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.
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.
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.
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.