An Interview with James Hurst

As a Degrassi fan, do you have days where you wish you could sit down with a writer from the show and ask them all your burning questions? 

For the upcoming twentieth anniversary of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” writer James Hurst was kind enough to speak with Andrew and answer (almost) everything he ever wanted to know!

James co-wrote a plethora of classic episodes during the golden age of Degrassi: TNG, including “Tears are Not Enough,” “Accidents Will Happen,” “Pride,” and “Mercy Street,” among others. He also served as showrunner for the show’s fifth and sixth seasons and was a crucial contributor to the overall voice and tone of the series. In addition to his work on Degrassi, his accomplished screenwriting career includes credits such as “Instant Star,” “Flashpoint,” “Wynona Earp,” “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” and “The Hardy Boys.” 

Andrew took a deep dive with James into all things Degrassi. They discuss interesting topics such as the lost movie Kevin Smith was supposed to direct, the weird rumor about why Kendra left the show, and why it’s important to not be kind to your characters. 

Check it out below and stay tuned for more Degrassi content in the coming weeks/months for Next Generation’s 20th anniversary! 

How did you become involved with Degrassi?

I didn’t watch the original show. I grew up in Montreal and I don’t know if we got it there. Or at least I never saw it. When I came to Toronto and I started working as a screenwriter, I was lucky enough to wind up on the first season right at the beginning working with Aaron Martin who was the showrunner. He was very young- I think it was his first job. It was one of my first jobs. Shelley Scarrow, who is also my wife and partner, we met during the show. She was involved with the writing from the first season. From the very beginning, the first year especially, it was really myself, Aaron Martin, Shelley Scarrow, and Yan Moore who co-created the show and was one of the original writers.

In Stephen Stohn’s book, he states that prior to coming up with the idea to reboot Degrassi, he, Linda [Schuyler] and Yan were developing a teen show called “Ready, Willing and Wired.” Were you involved that early in the process?

I was working for Epitome Pictures for a spell around that time and they were kicking around a number of different ideas for shows. They had done a show called “Riverdale,” which was a primetime soap in Canada and I worked on the tail end of that. I don’t remember “Ready, Willing and Wired,” but it sounds like it would have been in the mix. I think going back to Degrassi was an incredibly smart move for them, but I think Linda needed to be a little bit encouraged to do it. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it was that she felt the original was so good. She thought “How can I possibly put my name to a new Degrassi and run the risk that it may not be as good or impactful as the original?” I don’t remember “Ready, Willing and Wired,” but it sounds familiar. 

Was there a lot of concern behind the scenes that “Next Generation” wouldn’t match the success of the original series?

There was a lot of fear and trepidation. Not so much for myself, Aaron, and Shelley who were young writers. We were sort of too young to know, but for Linda and Stephen and Yan, I think there was a tremendous amount of trepidation. And I know for the cast of the original show who got more involved as it went on, Pat Mastroianni particularly felt very trepidatious about revisiting that character that defined him. I shouldn’t speak for him, but I think he also was trying to escape some of that. I think it was very complex for a number of those kids who had now grown up and were in their thirties. Some were still acting and some weren’t. I think for them, it was particularly trepidatious because they’re now resuming characters who had made their name. I think some of my favorite episodes and moments would actually be from season three where we were integrating the older cast with the newer kids.

There’s an episode from that season where Wheels returned for a Zit Remedy reunion. Was there ever any discussion of including him or other older characters in bigger roles?

Certainly. It was hard to find space quite honestly. It was important to us that Snake, Spike, Joey and of course Principal Raditch had core roles that had to do with the kids. We talked a lot about Wheels and how we wanted him to be more involved, but we just couldn’t find a storyline that would integrate him. If we could do it again, I think we would have included more Wheels and more of those old characters, but there were a lot of factors. We were really invested in our new generation and we wanted to make sure they were front and center at all times.

What was the process of brainstorming storylines and deciding which issues you were going to cover in a season?

We often would put issues up on the board. We had an ongoing board or list of issues we wanted to tackle that were really important to us and they would carry over from season to season. We’d say, “We still haven’t dealt with bulimia yet, we haven’t dealt with Islamophobia.” That was very important to the show and to be honest, at first I didn’t like it. I thought it made potential for the storylines to be very preachy, but I came to love it and believe in it. When I became showrunner in season five and six, I really pushed the issues and made sure that was the start of any story. I think some of the younger writers were annoyed with me, but I knew that if you took the issue out and didn’t put it front and center it just became about who’s gonna kiss who. And that was a big part of the show and that’s great, but when it just becomes about who’s gonna kiss who or “Oh no, there’s a dance and some Type A character’s going to be overly-involved in the dance and learn a lesson,” the show’s nothing. Themes and issues were super important, but we also had to tell a good story and it had to be fun, interesting, shocking and dramatic. That was the challenge… how do you weave in an issue with positive messaging, but also do it in a way that’s not cliche or preachy? We’d look at it from both angles. We’d start with the issues, but then we’d weave through a tapestry of stories.

