North of 60 Interview: Andrew Wreggitt

The efforts of many people go into making the characters of "North of 60" come alive. Among the
most important contributors are the show's writers. Calgary resident Andrew Wreggitt first began
writing for "North of 60" early in Season 2, eventually joining the story department and taking an
increasingly active role in creating the series' scripts. He has written such key episodes as
"Rumours," "The Visit," and "Borrowed Time"--as well as all three TV movies. In this interview,
he talks about his experiences with "North of 60" and some of his other projects.

(Please note that this interview contains spoilers for several episodes, especially in the section
"The final seasons.")

First scripts for "North of 60"

PW: How did you get involved with "North of 60"? Had you been watching the show?

AW: I knew it had come to town because I live not too far from the set. I live in Springbank, on the west side of Calgary. I had been writing dramas for television and freelancing them to a bunch of different shows. I gave them some scripts I'd written, so they knew what I was about when it came to writing.

PW: So they commissioned a "North of 60" script from you?

AW: Yeah, they asked me to do one. The first one was "Rumours."

PW: That must have been an interesting one to start with! Had you been watching the show? Were you familiar with the characters--especially, for this episode, Michelle and Eric?

AW: Yeah, I'd seen most of the episodes. I'd been keeping an eye on it. That was a show that I really wanted to work for. It took a little time for me to get there, but when I was finally there, I was very happy. I was at home.

PW: Did you have any concerns about jumping in with an episode that was so character driven? There's the presumed affair between Michelle and Eric, and also things were picking up between Harris and Lois. So there are lots of complicated relationship issues in that one!

AW: Those are what I like best! I was anxious to do a good job on my first script, because I wanted them to invite me into the story job. During Season 3, I did another show for them. That was the year I was working on "Destiny Ridge" in Edmonton.

PW: That script was "You Can't Get There from Here"?

AW: Yeah, the Suzie Muskrat episode. Then after we wrapped in Edmonton, I had a couple of different offers from different shows, and luckily, "North of 60" was one of them. That was a no-brainer for me!

PW: So that's when you were asked to join the story department of "North of 60." Could you describe a bit about what a story department does?

AW: The story department is a group of writers. At the beginning of the season, after we find out we've been picked up by the network for another season, we--the writers, and certainly in the first couple of seasons, also Barbara [Samuels] and Wayne [Grigsby]--we sit down in Toronto for about two weeks and hash out what the season's going to be.

We review what happened last season and think about, "Okay, where does that leave us? What were our most successful stories? Where do we perceive our weaknesses to be? Okay, let's stay away from this, but let's try to go for this, because this actor's really getting interesting, this storyline's starting to go somewhere." Or you think, "The show hasn't done this yet. We've never really addressed this theme."

We always used to attach a theme to [each season] at the beginning. For example, I wasn't around for Season 3, but I think the theme was corruption. Season 4 was home. It was all about being home, getting home, finding home. Season 5 was all about revenge.

PW: Whose idea was that, do you know?

AW: It came out of the group, because we look for some sort of unity to put the whole season together with so it doesn't feel as fractured when you're watching it. Sometimes it's about this and then it drifts and it's about this.

PW: Had Wayne and Barbara sketched out any long-term goals for the show? For example, one of my favorite things about "North of 60" is the growth of Teevee Tenia. Was any of that planned out in advance?

AW: No, we really go one season at a time and see where we are. You can't limit yourself or box yourself into something if it's not working out. You have to be flexible. We used to joke in Season 4, we'd make up these stories for Teevee, and then we'd laugh and say, "You know, some day that kid's going to be chief!"

PW: Little did you know! But it was a natural evolution. It was a beautiful evolution. It was so realistic.

AW: Yeah, it was. It fit perfectly, and it continues to evolve.

