North of 60 Interview: Wayne Grigsby

Without him, there would be no "North of 60." Along with Barbara Samuels, Wayne Grigsby
created the town, the characters, and the stories we have grown to love. Although he has
almost no contact with the show these days, he happened to visit the set of "Dream Storm"
while I was there in October, 2000. Here are his thoughts about "North of 60" and some of
his other productions.

Nova Scotia and "Blessed Stranger"

PW: After "North of 60" had a few seasons under its belt, you and Barbara Samuels went to Nova Scotia to produce the series "Black Harbour." Was that a big change from working in Alberta?

WG: There's a lot of similarities between Alberta and Nova Scotia in the film industry sense. There are really good film craftpeople, and they're not so overwhelmed with runaway American production that they get jaded. What I find happens in places like Toronto and Vancouver--and to a lesser extent, in Montreal--is they work too long and too hard on projects that they don't respect. So crewing becomes a 9-to-5 job--well actually, a 9-to-9 job [laughs]. The enthusiasm for it, the sense of joy and wonder, tends to fade a little. Whereas in Nova Scotia and Alberta, you've still got that "Wow! This is fun. This is great."

PW: During the time you were in Nova Scotia, Swissair Flight 111 crashed right into the area where the "Black Harbour" was filmed. Was it during the actual production of the show or between seasons?

WG: While we were shooting the last season. It was in September, I think September 2nd [1998].

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: I have some friends who were up there at the time on a bike ride benefiting a charity that Geraint Wyn Davies [star of "Black Harbour" and "Forever Knight"] supports. They were staying in Peggy's Cove or very near it that night and heard booms and sirens, but they had gone to bed and didn't find out what had happened until the next morning.

WG: I didn't realize that they were there. I remember the charity bike ride.

PW: Yes, they were there that night. And in fact, they were supposed to bike through Peggy's Cove the next day, but of course they had to change their route. But you were right there when all of this was happening?

WG: Yep.

PW: And I presume that's what inspired you to do the TV movie "Blessed Stranger"?

WG: Well, what inspired us to do it was CTV called. At the time, I remember all of us saying, "Oh god, somebody will do a tacky TV movie of this." A year and a half later, CTV called and said "What do you think?" In the intervening time, what struck me was, yeah, there is a story to tell here. It's not the conventional movie-of-the-week story. It's more a story about the aftermath of disasters.

Obviously the families of the people on the plane were devastated, scarred, traumatized, pick the word. It was awful. But so were a lot of the people who tried to help. The people who went out in boats saw things no human being ever wants to see. The people who made sandwiches and poured coffee couldn't help to the degree that they wanted to. They wanted to give back and at least feel like they'd accomplished something. A lot of them were really upset that they couldn't.

PW: There was nothing that any human being could have done.

WG: Exactly. So that was the story to tell. And that's what I said to CTV: "This is what the movie is." And they said, "Yeah, that's a more interesting movie. Let's try to do that." I think that's what we did and I think it's pretty good. To me, it was really important to do right by it. If this had been on the table immediate after [the crash], I wouldn't have been interested. It was as it went along and I saw and heard and listened to what happened in the aftermath, it struck me that there was a interesting story that had resonance to it that applies to all of us, because sometime in our lives we're all going to deal with some awful thing happening to us. Hopefully not on the scale of the Swissair plane crash, but someone's going to get killed in a plane crash, someone's going to be taken suddenly, and we all go through some degree of that process. When you're that badly hurt, how do you keep going.

PW: When CTV called to ask whether you'd be interested in doing a movie for them on the subject, did they know you had actually been there at the time?

WG: I suspect they did. I think in the business it was probably fairly widely known that, "Gee, that's right where they shoot 'Black Harbour.'" But I never asked.

The creation of "North of 60"

PW: "Black Harbour" was a very good show, and it looked related to "North of 60." It was very much a character-driven show, a culture-clash show. I assume that was intentional.

WG: Absolutely. Our style leads that way. It was conceived of as a show about people trying to figure out who they are, consciously or unconsciously.

PW: Where they fit into things.

WG: Yeah, "Where am I in the cosmic scheme of things?"

PW: And very much an ensemble show, too.

WG: Yep.

PW: It had a wider set of characters. They were just down the road from Halifax, not as insulated as Lynx River. But still, Black Harbour was a definite community.

WG: Sure. And the big difference was here [in Lynx River], we were still kind of in TV land in the sense that there are police officers who investigate things, there are politicians who politic things, and there's a nurse who gives you medical stories. I think instinctively we got to the point where we accidentally gave ourselves in many ways the perfect structure for an episodic television show. In any given week, you could do a cop show, a political show...

PW: A medical show?

WG: A medical show. If you needed a gurney crashing through the doors, you could do the equivalent here. Somebody is in trouble. So you always had high stakes, which tends to work well in television.

