Holly Dale Q&A: Helmer hot on both sides of the border

Torontonian Holly Dale is one of the hottest directors working in dramatic series on American and Canadian television. Stylish and efficient, she’s directed episodes of Heroes, Cold Case and Life in Los Angeles over the past two years, while contributing to the look and feel of Flashpoint, Being Erica (previously titled The Session) and Durham County back at home.

Her efforts as the director of the pilot for the psychological cop thriller series Durham County have been rewarded with nominations for best TV director at both the Geminis and the Directors Guild of Canada Awards.

Dale is no stranger to nominations and awards. Since garnering a Genie for her hard-hitting debut documentary feature P4W: Prison for Women in 1982, she has won a Toronto Arts Award, prizes in Los Angeles, Columbus and Chicago, and been nominated many times for Genies, Geminis and DGC Awards.

Starting as a social-issue documentarian with director/writer Janis Cole in the late ’70s, Dale went on to study dramatic filmmaking at the Canadian Film Centre, directing the 1995 feature Blood & Donuts, starring Justin Louis, and becoming a go-to TV director on both sides of the border.

Over the past decade, this Canadian veteran estimates that she’s directed more than 200 hours of episodic television for such shows as Stargate: Atlantis, Bliss, Nero Wolfe, 1-800-Missing, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye and The Dead Zone.

Playback spoke to her by phone from L.A., where she was completing the shoot on an episode of Heroes.

What’s your reaction to being nominated for a Gemini and a Directors Guild of Canada award for the direction of ‘What Lies Beneath,’ the first episode of Durham County? And what did you do to aid in the creation of the show?

It’s great – and humbling – to be recognized by your peers. I certainly feel grateful to [producers] Janis [Lundman], Adrienne [Mitchell] and Laurie [Finstad-Knizhnik] for bringing me into a unique project.

Whenever you do the pilot or the first show of a miniseries, you get to work on the tone and the vision of the show. I collaborated with Adrienne, Janis and Laurie on a number of things. We wanted a look like Twin Peaks – an environment where people are slowly going crazy [in the suburbs] – while being surrounded by hydro towers. It became a metaphor for the peaks and valleys in the story.

What challenges were involved in directing the show?

Well, we prepped it like a feature film. I blocked the shots for the first four shows and Adrienne did the last two. One of the most creative experiences we had with Durham was coming up with new ideas for shooting in the same space, because we would put [for example] all the house scenes together for several shows. You could be shooting the last scene of episode four on day two, which forced you to understand the tracking and evolution of the characters right from the beginning.

You’ve directed Hugh Dillon on Flashpoint as well as Durham County. What’s he like to work with as a lead?

The most refreshing thing about Hugh is that he’s visceral and goes on feeling and emotion. Hugh is very open to taking direction. He’s not, as some actors can be, suspicious and guarded. Look at what he does in Flashpoint: he’s terrific as an entirely different character than the one in Durham.

‘Attention Shoppers’ was a particularly moving episode of Flashpoint. You directed Sarah Gadon as an at-risk teenager. Can you tell me about that experience?

What [executive producers] Anne Marie [La Traverse] and Bill [Mustos] discovered was my own past. I pulled from a lot of things from my youth to bring to the show. Sarah has a huge career in front of her. She had to go through ‘Attention Shoppers’ emotionally distraught, while in [Being Erica] she plays a drunken teenager.

Being Erica is a highly touted Canadian series that is going to premiere on CBCin January. What can you tell us about it?

Erin Karpluk plays a girl who, at the age of 28, realizes that her life was going great when she was 18 but that everything seems to have fallen apart since then. She’s sort of a Bridget Jones, and she runs into Michael Riley’s character, Dr. Tonks, who has the ability to send her back into the past. Erin’s character takes these journeys back in time and explores the mess-ups in her life. It’s a hilarious show. I think Erin is going to be our Lucille Ball. I did the pilot and I’m coming back to do the season-ender.

What was your directorial approach for Being Erica?

Since there were two time frames, I pulled from my Cold Case and Heroes experiences in terms of the looks of two different environments. For the present day, [we went] for a cool monochromatic look, and for her past, when her life was more joyful, we created a more colorful, rich texture.

You’ve worked a lot in L.A., Toronto and Vancouver. Can you compare what it’s like to direct in America to our situation in Canada?

The crews are completely on par with each other. The standards of filmmaking in Canada are as high as in Los Angeles. It’s really no different, except the weather – and, of course, the money.

In Canada, when you’re doing episodic TV, you’ll say, ‘I’d like to have a crane,’ and the producers will say, ‘I’m not sure we can afford it.’ In L.A. you’ll say you’d like a crane and they’ll say, ‘How many days? And which one would you like?’

Typically, you will shoot only three pages a day in L.A., while in Canada you’ll find yourself doing 10 to 11, just because of economic reasons.

Being trained in Canada becomes very valuable [in L.A.] when you’re in crunch situations. I know all the tricks of the trade that Canadian directors use to make quality visuals with no money. When I came down to L.A., I actually had to retrain myself not to go so fast.

Why are you so good at adjusting to different genres and working environments?

Coming from my early years in documentary, when Janis Cole and I went into prisons and out onto the street where there were hookers and pimps and a lot of crime, I had the opportunity to be exposed to all kinds of people in different environments. I find that that’s been invaluable to me.

When I go on a show, you come across different personalities and styles of how people work. I developed a very good sensibility from those years in documentary with Janis. I can go into [working] environments and find a way to adapt and communicate with people, even though from show to show they’re very different.

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