Interview: Director Siobahn Devine of Kim’s Convenience and Lifetime’s Imperfect High

Siobahn Devine smiles, with a black background
Photo Credit: Jeremy Saunders

Siobhan Devine is a versatile and exciting director who brings a fresh eye to each project she works on. A multi award-winning director most known for her work on the CBC/Netflix Original show, Kim’s Convenience, starring Simu Liu, Devine has won several Leo Awards for Best Director of a Comedy (2018, 2019 and 2020). She was also nominated for a 2021 Canadian Screen Award for her Season 4 episode “Knife Strife.”

Along with her work for CBC/Netflix, Siobhan has become a regular director on the long running Hallmark series When Calls the Heart after her debut on the show was celebrated as fresh by its fan base. Siobhan has also joined Hallmark’s Chesapeake Shores as director.

Her newest project is the Lifetime drama Imperfect High which follows main character Hanna Brooks (Nia Sioux) as she struggles with finding her way in high school while battling anxiety and addiction. Devine spoke to us from Toronto about her life and career.

Jason: Can you start by telling us the story of how you grew up?

Siobahn Devine: I was born in Dundee, Scotland, and then I was raised in Northern England and Lancashire. My parents emigrated here to Canada when I was a teenager. I knew before I moved here I wanted to be a filmmaker. That’s the thing I’ve always wanted to do. I remember watching the Academy Awards with my dad and saying, ‘okay, I want to be the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing. Thankfully, that’s been won twice now. But I love to tell stories. I’m the oldest of five. In England, the TV didn’t start until 4 P.M. and it was only an hour and a half of kids’ TV so we had to find stuff to do. We used to put on plays all the time and I gravitated to becoming a director. I moved to Ottawa where you could earn a theater degree but no film degree. That was the beginning, and it’s been a long journey.

Jason: How did you ultimately find your way into directing?

Siobahn Devine: 15 years ago I moved to Toronto, and then moved to Vancouver. There was these multi-camera sitcoms that were being made here and I got on as a director/observer, but multi-camera sitcoms is where they have four cameras at a time and all are shooting something different because it’s in front of a live audience. And I remember thinking, ‘well, I can’t do this, that’s for sure.’ So there was another job called a camera coordinator, and they brought these guys up from LA to do it so I applied for that job and got it. From there on, I worked my way up and started directing TV. Then I directed a feature, and it all tumbled from there. So that’s the story of my life.

Jason: Can you tell us an interesting story that happened to you in your career?

Siobahn Devine: I can tell you about my first feature called Christmas Pen Pals for Hallmark and only someone who’s never made a feature would make their first feature because so many things can go wrong. But once you’ve done it, you’re like ‘I’m not doing that again.’ We started, and I had a filmmaking partner. Roslyn Muir, who had written this film called The Birdwatcher, which is about a woman who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she wanted to find her birth mother, so it wasn’t a comedy, obviously. We didn’t know how hard it was going to be. At some point, we were in a park and we got totally rained out. There was mud everywhere. I remember looking outside of the tent I was in and a guy was up hanging a light in the pouring rain and I said ‘wait a minute, we’re just making a movie here, nobody’s dying on my set’ so I shut the set down. I didn’t know what to do when it rains all the time in Vancouver and they said, ‘well, we move inside.’ The only place we had a permit for was my house so then we were down to my house and I had to phone home and say to my family, ‘could you guys move to a hotel for a few days because we got to shoot in the house?’ It was insane. We went back to the caravan site, and it was a big mud pit. So now every time I watch the movie, all I see is grass at the beginning of the movie and mud at the end. It’s all I see.

Jason: How did your involvement with Kim’s Convenience come about?

Siobahn Devine: I really, really wanted to do that show. I was interviewed for the first season and I didn’t get it because I think they were probably looking for local people. But I’ve done a lot of comedy, kids comedy and I did some half-hour shows. I didn’t get it the first year and then I really put pressure on the producers. It was a show I just really wanted to be on and then in the second season, one of the directors did just one episode and she ended up not being able to do more. So I was on the list and I lucked out and I got it and then I did a good enough job that I got to come back and do the next season.

The cast of Kim's convenience stands outside a Korean grocery store

Jason: What do you think it is about Canadian content such as Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek, those shining examples of Canadian comedy, that is resonating and crossing over into other territories, in America especially?

