Murdoch Mysteries’ Gary Harvey on directing, Arctic Air and kicking cancer’s butt

Gary Harvey has been through a lot. He’s not only produced and/or directed everything from Madison, Traders and Cold Squad to Strange Empire, Arctic Air and Robson Arms, but he’s battled back from cancer too. The veteran of the Canadian television scene was behind the camera on the most dramatic episode of Murdoch Mysteries yet, as the series said goodbye to Dr. Emily Grace.

We fired off a number of questions to Gary, and here are his replies about Murdoch Mysteries, his health and working in Canada.

Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get into directing?
My directing career began on the series Madison in 1994 where, incidentally I met Pete Mitchell, showrunner on Murdoch Mysteries. I didn’t have the common trajectory of many career directors where I knew when I was 10 that I had to direct movies. I knew it had to be entertainment, television and movies in particular, but by the time I was 16, I was convinced I was going to make my way into it through acting.

Once out of high school I studied acting. I deeply loved, and still do, the dichotomy of extreme focus and discipline versus the chaotic and random lifestyle of actors. However once I was in it and was able to examine it, I knew that it wasn’t what my childhood inspiration had intended. Treading the boards was no longer my way in. When I moved behind the scenes and I saw a director in action for the first time, it was probably the biggest ah-ha moment of my career. I knew then that everything I had been doing since I was a child was leading me to this thing. It was exciting and inspiring. So then it was a matter of breaking down that door. Eventually, that opportunity opened up for me and the rest is history as they say.

You dealt with some health issues over the past year. Was there ever a time when you thought you might have to give up working in the Canadian television industry?
I certainly did. During prep on the last episodes of Strange Empire, I learned that to solve a complication with a cancer I’d been dealing with for the previous 10 months, I would require surgery. It was not a routine type surgery and the prognosis not pretty but ‘manageable’. Just five days prior to the scheduled surgery while I was about to shoot the last day of SE, I was informed that the prognosis for my surgery had changed from manageable to nearly the worst possible outcome. And because part of that new prognosis included the removal of my larynx, the result would surely be the end of my career. Not having the surgery would only end in the worst possible outcome. It all happened so fast at that point that I never really got the chance to figure it out. There was a wave rolling up behind me and I just had to ride it out. Have the surgery and figure it out later. There was no turning back now. At that point I felt I had to get the word out to my friends and colleagues to warn them that part who I am was not simply being altered, it was about to dramatically change.

On the back lot lining up a shot. (L-R) Gary Harvey, Yuri Yakubiw director of photography. Photo by David Carruthers

Two days prior to surgery I made a Facebook post. Catch everyone who needed to know. At the time I was not particularly active on Facebook. I thought the message would probably hit most people I needed to tell and they would pass it along to those who might have missed it. Then an odd and wonderful thing happened. While my family and close friends gathered around me to comfort and support, so too did the production community across the country. Just one day later I was looking at well over a thousand interactions of various kinds to my post on Facebook. Even strangers who read what I wrote via friends of friends were reaching out. But it was this production community, largely in Canada but elsewhere too, who rallied behind me. And while reading the messages from well-wishers was admittedly a bit like attending ones own funeral, I wouldn’t realize until some time later the profound effect it would have on me. My wife and I cried for hours reading messages from everyone the night before I was to check into the hospital. The response was overwhelming. I can barely explain what I felt.

The following morning I rolled into my surgery and for some inexplicable reason, I was suddenly at peace. All the inner turmoil I’d gone through over the previous five days was gone. I had clearly given it over to the universe and I felt fine. They put me to sleep and I woke 12 hour later to find that things weren’t as bad as we had originally thought they were going to be. And for reader who don’t know my story, in the end I lost my tongue, or 90 per cent of it anyway. The bonus for me is I also lost my cancer. All of it.

I firmly believe I came through this surgery with much greater success than everyone expected largely as a result of the support I received from so many people in the production community. It not only changed the way I felt going into my surgery—and I firmly believe what I’m about to say—the collective energy of my community changed the outcome of my surgery. Believe what you will. [It has been one year] since my surgery. I am left with quite a remarkable speech impediment, but clearly it‘s not an issue for some. I’ve been managing it just fine.

