Tag Archives: Don Carmody Television

Family focus

Love, life, laughter and loss come under the microscope in family adventure drama Northern Rescue, a coproduction from Canada’s CBC and Netflix. Executive producer David Cormican tells DQ how the show meets audience demand for hopeful programming.

Amid the ongoing boom in scripted, fuelled by demand for increasingly niche shows, one genre feeling the love is family drama, on the back of titles such as This is Us and a planned reboot of celebrated 1990s series Northern Exposure.

One series looking to provide storylines and plot twists with family and adventure at its heart is 10-part Northern Rescue, which has been co-commissioned by Canada’s CBC and Netflix for international audiences.

Produced by Don Carmody Television (DCTV), the series follows John West (played by William Baldwin) who uproots his three children from the city to return to his home town, where he takes charge of the local search and rescue service, after the death of his wife.

The series explores the effect of grief on the family, as the children’s aunt, Charlotte (Kathleen Robertson), struggles to help John and his kids heal while she also copes with the loss of her sister and her own desire for a family.

Mixing episodic and serialised storylines that introduce some colourful characters from around the family’s new community, the show’s cast also includes Michelle Nolden, Michael Xavier and Peter MacNeill. Amalia Williamson, Spencer McPherson and Taylor Thorne play John’s children Maddie, Scout and Taylor, respectively.

Showrunner David Cormican picks a tranquil spot to work on location

Northern Rescue was conceived by DCTV’s David Cormican (Tokyo Trial, Between), who developed it together with co-creators Mark Bacci (Between) and Dwayne Hill (Peg + Cat). They subsequently wrote the 10-part drama, with Cormican showrunning.

“It was an exhausting experience but super rewarding, with huge learning curves,” Cormican says, “which is great and ultimately very rewarding to go from the genesis of the idea to the execution and the premiere of it.”

Between them, Bacci, Cormican and Hill adopted a “best idea wins” rule to fuel the writing process in a bid to create the most thrilling show possible for audiences, and families in particular. “It’s a nice family show – you don’t see too many of them,” says Cormican. The showrunner also executive produces alongside Bradley Walsh, who directs four episodes, Bacci, Hill and lead actor Baldwin. “I’ve got a daughter, she’s 11 now and for years I’ve been making programming that’s fairly dark and edgy, not necessarily family fare, always genre-skewing. Every time I have a show that comes out, my parents get the popcorn and sometimes it’s a little too gory for a family sit-down.

“So I wanted something I could feel proud to have my entire family and all our friends watch. It’s wholesome, hopeful programming that’s crunchy in terms of the emotions and grief we’re working through, but it’s comfort food for television viewers these days.

“We’re hunkering down with these kids, their dad and their aunt and redefining what family means, not just to us but to the characters as well. That was the idea – what is this definition of family? Because it’s very much different from the 50s and 60s, and even the 80s when I was growing up as a kid. Family is now very much who you choose as much as who’s just there.”

Though it was just a working title at the outset, the name Northern Rescue applies not only to the West family’s decision to move north and John’s job, but also to the emotional trauma the family is facing following the death of their matriarch. Every week, the series brings in guest stars as characters who need to be physically rescued, but each episode also looks at how the family is coping with their grief in an unfamiliar location.

Northern Rescue stars William Baldwin as John West

To heighten those moments, the show also utilises flashbacks to a time when Sarah (played by Nolden) is still alive. “I hate flashbacks and voiceover as devices but we’ve used both of them in this,” Cormican admits. “It just kind of worked and leant itself naturally to it, and we do it in such a way that it motivates the story.

“We’re really seeing this story through the eyes of Maddie, the oldest daughter of the West family; we’re seeing the story through her journal and the therapy she’s having. The flashbacks happen naturally. We didn’t expect them to carry throughout as much as they have but we just leaned into it because Michelle was phenomenal and was crushing those scenes. They also opened up a new perspective to the emotional gravity our characters are experiencing.”

Bacci, Cormican and Hill wrote the series together, passing drafts between them. They also worked with several female writers to provide additional perspective, with America Olivo joining the production full-time.

“When we were breaking the season, we came up with ideas that were for season five, or season two. So now we have a big document full of ideas,” Cormican reveals. “We had an idea that the second season would be about X, season three would be about Y. Then there’s the milestones of falling in love, getting married, having a baby and a death somewhere along the way. Then there’s a divorce. We’re ticking some of those boxes.

“One of the interesting parts of Charlotte’s character is she was trying to have a child with her ex and they lost the baby. There’s a huge amount of grief in losing a child and wanting your own family, so this is an opportunity for her to become a pseudo-mother to these three children. Then we complicate it when the ex comes back to town.”

