Two trains face each other on a single track, engines steaming. Behind them, tall grass waves in the gold-toned autumn sunlight and dark, jagged mountains rise in the distance. A crowd of railway workers, mustachioed men in wool suits and women in tightly laced corsets watch as a man swings a silver hammer in the air. It clanks down onto a golden spike.
The scene looks remarkably similar to a historical photograph taken at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869. It is actually one of the final scenes for a television series shot at CL Ranch in Jumping Pound Creek, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Calgary.
After five seasons, Hell On Wheels has come to the end of the line, finishing production on Friday. The western drama tells the story of the race to build the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, but it took rural Alberta to capture the feel of the U.S. frontier.
“I don’t think we could have shot this anywhere else,” said Colm Meaney, who played Thomas (Doc) Durant, a beloved villain on the show since it began broadcasting in 2011.
Settling into a director’s chair with a view of the locomotives, he had a brief break before shooting one of his last close-ups for the show.
“The crew is extraordinary, the locations are beautiful – especially for a western. This is horse country. The animals we have here, the wranglers, and the cowboys are so skillful.”
Enlisting Southern Alberta to double for historic U.S. railroad locations such as Wyoming, Nebraska and California was not necessarily the original plan for AMC, the broadcaster behind the show.
“I thought, okay, we’re going to shoot the pilot in Alberta, then we’re going to shoot the series in New Mexico, or Utah,” said executive producer Michael Rosenberg. “But after we shot the pilot, we realized there’s nowhere else to shoot this show but Alberta. You don’t get this sky anywhere else. You don’t get the authenticity of the cowboy culture anywhere else.”
Entertainment One, the Los Angeles-based studio partner, also considered locations in B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan. However, Calgary’s Nomadic Pictures had an advantage – it had produced Broken Trail, an Emmy-winning western miniseries, for AMC in 2006.
“Even though we found it was a no-brainer to shoot it here, we had to tap dance hard to prove that Alberta was the right place for this series,” said Chad Oakes, co-chairman of Nomadic Pictures and an executive producer.
Seen in 188 countries, with almost four million viewers in the United States every Saturday night, Hell On Wheels has been a massive production, providing work for a crew of more than 200.
“It’s the largest single-project spend in Alberta film history,” Mr. Oakes said, noting it amounted to $255-million over six years. That figure includes salaries for actors, directors, writers and crew, hotel stays, construction supplies, airline tickets and equipment rentals.
Hell on Wheels is not the first TV series to have a long ride in Alberta. Heartland is shooting its ninth season. In Edmonton, Blackstone finished filming its fifth season in the summer. During the 1990s, North of 60 lasted for six seasons.
“It’s always a sad time when a series ends,” said Calgary film commissioner Luke Azevedo, acknowledging Hell’s absence will leave a hole. “Still, we’ve got a couple of large series that we’re courting right now, and three major film productions that we hope will pick Alberta as a location.”
Every film or television production that chooses Alberta must work with the province’s dramatic climate.
“The weather is another character in this show,” said Anson Mount, who played Cullen Bohannon, the lead character of Hell On Wheels. “We don’t know what to expect. But we roll with it.”
Never was that more apparent than during Alberta’s state of emergency in 2013. While shooting along the banks of the Highwood and Bow rivers on June 20, with flood waters rising quickly, Mr. Oakes made the call to evacuate.
“I remember standing up above the Highwood, watching 60-foot trees float past me like toothpicks,” Mr. Oakes said. “I knew that potentially we were in a whole bunch of danger.”
Fifteen main cast members, 100 extras, 160 crew, livestock and equipment were moved safely to higher ground in less than 30 minutes. However, the town of Hell On Wheels, a set that took four months to build, was flooded beyond repair, forcing the show to go on hiatus.
Like almost every television series, the schedule has been gruelling, with three months of preproduction and four to five months of shooting each year.
“We have this thing we call Fraturday,” Mr. Mount said. “When we shoot nights, [often on Fridays] we start about 7 p.m., and we finish at 6 a.m.”
With Hell On Wheels coming to a halt, show-runner and executive producer John Wirth waxed philosophical about the emotional finish to the parallel enterprises – both the building of the real-life railway, and the television show where people have worked closely together for six years.
“Endings are really curious things, because some people are ready for them,” Mr. Wirth said. “Other people just let the end hit them on the side of the head, with no preparation for what they’re going to do next.”
In the ready category, Mr. Oakes will head to Vancouver to be a producer on the TV drama Van Helsing, which begins shooting in January.
Mr. Mount, who lives in New York, has not locked down his next project.
“I’m looking for something to do up here again,” he said. He leaned in to the voice recorder, speaking louder. “Let that be known to anyone with a project set up in television that can be shot in Alberta. I’m ready to talk to ya.”
The final seven episodes of Hell On Wheels will air on AMC in July, 2016.Report Typo/Error
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