North of 60 Interview: Stacey Stewart Curtis

"North of 60" has been lucky to have incredibly good talent behind the cameras as well as in
front of them. Some of Canada's leading television directors have worked on the show, including
Toronto resident Stacey Stewart Curtis. I interviewed her while she was directing "Dream Storm."

Early episodes and "Take Me Home"

PW: I believe the first "North of 60" episode you directed was "Freeze Out," near the end of the first season?

SSC: That's it, yep.

PW: So you've been involved with the show practically from the beginning. Had you worked with Wayne Grigsby and Barbara Samuels before, or how did that come about?

SSC: No, this was my first opportunity, for whatever reason. They seemed to be quite pleased with it, and based on that, they invited me back in the second season and I did four episodes. And then I've subsequently gone on to do 11 episodes.

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: You were assigned a couple of particularly powerful ones, "Take Me Home" and "Borrowed Time." Or perhaps I should ask you which ones you consider the most powerful!

SSC: Well certainly, "Take Me Home" was definitely a very, very strong, emotional episode, and one that people have often commented about because of the impact that the story had. It was also very challenging to do because it was part of a two-parter in Calgary, so it was interesting to try to tie mine together with the preceding one, which was T.W. Peacocke's. But it was fun because it was the first time we'd been away from Lynx River, so it was challenging and compelling to try to show Calgary and yet not lose the true connection to the whole story that started in Lynx River. That's the focal point of where the characters are from.

PW: Even within the urban Calgary story, though, there was a strong link to Aboriginal culture in the scene where Michelle went outside of town to meet with an older Native man.

SSC: That was wonderful because that gentleman in fact had never acted before. I don't know whether he's acted subsuquently. He's a man of the cloth, I can't recall what particular faith. And his cadences were particularly interesting because his rhythms were his own. So for a director to speak to someone whose rhythms are very specific to themselves, you want to make sure that the general audience can also pick up the intention of the scenes or the intention of the lines.

PW: It turned out to be a great scene.

SSC: Oh, it was wonderful.

PW: The scene with Michelle sitting down by the river on the park bench was also really something, and the one where she leaves Louis' house to get in the cab--there were so many strong scenes in that episode! That must have been a challenge for everyone involved.

SSC: It was very challenging, but what I find really interesting for me is that the stronger the script is, the more I'm fearful of not presenting it properly. So I try to dig into what's the intent of the overall story, and then within that, the intent of each scene. And with the actor's help also, their specific intent in each scene. It really causes me when I read a really good script to really feel I have to buckle down and do it justice. It doesn't mean I slack off when I run into a lousy script, but with a lousy script, there's only so much you can do with it. You can try and tell that story. But the good ones, you just want to make sure that you hit the notes all along the way.

PW: I don't imagine that dealing with bad scripts has been much of a problem on "North of 60"! [laughs] It's got such consistently good writing.

SSC: Very good for me. And having done so many episodes, I feel like I lucked into a number of the really outstanding ones.

The North and stories about community

PW: Did you as a director do anything to try to make your episodes feel more like they were taking place in the Northwest Territories instead of southern Alberta?

SSC: It's tricky because it's one of those things where when I'm directing, certainly I see it subjectively from my perspective, and how visually I see things and can combine that in conjunction with the director of photography and the camera operator. I've never been North, so it's a bit of a bogus situation to say that I could represent the North.

The set itself has its own visuals that present themselves, so to me, I've always been looking for a combination of--aside from telling the story and making it clear if you're having to go from one location to another--what time of day am I shooting it, what are the angles that I think are the prettiest or will reinforce the story. If I'm trying to do something that is a little unsettling, is it better to shoot it with the camera moving around a lot, or is it better to have the camera just kind of calm and settled. And it depends on what the script tells me.

PW: Do you think it can be danger sometimes when they set part of a story somewhere else? Is there a danger of losing that Lynx River "aura"?

