Designing a Season with John Tinker | Super Channel

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Designing a Season with John Tinker

Designing a Season with John Tinker

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Desiree D

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Long before the latest season of When Calls the Heart reaches our screens, the stories are carefully laid out and developed, much like an architect creating blueprints for a house. The showrunner is the lead architect, creatively determining the arc for each character while staying cognizant of the history. The foundation of the building or in this case the characters’ histories, are essential, while designing a new look for the future. 

John Tinker, or Tinker as he’s better known to those in his circle, is the lead architect of the stories from Hope Valley. After determining the outline and inviting others to collaborate on the shape of the season, he and the talented group of writers add the necessary elements to create a finished product. From concept to completion, Tinker is the one to adjust this season’s blueprints until the final episode has filmed. Connecting from his home in Georgia, John Tinker offers more insight into his role as showrunner, as well as the challenges to write and film during COVID-19. 

SC: It has been stated that you had family in the industry and that's how you got your start, but what was it that drew you to writing specifically?

JT: My first job was on a nighttime soap called Knots Landing. And my second job was on a medical drama called St. Elsewhere where the Executive Producer was Bruce Paltrow, Gwyneth Paltrow's father. Bruce became a mentor to me in the industry. When I went to St. Elsewhere, I was first a Production Assistant but Bruce wasn’t one for letting people languish. He was a great cheerleader and promoter and if you worked for him, you either moved up or out. He asked me what I wanted to do. My brother, Mark, was a director on that show. It was the show’s first season and, in part because Mark was doing that, I figured writing would be easier to pursue than shadowing Mark or another director and learning about that. It was Bruce who gave me the opportunity to write. I began by writing short scenes, then received half a script, then a whole script, and things progressed from there. I really owe the opportunity to Bruce and Tom Fontana, who went on to create other memorable shows such as Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street.

SC: As you were going through that process and getting the chance to write a scene or half a script, what was it about writing that made you want to continue doing that instead of looking at something else within the industry?

JT: It was terrifically fulfilling and even more so when I eventually wrote something that I actually got to watch being filmed. I've always felt privileged to be able to do it — to have the chance to sit down and create, whether inventing new characters or, as with the case of When Calls the Heart, inheriting some twenty-plus characters. While I don't know all their character histories, I take what I do know and continue building on that without violating what’s been written before.

As I said, it’s extremely fulfilling — the only tough part being that of sitting in the chair and staying there; writing is rewriting. For people like my wife who is a writer of novels, books, and a weekly newspaper column, she doesn’t seem to have that difficulty; she just writes it and it's done. But I will rewrite up to the point when we shoot and I will make changes even while we're shooting.

SC: Along with Hallmark, who might offer input and direction on the stories?

JT: I enjoy collaborating with everyone. It can be a true pleasure working with the actors and Hallmark, and, of course, the directors — just about anyone, really. And the folks who work on the show care for it so much that they really invest themselves in it. They'll offer ideas and I try and encourage that. They know the characters well, often better than I do.

SC: Were you familiar with When Calls the Heart before you became the showrunner?

JT: No, mostly because I don't watch a lot of television. I hadn't seen the Chesapeake Shores movie before, either, but I developed that as a series.

SC: How did you prepare to get to know the characters and become more familiar with seven seasons of their histories?

JT: I did a few things: First, I binged the seven seasons. After that, I spoke with Derek Thompson and Elizabeth Stewart, two returning writers, and got their lay of the land. Then, I wrote the actors and asked them — not to bring me up to speed but rather — to let me know areas they felt were opportunities left unexplored by their character or areas that merited further exploration.

Later, after arriving in Vancouver, while shooting, I spoke with crew members and, not unimportantly, I hired a woman named Allie Devereaux to be the writer's assistant. To all of our great good fortune, she became this remarkable repository of all things When Calls the Heart. If Allie doesn’t know the answer off the top of her head, she knows how to get to it quickly. Thanks to her, we now have a show bible chronicling the stories and characters. It’s our go-to resource.

SC: Was there one character that jumped out at you while you were getting to know them?

JT: If there's one character that jumps out for everyone, beside Elizabeth Thornton, I think it may be Henry Gowen. Whether you love him, hate him, of even feel indifferent toward him, he stands out.

SC: Having written for the different types of shows. What do you enjoy about the family-friendly genre?

JT: I'm twofold blessed here. I'm not only writing in the family-friendly genre, but I’m also writing story and character in a specific time period. While there may be some things we don't deal with relative to the early 1900s, I do love that we don’t need to concern ourselves in the show’s narrative with cell phones, computers, and so forth.

Another reason I enjoy this genre is the pleasure it brings the viewers who, by inviting us into their home each week, regard it as a welcomed place to go and perhaps think of it as somewhere they’d like to live. It provides a balm for so many people at this time in particular; that is perhaps the greatest pleasure I have writing When Calls the Heart.

