On set: Paradise Falls

A sixtysomething small-town mayor is having an affair with a twentysomething, blonde Avon-style lady who’s engaged to his gay grandson and, at the moment, is mustering up the courage to blow the old guy’s brains out as he pours two glasses of champagne and she attempts to lure him up to his bedroom, gun in hand. At least, that’s what appears to be happening on the set of Paradise Falls, episode 51, day 94, Whitevale, Ontario.

Convoluted perhaps, but Paradise Falls, pegged to be a crossbreed of Twin Peaks and Peyton Place – with a splash of Scream – is all about deceptive appearances and it promises to be anything but conventional.

The first Showcase Original series, Paradise Falls, an all-Canadian, prime-time serial drama is produced by Breakthrough Films. It encompasses ever-twisting storylines threaded together by murder, witchcraft, full-frontal nudity and steamy love affairs, all set against a small-town Muskoka backdrop.

‘Paradise Falls is a place, but the name is a double entendre. On the surface, it’s all beautiful people and landscapes, but underneath there’s a twisted reality that eventually comes out. And every character has a secret that is eventually revealed,’ says series co-creator and producer Paula J. Smith (The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon). ‘It’s like a bowl of whip cream with razor blades underneath – beautiful and appetizing, but when you dig down you cut your tongue.’

Hardly the stuff Canadian tv series are made of. And with an ensemble cast of 35 including Art Hindle (jag), Carla Collins (E-Now) and Kim Schraner (The Newsroom), a 52-episode order and a digital format, the divergence runs wild.

‘The show is written like a soap and shot like a single-camera dramatic series,’ says Smith.

Budgeted at $6.5 million ($125,000 a half hour), the 52-part series was shot from July 31 to Dec. 21, 2000, with seven weeks in Muskoka and the remainder in Whitevale, a Muskoka-style hamlet on the outskirts of Toronto.

Guns, floods and skunks

Because of the series’ relatively low budget, shooting on location was a must. But while more economical, location shooting forced the production team to endure some unexpected setbacks, ‘including a gun-shooting crazy man,’ recalls Smith.

One day when shooting at a marina in Muskoka, the production team encountered a skunk problem. ‘We complained about it and all of a sudden, we heard heavy gunshots,’ says Smith. ‘The owner shot the skunk and then you can imagine what it smelled like.’

On another day, it rained so hard that a beaver dam broke and flooded the roads, so the cast had to be boated over to location.

Rabid foxes also provided some challenges, but ultimately, says Smith, ‘the backdrop of Muskoka is gold for production value and we never lost a shooting day.’

Originally, the series was developed with the cbc, but when it came around to licensing, the broadcaster couldn’t find a place for it on the schedule, says co-executive producer Ira Levy.

‘Getting the series together financially was [difficult] because it is so adventurous, but Showcase was the perfect home for Paradise Falls. It is designed for their tv schedule,’ he adds.

Showcase, which has kicked in almost a third of the budget, signed on in January 2000.

At that time, 10 scripts had been cowritten by Smith and co-creator/story editor Alex Gelatis (Shadow Lake). Once the series entered production, however, Smith had taken on her producing role full-time and Gelatis almost single-handedly wrote the remaining 42 scripts.

Because all 52 episodes were shot on location, the series was shot in blocks, which meant that on any given day, scenes from five different episodes would be shot. And with five different directors, each with two-and-a-half weeks to shoot, continuity remained a challenge.

‘It’s hard to track the emotional states,’ says director Gail Harvey (The Zack Files). ‘This morning, for instance, we were cutting from a scene I didn’t direct.’ And with shooting an average of 13 pages a day, Harvey says, ‘It’s hard to stay on top.’

Nonetheless, on day 94, the cast and crew are persistently giddy and full of enthusiasm, a testament to the bonding that took place in Muskoka where, during their off-time, the cast and crew were reported to be ‘having a good time skinny-dipping, hot-tubbing and partying together.’

Harvey, however, is new to the set. She’s been preceded by fellow directors Bruce Pittman (The Unconcerned), Penelope Buitenhuis (Tokyo Girls), Keith Ross Leckie (Children of My Heart) and Art Hindle.

She is also the first director of the bunch to be using two cameras, which she says helps in shooting some of the more erotic scenes, especially the ones in the shower where camera movement is limited.

The series is also shot in a digital format, which, in addition to keeping the costs down and the production values high, will help in making international sales, says Levy.

‘By shooting in this format, it allows flexibility in post to customize the look based on the market we’re selling to. As hdtv rolls out over the next decade, North American tastes may change and we will be able to adapt to that because our master is digital.’

Another advantage of shooting in digital is that all footage can be archived more efficiently.

Digital look

Although digital cameras record a harder-edged image than motion picture film, careful attention to lenses, filters and lighting on set and treatment in the post process (in this case handled by Toronto’s Bullet Digital Post) can help achieve a softer image. The digital domain presents a new experience for dops, since they make adjustments to the image quality remotely in an onsite truck, instead of directly at the camera.

All of which is to say the series has a highly polished and arguably un-Canadian look. One foreign buyer described the demo as a British/ American crossbreed, says Levy.

Target Distribution in the u.k. is handling worldwide distribution. ‘Brits have a better understanding of the market for this kind of programming,’ says Levy. ‘We did try a number of Canadian distributors, but they’re more used to one-hour primetime drama as opposed to primetime serial dramas, which is more for the cable and specialty channels looking for unique programming.’

Victoria Snow (Stardom), Kim Poirer (Psi Factor), Jim Thorburn (Drop the Beat) and Kristin Booth (Jewel) also star in the series, which is set to premiere on Showcase in spring 2001.

Peter Williamson, cofounder of Breakthrough Film and Television, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, is co-exec producing. *