PW: What were your original goals for "North of 60", you and Barbara Samuels? How did the show get thought up?

WG: It was, you know, "What would be an interesting show?" I don't think it's really that complicated. People who create shows just sort of sit there and say, "You know what would be a good show....?" It's like kids!

PW: What was the first thing you thought of? The remote community? The Mountie who comes to that community? The Mountie who lives in that community?

WG: I think pretty much all at the same time. Certainly the north was the idea. Someplace where you could isolate people, where southern society got turned on its head. It's a town that 70 or 80 percent Native and 20 or 30 percent European, which is completely different. It puts the whites in the minority position and the Natives, the Dene, in the majority position. The Europeans come at it with sort of European smugness, and the Dene come at it with Dene insecurities. "How do we re-engineer our lives, having had our traditional lives blown up?" It's tough enough to do it on an individual basis. How do you do it as a culture, as a nation? But also, you need to have a Mountie, you need to have a teacher, you need to have some medical stuff...

PW: And you need an arch villain!

WG: Oh, absolutely! You know, we were sort of two-thirds of the way through the structure of the show, and I just kept thinking, "God, we need a villain. We need a bad guy here. We need somebody across the river." Really, literally. Barbara was a little doubtful, but I said, "We need a dark guy. We need somebody who's a bad guy," 'cuz here, everybody's pretty noble.

PW: She didn't think so?

WG: Well, you know, there's a bunch of sensitivities out there about Natives and alcohol. "You're going to have a bootlegger? Whoa, man, don't go there." I remember to me the huge achievement in the first season was...well, in the first show--I'm speaking in stereotypes here--the "drunken Indian" bangs on the Mountie's door and is a wreck.

PW: Leon Deela.

WG: Yeah. But by the third or fourth show, Rosie is sitting on the couch in bad shape drinking, and for me the great moment was when we got the audience response, it wasn't, "Oh, there's another drunken Indian drinking," it was "Oh god, our Rosie has fallen off the wagon." That to me was the huge achievement. That was what we were going for: can we collectively get past 100, 150 years of stereotyping and begin to explore each other as human beings.

So as a result, when you sit down and say, "We should have a bootlegger," it's like, "Oh, man..." And we talked it over and, it was just "We sort of need to be careful." And I said all he needs to be is a guy who's a veteran of political wars. He's a smart guy. He's a laissez-faire guy, a conservative, he's a right-winger. He's the kinda guy who says, "I don't make people drunk. That's their choice. They can choose not to buy what I offer for sale. And it's not up to you, Michelle, to tell people what they can do and not do."

So it was nice because for me it was kind of a reflection of the debate that was going on in the country at the time. Like to what degree does the nanny state tell you what you can do and what you can't do, and to what degree are we the authors of our own misfortunes. And at what point do you become responsible for yourself and say, "The only person that's going to get me out of this hole that I'm in is me. I may get help from other people, but in the end, I've gotta want to do this."

PW: Which is exactly what Michelle Kenidi has done.

WG: Exactly. She's done it, and has a bit of the zealot--or did in the beginning. Like, "I'm reformed. I've given up smoking. What's wrong with you?" So she had a journey to make. Albert had a journey to make. Sarah had a huge journey to make, because she just didn't get the north at all. Neither did Eric Olssen.

Going north

PW: Was the original focus of the show supposed to be on Eric?

WG: Only in the sense that his were the eyes that you were going to see the town through. The whole idea was, he's the guy that brings us into town.

PW: It wasn't necessarily that originally the storylines were going to focus on him, but then that intent shifted?

WG: No, that shift was always intended. That was definitely intended. We've gotta go into the town with his eyes. He doesn't understand. He doesn't get it. He doesn't see it. As he learns, we learn. That was entirely the intent. And frankly, Tina was very new in the business and we really thought, the best thing we can do for her is to not throw her in the deep end in the first show. Let's get there slowly. She'll watch him. She'll circle him and try to figure out who he is, and whether he's a guy worth working with or a guy that she and the town are going to just ignore until he goes away.

That was the whole arc was to see her watch him, to watch him not understand what the hell is going on--why is she treating me this way? She's not being cop-ish here. And sort of slowly figure out that there's something mysterious going on that he wasn't part of, and be right enough to say, "I think I'd better shut my mouth and listen." And then you can start to get into the town's life. That was always the plan--to come in through Eric Olssen, and then go out into the town and start to explore. We will learn how the town works and what the life is like as Eric learns. And Eric will be big for the first three or four shows, and then he'll become part of the ensemble.

PW: I've seen some comments that that wasn't planned in advance.

WG: I don't know where that perception came from. The plan all the way along was, "We're going to go in, and we are not going to get it, collectively. But bit by bit, we will find out what this town is, how it works, who these people are. We'll get past whatever stereotypes we have about one another and try to explore each other as human beings."

