As the weekend wound to a close, we had just one more stop to make: the Jamestown set in Langley, BC where When Calls the Heart is filmed….
On Sunday, early in the morning, we wake to clear skies and slightly warmer temperatures. The rain has shifted north and we are blessed with a sunny day to tour the Jamestown Movie Set. Despite the change in weather, I know that boots and a sweater are still necessary. It is, after all, December in Vancouver.
After preparing ourselves to greet the day, we head downstairs for breakfast and ornament exchange. I look over the ornaments, hoping for one that captures my emotions and experiences, one that reveals a theme for this life-changing weekend. I see it! It is not flashy or coated in glitter. It is not even what one would call “Christmas colors.” I choose an ornament in a simple heart shape, colored a creamy light brown and embellished with images of pale green leaves and pink roses. Scrawled across its face is the phrase “Permission to dream big.” For me this weekend is the realization of a dream, and it is the beginning of new dreams. It is the rekindling of old ones, too. For all of us, actors and fans alike, our hopes and dreams have brought us here. I have found my ornament, the one I know is meant for me.
After breakfast, we all gather in lines, preparing for departure to the set. I take notice of how well-orchestrated everything appears. With little fuss, we are on our way. In just forty-five minutes, we will step off our “stagecoaches” and back in time to a place where love conquers all. I breathe in deeply and watch Grouse Mountain flash by, its snow-capped peak a blur to my eyes. Already, the joy overwhelms me and tears form. Who knew this weekend would be such an emotional roller-coaster?
I will be completely honest: when we step off our bus and discover that our assigned tour leaders have changed, I am disappointed. Who wouldn’t want Neal Fearnley or Brian Bird as their tour guides? Surely following one of them around will yield behind-the-scenes gossip and never-before-told anecdotes. However, we have been assigned Eric and Melody. Who are they? Eric is the Lead Set Builder and Melody works in props – specifically all the fine details. As it turns out, these leaders spill more fun behind-the-scenes trivia than I could have imagined.
Melody explains that she is constantly scouting antique stores and thrift shops for period pieces to add to the warehouse. She shares that almost all of the furniture is antique, while some of the smaller details are fake, like eggs and cheese. The objects in the store have been there for 4 years. “Don’t eat it,” she jokes. She also informs us that they bake everything fresh the morning of shooting, for the café and saloon.
As Eric warns, these set buildings are small! The camera angles make them look larger than they are. In fact, when shooting a scene from multiple angles, furniture is moved in and out, according to what angles need to be used. That is one heavy lifting job!
Rooms are only heated when actors are there, so it is essential that I am all bundled up. In order to provide heat and electricity to a “hot set,” (one that is to be used in filming that day) small holes have been cut at the base of walls to feed cables and such. Eric tells us that many of the sets are used multiple times in a season. As a matter of fact, he has plans this week to convert the Train Office into Rosemary’s bedroom by slanting a portion of the ceiling, changing the size of the window, and giving the entire room a fresh coat of paint.
Another interesting fact Eric shares as we look out across main street is that rain gutters on the buildings is not period appropriate, but rain constantly dripping into a shot isn’t helpful, either. To alleviate this frustration, set builders rigged slanted pieces of wood
attached where rain gutters would normally be. These facades can be pulled downward to empty the rainwater.
After this quick introduction to the town, we make our way towards Gowan’s office. This room is just as beautiful in person as it appears on screen. The giant desk is flanked by potted greenery. Two period stained-glass windows allow the sunlight to illuminate the space and warm it, as well. These two windows will most likely be replaced in Season 5, as one has been broken–twice –and needs replacing. While Eric has painstakingly pieced the window back together both times it shattered on the floor, another mishap will render it irreparable.
Other tasty tidbits of movie magic include the fact that Abigail’s cafe does not have a second story- the bedrooms are actually located in a building across the street, the field across from the Row Houses is where “Jack and Elizabeth” first kissed, and in that same location sits a log on which “Jack” and “Elizabeth” carved their initials in the Season 1 finale. Unfortunately for #Hearties everywhere, that scene was cut from the final production. Maybe we can convince Brian Bird to share it on Facebook.
One of the most beloved stops on the tour is also one of the most beloved buildings in the show: the church-schoolhouse. It is breathtaking, to say the least. On this morning, the sun was just peeking out above the trees creates a sort of ethereal glow around the church. It almost seems that we are Hope Valley residents, on our way to Sunday services.
Back on Hope Valley’s main street, our tour group heads into the office of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I see the group squeezing into such a small space that I decide to take my turn a bit later and stroll over to where Taylor, also knows as Daniel’s horse “Sargeant,” is posing for photos. A few onlookers from other tour groups are petting him and snapping photos, so I hover in the background, hoping to get a photo without anyone in it.
“Do you want to ride him?” I hear the handler ask one of the young boys in the group, but the boy just shyly shakes his head “no.” I cannot believe this! Who would say no to riding Taylor? That’s Jack’s horse!
I slip my hand nervously into the air and whisper, “I will,” thinking he will only make this offer to the youngest members of our group and I will be dismissed, but he replies, “Alright. Hop on.”
I slip my #Hearties swag bag from my shoulder and set it against the wooden post of the walkway, praying silently that I will not make a fool of myself as I mount this horse in front of all these people.
