British Columbia has stood in for all kinds of places on film and TV. Up next: Langley stands in for Coal Valley, in the “great northwest.” When Calls the Heart, which premieres in Canada next week, was inspired by Alberta writer Janette Oke’s bestselling novels.
In the TV series, set in 1910, a young upper-crust teacher (Erin Krakow) receives her first classroom assignment in a small coal-mining town at a difficult time. An explosion has just killed a group of miners, and now their widows, including Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin), have to go to work in the mines to keep a roof over their heads. There’s also a new, handsome, Mountie (Daniel Lissing) in town.
The series, which has been a ratings winner on the Hallmark Channel in the U.S., is shot on a bustling frontier-town set in Langley. Michael Landon Jr. is one of the show’s executive producers and directors. He is the son of the late Michael Landon, probably best known for Little House on the Prairie.
What was it about this story that made you want to be involved with the project?
I had quite a bit of success with Janette Oke and her other bestselling series of novels called Love Comes Softly and when that movie aired for the Hallmark Channel it became the highest-rated movie on the channel by 40 per cent. Then when I did the sequel for them, it became the highest rated movie in the history of the channel. So the genre was resonating with their audience. And I loved the milieu. I grew up on Little House on the Prairie, my favourite of my father’s work, and it has a very special place in my heart. So being able to do the kind of programming that I grew up on that basically has become extinct in the film and television world was exciting for me. So with that much success, I then pursued Janette Oke’s second best-selling series of books, which is When Calls the Heart.
Little House is familiar territory for you, but I imagine there would be a temptation on the part of a son to distance himself from their father’s work, especially when you have the same name.
Very true. I’ve been in this business for a long time. And working your way out of your father’s shadow is definitely a challenge. My brother [Christopher Landon] is in the film business and he went a completely different direction; he [recently released] a feature, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, so he’s in the thriller/horror genre. But I embraced what I loved.
How much time did you spend on the set of Little House?
Quite a bit. When we had school breaks and they were filming, my sister and I would always go to the set and we were very close with Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson and all the kids. It was a 100-acre backyard in Simi Valley where we would play tag, hide and seek, and hunt for snakes. My father was a prankster. And he was fearless in terms of putting things in his mouth. So there might be a guest who would show up to the set and [my father] would put a small frog or something in his mouth , a lizard, and then he would go shake their hand and open his mouth and freak them out.
What was it like for you growing up when that series was such a big deal?
It was very normal. My father was not interested in the Hollywood scene. He had no friends that he hung out with from the film business. He was very much at home with us, didn’t go to Hollywood parties. The only thing that was not normal obviously is when you’re in public and everybody wants to meet your father, shake his hand, get an autograph. But otherwise it was actually quite a normal upbringing.
It’s an amazing set that you’ve built in Langley. How have you found shooting up here in Canada?
It has its challenges, just from a weather standpoint, but we’ve got a fantastic crew. They’re dedicated, they’re hard-working, there’s absolutely no complaining. And there’s some fantastic talent in the acting pool here.
It’s a very Canadian story. Did you have to school yourself in the history of Canada and the Mounties?
Well honestly, Hallmark didn’t want to hang a lantern on that so it would feel a bit more universal to our audience in the States, but there’s been quite a bit of research in terms of the time period and in terms of understanding the history of the Mounties and coal mining.
What sort of relationship have you had with the RCMP? I know you had to get permission in order to be able to use the uniform.
Yeah, that was very challenging actually and I’m very grateful that we came to terms on being able to represent them properly.We had to obviously assure them that we had every intention of portraying them in a proper light.
What do you mean by portraying them in a proper light?
There’s a certain honour and nobility that comes with that uniform. This storytelling isn’t always about the grittiness and the ugliness of life. There are definitely challenges within the characters themselves, but we also want to look at the positive side of humanity. And so we feel Why not do that with the Mounties? I mean, these are honourable men putting their lives on the line. Obviously, they’re human beings and they’re not perfect, but we want to show the good part of them.
How are you feeling about the prospects for this series?
This kind of family entertainment is non-existent so I feel like we’re tapping into a large audience that’s yearning for this type of programming. That was one of the special things for me growing up and I think that’s why I loved Little House. It wasn’t just the series itself. It was the idea that as a family we were all going to sit together and we were going to have some laughs and shed some tears and be uplifted at the end of the day, and not brought down.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
When Calls the Heart airs on Super Channel beginning April 16.