Chris Haddock Calls His Own Tune

By Kat Montagu

Though he's cracked the US market, showrunner Chris Haddock remains right at home in Vancouver.

With his flowing hair and habit of dressing down, Chris Haddock looks more like a scruffy rock musician than one of Canada's top TV writers and producers.

He comes by the musician look honestly. Born in Vancouver, Haddock, now 50, grew up in the beach-fringed hippie enclave of Kitsilano. By the early 1970s, when Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell proposed "rounding up all the tie-dyed long-hairs and shipping them off to a detention centre," Haddock was playing violin on the street, working as a musician and experimenting with street theatre.

Today, he is at the helm of one of Canada's most popular dramas, Da Vinci's Inquest, which is in its sixth season, has won over 40 awards and been sold to 90 countries. And last September his new show, The Handler, launched on CBS and on Global in Canada. The Handler stars Joe Pantoliano of Sopranos fame as a tough FBI agent in LA who trains undercover operatives and runs stings. The network has ordered 13 episodes, and Haddock either co-wrote or wrote all but one of the first 10.

Haddock got his start as a writer in the early 1980s, after Laszlo Barna asked him to compose the music for his stage play Prisoners of Time. Intrigued, Haddock taught himself to write by studying Robert Towne's screenplay The Last Detail.

"I optioned the first thing I wrote for about five grand, which is more money than I had seen in one place," says Haddock. It was a feature spec called Success Without College. The producer, now a success in New York, skipped town for Mexico and took years to pay Haddock his option fee. Haddock went on to write a script for Danger Bay in 1984, and then things dried up until he got offered a quick rewrite on Airwolf two years later. "They liked what I did and they had me on board for a dozen more scripts as a story editor."

Haddock then moved to Toronto, where Bob Carney and Peter Mohan gave him a writing job on a CBS show called Diamonds. It was here that Haddock met Nicholas Campbell, who would go on to star in Da Vinci's. "Nick used to come into the writers' room and complain bitterly over the lack of quality in the scripts," Haddock says. "What I knew about Nick was that he was bitching because he cared about the material and he went straight to the writers' room to try and convince them to write stuff that would be interesting for him. And I remembered him so clearly later when I was creating Da Vinci's. I knew immediately that he was probably the only actor at that time in Canada that I felt could have the right look and the experience."

Let the writers produce!

In 1986, Diamonds producer Sonny Grosso asked Haddock to move over to Night Heat and encouraged him to become a writer-producer. After one more "bitter Toronto winter" and his first writing Gemini, Haddock moved back to Vancouver, where he worked on MacGyver. Then Jonathan Goodwill called to ask if he had any ideas for a CBC family show. "I said, 'Yeah. I've got this idea for a single mom who becomes a private detective,'" Haddock says. Originally written as a one-off, Mom PI became a one-hour drama series 1990: "I was suddenly a showrunner."

He credits his musical background and life experience for allowing him to make the leap to running a show. "I had a lot of street experience and I'd had a lot of jobs. I found that a lot of the writers who I had come in contact with hadn't done anything else other than their writing… I'd worked in bands and creative collaborations already. I'm outgoing enough to speak to all kinds of different people."

While Haddock got into producing as a writer, he regrets that so many Canadian producers don't have creative backgrounds. "A lot of producers come out of line producing and not out of the creative end of things. They seized control of the Canadian industry a long time ago and the writers have never had an easy way in."

Asked if things are changing, Haddock says, "Only recently. In the '70s, '80s and '90s, power was in the hands of a few companies who were not going to encourage writers like myself to form their own independent companies. Still there is not enough production for it to happen."

After Mom PI, Haddock took his first shot at LA. Within a year he realized that in Hollywood "you're just another writer. You don't have any real ability to make sure that what is on the page is the blueprint."

Even now, with The Handler, he doesn't seem to feel quite at home in the world of LA television. "It's a very, very different atmosphere down here," he says. "People have a tendency to play things extremely close to their chests and I'll have a good relationship with them right up until the day that I get cancelled. It could be any day now or a couple of years down the road. It's a week-to-week thing. It's a market down here that is... I don't think it's positive."

Working with partners

After his return from his first failed year in LA, Haddock wanted to build a small company in Vancouver, and he knew he needed a television series to do it.

Da Vinci's went from pitch to principal photography in nine months. "Exceptionally fast," Haddock admits. "I gathered a whole bunch of writers that were around and whittled it down to myself and Al Di Fiore. In the first year, we had Esta Spalding as an intern and then we brought Frank Borg in. And that was the writing department for the first three years."

His writing partnership with Di Fiore has been exceptionally fruitful. The two worked together for years on Da Vinci's and Di Fiore is now a producer on The Handler. "It quickly became clear that Al and I had a shared sensibility and so we started a writing partnership in the latter part of that first season [of Da Vinci's]. Al wanted to be a writer much earlier than I did, but he'd also done a million different things. He'd worked on the fish boats and he'd run a restaurant and he had a vast amount of life experience."

The only other partner Haddock has regularly written with is Peter Mohan, on Night Heat. "With Peter you can stand up from the typewriter and he can sit down. Al is like that too. I write a first pass and Al comes in and rewrites or the other way around. Partnerships are so rare that when you get one, you really want to treasure it and nurture it. Al and I have a great deal of patience with each other and respect each other as writers. We don't hang out with each other outside the writing too much and I think that helps. We're really tight friends, but we see so much of each other on set and in the writers' room that when we can get a break from each other we take it."

Haddock says he never considered wrapping Da Vinci's before moving on to The Handler. "It was always going to be a parallel thing. My intention was to bring The Handler to Vancouver. The deal I had with CBS and the studio, Viacom, was that we were all looking for something I could do in Vancouver."

Typically, it was a creative choice that finally persuaded him to move The Handler from Vancouver (masquerading as San Francisco) to Los Angeles. Director Mick Jackson (Live from Baghdad) wanted to shoot in LA so he could be closer to his family, and Haddock spoke with CBS and Viacom about changing the setting.

The experience of building the story department for The Handler was similar to Haddock's experience with Da Vinci's Inquest but on a larger scale. "When I first came down to LA I was introduced to probably 100 writers and their material, so I spent long days and nights reading material and meeting writers. Ken Solarz had experience as a journalist, which I liked. I had read a script by Frank Military a long time ago and remembered him. We hit it off and I liked his sensibility so he's on the show. Gwen Parker had a good reputation from a book she'd written [These Same Long Bones] so I was interested in her. She came on as a story editor and she's on staff now. Jim Kouf was a fairly well-known screenwriter. He had written the Stake Out movies and most recently Rush Hour so I brought him on board."

Meanwhile, Haddock is confident about entrusting Da Vinci's Inquest to new executive story consultant Pete White, whose work he knew from movies like Peacekeeper and Silver Mine. Haddock, Di fiore and White co-wrote the first six episodes this year. "He's very well prepared," Haddock says about White. "We went over all the year's story lines and story arcs very early before I went down to LA and turned in the scripts early to him. So he had some good prep time." Also providing continuity at Da Vinci's are Haddock Entertainment CEO Laura Lightbown, producer Arvi Liimatainen, and director of photography David Frazee.

Haddock obviously inspires loyalty. "Ninety percent of the people that we've had since year one have somehow remained with the show," he says. "It's such a tight machine." Among the losses is Frank Borg–now writing for The Eleventh Hour in Toronto. New staff writers include former interns Jesse McKeown and Sylvia Leung.

See the Winter 2004 issue of Canadian Screenwriter for the complete interview.

Canadian Screenwriter summer 2018 is on newsstands now. View excerpts, and subscribe here.

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