PW: You mentioned Season 4 just now. I was going to ask you about that, because one of the first episodes you did was the first of the Calgary trilogy, where Michelle goes down to visit Hannah and finds out she's missing. Also, the character of Andrew One Sky is introduced. There must have been a lot of discussions about that storyline. What was it like for you?

AW: I was very aware of the impact it was going to have on our audience when we decided that we would lose Hannah. It all came out of what to do with Michelle, because the original Michelle had been so brittle. We'd created a character who was so tied up in knots that in order for the show to really spread out, we had to find a way to shake her lose somehow. The idea came up to lose Hannah...[pause]...sorry, I'm just thinking now about how we did lose Hannah.

PW: Oh, yes, Selina Hanuse. That must have been very tough on everybody.

AW: It was tragic what happened. Sometimes the things you write end up happening, and it's quite awful.

PW: You also lost Mervin Good Eagle during the course of the show.

AW: Yeah, that was difficult, too. The thing I had to do, it was really awful, Peter [Lauterman] and Doug [MacLeod] and Tom [Cox] called me and said Mervin was dead. I went and told the story department and then I turned around and had to write him out of the script that we were about to shoot.

PW: Do you know why the decision was made to never mention his departure in the show?

AW: Well, it wasn't really something that we could take on. Dramatically it wouldn't have worked for us.

PW: Joey Small Boat wouldn't have had to die, though. You could have made up some other reason why he wasn't around any more.

AW: But it's exposition, it's not a story. If we'd had a story with him in it, where he leaves, we could have done something with it. At that point our season was mapped out and most of the scripts were done. And it was also too...we just didn't want to go there.

PW: You said you knew that the trilogy about Hannah would have a strong effect on your audience. How did that knowledge affect how you wrote "The Visit"?

AW: Well, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be Michelle. At that point I had a very young daughter; she was probably a year and a half old at the time. And I tried to imagine losing a child, to put myself in that situation. Then to understand that Michelle is not only looking for her daughter, but is also in a completely foreign land. Everything is foreign to her. She has no idea how to work the city, and she needs help. And Michelle is the sort of person who in crisis will retreat into herself. The whole notion that she would have to go to Andrew One Sky and would have to get help from this guy would be full of dramatic potential.

PW: I assume that the trilogy had the expected effect. Tina Keeper mentioned that people came up to her in the street afterwards and told her about their own experiences with losing a child. Did people's reaction to that trilogy affect the writers, too?

AW: When you're in a story department, your head is down and you're just writing. At that point, we were going flat out to get through the rest of the season.

PW: So you were a bit insulated from the reaction to those episodes?

AW: Yeah, that's true of all television writing. We do it and then we send it off, and a month or two later it shows up on television.

PW: And by then you're way down some other storyline.

AW: Oh yeah. We're completely in another world.

PW: There's not whole lot of humor in the show, but in "Sleeping Dogs"--which you co-wrote with Peter Lauterman--Jerry Kisilenko ends up in bed with his loan officer. Was that a fun change of pace?

AW: Oh yeah. I'm always looking for opportunities to tell a joke. That was a lot of fun. I've always had a lot of fun with Jerry. As the show went on over the years, there was more in it I think was humorous. But overall, you're right that the themes seem to stay pretty dark.

The importance of the North

PW: What have you found different about writing for "North of 60"?

AW: With "North of 60," more than any other show I've worked on, we write for the audience.

PW: How do you mean that?

AW: Well, I mean that on our trips north, I always remember who we're writing about and who's watching us. I don't mean just the people in the North, although I always remember that whenever I write anything for that show. You know, how's it going to play in Yellowknife? How's it going to play to the people who actually know what this stuff is really like? There's a sense of responsibility that goes with writing for the show.

PW: How many times have you had a chance to visit the North, and for what length of time?

AW: Oh, three or four times. I've been up to Fort Simpson and Yellowknife. They're always pretty short visits.

PW: Maybe a few days?

AW: Yeah. Usually I'm there meeting with our advisors and having a look around. Once in a while, no matter how long you've been writing for the show, you need to put the North back into your system.

