WORDS angela cowan X illustration sierra lundy
It’s in this moment, standing, waiting and watching, while a glacier-cold wind knifes through my jacket and burns my ears, I realize that what strikes me the most is just how incredibly hard every single person here is working.
At eight years old, I’d swan about my bedroom with my baby blanket tied up tight under my armpits, dreaming of long dresses and red carpets. As a girl, a teenager, and even well into my early 20s, I harboured deep fantasies of becoming a world-famous actress. I daydreamed about what kind of interview answers I’d give, where I’d travel, what (incredibly handsome) leading men I might work with.
I dabbled in theatre and talent searches, but I never took the plunge to try and make a real career out of it — partly because of finances (head shots, acting classes, travel, etc.), and partly because my parents were (understandably) reticent about me entering the industry. But mostly, something was missing. It wasn’t until my first writing class at university that I had a light bulb moment and realized where my heart lived.
Since then, one thing I’ve discovered about writing, and in particular, writing for magazines, is that doors open that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. As a full-time writer, I’ve gone on culinary tours, I’ve visited incredible artists and authors in their creative spaces, I’ve met royalty, and on one memorable occasion, I even held an actual Oscar (Best Director, I’d like to thank the Academy …). But as a decade-long fan of Murdoch Mysteries, when I got the opportunity in October 2017 to not only meet the cast and crew but to spend the better part of a day on set while on assignment, it quickly became the pinnacle of my interviewing experiences.
Murdoch travels outside of its regular Toronto shooting schedule probably once a year, and this was the first time they’d made the trip across to Vancouver Island, shooting in Victoria’s Gowlland Tod Park and Cattle Point over three days for a two-hour Christmas special.
So it’s early Friday morning on day three, and I drive into a mostly deserted parking lot at Cattle Point with a flicker of trepidation. Thankfully, Katherine Wolfgang, head of publicity for CBC, comes over as I stand just outside my car, wondering where I’m supposed to go. Large, backless set pieces stand off to one side for an upcoming village scene. A square black tent flutters in the frigid sea winds, sheltering the director and assistant directors. And way out on the water floats a massive canoe, waiting to manoeuvre into place for another take.
It’s not even 9 am, but most of the cast have been on set for hours already, says Katherine as she leads me to a spot where I’ll be out of the way. There are several scenes being shot today: walking along the beach, a confrontation in a Songhees village, and the canoe ride, which is where the two leads are right now. A low, lightly striated cloud cover creates the ideal light for today’s shoot: flat and bright, with a spectacular sunrise. I get to watch the monitors through the flaps in the director’s tent, seeing just how they frame the shots.
All those fantasies of being on a real live television set come rushing back, complete with dashing romantic leads and people shouting from every direction as the cameras are set up. Then a heavy blanket of silence falls and I can hear far-off gulls behind the snatches of dialogue, and it’s in this moment, standing, waiting, watching, while a glacier-cold wind knifes through my jacket and burns my ears, I realize that what strikes me the most is just how incredibly hard every single person is working here.
Far from being the glamorous, luxurious existence most people associate with TV and movies, what I witness on set is long hours, endless repetition, collaboration and discussion for the smallest of details, and little to no time for anyone to even escape to the port-a-potty, let alone eat or take a break. Between takes, the stars are swiftly wrapped in earmuffs and knee-length parkas. Other people from the media mill around like me, waiting for a minute or two to grab someone for a quote.
The canoe is beached, and lead and Montreal native Yannick Bisson joins Dylan Neal and Megan Follows for a scene hopping from giant log to giant log over the rocks. Director Gary Harvey calls out suggestions for small changes to Bisson’s performance, and they reset again and again and again. Somehow, the actors maintain the same level of authenticity and emotion each time, tweaking their performances an inch this way and that.
One moment that’s stuck with me to this day is the sight of Murdoch himself coming back from the catering tents eating a few hurried bites of coleslaw out of a tiny paper cup, before jumping right back to work.
Despite having been on set since well before sunrise and with many hours yet to go, Bisson is gracious and kind, and takes time to chat to everyone who’s come to see him, no matter how briefly. A fellow from a radio show gets to Bisson before me, and I stand back to let them talk, grabbing a few notes so I don’t have to repeat questions. At this point I’ve been on set for close to four hours, and I’m ready to jump in for my turn when the director jogs through, shouting for everyone to get back in place for the next round of takes.
Outwardly, I’m professional and pleasant. Inside, I can feel my tiny chance to talk to the leads slipping away. But then a hand grabs my elbow. I turn, and it’s Bisson, smiling so that my heart actually does an extra hard tha-thump, and he promises to find me when they’re done.
I end up getting the interview, and with Hélène Joy as well, who is equally gracious and waits until I’ve asked all my questions before moving on to the next person anxious for her time.
I have to wait to chat to showrunner Peter Mitchell, so while Black Press photographer Don Denton explores with his camera, I end up chatting with Simon McNabb, one of the main writers for the Christmas special. A Vancouver native, he’s about my age, and happy to talk about the writing process for the show.
And it’s here, chatting with Simon, that I realize I’m the most relaxed, and the most at home. Seeing behind the scenes has been fascinating and exciting, and I’ve definitely had a challenge keeping my inner fangirl in check, but for the first time, I can see where I might fit in a situation like this: warm and toasty in the director’s tent, seeing my words brought to life by incredibly talented people.
The little girl inside of me still dreams occasionally of flashing cameras and golden awards, but red carpet dreams aside, I think I’ll stick with my pen for now.
Do you have a good story to tell — and the ability to write it? Boulevard readers are invited to submit stories for consideration and publication in the Narrative section. Stories should be 800 to 1,200 words long and sent to managing editor Susan Lundy at email@example.com. Please place the word “Narrative” in the subject line.