Nerds and Beyond had the opportunity to speak to Emmy Award-winning executive producer, director, and writer J.J. Johnson about the new series Endlings, the heavy topics, Sinking Ship Entertainment, and more.
Endlings is the story of four foster teenagers that takes place 20 years in the future. After an elephant named Tuko becomes the last one in existence, or what biologists are calling an endling, something happens. An alien that is going around the universe on an intergalactic quest to save the last member of near-extinct species crash lands on earth, and at the foster home, the teenagers live with their foster dad. As a result, the species the alien has saved are let free in the fields and wilderness around the farm property. The teenagers band together to keep these creatures from the local police, Tuko’s caretaker, and a secretive industrialist. The series stars Neil Crone, Kamaia Fairburn, Edison Grant, Michela Luci, Cale Thomas Ferrin, Lisa Ryder, Oyin Oladejo, and more.
Nerds and Beyond: Where did the premise for the Endlings series come from?
J.J. Johnson: I think like three years ago. I was reading this report that came out from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) that said that elephants would be extinct in the wild in the next 20 years. Being an animal lover, honestly, it was such a shocking thing to read, and I honestly don’t know if I believed it right away. But around that time was also when the northern white rhino went extinct and seeing that happen, it wasn’t that people weren’t talking about it, but you could just feel that there was this sense of powerlessness to do anything about it. And at the same time, we were pregnant with our first baby. So, it was the mixture of that and suddenly becoming an adult, realizing that these are the things that we should be taking care of for the next generation. It just got me starting to think in that arena of the environment and how could we use storytelling to at least bring these things up in conversation.
Nerds and Beyond: Because it does cover some heavy topics on the show, how difficult is it to bring up, especially where it’s for a young audience?
J.J. Johnson: I have some strong views on kid’s content, and what kids and families are shown. I worry sometimes because I think kid’s content sometimes is too perfect. It’s too idealized where nothing bad happens. And being someone that grew up not wealthy, challenges in our family, never having seen that on the screen, save for like in Rosanne, growing up made me always feel like we were the weird outlier. You know, as you start working with kids, and hearing their stories, you realize that they have these incredibly huge emotional lives. They are dealing with lots of anxiety, not only in things that are happening to them but what kind of world they are inheriting. So overall, I think this audience is far more sophisticated than people give them credit for, and they are ready to handle these kinds of things. I think it is just trying to shine a spotlight on it and not pretending that this stuff doesn’t happen. It’s kind of in the same way that we do it with the environment, where you just kind of push it off because you don’t really want to talk about it because it is so depressing. I think we are trying to dovetail those two conversations on how we treat ourselves and how we treat the world.
Nerds and Beyond: That is definitely one thing I really enjoyed while watching the episodes; it’s very real. It’s a very real show. It’s not, “oh, let’s ignore what’s happening and put a bow on everything.”
J.J. Johnson: Ya, 100%, thank you for saying that, because you are never sure if it’s working. But part of thinking what we are trying to say about the environment is, this is not a reduce, reuse, recycle show. When I was thinking about what message we were trying to get out, whenever you are developing a show, I think you are always trying to figure out what you want to say. And for me, it really became a conversation about empathy. How we need to have empathy for ourselves and the situations that we’ve been through. That if you can have that, then you can have empathy for others, and if you can have empathy for others, then hopefully you can start to develop empathy for the other living beings that we share the planet with. But you know it’s not trying to pretend that bad things don’t happen — both to ourselves and to the world. But that in pulling together that there is hope. I really do see it as a hopeful series. It’s obviously trying to show a future that we hope doesn’t necessarily happen, but it talks about the strength of pulling together with people and creating your own family to make a difference.
Nerds and Beyond: How is it working with Michela Luci [Dino Dana] again?
J.J. Johnson: You can’t help but become like mini families because you spend so much time together. I’m in awe of her. I was in awe of her being able to hold Dino Dana and be this character that represents so much to so many people. To watch her then blossom into this role, which is far more demanding emotionally, I just think she nailed it. She’s got some episodes upcoming that every time I see them makes me cry, but she’s just such a powerful personality. I mean, she won an Emmy Award for her work on Dino Dana, so that just speaks to what she’s doing. And then she’s on Americas Got Talent, and she’s got a girl group, and she’s just a joy.
Nerds and Beyond: Through the first episode I wasn’t expecting it, just all of a sudden you find yourself tearing up with everything. It was just “oh, wow, okay!”
J.J. Johnson: In the editing suites, we are just bawling constantly, because they really bring it. It’s fascinating. We talk to the kids because where they are drawing those stories from are something that they heard happened to their friend, or something personal. Already you are listening to that, and you can start to lean in to it with some of the other storylines.
Nerds and Beyond: If you can, can you give us any insights into what to expect for season two?
