It is 6:15 a.m. on Friday, Day 7, Episode 12 – and it is starting to snow at our Coal Valley set (amazing because it has never snowed once on us during filming hours even though it’s the middle of winter). But unlike most production days for the past six months, we are not just arriving at work. In fact, after filming for the last 19 hours straight, all day Thursday and all through the night, we just said "It’s a wrap" for the last time on the first season of When Calls the Heart. We are exhausted and emotional, some of us even had to fight through sickness to make it to the finish line. There are hugs and mass-embraces going on all over and lots of tears, and it’s very difficult to bring myself to write this journal entry. We are all hoping and praying that it is not the last time we will be saying "it’s a wrap," but what I have learned throughout my film and TV career is that you do everything under the sun to deliver the best possible story-telling and production value you can, and then you have to leave the rest up to the audience, the powers that be... and lastly and most importantly... to God. We have finished strong, but now the future of this series is out of our hands. We have done the best work we know how to do, but our growing audience and the remote controls across America are now in charge. The future of When Calls the Heart hangs in the balance. But for my pal and partner, Michael Landon Jr., and for our creative inspiration, Janette Oke, this is the best place for us to be... on our knees, dependent on God, knowing he has a plan for our welfare and our future. It’s one of the virtues we hope the audience understands about this show and about our world of Coal Valley. Reliance on providence is a value woven into the tapestry of this world and it works in real life. A wise man once said, “Work as if it all depends on you, and pray as if it all depends on God.” So, until we meet again... either in Season 2, or in digital perpetuity on DVDs, DVRS and tablets across the land... we, the creators of When Calls the Heart, bid our growing audience… adieu for now.
-- Brian Bird, Day 7, Episode 12
Producer’s Note: Since this journal entry was written, an amazing phenomenon is sweeping the country. The #Hearties have emerged as a self-organizing fan group supporting When Calls the Heart. In just three short weeks, their ranks have been growing weekly by a thousand percent, and they are unquenchable in their enthusiasm of all things When Calls the Heart. If you haven’t joined their cause, we hope you’ll consider doing it now. There is a hunger for television programs whole families can watch together, and the Hallmark Channel is the only network brave enough to risk making those kinds of shows. We hope you’ll become a #Heartie and also support Hallmark’s next great family-friendly series, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” premiering in just a few weeks.
Producers’ Note: Since this journal entry was written, the ‘tsunami of support’ for When Calls the Heart Michael Landon, Jr., writes about below is now cresting on the shores of social media with the rise of #Hearties fan group. Thank you for your tireless efforts to spread the word about the show! Move over Trekkies, the #Hearties are in the house!
“There is a bite in the air this morning in ‘Coal Valley,’ but as the cast and crew are reporting for work on Episode 11, which we are calling ‘Rules of Engagement,’ we all have a sense of warmth and pride in our hearts about the work we’ve been doing all these months. This is a family in the truest sense of the word and Coal Valley is becoming an honest-to-goodness community. Yes, it is a fictional place, thanks to the help of our inspiration, Janette Oke, but I have to say the values and virtues this place represents feel very real and powerful to me. When I was a kid, I remember my Dad coming home one night and telling me the same thing about ‘Walnut Grove’ (thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Where else in all of television right now, can we go every week to see and hear characters encourage each other through their hardships? Where else are we going to see characters stand up for their convictions or put their lives on the line to protect one another from harm and the challenges of life? Our culture desperately needs what Coal Valley stands for. Our kids need teachers like Elizabeth Thatcher. Moms need role models like Abigail Stanton and Cat Montgomery. Dads need heroes like Jack Thornton and the hardworking miner-fathers in this town to emulate. Yes, we almost finished with our work on the first season of ‘When Calls the Heart,’ and we hope the audience will make their voices heard loud and clear that Coal Valley is a place they want to return to for years go come.