PW: When you're up there, do you spend your time finding out what's happening, what the latest issues are, what people are talking about?

AW: Yeah, that. And also just getting a feel for it again--the rhythms of the place, how people talk, what they're thinking, and what their attitudes are about things.

PW: Stacey Stewart Curtis was telling me that unfortunately she's never had a chance to visit the North, but that in talking to people who had, they say it's just another world. She wishes she could go sometime, because apparently it's an entirely different experience being up there.

AW: Absolutely. And I've only been up in winter, because in the summer we're working. So you only have a few hours of daylight to appreciate it, and the rest of the time it's dark. Dark as can be.

PW: That probably gives you a really good sense of what it's like up there.

AW: Yeah, I thought it was so interesting that it's not light out till ten o'clock in the morning, and then it gets dark again by three. I woke up and I looked out the window at eight-thirty or something in the morning, it's pitch black, and there's people canoeing and skiing and stuff. I guess when you live up there, if you don't do stuff in the dark, you don't do stuff!

PW: Otherwise you'd only be out for a few hours.

AW: Yeah, and you can become a prisoner of your house. You just have to go out and make that part of your day. Part of your outdoor day activities occur in the dark.

PW: Did you go up again right before writing "Dream Storm"?

AW: Yeah, I did. We actually had a premiere showing of "Trial by Fire." There was a big theater there, and a bunch of local people came. The RCMP wore their red serge and came out. It was great. I had a great time.

PW: The people who helped when you filmed up "Trial by Fire" there must have been very excited to see the finished product.

AW: Yeah, they were there, and everyone was very excited to see their town portrayed in a drama that was going around the world. And it was a great opportunity for me to go up and meet all the people. And again, just to realize the influence that the show has up there. The doors are thrown open for us whenever we go up. I went to the RCMP detachment there, and they're anxious to tell you all about it. And to tell us how right we get it, which is very nice to hear. And to give us little hints about, "Here are some things that are going on that you might think about doing."

PW: I've heard that small towns in the North used to pretty much close down on Thursday nights when the show was on.

AW: Yeah, they even had to move bingo night! Bingo night was a big deal. People with snowmobiles would come 100 kilometers or something to get to bingo night. So they'd come rolling in to get to a TV to watch "North of 60."

PW: People would come way in from the bush just to watch "North of 60"?

AW: Sure. One woman told me she runs a commercial fishery out of Yellowknife, which is on Great Slave Lake. You don't think of this, but it's like an inland ocean, it's so big. And they fish through the winter there; they drop the net through the ice. So they take these Cat trains out on the ice. She said she had a crew out there working 80 kilometers away from town. And she drove out one night, and here's the crew sitting on one of the barges that they haul out there, and they were all huddled around a TV watching "North of 60." I was actually asked to go talk to the CRTC [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] in Ottawa about CBC's license renewal, and I told them that story. It seemed to have an impact.

PW: An impact about the benefits CBC was providing by airing the show?

AW: Yeah, I mean, who else is going to do something like this?

The final seasons

PW: Did you say that Season 5 was your favorite?

AW: I don't know. I liked Season 6 a lot, too. Five and six were my favorites. In six, we took on a bunch of stuff that I loved. Plus, we were shooting in winter, which was difficult, but it gave the show teeth again. Because after the first season, we'd been shooting primarily in the summer. So we were pretty much a summertime show, which in the North is not really an accurate portrayal. I loved all the oil rigs and getting off in the bush and being in the snow in bad weather in the dark. It was really hard on the crew, it was hard for all of us.

PW: But it felt more "North" to you.

AW: Yeah, it felt meatier, more real to me.

PW: Back to Season 5 wrote "Suspicious Minds," which is one of the key episodes where it's obvious that Brian is going over the edge. Did you enjoy--if that's the right word--writing about Brian's descent?

