As many York University graduates geared up for the final hurrah of their academic careers this month, one soon-to-be grad who won’t don her cap and gown until fall breathed a big sigh of relief, having just defended her four-years-in-the-making master’s thesis. Nicole Alexander has now all but convocated with her master of fine arts (MFA) in screenwriting from York’s Department of Cinema & Media Arts. She follows rather untraditionally in the footsteps of her eldest son, Morgan Fics, who accepted the very same degree five years ago – making them the first mother-son MFA screenwriting graduates in York history. And the story of how they got here – together – is definitely one worth telling.
Growing up in Winnipeg, Fics wanted to be a writer for as long as he can remember, penning short stories every chance he got and imagining his bright future as a novelist. After high school, he took some time off to travel and write before realizing that he should pursue post-secondary education to help improve his craft. He soon enrolled at the University of Winnipeg, where his interests shifted from English literature to film after a professor pointed out that his work was better suited to scripts than prose. And after completing his first screenwriting course, he knew it was a perfect fit.
Encouragement from a trusted mentor led Fics to then decide to apply for a master’s program next. York’s was the only graduate screenwriting program in the country at the time, so he applied and was thrilled to be accepted.
“I remember the day they called me,” he says. “I was at work and I basically broke down crying in the middle of this tech support call centre I was working at. It was very, very exciting.”
Fics happened to know three people from Winnipeg who were going through York’s small but mighty graduate film program at the same time, in different streams. “And because of that, I had a really strong connection between all three aspects of the department,” he explains, “so I spent a lot of time on set, I got to do a lot of producing and a lot of story editing.”
His many fond memories from York University centre around the mentorship and collaboration among his fellow students, spending a lot of time workshopping and getting to know each other really well. He is still in contact with some of them today.
Since graduating in 2016, Fics has been busy. He has made several short films, the most recent of which, Tick Tock (2018), qualified for both the Canadian Screen Awards and the Academy Awards, and won best drama at the Toronto Shorts International Film Festival and an award of excellence at Canada Shorts. Finding the Restorative Narrative (2015), which he worked on with another York MFA grad, is part of the late York University Professor Amnon Buchbinder’s interactive website Biology of Story. And a new screenplay that he cowrote and hopes to co-direct is currently being shopped around to North American production companies.
Fics has also been exploring his interest in teaching by working as a teaching assistant for the Biology of Story course at York for several years and instructing a screenwriting course in the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. “I think teaching is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever gotten to do with my life,” he says, “and I think that’s a lot of influence from my mom, for sure.”
Looking ahead, Fics hopes to have a varied career that includes making independent Canadian feature films and teaching part-time, while doing some script-doctoring and story editing on the side. “I basically want to do a million things at once so I’m always fresh for whatever is going on,” he says with a laugh.
Alexander, who earned her bachelor of education from the University of Manitoba and graduated from Chicago’s Second City sketch comedy writing program, kept her passion for writing mostly on the back burner as she raised her young family and worked as a teacher. But once her three kids reached their teenage years, she decided to take a crack at her first film script, something she had always dreamt of doing. She submitted that debut screenplay, The Suicide Club, to the WFF Praxis Screenwriters Lab – 21 years ago now – and, to her surprise, it was selected. But with a full-time job and three kids at home, there still wasn’t much time for her to pursue writing in any significant way. However, with her interest piqued, she went on to complete two more feature scripts in her stolen moments, plus a funny book on internet dating called Cyber Love Muse.
When all three of Alexander’s adult children left Winnipeg for graduate programs, she decided to head overseas to teach. She spent two years in Thailand and a year in South Korea, and it was then, when she was really missing her family and not knowing where to settle next, that Fics encouraged her to apply for the MFA in screenwriting at York. She hadn’t previously considered it, but she liked the idea.
“I think I needed a break from teaching and I’ve always wanted to become a better writer. I still do,” she says. “And I was shocked they let me in but they did.”
She lived on campus for two years and loved every minute of it. “Because I had my kids so young, living on campus was just so much fun,” she says. “I was really quiet and I had a cat, so I wasn’t like a usual college student, but I really appreciated the experience. Just having the time to explore the writing was such a privilege.”
The most memorable part of the program for Alexander was the short film she created, as it was her first time experimenting with other aspects of filmmaking outside of writing. “I got to write, direct and shoot, and that was an absolutely amazing experience,” she recalls.
After a difficult final year spent finishing her thesis, returning to teaching and moving back to Winnipeg to take care of her elderly father, who recently passed, Alexander is now beginning to feel like she can start to enjoy the fruits of her labour. “Now I can say that I have my MFA from York in screenwriting,” she says excitedly. “I’m relieved. There’s a real jubilance underneath that is starting to come out.”
She will be moving back to Ontario this summer, and although she’ll still be teaching, Alexander hopes to spend the next year finishing up the two scripts she has on the go and trying to do something with her thesis script, which she has already submitted to some competitions. “My goal is to segue from teaching to writing full-time, if that’s possible,” says Alexander. “I’m aiming for a new career – why not, right?”
A family affair
Top of mind for both mother and son is to work on a project together now that Alexander is finished her MFA and finally able to dedicate her attention to something other than her thesis. “We’ve still got some time before the school year kicks off and I have a feeling that we’ll probably pound out a script ASAP,” says Fics assuredly.
But this won’t be the first time this mother-son duo collaborates on work. The pair has a long history of working together – while Fics completed his MFA studies, and while Alexander went through hers.
“When I would write a script, I would send it to my mom and she would read it and help with the editing,” explains Fics. “It was back and forth like this, with her stuff too. I actually edited her short film, the one that she shot at York. We’ve been working together for 15 years.”
Their tight-knit bond became especially important as they both navigated through some very heavy and interconnected material for their master’s theses. “We got really lucky to have each other during both of our journeys,” says Fics, “especially because we both did very personal thesis topics that centred around one particular individual from our lives, my father and my mom’s ex,” who passed away during the first year of Alexander’s MFA.
“It was very healing, writing that script,” Fics says. “I honestly don’t think I could have done it without my mom. It was a long process of, I guess I would call it grieving, of trying to move through the story of my relationship with my father and how that ended up playing out within the script. And something I always wished is that he could have read it.”
“It was quite the journey,” Alexander agrees. “I call it my personal therapy.”
By Lindsay MacAdam, communications officer, Communications & Public Affairs, York University