Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell are the ladies behind the production company Back Alley Films, which has put out critically acclaimed and award winning Canadian programming such as Durham County, Bliss and the documentaries Talk 16 and Talk 19.
Every project they've put out has received high accolades from critics and viewers alike. They were both kind enough to answer some questions on "Durham County" and various other things.
SFCB: I wanted to thank you both for agreeing to this interview. First off, what was the impetus to the creation of Back Alley Films?
JANIS: Adrienne and I had been working independently as directors and producers when we met through LIFT (the Toronto film co-op). Both of us were looking for a creative partner to help share some of the workload and with whom we could start to create longer form projects. It’s very difficult in this industry – as it is with any collaborative medium - to find a creative synergetic connection with someone. At the time that we met, Adrienne was also a cinematographer and she shot a short film I was producing and directing. There was an immediate sense of yin and yang in our work and personalities so we decided to pool our individual talents and work on a project together - a feature documentary called ‘Talk 16’. That was over 20 years ago and we’re still working and creating projects together.
SFCB: I first discovered Durham County a few years ago, I'd say around midway into the first season, and fortunately was able to start from the beginning. I was instantly hooked on it due to the fantastic writing and acting. Unlike a lot of shows on the air, none of the characters were simply there. All of the characters brought something to the table, and were instrumental in the plot, which was proven by everyone in the main cast being nominated or winning Gemini awards.
I liked that neither Mike Sweeney nor Ray Prager are entirely good or entirely bad, especially in the case of the character of Ray. I think it's a testament to Justin's acting that he could make someone as vile as Prager seem if not sympathetic, at least you can understand why he is what he is. For a show that has only six episodes in a season, that's remarkable in that the characters have so much depth, more so than characters in other shows that have 20 episodes a season.
ADRIENNE: Yes this is a testament to Laurie Finstad Kniznik's writing and her keen ability to plunge into the depths of her characters’ psychological terrain. Her process is fascinating - she first discovers and explores the narrative within the psychology of the character then builds from the inward to the outward in terms of how the characters express themselves in their actions.
She is a novelist at heart and thinks that way so that’s why I think there is such complexity in her characters. Also, the casting process is so crucial. As a director, I know that 80% of the success of my directing is tied into making sure we cast the right actor for the part. There is only so much you can do to bring out a nuanced performance during a rigorous TV schedule that demands high production value and a very stylized cinematic approach with limited time and budget.
So we really begin casting far in advance of the shooting schedule to find our “Durham” type actor who can take on the complexity of Laurie’s writing. I look for an actor who can express those subtle shades of grey, those unpredictable pockets of human behaviour that can set you on edge in ways that haunt and disturb. Then I rehearse with the actors like mad ( which is unusual for television – albeit this is PAY TV – so we have more flexibility)
The preparation for an actor on our series is extensive, intense and maybe even a little brutal. Ask Hugh Dillon how hard he prepares for his character Mike Sweeney. And Michelle Forbes in season 2 totally immersed herself in the role. I remember Michelle saying, after reading the scripts, “ My God, it’s like reading Dostoevsky’s “War and Peace”. It’s a testament to our actors’ intrinsic talent, their preparation, Laurie’s writing that makes their characters leap off the screen. And wait until you see the character of IVAN, played by the fabulous Scottish actor Michael Nardone – he’s incredible!
SFCB: One of things I like about the show is that it doesn't seem to have a predetermined line that it won't cross. For a long time shows had some imaginary line that they wouldn't show. For years it involved things like children being killed or even going as far back as I Love Lucy with a married couple in two separate beds. Even though these days it seems you can show just about anything on television, there still even today seems to be a line that networks don't want to cross out of fear of alienating a portion of their audience. Were there any limits that the network imposed on you for Durham County? Was there anything you wanted to do that the networks came back and was like "We can't do this you have to change this"?
JANIS: We developed Durham County with the Canadian pay networks, TMN (The Movie Network) and Movie Central. The creative heads that we worked with at the time of Season 1, Michelle Marion and Shelley Gillen, were amazingly supportive of what we wanted to do creatively and their notes were all about making the series better.
Given that they’re pay networks and subscriber based, we were able to stretch the envelope more than if we had been working solely for a conventional network. Having said that, Global Television came on board as we were moving into production so at that point we made the decision to do two versions of Durham – one for the pays where we had more freedom creatively, and one for conventional networks.
The differences between the two were pretty simple: no ‘fucks’ for Global; we had to make it clear that the school girls in episode one, Season 1, were 18 years old; and some of what they considered “disturbing scenes”, we had to cut down. The Global version needed to be shorter in length to accommodate commercials so the last decision to cut down on some of the scenes was relatively easy to do, as we needed to cut down on time.
SFCB: As I watch the show I get this strange feeling. It's one of the few shows that I've watched, along with Showtime's Dexter where you're watching some reprehensible things happening, and it forces you to acknowledge your feelings about what you're seeing. Such as the opening scene of Season 1 where you're seeing Ray spy on the guy in the woods as he brutally kills those two girls. There's such a high level of uncomfortableness watching that combination of sex and violence, and this overwhelming feeling of knowing what was coming but being unable to stop it. Then you contrast that with Ray who is spying on this and is seemingly turned on by it.