Writer Jordan Christianson on set in Cobourg. Photo by Gary Harvey

Every television show is different; how does the process work with Murdoch Mysteries? Are you working hand-in-hand with the episode’s writer—in this case Jordan Christianson—when cameras are rolling, or do they know what to expect from you as a director because of your pedigree?
You’re right; every show is a little different. I prefer the process I have routinely experienced in the Toronto production community where more often than not I get the opportunity to prep and shoot a show with the writer. I love having someone with me on the journey who shares a similar sensibility for the material. In this case I got to work closely with Jordan. The DP, assistant director, line producer, sound recordist, everyone on set all have different concerns moment to moment when we’re shooting, and rightly so. With the exception of several script supervisors who I know connect to the page, in this case Jane Walker, no one else can fully share my connection to the material. They have a world of drama to deal with themselves.

Having a writer with me gives me a compass, an extra set of eyes to look to when I find myself on the fence over a choice by an actor or even one of my own making. This is especially helpful when I am on someone else’s TV show. It’s arguably different when I’m doing my own series or a movie but I still prefer that director/writer dynamic there too. I also feel like it has an effect on crew and cast when they feel the writer and me are on the same page moment to moment. And in the case of Murdoch, it was exactly the way it should be in my opinion. Jordan was a tremendous ally. Smart and engaged. And with his experience with the show I felt like his input kept me on the right path forward. He had tremendous ideas and he was able to articulate complexities onto the page quickly if we needed changes on the fly. I loved working with him and made a new friend in the process. I hope we get to do many things together in the future.

Pete Mitchell also spent a fair bit of time on set. I’ve done more shows with Pete showrunning than anyone, both with me as a producer with him and as a director. When he’s with me on set I know by looking at him when I’m hitting or not hitting the mark as well as when I’m surprising him. His on-set notes are thoughtful and we can actually take a moment to debate a perspective if necessary. I suppose when I think about it, years of on set experience with Pete beside me probably taught me how to appreciate the writer/director collaboration the most.

That was a very powerful scene, with Emily Grace realizing the body was that of her girlfriend, Lillian. What made you decide to film it in slow motion? Was that something that was in Jordan Christianson’s script, or was it your call?
It was something I conceived. I don’t recall the inspiration now but I remember the concept hitting me. I wanted that moment to feel like when adrenaline blinds you to your surroundings and you have no connection to anyone or anything outside of the focus. In this case, Emily trying to reach Lillian. She hasn’t a clue that Brackenreid is holding her back or that Crabtree is there, nothing but pure focus on Lillian. And it’s hardly a new idea but in this context had a powerful effect. But again, when we discussed the idea, Jordan was completely on board.

What about the black and white flashbacks showing Emily and Lillian packing? Was that in the script or something you came up with?
The flashbacks were scripted and a convention of Murdoch. The treatment of the flashbacks is also a convention of the show. What I added to this was the way I chose to shoot them. Or rather shoot and cut them—in extreme close-ups for all of them, with perhaps the exception of the one packing scene you referenced if I remember. It’s funny because what I was doing with the flashbacks was a bit of a departure as I understood it, so because I’d never done the show before, I covered my ass just in case people hated it. I shot versions that were much closer to the way they might normally be shot, but then spent most of my time working on the way I wanted to see them. When I saw the first cut, of course the flashbacks came back the way they were usually done. And fair enough. I hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss the idea with Tom Joerin, the editor of the episode. So when I went in we changed it up, using the extreme close ups for the flashback moments. I think he liked what I was up to. We thought it worked.

The close-up idea was because my take on flashbacks is that they should feel more emotionally connected to the characters who are in the flashbacks or who they might be effecting. It’s not about establishing geography (unless that’s the point you’re making) or trying out some cool camera work. That’s not the job of a flashback normally. The audience should be connecting with an idea, an emotional expression of the thing we are supposed to learn about the character. Of course, we have to tell a story too, and unless intentional, not be too abstruse or ambiguous. A good example of what I mean is when Emily has the flashback of Lillian showing her the tickets for the ship passage to London. When we come back from the flashback to Emily, the audience intentionally has no sense of surroundings. It was an extreme close up on her. I wanted it to be clear that where we were was in Emily’s emotional condition, in her head. I didn’t want that moment polluted with distracting visual information that undercut the idea. In the cut I found it quite effective.

