North of 60 Interview: Tom Cox

As one of the people who has been with "North of 60" from the beginning, producer Tom Cox
has seen the show grow and evolve for a decade. In this interview, he discusses some of the
behind-the-scenes efforts that have brought us 90 fascinating episodes and three dramatic
TV movies so far.

[Note: This interview contains some spoilers for season four, "Borrowed Time," "In the Blue
Ground," and "Dream Storm."]


PW: You've been with the show since the very start, or soon after the very start.

TC: Very start.

PW: Both you and co-producer Doug MacLeod?

TC: Yes, we were approached by Wayne [Grigsby] and Barbara [Samuels] and Alliance when they were looking for a place to do the show.

PW: I believe Mr. Grigsby told me they had already decided that it would be set in the North, but they needed somewhere else to actually shoot it.

TC: Exactly. It made no sense to do it in the North given that there are no support systems [for film production] in place there.

PW: And the filming seasons are a little short up there!

TC: Yeah, short enough here!

PW: So how did it happen that the series got filmed in Bragg Creek?

TC: Well, we scouted out here. They gave us the scripts to read, and we engaged a location manager. We knew we needed a river, or a creek.

PW: How did you focus on the Calgary area to start with?

TC: Just because the geography was similar to the North. Similar enough to pass.

PW: And there was already a film production industry here.

TC: Yeah, it was a well established production center. So we scouted and we found this site and brought them out and brought the network out and agreed that this was the place to do it.

PW: Grigsby and Samuels created the show, but what were your responsibilities from the very beginning?

TC: We were the Alberta co-producers on the shows. We were the producers from the beginning with Wayne and Barb. They ended up going on to other things--"Black Harbour" and a pilot called "Dark Eyes," which was an interesting project.

PW: The producers are basically the business people, right?

TC: In our case, we are the business guys, [but] we are also the creative guys. In some cases, you'll find an executive producer who is only business and a producer who is only creative. Or in some cases you'll find an executive producer who is only creative, and the business is handled by the producer. It varies from show to show.

PW: On this show, toward the final seasons, I believe that Peter Lauterman was the executive producer?

TC: Peter Lauterman was the executive producer and head writer. We shared creative duties with Peter as well as making sure that the finances were in place.

Season themes and character development

PW: So after Wayne and Barbara left, it was basically you, Doug, and Peter--and, of course, all the actors who had grown into the characters so convincingly--who held the "North of 60" stewardship and tried to continue the tone that the creators had set for the show.

TC: And it certainly evolved. Certainly if you look at the arc of the show from the first episode to the ninetieth and then into the movies, it is the same show, but it has evolved substantially--as it must in order to stay fresh and continue to have a life. I don't think it ever stayed in one place too long, while it did remain, I think, true to the characters and the setting.

PW: Were there any particular times when the three of you got together and said, "Let's take it this direction"?

TC: Well, every year at the beginning of the year we'd sit down and say, "What do we want to deal with this year? What's the focus for the year?" before even looking at how the characters would evolve for the year.

PW: So you had a theme each year?

TC: Yeah. One year it was the road, one year it was the Wood-Mizer. Each year we looked at another sort of evolving reality in the North and tried to incorporate it into our stories. And then try to look at how our characters would react to a road being built into Lynx River, or the advent of some industry. That season arc would then inform the individual character arcs.

PW: What do you recall about why the creative team decided to write Hannah Kenidi out of the show?

TC: I think we wanted to provide a particular challenge for Michelle. We wanted to see an evolution in that character, and dealing with a profound loss was a way to explore a different side of the character.

PW: Tina Keeper said she thought that was a turning point for Michelle loosening up. Michelle had been so rigid up till then.

TC: It did have an effect on the character development. And it was about the same time that Wayne and Barbara shifted their focus away [from "North of 60"], and I think all of the characters loosened up a bit at that point. Wayne and Barbara had a wonderful and sometimes rigid sense of the characters of the show. They were very, very true to the initial concept of who those characters were. It is certainly necessary as a show evolves--and when you bring in new writers and new showrunners (at about that point Peter became the sort of principal showrunner)--that there has to be that kind of evolution to keep it fresh. So I think we all wanted to see it loosen up a bit.

PW: It's a delicate balance, though. You still want it to feel like "North of 60."

