A Conversation with Catherine Reitman
This week on On Story, Catherine Reitman discusses her acting career in film and television, bringing the pain and comedy of real-life experiences into her work, and her transition to the role of creator/writer/star of the International Emmy Award-nominated comedy series Workin’ Moms.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
Workin' Moms creator, Catherine Reitman.
- The story of motherhood seems to only be
a broad comedy with a diaper full of poop hitting the wall,
or a really after school specially dramatic one.
So being able to tell a premium cable feeling dramedy
about the subject matter was really exciting to me.
And it felt like the most honest interpretation
of my experiences as a working mother.
[Narrator] In this episode, Catherine Reitman
discusses her acting career in film and television,
bringing the pain and comedy of real life experiences
into her work, and transitioning into the
role of creator, writer, and star
of her International Emmy Award nominated comedy series,
- Can you talk about the inspiration from moving
from your acting career into creating
and producing this project?
- Yeah, totally.
I got pregnant and I thought I'd never work again.
I was an actor at the time.
And I got a job.
And my baby happened to be six weeks old
at the time, first baby.
And when you get a gig as an actor you're like,
I won't get married, I'll do everything.
You can have all my bones.
You're just willing to do anything.
This cast was male comedian-heavy,
which was great,
and we got onto the day we were shooting
and on Facebook or on Instagram when you become a mother,
it's all just like people posting pics of themselves
with babies or thank you so much Mom,
and I opened it very stupidly
and I started seeing everyone posting pics
of their relationship with their children
and they rate me garbage macaroni or whatever.
And I was so sad.
I was like overwhelmed,
and I was really trying to trap it down,
and the guys started teasing me.
The guys started being like, don't worry,
I'm sure the baby will call the nanny Mom,
all that kind of stuff.
And I thought I'd be able to swing back,
and I started crying,
and it was at like a very inopportune moment
'cause we were on set, about to go, lights, camera,
and I couldn't get it together.
And for those of you who are familiar with my show,
in the first episode, Kate's in this conference room
and they start teasing her,
and she breaks down and cries,
and it's awkward and painful and funny and all the things.
So that was the very first moment of the show.
- Hey, shouldn't you be at home right now putting
your baby to bed or something?
- That's right, Kate, didn't you have a hard out?
- Well, you guys need me here, the work's not done.
- Oh, nice priorities.
- Look my kid's not exactly being robbed of the good life.
You remember the good life Moe?
Breastfeeding off of your poor mother
'til you could tie your own shoes.
- Once again, I breastfed for a normal amount of time.
- Down girl, we're just messing with you.
- Your baby call your nanny mom yet?
You think she likes that?
- I got back to the hotel room, I started crying
and I called Phil and I was like,
I don't know [bleep] doing and I'm not myself anymore.
I do not know who I am anymore.
I'm not sexy,
I'm not cute,
I'm not smart,
there's nothing to me anymore.
And it felt very real.
And he said, "I think you gotta write this."
And I was like, no, I'm not a writer, shut up.
And he was like, "No, you have to.
"You gotta take some time
"and just don't worry about the whole shape of an episode.
Just write the scenes."
And I did.
I think I wrote 12 scenes,
and we ended up shooting it,
and cutting it into an eight-minute sizzle
that opened with a "Mommy and Me" scene
that I had experienced, which is also in the show,
and closed with the crying "I Wanna Work" beat.
And we shopped it around.
FX initially picked it up and then passed.
And then everyone kind of passed, it was dead.
And I was like, no one wants to watch a show
about moms, all right.
I guess my instinct about not being worth anything
means something, there's truth in it.
So, we went to Canada and Sally Catto at the CBC,
who's an extraordinary taste maker there,
I don't just say that because she liked my show,
she's responsible for Schitt's Creek
and a lot of shows that are very popular.
And she green-lit it to 13 episodes
based off of an eight-minute sizzle.
Yeah, it's a wow moment.
It's a holy [bleep] moment, it also happened to be...
Yeah give it to her.
- This is one of the first shows that I saw,
and I found it when I was three months postpartum,
that really explored that idea of this identity crisis
and kind of what we're up against
from the societal expectations.
- I mean, yeah, that's the concept
and that's the most relatable idea in the show.
It's why, when we couldn't sell it,
I just didn't...
I still don't get it.
I don't get that women who work,
is not, who have children,
who have an identity outside of the house is unrelatable.
But even if you don't look like Kate,
have a car like Kate,
look like Frankie,
have a lover like Frankie,
can you connect with identity crisis?