Georgina was wonderful in several scenes, showing a serious side to Emily we haven’t seen before. Can you talk about her performance a bit?
Ah, Georgina. What a fantastic actor she is. This was obviously a very important episode for the character Emily Grace, and Georgina herself. I felt pressure as well to deliver on the promise of a strong exit for her. Before shooting, Georgina and I had a lengthy discussion about the script over dinner. We had never met before and had no real idea of what each other was going to bring to the episode. I mean, I’d seen Georgina’s work and was a fan of hers but that’s different than collaboration. We left that dinner seemingly on the same page.

Over the next few days when I ran into her it all seemed cooler. Not in a bad way, just a way I didn’t understand. When we began shooting, I realized that what I had experienced over those couple of odd days was her process. I love actors! I really do. They are honestly among my favourite group of artists in this business. Anyway, her process was interesting. As we began shooting, it was easier. We talked about new intentions we’d discovered since our first discussion and some of our discussions referencing things we’d talked about over dinner. Then that seemed to wane as we went along. It wasn’t as though we didn’t speak. It was just the level of connection between us seemed to decrease. And being as insecure as the next artist on any show I began worrying that I’d said something wrong, or she felt as though I might be over directing, which by the way is my worst nightmare. But what I came to realize was that once again, this was Georgina’s process. And it was another lesson or reminder to me of the essence of trust.

For me, trust is not something freely given or expected, but rather earned. And it’s a two-way street. So while I’m rolling down the road on set, worrying whether Georgina trusts me as a director, the whole time it seems, what I was seeing was her complex process. This was where she had to go as an actor. My takeaway in this was to stop worrying about her trusting me and simply let my trust in her take over. Or more precisely—suck it up—it’s not about me! And as you say, some of what was going on with Emily in this episode was a departure, but Georgina still knew Emily more intimately that any of us. Even in this new territory, her take on the character was spot on. And, in the end, it was more or less what we had initially discussed with plenty of flourish Georgina brought to the table on the day. I completely trust her. She is quite something. A smart actor with clear intent. Even her instincts seem well reasoned. I so look forward to collaborating with her again at some point.

This is a pivotal episode for Murdoch Mysteries with Georgina Reilly leaving the show. Do you remember what the mood was on-set for her last scene?
I think the mood kind of permeated shooting the entire episode for everyone. Certainly on her last day it was emotional for many. Georgina was pretty great keeping it all in perspective. She’s strong. But the entire main cast, as well as many of the crew expressed to me how much they love her and how much they’ll miss her on the show—each in their own way expressing that mood throughout the shoot.

The Union station scene in Cobourg’s Victoria Hall. Photo by Gary Harvey

Where did you film the Union Station/goodbye scene?
That was shot in Cobourg, Ont. We shot the goodbye scene outside Victoria Hall on the main street. That was an awesome experience. For the most part, everything we had been shooting was happening either on the stage, in the back lot or on private property. Everyone had said, ‘When you shoot in Cobourg you’ll get a lot of people coming out to watch.’ I expected perhaps a couple dozen or so. I didn’t expect the couple hundred. It was pretty exciting. And once again, this amazing cast (did I mention I love actors?) taking the time to go chat with the fans, sign autographs and have their pictures taken with the fans who had come out and were standing in the blazing sun, some for several hours, waiting to catch a glimpse.

I really miss Arctic Air; any chance of a TV-movie happening to wrap everything up?
Doubtful. I mean, not impossible but it wouldn’t look like an episode of Arctic Air. That show was really the result of a larger plan that to my mind required it run for seasons. Sadly, in our case just three seasons. But it required forward thinking and a plan over multiple episodes that allowed us to pull off what we did with the money we had. It wasn’t a regular pattern the way a lot of shows are run. On Arctic Air, I didn’t want to have discussions about patterns. Budgets can operate in the world of patterns all night long. They’re averages—an easy way to understand and break out the numbers. I get it. I have no issue with that, but episodes shouldn’t operate in that world. Episodes are not patterns. They should be organic (sorry to use that word). The whole season was one big episode in my mind. One budget number and X number of episodes to spend it on. And contrary to what some in the industry thought, we did it on a Canadian budget. Pulling it off because the essence of our big picture plan was complete. We had to move and adjust as we went along, learning what was and wasn’t possible and implementing the adjustments.

