North of 60 Interview: Tom Cox

Tom Cox is a partner in Alberta Filmworks, the company that produces
"North of 60." In this followup to my interview with him in October, 2000,
he answers some frequently asked questions about the show and
talks about the new AF series "Tom Stone."

Gone missing

PW: There have been some characters on the show who simply disappeared with no explanation. One that comes to mind is Willy Tsa Che. Do you have any recollection of why he was written out?

TC: Oh, basically the character had just run its course, and there were other characters that were demanding more attention. Sometimes a character runs its course, and that was certainly one of those.

PW: You don't even think it's worth it keeping those characters in the background?

TC: Oh yeah, occasionally. But then it becomes a matter of do you have extremely highly paid extras who aren't really doing much.

PW: Another was Teevee's sister, Marie Tenia. Any idea what happened to her?

(Click on photo for larger image.)

TC: [laughs] Yes, yeah. I think Marie went off to school. Again, this was somewhat a practical issue. The actor was from southern Alberta, and it was a bit of a schlep for her every time she came in, and we found we were gravitating more and more toward Teevee, and as the stories evolved, they simply didn't include Marie. So then we were faced with, well, do we sort of artificially put her in the stories, or just accept this and move on. And there didn't seem to be any particular reason to inject her into the stories.

PW: So is it a matter of if you get too many characters, it starts becoming unmanageable?

TC: Yeah. It's always an ensemble cast, and what you find is certain characters light up the screen and you want to concentrate on them, and the writers want to write for them. So you naturally gravitate toward them, the stories gravitate toward them, and some of the other characters in the ensemble fade away as a result. It's just a natural evolution of an ensemble cast. Actors like Dakota grabbed the screen.

PW: The other missing people I recall are Peter and Ellen's daughters. We hear reference to them in the first episode, and then in that episode or soon thereafter, we see Ellen kissing them goodbye in front of the school, and then...

TC: Yeah, and unfortunately, this was simply a matter of practicality. To have a number of kids in the show was difficult just in terms of one is fussy, one is ill, one is sleeping...How do you ensure they can be present when they're needed? It becomes a logistical challenge. And again, there wasn't enough mileage in the characters or the relationships to warrant it. Peter's character was far more in the political arena than it was in a home environment.

PW: Which got him in trouble!

TC: Which got him in trouble. [laughs] But again, it meant that there wasn't really room or a reason to include the kids. It just became easier not to.

PW: Okay, but why wasn't there even a line about, "Oh, Willy moved to such-and-such place" or "Marie's gone off to school"?

TC: Yeah, that's always a debate. There is an argument that says, let's provide the audience with a clue as to where they went. Let's let the audience know that we're thinking about them. The other side of that argument is, do we note their absence more by mentioning them than if we simply let them slip away. So again, when they're minor characters, we simply let them slip away without referencing them in order not to draw attention to their absence. And we are also always mindful of new people coming to the show, and if you have references to characters who aren't there, that a new audience has never seen, then it's confusing rather than beneficial.

PW: Yeah, I can see that. But there I've seen a number of comments from people just saying they wish there had been some mention of what happened to those characters, instead of them just disappearing off the face of the earth.

TC: Yeah, and these issues were always discussed. No one ever slipped away without us knowing they went!

PW: So it was a conscious decision that it would be more of a distraction to mention where they went.

TC: That was the feeling.

PW: It's just particularly funny because the same thing happened with "Black Harbour," where one of the main couple's two kids disappeared. So there's been some talk among "North of 60" and "Black Harbour" fans there have been a lot of kids disappearing from Wayne Grigsby/Barbara Samuels shows...

TC: [laughs] There are several theories about the disappearance of kids from their series... [all laugh]

The future of "North of 60"

PW: Well, a couple more fast "North of 60" questions, if you would, and then I'd like to talk a bit about "Tom Stone" and your other projects. This site is, I believe, leased from the government?

TC: Yes.

PW: And does that lease still have quite a bit of time left on it?

TC: It's renewable every five years, and as long as it's in productive use, then the renewal of the lease is no problem.

PW: And Jordy Randall was saying that the fifth movie is already being written in hopes that you'll get funding for it. Is that Andrew Wreggitt writing again?

TC: It's actually Peter Lauterman writing, with Andrew story editing. We've submitted an outline and CBC has asked that we develop it.

PW: So they've given their preliminary okay to the basic storyline, and asked you to come up with a script?

TC: Exactly.

PW: And I think Jordy said that because of the funding cycle in Canadian television, you won't know for about another year yet about whether you'll get the money you need to do a fifth movie?

TC: That's right. About this time next year we'll know if it's financed and we can do it that summer, the summer of 2003.

PW: So Peter will go ahead and develop the script and have it ready, and then you'll see what happens?

TC: Yes.

PW: Do you have to submit the full script to the funding agency?

TC: Oh, yes. The funding agencies don't make comments in terms of the creative aspects of the script. They do rate it in terms of...there's a point system that has to do with the relevance of the theme to a Canadian audience, whether it's dealing with a Canadian issue, whether it's set in Canada, whether it has Canadian cast and crew. All of those things are looked at, but they don't critique it from a creative point of view.

PW: Those criteria must be ones that "North of 60," of all shows, would have no problems meeting!

TC: [laughs] We're kind of the poster child of the Canadian funding agencies, yeah!

Tom Stone

PW: I'd like to talk for a few minutes about "Tom Stone." I know that Alberta Filmworks has been doing some TV movies, but isn't this the first series you folks have done since "North of 60"?

