- Category: More Top Stories
- Published on Wednesday, 02 October 2013 16:09
- Written by Gordon Meyer
Stories about American families with strong values are part of Michael Landon, Jr.’s DNA. Having grown up visiting and working alongside his famous father on the sets of iconic TV series like “Bonanza,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Touched by an Angel,” Landon now continues the family tradition of producing, writing and directing high-quality, family-friendly shows with his partner Brian Bird at Believe Pictures. Their most recent production is When Calls the Heart, a Hallmark Channel TV movie based on the inspirational novel by bestselling author Janette Oke. Landon had previously written and directed a Hallmark TV movie based on Oke’s other novel “Love Comes Softly,” and this led to him acquiring the rights to the rest of the author’s books.
When Calls the Heart takes place in the Canadian wilderness in 1910 and tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher, a young big-city teacher who accepts a teaching job in a small frontier town. Premiering on Hallmark Channel on October 19, the movie will serve as the pilot for a TV series that will launch in early 2014. The source novel is actually the first part of a five-book series, and the pilot is based on that preliminary material. “After that, we created a fictional world separate from Janette Oke’s material so that we wouldn’t encroach on any further books,” explains Landon. “She loved what we’re doing so much that she’s actually creating a series of companion books to go along with the TV series that she’s writing with her daughter.”
While the TV movie and series share many of the same cast and crewmembers, the projects were produced in different locations. The pilot was shot in Calgary, Romania and Los Angeles, and all of the Calgary production was shot on Kodak film stock with Panavision cameras, while the rest was shot digitally. Landon plans to shoot the series on the ARRI ALEXA. His key reason for shooting in two mediums was so audiences could visually differentiate between flashback sequences (which were shot on film) and the main storyline. After shooting 40 percent of the film in Calgary, the production spent one day in Los Angeles, established some exteriors at New York’s Lyndhurst Mansion, and shot the rest in Romania, primarily at Castel Film Studios in Bucharest.
A major part of the pilot was shot in Eastern Europe because it was co-produced with the Motion Picture Corporation of America, whose CEO Brad Krevoy had positive experiences in that country. “This was my first time working in Romania,” says Landon. “We took Brad’s lead and had a good experience. There were some esthetic differences we had to overcome in things, like set dressings. For example, some of the colorings and textures they used were different from what we wanted, but, overall, they did a really good job.” Most of the Romanian shoot involved practical exteriors with very little soundstage work. Landon’s team used Castel’s Western backlot extensively, and the Studio’s crewmembers were well accustomed to working with English-speaking productions. The shoot faced an interesting challenge when moving to the Romanian Presidential Palace for interiors. “There was a protest happening outside the palace,” Landon recalls. “The Presidential Palace is broken up into two areas: One is the museum side, where we were shooting, and the other is where the President lives. Every few hours we had to stop shooting because the protesters were circling the compound and were pretty vocal. We had to pause for about 15 minutes at a time because of all the yelling and screaming, but I don’t anticipate that happening anymore.”
After completing the pilot, Landon and Bird mapped out the production for the initial 10-episode order for the series. While Landon used a few Western towns in California for parts of the pilot, California maintains a lottery system for obtaining production tax incentives — and Landon’s production didn’t receive those incentives. In addition, the cost of a facility that Landon and Bird considered for the show’s main street didn’t suit the production budget. At one time, there was a plan to shoot the series near Telluride, Colo. “It has some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen anywhere on the planet,” says Landon. “The story takes place in a coal-mining town in 1910, and they have some great mining structures. The film commission and tax incentives were all elements that drew us there.” Ultimately, Landon and Bird realized that Telluride didn’t have enough of the above- or below-the-line talent that the production requires, and the cost of bringing in cast and crew from out of state proved prohibitive. “We just couldn’t make the numbers work,” says Landon.
While Landon has worked on other projects in Calgary and Montreal, this is his first experience shooting in the Vancouver area. Production began on September 9 and is scheduled to run through December 7 in British Columbia. The Canadian film industry is very robust, especially in Vancouver, so Landon and Bird had solid production resources and talent to draw form. One of the big draws for the production team was James Town, a Western town about a 40-minute drive outside of Vancouver. “It gives us forest, rivers, open fields, a period main street and a warehouse structure where we could build our interior mine shaft,” Landon explains. “It has everything we need to create the world of Coal Valley.”
Assuming that Hallmark will extend the series beyond its initial 10 episodes, Landon anticipates returning to British Columbia and the James Town complex. “We are doing quite a few modifications to James Town to make it right for the series,” he says. “We’ve build row housing for where the miners live and the mine shaft.” With all the work done to build the world of the “When Calls the Heart” series at James Town, it would be difficult to move the production elsewhere for subsequent seasons, though Landon says he wouldn’t rule out the idea.
Landon and Bird’s production is a well-oiled machine, with Landon directing the first four episodes while Bird supervises the writing, initially from their southern California base and now from production offices in British Columbia. As the pilot premiere approaches, Landon and Bird’s team at Believe Pictures and their colleagues at Hallmark Channel hope that “When Calls the Heart” enjoys the kind of success and longevity that Landon’s father had with “Little House on the Prairie.”