But at its core we never wavered from that big picture. I suppose these show forensics should be for another discussion. But I point this out to illustrate that it would be a difficult task to resurrect Arctic Air into a movie and have it feel like the show. A pretty expensive undertaking. Perhaps an order of five movies…

Your IMDB page is a wide cross-section of projects both comedic and dramatic in Canada. Have you ever considered leaving here for work in the U.S.?
I have considered it. Several times. My family is here and they’ve never been up for relocating. I feel today that I am probably past relocating to the U.S. For television in particular. If features were in the cards it might be a different story.

How has camera technology and the advent of HDTV affected your directing? Have they made your job harder or easier?
Yes, the technological shift has made it both easier and harder. It took awhile but, eventually, we all bought into the shift from film to digital. And that collective buy-in has given rise to a speed in technological developments culminating into changes, some subtle, some not so subtle, in how we do things on set today. I’ll just mention a couple. I began directing in the dawn of the digital shift. I only shot film exclusively for maybe five years, then worked through the jump, regularly switching shooting film on some shows, digital on others. Now the last 10 years have been exclusively digital. One of the more obvious developments is that there is now a tremendous amount of control over the look of the show while on set. From a director’s perspective, having a show’s look dialed in on set is both inspiring and infuriating. I love seeing what the show will look like, mostly, while I’m standing there. But I hate waiting for every shot to be dialed in that way. Now this is not the case with every director of photography, not by a long shot. But when it happens and we begin to fixate, it stalls the process on a TV shooting schedule. One of the things you want as a director is momentum with your day. Momentum and this level of control on set are sometimes mutually exclusive, in my opinion. This has been changing in the last few years however, as post production technology advances, and DPs have more trust in what they can do six weeks from now with a problem shot as apposed to what they need to do now.

So specifically, how does this affect me? I believe in allowing everyone to do their jobs they way they need to do them. So when I’m delayed by something like this, I sit quietly in the background adjusting my shot list for the day. Don’t get me wrong. I will push the DP with what I consider to be the right amount of pressure. I am not a passive director when it comes to schedule but it’s a balance. And I will say this, it’s not them, it’s the technology we get sucked into. I also should qualify that I have always loved my collaborations with DPs, nearly all of them in my career. On Murdoch I had the pleasure of working with Yuri Yakubiw, a DP with a lovely touch and wonderful sensitivity to the material and who is not in the least the people I describe above. But an interesting outcome of this ‘problem’ is I have admittedly come up with some exceptional work myself as a result of having to edit and adjust my shot list on the fly when I’m seriously delayed. Surprises can be fantastic. Necessity/mother/invention/etc. The other major development with this technology is the issue of the rolling takes. This is a little producer coming out in me too but it is excruciating sitting through that material in the editing room. I know I’ll probably get some backlash for this but it’s costly and in my opinion lazy work on set. It’s one thing to be working through performance with an actor. Like when you see outtakes of a comedian working a line in several forms. That is exactly what comedians do when the camera isn’t rolling too. That’s how they know they have the best work. But when a director is doing multiple rolling takes without clear direction between the beats. And most specifically in drama, that director hasn’t got a handle on what they want. I’m not saying you have to shut out inspiration or that your plan needs to be 100 per cent before you step onto set, but I find it lazy when someone does it beyond a couple of takes. But this sort of thing is a direct result of us buying into the digital possibilities. The whole notion of it being cheap has, in some case made us lazy. We can roll until lunch now if we have to. This is not a good development. And again, a discussion for another time.

What are you working on next?
I’m about to do movie with Annie Carlucci, an exec- producer I love and have worked with before. I’m very excited to be working with her again. I’m also still working myself into writing. Developing a few things. A movie and a half and a couple of series. (Hey writer friends, I can work in the room!) In the meantime, I am out there trying to make inroads into directing new shows here in Canada. I love working with people I haven’t worked with before. Getting inspired by their ideas and the way they do things. I’m working through my disability and working in spite of it.

In fact, I’m feeling that as a result of this issue, my work is better than it’s ever been. I am cancer free and loving life like never before. I have no benchmark for where I am or where I’m going. I’m in a future I could never have imagined, riding a wave that is not of my doing. It’s a very interesting ride I must say.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.