November 10, 2010 | By

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With Season 3 of Durham County now underway via HBO Canada, addicts of the series can further watch what newer and weirder elements will challenge the Sweeney family, and maybe send them packing back to the raccoon-infested environs of Toronto.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration (Raccoons in Toronto? Preposterous!), or maybe it’s a stereotype taken to a biased extreme, much in the way Durham County is characterized as an expansive, beautified suburb whose civic domiciles custom built for nuclear families shelter deep, dark secrets.

Some may be a bit curious about the innards of the series, and how such a dark, somewhat Lynchain vision (witness the striking main title sequence) was created when most portrayals of life in the ‘burbs tend to emphasize the comedic, the absurd, and urban paranoia.

Recent films like Lakeview Terrace (2008) fixated on the racial and psychological discontent behind gleaming mini-mansions in sunny California, but Durham is uniquely different because while its swanky subdivision is all shiny and new, the events that salt up old wounds for a lot of characters are decades old, and the children of the show’s adults really suffer for their parents’ indiscretions, murderous deeds, and marital discontent.

It’s the shrill social conflicts of society compressed into a compact narrative, set in the industrial, electrified world that exists everywhere there are hydro towers, nuclear power plants, coal furnaces, or massive industries. There’s little doubt the horrors of Durham County, Ontario, couldn’t exist in the civilian homesteads built around the Alberta Tar Sands, or a giant hydro plant in central Quebec.

Suburbanites can relate to the peculiar dichotomies of their world, and in this lengthy interview edited together from separately conducted conversations, series co-producer/co-writer/director Adrienne Mitchell and co-producer/co-writer Janis Lundman discuss the series genesis, character highpoints, and making a Canadian show for an appreciative international market.



Mark R. Hasan: How did the concept of Durham County begin?

Janis Lundman: The concept started with myself, Adrienne Mitchell (my business partner with Back Alley Film Productions), and Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, a writer we were working with on our last series, Bliss (2002-2004).

Bliss was coming to an end, we really got along creatively, and we all sort of talked about what could we do next, and how we could work together, and we all started talking about growing up in the suburbs and what it was like there.

Adrienne Mitchell: All of us had similar, kind of weird horror stories where we were living in this sort of anesthetized, pretty public, face forward environment, but behind the doors all these very strange things were happening.

I mean, up the street from me a dentist killed his family and committed suicide. I hung around with all sorts of middle suburb, no-class kids whose parents weren’t around, and [the kids] were just playing all sorts of strange sadomasochistic games in a way that was really unhealthy and destructive, but it was in a very beautiful, pristine environment!

Janice had similar kind of stories, and Laurie of course had really strange experiences growing up in Pickering, which was surrounded of course by the hydro towers. There’s a lot of suspicion around the health effects of living so close to the nuclear power plant, so that sort of shaped her growing up there.

There were all these attempts to beautify the area with emerald green, pristine dog parks, and a little boardwalk that kind of ended at the entrance to the Pickering [nuclear] tower that kind of looked like the Wizard of Oz’ yellow brick road.

[Ed.: a still used at this site perfectly illustrates Mitchell’s comment.]

Janis Lundman: Laurie had also been doing a lot of reading (in terms of crime genre, detective novels) and really wanted to get into that, so we came up with the idea of Durham County, which combined our questioning about the suburbs, and at the same time allowed Laurie to work in that police procedural crime genre.

Adrienne Mitchell: I know it seems a bit abstract, but all that sort of led us to ‘Well, what would happen if you came back to the place you grew up, where you thought it was this idyllic place?’

When [Detective Mike Sweeny] comes back, he wants to get away from the city – he’s had a partner that was shot. He wants to move his family back to the place where he grew up, and where part of him is just remembering the environment (the suburbs, the white picket fence vibe) – and then [he moves] across the street from a nemesis from the past: Ray Prager, who was this guy that he got into a lot of unhealthy stuff with when they were teenagers.

[It’s about] what happens when you reconnect to that person, and what does that brings up for you: in your own secrets, and the darkness that was there, way back when.

MRH: The locations were quite inspirational to the development of the story because you do see the giant hydro towers typical of Ontario, and around Toronto itself.

Janis Lundman: The suburb where I grew up was in the Ajax-Pickering-Durham Region. Originally we wanted to shoot out there … They had a lot of hydro towers there, they had a mini-putt golf course built right underneath the towers, and we just felt that there was something about that visual motif that just spoke to the underlying darkness about what was really happening in the suburbs, but in the end we couldn’t shoot there for financial reasons.