And now that the early ratings are coming in on the first few episodes, we are sensing a wave of support growing. People are saying ‘this is the show we’ve been waiting for, hoping for, this is a show our families and society needs.’ We hope it is more than a wave. We hope it’s a tsunami. But not just for ‘When Calls the Heart.’ For all the life-and-hope-affirming TV the Hallmark Channel and others are working hard to put on the air.” -- Mike Landon, Day 1, Episode 11
"This morning, we began filming Episode 10, Scene 2, in our Coal Valley saloon set between Erin Krakow and Charlotte Hegele, the fine actress playing Elizabeth's younger sister, Julie, and something extraordinary occurred to me. Actually, it struck me like a bolt of lightning. In our script, Julie is being coy with Elizabeth because a man she is falling for has just kissed her and she doesn't realize he is a notorious outlaw. And Julie is asking Elizabeth if Jack has kissed her yet. Elizabeth reacts with total surprise: 'Julie, a kiss is something that happens after a courtship.' Boom, there's the lightning. When was the last time any of us heard any character on any television show say, 'A kiss is something that happens after a courtship?' That act of purity and chaste romance on the part of a character is completely missing in action on modern TV.
Instead of a PDA (public display of affection), it's a PDI (a public display of innocence), and I felt a sense of pride that a show like 'When Calls the Heart' would be brave enough to risk a line of dialogue like that. It is a radical idea in a 'whatever-feels-good-do-it' society. And you're a not prude or a rube if you believe that a little encouragement toward chastity, responsibility and self-control in the love department might do culture some good. And then something even more powerful occurred to me. What if 'When Calls the Heart' is medicine for our society? Aren't we as a people a little anemic from all the media junk food we've been consuming (some of it actually toxic to our soul)?
Perhaps this series is like booster shots of timeless great virtues we all know are good for us, but that somehow we don't get enough of anymore. It's an absolute thrill and honor for my partner and pal, Michael Landon Jr., and I to work with the Hallmark Channel to bring this series to television. And now that the early episodes are starting to air, and we're seeing the comments and buzz starting to bubble up on social media, I have this sense that something remarkable is happening. Like a powerful cultural, groundswell building across America. And if that's true, I think it's just what the doctor ordered. " -- Brian Bird, Day 3, Episode 10
As I report for duty to 'Coal Valley' and we roll cameras on Episode 9, I'm excited about the way in which this series is evolving. It's what I remember my father saying when he was shooting 'Little House on the Prairie.' The characters and the world you create when you're doing a series go through a metamorphosis and relationships begin to form among the cast and crew, and the whole thing takes on a life of its own. We are truly all gelling on this show, and I couldn't be more thrilled. Janette Oke came to our set for a production visit, and it was riveting to see how thoroughly she took the whole experience in. She investigated every inch of the Coal Valley and gave us a 'thumb's up.'
My partner, Brian Bird, and I had a three-way conversation with Janette. We talked about the process of how novels are adapted and become films and TV shows, and we all came to a realization. The reason most readers of beloved books have a hard time enjoying adaptations is because the fictional world in the novel first comes alive in their own, individual imaginations. And for filmmakers, that very personal vision is not possible to recreate perfectly. It's very difficult to live up to everybody's specifications and expectations. Janette came to the conclusion that a movie or TV show adapted from a novel needs to be appreciated on its own merits as a "different recipe of the same creative baked good." Both are like Abigail Stanton's famous scones. They have the same basic ingredients, but are just baked differently. That revelation led us to talking about Janette's new WCTH book, "Where Courage Calls," which traces the story of Elizabeth Thatcher and Mountie Jack Thornton in Coal Valley.
I can't tell you how cool that is for us. We adapted her original WCTH novel for the 2-hour pilot, and then she helped us brainstorm ways to expand the story-telling so that we would have a larger canvas to paint on (who knows, there could be several seasons of this series and need all the ideas we can get ?). And then, she loved our collective vision for the show so much that she decided to write a brand new novel inspired by the TV series. It's like life imitates art imitates life imitates art… or something like that.
One of my favorite shows as a young man was ironically created and produced by my partner's legendary father, Michael Landon, Sr. That show "Highway to Heaven" would inspire me in my work almost two decades later on "Touched By An Angel." But one of Michael Sr.'s most moving episodes, titled "To Bind the Wounds," was about a how a small town found a way to honor a young soldier killed in Vietnam and bring peace to his grieving parents. I also have been so moved by the many poignant stories of our soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan as "wounded warriors." When Michael Jr. and I were working with our writing team to brainstorm stories for the second half of the season, we began asking "How do we do a wounded warrior story in Coal Valley?" And suddenly it occurred to us that we already had an established storyline that might open the doors that devastating mine disaster that took 46 lives and left the town full of widows and fatherless kids. So we came up with an idea: What if one of miners actually survived the explosion, but was so badly injured he had to be taken away to a big-city hospital in order to recuperate and rehabilitate? What would his return to Coal Valley feel like for his family and neighbors? How does a community welcome home one of its wounded warriors? And how does the wounded warrior move forward with his life when he does not feel like the same man he used to be?
