“Fav Writer” – An Interview with Screenwriter Derek Thompson

Often called #FavWriter on Twitter by devoted Heartie Donna Cohen – a title he definitely deserves – Derek Thompson has brought some fabulous storylines and complex character development to four seasons of When Calls the Heart. As Season 5 came to a close, Derek graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts about the 4 seasons he has been contributing to When Calls the Heart Team and what he hopes Season 6 will bring.

ATG: Since 2013, you have been working pretty steadily. With credits of writer’s assistant, writer, script coordinator, co-executive producer, supervising producer, story editor, and consulting producer to your name for various series and projects, which title do you currently hold for season 6 of When Calls the Heart? What does your role require of you?

Derek: I’m a writer/co-executive producer… which means I’m part of a team that comes up with stories, communicates with our production team, and writes scripts.  

ATG: As a writer for the show, have you had the opportunity to be on set during filming? How often do the writers find the need to rewrite a scene or adjust the dialogue or storyline?

Derek: I was the writer on set for Seasons 3 and 4.  It was a lot of fun, but also hard work. Writers often work in a bubble, away from production.  But when we’re on set, we become the face of the story department. That tends to come with a lot of questions, meetings, and, as you’ve mentioned, rewrites.  On-set rewrites are a fun challenge but because time is tight, we become on-the-spot problem fixers.  If it’s pouring rain and the scene has to move inside, we have to rewrite the dialogue to make sense.  Or if an actor or director disagrees with the ending of a scene, we try to reach a compromise. It’s a really fun challenge.   

ATG: Now, if I remember correctly, you started on When Calls the Heart in season 2. How did you discover the show? What made you want to write for it?

Derek: I had been working on Cedar Cove (another Hallmark series).  I think that’s how my name was passed along. I’d heard of WCTH but hadn’t seen it at that time.  I enjoyed watching the entire first season without knowing much about the characters or the plot. I instantly understood the appeal and why it was so popular.  

ATG: So you have been involved from very early in the series. Of the past seasons, which storylines have been your favorites?

Derek: It’s hard to pick favorite storylines.  But I think the homestead story stands out (the one where Elizabeth looks after the kids on the farm).  It was my first episode and it seemed to resonate with the fans. It’s hard to disagree with the Hearties.  

ATG: It’s true. The Homestead episode is a fan favorite. It’s also one of my go-to episodes to rewatch. Within Season 5, you had quite a few credits to your name. Which episode(s) from this past season are your favorites?

Derek: My favorite episode of the season (and the series) is the Season 5 finale. I know it was a painful episode for our fans (it was for us, too).  But it was raw and beautiful — and Erin’s performance was perfect.

ATG: Now that you’ve mentioned the finale….Fans were understandably shocked by Daniel Lissing’s departure. What was your initial reaction to having to deal with Jack’s story coming to an end?

Derek: It’s always hard to lose a cast member who is so important to the show.  WCTH is one big family… so it was sad to see Dan go. But the other writers and I completely understood his reasons for leaving and we wish him nothing but good things.  

ATG: With Dan’s departure in mind, how did you approach Season 5 as a writer and storyteller differently than in previous seasons?

Derek: It wasn’t easy.  We knew it would be delicate and no matter how we handled it, there would be mixed reactions.  Our main concern was that it was done respectfully. Despite the darkness of the funeral and grieving… we wanted to exit the season on a positive note.  I think we found a way to give the fans hope for the upcoming season.

ATG: I can imagine that writing the story of Jack’s death and the subsequent emotional fallout for the town was difficult. Is there a real life situation that you used for inspiration to help create the realism that came across to the audience?

Derek: Since this episode was so important, all of the writers had a hand in the writing.  We wanted to make sure every scene was honest and real. I think we all used losses in our own lives as inspiration.

ATG: Even my two young sons reacted with tears and heartbreak at the loss of Jack. As you wrote these two episodes, what emotions did you find rising to the surface?

Derek: It was very sad.  I felt like I lost a friend.  But by the end of the episode, I felt hopeful.  

