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Toughest Call Ep. 107 – Breaking with tradition and forging your own path - TRANSCRIPT

Jonathan Torrens  00:04

There are always different avenues you can take and of the traditional one isn't working. Find a way. It's sort of the entrepreneurial spirit. And most people I know that have achieved some level of success had some donkeys on the road to get there.

Chaz Thorne  00:21

Welcome back, or Welcome to toughest call a podcast for organizational leaders where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne. In this episode, I'm talking with Jonathan Torrens about his decision to take control of his career and work by striking out on his own and leaving behind the suffocating notion of that's just the way things are done around here. for 30 years, Jonathan has been a mainstay in Canadian TV with resume credits that includes street sense john division Trailer Park Boys, Mr. D. This hour has 22 minutes to grassy Royal Canadian Air Force and Letterkenny, a multiple Screen Award winner, Jonathan has vast experience both in front of and behind the camera, as a host, actor, writer, director, and producer. Whether you're an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, it can be stifling to constantly feel like a cog in a wheel. It takes courage to break away from traditional ways of getting things done in favor of an approach that works for you, and the ventures you're trying to bring to life. Jonathan talks about how he used all of the nose to fuel his determination to make creative projects that were true reflections of his original visions.

Jonathan Torrens  01:46

I guess my tale is one that has to do in part with geography. And the other part, I guess, is frustration. I was living in Los Angeles, after a pretty good career in Canada going to answer the what if question, I wonder what would happen if I went there, I was surprised to discover that there were people that I liked. I thought that the cliches of La you know, young women who just got off the bus wide eyed Anja news and wormy agents, those people are there too. But I didn't expect to meet my people. The thing that I found frustrating about it was every decision, I was so far away from the nucleus, I had a manager who had to call an agent who had to talk to a casting director who had to talk to the director to see if they'd consulted with the producer to see if I had a shot at this thing. And there are so many circumstances beyond your control as to why as a working actor, you may or may not get the part, they may have already cast your sister and you don't look alike. They may have a deal with someone to play your part already. So it felt like most of these auditions were not only for things I wouldn't care about getting but weren't fruitful anyway. So in addition to not having a vote in my career, I also wasn't booking enough things that interested me and you get in this weird headspace where you're like, I hope the carpenter reality show host people give me a call back. And then in the drive home, you're like, Wait a second, the only thing worse than them not calling is actually getting the gig. I remember this specific show was America's cutest puppy. Good evening, tonight, America, the canine move into the mansion and the phone lines are open. And then thinking in the car, man, why haven't the puppy people called and it's like an epiphany. Wait a sec, why am I chasing this thing that I don't even want. So the challenge was accepting that I had relinquished any responsibility in my fate. I had handed it all over and was anxiously awaiting a fate I didn't ever want or sign up for.

Chaz Thorne  04:02

What happened when you moved back to Nova Scotia?

Jonathan Torrens  04:07

Well, the great thing is, I found when I was in Los Angeles, they want to be able to categorize you in one way, you can't do more than one thing. I call it the sea crest or Schwimmer. Are you a host? Are you a sitcom actor? Because you can't be both? Are you a sketch performer or an improv person? Because those are different, you can't do both. And in Canada, not only do we do both, you kind of have to. 

Chaz Thorne  04:31

what was the key for you in terms of expanding what you did? Beyond performing into creating your own content?

Jonathan Torrens  04:41

I guess I had all this pent up creative energy that I wasn't able to use in the states that I was able to use here. So I actually with a guy named john Wesley Chisholm in Halifax sold a show pretty quickly, called TV with TV, Jonathan Torrens, and the idea is every episode was about a different genre of TV. I was one of the writers I directed it, I was a producer, I was a performer, I got to use all the skills that I know I can do in one environment. So that was sort of the first experience I had with making smaller paychecks, but more of them. And ultimately, the thing was more what I meant.

Chaz Thorne  05:24

What caused you to make the decision to go about moving forward as a producer in a different, more independent, faster, leaner way?

Jonathan Torrens  05:40

A couple of things. One is I had shows in development at CBC and CTV, they were both two and a half year long development processes. One experience was what deliverables Can I give you to help sell this idea? You know, what we need? Okay, do you I'm going to shoot the first segment of the show. Now we can imagine what that would be like? Do you want us to write some sketches? No, no, we know your history and your pedigree, we know that you're funny. Okay? How can I help give you the tools that you need to make the case for this, you know what to do. And then two and a half years later, it was unfortunately, we're gonna have to pass that, like, no one could see the vision. The other experience was, you have a lot of fans in this building, everyone loves you, there's gonna be a high profile star in our network retiring. That's the real estate we're looking at for you. Starting to compare notes with some other friends who are sort of the same age, kind of the same background, sort of the same resume, they had chosen development with six of us six, middle aged white dudes that are sort of host D comedian types, and didn't do any of them. So two and a half years in development, and both networks, very different experiences, both ultimately inconclusive. And I thought I have two options. So I can either use that energy to wish my lot in life was different. Or I could channel all that energy into making my own thing. So that's how Canadian content studios was born, we make pilots that are of interest to us and meaningful and get give us oxygen, and then try to find a partner to pay for it be at a sponsor or a network. And somehow it's been really successful. Again, I wear more hats, collect more paychecks, though they're smaller, and have it be what I meant.

