The Canadian drama Transplant comes to America Tuesday night with one of the strongest endorsements ever from a major US television critic:
“The series will make its debut as the best medical show on American television, which is something given the competition,” writes John Anderson in The Wall Street Journal. “And while it’s a bit early for a full-blown diagnosis, it may turn out to be one of the better dramas the network has ever had.”
That’s high praise given that NBC’s list of medical dramas alone has ranged from ER and St. Elsewhere to the current hits New Amsterdam and Chicago Med.
A 21 bed pan salute, therefore, to Joseph Kay, the creator and showrunner of Transplant. The lawyer and Canadian Film Centre grad has an admirable pedigree, getting his screenwriting start on the award-winning series This Is Wonderland. Other writing and producing credits include Living in Your Car, Bomb Girls, Republic of Doyle, Frontier, This Life and Ransom.
Kay is the brains behind Transplant as creator, writer, showrunner and executive producer. Is he surprised to see his series about a Syrian refugee who saves lives in a downtown Toronto hospital land on an American broadcast network schedule? Sounds more like he expected it. Says Kay, who I spoke with on the phone toward the end of August, “I’m really excited and curious about how it’s going to be received.”
You must be happy about your lead-in too — NBC’s highes rated show right now, America’s Got Talent.
Yeah, we have a great lead-in. They’re going to be driving a lot of eyeballs to the show. NBC is also relying pretty heavily on their networks and on their affiliate networks. I’ve had people texting me saying they saw a promo for it during the Indy 500, late night talk shows, things like that.
It’s hard enough to make a TV show and even harder it seems to get it in front of people.
So often, you work years of your life on something and you wonder why it came and didn’t get seen by as many people. With a company like NBC giving it this big push I think we’ve got a great chance to be seen.
There are other hospital dramas on television. It’s the Syrian refugee angle that makes Transplant unique though, isn’t it?
We’re doing something audiences have a handle on but we’re doing it from a new perspective. I think we have a story that’s very specific to one guy’s experience, but it’s universal in that way. It’s a story about starting over; it’s a story about getting a second shot at life and I think that there’s something about that that audiences also embrace, and are drawn to.
There’s an assumption that in the United States, some viewers might be less ready to embrace a main storyline about a refugee from a war-torn Middle East region.
I really know that’s not the case now. Everybody’s hungry for content and that there seems to be this global audience where people are weeding through everything and finding the thing they want. It means you can just be yourself wholly and completely.
It is a little bit funny though that this is a story that’s set in Toronto but shot Montreal.
Yes! I work for a production company that’s based in Montreal [Sphere Media Plus], and there are economies of scale in working in Montreal instead of Toronto. We were able to build this incredible soundstage in ways we wouldn’t have been able to do in Toronto. If you’re really familiar with Montreal, you’re probably going to know some of the locations, but I think we do a pretty good job.
I was on your set and it’s astounding. I’ve been on the set of ER and Grey’s Anatomy and yours is the most complete hospital I’ve ever been on.
Thank you. It’s an amazing playground for drama. There’s so much we can do there and you quickly realize you’re not confined by the stage — it actually opens up a new world.
Do you know yet when you’re going to start production on Season Two?
It’s still in flux like all things COVID related. [The new season scripts are] being written; I am 100 per cent certain [they] will be filmed. Hopefully this fall and if not, early in the new year, but we can only react like everybody else to what we can work with.
Would a show like yours be safer or easier to police than an hour-long drama shot across several locations?
Yeah, we can control our surroundings on the sound stage, we can keep the divisions of labor completely focused, so it’s actually distanced — we can just control our environment there much better than we can on location. We’re making some modifications to the sound stage to make that even easier.
Plus, on a medical show, you can have scenes where people are wearing masks and it doesn’t look out of place, right?
Exactly, and, I’ll say, having learned, when you put a couple of actors in masks, you can re-write the scene in ADR!
It must also make it easier to dub for foreign sales. Are you already starting to sell internationally?
Yes, NBC Universal International is distinct from the broadcast component. They’ve been selling it internationally. They’ll make the announcement when all the papers are signed but I know they’ve been making some good traction with it.
They were on board early, weren’t they?
I wrote the pilot in the summer of 2017. CTV said, as part of that process, can you find an international distributor? NBC International came on board right away, in response to the pilot script, with great gusto and enthusiasm.
But yeah, I first pitched it to CTV June of ’17; over the course of 2018 they ordered a second script and kept kicking the development ball forward. It was October or November of 2018 when they ordered it for production, and we were shooting by June the following year.
That’s fast moving for a Canadian production, right?
It’s pretty much record speed Bill!
Joseph, where are you from?
I grew up in Winnipeg.
Tell me why all these great TV minds come from Winnipeg. is there something in the water? what’s going on?