J.J. Johnson: I’m always a fan of second seasons and getting to continue the story because you get to go so much deeper. So, I think where the first season was about looking into themselves and things that have happened to them, the second season is that realization that they’re not addressing them, and they are kind of incapable of addressing them individually, so it kind of becomes a necessity that they start to lean on each other to confront their pasts. And at the same time, Hewes and her kind of industrial machine is getting closer and closer to them all building to a pretty spectacular confrontation.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you find it challenging to go from when you are writing an episode to directing it?
J.J. Johnson: For me it’s easier, because I’ve already pre-seen it. Obviously, we work all the scripts together, but when it’s one that I’m writing and directing, I find that I’ve already kind of pre-visualized it, so it makes the directing part a bit easier. But I would say that I underestimated how much this show would affect me as I was writing. It is a hopeful show, but it definitely has some darker content, and because we haven’t had shows that did that for multiple episodes and seasons, it just weighed on me. You are constantly reading research about the environment, reading about kids in the foster care system, you are looking at how kids deal with anxiety and traumatic situations. You can’t help but cultivate your life a little bit. I love this show, but it has been hard sifting through all the research. One of the first things I ever heard was for kids in foster care, and I wouldn’t have thought this, but we have a consultant on from the foster care system. She said that no matter what happens to a kid, the worst kind of physical or sexual abuse, they always want to return to their biological parents. And that just destroyed me. Because that’s that wanting to belong and wanting to be loved, that just in my mind, I thought that getting away from that would be the salvation. But it’s not. You always crave that love, and so realizing that and then trying to put that in the show was tough just to think about.
Nerds and Beyond: It is a very heavy topic and there is so much that I think the majority of other shows that I have seen that involve foster care don’t see the lasting effect.
J.J. Johnson: Yeah, and that’s the other thing that’s nice with being a serialized show. Is that you’re not resetting the characters. You can actually follow these stories, and see how they move one step forward, and fall three steps back, and then two steps forward like we all do. It’s not that we suddenly have a revelation, and everything’s fine. It takes time, and it takes conviction to even start opening yourself up to other people. So hopefully, it moves in a more natural pace than some other things that kids see.
Nerds and Beyond: I have to ask because I was a big fan of the original, what was it about Ghostwriter that made you want to bring the show back?
J.J. Johnson: I was a big fan of that show. To me, it was so progressive, like when I was talking about Rosanne in terms of seeing shows aesthetic that looked like my house. Ghostwriter felt like my friends. It had a social-economic level that I could relate to. And I just loved that it was kids pulling together to solve mysterious things [that were] happening, and this kind of darker, more mysterious tone that cut through in the 90s in terms of stuff that was out there for kids. So, it was so great to be able to relook at that and upgrade it with some of the new technology that we have. But to play in those storylines was super fun.
Nerds and Beyond: Can you tell us how Sinking Ship Entertainment came to be?
J.J. Johnson: In school, my now business partner and I always wanted to start a production company but really had no idea how to do that. So, we both graduated and had to take entry-level jobs. He was editing industrial videos at this guy’s house in Burlington (Ontario), and I ended up working reception at a talent agency. I was there for six months, and I had a ton of student debt, I had broken up with my girlfriend of 5 years. It was just the lowest point in my life. One day this kid came in, his dad knew one of the agents they had met at a party and thought that he would be great to do commercials or something. He was five years old, so they went up to talk, and they left him down with me. I can only imagine like I was just, my life is over, this is terrible. But he started to talk to me about transformers. How he thought the Decepticons were more interesting characters than the Autobots. It was just this moment of innocence that instantly kind of snapped my mood. And as they were leaving, the agent came down and was like this kid needs his own show — which the agent said about every person who moved through that office. But it was the first time I thought about if I were to do a kid’s show, what would it be? Because I was moved by how interesting and funny this kid was. I wrote down the ideas about the show, and that became This is Daniel Cook; he was Daniel Cook. That show got picked up in a couple of months and then off we went. And we kind of just never looked back. It’s such a rewarding experience creating content for this audience. It’s also a huge responsibility, but you just feel like all of the hard hours and pain is worth it, because you have a chance to change someone’s perspective about something or ignite a passion in someone. I don’t know what jobs better than that.
Nerds and Beyond: Here at Nerds and Beyond we love to embrace what makes us nerdy, so that is the question I pose to you: what gets you to bring your nerd side out?
J.J. Johnson: Everything. I would say, as a big watcher of TV growing up, I think I got my morals and world view from science fiction. Star Trek: The Next Generation, watching Captain Picard and how he dealt with situations I think about often. Probably more than I should. And I cannot wait until his new series comes out. But I just always loved [that] from these sci-fi [series], you have a lens on humanity that gives you enough distance to look at it critically. And so, I think I’ve leaned into that with almost every show that I’ve made.
Thank you very much, J.J. Johnson, for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to us, and to Touchwood PR for helping to make it happen. For more information about Endlings, Sinking Ship Entertainment, and more, you can visit their website sinkingship.ca.
You can watch a trailer for Endlings below.