Everything about Vollies, eh?

Screen Nova Scotia announces 2023 award winners

From a media release:

Screen Nova Scotia hosted its ninth annual awards gala on Saturday, May 13th, in the Schooner Ballroom at Casino Nova Scotia in front of a sold-out crowd of industry members and supporters. The event celebrates the incredible talent, creativity, and passion that are the trademarks of Nova Scotia’s screen industry. Awards included the ACTRA Maritimes Awards for Outstanding Performances, the Groundbreaking Performance Award, the Film Crew Excellence Award, the Women in Film & Television – Atlantic Best Nova Scotia Director Award, and the Community Recognition Award, along with the Screen Nova Scotia Awards for Best Scripted and Unscripted Television Series, Best Feature, Documentary and Short films, Best Animated Series and Outstanding Achievement in Editing.

The night’s finale was the Screen Nova Scotia Award for Best Feature Film, presented by Tim Halman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change as well as Chair of Treasury Board and Policy Board with the Province of Nova Scotia, which went to Queens of the Qing Dynasty, the sophomore film from Cape Breton filmmaker Ashley McKenzie (Hi-Vis Films). Inspired by two teenagers McKenzie befriended during the casting of her debut Werewolf (2016), the film follows Star (Sarah Walker), a neurodiverse teen recovering from a suicide attempt in a Nova Scotia hospital, and the friendship she develops with An (Ziyin Zheng), a genderqueer volunteer assigned to watch her.

The second season of the Bell Fibe TV1 series Vollies from Canadian Content Studios was crowned the winner of the Best Television Series – Scripted Award. Jonathan Torrens (Trailer Park Boys, Letterkenny, Mr. D) leads a cast of quirky newcomers in this fresh, funny comedy series that follows the Essex-West-Essex Fire Department, a small-town volunteer fire department that never has any actual fires to fight.

The Best Documentary Film Award went to On the Fringe, from producer Nancy Kenny (Broken Turtle Productions) and director Cory Thibert. The road trip doc follows a ragtag crew of performing artists as they journey across the country to perform their work on the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit. The Best Nova Scotia Director Award from Women in Film & Television – Atlantic went to director Jackie Torrens (Peep Media) for the critically-acclaimed feature documentary Bernie Langille Wants To Know What Happened to Bernie Langille.

Two new awards were handed out at the show, including the award for Best Television Series – Unscripted, sponsored by the Directors Guild of Canada. The winner was Living in Flow, produced by Gorgeous Mistake Productions and directed by Meaghan Wright (Mirror Image Media Inc.). The VICE Canada docuseries follows six Atlantic Canadian youth facing different mental health challenges.

The new award for Outstanding Achievement in Editing went to veteran editor Kimberlee McTaggart, who was also nominated this year for a Canadian Screen Award for her work on the TV series Moonshine. An editor in the film and television industry for over 25 years, she works in drama, documentary, and comedy. Series credits include Diggstown, Pure, SEED, Call Me Fitz, and This Hour has 22 Minutes.

“Congratulations to all the nominees and award winners,” said Laura Mackenzie, Executive Director, Screen Nova Scotia. “Tonight we celebrate our industry and all those who contributed to bringing authentic and compelling Nova Scotian stories to life.”

Koumbie’s feature film directorial debut Bystanders proved to be a showcase for local talent, with both Taylor Olson and Marlee Sansom taking home trophies from ACTRA Maritimes for Outstanding Performances for their roles in the film. Bystanders (Picture Plant Ltd.) tells the story of six childhood best friends who gather for their annual weekend away, only to discover that one of them is guilty of sexual assault.

The Groundbreaking Performance Award, which celebrates a performer who identifies as diverse and does not yet meet the eligibility criteria for the ACTRA awards for their work in a film or television/web series, went to Greg Vardy in Tracy and Martina: Dirty Deeds. The award recipient is determined by an online voting process, to better engage the wider community outside of the screen industry.

Seven-year-old Briar Mosher took home an ACTRA Maritimes Award for Outstanding Performances for her role in Leah Johnston’s short film Mother’s Skin. Phoebe Rex also won an Outstanding Performances award for playing the teenage Samantha in Jason Eisener’s sci-fi horror feature Kids vs. Aliens, which is now streaming on Shudder. 

Keeper from writer/director Tori Flemming and producer Morgan Salter was the winner of the Best Short Film Award, while season three of The Casagrandes took home the award for Best Animated Series. Produced by Jam Filled Entertainment, the comedy series airs on Nickelodeon and showcases the work of Nova Scotian animators.

This year’s Film Crew Excellence Award went to makeup artist Betty Belmore. A member of IATSE Local 849 – and a previous BAFTA award-winner – Belmore has worked in the Nova Scotia film and television industry for over 35 years and has been a mentor to many. Her Head of Department credits includes large-budget US service productions, as well as local features, TV series, and short films, including Mr. D, The Healer, Jesse Stone, and Haven.