I do need a bit of help to heave myself up, but the stable hand doesn’t throw me over the horse and I am able to settle securely in the saddle. I sit there, patting Taylor’s sleek neck, the late morning sun glinting off his silky brown hair, and I think “Oh my goodness! How is this even possible?” You see, in a conversation the previous day I had mentioned to Melanie, the property-owner’s daughter, how fun it would be to ride one of the horses. That isn’t possible, I told her, yet here I am.
Being up on this horse, in the center of the Hope Valley set, is surreal. I wish I had Jack’s hat; the sun is blinding me. I try to get my bearings when I hear the stable hand say to me, “Let’s go for a little walk.”
With all of these Hearties looking at me, all I can think is, “They’re staring! Sit up straight! Don’t slouch.” Deep inside, I know this is a moment I will remember forever, one of those special experiences I share time and again, with anyone who will listen.
At the end of the block, I pull the reigns and Taylor halts at the corner of Yost’s Mercantile. Another #Heartie is snapping away, grabbing some photos for me as I dismount to give someone else a moment to get to know Taylor. I can’t feel the gravel beneath my feet. In fact, everything is hazy and muddled. I walk over to Melanie and whisper I her ear, “I just rode Dan’s horse!”
To bring myself back to reality, or at least calm my nerves somewhat, I ask Melanie for a quick photo. I have come to know her throughout the weekend, as well as from a previous visit. She, like so many other #Hearties, has become a friend. I may only see her once or twice a year, but we both know friendships come from all different places and at all different times.
After posing in front of Mayor Gowen’s early 1900’s car, Melanie leans in and whispers, “The map in the Train Office is supposed to be significant. Let’s go see it!” Well, what #Heartie doesn’t want a sneak peak at an integral piece of Season 4? I jump at the chance to do our own Bill Avery-style sleuthing.
We walk back to the office again and study the map up close. It is interesting, but our quick study doesn’t yield anything mind-blowing. I take a quick shot of the map with my ancient iPhone as two men stroll in. One wears the signature #Heartie lanyard with his name scrawled across the front while the other does not. I introduce myself, and he responds by giving his name as “Mike.” As in Mike Rohl, one of the directors! This whole experience is so fantastic that this new twist caps the tail end of the unbelievable weekend quite nicely.
Having mentioned that his tour group just returned from the cabin in the woods, I explain my disappointment in not seeing it myself.
“Well, if you follow Main Street out and turn left by the white tent, you can take the path…” he begins explaining where to go.
“I hope I won’t hold up my bus. I should probably find my tour group.” I hesitate, not wanting to inconvenience anyone.
“Oh, they won’t leave without you. Come on, I’ll show you.”
I find myself strolling through downtown Hope Valley with Mike Rohl. While I want to be witty and charming, I am suddenly at a loss for words. Naturally a shy person anyways, being in the presence of and having direct access to even more of the show’s A-list brings all of my insecurities to the forefront. The best I can do, I tell myself, is to ask about work and share my love for the one thing I know we have in common: the set.
Apparently, the area around the “cabin in the woods,” is used for most of the horse work that needs to be filmed. The dense covering of pine trees and the easy access to multiple dirt roads make it an ideal location for the detective work of Jack and Bill. The cabin itself has been used in at least three different settings, for different characters. My favorite use of them all is as the cabin in the treasured “Homestead” episode where Jack shares his life’s dreams with Elizabeth as they sit before the fire. I find it fitting that, as I walk to this cabin, I find so many of my own dreams have been realized in these three short days.
One of my favorite questions to ask any person is their favorite part of the job. Mike’s response would probably be mine, too. Setting up the scene to tell the story – taking the script and making it come to life – is the fun and creative aspect he enjoys most.
From Mike, I learn that the process for producing a show, or at least this one, is three main stages: writing and script development, production, and post-production. The Executive Producers are involved in every phase of the process, including fleshing out the season’s storylines. The writers then take those storylines and develop the episodes they have been assigned. Each writer gets just two episodes. When they begin filming, Derek Thompson is the only writer to remain on set and supervise the filming. He is available to make any necessary rewrites. The post-production team adds music, splices scenes together, polishes the audio, and even uses computer graphics to add snow, mountains, and flood waters.
Again, finding myself on uncertain ground, I thank Mike for his time and hurry off to my bus. Everyone is waiting for me, anxious to be back on set and satiate their appetites. Those invigorating strolls through and around Hope Valley have left us all a bit ravenous. Slipping into my seat, I realize that I did not even take time to enjoy the cookies and coffee provided for us at the end of our tour.
Oh, well. Cookies and coffee do not compare to the hopes and dreams fulfilled this weekend. Gazing back out the window, I think about those mountain peaks that burst so unexpectedly from behind the clutter of buildings of downtown Vancouver. Hopes realized are like those mountains. Through the daily grind and the mundane routines, a hope realized breaks through like a glittering snow-capped peak, encouraging me to keep hoping and keep reaching. Slowly, the truth dawns on me. This entire weekend of learning and discovery has been anchored in the reality that “Where #Hearties Gather, Hope Abounds.”
Since that set tour, and the entire Hearties Reunion, I have realized what this show is: an open door. The connections I have made through this show have become lifelong friendships that continue to inspire, motivate, and encourage me to dream bigger than I ever have before.