During a year when most of us were isolated from our loved ones and broader social circles due to the pandemic, the cast and crew of the Christopher Award-winning Hallmark Channel series “When Calls the Heart” were crafting stories that reflected on the life-affirming power of community and friendship, as well as touching on themes such as disability, race, and following God’s call. Not only did these themes make for compelling viewing, they shared ideas that were both timeless and timely for the lives we’re all leading today.
One of the executive producers and co-creators of “When Calls the Heart” is Brian Bird, who has also served as an executive producer on “Touched By An Angel” and written the feature films “Captive” and “The Case for Christ.” He joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below) for an in-depth discussion on the series’ eighth season (which earned the series best ratings to date), as well as his new series “Mystic.”
For those unfamiliar with “When Calls the Heart,” it focuses on the citizens of Hope Valley, a small town near the Canadian border, in the early 1900s.
“We feel like we were kind of pioneers because it was the first show to be back on its feet in production in the Vancouver area last year,” explained Brian. With strict protocols in place that were both challenging and expensive, he adds, “I’m so proud of the team because we shot for 78 days without one case of COVID happening, and everybody was incredibly responsible and disciplined. I can certainly see the differences in how we had to do the show just from watching…There were more outdoor scenes this year, and not a lot of scenes where we had a ton of people on camera together all at the same time…We had to be very careful, but we also didn’t want to be fearful, because if you’re fearful, that affects everything. And so we just put one foot in front of another the entire time, and I’m so incredibly grateful to the team and all our cast and crew for working so hard to pull it off.”
Even though the amount of people in scenes had to be limited, Brian noted that the thematic elements of community were “more profound this year, than maybe in previous seasons.” We saw the citizens of Hope Valley gather for a touching graduation scene in which the students sang a special song for their teacher, Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow). When Judge Bill Avery (Jack Wagner) felt melancholy at having to return his red serge from his days as a Mountie, the townsfolk got together to applaud his life of service. When shopkeeper Ned Yost (Hrothgar Mathews) fell seriously ill, his fellow citizens prayed for his healing – and when Ned and Florence Blakeley (Loretta Walsh) got married, their friends celebrated their union. And when a bureaucrat threatened to shut down the local school because Elizabeth had accepted a blind student in her class, parents and students stood united in support of their teacher and new classmate.
These storylines hold special resonance in an age when so many people are polarized and divided, and Brian said that the theme of “better together” is one of the takeaways from this season of the show.
Another takeaway from season eight was the more overt focus on God. Not only were their general conversations about faith and prayer, but even specifics such as making God the third person in your marriage. This is not typical dialogue for a primetime television show.
Brian explained, “For [co-creator] Michael Landon Jr. and I, [faith has] always been an important part of the fabric of Hope Valley. Sometimes it’s harder to do than others. And sometimes we want to make sure that we’re not bashing people over the head with the themes of faith and God talk, so to speak. But I also feel like it’s a representation of life back in the day, maybe more so sadly to me than it is today. I think people yearn for that sense of the great virtues in their lives. Those great virtues have been pretty darn good for all of civilization, really. You can look at any sort of religious belief system, and many of the same great virtues exist in all religious faiths.
“And so, to me,” continued Brian, “the fact that we were able to demonstrate that the ‘cord of three strands’ is not easily broken in a marriage, neither is it broken in other relationships as well – I love that we’re able to lean into that more heavily. John Tinker, my friend, who became the head writer and showrunner in season eight – and will continue to do that for season nine – is a man of faith, as Michael Landon Jr. and I are…And we’re not ashamed of it. I think our goal is to stir up soul cravings in people and not try to use the show for proselytization of people. The goal is still to tell great stories and to entertain and to provide a sense of community.”
There was one scene in particular that stood out in this regard. The character, Lee Coulter (Kavan Smith), says to the pastor, Joseph Canfield (Viv Leacock), “I’m a man of moderate faith.” And Joseph doesn’t respond with a lecture or finger-wagging; he just continues treating Lee as a friend and reflecting God’s love to him, which conveys a good lesson for viewers on the best ways to share faith.