PW: And let Eric see a caribou. [laughs]

WG: [laughs] Yeah! Yeah, that was one of our most fun shows.

PW: And a major milestone for Eric.

WG: Yeah. A lot of it just came out of research from talking to people up north.

PW: Did you spend a lot of time up there?

WG: A lot of time on the phone. I happen to know a woman, she's the sister of a very good friend of mine in Montreal, and she'd been active in Native politics in the north for quite a while. She was married to a guy who lived in Fort Smith. He was the chief, I think, or had been the chief and then not chief, and a band councillor--much the same way Peter Kenidi has been. But he was a guy who was actively involved in politics. So I had the benefit of being able to call her up and say, "Okay, here's what we're thinking about doing. How would this work?" And she'd refer us on to a whole bunch of other people.

And we just made cold calls. We called the Fort Simpson band office and said, "Hi, we're thinking about doing....who should we talk to?" Really stupid stuff, but people sort of took us by the hand and guided us around, made sure we talked to people who were in touch with everything. They were really generous with their time and their information and their stories. And then when we went up, we didn't spend six months or a year observing the north. We did the great sort of southerner scream in, ask a lot of rude questions, and in three days we were out of there. But I'd been a journalist, and done a lot of pieces about the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in the '70s when I was hosting a radio show. So I knew enough to know that I didn't know much. And then with the help of Leslie, and Eleanor Bran, and Nick Sibbeston, and Leo Norwegian, and Bertha Norwegian, and all sorts of other people. You just yak, and you listen in. And in the end, human dynamics are human dynamics. You can change where things are set, but the basic patterns are not dissimilar.

PW: I presume a lot of this took place before the show hit the air, so they couldn't say, "Oh sure, 'North of 60,' we'll be happy to help you."

WG: No, it was just sort of, "Who are these lunatics and what are they talking about?" And for us, both Barbara Samuels and I are Quebecers, it was a lot of the politics of identity that we grew up with. You know, French/English and Dene/European both have some language issues. The grandparents in the north speak Dene, and their grandchildren speak English, and there's no communication. And that's happened in about 20 or 30 years. So that's how quickly cultures get extinguished, because culture needs language, I think. A lot of things I recognized, and so did Barbara. We were not on turf that felt unfamiliar to us.

The show evolves

PW: The two of you were directly involved with "North of 60" for about three seasons, right?

WG: We were both here the first year, she was here the second year, and I would come in for a certain week a month. The third and fourth years, we were really hands on in the sense that at the beginning of the season we would sit down with the writers and argue about what the arcs were. We were still imposing our sense of what the show is right through year four.

In year three, there were some conflicts about that. We would come riding in and say, "No, that's not the show." And [writer/producer] Peter Lauterman would be unhappy. But we had a lot of respect for one another. Peter's got great instincts for the show, and we just sort of all needed to be on the same page.

In year four, they were more independent of us, and by year five, they'd say, "Here's what we're thinking about doing" and we'd say, "Boy, that's great. What's going to happen to this? And what's going to happen to that? Oh, okay, great." And away we went. Whereas in year three, it was, "No, I don't think that's the way you want to go."

PW: So by this point [the filming of "Dream Storm"], you're almost completely out of it?

WG: Completely out of it, in the sense that nobody talked to us about what this one was going to be about--or the last one, either. And that's fine. The thing that sort of kills me every time we come here is, we sort of launched this. I sit here and I think, "This is my baby. Look what it's become." But it's become whatever it is in a weird kind of organic way.

And we should know that, because I remember after year one, there was this dinner...we were exhausted after the first season. The first season of the show was just grueling, because you're trying to figure everything out and you don't know what it is and you're scared to death. Is it going to be successful? Are people going to watch it? Is the network going to kill us? Oh my god, my god, what is show 14?! I don't know! And by the end, you're a basket case. People could pick you up with a damp sponge.

So we're sitting there saying, "Holy shit, if we get a second season, what's it going to be about?" You're completely drained. There isn't a thought left in your head other than eat, sleep, drink. All of a sudden we sat there and said, "Jesus, what's it going to be about? You know what could happen...?" And by the end of dinner, we had a page of notes, and that was the second season.

PW: That was a dinner right at the end of the first season?

WG: Yeah, yeah. It wasn't a social dinner. It was just like, we needed to eat! [laughs] And within a couple of hours, we had a real good sense of what the second season needed to be about. End of the second season, same thing. "What's season three?" "Umm...oh, you know what we could do?" "Ahhhh...." So this is a show that has a life of its own. It's dictated to all of us collectively: Peter, and Hart Hanson, and Andrew [Wreggitt], and all of us. The directors, the actors. It just is. It just does things and generates its own ideas.

PW: It's taken on a life of its own.