The 2023 Community Recognition Award went to local entertainment lawyer Rob Aske, Partner at Stewart McKelvey. Rob was nominated by several producers for his work in the industry, helping both emerging and established filmmakers navigate the film business, regardless of the project budget. For over 25 years, Aske has also generously volunteered his time and expertise while working with industry organizations/associations, including his countless hours dedicated to the Screen Nova Scotia Board of Directors, since 2015.

The Screen Nova Scotia Awards were made possible this year due to the generous support of many sponsors, including Platinum Partners at  the Directors Guild of Canada, Support4Culture, the Canadian Media Producers Association, IATSE Local 849, and William F. White International Inc. Special thanks to 902 Post and The Hideout Studios for their continued work to ensure another successful event in 2023.

About Screen Nova Scotia
Screen Nova Scotia is a film commission and industry association that promotes and advocates on behalf of Nova Scotia’s screen industry. Our membership includes producers, service providers, local cast and crew, unions, and industry organizations. Screen Nova Scotia is dedicated to building a strong and sustainable future for the province’s production sector. We’re the first point of contact to find out more about locations, production partners, industry resources and infrastructure, and financial incentives.

List of award winners:

Screen Nova Scotia Awards

Best Feature Film
Queens of the Qing Dynasty (Hi-Vis Films)

Best Television Series Scripted
Vollies S2 (Canadian Content Studios)

Best Television Series – Unscripted
Living in Flow (Gorgeous Mistake Productions)

Best Documentary Film
On the Fringe (Broken Turtle Productions)

Best Short Film
Keeper (Tori Flemming, Morgan Salter)

Best Animated Series
The Casagrandes S3 (Jam Filled Entertainment) 

Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Kimberlee McTaggart 

Groundbreaking Performance
Greg Vardy

ACTRA Maritimes Awards for Outstanding Performances

Briar Mosher in Mother’s Skin

Taylor Olson in Bystanders

Phoebe Rex in Kids vs. Aliens

Marlee Sansom in Bystanders

Additional Awards

WIFT-AT Award for Best Director
Jackie Torrens (Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille)

Film Crew Excellence Award
Betty Belmore, Make-up Artist 

Community Recognition Award
Rob Aske, Partner, Stewart McKelvey


Jonathan Torrens returns to TV with hilarious Vollies

The television landscape is constantly changing. Where once there were only conventional television stations, now we have streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ opening up our worlds to programs outside of North America and around the world.

Bell has been going the other way, with hyper-local programming on its Fibe TV1 service. There Bell subscribers can access television projects from communities across the country. Vollies, available now on Bell Fibe TV1, is just one of them.

Co-created by and starring Jonathan Torrens and Sarah D. McCarthy, Vollies (a second season has been greenlit) follows the exploits of the Essex-West-Essex Fire Department. This crew has everything a real fire department does, including a shiny truck, baller uniforms, and super-cool nicknames. The only thing they don’t have? Actual fires to fight. But that doesn’t stop them from organizing a series of fundraisers, each more outrageous than the next, to buy a helicopter.

Starring a relatively unknown group of actors alongside McCarthy and Torrens, Vollies is awkward, heartfelt hilarity. We spoke to Jonathan Torrens and Sylvia Beirnes, Vollies writer, producer and partner with Torrens on Canadian Content Studios.

Vollies’ co-creator and star Sarah D. McCarthy

How did Vollies come about?
Jonathan Torrens: We had this meeting with Paul Gardner, who’s our guy at Bell Fibe1 TV, a year or so ago. He said, ‘What is the idea that gets your heart going?’ And I have never, in my 30-plus year career, been asked that question. And it was just a great reminder that there’s no substitute for genuine enthusiasm and passion. That’s how Vollies came about.

I had made a list of the things that I had available to me in my neighbourhood during the lockdown. My father-in-law used to be in the farm machinery business, and he had this empty warehouse. I was thinking about fire specifically and how I’ve never really seen it in a comedic setting. There’s a reason for that, it’s really expensive. And, although [first-responder shows] would suggest otherwise, there’s nothing inherently funny about the work that they do. After realizing that I hadn’t seen that and that we couldn’t afford fires, suddenly the idea of a volunteer fire department that didn’t have anything to do started to come into focus as a great setting for a TV show.

At what point did you and co-creator Sarah D. McCarthy start working together on it?
JT: Sarah was working with us on some other stuff. She’s an actor from here. She was helping with some of that stuff, because Sylvia and I just parse out little things, we need help with. I mentioned to Sarah that I was going to pursue this idea. She grew up across the street from a volunteer fire station in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, her house burnt to the ground when she was nine.

Her house actually burnt to the ground. And she was the one that said they had a DJ Backdraft who did teen dances every Sunday. And she was the one that said they used the vollies to give a curfew siren; that’s when all the teens knew it was time to go home. They’re so woven into the communities here and they do everything. They knock on our door and ask for donations for an auction to raise money, they do highway safety if there’s an accident.

