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When passion meets profession

by admin April 6, 2010

The love affair began with Lemon Meringue. Indeed, it was the named-after-the-pie-pony Leila Basen’s father bought her when she was only five years old that spawned her life-long fervour for riding and all things horse-related. Since that fateful day, the award-winning Canadian screenwriter has owned seven horses, including her latest &- a black beauty she calls Memphis.

Yet despite garnering accolades for her writing on television shows such as Emily of New Moon, Road to Avonlea, Street Legal, The Odyssey, and winning a Canadian Comedy Award in 2007 for co-writing the national hit Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Basen laughs when she remarks how her expensive hobby has “always kept [her] in poverty.” That is, of course, until the summer of 2005, when a phone call resulted in an ironic twist of fate for the show-biz veteran.
A producer wanted Basen and her writing partner of 10 years, David Preston, to adapt British author Lauren Brooke’s popular book series Heartland to the small screen in the form of a two-hour made for television movie, or as industry insiders call it, “a backdoor pilot” for the CBC. Anchored around the emotional journey of a teenage horse whisperer reeling from the loss of her mother against the backdrop of a horse ranch in the Alberta Rocky Mountains, the network ate it up and hired the duo to parlay their work into a script for a TV series.
“I used to say that for years, my writing career paid for my riding habit because I’ve had horses pretty much my entire life and they’re very expensive,” says Basen, who is seemingly still surprised by how the situation changed. “I spent my whole life reading about horses, thinking about them, that I really bring a wealth of knowledge to [Heartland] and also passion.”
Equal parts cheese and charm, Heartland is gearing up for its fourth season with a firm hold on the coveted Sunday night 7 p.m. time slot. Amidst a sea of homegrown failures that sink shortly after the pilot, Basen and CBC have accomplished their goal of resurrecting the network’s storied “family hour.”
Living in Calgary for eight months of the year, Toronto-born Basen has been in town working on the impending season from December until shooting resumes at the end of April. The owner of a new pickup truck in order to “haul [her] horse to good places to ride,” the former Concordia screenwriting professor didn’t even attempt to drive to our interview on N.D.G.’s narrow Monkland Avenue.

“I couldn’t drive up here because I had nowhere to park, but I’m getting better at it. Soon it’ll be just as easy as a Smart Car,” jokes Basen.
With eyes too blue to describe, tousled blonde, shoulder-length hair, no makeup and wearing Lululemon-esque sports attire, the 50-something writer and executive creative consultant talks passionately about her newfound home.
“I don’t like Calgary per se, but I really like Alberta and the Foothills,” says Basen. “I’d really like to live there on a ranch but I can’t seem to convince anyone else in my life.”
That includes her two daughters, Anaïs and Alyona, both in their 20s and living on their own in Montreal and Calgary respectively, and her husband Don McEwen, who lives full-time at the couple’s country house in Hemmingford, Que. In fact, Basen has just sold her N.D.G. home in order to live there when she’s not in Calgary.
“It’s been a very weird life to live. It’s hard for sure,” she says regarding the challenges that arise from having a long distance relationship with her family. “But this is a really good job and I haven’t been offered a better one.”