ATG: I thought it was interesting that Opal became the focus for the child’s storyline. I had imagined that Cody would have been the child most affected by Jack’s death. What were the motivations behind using Opal’s character as the “kid storyline” instead of Cody (who seems to have looked to Jack as a father figure)? Did it all come down to continuity from episode 9?

Derek: That’s a really good question (and the writers went back and forth on this one).  We felt that Cody was old enough (and had experienced enough loss) to process Jack’s loss more than a younger child, like Opal.  Her grief naturally drew in Elizabeth and, in a way, they healed together.

ATG: That does make sense. Cody dealt with the loss of parents in earlier episodes. He is no stranger to grief. While Brian, Lori, and Erin did touch on this, I am sure Hearties are still wondering what other storylines you considered for accomplishing Jack’s departure. Can you elaborate on that at all?

Derek: This wasn’t a fun process, but we had to figure out a way that worked (logically) but was respectful to everyone involved (especially the fans).  As Brian/Lori/Erin mentioned, there was discussion about having him leave, duty-bound. But we didn’t think we’d earned that. He would never leave her — or she would go with him.  A break-up seemed cruel. A disappearance, even more cruel. Sadly, Jack’s death was the only way to move on from the loss and allow Elizabeth to move on with her life (as we all have to do when we lose someone).  

ATG: From the reactions on social media, I would say that fans certainly experienced quite a range of emotions with the season finale. Throughout the season, in fact, the episodes varied greatly in the amount of depth and emotion to the storylines. These last two episodes went much deeper and followed the inner turmoil of most of the show’s integral characters. Why do you think that is?

Derek: Not since the first season had this show delved into loss like we did in the final two episodes of Season 5.  We wanted to do it right and allow the fans to follow Elizabeth as she grieved. That makes for a very heavy episode (a departure from the norm on this show).  This isn’t the new direction of the show by any means… but it was appropriate in the context of Season 5.

ATG: That being said, the story moved quickly from Jack and Elizabeth’s longed-for wedding to the devastating loss. What were the deciding factors that led to orchestrating the wedding in mid-season and the death at the end of the season? Was moving the wedding earlier in the season a possibility in order to give the newlyweds more time as a married couple?

Derek: The fans deserved a wedding.  I agree, an earlier wedding would have given Elizabeth/Jack more time to enjoy life as newlyweds… but unfortunately, there were factors beyond our control that limited our options.   But we’re very happy how it turned out. It was a special moment.

ATG: As with many shows, fans like to analyze every aspect of the show. The end of episode 9 left many fans feeling that Jack could still return – that he wasn’t dead. They attributed their hopes to the title “In My Dreams” and the fact that the visiting mountie never actually spoke the words. Was the ambiguity intentional?

Derek: I don’t think there was any intention to mislead the audience.  We wanted to give the fans a chance to prepare for what was coming in the finale.

ATG: Despite the tears I shed during the Season 5 ending and the shattering of some of those “dreams” I had for Jack and Elizabeth, I am still intrigued and excited to see what’s next. Storytelling is an artform, and no work of art pleases everyone. How do you handle the “difference of opinions” fans voice about an episode or story arc?

Derek: I respect all opinions about the end of Season 5.  As you’ve said, it’s art and no one will or should completely agree.  Some of the feedback has been negative, but most has been overwhelmingly positive.  We met a difficult situation and we did our best to move past it. I think the fans will see that WCTH is just as entertaining and comforting as it has ever been (hopefully, more so).  

ATG: As everyone moves from Season 5 into anticipation for Season 6, how will you incorporate more of the grieving process for Elizabeth and the others, even in small ways, to acknowledge Jack’s legacy in Hope Valley?

Derek: I don’t think Jack will ever be forgotten.  He can’t be. But we also don’t want to dwell on the past.  Instead, Elizabeth and others will find their own ways of remembering Jack, fondly, as life continues in Hope Valley.  