Siobahn Devine: I think it’s the need for content, but for me all content begins with the writing. Canadian writing is maturing and is equal to, as great as writing anywhere else, if not better, and we have our own sensibility and we do things a little different. I think that’s what the world is looking for. Obviously, there’s a ton of product that’s the same, same, same and I think people are looking for stuff that’s different and authentic. Kim’s Convenience was super authentic and very universal even though it was a Korean community inside a Korean convenience store, but that Korean family gave it such universality. Most families could see themselves in this family. Certainly for a long time, there was this impression that Canadians and Americans were so similar, but they’re super different. I wasn’t born and raised here in Canada, so it’s obvious to me when I go there, how different we are from the Americans.

Jason: Let’s talk about the new Lifetime feature Imperfect High. Can you just tell us a bit about what it’s about and what attracted you to this story?

Siobahn Devine: Sure. It’s about a teenager who is a fish-out-of-water. She’s a teenager in a new town, and she suffers from severe anxiety and she discovers Xanax, which helps an anxious person feel not anxious, and then she discovers it too much. She ends up addicted to the Xanax and what interested me first, is I’m a mom. But I worked at Covenant House and I also worked on child welfare in my life. I go back and forth; I do some films, then I go back into the real world. I always, almost worked in nonprofits. I spent a few years at Covenant House, and then a couple of years at the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid. I met all kinds of young people there and everyone had their own story. I just had such empathy for these young people who, for whatever reason, ended up living on the streets. When I read this script, it jumped out at me as a script that I wanted to work on. I had worked with the executive producer before — on the Christmas movie with the mud pit. We got along pretty well and I loved working with her, so everything came together. I knew they were interested in doing a high-quality movie even though we only had 15 days to make it.

Hannah makes her way through a high school hallway

Jason: Given your projects, why do you feel it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television, for example a show like Kim’s Convenience that reflects a culture viewers haven’t seen greatly explored on TV?

Siobahn Devine: I’m a lesbian, so even though the film industry has quite a lot of gay people working in it, I don’t think that we’re underrepresented there, but we’re definitely underrepresented on the screen. Even though I’m not a person of color, I do know what it feels like to not really see yourself on TV. That’s important because every voice adds depth and texture to the world that we live in. I think it’s important that children see themselves on screen and feel empowered. TV is so important, because it’s the main way that we tell stories now. And if you never see yourself, it really says something about how it makes it can make you feel invisible. So it’s super important that we put more diversity on-screen. I’m heartened when I go on sets now. It’s rare that I see an all white male set or all white male crew. It used to be really unusual to find women in grips, electric, cameras. Those were typically male-dominated fields. But now it’s rare that I go on a set that there’s not any diversity at all. Also, there’s a real effort made to make sure there are there is representation in people of color. We’re a long way from equality, but it’s better than it was even ten years ago.

Jason: What are some interesting or exciting projects you’re you’re working on?

Siobahn Devine: Well, I just finished working on Bridge and River, which was super exciting. That’s my first show with Netflix. And then I’m getting to work on a show for SYFY called Reginald the Vampire with Harley Peyton of Twin Peaks. So I’m super excited about that because I love stylish shooting. Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon) is the producer and the scripts are amazing. The cast is amazing. I’m super excited about that.

Jason: I’d like to ask you about reaction to Imperfect High.

Siobahn Devine: A movie that came out first is Perfect High with Bella Thorne, which was grittier. It was more about illicit drugs as opposed to prescription drugs, so I was thrilled for this one, because it was about prescription drugs, which people don’t think about it. The very beginning of the opioid crisis, of course, was prescription drugs. When people take some something that the doctor gives you, you think it’s safe, so I wanted to talk about that. And then Nia Sioux, who’s the lead actress, she has a huge following because she did Dance Moms, which, if you’re a teenage girl, you would definitely know about. So having someone like her in the movie was important because she could reach a population that I could not. I hope as many of those girls as possible watch the movie.

Jason: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Siobahn Devine: I appreciate your comments about diversity. I have been a huge proponent for many years since I first started in the industry and realized I was often the only woman on set except for hair and makeup. And it’s amazing and fantastic for me to see more women and people of color becoming involved in the industry and moving up. Now I’ve seen women and people of color in union jobs. So, you know, that’s, it’s its maybe not fast enough. But it’s progress. These jobs are genuine jobs, and you can earn a living and you can buy a house and the industry becomes something that people might think of entering, even when they’re still in high school. It becomes more realistic. And we need those voices at all every level.

Imperfect High is now availlable to stream on Lifetime.

Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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