We also have a company in Quebec, so we started doing some location searching around there, and found this amazing suburb of Saint Julie that was built up after the 1998 Ice Storm. It has this park with all these hydro towers behind the houses – it was perfect. We were very, very lucky.

MRH: I think the atmosphere definitely comes out. There are some playground sequences, and a baseball game that’s surrounded by those hulking hydro towers. You have a leg from a massive tower maybe two feet away from the end of the third base and is really intrusive. I also get the impression that the intrusiveness increases as you progress through each season.

Adrienne Mitchell: Season 2 was all about what happens in the aftermath of a tragedy, like Mike’s daughter, Sadie, being kidnapped and mentally and physically traumatized by Ray Prager.

The families are dysfunctional, the families are fragmented; there’s a sense of everything falling apart, of things not being in the right place. We’re working with those kinds of ideas metaphorically – like the baseball game behind the hydro towers, a couch nestled in the middle of a hydro tower – to echo the family which is in an unnatural state.

MRH: You mentioned some of the concerns about the suburban lifestyle also stem from your own personal experiences. What sort of aspects did you find disturbing about the suburbs?

Janis Lundman: Well, it’s this odd thing: as a child growing up everything seemed to be… perfect, you know?

Every family has its own form of dysfunction, and then as you get older, you realize ‘Oh my God, the family living next to us the man is beating his children and his wife. I see that now, and all the divorces that were happening, and the affairs that were happening, and the teacher across the street [whose] wife killed herself.’

You start understanding that the suburbs aren’t necessarily reflecting (or trying to reflect) the reality of what’s going on tin the world. [We’re] playing with that dichotomy.

MRH: I understand you spent a great deal of time developing the series?

Adrienne Mitchell: Yeah. Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik is the writer of the entire series and she is a brilliant writer. She lived with these characters for a year. She absolutely had to map everything out – what was going on with these characters over the six episodes – but it was just a wonderful opportunity for her to do that.

It’s like a really, really long feature film, in a sense. She’s able to go back to episode 1 after she’s gotten to episode 6 and sort of tweak and go back and forth and work through it all. [That’s] difficult to do when you have to do a regular conventional series where you’re churning them out because you have a huge deadline.

MRH: Was Durham County’s 6-episode length taken from the British model where a concept is developed, stories are mapped out, characters are refined, and what gets produced is all that’s necessary, as opposed to the U.S. network model where filmmakers are stuck having to deal with filler episodes because they’ve got a 20 episode slate to fill?

Janis Lundman: We were thinking of the model like the Prime Suspect model, and we loved that idea of being able to tell a very intense story over a well-crafted, shorter period of time.

The pay networks were completely on board with that… We were originally going to be doing [just] the first season, but people got hooked into the characters, and the network certainly liked it. Season 3 [started airing October 25th], and now they want to do a movie.

MRH: I guess I could see it working as a film, but from your standpoint, did you feel that by the end of Season 3 the series’ arc had come to its end, or do you feel there’s actually a whole other season you can develop?

Janis Lundman: No, there’s a whole other season that we could develop, and we actually had spent quite a bit of time on it. The thing is, we’re working with characters that are so complex and multi-layered and working in a world of crime that constantly changes; they change along with it, [and] we could just keep going with these characters.

I mean, a lot of it depends on Laurie as well – as the writer, and what she wants to work on thematically. She thinks she’s got a bit more left.

MRH: The most interesting character in Season 2 was Pen Verrity.

Her marriage is a disaster, she’s had difficulty with her son, she’s dating Mike Sweeney, the detective whom she treated the year before and she’s now counseling his daughter Sadie. Pen’s a mess, but at the same time, if she’s called in on a case, in spite of all the conflicts she can sit there and actually function as a certified psychiatrist, and be non-judgmental.

I found that really fascinating because she’s able to manage this disconnect and switch to professional mode, but there are trigger mechanisms that will switch her back to the paranoia of losing Mike, and her son.

Janis Lundman: I love that character. Laurie had a lot of fun writing her, and I absolutely adore Michelle Forbes.

Adrienne Mitchell: We all strived very hard to involve Michelle. I think that’s what really hooked her into the character because what Michelle thought was fascinating was that process where inside of [Pen] there are so many things that are deconstructing.

