A young boy stands out in the middle of a field, the crops reaching up to his knees. He’s wearing a slim black mask around his eyes, and a bright red cape is tied around his neck, fluttering in the wind. He takes a breath, concentrates and then smirks as his feet lift off the ground, the opening act of a superhero origin story yet to be fully written. Except that this Smallville-esque moment arrives in the first episode of Essex County, a new limited television series set in rural Ontario that has nothing to do with comic books. Well, almost nothing.
The show is adapted from the landmark graphic novel by Canadian writer and illustrator Jeff Lemire, collected by Top Shelf Productions into a single 2011 publication. Composed of three interconnected stories – one following a pair of hockey-star brothers who turn into rivals, another about a lonely country nurse and a third focused on a bachelor uncle trying to raise his nephew – Essex County is rooted in a deep but sweet kind of pain, inspired by the author’s own childhood in Woodslee, Ont., east of Windsor.
And despite Lemire’s already legendary history in the superhero world – the Toronto-based comics king has worked for everyone from Marvel (Extraordinary X-Men) to DC (Justice League Dark) and Dark Horse (Black Hammer) – Essex County is grounded in everyday humanity, with just brief flashes of magical realism that allow for that aforementioned moment of Clark Kent mythmaking.
All of which makes Essex County the perfect adaptation project for the CBC, or a CBC that was feeling particularly ambitious. Once stuck in development purgatory, Essex County required the patience of a superteam of producers and just the right star alignment in order to get its five one-hour episodes to the air.
Almost immediately after the collection was published in 2011, Lemire’s work was optioned for a Hollywood adaptation, which eventually evaporated. It wasn’t until 2014 that Christina Piovesan, founder of Toronto’s First Generation Films, was passed a copy of Essex County by her development executive Julie Di Cresce that things started to move forward.
“I reached out to Jeff’s agent where I gushed for a half-hour, insisting that I make this show,” Piovesan recalls. “His work broke me in half and then brought me back together.”
Piovesan sent the book to Sally Catto, then general manager of programming at the CBC, who gave the thumbs up to develop it – so long as international partners were secured to deliver the necessary resources to realize Lemire’s world, which is at once intimate and epic, spanning generations and realities.
After London-based ITV Studios and European financiers Media Musketeers came onboard as international distributors, everything began to fall into place – especially once the production nabbed the kind of high-profile Canadian actors whose names could sell the series abroad, including Molly Parker (Deadwood), Kevin Durand (Lost) and Stephen McHattie (too many filmographic highlights to list).
“Molly was a unicorn for us, from everything from an artistic to a marketing perspective,” says Piovesan. “It was bringing in international partners that helped us reach a certain scope. You know how it works in Canada. CBC stepped up, but it did push them outside their comfort zone in that regard, for the better.”
Initially, Aaron Martin (Degrassi: The Next Generation) was signed to lead the writers room, with the idea of stretching Lemire’s collection into a continuing series. But after Martin stepped away to focus on another project, Piovesan approached Lemire to see whether he would adapt his own work.
“When they first started developing, it was during the height of my stuff for Marvel and DC and the thought of adapting Essex County had no place in my life,” Lemire recalls. But then the author collaborated with Gord Downie on the 2016 multimedia project Secret Path (based on Downie’s album about the death of residential-school student Chanie Wenjack), which established a relationship with the CBC.
“Mostly, though, it was this story in particular that was the most personal to me, the most biographical,” Lemire says about Essex County. “In a lot of ways it helped me find my voice as a creator, so even though we had talented people trying to adapt it, to be faithful to the book I had to be involved myself. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”
Partnered with Irish filmmaker Eilis Kirwan (who previously worked with Piovesan on the 2010 film The Whistleblower), Lemire began to both compact and expand Essex County’s world.
“It’s rare to work on a quiet human drama about ordinary people where it’s being treated in a way that’s epic and imaginative and poetic,” Kirwan says. “So many beautiful things began to thematically and emotionally emerge.”
Meanwhile, director Andrew Cividino (best known for his Emmy Award-winning work on Schitt’s Creek, but also the acclaimed 2015 Canadian film Sleeping Giant) was brought on to direct all five episodes.
“Everyone on the team, including our cinematographer James Klopko, was invested in bringing the book to life in a cinematic way,” Lemire says. “The production office was plastered with pages from the book. It was baked into the material before we even started shooting.”
The process was ultimately a world, or several worlds, away from the adaptation of Lemire’s other best-known work: Netflix’s postapocalyptic series Sweet Tooth, based on the author’s DC comic.
“Due to my contract with DC I was more of a spectator there, which was honestly fine,” Lemire says. “But here I was involved from the start to the final sound mix. It definitely made me appreciate the immediacy of comics. Now I’m so tired that I can’t think straight.”
Essex County premieres March 19 at 9 p.m. on the CBC and CBC Gem.
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