I think particularly in season three we did a good job.  We wanted to talk about abortion and Shelley wrote these classic episodes about Manny and her abortion. I worked on the story for it along with another writer named Nicole Demerse and Shelley wrote the script. I thought it was very important to have a balance to it and that it was looking at abortion from all sides, but in the context of a very juicy storyline. Manny and Craig had hooked up in a very emotional and juicy way. That to me is Degrassi at its best: dealing with an issue that’s important for teens and humans to learn about, but also in the context of juicy soap opera drama. I always tried to blend those things. 

What was your reaction when you learned “Accidents Will Happen” would not be aired in the US? 

There were different reactions all around. I saw it from a number of different angles. Even though I was young and a writer, I still saw it from Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn’s eyes that it was very complicated and was going to be quite difficult to manage network relations. That’s the only time I’ve encountered that in twenty years of being in the business, a network saying “We’re not airing that.” So there was a lot of drama and financial implications, but I very quickly saw that it was the greatest thing that happened to the show because it gave us credibility and it gave us an edge. It was really cool and badass. We could have never planned it that way and it caused a bunch of ripple effects. We were weaving these storylines through and if the American audiences hadn’t seen these episodes, how do we refer to something they haven’t seen in later episodes? It became complicated in that way, but an interesting challenge. 

What other storylines are special to you?

I think the whole Jimmy-Spinner arc in season five… really Jimmy and Spinner going all the way through. We all contributed to the voices of the characters, but some more than others and some we took more ownership of and some were more personal. For Aaron, it was Paige and perhaps Marco. For Shelley, it was Manny and Emma. For me, Jimmy and Spinner were really my guys. The whole Jimmy/Spinner arc to me was wonderful. Every time I wrote them was a joy and I loved the actors. In some ways, it was a fantasy version of myself and my best friend in high school so I loved writing those guys.

I’ll tell you a really cool thing that I miss dearly. At our read throughs, Linda insisted on something that’s really cool: that the scripts not be distributed to the actors. We’d go into a read through and the actors had never read them so we’d get these primal reactions to the scripts. Probably my most proud and wonderful moment that I cherish was when we had the long arc where Jimmy and Spinner had the falling out over the shooting. When Jimmy forgave Spinner in “High Fidelity,” there was a joy in the room and I remember all the actors being really moved by that. And the look on Aubrey and Shane’s faces… that was just a really gratifying moment. 

There was another storyline in season six, the dreaded Lakehurst. That was based on a school called Merrymount which terrorized me and my friends and my school. They went to war with us and no one was killed thankfully, but there were some really violent situations and it was really gnarly. Those were things I really wanted to talk about and I really pushed to kill JT Yorke because I wanted that seismic event. No one died at my school, but a very close friend of mine had a bad motorcycle accident and was in the hospital and it felt like this bomb went off for everybody. 

Why did you choose to kill off JT specifically?

I remember exactly why. It was a very difficult decision and I alone bear the responsibility. Linda did not want to do it. No one wanted to do it, but I felt very strongly. Some of it was just a gut instinct. I loved JT and particularly in season two, I remember loving writing those B plots for him. He was a lovely character and we loved him and that’s why. If it was a character that you didn’t feel that tenderness and emotion for, it wouldn’t feel as strong. When he got knifed, I wanted the audience to feel it. I wanted them to feel what it felt like for me when my friend got in that motorcycle accident or when we experienced violence from the other school. I look back on some fights and things like that I experienced with that other school and I realize how easily some one could have died. So why JT? It was really that. I knew it was going to hurt and I wanted it to. It’s not because it’s sadistic, but because I wanted a massive impact for the audience. 

Degrassi largely gets more credit for the heavier, intense episodes, but you were equally good at crafting more humorous, awkward stories (Emma and Sean’s first date, JT buying a penis pump). Were there any of those storylines you enjoyed writing most?

All of them. I really loved writing all of those because as much as I loved heavy issues and drama, for me… Steve Scaini used to say to me, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry.” Those were the episodes he really liked directing and he directed a number of those- we used to call them lighter episodes which really bugged me actually. I didn’t like calling them lighter episodes [laughs]. But that was his philosophy: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry,” because when you make someone laugh, you’re actually softening them up for a heavier blow. 

