TV's 'Heartland' Rides High into Season 13
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With lovable and dynamic characters, picturesque mountain vistas, and action-packed rodeo scenes, it’s understandable how the beloved television show “Heartland” has remained on the air for 12 seasons. When you pare it down to basics, it’s the story of a multi-branched family who find joy amidst loss and resilience after a setback.
Just before season 13 premiered, I spoke with writer Heather Conkie about “Heartland” and why she thinks viewers of all ages have fallen in love with the family drama.
Kimberly Carr: What is it like waiting for your season 13 premiere to hit the air?
Heather Conkie: It's very exciting, and it's a little bizarre because we're so thrilled that the show is still being met with such enthusiasm. And we're so glad that the fans have stayed with us and because it's unprecedented and thrilling ‘cause we all love it so much. It's like a big family after this many years. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Carr: A few years ago, the series became the longest running scripted drama in Canadian history. How do you come up with fresh ideas?
Conkie: That we would be the longest running one hour in Canadian history is amazing. Every once in a while, we just sort of stare at each other in the writers room and say, ‘Okay, any fresh ideas??’ The important thing of all is to keep it fresh and it helps that the family is constantly growing and going through real life.
Carr: It’s easy to relate to the storylines because it depicts a family and you can always find a character on the show with whom you can identify. I wonder if your friends and family find similarities to their lives popping up on the show?
Conkie: Oh yes. My own family is not immune. My poor son-in-law – the character of Ty was completely modeled on him after baby Lindy was born in the show. He married into a family where nothing is sacred, and things can absolutely go on the air if they don’t say to me directly ‘Don’t write that!’
All of the writers have different experiences. We're all different age groups and we draw on what we know and what the actors share with us as well. Everybody contributes to this wonderful thing that it has become. But it’s also important that it's such a multigenerational cast. The stories are multigenerational, and it's attracted a very multigenerational audience ‘cause there's something pretty much for everybody who watches the show. If you're one of the younger viewers, you're going to be attracted a younger cast member and maybe relate to them a little more. We also have people who are in their nineties watching the show and they're all in love with grandpa.
Carr: Are the actors ever surprised at their character’s own actions or are you ever surprised that the characters make certain decisions?
Conkie: Absolutely. We arc the show well ahead of time. When we finish one season, we start arcing the next and we try to know where we're going to be in two seasons so that we don't go in a direction and find ourselves painted into a corner. So, we always try to arc shows with scenes per episode or per season and put all the characters through an arc. Whether it’s an arc with some tragedy or an arc that's just funny. Or just a typical family arc - what would happen in any family. Actors are really hearing it for the first time when they get the script.
Amber (who plays Amy) is especially wonderful at [offering suggestions] because she is such a horse person. So as far as the horse stories are concerned, she loves to have input and should because she's so experienced in that area. Often, they come to us with ideas while we're arcing and so it’s never a surprise to them. There have been cases where it's a total surprise to them and sometimes they fight against it, then they see where we're going with it and they go at it wholeheartedly. I think it's good to have some surprises. I think that's healthy. At the very beginning I wouldn’t tell them what the season was, even in our first meeting together around the table when everyone first arrived, and they'd only find out when they got the scripts. And then I thought, well, you know what? I think they would benefit if they knew a little bit. It always spurs a different performance if it's happening for the first time and they haven't had a ton of time to think about it. It's a very genuine performance.
Carr: It's such an incredible team. There's such good familial chemistry between everybody. I can just imagine their lives continuing while it's not on TV.
Conkie: Exactly. And they are friends on and off screen. They are a big family after this many years. They support each other. They're there for you. They have their own ups and downs in their own life. Everybody gathers ‘round; they have fights like family and then they make up like a family. It’s a real dynamic on and off screen.
Carr: The longevity of the show is owed at least in part to the entertainment people want in their homes. Did you have any idea how audiences would respond – that there'd be such a need for this quality entertainment?
Conkie: I had a hunch. The lifestyles that we now live is so incredibly busy – mom and dad working and kids working and in extra-curriculars and all that stuff. I grew up in a time where we always sat down and watched television on Sunday night. And when given an opportunity to write a show that gave a lot to each member of the family – something they could sit and watch and really enjoy and be a break from running around, to enjoy the scenery and the horses – it has a very calming effect. It's also very cathartic. It makes people cry. It makes people laugh. We have so many people come up to us and say, ‘I couldn't believe that episode. I was so affected by it 'cause I was going through something really similar or my friend was, or my mom was, and it helped.’
I know that there's something about the show that connects with people. You can never really pin it on our times, but our times are full of upheaval and we're so much more aware of it with all the social media. We're kind of bombarded with news from all sides… I think this show has found its time to be on the air because it offers that respite. It's a more inspirational and aspirational view of the world, and you get away from reality for an hour.
Carr: Part of what makes it just fun to watch is the scenery and locations where you film and the horses themselves. What's it like being on a set like that?
Conkie: It's wonderful because it's very quiet. I've been on sets where all the crew is yelling at each other about what to do next. And no one can do that on this set because we're around horses and animals and small children all the time. The horses are part of the cast. I think we humanize them a lot when we write the scripts and our wranglers get such a chuckle out of giving them human emotion. They say ‘Yeah, right – you want Spartan to…to look sad?’ We ask them to do the most crazy things. They are so talented and such horse whisperers themselves, but they work with the horses in a beautiful way and the horses are just treated so well and it shows. They're such beautiful creatures that just looking into their faces calms people down.