Brian said, “I love that you saw that, and I love the nuance in that scene. I go back to the experience of Jesus with the disciples. He lived with those guys 24/7, 365 for three years. And even after that, some of them still didn’t get it. So, where does that put people like us today? We’re not Jesus. Maybe some of us try to represent the teachings of Jesus in our lifestyle and so forth. But I think that the best way to introduce people, to stories of faith and to the truths of God and some of the great faith traditions of the world, is through friendship.
“Personally, I’m a Christian,” continued Brian. “If I believe I have some answers to some of the world’s great problems…I have to earn the right to share that with somebody. I’m not entitled to hand that to people, I’m not entitled to put that in their hands and hope that they can embrace that themselves. I have to earn that right. And I love that. That’s Joseph’s approach too. He first wants to be a friend, without any hidden agendas. And I think that’s the best way to live for all of us. I think we need to be authentic friend makers with people. That’s how I try to roll through life, personally. And when you become friends with people, even if they reject everything you stand for, that doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to still be friends with them. Right? To me, even to their dying breath or my dying breath, if they reject me and what I stand for, or what I want to share with them, that’s okay. I’m still going to be their friend. I think that’s part of the ethic of Hope Valley. Not everybody’s going to agree on everything, but they can treat each other with kindness and be friends first.”
For Catholic viewers this season, there was even a shot of Florence praying with rosary beads. Brian said, “We want to be as inclusive as we possibly can when it comes to faith. People come from some different perspectives. But I love the idea of: in the essentials unity…And where it really matters, we’re on the same page.”
Another major element of season eight was the introduction of the Canfield family, the show’s first African American main characters. There was Joseph Canfield (who became Hope Valley’s pastor), his wife Minnie (Natasha Burnett), their son Cooper (Elias Leacock), and their daughter Angela (Vienna Leacock), who is blind.
For a series that often focuses on the better angels of our nature, dealing with racism might be a tough issue to handle. At the same time, ignoring its role in the lives of African American characters would be dishonest. Thankfully, the writers of “When Calls the Heart” found the right balance.
That approach is encapsulated in a scene between Minnie Canfield and Dr. Carson Shepherd (Paul Greene) in the season eight finale. Minnie thanks him for being so welcoming and helpful to their family. She then reveals that she hasn’t trusted doctors since Angela contracted measles at age two and the doctor in the town in which they were living wouldn’t treat her because they were black. That’s why Angela lost her sight. As it played out, the exchange both conveyed the harsh, life-damaging effects of racism, while also acknowledging the bonds that can be formed when people treat each other with respect, dignity, and love.
In addition, the murder of George Floyd brought the issue of race to the fore in our culture. But how do you address the broader issue in a show like “When Calls the Heart”?
“Part of the challenge,” said Brian, “is that this is supposed to be 1920, so we want to be as realistic as we can in Hope Valley. I’ve always said that this is a show more about idealism than it is about realism, because we’re trying to represent a place in time that people can yearn for and look back on fondly and remember some of the good things, maybe from their own families or that they remember through the stories from their ancestral trees and so forth. However, we all know too, that the cataclysm of the civil war in the United States, the factor of slavery in the United States and in Canada – it ended in Canada 75 years earlier than it did in the United States – this was an issue, and the legacy of racism and of slavery and so forth has lingered. So we wanted to find a way to make the show as universally relevant as we could for today, because I think that’s what people appreciate about the show. They can harken back to the good old days. But they weren’t all good, right? There were some pretty dark periods in our history that we all need to acknowledge and remember and never forget. But I do think that doing a story like that – and even a very gentle scene like that with Carson Shepherd and Minnie – was a way to echo forward to some of the things that we’re dealing with today and gently try to understand.”
On a personal note, Brian said, “I have an African American friend who just said to me, ‘I don’t need you to atone for 400 years of history. Just tell me it makes you feel bad, what I went through or what my people went through, or what my family went through. Even just a simple sorry, is plenty. I’m sorry you had to go through all that.’ I think that’s what we were trying to get to. Sorry is a powerful word. Forgive me, those are very powerful words. The idea of impossible forgiveness is what I love leaning into. Some people say, ‘Well, it’s impossible to forgive this or to forgive that.’ I don’t believe in that. I believe that all things can be forgiven and that we need to work toward forgiveness and atonement and leaning into each other.”
