In mid-September, the producers of the Alberta-shot family drama Heartland put out a call for some unusual extras.
The scene was to require some unsavoury types. Seedy characters. Shadowy figures. Drug dealers. Rowdy young women. Even a few “corner boys”, whatever they are.
When reported on Heartland’s official Twitter feed, the news was mostly met with curiosity by the show’s devoted fan base. But there were also few who feared the earnest family drama was about to take an unwelcome turn to the sordid in its ninth season.
“drug dealer on @HeartlandOnCBC why” tweeted one concerned devotee.
“That’s interesting,” says director Bruce McDonald with a laugh. “They were alarmed that some seedy neighbours were moving into the ranch next door? Not to worry. It’s just some people back in the big bad city.”
McDonald should know, he was not only at the helm of the mid-season episode in question but also Sunday’s Season 9 première. Without giving too much away, we can say that the extras were required for a fish-out-of-water, shot-in-Calgary scene in which one of the series favourites finds herself in dire straits during a hasty visit to the big bad city.
As students of modern Canadian cinema know, the subject matter of McDonald’s scrappy feature films often seem to align more closely with seedy folk than the horse-loving, hard-working characters that get wrapped up in the gentle drama found at Heartland’s Bartlett ranch. In the late 1980s, the Toronto-based director began making a name for himself with indie films that explored the darker regions of human experience. Roadkill was a jet-black comedy about an record-label intern who befriends a fledgling serial killer while searching for a missing band. McDonald’s followup, Highway 61, was about a lonely barber who embarks on a road trip to New Orleans after finding a frozen corpse in his backyard. Hard Core Logo was a wonderfully profane mockumentary about the implosion of a drug-addled punk band, while Pontypool was a zombie-horror film about a shock-jock and a deadly virus. At the time of this interview, McDonald was set to wrap on Heartland and head to the Toronto International Film Festival to present Hellions, a horror film about “malevolent trick-or-treaters.”
“We finish shooting on Wednesday night and the next night I’m introducing people to an insane horror movie,” he says.
So with this artistic bent in mind, it may seem strange that McDonald has become a favoured director of Heartland, helming two episodes last season and four this year.
Stranger still, perhaps, is that he seems a true-blue fan of the show, calling his time on the series among the “best experiences I’ve ever had on a set.”
“It’s the world itself,” he said. “It’s southern Alberta, the idea of the ranch and the outdoors and the animals. You’re in the most beautiful country in the world with some extremely talented actors and the writing is very good.”
It’s not that McDonald is a stranger to episodic Canadian TV. Since the 1990s he has proven to be a decidedly flexible team player when it comes to moonlighting on television, directing episodes of everything from the sci-fi series Lexx, to the short-lived cult series Twitch City to the LBGT drama Queer as Folk and teen-angst favourite Degrassi: The Next Generation.
But he says his stock has risen since signing on to direct Heartland last year, at least in the eyes of some.
“I’m a hero right now to my daughter’s friends, to my dad’s friends and to my sister’s friends, so I’m doing well,” says McDonald.
A graduate of Ryerson University’s film program, the 56-year-old director got his start shooting zombie flicks with his grandfather’s Super 8 as a high-school student. Television was never really an ambition, although not because he looked down his nose at the medium, he says.
“I never thought I was allowed to,” McDonald says. “It never occurred to me until some friends said to me ‘You can work in television if you like.’ It was a late-starter thing for me, but I really enjoy it. I grew up on TV more than movies probably.”
When it comes to Heartland, it helps that the production has become a well-oiled machine over the past nine seasons. McDonald sees himself as a “dinner guest who brings a nice casserole or dessert” to the party. The show hit a milestone last year when it became the longest-running hour-long drama in the history of Canadian television.
Season 8 was a watershed year in other ways. Patient fans finally saw the very long-awaited marriage between Amy (Amber Marshall) and Ty (Graham Wardle). Season 9 will find the couple adjusting to married life. Meanwhile, the marriage between Amy’s sister Lou (Michelle Morgan) and Peter (Gabriel Hogan) continues to be troubled, which continues to have an impact on adopted daughter Georgie (Alisha Newton).
“We follow the newly married couple into the newly appointed honeymoon suite, I suppose you might say,” said McDonald. “That will be a new thing for people. We spend some time setting up this place where they are going to live, and it’s pretty groovy. Georgie is growing in importance in stories. She is almost the same age as Amy was when the show started. So it’s interesting to see this young actress following in Amber’s footsteps this year. She is getting extra attention, which I think is really great. These big stories will grow over the season.”