SSC: It hasn't happened very often with regards to "North of 60," so I think they've been true to the premise that was set up, that it was a small community. As Barbara and Wayne have said, it's always about small communities. It doesn't matter whether it's Lynx River or "DaVinci" or "Dynasty." It's that particular community that you set up.

PW: Even within a big city.

SSC: Yeah, it is about neighborhoods, particular neighborhoods. And that can be small, microscopic perspectives or larger, grander ones, if you get into hospital-type scenarios or lawyers, or whatever. But with regards to "Take Me Home," it was a different challenge because it meant that we were going away from our familiar setting, but ultimately bringing the story back right to the heart of Michelle and her character.

"Borrowed Time"

PW: One of the episodes you directed was "Borrowed Time." I imagine it was a plum assignment getting the series finale.

SSC: Oh yeah, it was very rewarding. We had a certain sentimentality that we were trying to fight against, but at the same rate, I think because the stories were still arcing through to a finish, it wasn't over till it was over.

PW: Did you shoot the final scene last, do you recall?

SSC: I don't honestly recall that it was actually the last scene, but it was very close to the end. We didn't do it at the beginning. And it was interesting to try to find a particular angle as the kind of last visual for the series. I was looking for a way to have the town still sit there and know that the people were off into the coffee shop all together.

PW: Was it your idea to put the "Closed" sign on the coffee shop?

SSC: No, that was in the script.

PW: But the long shot of the empty street was your idea.

SSC: That particular angle I picked, but it was probably in the script.

PW: What was it like to be around on the last day of shooting after six years of the series?

SSC: I think when any series comes to an end there's always a heartfelt sense of loss, but still satisfaction that you've brought something to six or seven seasons of success. What I found particularly interesting was when I arrived back here [to work on "Dream Storm"] after having not been here since that last episode, it was kind of like deja vu. You knew that there had been changes and there'd been life since, but I really felt reconnected to the place almost immediately. It's such a beautiful site. It's hard not to like being here--unless it's absolutely frigid. [laughs]

The director's role and "Dream Storm"

PW: Director Francis Damberger made a cameo appearance in the last "North of 60" movie. Should we look for you this time?

SSC: Oh, no. [laughs] My role is behind the scenes. I think I would stick out too much. I wouldn't dare act. It's very questionable that I can even suggest to actors how they ought to be acting, because I don't have the guts to do it myself. I sort of like to stand back and act as an audience.

PW: How much guidance do you give the actors?

SSC: It varies. And it also varies in terms of your rapport with the actors.

PW: You don't have a set philosophy about it? You play it by ear?

SSC: I'm both technically and visually interested in telling a story a specific way, but I'm not prepared to give that up completely for the sort of dialog that needs to happen with the actors as well. Because ultimately, when it comes down to it, it's their face on the screen telling the story, and if there are particular moments that we agree or disagree on, you have to really have a dialog about it. For me, it's really just watching and trying to see if we collectively have hit the note.

Depending on the scenes, depending on the actors, quite often you don't have to say a thing, because they come to the table with so much. In particular, a number of actors on this show and that I've had the pleasure of working with do their homework and work really hard. And sometimes [they] seek guidance, sometimes they just want to get feedback from me to see, okay, is it playing out. You're always wasting time and light and maniacally trying to get everything done. "Okay, we've got five seconds to get this scene in the can--but in the meantime, don't forget that moment!" 'Cuz there's no point in shooting it if you've lost the essence of that key moment. So I believe that I'm seen as being both kind of an actors' [director] and a camera director.

PW: Without giving away too much, were there any instances in "Dream Storm" where you and an actor had different views of how a particular scene should be interpreted?

SSC: Not so much once we got shooting. Certainly early on, Tina Keeper had very strong feelings about where the script was sitting, in particular with regard to the dreams and visions and the representation of that kind of story, because it's so specific to the Native community that it's an ongoing, everyday experience for many people. I personally cannot admit to having had too many visions. I know I've had a couple of moments in my life where I've felt a connection to something that wasn't concrete and "there," so I can say, okay, I've had those feelings. But in each scene, we try to talk things through in terms of, "Okay, what are we trying to get out of this scene?" Sometimes they're really simple and straight ahead. The emotional scenes for Michelle are tricky in this one, because it's weaving a very delicate thread through this story and trying to bring this story together.