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From the sound of it there have been a myriad of challenges throughout Basen’s screenwriting career which began in the late “70s when the 21-year-old, fresh out of York University’s film school, set off looking for her first job. In “My First Break,” an article she wrote several years ago for The Writers Guild of Canada, Basen pokes fun at her former naive self with her signature sarcasm.
With a writing contract on a CBC sitcom and a finished draft, Basen was patiently awaiting a call from the producer. Her immediate joy upon hearing he wanted a private meeting in his condominium office quickly dissipated when she realized the true nature of his call.
“And the couch where the producer was sitting was a pull-out couch, and it didn’t look like the mattress was the only thing he planned on pulling out,” wrote Basen, who once did a brief stint as a stand-up comic in between writing gigs.
Still, she didn’t let it deter her from becoming a screenwriter &- a profession she aspired to since grade 9. While working as a production assistant at CFTO (a CTV affiliate in Toronto), the recent graduate wound up encountering someone who worked with the venerable Montreal-based producer Robert Lantos. And as stories of this sort generally go &- Lantos needed an assistant and Basen landed herself an interview.
“I think he was really drunk and hungover at the time, I don’t know, and he ended up hiring me as his assistant,” says Basen, recalling he was too busy to hear the part where she informed him she didn’t take diction and couldn’t touch type &- an essential job requirement.
Needless to say, she squeezed everything she could from the opportunity, waking up at 5 a.m. to write scripts and giving her work to Lantos to read. Sure enough, he hired her to re-write a feature film based on Romain Gary’s novel, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. She refers to the story about an aging businessman with problems in the office and the bedroom as “the worst Canadian film ever made,” but oddly enough one of the best things that happened to her.
There was a window of opportunity right before the raunchy film’s release, where an ambitious Basen took advantage of her film credit to score numerous writing jobs at the CBC.
“Television was really young then and there weren’t a lot of women writers. It was like a minefield of sexual harassment &- they hadn’t even coined the word sexual harassment back in the day,” says Basen.
By the time Basen started having children in the mid-’80s, her television career was in full swing and she had written episodes for countless Canadian series. Until the “90s, the working mom succeeded in earning a living freelancing for shows that ran the gamut from medical and law dramas to comedies &- and all from the comfort of her Montreal home. But Canadians eventually took a cue from their American neighbours and replaced freelancers with story departments and full-time writers &- making it harder to find work.

“To understand the inner logic of a show and the character logic of the show, you really have to be inside the show,” explains Basen whose current resumé reads like a phonebook. “You cannot make a living freelancing in Canada anymore.”
Her brief hiatus from the small screen came in the form of a proposal from friend and local producer, Kevin Tierney. The task was helping Québécois star Patrick Huard turn his idea for a movie called Bon Cop, Bad Cop, into a full-fledged script.
“I thought working with Patrick was pretty interesting because he’s a super talented guy and we worked well together. It was a good experience because it turned out to be hugely successful.”
The 2006 bilingual buddy-cop comedy brought in $12.2 million and remains the highest-grossing Canadian film domestically. It further resulted in a Canadian Comedy Award and Jutra nomination for best screenplay for Basen, who made the tough decision to leave the project after seven months. Mental Block, the show she had developed for YTV with Preston, got picked up for a second season and she had to make a choice.
“As a person who makes a living and supports their family, I really had to think about that,” says Basen, who even with her credentials admits to having struggled to find consistent work in a business where shows quickly come and go. “It’s a decision I sometimes regret.”
A subsequent regret she occasionally harbors is not moving to Los Angeles and trying her luck in Hollywood. Both times she went, the former after writing Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid and the latter a couple of years later, she shied away from staying due to the impression writers there had “no life” and all they did was “talk about the business.” However, the difference in money is sometimes reason enough to wish she had.
“Someone who has written as much as I have in L.A. would be fabulously wealthy and famous.

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Today, Basen’s focus is on Heartland and conjuring up horse stories to reflect the trajectory of the characters’ lives in season four. “I know a lot of people who are in the horse world and I’m always aware of stuff going on.”
Her daughter Anaïs, who seems to have inherited her mother’s wit, agrees: “It’s her favourite subject so it’s nice to see her writing about something she’s passionate about. She loves cowboys and she’s slowly becoming a cowboy herself.” She then teasingly refers to her mother’s pickup truck as a “mid-life crisis.”
But all jokes aside, from the way Basen talks about the series and the industry, it’s clear television is where she belongs.
“Television is really a writer’s medium, it’s the directors that are kind of the guests,” she pauses and says, “I find people working in television are just nicer. They’re more like workers because it’s more of a regular job and you churn out stuff.”
In terms of writers getting respect, for Basen the answer is simple: “they get respect from people who know what they do and they don’t from people who don’t.”
But with a steady job she enjoys and “the most fabulous equestrian trails” only a pickup truck drive away &- this writer isn’t in a position to complain. Now if only she could get her family to relocate to a ranch in Alberta.

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