You asked before about moments I loved writing. What you really love is when other people love it and say “That’s so great!” I remember the penis pump episode, which is funny because that was the subplot. The A plot was setting up the shooting [in “Time Stands Still”], but people remember the penis pump. The penis pump was a pitch from a writer named Mik Perlus who’s a really smart guy. At the beginning of the year, we’d throw up our issues and our fun, awkward moments and that was one Mik pitched out. Of course I had a great deal of fun. I can vividly remember the scene where they’re opening it up in the bathroom and I think Toby is reading the instructions and they’re badly written. “Insert member in tub.” I can remember Aaron really howling at that loving it. I loved writing those moments and they often fell to me because I had a goofy sense of humor. Again, I’m probably prouder of the heavier episodes, but I think my favorite episodes were ones that had a blend like “Mercy Street,” where it had a very funny subplot and a very heavy A plot. Of course, that was part of the strategy: the heavier the A plot, the lighter the subplot should be.

In season six, you followed several of the characters to college. Was there uncertainty over the future of Degrassi at the time? What factored into that decision?

You just said it. There was a lot of uncertainty and thinking “Is this going to work and what do you do?” I remember there was a discussion at the end of season five about whether that should be it. When I wrote “High Fidelity,” I wrote it as if it was the finale for the whole show. As you can imagine, it was a lot of pressure. But that idea didn’t stick for many reasons and of course we were going to continue with season six. There was a lot of trepidation about whether that was going to work and what to do. One thing that was great about Degrassi and Epitome in general is there was a feeling of, “Onwards.” We’re going to try it and make it work. It was very what I would say is British. I say that because Linda was initially from England and my dad was British. He very much had this attitude of, “Onwards. Into the breach!” That’s what it felt like. It felt like, could this possibly work? Is this going to work at all?

We came up with Toronto University. Funny enough, the University of Toronto was all in. They were like, “Yeah, set it at UofT!” I said, right or wrong, “No.” I was afraid that they were going to change their minds about the issues we wanted to deal with on campus. That’s why it was called Toronto University.

I’m still trepidatious about it. I still wonder… it was my last season although I continued to sporadically write for the show for years and years. I don’t know that the show ever worked as well. It continued. It became something different, but I don’t know. We spent a lot of time thinking about why high school shows work and university shows don’t. Aaron Martin went on to create a university show called “The Best Years” and I wrote for it. There’s a lot of factors in it not taking off the way Degrassi did. Mainly, nothing’s going to take off the way Degrassi did. 

There used to be a very popular show called Oz that was about prison. I used to say, “Degrassi is Oz with school books.” What’s great about high school for drama is that it’s like a prison and I mean that in the best way in the sense that they can’t get away from each other. In drama, it’s really great when you have people stuck in a room and they just can’t get away from each other and in University, you can get away.

Last year, Kevin Smith tweeted he found a script in his office for a Degrassi movie that he was supposed to direct in 2005. Can you elaborate on this?

Aaron Martin and Tassie Cameron wrote a script for a movie that Kevin was going to direct and it was going to be with Paramount. I read the treatment for it, which would be the story version. Because it was going to impact the characters, I had to know what was happening. There was a bit of cross-fertilization of ideas and things like that of issues and storylines I wanted to deal with. I wanted to deal with drugs and for Craig to experiment with cocaine and not do it in a cliche way. I thought we did a good job in season six. That was a moment I always liked where he’s on stage and the blood comes out, which came from a friend of mine’s experience. Because they were going to deal with Craig experimenting with drugs in the movie, we had a whole back and forth.

I remember Kevin being there while we were filming season five and it was always fun when he came. I remember having lunch in the Degrassi cafeteria and he was saying, “What storylines you got cooking this year, sir?” I told him the storyline for season five about Spinner becoming so guilt ridden that he becomes evangelical and goes through a whole born again experience. Kevin loved it so much. He went, “Oh, that’s hot! We’ve gotta take that for the movie.” I panicked because we were about to film them. I’m the showrunner, we’ve got these scripts approved and we’re moving forward. What I wound up doing was I talked him out of it. I was like, “You know, I don’t think you’re going to like this idea. It’s actually not really that good. It’s kinda dumb.” [laughs] That was sort of a funny story that I remember.

It very much loomed all over season five and six… “the movie, the movie, the movie.” But as we know, in Hollywood- I tell my kids all the time because they’re movie nuts. They say, “Oh, a Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is coming,” and I’m like, “Well hold on, because movies come and go.” So unfortunately, it didn’t go. 