Angela Canfield’s blindness also allows other story elements to emerge. By integrating her into Elizabeth’s classroom with the other students, we see ways that we can be inclusive of those with physical challenges. “To me,” said Brian, “it’s also powerful because I love that Angela might be physically impaired with her blindness, but her heart sees more than most people. And she also has this incredible gift of music as well. We all are created in the image of the author of the universe, and we all have that one little strand of creative DNA that we need to become good at. That, to me, was very moving, too, because we should never have low expectations for anybody…because they do have a spark of the divine. We should always look for that spark, and for Angela it comes out so beautifully.”
One of the other themes addressed this season was the search for purpose, especially with Lee Coulter, the lumber magnate, and his wife Rosemary (Pascale Hutton), the former actress who runs a dress shop. Both of them find their work is no longer fulfilling. The storyline seems appropriate for the age of COVID because people have had plenty of time to rethink their priorities and some have discovered they want more out of their careers.
Lee discovers that there’s more to life “than just being an entrepreneur and having probably the most money of anybody in the town,” explained Brian. “Where does that really leave you at the end of the day? The last time I checked, none of us are taking any of that with us. And so, how will somebody remember us 100 years for now? Will they remember us because we were wealthy, or we had some big company? Probably not. But you remember the people that leave a mark on you or leave a mark on the world. And I think that’s what Lee has been [thinking] about. For Rosemary, she is the person that can’t have that child so far…but also having a sense that…’What is my life about?’ When the dress shop is almost sold out from under her, it puts her life into focus there. [She asks], ‘How am I making my mark on my community other than just being a gadfly around town?’ So I love that she comes up with [being a journalist].”
Brian notes that even Elizabeth pursued bettering herself as an educator this season, so she could teach Angela and keep her schoolhouse alive, which is threatened by outside forces that want to take it away from her.
Elizabeth, of course, was also part of a love triangle for the past couple of seasons, unable to choose between Nathan (Kevin McGarry), the Mountie, or Lucas (Chris McNally), the local saloon owner and entrepreneur. When she ultimately chose Lucas, some fans were not happy and they made their feelings known on social media in ways that occasionally got nasty towards the actors and show staff.
Brian delved into that resolution, the reasons behind it, the reaction, and even criticisms that the character of Elizabeth was different this season.
After the death of Elizabeth’s husband, Mountie Jack Thornton in season five (because actor Daniel Lissing chose to leave the show), producers chose to make the story more unpredictable by choosing two eligible bachelors that might make a good match for her. Brian said, “Some people would look at Lucas and say, ‘He’s not a Mountie, he’s a businessman…’ That’s not the typical archetype for the ‘When Calls the Heart’ fans or the books, for that matter, because the archetype was always the teacher and the Mountie in the books. We fully acknowledge that…Our challenge, I think, in trying to come to a resolution for this year was, ‘How do we do the thing that’s the most unpredictable?’… We wrestled long and hard with which guy to go with…We knew fairly certain in theory earlier in the year that we probably would head in the direction of Lucas, but we also didn’t know exactly how that would unfold.
“And there were some wrinkles that were thrown at the audience that we never would have seen coming, which I loved. The Fort Clay wrinkle, I thought, was very powerful. [We saw] the very real human Elizabeth this year, struggling with her emotions. She was a different Elizabeth than we’ve seen in the past, but that’s because she’s a human being…We all are human beings, we all struggle with the speed bumps that come at us in life. And how do we navigate those speed bumps? How do we navigate the surprises and the pitfalls that come our way? Erin [Krakow], for her part, was masterful. That was some incredible acting that she handled this year because she knew that Elizabeth was going to go on this very precarious journey with her own feelings. And doing that, Elizabeth is not a perfect human being. We like to think of her as sort of flawless and perfect, but she’s not…She’s susceptible to lots of challenges and heartbreak in her life. We wanted to see the ripple effects of that. Whatever feelings she did have for Nathan, those were false feelings for her because she was projecting her own grief about her deceased husband onto him, and that wasn’t fair to him, and it was not fair to her either. And so, I think those were some powerful nuances that were added to the show.