TC: Yes. Yeah, we've done several TV movies: "After the Harvest," "The Sheldon Kennedy Story," a feature film called "Bad Faith"...those are the ones that spring to mind immediately. But yeah, this is the first series. It was during the production of "North of 60," as it was sort of coming to a close, that we realized what a wonderful economic engine [it was] not only for a company, but for a community, and a training ground. Then we were determined to get another one off the ground.

PW: In the Calgary area.

TC: Yeah, in Calgary. We all liked sleeping in our own beds at night! And we actually wanted to show Calgary as Calgary this time. You know, I've been working here for 20 years, and we've shown it as everything from 14th century Japan to Mars to Illinois to you name it.

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: And we're sitting here on the steps of the Lynx River RCMP detachment looking at a truck that has Northwest Territories license plates.

TC: Exactly. And the Northwest Territories. So it's been our goal for a while to show off Calgary as Calgary. This series allows us to do that.

PW: Once you had that goal, how did "Tom Stone" come about?

TC: My partner at Alberta Filmworks, Doug Macleod, and I sat down with Andrew Wreggitt and Jordy Randall and came up with a notion. Andrew went away and developed it into a series concept, a bible. We pitched it to the network [CBC] and they loved it and off we went.

PW: I know that it hasn't been on very long yet, but how is it doing?

TC: It started airing in late February.

PW: Just after the Olympics, right?

TC: Yeah, just after the Olympics. We were fortunate enough to be able to promote it during the Olympics. And it's done very well. It's certainly a critical success, the audience is there, the network loves it.

PW: Where are you in "Tom Stone" right now? Have you finished filming and gone into post production on the remaining episodes.

TC: Yeah, we finished the end of January, and we're almost finished post, a few lingering episodes' music being done and sound editing going on.

PW: Those last few episodes, I believe, are ones that will actually air in the fall?

TC: That will air in the fall as part of season two.

PW: When do you start filming the new episodes for season two?

TC: July 25th.

North of 60, Tom Stone, and Stuart Margolin

PW: Obviously there are lot of links between "North of 60" and "Tom Stone," starting with the people who created it, but one that jumped out at me was that the same person directed the pilot episodes of both series. Did you and Doug know Stuart Margolin before the first "North of 60" episode? And how did he get brought back to direct the pilot for "Tom Stone"?

TC: Yes, we did. Stuart directed one of the Ray Bradburys for us [an episode of the "Ray Bradbury Theater" series], that's how I...No, I shouldn't say, that's not how I met him. That's when I first worked with him as a director. I was involved in an Anne Wheeler picture called "Bye Bye Blues" that he was a cast member in and got to know him then.

When we put the Ray Bradbury season together--I guess it was 1991--he came up and directed one of them for us. Did a beautiful job. And we suggested him to Wayne and Barbara when we were getting the "North of 60" series off the ground. They watched his stuff, liked him very much, he came in and did the first episode. He did several, actually.

PW: Directing the first episode of a new series must be quite a responsibility.

TC: It is. You want to have a veteran. You want to have someone who can convey the characters' emotions to actors. And Stuart, of course, being a veteran actor, brings a lot to that. We had a relatively untested cast, some new people, and we definitely wanted them to be in the hands of someone that would understand them and be able to shepherd them. As an added benefit on "Tom Stone," not only is he a wonderful mentor, and a great, great director, but he's in the show.

PW: Yes, I hear he's playing a rascal again!

TC: Yes, absolutely.

PW: He was never on screen in "North of 60," though. Was there ever any discussion about that?

TC: Umm, no. It would have had want to make really good use of him if you use him. It would have been in the capacity of a guest role, and it might have been fun, but he's awfully busy as well. No, it was never really considered.

PW: With "Tom Stone," did you cast him first as an actor, and then decided to have him direct the first episode, or what?

TC: We knew we wanted him to do both. We knew from the instant the character [of Jack Welsh] was created that it was meant for him.

PW: So it wasn't originally written for him, but when the character was created, everyone said, "Aha--Stuart Margolin!"

TC: Yeah. I don't know, maybe Andrew when he created that character subliminally had Stuart in his mind. But it didn't take long for everyone who read it to picture Stuart in the role. And of course he took it further than we ever imagined it could go. But we also knew from the very beginning that we wanted him to direct. And he'll continue to be one of our anchor directors.

Upcoming projects

PW: Are any other Alberta Filmworks projects far enough along that you can talk about them?

TC: A number of things in development. There's a co-production with Tapestry Films in Ontario called "Burn." That'll shoot in the fall. "Crazy Canucks," which is about the very famous Canadian ski team, again in development, that one for CTV.

PW: Those are both TV movies, right?

TC: Exactly.

PW: How about feature films or series?

TC: Nothing far enough along to really talk about. There are other things, but at very early, conceptual stages.

PW: Well, Tom, I think that'll do it, unless you have anything else you'd like to say to the folks out there.

TC: We're happy to have folks out there! [laughs]

PW: If there's anything you'd like to say directly to "North of 60" fans, I can put a little sound file up.

TC: Well, in the end, it's all about them. We're happy that they remain faithful. We're delighted. And we'll try to keep telling stories as long as they'll keep watching.

[ Click here to hear that excerpt. ]

PW: Sounds great! Thank you, Tom.

TC: Thank you.

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Text and photos (c) 2002 Patricia F. Winter.

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