In late 2012, documentary makers Tyson Hepburn and John Driftmier had the idea for a reality TV show about Newfoundland fishermen heading far offshore in treacherous conditions on the high seas, looking for new species to fish in the post-cod world.
Certain that Newfoundland would make a great setting for a reality TV series, the two men, who had been friends since film school, pitched the idea to Vancouver-based Paperny Entertainment in January, 2013.
Hepburn and Driftmier saw the series as an opportunity to showcase the province and the amazing characters, such as fifth-generation fisherman Richard Gillett, who risk everything – even their lives – for their vocation.
A month later, 30-year-old Driftmier was killed in a plane crash in Kenya while filming a Discovery Channel reality TV show called Dangerous Flights.
Hepburn carried on with what would be their final collaboration, keenly aware of the tragic parallels: Driftmier, who felt called to film exciting but risky jobs, was killed doing his own dangerous work. Devastated, Hepburn headed to Newfoundland in April, filming into the fall on fishing boats that were based out of small communities such as Cowhead.
Spending up to five days at a time on small, beat-up fishing boats, he found refuge in the frigid Atlantic swells and the tough but big-hearted characters who navigate them, looking for the next big catch.
The resulting series, Cold Water Cowboys, which follows six captains and their crews, premieres on Discovery Canada on Tuesday, one day after the first anniversary of Driftmier's death.
"John was really just such a talent in the field," says Hepburn, 29. "He was a prodigy, he was a talent, he was an amazing guy, well ahead of his time. And so I think Discovery really had a big part in making sure this project went ahead."
It would be easy to characterize the series as a Canadian Deadliest Catch, but that would be too simplistic. Crucial to the story lines is the context: the moratorium placed on Canada's cod fishery in 1992, the economic devastation and human exodus from Newfoundland that resulted and the deep passion of the few fishermen who remained, determined to find other species to catch.
"Back when I was a journalist … one of the stories I covered was the collapse of the cod fishery," recalls Ken MacDonald, vice-president of programming at Discovery Canada, which commissioned the series. "Of all the stories I covered as a journalist, that was one that touched me incredibly."
While Cold Water Cowboys is in no way a documentary about the dying fisheries, the issue is palpable, upping the stakes as fishermen such as the 42-year-old Gillett stubbornly stick to their way of life.
"Newfoundland was built on cod," says Gillett, who lives in tiny Twillingate and began working for his fisherman father at age 13, during summer vacations.
When the cod fishery closed, Gillett explained in a telephone interview from Gander, he used his house as collateral and bought a boat big enough to go after new catches, such as crab. "It was either get out or get bigger, and I made the decision to get bigger."
Gillett is now on his fourth boat: One was damaged beyond repair by ice, and two sank – one after hitting an iceberg; the other sinking remains a mystery.
"Fishing is a rugged way to live and any time you steam out of the harbour, you may not come back," says Gillett, who figures he has been close to at least 10 people who have lost their lives at sea. "It's probably the most dangerous profession in the world."
Gillett is bound to become a star of the series, given his salty personality and common-sense sea smarts. (Much of the show is subtitled, due to the thick Newfoundland accents, and there are many bleeped-out curse words.)
Despite the existence of real-life shows such as Discovery's Deadliest Catch and National Geographic's Wicked Tuna, Cold Water Cowboys isn't part of a franchise.
It's an original series that grew out of Hepburn and Driftmier's fascination with Newfoundland – a part of the country they felt was largely unknown to other Canadians. "We just started going to the Rock and turning over rocks, and we found great fishermen along the way," Hepburn explains.
They produced a demo reel in late 2012, and took it to David Paperny, who agreed to produce the show. He got Discovery on board not long after that.
"The series was cathartic for Tyson, and for those of us who worked closely with John," says Paperny. "There were times when we were hitting walls in development and in production where we all sort of said, 'Look, let's go that extra mile for John.'"
It was a tough shoot: Two-person crews were crammed into the close quarters of the fishing vessels, minus the benefit of sea legs and with the added challenge of handling heavy camera equipment. The camera crews took water safety courses, wore life jackets, suffered through sea sickness in waves as tall as houses.
Cameras – up to seven on each boat – were double- and triple-wrapped in plastic to protect them from the salt water. The series depends on capturing high drama, but that came with an element of danger.
"There you are on the high seas in the North Atlantic and … our crew's job is to be filming whenever trouble happens. [But] they're worried about their own lives, about falling overboard," Paperny says. "On the other hand, the stories were worth it."
For Paperny – whose other current series include Chopped Canada, Timber Kings and the mining show Yukon Gold (season two premieres on History on Wednesday) – Cold Water Cowboys presented a huge challenge in the editing room as well, with some 3,000 hours of material cut down to 10 one-hour episodes. Logistically, he figures it was probably the most complicated series of his producing career.
In the end, it is a uniquely Canadian show – and a legacy for Driftmier.
"John loved Newfoundland," Hepburn says. "To see this go ahead – I just feel he would be so happy. His spirit kind of lives on in the show."