Carr: The horses are characters and are very much the center of the show. How do you write their storylines?
Conkie: We get lots of input from experts because while we all love horses, we're not horse people (the writers.) We work with people who are in the equestrian world, the Olympic world, especially veterinarians. For example, in season 13, Georgie returns from Europe with Phoenix because that's the horse she took with her and there's a problem on the plane. There are special planes that carry horses. In fact, we almost had to use this joke – apparently there's a plane called Air Horse One!
But, on our show, the horse (Phoenix) is put into quarantine and it causes this ripple effect throughout everything – Amy's business, Georgie – everything. It’s an interesting storyline because again in those kinds of situations we’re writing about horses that have something wrong with them. And then of course the horse has to act as if there's something wrong with them and the wranglers get them to do that.
Carr: When you have "horse people" who watch your show, that's a great compliment.
Conkie: It's very complicated because the horse people watch for the horses. We know we have critics in the wings who will - and they do - if there's something wrong, we hear about it, which is the wonderful thing about social media because you do hear, and you do correct it. If you get it out early enough, you catch the mistake, or you don’t make the mistake twice. That's why we have all these wonderful experienced people behind us to guide us because we can't pretend to be experts in everything.
Carr: You mentioned social media and honestly, I put on Facebook today that I was talking to you and asked if anyone had questions. One person wrote "I love the show!" Another wrote "Road to Avonlea." I had to look up the connection, and I realized I've been a fan of Heather before I even knew she existed!
Conkie: Well, that's funny because that was one of my first big shows and I was involved with it for many years. I think I learned everything in that experience that hopefully I bring to "Heartland." I loved the Anne of Green Gables stories and to be asked to be involved with the writing team on that – I was on cloud nine for a year or two.
The one thing that Kevin Sullivan (who actually was the genius behind it all) said was, ‘If you can make them cry and then make them laugh within three to four minutes of making them cry, you will have done it. You will have your audience and they will stay with you and they will feel like they've gone through a knothole by the end of the show. But they will have also experienced emotions that will stay with them.’ And that's what we try to do on "Heartland." I never put up a closing song, for instance, on a show unless that song makes me tear up. They call it my barometer. (Heather laughs)
You have to feel an emotion with something to make you remember it. And "Avonlea" brought that home, plus the beautiful way it was shot. I was very involved with the first two seasons – I think up to probably season five or six and it was just an incredible experience. It prepared me. The one thing we didn't have to contend with were the amount of animals like we have on "Heartland!"
Carr: "Avonlea" was a whole world unto itself, like "Heartland" is. There's are so many characters interacting with each other. You've been with "Heartland" since the beginning. I wonder what a typical day for you is like since I feel like you probably have your hands in everything.
Conkie: It never stops for me because the minute we finish one season, we're arcing for the next, then we're writing. Usually it's early spring and we prep for the first four episodes. Whenever you go into production you have a budget, and things in your script have to change to fit what cast is available, whether you can afford to do a stunt or if you can afford to have X horses doing certain kinds of actions. We're in meetings a lot. A typical day would be a production meeting, a concept meeting, a wranglers meeting, a writers meeting, costume meetings, location scouts. We shoot in blocks of two episodes, so the director of those two episodes chooses their locations. It’s a very busy three weeks. And I can remember doing the episode where Amy and Ty were getting married, it literally was like preparing a real wedding only in three weeks!
The funny part of it was, I was planning my daughter's wedding at the very same time. And her planning took a year, and we were doing it in three weeks! It was so funny. It was one of the times in life where you think, why can't you just do what we're doing and figure it out in three weeks? What is all this stuff?
Pre-prep is crazy. The actors are getting their scripts and they come in and we have meetings with them and then we have costume finalization. And we have set design finalization. I know I'm missing a whole bunch of things, but it's kind of nonstop. It's a 12-hour a day job and then we write on the weekends. So, it’s packed, but it's also so interesting, and evolving and no day's the same. Every three weeks you're on to a totally different couple of scripts and meeting the guest stars that are coming in from Toronto and showing we have a really beautiful crew to work with and a beautiful cast. Seeing and hearing from them at the end, ‘Anytime we can come back here, we want to come back here ‘cause it's such a great experience,’ kind of gives you a lift and gets you through the crazy schedule. Then you end up missing it when it's over.
Carr: Is it safe to say that there's a season 14 on the horizon or is it too soon to call?
Conkie: Well, we have our fingers completely crossed. The writers have been together and we're still waiting on finalizations, but I'm always optimistic. I'm that kind of person [who feels] if it works, it works. If it doesn't, we'll move on to other things. I know that it will be hard on everybody when it doesn't, it'll be like a family splitting up, so no one's looking forward to that. Let's leave it as I'm very optimistic.
Carr: Do you have any final thoughts to share with fans of "Heartland?"
Conkie: Just that season 13 is fresh and beautiful and wonderful and it's probably one of my favorites and it's got a ton of drama and a ton of romance. Jack goes through sorting out memories of something very tragic that happened to him 50 years ago that the family doesn't even know anything about. And he finally lets go and tells them and seeks some sort of peace about it. And it's the most wonderful acting I've ever seen from Sean Johnson as Jack. It's unbelievable.
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