Being born in 1971, I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War. I learned about it through music and the movies, from First Blood to Platoon, Apocalypse Now to The Deer Hunter and countless others. But all of those films dealt largely with the U.S. angle. It turns out Canada had a role in that conflict as well.
I learned about it through Fortunate Son. Bowing on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, the eight-part drama is based on the life of Tom Cox, a Canadian TV producer most recently known for his work on Heartland and Wynonna Earp.
Created and written by Andrew Wreggitt, Fortunate Son stars Kari Matchett as Ruby Howard, an American activist in Canada who isn’t merely happy with vocally protesting the Vietnam War; she does something about it. Also starring Stephen Moyer, Darren Mann, Rick Roberts, Patrick Gallagher, Ty Olsson and Kacey Rohl, Fortunate Son is as much a history lesson as it is an examination into what the world is going through today.
We spoke to writer, showrunner and executive producer Andrew Wreggitt about the project.
When Fortunate Son was first announced, the thing that jumped out at me was Tom Cox’s name because it’s based on his life. Did you know Tom before you were attached to this?
Andrew Wreggitt: Tom and I have been colleagues for, oh, I want to say 30 years. I actually first met Tom in Calgary. We happened to be neighbours and I didn’t have any idea he was in the same business as me. We were neighbours and we got to be friends and he and I worked together on North of 60 and so we go back a long way together.
I always knew Tom’s background and he had this very interesting family and Seven24 got in touch and said that they were interested in developing a show that had to do with Tom’s background. Tom grew up in a household where his mother was an activist and she brought up the kids to make protest signs and be out there every Saturday morning protesting something or other. And they were involved in bringing draft dodgers and deserters across and helping them settle in Canada.
They were definitely a kind of a halfway house and so they were involved in that and that’s kind of how Tom grew up, in this household where they were being watched by the police and they were very active in many causes. I’ve always loved that era and that story and so we kind of took it from there and developed the idea of this show around that idea.
I can’t believe that it’s taken this long to be made.
AW: Ten years ago I don’t think you could have made this show, the way the television industry was. People were looking at different things. A period piece would have been extremely difficult to make. So in a way, it’s a story that it really required the times to be the way they are for it to, for one thing, to resonate the way it does with what’s actually going on in the world.
Some of the things that are happening politically in the world are starting to feel pretty darn familiar to things that were happening 50 years ago.
I knew virtually nothing about draft dodgers being smuggled into Canada and the danger involved.
AW: Yeah, it was a big deal. You know, the anti-war movement in the U.S. was a huge, huge political deal and there were over 30,000 draft dodgers, which is incredible when you think of it across the country. I remember in university there were … I had a teacher in high school who was a draft dodger.
There were university professors who came up. There were people that brought a whole perspective to Canada in a lot of different ways who wouldn’t have been in Canada under any other circumstances. So yeah, it was a big cultural shift in the U.S. and it had a big impact on Canada.
How much is Tom’s story and how much has been adapted? Are there characters that are a combination of people in this time period?
AW: Well, yeah, for sure. Tom’s actual family was a bit of a jumping-off point, so I kind of made up a lot of the people around it, but it was based on, they were composites of course of what was really going on at the time. The Catholic church was obviously very involved in the U.S. in the anti-war movement and so we had our church and our priest was very, very involved in the community. It was pretty common that people came through the churches and they were very involved in as they are now bringing refugees from Syria, for example.
Did Kari Matchett audition for the role? She’s the perfect fit to be playing Ruby.
AW: She really is. When we first saw her audition, we were just blown away. She was just Ruby. She totally embodied that role and so for me, as soon as I saw her, I felt like, ‘Yeah, this was Ruby.’ And you can feel her, she’s a mom, she’s committed politically, she’s trying to hold all these things together and it’s not easy. It’s hard to be politically committed and doing stuff, especially as a woman in 1968 there were expectations of you that she certainly didn’t fit.
The music of this time period is great and really helps with the storytelling. How did you decide what songs you were going to use? I imagine maybe licensing had something to do with your choices.
AW: We knew music was going to be a big, big part of the show. You can’t say the 1960s without music coming up, so we knew that from the beginning and luckily we had a reasonable budget to bring to the table so we were able to license some songs and get some stuff. I have to admit, as I’m writing, I’m looking at these scenes thinking, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have Magic Carpet Ride. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have In A Gadda Da Vida’ … and of course you can’t have everything you want because there are certain limitations on music and what we can afford and can’t afford and so on. But I’m absolutely over the moon about some of the songs that we’ve gotten for the show throughout.
What type of writer are you? Are you the type that needs to shut yourself in a room? Can you do writing in a coffee shop with a cacophony of noise around you? How does it work for you?
AW: I can write just about anywhere. I made a 1968 playlist and I’ve played it a thousand times and I’ve got lots of Jimmy Hendrix, lots of my favourite tunes and so I’ll put that on and blast it away and start working, so I’m totally cool writing to music. I’m totally cool with writing in a coffee shop or. I’ve even driven across the country, my wife driving and she’ll put on a radio mystery station or something. And I’ll get in the back with my headphones on and I’ll write in the back of the car, so I’ll write anywhere.
Fortunate Son airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.