Twenty years ago, Alberta was known as a spectacular location, but not a great production source. The thousand dollar cup of coffee was an overwhelming obstacle to regional producers, until the establishment of the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation in 1982. Thanks to that farsighted provincial loan and equity funding source, Alberta producers began to create film and television that was seen worldwide. In the last few years, Alberta-originated series like North of 60, Jake and the Kid, and Mentors (which won a mittful of awards at the Alberta Film and Television Awards in April) have reached national and international audiences. The infrastructure was finally in place to support series production, including the American series Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which shot in Calgary for several seasons.
Feature by Linda Kupecek / Photography by Julian Ferreira
Now, Caitlins Way, a family series produced near Calgary by Helene Whites Riverwood Productions, is distinguished by the fact that it is a Canadian production, produced by an Alberta company. The March premiere attracted 6.5 million viewers in its Saturday primetime slot on Nickelodeon, a record for the U.S. network. The series airs Sundays on YTV in Canada.
Shot in High River, 25 miles south of Calgary, the $10 million series about a rough-edged urban teenaged girl sent to live with distant cousins in the West, has completed 23 half-hours. Not surprisingly, after its ratings and glowing reviews in the U.S. press, it has been given the green light for an additional 26 episodes.
As played by American Lindsay Felton (3 Ninjas), Caitlin is a vulnerable survivor with a sharp tongue and attitude to spare. Her surrogate family, played by Cynthia Belliveau (Wind at My Back), Vancouvers Ken Tremblett (Dead Mans Gun) and Jeremy Foley have their work cut out for them, as she resists the rural environment and integration into her peer group of (at times) rather nasty small-town teenagers.
The series is a joint undertaking of Lynch Entertainment (Los Angeles), a leading producer of live-action childrens programming in television, and Fireworks Entertainment (Toronto). Although it was created by veteran Tommy Lynch, whose credits include The Secret World of Alex Mack a long-running highly rated live action series which debuted on Nickelodeon in 1994 all Caitlins Way writers have been Canadian.
And so we come to all the things about Caitlins Way which make it so much more than an American series shot on location, or a U.S. project dolled up in Canadian clothing for tax breaks. First of all, Helene White, a respected Alberta producer whose credits include the syndicated series Connecting, owns the copyright to Caitlins Way.
Then there is the roster of writers and directors on the series, which for the first season were all Canadian, including writers Jana Veverka (also the show-runner) Brent Piaskoski, Edgar Lyall, Therese Beaupre, John May, Suzanne Bolch, Beth Stewart, Tony Di Franco and Wilson Coneybeare, and directors Nick Kendall, Jimmy Kaufman, Peter D. Marshall, Alan Simmonds, Norma Bailey, Patrick Williams, Gary Harvey, Jane Thompson, James Marshall and Larry McLean.
Add to that the fact that the financing, according to White, is almost entirely from CanWest Global, except for the hefty and much appreciated one million dollars from the Alberta Film Development Program. This is a totally Canadian production, says White, who has a soft spoken, strong presence. It is not American backed.
It is the first dramatic series for Nickelodeon, with ratings 154% above the average in that time slot in 1999. And more than that, it is a savvy show with more to it than the usual tween programming. The ratings are phenomenal, says Tommy Lynch, given that this is a show for this age group with a more complex layer of story-telling. It is a challenge to make it both dramatic and comedic.
In an early episode in which Caitlin is forced to endure a camping trip with her schoolmates, she finally befriends her worst enemy when they are stranded in the wilderness. A good dose of action and scares, including a rattlesnake bite and a close call in the rapids, mix with the bittersweet ending, in which nobody falls into each others arms, promising eternal friendliness. Instead, Caitlins new found pal abandons her to go off with her usual buddies (which in real life is what most likely would happen), while Caitlin takes it philosophically, knowing that there has been a momentary bonding.
In the episode entitled Bear With Me, Caitlin fights for the rights of a roaming bear to live in its natural habitat, a parallel to her rather punk presence in a conservative rural town. Again, a few good scares mix with a poetic resolution. And the writers manage to throw in native spirituality and good humour in the form of a Cree deputy, played by Nathaniel Arcand, who was well cast by local casting director Rhonda Fisekci. (The cast and crew had to adjust to the presence of animals on set in most episodes. White, who, with others, had been warned by bear wrangler Gerry Therrien not to bring food to the set, was horrified to find herself the subject of its attentions because of a shiny can of club soda in her hand. I didnt think a club soda was food, she recalls.)
All this is set against the spectacular background of High River, with foothills and mountains galore. In the American market, the setting is Montana (thanks to the joys of dubbing) and in Canada, it is Alberta. Lynch recalls being horrified by the unusually frosty weather in the summer of 1999, and being reassured by White that it would change, as southern Alberta weather always does.