AW: Yeah, it was great. One of the odd things about Season 5 is that we all believed it was our last season. So we thought, "Well, let's make them sorry they canceled us! Let's do something good." So we followed this theme of revenge. [Robert] Bockstael was not very happy when he found out we were going to kill him, and I said, "But it's the last season, and it's all about you! You couldn't ask for better work!"

So we planned this amazing demise for him. And then we killed Albert. And then at the end [of the season] we heard we were going to have a Season 6. So then we thought, "What are we going to do about Albert?"

PW: You hadn't really left yourself any loopholes?

AW: Well, it really was supposed to be the end, because of the way television is financed here. Because Telefilm Canada wasn't going to be in it.

PW: They stop funding shows after five years?

AW: Yeah, because that's their policy. But a way was found to make Season 5 and Season 6 the same season.

PW: They treated them as one season for financing purposes?

AW: Yeah. We took about three weeks off and then went straight back to work again in January. So in terms of the official version on paper, it was just one really long season that was shown in two parts.

PW: But there was no way you could get more financing from Telefilm after that?

AW: No, you couldn't. There was nothing else you could really do. It's very sad, actually, that when a show is successful, we reward it by cancelling it.

PW: I'm sure it wasn't that CBC didn't want to keep it going, right? They just couldn't dig up the money.

AW: Well, you know, in a television series they only provide a license fee. That's the extent of their involvement. And that's only a small corner of the financing puzzle.

PW: And you couldn't do it without Telefilm's help?

AW: Well, that had been another huge part of it, and without it, you just can't go forward.

PW: I think I heard that the provincial funding had gone away at some point, too?

AW: Yeah, that was another blow.

PW: So it was nothing directed at "North of 60." It's just that the funding all went away.

AW: Yeah. That's pretty much it. But Tom and Doug, being the creative guys that they are, came up with the idea of doing movies. So it goes on. We were only going to do one. I think the idea was to let the audience have a last look at everybody, and then that would be our goodbye.

PW: Did the news about getting Season 6 come before or after the last episodes of Season 5 had been written?

AW: They were already planned out, and we were already writing them. So we had too back and rethink the last two episodes and just leave ourselves some options. But by then, Bockstael had already gone.

PW: Did you change the scene where Nathan shoots Albert and then Albert disappears? Had you originally planned for the audience to see Albert die?

AW: No, that episode didn't change at all, actually. The only difference was in [episode] 77, when Harper arrives, he was supposed to just be a forensic cop on temporary duty. We were only supposed to see him for one show. So he shows up, and the only difference is, there are no bones. There's no body. So that made for an interesting episode. And then we were off and running again.

PW: Do you recall what the theme of Season 6 was?

AW: I think we called it "progress." It was all about the road. 78 starts with this beautiful image of Sarah on the runway, and this huge truck goes past and whips up all this snow around her. It's about how Lynx River is never going to be the same, because here comes the road, and all the things that come down the road.

We'd talked about the road [in previous seasons]. It had been a subject of conversation in the band hall through the years. There was all this talk, and people saying, "No, no, we can't have a road." And then finally we give them a road and watch what happens. So it was all about happened to them--the good and the bad.

PW: When you did "Borrowed Time," you knew that it was definitely the end of the series. But did you know that there might be a movie, and thus not wrap things up too thoroughly?

AW: We at that point had no idea we'd be doing a movie.

PW: Still, was there a thought at the back of the minds of the story department that maybe you should leave a few options open for the future? Like, not killing everybody off?

AW: Well, we killed Albert again.

PW: This time for good! Well, as a live person, anyway...

AW: Yeah, there's a lot of options. Especially when you're dealing with the North.

PW: What were your goals for "Borrowed Time"?

AW: I wanted it to have resonance between Albert and Michelle. They needed to have some sort of finish to this war. And some understanding of who Albert was. That he wasn't just a bootlegger. There's a lot more to Albert than that. And it was about the invasion of the white people. It was about the loss of culture. It was about their different approaches to that.

