Rolling on the Rocks
While the vagaries of weather are the bane of nearly every shoot that dares to brave the outdoors, there may be even greater surprises in store when you’re on an island in the North Atlantic. Stefan Scaini learned this lesson many times over during the days and nights he’s dedicated to Republic of Doyle, the CBC’s light-hearted mystery drama about a son-and-father detective team that handles the trickiest cases St. John’s has ever seen. In fact, the DGC member faced an especially daunting clash with the elements while directing an episode in the show’s second season in August 2010.
“We were shooting on a rooftop in downtown St. John’s,” says Scaini during a break from his work on Republic of Doyle’s sixth and final season. “We could see the Narrows and Signal Hill. Don McKellar was our guest star and we were hanging him in a harness over the side of this 10-storey building. Then the fog socked in and we couldn’t see 10 feet ahead of us.”
Since it was the only day the crew could have the location, Scaini was at a loss over what to do next—besides, of course, express his sympathies to the dangling McKellar. But as the director recalls, “Suddenly this wind came along and blew the fog away in less than five minutes. The sun came out and it’s like the angels were singing. I just looked out and said, ‘See, this is why we’re here—even God loves St. John’s because he wants to make sure we get it on camera!’”
Of course, the Almighty doesn’t deserve all of the credit for making Newfoundland look so good. Since Republic of Doyle debuted four years ago, when it earned the CBC’s highest-ever ratings for a new dramatic series and continued to be a strong performer despite time-slot shuffles, its cast and crew have worked hard to convey the region’s many charms and idiosyncrasies to audiences in the rest of Canada and the over 90 other countries where it’s seen.
Nor have viewers been the only ones to be enticed by this grand seduction, what with all the mainland talent that has been lured east to work with star Allan Hawco and his fellow Newfoundlanders on Republic of Doyle’s team. A multiple DGC Award nominee and winner of ensemble awards for Heartland, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Spirit Bear: The Simon Jackson Story, Scaini is one of many DGC members with CFA status (that’s Come-From-Away in the local vernacular) who’ve grown attached to the region. Scaini helmed 17 of the 67 episodes in the series’ first five seasons and he handles four of the final 10. He keenly remembers the beginning of his tenure late in season one.
“It was my first time in Newfoundland,” says the Toronto-based director. “I’d worked up in the Maritimes quite a bit but not here. I’ve found the personalities right across the province are just so wonderful and embracing. There’s such a joy and passion for life here and we’ve tried so hard to get all that into the show.”
A guest director in season five who previously earned DGC Award nominations for his short film Lenny and 2005 feature Pure, Jim Donovan was just as struck by his first impressions. “I hadn’t been to Newfoundland before so it blew my mind,” he says in an interview from Montreal, where he’s working on Le Clan, a new TV drama for Radio-Canada. “I thought, ‘Ah, well, all those touristy pictures, you can make any province look interesting.’ But I really had no clue how beautiful it was.”
He was similarly impressed by the production’s welcoming atmosphere, which is fostered in no small part by the social opportunities that the crew extends to visitors. First on the agenda is the weekly wrap-party gathering at the Duke of Duckworth, a St. John’s institution known colloquially as the Duke (it’s also a regular haunt for Hawco’s screen alter ego, Jake Doyle). “You’re not cool if you don’t show up,” says Donovan. “It’s almost mandatory.”
Paul Fox, another guest director in season five, calls it “one of those jobs that everyone always wants to do because of the experience of going out there.” As Fox says from an editing suite where he’s working on Schitt’s Creek for CBC, “It’s great to be on shows where you can get a different perspective on the place than you would as a tourist because you can meet people who live and work there.”
All three directors praise St. John’s for what Scaini calls the city’s “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to shooting locations and sheer beauty. “It’s so rich and so colourful and photogenic,” says Scaini. “You could be downtown with all the saltbox houses in their jelly-bean colours—that’s spectacular. Then you travel 10 minutes to the west and be at these dramatic cliffs overlooking the ocean and see lighthouses and whales. This past summer we’ve had these massive icebergs floating past. On the other side of it all, if we need something that feels a little darker and more urban, it’s not hard to find that, too. St. John’s is unbelieveable for its wide range of looks and styles.”