It is fascinating. There was not much public knowledge about it until he tweeted that.

We kept it a secret. It was too bad because it really could have expanded the brand. I can tell you that their take was very influenced by Dazed and Confused. It was going to take place over one summer day. It could have been really great, but unfortunately the world did not get to see a Degrassi movie.

Another thing I want to clear up: there is a bizarre internet rumor that Katie Lai’s parents made her leave the show because you were planning a storyline where Kendra has sex with Toby. Is there any truth to that? 

There was no such storyline. I can tell you that. I can remember there being a Kendra and Toby romance. You know, it’s really kind of hard to shoehorn characters in because we always loved Kendra. She was Spinner’s adopted sister and one of the mandates of Degrassi was to not go home with the characters. Part of that was production because it was too expensive to build the sets. But to get Kendra into an episode, it was really difficult. We loved her and she was great, but we didn’t have a lot for her to do. I do remember her drifting away in the same way some characters drift away and you regret it and say, “Oh, what happened to that one?” Really some of it is that it just happens and there’s no big reason. For example, we had this character called Oskar… [Andrew nodding] Okay, if you know who Oskar is then you get bonus points. 

Oh yeah! [laughs] I know who Towerz is too. 

Towerz is a good one! We would have these characters on the periphery. For example, we loved Jay, but he really started out as sort of a burnout guy that you almost never see. Towerz was with Jay, right? Someone used to call them the candy thieves [laughs]. Because as far as we could push things, it was a kid’s show. As edgy as it was, there were certain lines we couldn’t cross. I had had experiences with shoplifting as a kid so we really wanted to explore these issues and we just couldn’t. The network said, “No, no, no.” So anyways, I digress, but some of these things are just random. Darcy, Shenae Grimes, could have been one of those characters. She showed up with a one line part at a car wash, but we all loved her and I think it was me- I don’t want to take credit if it wasn’t, but I think it was me who said that she should be in that born again Christian group and have a relationship with Spinner. 

Kendra unfortunately was just collateral damage. I don’t know what happened, she just faded away. I do remember we asked about her a couple times and there was some vague message delivered to us that she wasn’t interested in returning and we just carried on because we had so many balls in the air. But I can absolutely say that rumor is nothing I’m familiar with. When characters had sex, it was a very big deal for us because they were young. I don’t remember that being on the board at all so I’m going to squash that and say that is a malicious rumor. It’s not true. With Kendra, maybe we just dropped the ball. I know this is the longest answer ever and I apologize, but I just wanna make sure I answer correctly. Some of it was just the accident of bad timing because we would structure storylines around grades. We would have the seniors and the juniors and naturally as the kids got older, we wanted to do more stories with the older kids and all the junior kids kind of suffered. Maybe we just didn’t fight hard enough to give storylines for Kendra to do. 

Thanks for clarifying! To wrap up, what is the most valuable lesson you learned on Degrassi you still utilize as a screenwriter today? 

So many things, but the one that comes to mind is to not be kind to your characters, and to put them through terrible things. That’s where the gold is and I think that’s something I continue to do. You have to put your characters through hell. You have to be brutal to them. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh- I just mean don’t protect your characters. Let them make mistakes, let them be stupid even. That’s how you grow… you grow from making mistakes. You change from making mistakes. That’s one thing I see other writers not doing enough and certainly with that show, that was something that was pushed on me. Funny enough, going in I was reading a lot of Hemingway. Hemingway was very brutal and I remember really wanting to give that gut punch. Even moments like, “It’s not the locker, Manny. It’s you.” That’s from season two, I think? When Craig devastates Manny with that line [in “Take My Breath Away”], I wanted that line to be the last thing in the episode because I wanted to gut punch the audience and I wanted them to feel her world falling apart. That’s what teenage life is like, right? The simplest thing can crush you and destroy you. 

There were so many other things I learned, but that’s probably the lesson that I think is still relevant for that show and relevant for anyone writing teens. People say, “Why hasn’t there been another Degrassi?” and I think that’s part of it. That mentality is lacking. You’ve gotta be brave, you’ve gotta be courageous. You’ve gotta push these characters out there in the deep end. Some of what Linda instilled in us is to not have a parent come in and solve it. At that point, that’s how shows worked for teens or kids. A parent or teacher came in and solved the problem and Linda insisted that we not do that and the kids work things out for themselves… often with tragic consequences. That’s one of the many things that made the show and it’s something I learned from doing the show.  

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