And I hate the term, "having it all"
because it makes it sound like you're,
it goes back to that selfish thing for me,
like having it all is somehow ordering everything
on the buffet.
It's like, no, you're just asking for a family
and something that's yours,
These are very simple, basic, loving,
actually maternal concepts.
So this was something we were trying
to bake in to the show in a way
that didn't feel like medicine.
- Kate, I overheard you're going back to work.
Are you excited?
- Yeah, a little intimidated, I guess.
What's the trick to making all this work?
I'm trynna stay positive, it just, having it all
seems a little...
- I find the key is setting boundaries for yourself.
A good place to start is committing to being home
for the evening routine.
I was really so focused on,
for those of you females in the audience
who have had a female mentor who's broken your heart,
so often you find someone where you're like,
"Oh, that's what it looks like."
That's what it looks like to have it all.
That's what it looks like to do this.
And then you actually get to know them
and you're like, wait, ugh.
And it's really hard to find,
I found in the entertainment industry,
women who were higher up,
who were achieving their dreams,
who were also mothers,
who weren't cruel
or actually kind of pretending to be men.
The wrong kind of men.
I know there's also sensitive,
wonderful, three-dimensional, contemporary men.
But, I wanted to really focus on a few,
if you finally met your female role model
and she broke your heart.
And so that's what season one sort of climaxes to.
- I'm sorry,
how am I supposed to continue talking
about cold cuts when my one-year-old
is in the hospital?
You are a mother, what would you do?
- Think about what is important to you,
because this is a slippery slope.
Was I at every school play?
- But this isn't a school play, okay?
- Thank God for you, you have a capable husband at home.
Anyone can be a mother, Kate.
Going to the hospital might ease your guilt
but think about what you lose.
- Wha- Sorry, what exactly would I lose?
How does that break your concept of,
am I still supposed to be a working mother?
Is this what it turns out to be?
Am I supposed to be at home 'cause I'm missing everything?
Some ways I look back and it feels kind of obvious.
It's like the most basic concept of work versus home.
And that's probably a good exploration for season one.
In season two, I think we were far more ambitious,
and a little bit, at the time we loved it,
but we also thought, man, we might lose some audience here
because, it's damaging a really core character
to Kate's world.
[sharp gasping] - It's not okay.
- And then, of course, season three if you found out
that your partner had an affair on you
and you were given a fresh, a golden ticket to start over
and do whatever you wanted,
would you take it?
And what that looks like
when you have kids and a family and responsibilities.
And that just made everyone be like, uh!
- I don't know that I can give you what you need.
- Listen, I don't need to be taken care of, I'm good.
But I do think that we'd be good together.
I'd like to see you happy.
I can definitely do better than your current situation.
- Are you pitching me right now?
- Hey, are you gonna tell me it's not a good pitch?
- So what's it gonna be?
- Kate, what's it gonna be?
- Oh, I don't know.
- Kate, come meet me.
- I'll get you anything you want.
- What do you wanna do?
- Chick fings?
♪ A little pain ♪
♪ Is good for you ♪
What's it gonna be?
- I want...
♪ A girl's gotta do, gotta do what a girl's ♪
- I can think of fewer breeding grounds
for story material than the transition into motherhood
and the changes that that kind of
injects into your life.
- You know, it's funny, a lot of our audience doesn't
have kids and I think it's because the
change is inherent in also just your 30s
and going from, whether you have a kid or not,
or whether you're married or not,
this expectation that you had of yourself
as a teenager, as a child, or even in your 20s,
doesn't usually match up with what you look like
in your 30s.
And I think that the show is also that change,
the change of, I keep saying the term "identity crisis"
'cause it was the big engine of season one.
No, no, no, no, no.
♪ I know what it is, what it is that you like ♪
Easy does it.
Oh, God, all right.
I am killing it.
It doesn't look like what you thought it would look like.
It's messier, it's sloppier, you're failing a lot.
How do we lean into that and showcase that
in a really flawed way?
'Cause the other problem I'm sure,
for any of you who've watched shows
with leading ladies in it,
is they tend to not be very flawed.
Another thing I will just compliment Sally Catto
at the CBC on is she leaned heavy into that.
I said, look, I got a character who's gonna get an abortion.
I got a character who's going to ignore her husband
and lie to him several times.
My leading lady, Kate, is going to be
the most painfully ambitious woman you'll ever see.
And she's not going to sacrifice a [bleep] thing.
And she was like, "Great."
- The board actually feels you're one of our
strongest people and we wanna commend you
on your excellent first couple of days back.
