Known to Hearties and Hallmarkies as Papa Heartie, screenwriter and producer Brian Bird is a powerful force in the realm of faith-and-family-friendly productions. From his work on Step-by-Step and Touched by an Angel in the 1990s to the newest season of When Calls the Heart, Brian has built his career around sharing uplifting stories that resonate with audiences. Amidst this busy season of holiday celebrations, writing, and filming, Brian graciously gives us a peek into his busy world.
ATG: Thank you, Brian, for being so willing to answer a few questions. With all the projects you have in the works, I am honored that you are sharing a bit of your time with me. One of your most recent projects, the first season of When Hope Calls, premiered on Hallmark’s streaming service in 2019. The show included cross-over appearances by Kavan Smith, Pascale Hutton, and Kevin McGarry. What were the motivations behind including these actors and their characters?
Brian: When we began talking with Alfonso Moreno, who is the head writer of When Calls the Heart and would become the creator of When Hope Calls, about the Season 6 Christmas special, we wanted to make sure that Brookfield would feel like a neighboring town to Hope Valley. That’s when Alfonso suggested that we “plant” the premise of Brookfield’s main story line in the WCTH Christmas movie. It was a brilliant way to launch When Hope Calls and from there it was an easy jump to begin crossing some of the characters from one show onto the other. Given Lee and Rosemary’s infertility storyline, we also thought it would be very moving to let them intersect with Grace and Lillian’s orphanage in the first season of the new show.
ATG: Lee and Rosemary have become some fan favorites over these last few seasons, and the first season of When Hope Calls was definitely a hit with Hearties. Are there plans for a second season? If so, which characters from When Calls the Heart might appear?
Brian: Stay tuned for more news…
ATG: I am sure all the Hearties will be tuning in. I know fans were delighted to see Megan Follows, most recognizable in the States for her work on Anne of Green Gables, listed as director for the last episodes. How did that come about?
Brian: Megan has been working in film and TV for most of her life, and following her work as Anne, she developed quite a career behind the camera as a director, as well. When we heard that she might be available to direct a few episodes of When Hope Calls, we jumped at the chance to hire her. I have found that not just anybody can direct a family and values-based show like When Hope Calls and she had the perfect understanding and sensibility for Brookfield because of all her experience.
ATG: I agree. It does take a certain understanding to develop those stories. That same awareness of the nuances of family and values-based shows is one of the reasons When Calls the Heart has been so successful. In fact, they just wrapped up the filming of its 7th season at the end of the year. How involved have you been with the production this season? What role do you continue to play?
Brian: As you can imagine, making a TV show is a 24-7 process and the first few seasons I spent most of my waking life in Vancouver, helping give birth to our show and raising it into a toddler. But after we found our footing and built such a tremendous production team, it was an honor to hand off a lot of the heavy-lifting to some very gifted and talented people who have helped bring our child into adulthood. Now I get to be a proud father from afar – but get to spend more time with my actual family, as well as work on other dream projects. The digital age also makes it possible for me to look in on our child all the time (sort of my own “nanny cam”) to keep close touch and offer child-rearing advice on every episode. It’s the best of both worlds, but I always try to spend some actual time on set a few times each year, because for me, it’s the most magical place in the world.
ATG: I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit the Jamestown Movie set, and it certainly is magical. Something about the atmosphere sets my heart at peace. Now, since we all know you are a fan of “stirring the pot,” would you like to take a shot at doing a little stirring about the upcoming season of When Calls the Heart?
Brian: How’s this: “If a tree falls in the forest… does it make a sound? Does it hurt if it falls on you? Would you remember who you are if it did?”
ATG: Oh, my! That could be a metaphor for so many things, but I am also tempted to take it as a reference to a certain mill-owner. I think you just made Hearties all over the globe even more curious about Season 7. That being said, will a gentleman other than baby Jack edge his way into Elizabeth’s affections?
Brian: If you have seen the Season 7 Christmas movie, you already know the answer to that question. It probably goes without saying that there are some tough choices coming for Elizabeth Thornton… and for Hearties who, for some reason, seem to love to join teams!
ATG: That preview that Hallmark aired at the end of the Christmas movie created quite a ripple in the Heartie pond. Taking a few steps back, in 2003, you and Michael Landon, Jr. joined forces to form the production company Believe Pictures. Through that venture, you’ve brought incredible stories to the screen, including The Shunning and The Last Sin Eater. With the continued popularity of When Calls the Heart, and the recent spin-off, how have you maintained other projects for Believe Pictures?
Brian: Michael and I have many projects we are developing on our own, and a few ideas that we hope to do together, but nothing to announce just yet.
ATG: Awhile back, you shared on Facebook about one of your personal projects: adapting Francine Rivers’ novel Bridge to Haven for the screen. Where are you in that process?
Brian: The script is finished, a director has been hired, and now we are raising money to build the production. If we get it made, it will be my second movie with Francine Rivers. Michael and I made her book, The Last Sin Eater, into a film in 2006.
ATG: Last we spoke, you also mentioned working on a new TV show called Big Sky. Are there any new developments on that front?
