Kim Schraner's back still hurts from the pounding it took as she lay on a staircase during the filming of a torrid sex scene last September, her second day on the set of Paradise Falls, one of the most ambitious -- and steamiest -- English-language TV series in Canadian history.
"On my first day I was introduced to Cameron [Graham] who plays my fiancé in the show," says Schraner. "On the next I was doing this huge love scene with him on top of me on the stairs. Thank God we had good chemistry."
Schraner, 24, who plays Jessica Lansing, a makeup salesgirl for the "fifth largest direct-retail cosmetic firm in the northern Ontario region," is one of 35 characters in the 52-part adult soap opera set in Ontario's cottage country. Often described on set as a cross between Twin Peaks and Melrose Place, Paradise Falls wrapped shooting in December and is scheduled for broadcast in April.
The half-hour episodes, which will run during prime time on Showcase TV's permissive Friday Night Without Borders, offer viewers an enticing display of nudity (including male full frontal), straight and gay sex, cross-dressing, transsexuality, witchcraft, voodoo worship, incest, murder, corruption, blackmail, profane language and, of course, love, romance, drama and comedy. Your typical cottage-country shenanigans.
"The town of Paradise Falls [a fictional name]is the kind of place that's beautiful on the surface, just like all the characters in the show, but bubbling underneath are the seven deadly sins," says Ira Levy.
His Toronto company, Breakthrough Films and Television, is producing Paradise Falls in partnership with specialty network Showcase, which is owned by Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc.
Breakthrough, which has produced Gemini Award-winning shows such as Dudley the Dragon and Shadow Lake, originally pitched the idea for a weekly soap opera to the CBC five years ago. At that time it was called Paradise Mall and was set in a shopping complex. But the CBC had another urban-based weekly drama, Riverdale, in production and balked at adding a second. Fast-forward past the typical traffic jams and road blocks that producers of new ideas face to last January, and a meeting with Laura Michalchyshyn, vice-president of programming for Showcase. By that time the series was set in a Muskoka-type town and had its current name.
"We showed her a 15-minute pilot we'd shot and she saw the potential in it for the 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. Friday Night Without Borders slot [adult shows such as the critically acclaimed Oz, Red Shoe Diaries and uncut films that feature raw language, naked bodies and explicit sexuality]" says Levy. When Michalchyshyn turned to Levy and said, "Let's go for it," those words turned his life, and that of many others, upside down as they began the seemingly impossible challenge of writing, casting and producing a year's worth of shows by the end of 2000.
The first task was to block out the interconnecting story lines, particularly the inherent twists, turns and revelations that are de rigueur in soap opera, for 52 episodes. That exhausting three-month ordeal was handed to writer Alex Galatis (the mention of whose name elicits praise from everyone on the show) and Paula J. Smith, the co-creator and producer of Paradise Falls.
A fun part of their work was to spice up their original concept with the aforementioned sins to give the series the edgy style demanded by the Friday-night time slot. The results of that process can be seen in the opening two sequences of the first show: a woman chased and murdered in the woods at night, followed by a skinny-dipping swim in full daylight by a beautiful young witch (played by Cherilee Taylor).
While Galatis and Smith dreamed up the plot, Levy was out rustling up a budget from Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Television Fund and the other usual funding suspects. His final tally was $6.5-million, a fairly trifling amount for the scope of the project. The only way to make it work financially, he realized, was to have an all-Canadian cast. And the only way to get the project completed on time (it took until approximately September to be ready to film), was to pray that the producers, directors and cast could accomplish the impossible -- shoot 52 episodes in 104 days.
Somehow they did it, despite honking car horns, floods, rattlesnakes, rabid foxes and a plague of flies.
"What we did was virtually unheard of," says Art Hindle, the star of Paradise Falls (he also directed several episodes) and the most familiar name on the show. Best-known for his Gemini Award-winning role on the TV series ENG, Hindle plays Pete Braga, the oily mayor of Paradise Falls, who's at the centre of many of the "goings and comings" -- his choice of words -- in the not-so-sleepy town.
"If people in the industry read that we'd shoot 14 pages a day on location, they'd never believe it," says Hindle. His schedule typically started at 5:30 a.m. and ended late in the evening, five days a week, sometimes six. And there were no Hollywood limousines for the star, who seems genuinely down-to-earth and unpretentious. Hindle often picked up some of the young cast members in his rented car and drove them out to location.
"Art's the real deal," says comic and TV personality Carla Collins, who plays a foul-mouthed Hollywood star who comes to Paradise Falls to shoot a movie called The Witches of Fenwick.
For the first seven weeks, Paradise Falls was shot in Whitevale, a picturesque, heritage hamlet near Pickering, Ont., not far outside the northeast reaches of the Greater Toronto Area. A community of 250 people, Whitevale has been the site of numerous TV and film shoots in the past couple of decades, including the recent Hollywood feature X-Men.
Most Whitevale residents welcome the crews and the chance to make between $500 and $1,500-a-day location fees to rent out their homes. "Having the shows made here also helps us keep our heritage designation," says local resident Steve Lock.
The residents were not pleased during the filming of X-Men when large trailers rumbled through their town in the wee hours of the morning. To overcome their concerns, Levy organized a town-hall meeting, promised to close the set by 11 p.m., and donated money to Whitevale's water-testing fund. Nevertheless, some residents disrupted production by honking their horns or playing their radios at full blast as they drove by a set.
The next stop was Sparrow Lake, just north of Orillia, Ont., where most of the outdoor scenes were filmed. "There was virtually no extra time for anything to go wrong," says producer Smith. Unfortunately, an awful lot did. There was rain so severe it flooded a beaver dam, which blocked the only access road for the actors coming up from Toronto to join the shoot. There was the discovery of rattlesnakes -- she swears that's what they were -- in the well-travelled area between the set and where the trucks were parked. One day a rabid fox appeared during shooting, followed by several OPP officers trying to catch it. There were constant problems with buzzing flies, so loud that the sound man "was going crazy," she says. Plus the local airplane schools flying directly overhead, the steady roar of trucks and cars, and -- this is Canada, of course -- snowstorms and freezing temperatures during the filming of summer scenes.
"One of the problems of a hot-weather scene in the Canadian fall," says Hindle, "is that you can see your breath when you talk. So not only are you standing out in the cold in a short-sleeved shirt, but just before the director calls 'Action,' someone runs up to you and puts ice cubes in your mouth so your breath won't be hot."
Hindle wasn't the only one with hot-breath issues during the production of Paradise Falls. Many of the actors -- but neither Hindle or Collins -- performed nude love scenes.
"We were very sensitive to the actors during the sex scenes," says Smith. "We would invite them out to the camera truck at the end of each scene and ask if there was anything they weren't comfortable with."
The last of more than 1,200 Paradise Falls scenes was filmed back in Whitevale on Dec. 21, exactly 104 days after the first "Action" was yelled. The ground was snow-covered, the temperature was minus 10 and visitors were offered foot warmers for their boots.
When the director barked out, "That's a series wrap," Levy wondered how they had possibly managed to do it.