TC: Absolutely. It is a delicate balance. And every year, and certainly each movie, we have undergone a pretty intense internal scrutiny of the material and the direction to ensure that we don't wander off track too far.

PW: Was it planned from the beginning or did it evolve later to have that long arc about Teevee's maturation from punk to chief? Personally, I think that's one of the most wonderful things to watch in this series.

TC: Well, first of all, we had no idea that there would even be more than one season of the show! [laughs] The evolution of Teevee's character was...

PW: The least of your worries! [laughs]

TC: Yeah. Not in the forefront of our minds! Basically, if you look at the evolution of the characters, it mirrors the evolution of the actors. If an actor responds well to the material, the writers want to write for them and the audience wants to see them, so we bring them in closer to the center of the show. Dakota House was an extremely talented young guy. He had his own troubles, and that made it challenging. At some points, we were ready to give up. We said, "Jesus, we can't do this any more. We're jeopardizing the show. We're carrying this guy."

PW: Because of his off-set troubles.

TC: Yeah, it was a problem. But at the same time, he was a real professional on set. He was one of the real pros at a very young age, far, far beyond his years. So we kept writing for him, and he kept growing as a character--and as an actor and as a person. To the point where now he's a very respected member of his community. He teaches and writes and directs and produces theater. It's paid off--for us, for him, for the show--in spades.

PW: He was obviously bringing in a young audience for the show.

TC: Sure, he did bring in the young audience. But he also connected with parents. The letters that we got were not from kids. They were from adults saying, "That little shit!" Sometimes it was about Teevee. Sometimes it was about Dakota, whenever he was in the newspapers. But everyone sort of responded to that character. Either they had a kid who was like him, or they were like him, or they had been like him, or something. So he really struck a chord. And as I say, he was a fine performer and a real pro in the process. So we kept writing more and more for him. That's how the evolution occurs.

PW: But at some point was there a conscious decision to finally let Teevee get his act together?

TC: Oh, absolutely. Again, when you look at the season arcs, you have to continue to push that evolution a little bit. It was tempting to continue to write him as the punk, as the young rebel with the leather jacket. Every year we debated, "Where does he go this year? How far can he go? What's realistic? He can't stay in the same place, so therefore where does he go?" So there's always that, there's always a wonderful dialog--and sometimes argument--that occurs around the characters and where they'll go, and how quickly they'll go there.

PW: For what it's worth, I think Teevee's evolution was handled very realistically. He'd take one step forward, two steps back, sometimes two steps forward and one step back. Every time he fell back again, you'd sigh and think, "Oh, he was so close, and he threw it all away."

TC: Screwed up again! But there was always something under that that kept building. And again, that was true of the actor.

PW: I think that made the campfire scene in "Borrowed Time" so powerful for anyone who had seen all six seasons. They knew exactly how far Teevee had come.

From series to movies

PW: Speaking of "Borrowed Time," when you made that final episode, did you anticipate that there might be some movies afterwards?

TC: No. It was canceled. It was over. At least in the network's mind.

PW: So as far as you knew, that was it.

TC: As far as we knew, that was it. But we were so aware of the audience. We were the ones getting feedback from the audience primarily, and we knew how strong it was and how passionate the audience was. As much at the end as at the beginning. More so. So we could not accept that that was the end. It just made no sense. We hadn't run out of stories. The characters had lots of life. And the audience was clamoring for it.

So first we went back to the network and said, "Are you sure there can't be another season?" [They said] "Yes, for all sorts of reasons"--including the evolution of the creative team at CBC, and the way Canadian financing and bureaucracy works, all of that stuff. But we thought, "How can we continue telling stories for the audience?" We didn't think movies [plural]. We thought a movie. It seemed like a logical way to go if it was able to tap into a different kind of financing. And CBC came around and saw the value in it. [The show] had built an audience. It would have been silly not to.

PW: Obviously you're dealing with a different beast when you do a TV movie instead of an episode of an ongoing series. It has to be self-contained. And I gather that there's also some pressure to attract viewers who maybe didn't watch the series.

TC: To a degree there has been a desire to reach a broader audience, for a number of reasons. Movies are not easy to finance. There's a requirement to begin to pay back investors. So we have to start looking not only at how are we reaching our faithful audience in Canada, but can these sell around the world. We're very, very mindful of the international market for the movies.

