APTN’s new documentary series Nations at War—airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET—takes a macro look at the influence First Nations people have had on global events in history. Creator and writer Tim Johnson and producer, director and co-writer Jason Friesen take a unique approach with many key events in Canadian history, often revealing details many of us have never heard before, and examine common themes throughout. By the end, they tie all of these events up into one large picture. I caught up with Jason Friesen and Tim Johnson to talk about Nations at War and what viewers can expect every week.
How did the two of you come up with the concept for Nations at War?
Tim Johnson: There was a lot of debate on different elements because we had a limited budget. Part of what I wanted to do with the show’s concept was because I am a huge watcher of popular history shows, particularly British ones. I have always loved their approach and history programming is always done very differently than it is done here in North America. I wanted to emulate a lot of these British historical documentaries series that I found really exciting and very engaging and I think, very approachable to watch.
But when Jason and I started talking about making the show in the very early stages, I realized I am a writer and I can talk all about history that you want, and I like to develop a good story, but I am not a producer and I didn’t have the expertise to do it myself. I knew right away that I needed guidance. I needed someone with the skills, someone with the background, and I needed someone with organization. And I needed it to be the right person that could take the rough material I had come up with, and the concepts that I wanted to do, and the way I wanted the story—which is a very macro view of history—and take it to make a show that actually works. But it was British television that really inspired this.
Jason Friesen: Originally, it was a mutual friend of ours that pitched me Tim’s idea and I was connected with Tim and I went through the whole thing where my company acquired the show. I already have a long-standing relationship with APTN from other shows I have done with them, but basically, I played a lot of team sports growing up. I told Tim that a lot of what I do I learned from playing team sports. Everyone plays a different position on the team but in order to succeed or win, everyone has to come together with their different talents. Part of what I bring to the table is the broadcaster and financing, but I also bring a team of people like VFX and Peter Allen an award-winning composer, these are all really important ingredients that make shows really good.
When we pitched the concept to APTN we had to do a demo and so I enlisted a VFX friend Brian Moylan, and with his expertise, we sat down with what Tim had sent me and we added our ideas and creativity and fine-tuned all of the concepts and imagery. I had never done VFX before and we did over 1,100 VFX shots. There are a lot of movies that do not even have that many shots.
Tim: A lot of what we did didn’t exist, so there was a real synchronicity going on because each person we brought on had this technical knowledge to bring to this concept that was really a loose idea in my head. They brought it to reality. There are certain things that you can only do if you have an ungodly amount of money and people and time to throw at. The interesting part, the weakest aspects in my original concept was honestly where Jason, with his ideas, were a perfect fit. This show is a very map heavy show which was very clear in my mind but Jason brought in all of that personal and important detail stuff that was not clearly focused in my mind and it all fit perfectly with my macro idea. There was no question, it just all fit right away.
Why this show, right now?
Jason: We get this question a lot with so many issues happening, but honestly, we have been working on this show from development until now for probably four years. I wanted to produce this show because I had a genuine interest in learning more about history, and I like to do things that challenge me and where I learn. I learned a lot about not only my own Metis history, but I learned a lot about other nations and just Canadian history in general. We are basically offering a slice of life from our historical past brought to life through elders and experts and VFX. There was never a ‘We have to do this now because it is timely,’ it was just a passion as a storyteller to do this. And APTN? They were very excited by this concept because it is an APTN show. It has all of the elements.
Tim: And I wanted to do a history documentary series. I was sitting in my apartment working on a Mother Mother music video at two o’clock in the morning, and I took a break and I just sat down and wrote out two or three episodes. And I thought, maybe I could do eight or something like that.
And like Jason said, ‘Well why now?’ Well, it is now because this is when production ended. When we started it was ‘Why don’t we do a cool history show?’ We just wanted to show everyone that Canadian history is global history and how First Nations were just as tied in to huge global events as the British Empire was. We are just showing the tides of history washing back and forth across the continent and frankly, that is all we ever wanted to do. We had an original concept and in show business having an original idea is like the Holy Grail. So if we don’t do it now, somebody else will.
We had a concept, and every topic we considered had to fit into our story. We are telling a story and decisions were made based upon how important each segment and its characters and individual story were to the big history story we were trying to tell. What kind of themes tie in with other themes and reach common ground in the bigger, wider narrative. There is stuff that we shouldn’t have been able to do with that budget that we did anyway. Especially the Haida Gwai episode, but we were smart about it, and we were committed to doing it in a way we could pull it off.
During your research, what surprised you?
Jason: I am glad you asked that because the other day we were talking to a reporter who said ‘You know I watched a couple episodes, and I can honestly say that I learned some things I did not know about before.’ And I said ‘You don’t know how happy that makes me feel because I am all about learning.’ Especially when it comes to history, and when it comes to Native history. So to answer your question, that happened all the time. Even with our host David Lyle. We would send him his material. And then the next day, when Tim and I would be talking to him he would say, ‘HEY, I had no idea that the Haida were one of the strongest naval forces in North America.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know at first either.’ That was the beauty of this project. When I think of this, I imagine people of all ages watching this on television in Canada and it makes me feel really good that people will be watching a program that has all of these visual anecdotes that help translate what Tim and I are trying to say. But it will also open up questions and understandings of things that people didn’t know about, and it will create conversations and educate people. There will also be an understanding that a lot of these Aboriginal heroes in a lot of these stories in history books, they are second players in their own stories. I am very excited for people to watch Nations at War and learn new things about not only their own culture but just history in general.
Nations at War airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on APTN.