Well, we're about to find out as we begin filming Episode 8, and we've hired the award-winning actor Chad Willett to portray "Adam Miller." I have a feeling this one is going to be a tear-jerker. Not that we won't have our share of fun as the love-dance between Jack and Elizabeth gets into full swing. But in a culture that seems to be so lost in the fog of moral relativism, Michael and I want so much for these episodes to be full of the Great Virtues and ethical lessons as landmarks we can rely on to help us find our way out of the fog.
As I report to the set this morning for Episode 7, which we’re calling "Second Chances," and take in the world of Coal Valley that we are creating for this show, I can’t help but think this is the kind of show my father would have loved. I grew up having a famous Dad, but my best memories of childhood are not all the trappings of his success, but sitting next to him on the sofa with the rest of my family… watching TV. That’s right. We were just one of tens of millions of families watching TV together. That’s why I think he would be so proud of "When Calls the Heart," because it would have been a show like "Bonanza" or "Little House" we would have all watched together. And this town of Coal Valley if we were a family in 1910 we would have wanted to live in. These characters Janette Oke has helped us create truly care about each other. This is a town that would pull together in a time of crisis, like a good family would. So as we push into filming the second half of the season, it makes me smile that I’m carrying on the legacy of family programming Michael Landon began. Yes, it’s old fashioned to make this show in a world where meth deals and vampires are TV heroes, but I’m okay with that. Our cynical culture needs to get back to a few old-fashioned themes like redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, courage and being good neighbors. I hope when these shows air, our viewers will feel the same way and do what Coal Valley citizens would do… share the good news with their friends and neighbors that there is some gold in these hills.
Day 2, Episode 6: It’s 7 a.m. and I just arrived on set and we are completely socked in by fog. For this episode we’re supposed to be shooting our "Miners’ Games," which are sort of a "Highland Games" for the coal miners and the whole community. But our unflappable Vancouver crew is used to unpredictable winter climate shifts like this. We’re not punting the scenes for sunny skies tomorrow, we’re intrepidly moving forward today as planned, and I’m so glad we are. The fog adds so much production value we could never create with special or visual effects. I have to say after a few months in our world of "Coal Valley," I’m starting to feel like this is my home, too. I do miss my family, but I feel so blessed to be working on this show. And I can’t wait for the audience to see it. I don’t believe there will be anything like "When Calls the Heart" anywhere else on TV. Yes, this is a family show, but I think we are creating something very radical. In between shots yesterday, I was asking one of our crew if they could think of another show on TV right now a whole family could watch together, and he just scratched his head. I couldn’t come up with an example either. Think about that. There used to be a time when all the networks had "family hour" in prime time every night. Now it seems Hallmark Channel is the only one brave enough to put a show on like this. I pray all the hard work, ours and theirs, will be rewarded with a large audience. This is a real opportunity for people across America to make a loud statement that they are tired of all the vampires, zombies, meth dealers and dead bodies on TV. That they are ready for themes like redemption, courage, sacrifice, forgiveness and hope to rule the airwaves once again.
Now that the script is finished for Episode 5, which we’re calling "The Dance" -- written by our pal Ken Lazebnik, famous for his many brilliant scripts for "Touched By An Angel" and "Prairie Home Companion" -- most people will probably have their eyes on the love triangle Ken created for this episode. The handsome stranger comes to town and slathers on poetry and charm in an effort to woo our heroine, Elizabeth, away from her feelings for Mountie Jack. But what I think will be most arresting in the episode is the other love triangle, in the powerfully simple story of a young boy, Caleb, who is still mourning the death of his father and reacts angrily to the idea of his Ma being courted by a new man. He’s not ready after six months to have his father replaced. The memories are too fresh and painful and he’s afraid if his Ma finds love again, they’ll all soon forget his Pa. Of course, Caleb’s mother Mary is only trying to look out for her son’s future. She’s a poor widow with no appreciable means for caring for her son, and marrying again would mean provision. It’s a catch 22 for all of them. The storyline climaxes movingly when Caleb shows up to the town-dance where his mother and her new man have gone, and the boy is dressed in his father’s best Sunday suit coat. The symbolism of that act transfixes the crowd at the dance and galvanizes the power of grief for the entire town. It’s a terrific story by a terrific writer. Can I just say, "It’s a pleasure to work on this show and I love my job." I hope the audience loves this show as much as I do.