Location scouting took place in North Bay and Sudbury, two towns in northern Ontario, before scenic Parry Sound was chosen as the backdrop for the drama. “We kept looking to move scenes outside because it was so pretty,” Cormican jokes.

The 10-parter focuses on a search and rescue service

“The therapy sessions are a great example – we had them meeting inside in the first episodes and then we thought they should do walk-and-talks and go on hikes. One thing we didn’t know was that there’s a train going by every nine minutes – there are so many tracks in that town. So we were always like, ‘Hold for the train.’ Sometimes you work with it, but ultimately the sound team is going nuts with the tracks you give them.”

The distance from Toronto, three hours north, proved to be the biggest challenge to the production as it meant finding accommodation for the entire cast and crew on location, in the middle of the busy summer season. “It’s a town of 6,000 people that swells to 60,000 as well as us in the middle of summer. So everything was at a premium,” says Cormican, revealing that at one point they looked at buying an old cruise ship, docking it and turning it into a production village. Disappointingly, the duration of shipping times and the hours needed to have a vessel fitted for their needs proved prohibitive.

When it comes to the current demand for family drama, Cormican points to Party of Five, Northern Exposure, Heartland, This is Us, Parenthood and film The Grand Seduction as inspirations for Northern Rescue. And with Northern Exposure primed for a reboot at CBS, he believes “we’re onto something.”

“I feel like there’s an ache and a need in the world right now for hopeful family programming, grounded in a reality that’s not saccharine or precious,” Cormican adds.

There’s definitely some tear-shedding moments in this show, he notes, but there are also plenty of laughs. But while a similar show, Schitt’s Creek, plays to the zany side of the genre, Northern Rescue promises to be much more grounded in emotion, reality and truth.

With so many plot points already noted down, writing has already started on a potential second season. “We felt a little behind the eight ball this year when we got the green light, as we only had two scripts written,” Cormican adds of the show, which is due to debut on March 1. “We did it, we made it, but I’d like to not be working 21 hours a day next year!”

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Can-do attitude: Why Canada’s drama sector looks healthy

DQ speaks to broadcasters and producers about the state of the Canadian drama industry and finds a sector in positive mood when it comes to its place in the international market.

Stepping out of the shadow cast by the US, Canada has emerged as a powerful player in TV drama. From Orphan Black and Rookie Blue to Motive and Murdoch Mysteries, series produced in Canada are now on air around the world.

But amid a changing regulatory landscape, what domestic challenges are now facing broadcasters and producers – and what opportunities are they taking advantage of?

“There’s no question the Canadian industry, as is the case worldwide, has undergone a profound transformation due to changes in technology. But the good news is the industry overall is very healthy,” says Tracey Pearce, senior VP of specialty and pay at broadcast group Bell Media.

“We’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how TV is alive and well in Canada. Television continues to be very powerful but that’s not to suggest we don’t understand the importance of being in the digital space. We do, but we do ourselves a disservice as an industry by forgetting how powerful television is.”

Christina Jennings
Christina Jennings

Like broadcasters around the world, Bell Media looks to homegrown drama series to help define its channels, from general entertainment CTV (Motive, Saving Hope) to cable channels Space (Orphan Black, pictured top) and Bravo (crime drama 19-2).

But while Bell can enjoy the success that comes from airing some of Canada’s biggest original dramas, Pearce says she recognises the “nervousness” currently found within the production sector.

“That’s understandable given the technological changes worldwide and the new regulatory environment we are now in. People wonder what impact that will have on production,” she explains. “But we are as, if not more, committed to Canadian programming as we look to sharpen up our brands in this ‘pick and pay’ environment. While we recognise it’s always been a challenging production environment for independent producers in Canada, we’re still in it with both feet.”

The new regulations to which Pearce refers came into force on March 1, when TV providers in Canada were forced to introduce ‘skinny’ cable bundles for consumers, priced at C$25 (US$19) or less. This followed a ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last year that consumers should have a greater choice of – and access to cheaper – cable and satellite packages.

Viewers can now pick and pay for their own channel packages or opt for the basic bundle, which must include broadcast networks CBC, Global and CTV as well as certain regional channels.

As a result, questions are being asked about the future of some Canadian speciality channels and whether, like in the US, smaller networks will begin commissioning original drama in a bid to find their defining series – think AMC and Mad Men – in a bid to stay on the air.

“It’s certainly a changing landscape,” says Melissa Kajpust, head of creative development at pay TV network Super Channel. “We don’t anticipate this will affect our subscribers but it’s a landscape where no one can predict what will happen. Certainly people are going to be looking for good content, and that’s what we’re focused on finding.”