The scary thing is all of a sudden she’s watching herself sort of implode, and [Michelle] found that to play that duality was really a challenge as an actor, and extremely rewarding because it is a duality: there is that objective therapist watching her own self start to unravel and start to exhibit self-destructive behaviour and dangerous behaviour to others; yet in the same time, the only place she can sort of reel it in is when she’s interacting with others, and when she can grasp onto that part of her that’s the therapist.

With the other people she’s helping, she can maintain that sane objective side of herself, but when it comes to herself, she’s helpless to just watch, so it’s very fascinating.

Janis Lundman: You can see this character of Pen Verity go from vulnerable to angry to manipulative back to vulnerability; it’s incredible, and that’s really a combination of Laurie’s writing, Michelle’s acting, and then the directing, whether that was from Adrienne, Rachel Talalay, or Alain Desrochers.

MRH: As a director, was it hard to keep track of the plotlines, or did you have a solid bible where everything’s mapped out, because I think in the second season there’s so much baggage from the first season plus all the new permutations that have to happen, that I was amazed how everything managed to flow, and you were able to pick up and continue at various points without any confusion for the viewer.

Adrienne Mitchell: It’s really very challenging. As a director, it’s extremely complex. You’re always concerned about how do you bring in those threads from last season in such a way that you’re not being expositional [and] you’re not sort of banging people over the head and weeding them into the current storyline.

I work with Laurie as a writer, too. I’ll say ‘This looks really good on the page, but in terms of realizing it, it’s going to be very difficult because we have to find a way that I can dramatize this more to bring the internal to the external, [and] into an event to something that’s happening.’

We want to make sure we do things with visuals, and scenes of things aren’t just about people talking about stuff, so it is a very challenging experience… [With] Laurie, I kind of feel on the inside of her brain half the time, and she in mine, which is a bit scary. It’s a very intense connection, and I think that really helps to give us a bit of a shorthand.

Even though I’m there at the beginning as a director, as well as her co-creating, co-producer, you can never underestimate the complexity of her scripts. You get there on set, you think you’ve read it a thousand times, you’ve talked to the actor, and you get there and you start to see them rehearse, and you go ‘Holy shit, this is even more complex than I thought! How am I going to get this in a day and in the time that I have?’

MRH: I recognized Rachel Talalay from the films she’s done early in her career, and it’s so nice to see her working on such a good show because I always thought she was a good director for whom nobody could find the ideal material.

Janis Lundman: It’s hard, I think, for a woman director. I was thrilled to see that 3 out of the 4 Gemini Award nominees for Directing for TV were women…. We’re slowly getting there, and I think it’s also a bit of a challenge with Rachel because she’s on the west coast.

When you’re looking for directors… you have a tendency to look around Toronto, and you look at a few people in Montreal, and then of course… Vancouver, but that’s not necessarily the first place that we go.

MRH: For the series, was it a tough sell for broadcasters and financiers, and did you find that it was a tougher sell in Canada rather than pitching it internationally?

Janis Lundman: No, we were very fortunate. I think a lot had to do with the timing, and we had a lot of support from the pay networks – The Movie Network, Movie Central – [who] very much understood what we were trying to do. They really hooked into what Laurie was saying with her words [and] into the visuals that Adrienne had been presenting.

The first season Global came in, just before we started shooting. They only came in for the one season. They were very supportive of the project, but it’s really not a conventional TV show; it’s a bit too dark for them.

MRH: I can recall in the 1980s when there were a lot of American co-productions that were shooting in Toronto and were essentially Canadian series based on American movies (Poltergeist: The Legacy, War of the Worlds, Friday 13th: The Series) but stylistically imitative of U.S. productions.

What are your thoughts on seeing more of Canadian culture on television, and how it’s making its way to international airwaves, with positive critical reception?

Adrienne Mitchell: That’s a broad question, but I think there’s a lot of different aspects to that question. I think that there is a lot of Canadian culture that’s absolutely going out there, but it’s a wide gamut of types that are being made.

Durham County is a certain kind of production that is different from a production coming out of the CBC or CTV or Canwest, so it depends on the team and the Canadian broadcaster.

I think we are coming into our own, in a way. Probably we’re in a really good place right now with the productions that are coming out, but I’ve got to say that I think some of them are dictated by the American audience / the American broadcasters’ tastes.

I would like to see the CBC do Canadian productions where they feel they don’t have to compete with the Flashpoints and the Rookie Blues of the world.