WG: Absolutely. And you can't really say that the show belongs to anybody, but it belongs to all of us. I can see bits and pieces where Tina brought this, John brought that, Lubo is this. Tim Webber, god bless him, helped hold the center of the show. And the Dark Prince across the river, he was inspired, it was just perfect. [Gordon Tootoosis] was a guy who I'd wanted to work with since I was in my early twenties and saw him in a piece of theater in Montreal and said, "He's electrifying." So when we were looking around, I wondered, "Is he acting? Is he still around? What's Gordon up to?" And boom! But he didn't want to commit. It was year by year with Gordon.

PW: It's a good thing he kept saying "yes"! Albert Golo was a wonderful character.

WG: Oh, yeah, right from the beginning, we knew that Albert was a guy who'd gone canoeing with Pierre Trudeau. A smart guy. A constitutional lawyer without the degree. He'd know exactly how to play the game in Ottawa. Without having ever been to Ottawa, he'd be there ten minutes and figure it out. He's just one of those guys who can read people, read rooms. Trudeau and he would have ended up in a canoe someplace. The great conceit was always that behind the door of Albert's cabin was the Charter for Human Rights and Freedoms autographed by Pierre Trudeau, "To Albert, your friend, Pierre." [laughs]

PW: And later we found out he had bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, and who knows what else. He was a mystery. Everyone always wonders, "Where did Albert go all those times he was away?"

WG: That was the whole point. He needs to be a mystery, and he needs kind of a timelessness to him. He needs to be connected to the past, present, and future all at the same time. Whether he's conscious of it almost doesn't matter. The fact is he needs to be this cipher, this presence. For me, that was the engine that kept everything going in many ways. There are many engines on the show, but sort of the big central relationship is Michelle and Albert.

PW: Did the staff consult with you about what they should do for the final episode?

WG: Nope, not really. I think we talked about it. I don't remember. At a certain point we handed it over and it became their show. I'll always insist that it's my show, and Barbara will always insist that it's her show. Which it is. There's a big chunk of her and of me. But there's huge chunks of [producers] Peter [Lauterman] and Tom [MacLeod] and Doug [Cox] and everybody else who sat down and said, "What could these characters move through next year?"

PW: One of the things that impressed me about the series is how consistently good it stayed even after you and Barbara left. There've been lots of shows that have suffered the fate that once the creators go off to new projects, the show takes a nosedive. But those guys did a terrific job of keeping the tone of the show and the quality of the show.

WG: Yeah, I give them full credit for it. They really paid attention to what the show needed to be. They learned to listen to the show. And that's hard to do. It sort of runs against your ego.

PW: Not to jump up and say, "Okay, Wayne and Barbara were doing it this way, but I have a terrific idea for going a totally different direction."

WG: There was some of that in the third year, so we had arguments about it. But they were always very positive arguments. It wasn't a struggle for power. It's how do you tell that kind of story. "You're treating these characters like they're southerners. You have to remember that they're northerners." I think one of the best things that happened to Peter Lauterman was when we all went up north. He hadn't been.

PW: How long did you go up for?

WG: For the regular sort of "go up for a week." And it doesn't take long once you get off the plane to say, "Well, of course." There's a quality to the air and people and everything. It becomes much clearer what the show needs to be when you go up there, because you hear the silence.

I remember [writer/story editor] Becky Schechter saying the first season, when we were forever cutting lines out, "How can you write a television show for people who don't talk?" That's the whole point of this show--less. Peter had worked on "E.N.G" and "Katts and Dog," so he had a really good idea of what's a good story and stuff like that. "Lemme at it! I can do this!" "Yeah, you can, absolutely. But it needs to be done in this particular context." It was the only argument we ever had with him, and it was just, "Don't. Less. Less."

And I remember when he went up north he called and he said, "I see the point." You have to go, you have to listen, and you have to hear. And when you do, you've got a better idea of what you need to do with the show. We're still telling television stories. This is not a documentary about Dene life. Dene life is much different than this show. And it's a white interpretation; there's no argument about that. But if you're a good writer, you should hear the difference in characters between town and city, between big silence and no silence. I remember we played a tape for an executive from ABC who was horrified by how quiet the soundtrack was. I said, "These guys know how to mix! You ever been north?" [laughs]

PW: When did you know that "North of 60" was going to be so different? That it was going to bring us into a world that few of us know anything about directly?

WG: We were just about to start shooting. Everybody was in town. Everybody was sort of getting comfortable with the idea that we were really going to do this. And we looked at the bank of the river and there was Willene Tootoosis, and Tina Keeper, and Tom Jackson, against a night like this. And we just looked at each other and said, "This is a different television show, isn't it? You don't see this on television very much. You don't see this landscape, you don't see these people, you don't see these characters. This is maybe going to be more interesting than we thought!"

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

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