Brian: The pilot script and storylines for the first 10 episodes are written. The world is built. We were close to getting the show green-lighted by one network, but then they changed their minds, and now we are shopping for a new home. That’s the way of this business. Every project is impossible when you start, and then you chip away at the impossibility a little every day until one day you are on the set and the director is calling “action” and you suddenly realize it’s possible. That’s what I hope for Big Sky. I created it especially for the Hearties, and I think they will swoon for it like they have done with When Calls the Heart and When Hope Calls. And when we get it going, I plan to invite the first network to our premiere, with a wink and a smile.
ATG: I’ll be praying that the right home comes along at just the right time. Audiences need more of your story-telling, these stories that touch our souls. You do seem to feel a burden to share real stories of faith, redemption, and healing as seen most recently with The Case for Christ and Godspeed. How have stories such as these impacted your own real-life story of faith and redemption?
Brian: I love telling people’s true stories because I always compare my own life-journey to theirs, and the lessons they’ve learned actually teach me a lot about myself. I think that’s also why audiences love to go see true-story movies. I think the audience members put themselves in the shoes of the characters on-screen, wondering how they would survive the life crucibles those characters are going through. They wonder if they could go through those circumstances and what their own lives would be like if they did. That’s when story becomes universally relatable to all of us humans walking this planet.
ATG: With your work in the faith-based market, many fans see you as a leader in the family-friendly entertainment industry while others look to you as an example of living out your personal faith. When you look in the mirror after a long day of writing or working with a project, what do you see?
Brian: A very grateful member of the luckiest man in the world club. God pushed me into the only thing in the world I was any good at, made me stubborn enough not to give up, and gave me a family who believed in me. Without those things I would be wandering around, mumbling to myself.
ATG: I would say that is a lesson to us all: to realize how blessed we are and never give up on pursuing our dreams. In an interview last year, you mentioned writing for Touched by an Angel and how you have “never had another case of writer’s block” since then because you write what the ‘still small voice’ inside you is prompting. What is that still, small voice saying to you these days? Where does God want you headed next?
Brian: Since going through this incredible journey with When Calls the Heart, I have decided I just want to be a “Yes” person. What I mean by that is when I get approached about getting involved in new projects or book adaptations, I have come to a place in my life where I just ask three questions. First, will the project somehow help move people closer to God? Second, does the story or idea light my personal jets? And third, are my particular skills and talents a match for that project? If I can check off all three questions, I just say “Yes.” I’m not sure how or when the project can or will happen, but I just say “Yes” and ask God to figure out all the other pieces. For me, I want to live like that verse in Ecclesiastes 11: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and when you are old, it will return to you.”
ATG: That certainly takes an incredible amount of faith. The past year was filled with ups and downs, some that tested that faith and others that affirmed it. As you reflect, what events stand out as highlights for you?
Brian: After our challenges in Season 6, and we had to take the show off the air and retool two-thirds of the episodes, I wondered if that would be all there was to When Calls the Heart. Would the Hearties come back after all that we had put them through? The highlight for me was that the Hearties not only came back, but they came back with more love and loyalty than ever before. That’s also my prayer for Season 7.
ATG: You have a soft spot for the Hearties for obvious reasons, but you also have a special place in your heart for encouraging others. In a blog post from 2010, you shared that you hope your posts will be a source of encouragement for writers who are “floundering in the middle of this very capricious business,” or that your words might “open some doors for you if you’re standing on the outside with your heart on fire.” When I first met you three years ago, I was in that second group. You provided me much-needed encouragement, as I know you have for many. Where do you find your own encouragement to keep going, to keep creating, even when it seems that doors have closed?
Brian: I learned a long time ago that feelings follow actions. Life is hard for all of us. We live on a broken planet. We can become victims of circumstances, other people’s mistakes, or our own bad choices. And we can get stuck there. If you are feeling blue, it’s easy to just sit, soak and sour in all of that blueness, and get bluer and bluer. The cure for that is action. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing something. That’s the best time to take action. When you take action, you soon discover that you’re not feeling blue anymore. And if you’re feeling bad about yourself, do something nice for somebody else and get your focus off yourself. Pretty soon, you’ll forget what it was you were worried about.
ATG: Often, writers with a faith background claim Biblical truths and ask God for “a word” for the year, or for a specified period of time. What might that “word” be for you this year?
Brian: Excellence. I believe people who understand they are made in the image of the Author of the Universe need to remember to try to emulate their maker in their work and lives. That means that the “good enough” principle is never, well, good enough. We need to try to be the Michelangelo of our “one thing.” I love Philippians 4:8… it’s my life verse, actually: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
Brian Bird is making every effort to become the Michelangelo of his “one thing”: sharing his faith by using his talents. In an industry where crime scenes and zombies commandeer our televisions, Brian is taking his chosen verse and bringing it to life on the screen. With each project he undertakes, he brings hope and encouragement to audiences around the world. For a bit of “such things” that are noble, right, and pure, tune in this February to Hallmark Channel as When Calls the Heart returns for Season 7. Also, be on the lookout for more from Brian in the coming year by following him on Facebook at @BrianBird, on Instagram at @brbird, and on Twitter at @brbird.