In my first interview covering the third season of Hudson & Rex, I spoke to show co-stars Mayko Nguyen about how emotionally draining the season debut was. Showrunner Derek Schreyer believes he knows the reason why.
“I think these times have shown us not just how much we love our animals, but how much they love us,” he told me in an email. I agree. I certainly have spent a lot more time bugging my cat, much—I’m sure—to his chagrin. But enough about me; here is my email chat with Derek Schreyer about the challenges of running a TV series during a worldwide pandemic.
How challenging was it for you, as showrunner, to create this season during COVID-19?
Derek Schreyer: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t much of a factor. We started rolling into Season 3 just as the world began to shut down, and the pandemic panic was at its absolute high (even though we’re actually much worse off now). Getting into a groove on a new season is challenging enough, but here was this added complexity of being forced to work on Zoom, and oh yeah, the world is burning. So those first few days were spent musing about life while figuring out the software (we use Miro to replicate a whiteboard) and all the new rhythms of a virtual room.
So yes, there were bumps. In a physical workspace, we can pace and move around and scrunch up the bad pitches (which will inevitably become ammunition). Sometimes we’d take group walks to stretch the legs or have a coffee break in a park, which is where some of the best ideas are formed. None of that possible in a virtual room, so we had to figure out new ways to spark our imagination. Complicating things further is everyone has a life, which can’t help but spill onto the zoom screen—there are the kids and the ferrets and the delivery men and the partners and the barking dogs, not to mention the technical glitches and different time zones.
But here’s the funny thing: I learned to love all that stuff. Distractions create amusing bonding moments, which can actually generate ideas. It really didn’t take our team long to gel. Of course, it’s not like we had a choice—our development window is much shorter than most one-hour shows, so we had to learn how to work together fast. That we’re not a massive room worked to our advantage, and we have a nice mix of new faces with returnees. There’s really only four of us—Vivian Lin and Joseph Milando from last season, and Sonja Bennet coming in fresh. We also had Cal Coons do the heavy-lifting on some of the earlier episodes, it would have been near impossible to slide right into Season 3 without him. And we were blessed with some strong outside writers, a number of whom have already written for the show.
And yes, COVID was certainly a factor in how we told our stories. We chose not to depict the pandemic in our fictional world, but production still had to manage it in real life, which meant fewer crowds and more two-handers and outdoor scenes. So there were definitely more barriers for the storytelling this season. But sometimes barriers breed innovation, and I’m very proud of the places we took our scripts. I honestly believe it’s our strongest season yet.
Mayko mentioned a lot more filming outdoors this season. Was this because of the pandemic, or was that just the nature of the storylines?
DS: It’s actually a bit of both. Newfoundland has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, which is one of the reasons we now air in over 100 territories—that rugged landscape is an appealing draw for places like Italy, France, and Germany. Some of our strongest episodes from previous seasons took advantage of that. And of course, with this year and COVID, it’s just easier and safer to shoot outdoors, so we definitely leaned more that way at first.
Luckily the outdoors is a natural fit for our world, given the Rex factor. There is something appealing about a man and his dog in the wild, that Jack London call to adventure is innate and universal. One episode finds Charlie and Rex venturing deep into the forest to a small nomadic civilization living off-the-grid. Another takes place under the ocean and involves Charlie strapping on a SCUBA suit in the search for clues on the ocean bed (both ideas inspired by our star John Reardon, who is a Master SCUBA diver in real life). The point is that this season often our story obstacles came from the elements, as opposed to complex set-pieces requiring a large cast, which is true to the DNA of our show.
The one down side to shooting outdoors is that Newfoundland does not have a very long summer. That can be difficult on the actors, who sometimes have to pretend it’s warmer than it is. Watching them in some of these dailies makes me realize how incredibly devoted they are to their craft and this show. Luckily, we plan our stories according to the elements, so the last three episodes shooting in the new year feature worlds that are largely indoors.
Did you have to alter anything in the planning and/or production because of COVID-19?
DS: Absolutely, both on the page and on the floor. Production did an incredible job tapping down on COVID—employing working pods and zones, sanitizing stations, strict quarantining of out-of-province cast and crew, essential mask-wearing, and of course constant testing. All of this costs money and time, so almost every department, including Story, had to make concessions. So sometimes, if a test result wasn’t ready, we’d have to adjust a scene or write someone out. Re-inventing on the fly is not unusual during production, but COVID took it to another level.
Having said that, as crazy as it sounds, the limitations didn’t hurt the episodes. At times they even helped them. Smaller scenes can become more visceral and intimate, allowing Rex and the cast to really shine. Crowds were certainly a casualty this season, but we quickly discovered we didn’t always need them. For instance, one episode is set at a dog show. We could never replicate the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, so we developed a fictional version that felt truer to St. John’s. And we’re working on an episode involving magic, which usually involves spectacle and an audience, but the more interesting things happen behind the scenes.
I’ve told both Mayko and John that there is a groove to the first episode of this new season. It feels like everyone “gets” their characters and there is a confidence/swagger to the show. Have you felt that?
DS: Absolutely. Our four human leads really have found their groove this season, hitting new heights in clarity and depth. I strongly believe that any of them could anchor a U.S. show. But as good as they are individually, they’re even better as a team. I like to think it’s because of the brilliant writing, but it’s more likely that chemistry generates over hardship and time, and after two seasons and 32 episodes this cast has had plenty of both (epic reshoots, snowmaggedon, a pandemic … and I’m only scratching the surface!)
The other factor is, now that we’re deep into the third season, we really have figured out what makes each of these characters unique. We’re not a soapy show, and don’t go too deeply into the personal lives of our characters. So we can’t rely on shortcuts like bringing in a parent or girlfriend or brother or following anyone home (except Charlie and Rex). This means we need to define our characters through nuance in dialogue and work style. It helps that everyone works together to ensure their voices are clear and consistent, including the cast themselves.
Hudson & Rex is able to provide light and dark moments. The scene of Rex and his dead partner in the season premiere, and the closing scene at her tombstone, was emotional for me. Can you talk about the joy of bringing those moments to the screen?
DS: Our opening episode was an idea that had been kicking around for a while, but was felt too early in the series arc for an origin story. But now that 30-plus episodes have been filmed, and given how crazy 2020 has been, I cannot think of a more perfect season kicker. It’s obviously a heavy episode that deals with loyalty, loss, and renewal. Jackie May did a lovely job capturing the raw emotion, and I don’t think you’re the only one who felt moved by the episode.
In many ways, that opener is very 2020. We’re all craving connectivity in these crazy times, and that is especially true with the animals we love. My parents had to put down their German shepherd not long before COVID hit, and they’re missing that dog every day. And I had to put down my best pal Cooper, our Portuguese water dog, the day we went into lockdown. We’ve learned to appreciate the bond we have with our animal companions. For this season’s opener, we’re telling that same story, except from the dog’s POV, which is even more wrenching.
I think these times have shown us not just how much we love our animals, but how much they love us, which is why our opener packs such an emotional punch. But the ending alludes to renewal, hope, and purpose—something we all could really use these days.
Hudson & Rex airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Citytv.
Diesel and Derek image courtesy of Derek Schreyer. Show images courtesy of Rogers Media.