What we realized when we sat down and examined the series, and what from the series could transfer to the movies, part of the series was a wonderful and complex soap opera. One of its cores was that soap opera aspect--the personal relationships, the evolution of those relationships. And that, we felt, kept our loyal audience coming back, and was certainly enough to carry the series. But when we looked at how the series could translate into movies, it's much more difficult to maintain that aspect than it is to maintain the other core, which was, this is a cop show. Who's the main character? She's a cop.

PW: It's harder to explore the relationship storylines in a movie because you only have those two hours?

TC: Exactly. You only have that two hours ever. Or you may only have that two hours once a year. Who knows. So we had to focus on the aspect that translated into long form most easily. While hopefully maintaining the reality of the characters. But it's much more difficult when you're doing a long form. In a series, you can have A, B, C--and sometimes we got suicidal and had D--storylines in an episode and bounce back and forth. You can't do that in a movie. It doesn't work dramatically. You have to wind it up and let it go, and it has to run on one track. You can't go from Sarah's relationship to Michelle's relationship to a cop thriller in one story.

PW: Whose idea was it to bring Brian Fletcher back from the bush in "In the Blue Ground"? When he disappeared in the first place, had there been some thought that he was still alive and might come back sometime?

TC: No. We thought he was gone. We thought he's walked in the woods and died. Committed suicide, starved, whatever. But then when we started examining it...had we continued with the series, even, instead of going to movies, I suspect that we would have re-opened that chapter. Again, such a layered and rich character, and such a good actor. And such response from the audience.

PW: And such a perfect way to accomplish both goals: give the regular viewers those delectable scenes between Brian and Sarah, Brian and Michelle, Brian and James, but also provide first-time viewers with a tense murder and kidnapping drama.

TC: And real closure.

PW: Yeah. Although...we're now seeing that death is not an obstacle to returning to Lynx River! [laughs]

TC: That's true!

"Dream Storm"

PW: I was delighted to see in the original press release for "Dream Storm" that Gordon Tootoosis was coming back. Who doesn't love to see Albert? He's such a wonderful character. Although we never actually saw him after Joe supposedly shot him, in your mind, was Albert dead?

TC: He was dead. The audience kept telling us he wasn't, that they hadn't seen him die. A lot of people said that.

PW: So how did it happen that you decided to bring him back?

TC: Well, again, we wanted to tell a story about a certain spiritual side of Dene culture in a way that we had dipped our toes in before, but never dived into. And the way that that culture deals with death and the living, with dream and waking, and the fact that there is no hard border between those in the way that European cultures have devised. We've put up very, very concrete walls between dream and waking states and between death and living. And the Dene just don't; the wall just doesn't exist.

So we wanted to explore that, and once we began that exploration, we wanted to deal with someone that had passed on. And who better? Again, because of the audience's desire to see that character again, and because of our own fondness for the character and the actor. It just made perfect sense to have him be sort of a voice from beyond that attempts to guide in some way.

PW: Yes, I understand that Albert comes back and actually tries to do some good.

TC: Yeah, and it was a subject of great debate, because here is this character who has personified evil--in a very interesting and complex way--but he's been our bad guy for years and years and years. And we thought, how do we do this in such a way that remains true to that? It was actually in talking to Tina that we finally came to realize how. She said, "Well, just 'cuz he was bad when he was alive, when you die, you learn more. So why would he be the same?"

He would be Albert in that he would never answer a question directly; he would turn everything around. Michelle asks him a question and he just spins it around and forces her to ask it of herself. That's pure Albert. But he would no longer have that earthly agenda. So that's when we really twigged onto how to use that character--what in Dene and other Native cultures are called the "grandfathers." They're not mortal any more. They are free of some of that baggage. So's Albert.

PW: From that and a few other things I've picked up about the movie, it just sounds fascinating.

TC: Yeah, we hope so. It's we think our riskiest one.

PW: It's a little "out there"?

TC: It's a little out there. But hopefully again, true to the culture, true to the place, true to the characters.

PW: And you've got one of your most experiences writers, Andrew Wreggitt, on it.

TC: Absolutely. And story editor Peter Lauterman. And they are a wonderful team. They sort of raise the bar for each other. It's great.

PW: I'm looking for to it! Thank you very much for your time.

TC: Very glad you could come.

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(c) 2002 Patricia F. Winter

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