One of the funnier comments I have ever heard about television comes from the legendary broadcaster David Frost who said, "Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home." What he was saying is that TV characters sometimes can be off-putting or annoying or downright rude, but that is what often makes them so irresistible to watch. Well, in episode 4, which we titled "Secrets and Lies," we have our Coal Valley pastor, Reverend Anderson, who has lost his way, spiritually, and we have one of Henry Gowen’s Pinkerton guards, Mr. Spurlock, who is truly up to no good. And we have one of our leading ladies, Cat Montgomery, who we think is up to no good, but instead is hiding a secret from the town and her children in order to protect them. When we ran the storyline past Janette Oke, she felt we had quite the "potboiler" on our hands, so I hope as we roll cameras on episode 4, we have all the bells and whistles to not only touch the funny bones of our audience but their hearts, as well. My favorite scene is when Reverend Anderson finally realizes the error of his ways and quits his job as the company-paid pastor and confesses his sin of pride to the congregation. It is quite moving when Cat Montgomery, who has been freed from her own secret shame, forgives the pastor and asks him to lead the Sunday services again.
One of the meaningful things that happens on a film set is our sense of family and common purpose. I wish our audience could be here to experience it. It’s taken a few episodes to start firing on all cylinders, but there is a lot of bonding going on here in Episode 3. I’m especially thankful for the wonderful little actress, Mamie Laverock, we’ve cast to play the character of "Rosaleen Sullivan." Not to give away any spoilers, but Mamie absolutely broke my heart when she came in to audition for Rosaleen, the young daughter of a man who has died in the Coal Valley mine disaster. Rosaleen has not spoken (we call that "elective mutism") since that day and it’s now Elizabeth’s job to try to reach the child, to break through her "Telling Silence" (hence the title of this episode) and when she finally does – in the bowels of our Coal Valley mine set in the middle of the night – little Mamie gave us a tour de force acting performance. The entire crew was is in tears, and I don’t believe there will be a dry eye across America when our wonderful viewers see that scene either.
Episode 1 is in the "can" (which is the old term when actual film cans were still used to store the film prints) so now I suppose I should say "it’s on the hard drive" since we are a fully digital series. But now we move onto Episode 2, which we have titled "Cease & Desist." I’m extremely excited about this script because when Janette Oke first heard our story pitches, this is the one she seemed to like most. Plus, all of us on the writing team drew numbers out of a cowboy hat, and I pulled the winning ticket! This episode features some good "eviction notice" drama right out of an old-fashioned radio drama, but it has what I hope will be some unique and very inspirational twists involving the students in Elizabeth’s classroom and a tiny shard of coal. Of course, the "oil-and-water" banter between Elizabeth and Jack continues in this episode, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers at this point. Suffice to say, their relationship will continue to heat up and in this episode we will unveil for the first time our epic Coal Valley Mine, created with some "movie magic" inside a warehouse.
What an honor to give you a behind-the-camera update from the set of
our town "Coal Valley" and the world of "When Calls the Heart." I’m
writing this in our production journal on Day 1 of principal photography
on Episode 1, which we are calling "Lost and Found." Our creative
partner, Janette Oke, is happy and has signed off on our first script,
but I’m very nervous because this will be my first time directing a
television series. I’m also thrilled, but nervous to be working with
such fabulous actors such as Lori Loughlin, Erin Krakow and Daniel
Lissing. We are responsible for the words on the pages of our script,
and for visually bringing the world to life. But they are responsible
for making "Elizabeth Thatcher," "Jack Thornton" and "Abigail Stanton"
come alive as living, breathing characters who we pray you, the
audience, will fall in love with and commit to going on the journey of
this series with us.