At the same time, presenting St. John’s in all its grit and glory has never been the endeavour’s sole objective. Hawco makes that point during a rare pause from his own duties on the show, which the National Theatre School grad co-created with Perry Chafe and Malcolm MacRury and for which he served as showrunner for the first four seasons.
“I have a difficult time with shows that make the place the plot, so to speak,” says Hawco. “To feel like the setting is so important takes me out of a show because it makes me question whether or not I care about that place. What’s most important in any drama is you care about the people you’re watching every week. In some ways we tried to incorporate the place as a character so that it wasn’t just ‘about’ the place.”
Fox admits that’s not always so easy for outsiders to do, given the scenery. “Everything looks so fabulous,” he says. “All the little wooden houses, the ocean and all these other things are so exotic to us as outsiders. But [the Doyle team] does divest you very quickly of that inclination to treat St. John’s as this bright, shiny object you want to show off. They don’t want it to become a pictorial. So what you do is what you do on any show, which is really plunge into the work and try to ignore the landscape in order to focus on the nuts and bolts of the characters and the stories.”
As Republic of Doyle comes to the end of a successful run, it’s easy to forget the gamble it once represented. After all, a young and largely unproven actor, writer and producer who was determined to develop a showcase both for his home province and himself was the spearhead of the project. In the process, Republic of Doyle not only helped establish a new infrastructure for Newfoundland’s film and TV industry, it proved the CBC’s drive for regional productions need not always result in folksy hokum.
For all the impact the show has had on St. John’s, Hawco stresses it was never meant to be a “closed club” that benefited only the locals. “We’re striving to make the best work possible,” he says, “so you’ve got to surround yourself with the best people you can, whether they’re from here or somewhere else. We just didn’t have a big stable of experienced directing talent at our disposal in the beginning so we had to bring in people from away.”
Another key talent among the CFAs at Republic of Doyle has been editor Caroline Christie. Having edited 30 episodes during her three years with the show, she jokes that she came to know all the routes and runs for planes between St. John’s and her home in Toronto. Christie arrived in the summer of 2011 as a hastily arranged fill-in for editor Nick Rotundo as he began treatment for cancer. (Sadly, he died that August.) Determined to learn the nuances of language and behaviour that gave Republic of Doyle its particular flavour, she immersed himself in the series and the city as fully as she could. “The city is really small,” she says, “so I would just walk around downtown all the time. I’d go to galleries and bookstores and see things. Then I would ask people questions—endless questions!”
Thanks to that process and reading local histories like Paul O’Neill’s The Oldest City, the show’s references to St. John’s hangouts like Moo Moo’s ice cream shop gradually became less cryptic. She also developed an ear for the cadences, even if certain phrases could still throw her for a loop. Her favourite comes from Krystin Pellerin’s character, Leslie, when Jake tells her he’ll drive her car home and she replies, “Yes, by nose you will.”
“There’s no real kind of translation for it,” says Christie. “I remember asking Allan and he said something and I was like, ‘But you’re not describing it—I still don’t get it!’ As editors, we’re doing the first pass on performance and it’s meticulous work so you sort of have to understand which was the right one and which wasn’t. I mostly got it right. Occasionally Allan would correct it and say, ‘Oh no, it’s that one.’ Then I’d listen to both again and think, ‘What was the difference?!’ Then I just got better at listening.”
Scaini says he experienced much the same kind of learning curve, adding that he and the crew have gotten many laughs out of the Whaddaya App, a Newfie translator that’s a staple of iPhones and Android devices on the set.
The degree of conviviality and commitment among the largely local crew has continued to be a major draw for him over his five summers on Republic of Doyle. “They’re all so passionate about this show, about what the stories are telling,” he says. What’s more, that passion is shared by the community at large. Says Scaini, “I’ll walk into a local corner store here and if I happen to be wearing my Republic of Doyle hat, people just go on about how they love the show. Someone will say, ‘Oh, my brother-in-law was an extra—do you know him? His name is Jimmy.’ That kind of thing goes on all across the province–they have such pride for this and show such support.”