But according to Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO at prodco Shaftesbury, drama producers shouldn’t be worried. “There’s no question that it’s going to affect non-scripted factual and lifestyle producers, and it will also affect those broadcasters – but as drama producers it doesn’t affect us.

“What does affect us is the culmination of several years of consolidation, which means on the drama side we’re now down to just a handful of buyers. The uncertainty when you have so few buyers makes it tougher but, on the plus side, Canada has two new OTT services, Shomi and CraveTV.

Omni Television’s Blood and Water
Omni Television’s Blood and Water

“We’ve only seen one original commission from either (Bell Media-backed Crave’s comedy LetterKenny, which has been renewed for a second season) and it’s early days but, as they build their subscriber bases, we’re hopeful they’re going to become buyers of content.”

Shaftesbury’s slate includes CBC’s long-running crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, Super Channel’s original drama Slasher and period supernatural procedural Houdini & Doyle, a coproduction with the UK’s Big Talk Productions for UK commercial network ITV, Canada’s Global and US network Fox.

“The other slight concern,” Jennings says, “is there are so many channels, so many options, how do you cut through? It helps to have a big brand or comic book, a big star or a big showrunner. We’ve had great luck with (House creator) David Shore joining Houdini & Doyle. David coming on board got the show made, no question. But will everything soon need one of these big auspices to get a commission? Not every project necessarily needs them.”

Breakthrough Entertainment may have found another way. The Toronto-based producer was behind a new adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, which starred Martin Sheen and aired on YTV in February. But it is another of its productions, Omni Television’s Blood and Water, that proved to be an interesting experiment when it premiered last year.

David Cormican
David Cormican

The eight-part cop drama aired in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Cantonese and featured a cast that was 80% Asian-Canadian. It has now been renewed for a second season of eight half-hour episodes, written by Diane Boehme, Al Kratina, Dan Trotta and Simu Liu.

“Because of the plethora of great dramas, you have to find new ways to cut through,” says Ira Levy, partner and executive producer at Breakthrough. “It starts with a great director or writer and a wonderful script, but the good news is there’s a voracious appetite for drama from around the world. The golden age allows for new models of content because there’s such a demand for stories.”

Of Blood and Water, he adds: “There’s a market of ex-pat Chinese and hundreds of millions of people (around the world) interested in seeing contemporary drama in a language they can relate to. That’s part of our strategic positioning but, first and foremost, it’s a great story that hasn’t been told in this way. You do something not because it’s different but because you believe in the story. If it has other elements that can cut through, that’s just a smart thing to do.”

A glance at the schedules of Canadian broadcasters – both free-to-air and pay TV – shows that US series are still widespread, but there is now a growing belief that homegrown series can go head-to-head with imports.

“They’re a little late but broadcasters are coming around to the idea you can have a pretty good Canadian drama slate now,” says David Cormican, executive VP of business development and production at Don Carmody Television. “So you’re seeing an influx of Canadian dramas taking off, doing multiple seasons and finding US buyers themselves.

“What’s more interesting is the Canadian consumer is watching these programmes without necessarily realising they are Canadian shows. Whereas before we had this negative stigma attached to Canadian dramas, the comment now is, ‘I didn’t realise it was Canadian,’ which we take as a compliment. It’s been tricky for many years because our largest trading partner is immediately to the south.”

Super Channel has, Kajpust notes, raised the bar in terms of its own original drama aspirations, leading to horror series Slasher and Van Helsing, a modern-day take on Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter starring Kelly Overton.

“The US will always influence Canada but it has changed,” she says. “Canadians are watching more Canadian programming and the other broadcasters are commissioning more Canadian series, so it’s a good time for writers and producers.”

But it’s only by partnering with US outlets, such as Chiller for Slasher and Syfy on Van Helsing, that Super Channel is able to do more expensive dramas.

Sci-fi drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix
Sci-fi drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix

Don Carmody is also building its US relationships, most notably with Freeform (formerly ABC Family) fantasy Shadowhunters, which has been renewed for a second season, and science-fiction drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix in partnership with Canada’s City.

Described by Cormican as “Lord of the Flies meets The Walking Dead – but without zombies,” Between is set in a small town where everyone over the age of 21 dies from a mysterious disease. Looking to build its coproduction slate, Netflix came on board after reading the first two scripts, and a second season is due to drop on July 1.

“Netflix was looking to explore this coproduction model and we were the guinea pig, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Cormican says. “Both Netflix and City are taking pride and ownership of the project. We have two very strong partners. They’re not always on the same page but we manage to find middle ground that works for everyone.”