PW: And also how in some ways, Albert and Michelle were alike underneath.

AW: Absolutely. As Albert said, they had more in common than Michelle would ever admit. In another time and place, they would have been on the same side.

PW: She goes out to his cabin to arrest him, and he says he's tired and asks her to come back the next day. Do you think she has any inclination that something's going to happen?

AW: Yeah, absolutely. She's a very intuitive police officer. She knew that there was going to be a finish to this, and that Albert had a plan.

PW: So she may not have known exactly what was going to happen, but she decided to wait a day and just let things play out?

AW: Yeah.

"In the Blue Ground"

PW: And then came the first movie. "In the Blue Ground" was a change of pace, because all of a sudden you didn't have a whole season to develop storylines. So I take it that it had to be more plot driven?

AW: We were thinking of the movie that it had to find an international buy. There's the thriller/mystery genre thing that we would have to skew it toward. A television series is not a movie. They're completely different entities in the marketplace and in the way that they're written and conceived.

PW: So you were thinking about trying to sell the movie to places that had not previously aired the series?

AW: Well, yeah, that was certainly part of it. Given that we were wrapping up old business in a way, we made sure that someone who had never ever seen the series could watch it and understand it.

PW: Had you done TV movie scripts before?

AW: No.

PW: So was that a challenge for you to shift gears and do something different with these characters?

AW: Yeah. At that time I was working on "Black Harbour" in Nova Scotia. I got a call that they wanted me to do the movie, so I did that between seasons of "Black Harbour."

PW: Were you pleased with the movie--both with what you wrote, and the response to it?

AW: Yeah. It was really interesting, because after being off the air as long as we were, the audience found us. They came back and found us. We got very good numbers, and on the basis of that, CBC asked us for another one. And then they watched "Trial by Fire" and thought, "Gee, how about another one?"

At that point, the network was looking around at the way the ratings had changed for everything because of the diversity of the marketplace, and was saying, "If we can draw a million plus viewers back to 'North of 60,' why are we trying to do anything else? These are fabulous ratings, and we'd be crazy to stop this." So they continued on. And of course, every time they say, "This is it. This is the last one." And we just nod. [laughs] And sure enough, they turn around. And now Peter and I are working on Movie 4.

PW: Is that definite yet?

AW: It's still preliminary, but we're writing the script.

[Note: After this interview, the fourth "North of 60" movie was confirmed.]

"Dream Storm"

PW: From what I've heard about "Dream Storm," it's quite different, and it sounds fascinating. For one thing, we've got Albert Golo back--in some form, anyway. And apparently his appearance is an intersection between the normal world and the "dream time" world, a sort of alternate reality. That sounds like it must have been very challenging to write.

AW: It really was. It was a challenge at every level. I struggled with the writing. I worked very hard at it and did a lot of drafts, and we finally found our way through it. And then the director had the same kind of struggle to find a way through this kind of material. No one has seen a TV movie like this before. It's not like anything that we've done--or anyone else, as far as I know.

PW: Did you have a lot of discussions with the Native consultants on this one?

AW: Yeah, I had a long talk with an advisor up in Yellowknife. We talked through what the plan was and what I was hoping to do, and she told me a lot of stuff that was very helpful, and kind of confirmed what we had hoped, that we had earned the right to do this story.

PW: They trusted you to tell the story well.

AW: Yeah, we had earned it. We had proven that we were serious and could be trusted.

PW: Whose idea was it to bring in this degree of Native spirituality this time, do you recall?

AW: I think the very first thing I heard about it was, Tom [Cox] had been talking to CBC, to the executives there, and had said, "You know, it would be great if there was another movie, and maybe this time it could have more of a spiritual aspect to it." So then it was like, "Over to you, Andrew." [laughs]

So the first step was to go north, and go to Yellowknife in the dark to try to put this story together. It was a very good experience, and overall I learned a lot from it. I think it's going to be a pretty good movie. I'm always very cautious, but it brought a tear to my eye watching it in the studio, and I'd seen it a million times.