Sylvia, how did the writers’ room on Vollies operate?
Sylvia Beirnes: It was my first one, to be honest. Jonathan and I have been writing things together, so we just tend to rip and jam, but this is the first time we had done something like this. We flushed the idea of the show out with a group of people. And then when it came to actually writing Jonathan, Sarah and Mark Forward were the ones who actually put pen to paper. I was brought in when we were reviewing everything, going through and trying to punch things up, no words came out of my actual fingertips, but it was through those conversations and through being able to brainstorm and go, ‘Is that a funny thing?’ I’m not from a small town, but I’m married to someone from a small town and have seen vollies in action. So you pull from your life references and experiences.

I was terrified to say a word at the beginning. When you’re in a writers’ room with the likes of Jonathan and Mark and Sarah, that’s only intimidating because I made it, not because they’re not wonderful people. But the minute I raised my hand for the first time it was received with warmth and yes, all the great things you would hope would happen to you. And it was just, it was awesome. I never dreamed in a million years that if I ever got to work on a scripted comedy, it would be our own. And the fact that I got to see my name and credits for writing something that I think is really funny and pretty sweet.

JT: Sylvia is selling herself short. She contributed lots of words and jokes and sentiments and promises.

Vollies’ James Faulkner

Jonathan, was it a Zoom writing room?
JT: It was. I’ve discovered about myself with age that there are certain things I’m not good at. And it’s as important to know what you’re not good at as it is to know what you are good at. Story is probably not my strongest suit, I’m a great character guy, good dialogue guy. I’m a good person to run a room because everyone feels like they can speak up and it’s warm and squishy.

But the math of story is probably the thing that I find the most tedious, the least sexy, the less fun. I’m like, let’s get to the jokes. I’ve learned through shows like Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny that even though it’s a comedy show you still want to know what your characters are rooting for, what they want, what their goals are. And then your job as a writer is obviously to put obstacles between them and their goals. And inch them closer to it, back them away. So I brought in some heavies, Andrew De Angelis, Mark Forward, Steve Dylan, Alice Moran.

People who are funny, but also are quick to say, ‘Hang on a sec, that doesn’t really make sense.’ The first nut that we cracked was that, I think it was Andrew’s idea, everything is opposite world. So, if these people might not be super cool in normal society, here they’re ballers. And in fact, these volunteer firefighters think the town guys that do it for a living have sold out because they fight fires for money, whereas the vollies do it for the love of fire.

Once we cracked that, then it was like, ‘OK, I know exactly who these people are and what this world is.’ They think they’re cool, cooler than anyone. The other thing I’ve learned is that the stories don’t have to be complicated. You don’t have to make it, the power goes out during the snowstorm at the Halloween dance … that’s a whole season. When we had the idea to make it a series of fundraisers, that felt both something we could easily execute. And best of all, I think sometimes you lose a lot of resources you don’t have by doing unit moves all over the place.

Writing happened fast. Sylvia, what about production?
SB: It was the same. It was all happening at the same time. We are maybe gluttons for punishment, as far as that goes. But we also, one of the things we really pride ourselves on at CCS, is that we can make great things happen quickly. While Jonathan was wrangling the entire world, I was helping wrangle all kinds of other things in the background. It was a race to the finish line, navigating a pandemic was no small feat either. I was in isolation for two weeks in Nova Scotia, which actually proved to be the best thing ever because I just turned inwards and we just got it done.

Vollies’ Brian George

One of the things that I’ve loved is being exposed to folks that I don’t know. So, James Faulkner, I Googled him right after watching the first episode and I’m like, ‘I don’t know who this guy is.’ The same thing with Brian George. Jonathan, talk a little bit about pulling this group of people together that don’t necessarily have a ton or any IMDb credits to their names.
JT: One of the biggest kicks for me in this business is seeing it through the eyes of people that haven’t been exposed to it much. James Faulkner is the voice of the Truro Bearcats. He’s also the news guy on Pure Country in town, so I hear him every day. If you live in Truro, you can’t escape James Faulkner, he’s six foot nine.

But I just had a sense he would be a good performer and he really is. Brian is an accessibility advocate in Halifax and pretty funny presence online as well. He’s done some stand-up, sit-down comedy. I thought it was really powerful of seeing that type of main character without it being central to his character at all. In fact, one of the things I like about the pilot is you don’t know till they get back to the station that he’s even a wheelchair user.

Mary Austin is a Dal opera student, she plays Lil, she’s someone that we’ve worked with a fair bit. We kind of have this little Christopher Guest-style pod of people that we like to use and reuse that just bring us joy and are nice people.

Sylvia, the industry has changed a lot. You don’t have to pitch to the big broadcasters because there’s TV1 out there.
SB: I think it’s one of the most important opportunities that we’ve uncovered, to be perfectly honest. We did not know about it until we knew about it.

And you can go and create and make your dream shows, it’s CRTC funded. They have an obligation to support local filmmakers and television makers across the country. And you get to go and shop it around, so if another network wants to buy Vollies as a 22-minute piece, it’s a completely different contract. For us, it’s the opportunity to fund pilots and to be able to make things we love with really amazing people. We’re building a business show by show on it already.

Season 1 of Vollies is available on Bell Fibe now.

Images courtesy of Canadian Content Studios.