Thank you guys.
- Yes, your current situation has actually made you
very relatable to our clientele.
- So much so in fact that we're considering throwing
your hat in the ring to head up the Westwood Foods account.
It's a very, very short list of contenders.
- Wow, that's amazing.
That's the job that works out of Montreal?
- Sure is, you'll be out there for a couple months
of the year.
- I told them you might not be interested.
Most of the women who've become mothers
don't raise their hands as much.
- Oh, well, not this girl,
You try to play the character likably
'cause that definitely lets the audience in.
But we stuck to our guns and I think,
the change that's happening, which is sort of just inherent
in the theme of the structure, it was more of,
how do we make these flawed women continue
to stay on that path?
- Let's talk about the characters,
Kate, Frankie, Anne,
and even Jenny because I feel like they represent
these different archetypes of motherhood
in really powerful ways.
But they're all so full-bodied,
no pun intended,
- Imagine that.
They're all so different.
But they're all mothers and they're all working.
It's like, yeah, it's as if it was a sample
of the population.
Yeah, they're all different aspects of my flaws.
Kate, my uncompromised ambition,
Anne, my unadulterated anger,
Frankie, my identity crisis, my loss, my depression,
and Jenny, vanity.
Vanity is a very [bleep] real part of being a woman
and we ignore it and we pretend it's not real.
And we're too humble for words, myself included,
but then you get pregnant and it's challenged
in the most exceptional way.
And it's a very real part of the identity crisis.
When I see people respond to the character of Jenny
so negatively, it angers me sometimes because I think
it's a real part of every single one of us
whether we like to admit it or not.
- Hey, you have a minute?
- For you, of course.
- I've noticed a significant change in your behavior.
You've really been going above and beyond lately.
I mean, you've turned to your work in early,
you stayed late every night this week.
- So, you're happy with me?
- Knowing that I have your support makes me feel
like I can do anything.
- Pretty sure my productivity's at an all-time high.
It's worth mentioning.
- Anyway, I was hoping if you had time after work today,
you'd want to have a little--
- Hey, baby.
- Certainly in season one through three, particular one,
I think our main goal was to just
take from moments in our life.
As much as we were drawing as our experiences as a mother,
we were really talking to, hey, have you ever like gone
to get coffee and they look at you
and they say your name wrong
but you just want to move quickly so you just go with it
and then you become a new person?
It's like little those little idio-syncratic moments
like that became sort of the crux of the show.
But, that being said, there were plenty of moments
where I was having trouble breastfeeding my kid.
My kid did not want to have anything to do with me.
And they day on set, the two twins
who played my sons were asleep,
and my three-month-old,
when we started shooting I had a three-month-old,
who happened to be visiting at that moment,
and I was like, well, it was a breastfeeding scene.
Kind of a relief, I don't have to breastfeed
these nine-month-old twins who I'd met two weeks ago.
You're constantly trying to be brave and vulnerable
and expose it all and at this moment,
someone asked me in an interview the other day,
"When do you know it works?
"When are you sitting in front of your laptop
and you're like, I made it, this is it?"
And I never [bleep] knew that.
I until it aired, was like, people are gonna think
this is the most indulgent thing in the world.
No one's gonna connect with it,
this is only my experience.
That's how specific and scary it was for me.
And, anyway, my kid was visiting set,
it was a breastfeeding scene.
I put him on and I told the two camera women,
I was like, just so you know, he's gonna reject me,
he's gonna scream and cry, it's gonna actually
break my heart and it's gonna be great.
So I said, "Just roll with it.
"If he's screaming and crying and purple in the face,
"don't cut, just go, we'll get it, he'll be fine.
I've got pacifiers for days, let's just get it."
And the scene starts,
the camera starts pushing in,
I put Liam on my breast,
I know what you need, there you are, I know what you need.
Yes, yes, let's give this one thing another whack.
Yes, yes, yes.
And he latches on.
And my first instinct is like,
that's not how it's scripted, Liam.
Which by the way is classic Liam.
But he latches on and it completely changes the
last moment of episode two of the first season.
Kate has a win, the first win and you feel great.
And she laughs 'cause I really [bleep] laughed
'cause I was annoyed and also delighted
and also he hasn't fed off of me.
He's actually getting nutrients in real life.
There was moments like that, 'cause my husband's
also in the show with me, there's all these moments
where you're feeling the real life informing the creative.
- Let's go to the bear.
♪ Ain't a fair game ♪
[footsteps skidding in gravel]
- Hey, buddy.
