Victoria Turko, who played Dee in Season 4, which was another pivotal role for an inexperienced actor. She did an amazing job in difficult circumstances.
Pauline: Is there anything else you’d like to say about how Burden relates to your idea of justice?
Brad: Well, every season I pick the overall case. I look for a mystery, a power imbalance – a situation where someone’s found themselves in trouble and needs the best lawyer ever to get them out of it. And I worry sometimes about the things that we’ve portrayed, because the reality is it’s unlikely that in any of our four seasons that our plaintiffs would have found justice. In Season 1, the company would have strung out litigation until the girls gave up or went broke. It would have been years before they even got a hearing about an environmental spill. In Season 2, on the facts as we presented them, Luna would definitely have been convicted. Without her sister lying on the stand, destroying evidence, and concocting some ingenious plan to get a confession out of the real killer, Luna is going to jail for twenty-five years. Season 3 is based on the Motherisk case at SickKids (The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto) – a case I’ve wanted to write about for so long, but in that case the kids never came home. Almost none of the kids were ever reunited with their birth parents. And the parents were denied a class action at the Court of Appeals, and so they’re all now required to sue on their own. It was nothing like the ending we gave the character Kodie Chartrand and her kids. And then, in Season 4, the likelihood of victims of sex trafficking suing a mining company for civil damages is hopeful but not likely. That case was the one that was most aspirational for me, because it wasn’t based on a real case, but a legal approach I offered in a law school discussion. In theory it should work. But again, it just feels like so unlikely, given the realities of the legal system. So I feel, at times, guilty of presenting easily won justice, because I know the truth is that most of the time David loses to Goliath. But this isn’t reality. This is a TV show, so we have to be mindful of our job. But that’s the nature of storytelling.
There was an argument about having the girls lose in Season 1. When I came to write the finale, we considered it strongly. But I wasn’t prepared to serve that ending up to an audience without the promise of something after and we didn’t know if we were getting another season. If the network had said “You’re getting four seasons. Write the show you want to write” then I think it would have been a different show, because we might have had the confidence to say: the girls get nothing, Luna gets convicted, and the next season they might get her out on something. But you write the happy finale because you want to get another season. You’re also afraid you’re not going to get another season, so every year you have to write an episode that feels like a series finale. Like the finale of Season 1, I thought that was it for us, so Joanna wins, she changes her name, disappears, and starts a new life, and has learned something about herself. I was happy with that as a complete story. I felt I could live with that as a finale. And so, each season writing the final episode is finding a finale I could live with but hinting at ways we could do it again. Until the final season, when we decided to end the show. There were several reasons, but mostly, the Joanna character arc felt complete. We were out of turns for Joanna and Billy too. The only way is to break up a couple, which didn’t really work for me as idea. I wanted to leave them all happy. Or happier than they were.
Pauline: Your viewers would be very unhappy with you if you did something like that.
Brad: Yeah! And it’s something Kristin and I discussed often – and sorry but this is real inside TV talk – but she has always been on shows with love triangles, and we decided early not to have any of them. It was a promise I made to her, which was Billy would never come between her and some other attorney. We never wanted to do that. And those are the easy story crutches that shows use to get six seasons of something, you know? But if you’re invested in two people, there’s only so many turns you could do before you start to degrade what that relationship means. And so we were careful, thinking what can we get away with. And we thought having a baby is really hard, and it creates enough tension and conflict. We wanted to push Billy and Joanna. The showrunner of Friday Night Lights said to the main couple: “You are never going to break up. There’s never going to be a divorce but, in that, we’re going to find as much conflict as we can so we’ll test this marriage to its limit, but we’ll never break it.” And that’s what we wanted to do the second Joanna and Billy were a couple.
Pauline: Any particularly memorable moments in creating Burden?
Brad: One day in Season 1, because of the way TV shows are shot, all the scenes for an entire day involved Jessica Matten as Gerrilyn, Star as Luna, and Meegwun as Owen. And we were on set, and I think it was Kyle Irving from Eagle Vision who noticed first—we’re a week or two into Burden—that the entire cast of the day was Indigenous. And, as I said, I didn’t set out to do it, but I know what that means. Or, it was clear what it meant to Eagle Vision and to all the people who work for Eagle Vision. That it was an important moment for our show. I wasn’t really expecting it, and it was an accomplishment that I didn’t necessarily set out to do. And it was this magical day of these three actors playing people, interacting, and not necessarily playing their traumas or being victims. They’re just people, and one is solving a mystery, one is trying to do his job, another is trying to be a good mom. And it wasn’t about the past, or politics. That was a joyous day.