Muse Entertainment has also built strong partnerships in the US, leading to its slate of TV movies for Hallmark Channel (including the Aurora Teagarden and Gourmet Detective franchises), Egyptian drama Tut for Spike and The Kennedys for Reelz. A sequel to the latter, called After Camelot, will see Katie Holmes reprise her role as Jackie Kennedy when shooting begins in May. Friends alum Matthew Perry has also been cast as Ted Kennedy.

“Most Canadian consumers are watching American programming most of the time anyway,” CEO Michael Prupas says. “The CBC is focused on doing programming that is distinctively Canadian and, as such, it tends to be a turn-off for most international broadcasters, with Canada not being the hottest girl at the dance.

“CTV and Global are happy and interested in programming sold to the US but they tend to put in the lesser part of the financing, which means the show is American-orientated and the driving force behind it is often the US company.”

Muse is also looking further afield, with projects in Germany and ambitions to work in the UK and France. Shaftesbury, too, is well placed internationally and Jennings says coproductions are now more important than ever to piece together financing.

“When you have fewer buyers in Canada, unless you’re going to pack up your tent and go home, you have to find other ways to raise finances,” she says. “But for many years, we’ve all taken advantage of Canada’s government support, tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund, so Canada took an unreasonable amount of the burden of financing shows. We’re going to start seeing coproductions where more money is brought to the table and Canada is the smaller piece of the puzzle.”

Fellow producer Incendo is also focusing on international coproductions. It’s currently in production on season two of Versailles, the English-language series produced with Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction for French pay TV network Canal+. The period drama, which airs in Canada on Super Channel and recently debuted on BBC2 in the UK, is set in 1671 and follows France’s King Louis XIV during his first years in power when he made the decision to move his court to Versailles and construct the largest palace in Europe.

It is also developing Ice, in which a suburban woman turns to diamond theft following her divorce, for Bell Media. Writer Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality) is attached.

“I’ve been doing coproductions here and there for 25 years and now, over the past few years, the world has discovered coproduction,” says Incendo president Jean Bureau. “It’s great because minds are opening up to sharing ideas and having discussions on creative issues between two or three producers. When we talked about coproductions 10 years ago, people would freak out. Everybody wanted control. Now it’s very different. We’re competing with the very best productions from around the world, so Canadian producers must create compelling drama if we want broadcast partners to participate. It pushes us to be the best.”

Montréal producer-distributor Attraction Images’ forthcoming projects include crime drama Séquelles (titled McDougall in English), which is based on novels by Johanne Seymour and will air on Series+ in April. Among its other credits is medical drama Au Secours de Béatrice for TVA.

“Broadcasters want fiction because that’s the most addictive programming for viewers,” notes Louise Lantagne, the firm’s VP of fiction. “But here in Québec, they don’t really look for procedurals. They want character-driven stories over multiple seasons. It’s really tough.

“Coproduction in French is also more difficult than in English,” she adds. “In English, it’s organic to coproduce with the US, England or Australia. But here, if we’re not going to work with France, there are no opportunities for coproduction, which makes things difficult.”

However, there may be a solution in the form of rights exploitation. Attraction is producing a French-language version of US series Web Therapy, which starred Lisa Kudrow as a therapist who treats her clients via webcam. And it’s by selling rights to its own original formats, in lieu of coproduction, that the producer hopes to bring in extra income to devote to new series.

“If we’re looking for additional money, coproduction might not be the first option for us,” admits Chrystine Girard, Attraction VP of content rights management and international relations. “But we have dramas that have quality scripts so we can talk to other parties about producing remakes in English or other languages. This is where you can finance additional series, and it’s why I believe there will be more emphasis on exploitation of original content than ever before.”

The challenge going forward, then, is winning commissions from a select number of buyers while building the budgets modern audiences demand to see on screen. Muse’s Prupas admits he’s “nervous about what the future is going to bring. There’s too much supply coming down the pipeline but, at the moment, there’s a lot of demand as well.”

Don Carmody’s Cormican agrees Canadian drama is in a “huge boom cycle,” but warns producers shouldn’t get accustomed to the good life: “You have to practice some restraint and not expect the good times to roll all the time. And we have to be incredibly supportive of our government to ensure we have a strong incentive front.”

As for the broadcasters, Bell Media’s Pearce is just looking for the next Orphan Black: “That show was a huge risk – but what I remind myself is that the next Orphan Black is going to be nothing like Orphan Black. So we have to ask what the next big story is. You feel emboldened by success, and it has energised the Canadian production community to find the next big hit.”

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