How a Breaking Bad Writer Made Anne More Relevant

Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett dishes on what it took to revamp the Canadian classic and the enduring appeal of a character like Anne

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Anne remake feminist: Moira Walley-Beckett standing with Amybeth McNulty (Anne) and producer Miranda de Pencier (Photo courtesy of CBC)

Left to right: Moira Walley-Beckett with Amybeth McNulty (Anne) and producer Miranda de Pencier (Photo: Courtesy CBC)

CBC is inviting audiences back to Avonlea with a revamped version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Canadian classicAnne of Green Gables. Taking the original masterpiece and updating it for a new Netflix audience is no small feat, but that didn’t intimidate showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett. The Vancouverite’s resume boasts major television credits—including writing and producing for Breaking Bad and showrunning for the dark and disturbing Flesh and Bone TV miniseries—but she says writing and executive producing for Anne was a true passion project.

FLARE caught up with Walley-Beckett ahead of Anne’s premiere on CBC on March 19 at 8 p.m. EST to talk Green Gables, women in Hollywood and what Anne will mean for audiences now.

Anne remake feminist: Moira Walley-Beckett in PEI for CBC's Anne

Moira Walley-Beckett in Prince Edward Island for Anne (Photo: Courtesy of CBC)

What does it take to be a showrunner?

Being a showrunner is like being the president of a small, fictitious country on the brink of war. It’s an impossible job, especially when you’re detailed-oriented like me. Vince Gilligan [the creator of Breaking Bad] really taught me what it takes to showrun. Your days are 15 to 16 hours long and you’re trying to be everywhere at once and do everything with a high degree of excellence. When you’re as exacting and obsessive as I am, it’s really challenging.

This is your second time showrunning. What lessons did you take from working on Flesh and Bone and apply to Anne?

I don’t know that I’ve done anything particularly differently. I try and make sure that everybody is in alignment with the vision that I have and the level of work that I’m desiring and expecting, and I like to make sure that within each job, everyone is seen and heard and acknowledged and contributing to the best of their ability. It’s of paramount importance to have a happy crew that’s inspired to work these insane hours under incredible pressure.

It’s interesting that you talk about being seen and heard because I get the sense that a lot of women in the industry are struggling with just that.

I’m extremely aware of that. Early on in my career, I’m pretty sure I got hired as a diversity hire just by virtue of being a woman. I think there’s a level of discomfort, something about the male tribe that needs to be with the male tribe. So yes, it’s complicated being seen and heard and moving past gender while valuing what each gender has to contribute when you’re telling human stories. Part one, you have to get in that room. And then part two, you have to stop only being of value because you have a woman’s point of view. And then part three, if you’re lucky like I was, you land in an environment where there’s gender parity and where you’re just a writer in the company of writers doing good work.

Did you find that when you were on Breaking Bad you got a lot of questions about what it’s like to be a woman on that show?

I did. I did.

Why do you think that is?

I get this a lot where I’m “the chick writer” and I’m like, “I’m actually just a writer.” Then I also get told a lot that I write like a guy, and I’m like, “What the f-ck? Is that supposed to be a compliment?” I have muscularity to my writing, but I’m pretty sure that I write like a writer—like a good writer. That always pissed me off. Breaking Bad was a muscular show but it was also a deeply, darkly human relationship study, and I wasn’t hired just to write Skyler. Vince Gilligan hired me because he liked the way I captured all the characters’ voices. Writing Jesse Pinkman was the highlight of my life.

You’ve said that Flesh and Bone, a character drama about the cutthroat world of ballet, was a very personal story for you since you trained in ballet for 20 years. Did you also feel a personal connection with Anne?

It’s funny, 50 million copies of this book have sold around the world and I think there are 50 million people with a personal connection to Anne. It’s fascinating to me because she’s a red-headed orphan in 1896— it’s interesting to try and diagnose the appeal. I think it’s because perhaps in our own way, we all view ourselves as outsiders and we worry that we’re strange, different or not enough. And despite enormous adversity and not fitting in, not being wanted and making a hash of things all the time, Anne is a survivor. She always stepped forward thinking that she had no boundaries and that she could do whatever she set her mind to, fiercely. That resonates with so many people, especially a lot of young women as we go through puberty and everything feels like a mistake and a disaster.