PW: What thread is that?

SSC: Well, she in the beginning is a bit disconcerted and thrown off and troubled within the story. Michelle's personal life seems in danger, and she doesn't know why.

PW: Do you mean she's in physical danger?

SSC: No, family life. And she's also thrown off by these dreams that she's having. Because of that, there's a delicacy and a vulnerability that needs to come through. But [Tina] has certainly been hitting the balance. And what is great is that she does come to me and say, "Okay, are we hitting this?" So it's a two-way street.

PW: It sounds like despite the film's complexity, it's been a very enjoyable project to work on.

SSC: Oh, fantastic.

Other projects

PW: I know I've seen your name on a bunch of other Canadian shows that I've managed to catch glimpses of in the States. I think "Wind at My Back" is one?

SSC: I've done "Wind at My Back," "Avonlea," "Cold Squad," twenty episodes of "Street Legal," "Ready or Not." Some of the American shows I've worked on include "Hoop Life," "Twice in a Lifetime," "The Famous Jett Jackson."

PW: Are those shows all filmed in Toronto? Where are you based?

SSC: I'm based in Toronto, but I have worked on "Black Harbour" [near Halifax] and did an MOW for Harlequin down in Halifax called "Recipe for Revenge." I have not worked in Quebec. I've worked predominantly in Toronto. I did one movie in Saskatchewan, I've worked here in Alberta, and I have worked a number of times in Vancouver.

PW: Which seasons of "Black Harbour" did you work on?

SSC: Seasons one and two. I did the opening episode. I did three or four episodes in the first season, and I did a couple of episodes in the second season. I was invited to do the third season, but my schedule kind of conflicted and I ended up with a movie, so they regretfully let me bow out.

PW: That was another wonderful ensemble show.

SSC: Oh, I loved working Down East as well. The crews there were terrific to work with. It was fun to be involved with the show at the beginning. I have also enjoyed working with both Barbara Samuels and Wayne Grigsby. They were fun to work with.

PW: And one of the stars of that show, Geraint Wyn Davies, came out here to direct an episode in the final season of "North of 60." So people were kind of playing musical directors!

SSC: Yeah, we move around. [laughs] We go wherever the work is.

PW: What do you have lined up after "Dream Storm"?

SSC: I'm going to do an episode of "Cold Squad." I'm spending at least a week in editing here before I'll go home and have a small break. Then I'll do the "Cold Squad."

PW: That'll be in Vancouver, right?

SSC: In Vancouver. Then after that there's a rumor of other stuff. I have a feature film in development of a script that I've optioned from a writer. I have a short film that I just directed, coincidentally in Vancouver. I was invited to participate in a program that the B.C. Directors Guild had arranged where five directors were invited in eight days to prep, shoot, and complete a short film. And we had $800.

I ended up with this great little short on mini-DV, and I'm entering it in the film festivals. So I'm actually going to be in Los Angeles in February. And I've applied to Slamdance in Utah, which is up against Sundance, and I've applied to NSI and a number of other festivals. It's a bit of a "calling-card film" that I can potentially use.

PW: Are you thinking of moving more into feature films?

SSC: Um, I want to do longer form pieces like "Dream Storm." It's a different way of directing when you're dealing with a "one of." Granted, "Dream Storm" is out of a series that I'm fortunately very familiar with, so there's an ease there; you have a whole backstory of six seasons of information. But doing movies has got a completely different compelling quality to it, and I'd like to do more of them. Whether it's features or movies for television doesn't matter to me.

PW: Thank you so much for your time.

SSC: It was a pleasure.

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Text and photos (c) 2001 Patricia F. Winter, except as noted.

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