Chaz Thorne  07:39

You had a conversation with a development executive recently, that really stood out to you as a great example of how executives at at broadcasters or networks or now increasingly streamers, should should speak to and and collaborate with creatives. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Jonathan Torrens  08:11

Yeah, it was wild. It was a game changer. was talking with a guy named Paul Gardner. He's at Bell five one. He was like, we don't have a whole lot of money. But I like people to make things that excite them. So I was kind of midway through, I'll take the meeting with the guy kind of midway through sort of half hearted volleying some notions around. And he stopped me and said, I don't want to hear the thing that you think I want to hear, or the thing that you think will be the most commercial or is the most likely to sell. What are you excited about? That's the idea I want. And I remember sitting up in my chair, and my eyes grew wide, because that was such refreshing feedback. And I think, to your point about the sort of mainstream traditional route, there are so many shows that I have known in my heart are slam dunks, I know it can feel it in my bones. I have enough experience to know this would land this would resonate. There's one in particular I've sold three times and I'll just tell you about it because it's probably not happening now. real focus groups, testing plausible but fake products. It's called tested. It's an unhidden camera show. So the products are like the no more tears, onion buddy. The testers have a clear plastic bag over their head with a Velcro tie for their neck. There's an actor who's the session leader saying what do you guys think? Well, I can't breathe. Yeah, but are your eyes watering? No. Okay, so it's working. Then I'll write that down. designed to test people's ethical, moral, physical comfort limits. Who in the group is going to stand up as a social experiment like So many layers. There's the hover hat hat hat eliminator, it's a neck rig with a thing that holds your hat and then off your scalp. So it looks like you're wearing a hat but you don't get hat head solutions to problems that don't exist. Big social experiment.

Chaz Thorne  10:15

Tell us a little bit about this, this new show and how your new approach of making worked out.

Jonathan Torrens  10:22

Well, I'm sort of drunk on my own power. I mean, the I never imagined I would be able to make a TV show outside of Truro, Nova Scotia. But I think it goes back to the same philosophy. Instead of fixating on what I don't have. I started to ask myself, what do I have available to me to make a show? I was lucky enough that my father in law has a warehouse that he's not using. I have a lobster costume and a bee costume leftover from some corporate gigs that I did. My wife has a pretty blue bicycle. I have a 1972 Ford pickup truck. What world could all these disparate elements live in? So I settled on making a show about volunteer firefighters. First thing I had to do was find a fire truck turns out there was one on Kijiji, because it's hard to have a show about firefighters without a truck and without uniforms, got those sponsored. So there's more sweat equity than I would typically put into something at this stage of my career. But it was amazing. So it's been really satisfying. I've been using those types of perspectives to try to make decisions about what we make. With the conversation long overdue about social injustice this past summer was kind of thinking, How can I as a middle aged white guy, help. So with my colleague Sylvia, we found some funding through flow water, handed it off to black Nova Scotians with a good profile, and had a great idea for a show called lead with love. That is the other side of producing, which is generating something out of nothing to fill a void or create an opportunity. We made a talk show called Who do you think I am? that's hosted by a young woman named Madison Devlin who has Down syndrome. And as she says, that's the least interesting thing about me. Madison is sometimes feels judged by people for the way she looks or how she acts. And the interesting thing is, she couldn't believe that other people sometimes felt that way too. So on our show, Madison sits down with a hot blonde, and tattooed burly, vegan, pink loving cat owner. And the hot blonde, I should say works in tech, she plays hockey does all the things that you maybe at first glance wouldn't expect. And so she finds common ground with these people. So here's the interesting thing. We paid ourselves to make a pilot for Maddie show, we made two episodes, put them on the internet. And now we're doing 10 episodes for CBC.

Chaz Thorne  13:05

Jonathan, what words of wisdom or advice would you have for someone, it could be an entrepreneur who's trying to push an idea of venture a project forward. Or it could be someone who is existing within a traditional business or organization that's trying to get things done, and is sort of being thwarted by traditional ways of thinking and doing?

Jonathan Torrens  13:41

Well, it's kind of cliche, but I kind of take every no as kindling for the fires of Just watch me. And, again, like not to go back to test it. But knowing in my heart that something is a good idea. And being told repeatedly, it isn't just makes me all the more adamant to prove otherwise. And I think there are always different avenues you can take. And if the traditional one isn't working, find a way it's sort of the entrepreneurs spirit. And most people I know that have achieved some level of success had some donkeys on the road to get there. Jared Keystone is a great example. He had a few different web series that just kind of sat there. And then he started Letterkenny as a Twitter handle. It was kind of jokes about small town life based on his growing up and listable. And it took off caught fire. He used his own money to make a YouTube short, it had 7 million views. Then he was able to sell a TV show. So I kind of see kind of digs a nose in a weird way because they're all part of the story on on the way to a happy ending.

Chaz Thorne  14:58

If you'd like to learn more about Jonathan and his production company Canadian content studios, you can check out their website Canadian content And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to toughest to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to toughest Gaul, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps

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