Executive producer and director Gary Harvey has just come off a solid first season for Arctic Air — the most-watched debut season for a CBC drama series in 15 years. While he waits on news of a season two, he answered some questions about his career, his unusual role as a director/showrunner, and how giving back to the industry is a survival mechanism.
What do you think it was about that show at this time that caught the attention of an audience?
(Creator) Ian Weir always meant for Arctic Air to be a bit of a throwback to the classic adventure series. Imminent peril is obviously a big theme throughout and we deliver on those types of stories. There is also the environmental dilemma faced by the north and we touch on that through the relationship between Adam Beach’s character Bobby and the Ronnie Dearman character, played wonderfully by Brian Markinson.
We tend not to hang our stories on sex or violence episode to episode, although we don’t shy away from it when appropriate. I have been surprised by some of the audience’s responses describing the show as family viewing. It always seemed a bit darker than that in my mind but perhaps we’re tapping into something that is counter to our expectation of family viewing today.
Having said that, the show is also fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I think all those elements have resonated with audiences.
I also think that opening a window on a physical environment few people “south of 60” have experienced vis-Ã -vis the NWT has been a big piece of the puzzle. The north is a very interesting place, exotic in many ways. During my first trip to Yellowknife I knew how big it was going to be for the audience to experience as much of the world of the NWT as possible. I think we were quite successful delivering on that promise.
I know it’s not renewed yet but are you already looking at options for a potential season two? When do you expect to hear a decision? Is there a time window on when you can film in the NWT?
Our writers room began in January. We have broken 6 stories and are developing them at this point, of course still pending a pickup. Last season we went straight to series with one script in hand in April (thinking that we might get a pilot, but we got a series order instead). We thought it best to avoid getting caught like that this time around. I imagine we will know within a few weeks. But that’s strictly my guess.
My take on shooting in the north has been to expose as much of the environment and seasons as possible. We just hit the mark last year. Starting as late as we did, we were still able to capture the end of summer, the short fall, the two weeks of shitty (as some Yellowknife natives call it when everything is awful) and finally winter. If we get our pickup I’d like to start earlier, get a bit more summer, then the rest of the seasons. It’s interesting though, from a production perspective we need to factor in the loss of shoot-able daylight in the north as the year wears on.
You executive produce projects like Arctic Air and Robson Arms as well as directing — what does that mean in terms of your involvement in a project? How do you work with the writers on creating the vision and keeping it on track?
I got my first taste of this type of work when I was hired on as producer/director on Cold Squad several years ago. I worked very closely developing what that show became with Peter Mitchell, whom I have a great deal of respect for. It was tricky getting to the bottom of that show because it already had three years of history behind it when we arrived, and although we made changes we felt strongly needed to be made, I think it would have been quite different were we to have started from scratch. Looking back I think my involvement on Cold Squad was weighted more toward directing than anything else, so it left plenty of room for improvement on my part.
On Robson Arms with the wonderful Susin Nielsen I was able to expand this writer/showrunner – director/showrunner relationship to its fullest, taking a show from 0 to 60 in the course of a season. With the support and tremendous creative involvement of Louise Clark, then at CTV, we were given a lot of space to develop the show they way we saw it. We were able to make a lot of mistakes then, things I would never do again.
We repeated the creative formula on Alice I Think for one season between seasons 2 and 3 of Robson Arms. On RA, as a result of the structure of the show, I was only afforded 1 episode to direct in season one, so much more of my time was spent with Susin developing the big picture of the show. I should also point out that Robson Arms, Alice I Think and Arctic Air are all Omni Films shows.
From these experiences, the thing I learned about myself was the extent of my desire to see each episode through from concept to completion. To conceptualize a complete system that governs the execution of the show creatively. Something akin to what a director does on independent films. I mean it’s what a showrunner does, right? It should be as complete a handle on every aspect of production as possible and I think the writer/director team (TV or film — I’m sure that will horrify some of my filmmaking colleagues) is the best possible way to realize this. It covers all bases and makes for a most satisfying experience for me.
On our show I will chime in on story, but I try not to be intrusive and I leave the writing to the professionals, in the same way those writers are, for the most part, not directors. And I find there is open dialogue always whether at the story stage or on the floor. That’s the way it has to be.
On our shows the creative people we hire, writers, directors, designers, editors etc., come to the table with creative based on the raw material we give them. And if you hire the people who fit best with your show they will come to the table with their best. You want them to elevate the material they are given, then our job as showrunners is to take the best creative and attempt to elevate it further, finishing the show. You can’t let their ideas overpower you, keeping an eye to your vision of the show, but you also need to be open to the possibilities they offer. It makes no sense to me to control creative to the point where they are coming from a place of second guessing every creative choice because 80% or more of what they’ve offered up previously has been shot down or ridiculed. I’ve seen it before and it’s so incredibly destructive and demoralizing. All the people I’ve been in this co-showrunner relationship are of similar mind.