“Now, did it end up exactly where everybody wanted it?” continued Brian. “No, of course not. It was the harder choice that we made. We fully understand that, and we understand that some fans felt misled or felt blindsided by this. We feel bad that people have deep pain over this. We didn’t obviously hope for that or want that to happen. But…our feeling is, after already doing the teacher-Mountie relationship for five seasons, we did that, and we felt like, ‘Let’s explore new territory.’ That doesn’t mean that Lucas can’t have his own journey too. That to me is one of the best values about Hope Valley. Look at the long journey of Henry Gowen. Big redemption story. Who could’ve thought we would ever forgive Henry Gowen? And yet, this year, he invoked Abigail as his biggest regret, whose husband was killed in the mine [that Gowen ran] in season one. That’s an impossible arc, that’s impossible grace to get to.
“I think that for all the fans that will continue to watch – and for those who may say it’s too much for them and they don’t want to return to Hope Valley – God bless you all. We would love to have you back, we’re grateful for even the good, bad, and the ugly. What I have to say is that I will be kind to everybody. I will be tolerant of everybody. You can criticize me all day long. I just want for Hearties to remember who they are. And I think that we can agree to disagree, but we shouldn’t be disagreeable with each other. Try to be kind with each other. That, to me, is the antidote for our culture, too, because we’re living in a heightened reality right now where everybody feels, I think because of COVID, because of the way that the culture’s become so polarized, we’re all raw, we’re all on edge, I think we react sometimes in the extreme, in ways that we wouldn’t have done normally. And so, that’s part of what’s been going on. I think too, that we’re stepping on [everybody’s] last nerves…with the show. But again, we’re deeply grateful for people’s passion because it’s rare you can find that if you’re making television shows, to get people that passionate about things. So we love the Hearties even if they don’t love us right now. We still love them back. I just urge people to not be unkind to each other.”
Season nine of “When Calls the Heart” is already in the pre-production stages, and Brian has hopes for what we’ll see in Hope Valley in 2022: “I want to see the new layers of Lucas, layers that we haven’t seen before. I think there’s a lot more going on there with this young man than people give him credit for. And I want to see him with little Jack, to see how he handles the idea of instant family, potentially, if this relationship is going to work. And how these two adjust to each other in the real world. It’s one thing to be on a courtship…Sometimes when you get into a real relationship, it’s not quite as much the honeymoon as you expect. But all that is to be explored.
“I think it’ll be awesome to see what happens with Nathan. He’s not going anywhere. He’s the Mountie in this town. I also love the idea of what happens with him and Allie. I actually love the idea of what happens with Nathan and Lucas. As I mentioned earlier, Rosemary and Elizabeth were at arms length in season one. There was no love lost there. Now they’re best friends and neighbors. So to me, the potential of these two young men actually having a really interesting friendship is also there too. And I think there will be more interesting stories regarding Henry Gowen this year as well.”
“When Calls the Heart” isn’t the only iron Brian has in the fire. He is also executive producer on a new series called “Mystic,” though it has yet to make its debut in the U.S.
Brian elaborated, “It’s very different than ‘When Calls the Heart.’ It’s a contemporary, half hour young adult show…Macey Chipping [as Issie Brown] is this incredibly bright young lady who loves horses and is trying to find her way after the death of her father. She and her mother have moved to New Zealand from England after the death of her father to live with her grandmother. So it’s a multi-generational show, it involves grandma on down to teenagers. And [Macey is] a fish out of water in this place because it’s rural New Zealand, and it’s very much farm country. She’s coming from the big city in London, and she’s trying to find her way with a new group of kids. But her love of horses and trying to find her way in the world is what the show is about.
“When I first read it and saw it, I was just in love with it. And it’s a show that is starting to catch fire in other countries. I was hoping to get it rolling in the U.S. in time to coincide with Super Channel in Canada carrying it. We haven’t quite found that distributor in the U.S. yet, but we’re looking for it. And it’s already in production of seasons two and three. That’s how much the fans in other countries are loving it…It is family friendly. People in Japan are loving it now, and people in Europe are loving it, and Down Under, so we’re trying to help blow it up internationally.”
(To listen to my full interview with Brian Bird, click on the podcast links below):