Having been part of the process since season one, Director and Producer Neill Fearnley has coordinated with cast and crew to artistically present many heartfelt stories from this fictional town. Neill graciously took the time to share more about a day on set and a life behind the camera.
SC: When did you first become involved with Hallmark? What drew you into being part of these stories?
NF: I first became involved with Hallmark on a film called Daniel’s Daughter back in 2005. While as a director you always want to take on new challenges in storytelling and the big action projects can be exciting technically, sometimes however their challenges can be at the expense of character development. I found with Daniel’s Daughter though that the project was more concerned with the character’s emotional arcs, which is something to which I have always been drawn. Not to say trying to make that film look like we shot in New York and the Irish countryside rather than Toronto and its environs wasn’t the most fun part of the exercise. After that, I directed Christmas in Canaan for Hallmark, and again, we were dealing with character development and I think that is when I really wanted to continue with this kind of work.
SC: You have been a director with When Calls the Heart since season one. How has your role developed or changed over these 6 seasons?
NF: I have been most fortunate to have been involved with WCTH since the beginning and also to have directed almost half of the series. Additionally, I have been one of the producers. So I have been able, as we have added or changed both writers and directors, to assist those new to the project in some of its history, the ‘lay of the land’ so to speak. If I can be of assistance to them in where we have been, and how we can best utilize the resources we have at the set and surrounding landscape to best tell the stories in as rich a way as possible, then hopefully that can be of great benefit to the production.
SC: As a director, can you explain what a day on set might look like for you?
NF: A day on set: Well, one of the best aspects of my job is that no two days are ever the same! But, the nuts and bolts. A shooting day is 12 hours long, plus a half hour for lunch. I like to arrive one-half hour before ‘call’ in case there are things I need to attend to before we begin the day. Call is the time we go on the clock and the 12 ½ hours begin. Often this is at 7:30 am. We all have a ‘call sheet’ which tells us what scenes we will be filming that day and in what order (as well as a lot of other information).
We begin by ‘blocking’ the first scene on the sheet. This entails me communicating with the actors what I want from the scene then working it out with them and showing the result to the crew. This is a collaborative effort and though I come in with a plan I let things evolve, listening to the ideas of those involved and trying to bring the scene up to an even higher level. The actors and I then step off. They go back to wardrobe or the hair and make-up department to get ready for the scene and the camera and lighting crew take over and begin setting everything up to shoot the scene.
Once everyone is ready, we rehearse in front of the cameras, what would be a dress rehearsal in theatre, make our adjustments, then film the first setup of the scene. This is usually a ‘master,’ or one big wide shot of the whole scene. After we have this “in the can” we move on to all the necessary ‘coverage,’ or close-ups, that I feel the scene requires. And we do this shot after shot until we feel we have captured the entire scene. Once that is done, we repeat the entire process for each of the subsequent scenes on the Call Sheet. And all the while the day is proceeding, I am answering questions that relate to all manner of things with regard to the show, from the scene at hand to something happening later in the schedule. They are very full days. Once we wrap there is homework of course for the following day. How much, depends on the film. Sometimes there is not a lot of time for sleep.
SC: What are some of the challenges you need to be aware of as a director when working on a period piece like WCTH?
NF: Challenges on a period piece: Time is always the biggest challenge no matter the period. But specifically, we shoot our show on a very lean schedule, so when you have period costumes and hair requirements for the cast, or horses and wagons to account for, it is important to recognize that getting things ready will take quite a bit longer than it would be filming a contemporary piece.
When we prepare the call sheet we try to take this into account, but eventually, something will occur that throws a wrench into those plans. When that happens, we are fortunate to have a very adept and experienced crew who can adapt quickly and efficiently. What is great fun though, is when these ‘wrenches’ end up helping us deliver something even more wonderful than we had expected in the first place. That can be when the magic happens.
SC: Without giving away spoilers, is there anything special that you can share about your involvement with WCTH this season?