This may be a long-winded way of saying that this is something I learned on the floor as a director many years ago. People will do more, bring more and step up more if they are being listened to and valued. This simple idea has translated very effectively into this arena of showrunning for me.
How does that work differ from directing an episode of a show you don’t also produce?
Working as a freelance director — and half the work I’ve done over the years has been freelance — I take the role as “guest” on a show very seriously. I don’t want to re-invent the show for them, I want to come in, do my homework and attempt to deliver the show they expect to see if they were directing it themselves. Of course I want to offer up as much as I can creatively within the framework of what’s been established, but I am very cognizant that they know the show better than anyone. This was also a lesson I needed to learn during my career. And once I was really running my own shows I learned what other showrunners expected of me as a freelancer.
How did you get into TV directing and producing?
I had a very lucky beginning. Once I started in this business I knew that all I wanted to do was direct. I was involved with Forefront Productions who were just starting out, and was lucky enough to get a small educational show they were producing turned into a dramatic series (that show became Madison). I had been working with them on the ed. series for a couple of years putting that show together with them but we were all doing all sorts of jobs, whatever had to be done. When the series came along they asked me to PM/line produce for them and my agreement was conditional on directing an episode of the series. That episode got me nominated for a Gemini. Even if I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing PMing the show, I certainly felt like I knew something about directing.
The following season I moved onto a different show with the same company, The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, where they made me producer on the show, again with some guarantee of directing. I ended up directing 5 of 13 episodes the first season of that show. In between cycles I would freelance direct on other shows. Of course it started slow but picked up as time went on.
I was offered several more shows over time where producing and directing were the package and strictly from a creative perspective that appealed to me. Looking back I think in some ways I was part of the shift that began recognizing the role of some directors as producers in a similar way the industry recognized writers as producers. We were the creatives who made the shows.
The part of producing that involved financing structures: cost reports, cash flow, etc. never worked for me. I never had an aptitude for it and it will never be my strength. I know many people who are geniuses at that and they love it. So when others recognize that I fill a niche in the producing creative, coupled with my directing, it was a fit for me that couldn’t be ignored.
What’s been a career highlight or two for you?
I think Robson Arms for its critical success and Arctic Air for its commercial success. It’s hard to get both simultaneously in this country.
There are also a few specific episodes of shows and a couple movies I’ve directed I am particularly proud of, times when I felt I was really on my game. Of course I like to think I’m on my game all the time but these were exceptional shows.
What do you think is the biggest change in the Canadian TV industry over the span of your career?
This is a tough question because as I have developed and grown my career, so too has the industry. And I see it through different lenses now than when I started. There are plenty of network execs for example who started their careers after I had established mine, so they may see me differently than when I was first starting out and couldn’t get a return call from a junior.
The first TV movie I produced took me nearly 8 years. I can’t see that happening today. I would have given up long before or it would have happened much sooner.
You seem to keep a low profile on this but you have a reputation for being a big supporter of the industry — can you talk about some of your activities there, and in helping develop the next generation of talent? What’s your inspiration for doing things like that?
Everywhere I look the young talent moving up around me inspires me. The structure of Robson Arms was an extension of that, and I can’t for the life of me remember where the notion of giving directors who had never done TV before a shot came from, so I will attribute it to Louise Clark. That idea was already in place for the writers from the show’s inception. But it was fun and in some cases paid off. I see several of our RA alum with successful TV careers.
But going back as far as Madison I remember Pete Mitchell and by extension me being really big on bringing up talent. Often young, sometimes not particularly experienced talent we thought deserved a shot. I recall hiring Scott Smith based on his short film he did at the CFC. And Pete did it with me post-Madison when he was showrunning Traders after Hart Hanson left. I think it was my first leap into hour long and that was a substantial hurdle for directors at the time. Pete hired me without a second thought because he had faith I could do it. So that environment, working with Pete and having similar attitudes was the beginning and I know both of us have continued that tradition over the years whenever possible.
When I was asked to be on the board of Crazy 8s it was a no brainer.
About 5 years ago I started sponsoring a prize at an international film festival for up and coming directors because I was watching all these big money prizes going to big films every year at festivals and these young broke directors were putting their first short films out there at the fests, often with maxed credit cards and loans from parents with very little or no recognition. I thought someone should stand up for them.
I used to think it was about “giving back” but I know now that’s a bullshit answer. It’s really about recognizing that a bigger, smarter, more talented base of artists is how we’re going to survive. Supporting each other is the key, whether it’s the novices or the veterans.
What’s next for you?
Well, hopefully another season of Arctic Air. I’m not finished with it yet. In my mind anyway, I’m still working on team Nielsen/Harvey and hope to get more going with the two of us. Other than that, we’ll see.