[Kate whimpers and screams]
- Hey, are you okay?
- I'm assuming that didn't happen in real life
but if it is,
I'd love to just hear about some of the choices
that you made.
- The bear was a big fight, nobody wanted the bear.
Everyone hated the bear and it was really expensive.
And at this point, we were this tiny little Canadian show.
I lived in Los Angeles where there are bears,
and in Toronto there are no bears.
And I had seen a bear on a run,
I didn't scream at it.
I'm not crazy [laughs].
But I saw a bear and I was pregnant
and I remember thinking,
"Oh, what a great moment that would be,"
because it would be the most primitive
And I ran back and I'm crying and I'm red
and I'm all excited and I'm like,
"Phil, I saw this bear and can you imagine?"
And he was like, "Are you okay?!"
'Cause I think I was like six months pregnant.
I wrote the scene,
we moved to Toronto
and the network, everyone was like,
well, there are no bears in Toronto, I don't think
it'll be very relatable.
I'm like, it's gonna be the most relatable moment.
And I just kept pushing the idea,
this concept of the battle cry,
the battle cry, the battle cry,
I kept saying it 'cause I said,
"You're gonna have moms standing up off their sofas."
You just have to commit to this concept, that it's the one,
we don't have a lot of fantastical elements
on our show like that, and it is fantastical,
but it's the pilot
and I think it's going to connect people in a way
that just me in the conference room
saying, "I wanna work," won't.
It'll personify all of it.
The bear becomes every enemy to the working mother,
and they were like, okay,
it's gonna be $50,000.
And we're like, oh, what about a scary deer?
- Every time I see nudity, which is a lot now on TV,
it's 90% of the time, sexualized.
And for me, I think I wanted to be able to control,
we all constantly complain behind the screen
that our bodies are falling apart,
particularly after you have a child, that nothing--
you make these sacrifices and I don't think anyone ever
thinks about it as triumphant.
We're feeding these kids,
we're doing these incredible superhero things
with our bodies by making life.
And by the three of us sitting there, topless,
which was a big battle to get to that moment too.
There's never been nudity on the CBC.
The two actresses had never done nudity.
I'd never done nudity either.
I had a three-month-old at home.
There was a lot going on but I don't regret it for a second.
- I feel like a proud show dog that didn't understand
her days were numbered.
Like, look at these things, it's like chicken skin.
- What are you talking about?
Yours are okay.
- Look, they're not winning any blue ribbons, okay,
but they stuck in there.
They might be a little deflated,
but they're not throwing in the towel.
I like them.
When it aired, there was not one person who pushed back.
And it was hard because I think the biggest complaint
before we had aired it was,
"Well, they don't know your character yet
and they can't see your breasts until they know you."
Right, like, you wanna get to know someone
and then see their nipples.
But when you're naked, it's even that much more vulnerable
and you're having to sort of trust the energy
and your village.
That's another reason to have your husband
be in the village all the time.
- So you brought up directing,
and I do want to come back to that,
directing your own work.
Just curious what this process is like for you,
what you've learned, balancing all of these hats.
- As an actor, it was exhilarating because I got
to play a real person.
I'm usually cast as best friends or [bleep] or caricatures,
which no harm in that, we all need a dead tooth to laugh at.
We need that best friend, I totally understand their purpose
but it was fun to let
my wall down
and sort of play vulnerable.
It's something that doesn't come easily to me,
particularly on camera,
so that was very exciting.
But to do that and direct myself into something
that doesn't come easy to me was complicated.
I think back to season one where I'd be in a scene,
especially if it's an emotional scene,
and I'm trying to give this authentic performance
and draw upon my real experiences,
but I also, like at that conference room table,
the "I Wanna Work" scene, I got six actors around me
who I'm giving direction to through my tears.
So you can imagine, if you're like, and if it's
a two shot, and you're like, would you do that again?
Like, it's really weird.
I have found it impossible to improve as a director
in the scenes that I am in.
- What is it about comedy that you're drawn to?
- That's such a hard question to answer, I don't know why.
I think life's really funny
and I think it's a really nice way to deal with,
life's also really [bleep] hard
and being able to laugh at it has helped me a bit.
And I'm also like, the story of motherhood
seems to only be a broad comedy with a diaper
full of poop hitting the wall
or a really after school specially dramatic one.
So being able to tell a premium cable feeling dramedy
about the subject matter was really exciting to me
and it felt like the most honest interpretation
of my experiences as a working mother.
[Narrator] You've been watching
A Conversation with Catherine Reitman
on On Story.
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