MRH: They should all be able to exist on their own, but if it doesn’t turn into a success immediately, then it’s axed, and the network moves on to the next thing – which isn’t a uniquely Canadian problem, but the hesitation to stick with an original concept must make it harder for series creators to sell.

Adrienne Mitchell: Well you’re right, and that’s very much an American model [but] I think we still give things here a little more of a chance than they do in the U.S. [where] you’re out after 3 episodes, but here we try to give things a chance.

Durham County is not a mainstream show. It’s HBO; it’s made for its particular audience, so you’ve got the other Canadian programs [where] you’re working for a network that’s much more ratings-reliant.

Our Canadian audiences are more used to tapping into an American framework for television, and we are trying as Canadian producers to find our way around that and still find our own stamp.

A lot of the talented writers here are trying to find a way within those restrictions to put forth their unique voices. I just would love to see a time where they were backed more; to really allow their voices to surface without so many other agendas.

But then how then do you argue when you have a situation where you’ve got shows where the broadcasters are working with the writers in such a way that are strong collaborations, and they’re getting the results they want with huge ratings?

I think it’s just different worlds out there now; there’s that world, then there’s the world of HBO Canada, which is another kind of world where they’re working with writers and producers in a very different way. I’m not going to say one’s necessarily better than the other, but what’s fun about the HBO Canada or more rewarding is that we’re really encouraged to develop our unique voices, and take some risks in a way that we can’t in another forum/form.

I think you’ve got to look at it that way. What’s great about Durham is that it has sold to 110 countries, so it’s not just that it’s we’re making it for ourselves; there is an audience for this series. It’s a pay audience [and] we’ve sold it all over the world. I know a lot of writers and producers would really love an opportunity to work with the [pay networks] and find projects like that.

Janis Lundman: We got a lot of critical acclaim. A lot of people appreciate the show [and] now that it’s out on video, they’re renting the video and just enjoying it.

MRH: It’s changed so much in the last 3 or 4 years where people go to a rental shop and load up on a show that they haven’t had time to watch, and they’ll just blow through the run in an entire weekend. That’s the experience many have now when it’s a TV series, which is radically different from catching a show each week with commercials, and waiting for the next episode.

Janis Lundman: Yup, and I have a lot of people come up and say that’s exactly what they doing: they’re buying or renting the DVD, and they just sit for the whole weekend, or the whole evening in some cases, and go through all of them.

MRH: One aspect that must have been difficult for you is finding that fine line between introducing subject matter that’s very disturbing or ugly, but not making it exploitive.

Janis Lundman: Yeah. How do you do that?

MRH: Not making it exploitive and sleazy, and maybe part of that comes from the characters, because they don’t degenerate; they stay true to who they are.

Janis Lundman: They stay true, and again I think this goes back to the wonderful genius of Laurie’s writing where you can take a character like Pen Verrity or a character like Ray Prager or Ivan Sujic (who’s the main antagonist in Season 3), and even though they do horrific things, even though they’re so flawed, you still have a compassion for them.

Sometimes you’re on their side, sometimes you want to give them a big hug, and I think that has a lot to do with Laurie. Of course, after the writing, we all talk about the script – myself and Adrienne and the other directors – and try to always keep the truth and the vision of what we’re talking about, because it is easy to kind of slide off one way or the other, but there’s always somebody behind you watching your back, making sure that your trying to stay close to the truth.

MRH: And one last question. Do you think Mike Sweeney will ever be happy?

Janis Lundman: He’s really happy! He was happy in Season 3! Unfortunately it didn’t last long, but yeah, he was happy! Hugh Dillon is incredible in Season 3 because you really get to see his range where he is happy in his family, and happy in his life, and things are going well – but as I said, it’s Durham County, so it doesn’t last, but it’s there.




An interview with Season 2 and 3 composer Peter Chapman.

. would like to thank Adrienne Mitchell and Janis Lundman for their generous time in discussing their projects, and Leah Visser at Amberlight Productions for arranging the interviews.

Visit the series’ official website and Back Alley Films.


Additional interviews online:

Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell at Searching for Chet Baker.

Hugh Dillon at Premium Hollywood and The Globe and Mail.

Helene Joy at Zoiks! Online.

Michelle Forbes at Chicago Now.


All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2010 by Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

DVD/Film:  Durham CountySeason One (2007) — Season Two (2009) — Season Three (2010)


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