“Everybody in St. John’s watches the show,” says Paul Fox. “If I’m here in Toronto and somebody asks me what I’m working on, people may or may not know it. But there, everybody knows it and knows it in detail. They know the relationships between the characters and what’s happening to whom. You’re in this town of Doyle fans.”
It’s not always a love-in, mind you. CFAs have sometimes struggled to find their place inside the well-oiled machine that Hawco and his team have created. “We’ve worked with a lot of talented people,” says Hawco. “And this may sound generic but some people work out and some people don’t. Some people get that it’s not just about their vision, about what they want to shoot and the pictures or performances they want.
“A big part of directing an ongoing television series is getting your days, not going into overtime and still managing to capture what’s integral to the story and what are the most beautiful or most inspirational shots you need to tell it. But you’ve got do it on time and on budget.”
Jim Donovan notes that the six-day shoot was especially hard. “That speed is tough and you really do feel the compression,” he says. Showing up to lead a tight-knit crew that is not full of the familiar faces of Toronto or Vancouver is another challenge for guest directors, as Fox admits. Yet he doesn’t believe that his experience at Republic of Doyle was marred by any wariness toward the CFAs. Says Fox, “That’s less to do with where you’re from and more to do with, ‘Is this guy gonna cause trouble or is he gonna be one of us?’ Any time you show up as the outsider, there’s that initial wait-and-see attitude.”
In Donovan’s words, keeping Hawco “on his toes” was another big part of the gig. “The guy’s everywhere,” he says. “But he’s sharp, man—he knows everything he wants from that show and he’s at the centre of it. The trick is going, ‘What can I do for him? And how can I get him to step up or try something different?’ I didn’t really know Allan so it was an exercise in getting to know him and figuring out how I could stimulate his creativity.”
Inevitably, a CFA’s chances for a satisfying stint on Republic of Doyle have a great deal to do with the rapport he or she can strike up with the show’s driving force. Christie can recall how the extent of her commitment stayed up in the air until she met Hawco. “The producers kept telling me, ‘We don’t know until you’ve worked with Allan.’ There was all this pressure because he didn’t get along with everybody. I found him a lovely guy to work with and have a great relationship with him but apparently some people don’t.”
Christie found it especially difficult to have her first spell in the editing room with Hawco on the same day that the team found out about the Rotundo’s passing. “There couldn’t have been a weirder start to all of it,” she says. “As it turned out, it was fine and they liked what I had done. Allan said, ‘She doesn’t always make the choices I would make but I like the choices she does make!’”
Having devoted so much energy to the show, Hawco clearly appreciates the opportunities to lighten the load. As he continues work on season six, he’s been getting better at savouring the moments at hand rather than “losing my mind because I have a draft to finish, pages I have to get out for tomorrow and a cut that needs to be done.”
With the end in sight, he and the team are looking forward to other projects in Newfoundland, perhaps something closer to the “much edgier” incarnation of Republic of Doyle that Hawco initially conceived. He also expresses the pleasure he felt at being “just an actor on set” for Clement Virgo on the CBC mini-series The Book of Negroes, slated to air this winter.
But first and foremost in his mind is his desire to do right by Republic of Doyle’s most dedicated viewers. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Hawco, “and like all of us, you can tire yourself out and feel like there’s not necessarily a lot of people who pay attention. So when you have a circumstance where there’s a massive following and a huge audience base, you don’t want to leave them in the lurch. They’re genuinely devoted to the work you’re doing so you do feel an obligation.
“Of course, you’ve got to make the work you’ve got to make. You can’t try to please everybody or you’d go crazy. But you want to be able to at least follow through with what you’re doing, which is why we’re so lucky to have the chance to end it.”
Jason Anderson is a film critic and writes regularly about movies for the Toronto Star, Cinema Scope and Artforum.com. He teaches film criticism at the University of Toronto and is the director of programming for the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.