ATG: “Remembering Jack” sounds like a great episode title, don’t you think? But with season 6 filming already underway, I’m sure you are past developing titles. What do you hope to create for the fans this season? Brian and Lori have mentioned a sort of “rebirth” for Elizabeth and the rest of the town. How do you see that coming to fruition?

Derek: Rebirth is a great way to describe it.  Jack won’t be forgotten, but life will go on.  Change is a constant in a small frontier town… and there’ll be plenty of change (good change) in Hope Valley.  Opportunities/challenges. New characters maybe? I’m very excited about what we have in store for the fans.

ATG: Other than her romance with Jack Thornton, Elizabeth’s role as a teacher in this frontier town is a centerpoint of the story. What are some possible storylines that you would like to explore for the kids in future episodes?

Derek: Without giving anything away, I think the children will be even more important and central to Elizabeth this season.  As we teased at the end of the finale, BIG changes are coming for Elizabeth, but her students will always be a high priority in her life.  We try to choose stories for the kids that somehow reflect or compliment what the adults are going through.

ATG: I can imagine that establishing continuity within those storylines is a challenge. Before the advent of Netflix and Amazon streaming services, viewers weren’t really able to “binge-watch” a show. How does the streaming avenue for viewers to watch the WCTH impact how you approach the story? With fans able to rewatch episode after episode, what challenges does this present that weren’t present when the audience had to wait for “reruns?”

Derek: I think it has advantages and drawbacks.  The ability to binge watch tends to bring new viewers to the show.  People who missed the first few seasons can watch them quickly and catch up.  But this means we have to be very diligent with the storytelling. When fans watch episodes back to back, they can more easily find plot holes or logic gaps.  It was easier to get away with little mistakes when episodes were only aired one week apart with no recording.

I personally like binge-watching.  It helps the fan become immersed in the world.

ATG: I love to binge-watch, too. In fact, I binged the first two seasons of WCTH in about two weeks. I think I was so immersed that I didn’t notice many gaps.

As a writer, how often do you refer to previous scripts and seasons to ensure continuity in a storyline or overall seasonal story arc? What are some aspects of television production that hinder a writer’s ability to create cohesion from one season to another?

Derek: We’re constantly going back and looking at episodes or reading scripts to make sure our continuity is accurate.  The writers, directors, editors, etc. do everything we can to make sure the story tracks. I think our show is really good at catching mistakes that sneak through, but it’s a long road from script to final product and scenes are dropped, dialogue changes, or stories are tweaked… and occasionally, our dedicated fans will notice that something doesn’t add up.  It happens on all shows – even blockbuster movies. As a fan, I like finding them. It makes me feel sneaky.

ATG: Filming began in July for the new season, and plans for HFR4 are in full swing, as well. Will you be attending this year? Perhaps leading a tour group?

Derek: I would love to!  I promise I won’t lose people on my tours like I did last time.  

ATG: I’m sure you are aware of the When Hope Calls spin-off. Are you involved in the story development? If so, what can you add to “tease” Hearties and help them anticipate the new series even more?

Derek: We’re all very excited about the spin-off series.  And yes, I’ve been involved in the early stages of development.  I think the Hearties will love this new series. The spinoff will deliver the same kind of heartwarming stories that WCTH delivers, week after week (and we’re hoping the two series will cross over from time to time).  We’re in the very early stages, so I won’t say much more… but it’s a fun world with loveable characters.

ATG: Other than When Calls the Heart, what other projects are you currently developing? How can Hearties support you?

Derek: The Hearties are amazing and do more than I deserve.  They support us every time they watch.

Other than WCTH, I’m working on a few Hallmark projects (MOW’s) and developing a series of my own.  It’s something completely different, but something I’m excited about. I can’t say much about it, just yet… but hopefully soon.

Hearties, we have many exciting stories coming our way from this talented writer, starting with Season 6 of When Calls the Heart. Continue to tune in starting with the When Calls the Heart Christmas special in December. To find out what Derek is up to and to stay “in the know” on his current and upcoming projects, you can follow him on Twitter at @derekw_thompson.

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