Related: We Chatted with the New Anne of the Green Gables Remake

Is that how you related to her personally?

Yes. And in terms of L.M. Montgomery’s writing, I was super attracted to her prose and the way that Anne interacts with the natural world. It was a big influence on me, and I incorporated it very much into my Anne. We have a lot of subjective experience with Anne and nature, and it’s shot like a Jane Campion feature, so it’s epic and intimate and she is very interconnected with the natural world and the landscape.

You talk about “my Anne.” There’s the iconic books, the 1985 TV mini series, the 2016 TV movie and the Green Gables site in P.E.I.—how did you put your stamp on this and make it yours?

I am drawn to wounded characters, and when I reread the book as I was considering doing this, it spoke to me in a whole new way than it did when I was young. What attracted me to it—and to the idea of telling a really complicated human story within the framework of my reverence for this piece—was to go inside the pages and go underneath the sentences and see what was alluded to and what was probably there in their daily life, in their private life and what shaped these characters. I did the research on what it meant to be an orphan back in that time, what life was like in the Maritimes in the early 1900s and what it meant to be a woman. In particular, I looked at what Anne endured during her short time on this earth as an unwanted child. All the abuse is written about, and her fortitude in spite of it, is what makes her appealing, so I wanted to know about that. I wanted to know about Matthew and Marilla. Why is he pathologically shy? Why didn’t she ever marry? I just allowed myself to be free-thinking and make those decisions. With respect, I felt like Lucy Maud gave me permission to go deeper in the pages.

Anne remake feminist: Anne of Green Gables looks out on the prairies.

Anne, played by Amybeth McNulty, in P.E.I. (Photo: Marvin Moore)

You weren’t able to shoot the entire show in P.E.I. How important was it to incorporate as much as the island as possible into the series?

Super important! It’s completely unique. It is entirely its own landscape. Not only was it important to film it, but the cliffs and the red earth, they’re a character in this story. We shot a portion in P.E.I. almost as a pre-shoot situation. We just took our three main actors, our horses and buggies, a skeleton crew and some big toys like a helicopter, a Russian Arm [gyro-stabilized camera and crane equipment] and all this stuff to do scenes of horses galloping and big swooping shots. For my actors who had not been there, to put them on the side of a cliff and ask them to experience the torrid ocean breezes and the landscape and drive the horse and buggy through that environment was really essential. There’s just no substitute for actually being there.

Coming back to Ontario for the rest of the shoot, what did you do to bring that experience and authenticity here?

We had this incredible location in Pickering where we made our Green Gables and it’s an actual farm with farm animals that live there and were part of our show. We made red earth out of bricks and we took it with us all over Ontario. I was determined to have crucial verisimilitude and authenticity, so it was a mandate for the crew. It was the Maritimes where we were.

Do you think that we’re going into the golden age of women in television?

I think we’re on the cusp of it. All the potential is there, all the ground has been laid. There’s some extraordinary women in television right now, like Lena Dunham and Jill Soloway, and some spectacular work being done. Why we’re still in this conversation is just maddening. Why do we have to strong-arm our way in? But here we are, and it’s actually cool to be a woman in film right now, so I’m excited about it.

For today’s generation that maybe didn’t grown up reading these books, what do you hope they take away from the CBC series?

When we were first talking about it, we didn’t want to do it if it wasn’t going to be relevant, if it wasn’t going to be an Anne for this generation of really sophisticated viewers. We thought about what’s going on in the world, particularly now, and all of these topics—identity, being an outsider, gender equality, prejudice, bullying—are addressed in the book. So I just wanted to point at them. What it means to be independent minded, to bump up against narrow-minded thinking—all this stuff felt super important to start a conversation about again.

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