And then another memorable moment was when we were shooting in the Exchange District, a camera operator was looking through the lens at the buildings and he stood up and said “I can’t believe we’re shooting Winnipeg for Winnipeg.” And he was smiling, and it was clear after years of pretending your home town is another city, it was so satisfying. We don’t understand, as Canadians, how good that feels, because we don’t do it enough. We’re starved of not seeing our stories. We didn’t grow up with that feeling so we don’t know it’s missing. I really think it’s hurt us as Canadians. Toronto is always supposed to be New York, so we accept that our stories means less. And even though I’m not from Winnipeg, I found it a very easy place to fall in love with. I think it was just how much the crew all loved it, how much they loved living and working there, and I definitely got caught up in it. We were a Manitoba show, and I’m not from Manitoba, but I quickly became the most Manitoba guy. I loved putting that beautiful city on screen. And I loved finding something unique and local to put into it, because I love just feeding off how the crew felt about it. Everyone in Manitoba was responding so positively that we just went with it. One of the MLAs came to set and all she wanted to do was talk about the show. Everyone was just loving what we were doing.
Pauline: And it also worked internationally. I recommended the show to colleagues and friends, particularly in the US. And they’re all blown away, happy, excited. People from lots of different locations really enjoyed it. It being available on Netflix has been really helpful. And you sold to Finland and also on the CW and there’s a UK network that has it as well.
Brad: I think if I’m lucky enough to have another show I would maybe be more conscious of some of these things. In the beginning you’re just trying to get the scripts out and survive. You’re not thinking of the international audience.
Pauline: So what is next for you then?
Brad: Well, next for me, back to the beginning. Try to develop another idea. Do it all again. I am also doing some collaborating. I would love to give someone else this experience. I had some amazing senior people help me find my way through, and learn the job, and it would be really exciting to help someone else’s story get there, too, particularly someone who hasn’t had a chance to tell their stories. In terms of representation and diversity, for me Burden set a standard that is now the bare minimum. Ten years ago I was in an all-white, all-male writers’ room. And we were writing a show about a female police officer, which is so absurd now. It would never happen now for a lot of reasons, but creatively it wasn’t successful. I saw a scene from the show recently and it was clear it was written by a bunch of men, because she sounds like a guy. It isn’t authentic. I had to write the episode where she’s grieving over a miscarriage. It’s preposterous that someone like me would write that story. But no one was having those conversations then.
So, I mean, what I’ve seen change in the business in ten years, it seems glacial, but it’s really unrecognizable. And we’ll never ever see that again. You’ll never build a room like that again and our shows will be better for it. And writers are better at understanding the topics they can write about and the characters they can write for. So I think I think there’s an admission or acceptance that there are things we don’t know and we shouldn’t write about.
But the other part I’d learned is the right people will come along. Putting Luna Spence in my pitch document was such a leap of faith, especially for a white writer, but if you include that character who is out of your comfort zone, you’re going to get Shannon Masters, and then you’re going to find Eagle Vision, and Madison Thomas, and those people will come along because it’s a collaborative medium. And so that is something that that would always be a part of anything I created again.
Pauline: Anything else that we should know about the show and you and your involvement in it?
Brad: Well, it was just a great example to me of how much representation matters. The response from a lot of different segments, for instance the response from people in Manitoba. People loved seeing their province and their city. Or the reports from people on the show about how their Indigenous families enjoyed watching it together, or the way Molly and Luna captured the queer audience in the first season. I think we undervalue its importance. For someone like me, I’m used to seeing myself presented in the media. And this stuff really matters. There’s a good reason why we should be doing it, and it’s not about bringing in audience numbers but the impact the show will have on certain audience members. That’s the most important thing, and I was so blown away by some of the responses on social media. I never thought that would happen. I’m so proud of it. And the things that people have said to me about the show, I could kind of just retire and be very proud of it.
We have a super fan who just lives for the show and has been one of our biggest supporters. I think the show spoke to her, because she saw some of her own struggles in the show. There were things she didn’t think other people felt or other people had gone through. She reached out to me to thank us for the show and I could tell her that most of those things that Joanna went through, I did too. It’s a work of fiction, but the issues our characters face – their struggles – those are all real, because they’re the same ones the people in the writers’ room are struggling with. As a writer, you have to be honest and put that stuff in to make the show real. It’s awkward sometimes to write that stuff and to send it out in the world, because the entire crew is watching you and probably thinking “Wow you have some daddy issues.” But if you don’t put that stuff in it, it doesn’t resonate the same way. It isn’t the truth, and ultimately drama is just a search for the truth.
Pauline: Thank you, Brad! I really, really appreciate you taking the time.
 Articling is a full-time supervised internship with a law firm, usually for one year, a necessary step after completing a law degree to being called to the bar and becoming a lawyer in Canada.
 Bay Street is the centre of Toronto’s main financial district and the location of the most prestigious law firms, especially those specialising in corporate and business law.
 Members of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba are elected representatives in the provincial government.