PW: It sounds very intriguing. And I was delighted when I heard that Mr. Tootoosis was coming back. I always had the feeling that this was the kind of show where being dead wasn't an obstacle to making further appearances. [laughs]

AW: Yeah, it definitely is the kind of place, and it's in the right community. This is an everyday thing in the Dene world, that the living and the dead are together. It's the sense of ancestry, and the sense of the continuity, that when people die, they aren't gone. That's why you have to respect your ancestors, and why it matters how you live your life, because you have a responsibility to the people who have gone before you, and are still around you. In the end, it's all about the land, and the sense of strength that it gives the Dene people.

Other projects

PW: You also worked on the Grigsby/Samuels ensemble show "Black Harbour," which was filmed in Nova Scotia. Did you spend time getting the feel for that area, as you did when you visited the North to write for "North of 60"?

AW: Yes, we moved out there for the shooting. My family and I went for five months and had a great time. It was a fabulous new experience for me being on the east coast.

PW: The first episode you did for "Black Harbour" was "Love's Labours Lost," which guest-starred Wendy Crewson. When you're writing an episode, do you necessarily know who will play the guest roles?

AW: No, you don't. You know the character, but you don't know the actor. Sometimes you have hopes. You sit around and think, "You know who would be really good for that person? Let's see if we can get them."

PW: Wendy Crewson is such a good actress.

AW: Yes, I ended up writing quite a bit for Wendy.

PW: Really? What else?

AW: Well, she's Joanne Kilbourn in the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries [for CTV].

PW: Aha, you're writing those? So you're doing a bunch of TV movies now.

AW: Yeah, I wrote four last year.

PW: I think there have been two or three of the Joanne Kilbourn series so far?

AW: Well, there were two at the beginning that I wasn't involved in. And then I was brought in for three and four, "The Wandering Soul Murders" and "A Colder Kind of Death."

PW: And are there more coming up?

AW: Yeah, I'm doing another one called "Verdict in Blood."

PW: What's it like to adapt from a novel?

AW: Well, in some ways it's a struggle, it's more difficult, because you obviously can't make the book. You have to be very inventive in how you tell the story.

PW: You worked on "Black Harbour" the second and third seasons, right?

AW: Yeah, and then I came home and started doing movies.

PW: It looks like you did the first episode of Season 3, "Descent"--the weird one where Kit goes to Halifax, gets drunk, and ends up being an accessory to a robbery.

AW: Yeah, "the weird one." There was a lot of discussion about the weird one. [laughs]

PW: Before or after?

AW: Before.

PW: Did you work on any of the episodes that Timothy Webber was in, where he played a brother at a monastery?

AW: Yes, I did.

PW: He was very good in that show.

AW: Yeah, he did a lovely turn, and I loved writing that character.

PW: How many episodes did you write in each season?

AW: Three. I did three both years.

PW: Besides those TV movies, what else are you working on these days?

AW: Well, I spent a long time last year working on a new series pilot with Tom and Doug for CBC. It's called "Tom Stone," and it's set here in Calgary. Peter Lauterman is working on it with me.

PW: What genre is it?

AW: It's an hour-long drama. It's about a guy who gets recruited out of prison to become an undercover officer for the Commercial Crimes division of the RCMP. And it's funny, it's definitely got a humorous side to it. So we're waiting to hear about that.

[Note: CBC did pick up the series; it will premiere in early 2002.]

PW: What are you working on the rest of today?

AW: Well, I just got another outline from Peter on Movie 4, so I'm going to sit down and read that.

PW: Well, we're all looking forward to it! Thank you.

AW: Thank you.

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(c) 2001 Patricia F. Winter

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