NF: All I can say without giving anything away is that this season because we started so much earlier, we got to film when the light and the foliage were at their best, so everything is going to look that much more beautiful.
SC: As a director, what was the most challenging episode or scene to film on When Calls the Heart (any season)?
NF: I’ve directed Jack and Elizabeth’s wedding, Lee and Rosemary’s, the season finales for five seasons as well as all the WCTH Christmas Movies. Each presented their own challenges and satisfactions, but filming Season Five’s finale and the mourning of Jack was both the most difficult and the most rewarding. Again, it comes back to character development. This wasn’t about mudslides at mines or settlements being washed away. It wasn’t about snowstorms or marauding gangs. And while those were all challenging and fun to film in their own right, season five’s finale was about character. It was about how do we, as the friends and loved ones of someone taken from us, cope with the loss. And not just in the story but on the set. One of our principal cast members, who had been with us from the beginning, was moving on to other projects, so that loss was with us every day as well. And the result was a powerful and moving episode.
SC: What is the best advice that you have been given in your career?
NF: The greatest advice is to trust myself. Sounds simple, but it took me a while to understand what that really meant. When I started, I would come to set so prepared, so organized, intending to leave nothing to chance that it created an unnoticed rigidity. It is not that I didn’t understand that things would change but my belief was that if something went awry, I could deal with that, knowing that as soon as the problem was solved, I could return to the plan. But it was suggested to me that though having a plan was important, in fact, the cast and crew rely on a director who has done their homework, I should consider setting the plan aside, trusting in myself, in my instincts. Trusting myself to see and hold the entire story in my mind, knowing I wouldn’t get lost, but to let it unfold in its own way, nudging it where necessary toward the goal I had determined the tale should take, but allowing it to find its own way through the thicket of storytelling. I have to say, since embracing that advice, my work has been both richer and more fulfilling.
SC: You have previously indicated that you have always wanted to be in this industry and to become a director. What was the biggest surprise about this role that you have encountered?
NF: Yes, I have always wanted to be in this industry and to work as a director, in fact since I was very young and first knew the work existed. My biggest surprise: Actually, it is two-fold, and I say this most humbly, that someone gave me the opportunity to direct in the first place and secondly, that all these years later I am so fortunate to be still at it and to still love it.
SC: Is there one show or movie that you have been involved with you would credit as being your greatest teacher as a director?
NF: I can’t say there was anyone show that was my greatest teacher. If you are open and receptive each project will teach you something of yourself and of the craft. Indeed, some of those lessons can seem like setbacks at the time, but you pull yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on, taking those lessons to the next film, where perhaps everything clicks, and you apply new insights to tell a story more effectively and have it really resonate with an audience. That is the great thing about a profession like this, surprises abound, and if you stay focused, the learning never stops.
SC: Do you have other upcoming projects that we can take note of?
NF: I have been so busy this past couple of years directing WCTH and Garage Sale that I have been turning down other projects as my slate is pretty full. Having said that there are a couple of projects in the wind for which I have been approached, but I will have to see, should they come to fruition, if time permits.
SC: Is there someone in the industry that you would welcome the opportunity to work with, or wish you could collaborate on a project together?
NF: The person who first comes to mind is my son Liam Fearnley. He is a writer and has been developing a really wonderful dramatic series about the costs of fame on the young members of a band thrust too quickly into the spotlight, and the pressures it puts on them, their families and friends. Were he to get it greenlit I would make every effort to find the time to work with him on it. That would be a treat.
SC: There is a world beyond the stories that only a limited number of people experience and understand. Neill’s insight into a day on set provides an opportunity to ponder the various pieces that come together to create episodes of When Calls the Heart. Neill’s heart for character development and emotional arcs connects to viewers and draws the audience into a deeper look at the overall picture. While waiting for more from Hope Valley, visit Neill’s website or check out his impressive list on IMDB, as there have been many stories shared where Neill was the one connecting the pieces.