I think there’s something in the water. Winnipeggers will always say that for a small city it has a very vibrant arts community. Winnipeggers will always talk about Neil Young having come from there. It always has had a small but energetic creative community.
One of my producing partners, Tara Woodbury on Transplant, is also from Winnipeg. People growing up in Winnipeg have a lot of time to think.
You took a showrunner course at the Canadian Film Centre. Is that some help to you now?
Yeah, I was actually a lawyer before. I went back to school and went to the Canadian Film Centre. I got my first job in television while I was there for [Canadian playwright] George F. Walker who was doing This is Wonderland on CBC
What a great show to start with, my goodness.
It was a real education in writing from a real master. Then I got my first opportunity to run a show with This Life for CBC.
How practical and helpful has that CFC showrunner training program been on this show?
It was very helpful, but it is also the kind of job that you have to do to learn. it’s also the kind of job that you need to be lucky enough that when you’re coming up as a writer you get broad exposure to different parts of production. I was lucky that I spent a long time on set, whether it was talking to the director or communicating with the actors and being in prep.
The first time you get tasked to do it it’s quite a learning curve, but the more you come to it with on-the-job training, the easier the adjustment. I was lucky. I had been in editing. I’d been all over the place before I got my first chance to do it.
When did you first get together with the Take the Shot guys?
It was later in the run of Republic of Doyle. I think it was in their fourth season I went out there and helped them write the last two seasons. I had known Allan Hawco from before; we really get along and so I worked with them on Frontier as well.
John Hannah was a pleasure to interview when I was on the Transplant set last fall. You must be pretty thrilled with your entire cast.
We are so thrilled Bill, from Hamza on down—Hamza being honestly, a prodigy by way of a leading man. I have known him from when he did a small part for us on season two of This Life. We hit it off, and when we were thinking of this show, we were thinking about Hamza all along.
So, yeah, we’re so fortunate to have John, Laurence [Leboeuf] and Ayisha [Issa] and Jim [Watson]. People always tell you that their cast clicks like family but in our case it really is true.
Plus you had worked with Torri Higginson before on This Life.
I love Torri, she’s got such a dry, you know acerbic — but at the same time warm — sensbility.
At what point when you’re casting a show do you start to think about international sales and which actor you might need to put a sale over on an American network such as NBC?
It enters into it when the distributor comes in. You don’t really think of it that much when you’re developing it for the Canadian broadcaster but as soon as the distributor comes in, they say, “Who’s going to help us sell this internationally by way of a performer?” That’s when we really start thinking about it.
We knew that the part John plays would be the part that we would look to — it’s a strong character role. It’s small on the page so you can organize his time efficiently but it feels really big on the show.
There were honestly only a couple of names that everyone agreed on – us and NBC and CTV — and John was one of them and John was happy to do it. He brought a certain kind of heart to the role that surprised me.
It can’t hurt when you have the guy from the “Mummy” movies on your show when you go to sell it internationally because those kinds of films play everywhere and it opens a lot of doors.
Yeah, he’s known everywhere. People either know him from those movies or they know him from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “Sliding Doors.” He’s very helpful that way but I think everybody would say he’s just a lovely guy and a great actor and he helps us—he’s an important piece of the puzzle emotionally.
And your lead Hamza, are you prepared for him to become a big star in the States now?
Hamza is a star. Soon as I worked with him the first time I felt it. When he started working on the pilot, I was really surprised by the amount of vulnerability that he’s able to convey wordlessly. That was so important, you know, a lot of the show … the character doesn’t actually say that much. Lots of times he’s just quiet and thinking and feeling.
That’s deliberate. It’s not soap, it’s not melodrama, it takes a more of an emotional, honest, vulnerable view of tone and story. And he’s able to really set the tone. He makes it feel real and grounded. You feel for this guy without his having to use a lot of words to explain why you should.
I interviewed Billy Campbell earlier this year and he made that same point about working on Cardinal. He loved all the words that weren’t used on the show. As a writer though, is it harder to write fewer words to say what needs to be conveyed?
What happens is that television is a very collaborative medium and there are lots of people who get to have opinions. You find yourself in the midst of all these conversations where people wonder if it’s clear.
So you write it the first time and you’re used too many words and then you go through and you try to take all the ones out that you don’t really need. Then you get involved in these conversations where people are saying, is it clear? Then sometimes when you’re not sure if it was clear, you start cutting it in editing, and that’s something that we did, I would say, a fair bit — just because we wanted to preserve that tone of keeping things grounded and keeping things emotionally honest and keeping things economical.
This seems like a good place to stop using words.
In watching Transplant, I was excited about viewing a program that was clean, free of the gratuitous sex that has invaded almost all of the TV programs. Sadly, I was wrong. Gratuitous sex does not make a good TV program but it has invaded this one. I do hope it can return to being the wholesome program that it had started out to be.