SC: What were some of the challenges of writing or filming during COVID-19?

JT: The most obvious challenge — that is, on screen — was shooting with children in the classroom because they’re in a confined space. Their safety was of primary importance. We missed doing more with the school and the fans may, too, but we did our best. In general, COVID made scheduling of just about everything more challenging. Even the simple act of hugging or kissing, or the number of people allowed on a particular-size set were all considerations. Of course, we all hope day-to-day life will get better when it comes to COVID and, as such, we can remedy those things, on set, should we go another season.

SC: Speaking of COVID, was there any discussion around or was it intentionally left out to maybe factor in the 1918 pandemic and have the use of masks on screen?

JT: A year ago, December, after I’d gotten the invitation to come on the show, I did begin thinking about that. Of course, this was before the current pandemic. But we have not always strictly aligned with historical events such as WWI, prohibition, other things. We may in the future but we try and make conscious choices when it comes to those things to provide the most favorable setting for uplifting stories of hope, forgiveness, redemption, and the like.

SC: Can you share more about how writing for Chesapeake Shores was similar or different to When Calls the Heart, other than the period factor?

JT: The ensemble cast was much smaller on Chesapeake Shores but, overall, the process was not all that different. Stories are stories and the characters mostly dictate just what those will be and how they’re told. On Chesapeake, what made it a bit more manageable was the smaller size of the cast. That's really the only major difference outside the obvious one being set in a different place and time. But I’m not complaining. We love having lots of wonderful characters and the terrific actors on When Calls the Heart.

SC: When you're writing for a period piece like When Calls the Heart, do you find it to be a challenge to incorporate period piece language?

JT: Some of the earliest notes I got from Hallmark was to pull back on the time-specific language. Yes, there’s a line to walk — and I think, just as a writer, having the opportunity to write outside the current vernacular is fun and even tempting. Back then [the early 1900s], if people had leisure time, they were often reading or telling stories to entertain one another. I think that fostered larger vocabularies.

SC: If you have to write a character for yourself on When Calls the Heart, what type of character would you want to portray?

JT: I’d probably want to be more like Joseph Canfield but I'd say, in actuality, probably more like Henry Gowen. Those are two sides of myself.

SC: What would your position as showrunner look like pre-filming and then during filming?

JT: Before filming, there was time to mull things over. But that’s where a writer can find himself or herself getting bogged down. The process of writing actual scenes has to begin so I flew up to Vancouver to join Derek and Beth and Allie in the writers room. I think we were just three days in when COVID hit and the production office was, effectively, shut down so each of us went to their own abode. That’s when I went out to the set, alone, a number of times, just to walk around and familiarize myself with the town of Hope Valley.

But we soon got back to work and had the writers sessions online. My pre-COVID plan was to be on set a lot but, for so many reasons, it was difficult to do. Normally, I like to be on the set as much as possible. I like that for the other writers, too. It gives the cast and crew access to us and vice versa because it is a collaborative medium. So many good ideas come out of just being on set. I wound up spending the majority of my time, as did the other writers, at our own places, writing and emailing scripts back and forth.

SC: Was that a new challenge for you with having to do more of it virtually?

JT: If there's anything I like less than being in a writers room for an extended period it's being in a virtual writers room for an extended period. I find it horrible. You're talking over each other and… I really just don’t like it very much. I suppose the one good thing it did for us, as writers, was to prevent us from procrastinating (a characteristic of many writers) and to realize that, since we couldn’t go anywhere, we had to write. No excuses. So, that's what we did. I do, however, think it facilitated the efficiency of some of our production meetings. Still, as I’ve already mentioned, I missed actually being with folks. Working on a series, people become family.

SC: Do you have a preference to be called John or Tinker?

JT: I've always thought John is a boring name so people I work with tend to call me Tinker. My wife was the first to call me Tink and when I'm home, I know where I am because people call me Tink.

SC: You have really tried to keep fans connected to the show through social media. What has the response by the #Hearties been like for you?

JT: I love it and at times it's been surprising. They’ll sometimes ask very interesting questions, things that we’d not thought about. They’re very passionate. I've never met fans like this, ever. You know, the Hallmark fans were one thing when we did Chesapeake Shores. That was my introduction to this kind of show-specific ardency. The Hearties take it to a whole, stratospheric level. And I’m thankful for that. Not only because they’re that engaged and involved but because they really love and care about the show. We pay attention to them and hear what they're saying. And if we should be blessed to have more seasons, we’ll continue to take what they say into account.

SC: Entering as the showrunner for season 8 during COVID-19 added additional challenges for John Tinker, but he and his team carefully designed arcs for the many characters who call Hope Valley home. With a new season set to premiere and the hope of another season on the horizon, be sure to connect with him on Twitter, as you never know what insight might be added to future designs.

Social Media:
Twitter: @brspndr
Instagram: tinkstagrammar