The series went through a series of titles, as well. First, Stray Dog, the TV movie which launched the series, then Just a Kid, and finally Caitlins Way. There was some tinkering with just how much western ambience there should be, with a reduction in cowboy hats after the first episodes.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this project, particularly to those in the Alberta community, is that it is an affirmation of Whites choice to stay in Alberta when many in the industry were scrambling to catch the last bus to B.C. Although the new Alberta Film Development Program is a much welcomed lifeline to the industry, before its inception, the past few years were bleak for some.
Just before this project came in, I was seriously thinking of closing my offices and working out of my home, recalls White. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep those doors open. White had incorporated her first film company, Calgary-based HBW Film Corp., in 1982, after her first documentary, Lady in Motion, won international awards. It was broadcast by the CBC network, and was distributed in the U.S. Since then, she has been an active and respected member of the Alberta industry, serving on the board of the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association and the CFTPA. Connecting, a series of 78 half-hours, was the first Canadian syndicated series independently produced by an Alberta production company. Whites background includes work as a performer, writer, director, as well as training in the visual arts and studies at UCLA.
Helene understood the area and the subtext of a hard city girl against a natural background, says Tommy Lynch. She assembled a good group of people to work on the show, because she understands the filmmaking process very well from the contribution of the drivers to the talent onscreen. Lynch notes that, it was hard for me to let go of the show, because I created it, but when I met Jana Veverka, the show runner, I realized that she too understood the show completely. Veverka had worked in Calgary before, on the Lonesome Dove series. Helene was the guiding force as the writers were working, says Lynch, She assembled an excellent group of people. And I got to read great story outlines and great scripts. The executive story editors are Edgar Lyall and Therese Beaupre. The keys in the set, props, and art department were Albertan.
How did this show land here? Why not Montana, after all? White says that first, the location sold it and that she was recommended to Fireworks by associates in Toronto, and, as Lynch says, I wanted a certain setting, but it could have been anywhere from Utah to the Rockies.
Stephen Keller, executive-in-charge of Caitlins Way for Nickelodeon, says the company is more than happy with the results. The production values far exceeded our expectations, says Keller. This is a very aggressive show in terms of schedule, and our first venture in the west. We are extremely pleased with the talent, the editing, and the direction. The ratings were reassuring, not only in choice of location, but also with the content of the series. We were really concerned, going in, that the themes would be too adult (for the age group) and that it might be viewed exclusively by girls, given that it is a girl-driven show. But the ratings reflect an even boy-girl ratio.
The choice was a happy one, given the ratings, and certainly a boost to the area, both in the direct and indirect dollars pumped into the local economy, and also to crew, talent and production personnel. Given the relatively small size of the industry, it was close to a family reunion for some. Series star Lindsay Felton says People are so much more polite up here. The crew we worked with all knew each other from before, like one big family. Vancouver actor Ken Tremblett is considering a move to Alberta. What struck me was the sense of community there was no division between cast and crew.
As in many film communities across the country, associations can go back over decades. White, who in her early years worked as a performer for Vancouver director Peter Marshall (Power Play, Black Harbour) at ACCESS Television, hired him back as a director on this project 20 years later. Edgar Lyle was a production assistant on Connecting.
Rhonda Fisekci of Koan Casting in Calgary cast the first season of Caitlins Way, except for the four leads, which were placed by Bette Chadwick. Of 50 roles cast, 36 came from Alberta, 12 from Vancouver and two from Toronto. The challenge for Fisekci has been to find the appropriate diversity in ethnic actors, adding aboriginal, black and Asian to the cast whenever possible. One of her coups was the casting of Arcand as the deputy, in a role which was originally not designated as native. Fisekci, whose recent credits include an episode of the upcoming CBC series, Peoples History of Canada, introduced Arcand (Big Bear) to the producers, and was ecstatic with the results. The series is a healthy balance to other production in the province, which, at this time, is a mix of offshore and indigenous, most of the latter tied to public funding or broadcaster support. The fact that Caitlins Way is mostly financed by CanWest Global is a refreshing change from the usual mix of applications and the house of cards tricks required for financing in Alberta.
Losing the AMPDC was a terrible blow to us, recalls White of the grim time when the Alberta Government decided to get out of the film business. It was easy to be overlooked (by funders and broadcasters in central Canada). When everybody in the province worked hard at lobbying the government, it showed that people really cared about the industry and wanted to stay here.
Next up for White, in addition, of course, to the upcoming season of Caitlins Way, is A Little Bit of Heaven, a feature co-production with Forefront Entertainment Group of Vancouver, and Flying Ghosts, a TV movie to be co-produced with Cool-brook Productions Inc. (Toronto) and DM Enterprises (L.A.).
Caitlins Way is, on one level, the story of an unruly, independent teen surviving in a wilderness locale with strangers. On another level it is a testimony to surviving as an artist and producer in a part of the country and environment which can be challenging and at times, discouraging, unless you hold onto your dreams.
I think our business film is a balance of art and business, says White. But you always have to remember that the art is what people are looking for. Art is locked into our dreams. If you lose your dreams, you lose the whole ballgame.
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