There are other moments like that in the series that really causes the viewer to sort of have some type of analyzing of how they feel and think about what they're seeing. That can be too much for some viewers, and I've seen some reactions to the show that express discomfort in what they've seen. They're outraged by what they see, and I wonder if maybe there was something that they didn't like, not about the show, but their feelings and thoughts about it. Was that the intention of the show, to inspire these types of reactions?
ADRIENNE: That’s a great question and analysis. So in a nutshell “Yes”. Especially in Season 1 we were reacting against certain television series and media presenting images of dead women in a kind of slick glamorous and expendable way – where you get a quick hit of the death, beautiful sexy dead women, and then we snap back into the investigation or commercial without any kind of post-mortem.
So in our series we wanted to explore the more visceral reality and consequences of death and then through presenting Ray as watching the murder , we wanted to question how we watch scenes of death on television. Are we being desensitized? What is happening to us in how we experience violence in the media – is there a complicit passivity there? But we knew this was going to be a bit of a slippery slope in how we depicted that scene and hope we haven’t traumatized too many people out there.
SFCB: I have to comment on the opening theme to Durham County. The first time I heard it I got chills because it has this very haunting feel to it. It gives this sense of terror and a kind of foreshadowing of what is to come. Who is responsible for the music?
JANIS: In Season 1 we worked with an amazing composer, Tom Third. He set the musical tone for the series and also wrote the opening theme music – we loved him! For Season 2 and 3 because Tom was engaged in another series, we worked with a protégé of his, Peter Chapman. Again, another amazing composer who did an incredible job on the last 2 seasons.
SFCB: What is the process of putting Durham County together? From the writing stages to the filming stages to the time that it airs.
JANIS: The process is a lot of hard work! My favourite parts of any production are the beginning, when everyone is sitting around a table throwing out ideas, and then the end when I see the final show on the screen. The part in between is simply work, work and more work! As the producer, for me it’s always a balance of trying to keep the initial creative vision that Laurie wrote with the logistics of production. And the logistics begin early. There is first, of course, the writing. Laurie has the ideas and characters in her head and starts thinking about the series months ahead of production. Like all writers, she spends days and weeks alone in her office, typing away, to come up with the incredible scripts that make up Durham County. She’ll have regular meetings with Adrienne who’ll give her feedback as a director, and the story editors, as well as meetings with the broadcasters. They’ll give her feedback on what she’s done to date and then back she goes to her room to write some more. Somehow, at the end of it all, she’s produced final scripts that we then take into production months later.
However, the logistics of production begin before Laurie is finished with her scripts. In Durham the landscape and locations end up being characters in themselves: suburban landscapes of houses, hydro towers, commuter trains. For us to find the right locations that will coincide with our vision of the series, we start looking almost 4 months before we go into official pre-production and way before we have all the scripts written. Adrienne works very closely with the Locations Manager reviewing photos, going to locations, filming various possibilities with a camcorder. She discusses all of these with our Director of Photography, the remarkable Eric Cayla for Season 2/3 and Steve Cosens for Season 1. The choices are then narrowed down so that when we begin prep we have our main locations already chosen. The same goes for casting, which also starts about 3 to 4 months prior to prep. It’s so important to find an antagonist who can embody the role so completely that the audience is both horrified and empathetic at the same time with their actions. We have a great casting director, Marissa Richmond, whom we’ve worked with for almost 10 years and she’s been instrumental in finding our main players. We’ve also worked with Wendy O’Brien and Libby Goldstein in Los Angeles who’ve also brought some great talent to the table.
Once prep starts it’s all about choice – what do we want to do vs. what can we afford to do. Everyone works very closely trying to make these choices the best they can be. We have the directors who guide this process and we’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the best directors. Of course, there’s Adrienne who’s directed 7 of the 18 episodes and has worked on all 3 seasons; Holly Dale who started Season 1 and who worked with Adrienne to set the tone of that season; Rachel Talalaly and Alain Des Rochers for Season 2; and Charles Binamé for Season 3. The director works with Laurie (the writer), the production designer, line producer, director of photography, costume designer - everyone is constantly meeting and constantly talking. There’s a lot of tradeoffs, for eg: we’ll use fewer extras in one scene to get an extra police car in another scene; we’ll cut one scene to have more lights on the next exterior night scene; and so on.
Once in production, its more of the same except now everything has speeded up and the conversations are more intense, the decisions have to be made faster yet we still have to be true to the original vision. It’s during this time that I’m glad to say that we have had an absolutely fantastic craft service that’s kept us all together, especially during the shooting of Season 3 when we were shooting outside in the cold, in December.
Finally we make it into post-production where we can see everything being put together. We’ve been very fortunate to be working with the same editors for almost all 3 seasons (Teresa De Luca, Annie Ilkow, Michele Conroy) –gifted, talented, I can’t say enough about them. For me, in post-production, the process now starts to be a bit fun and it’s great to see it all coming together with the music and sound FX. And, finally, about 4 months later it’s all delivered to the networks and our distributor. And I’m a happy person once again.
SFCB: When we first see the Sweeney family in Season 1, Sadie's sister is wearing an Anime style mask. what was the significance of that? I've seen various suggestions by fans, and then there were other fans saying they had no clue what it was.
ADRIENNE: Lets say it is open for interpretation. Don’t want to nail that down to the wall. I quite like all the speculation out there. If Durham can get a discourse going, then excellent. Janis, Laurie and I are all fans of Japanese Anime. Visually Durham deals with the hyper real , pristine, suburban public face versus what goes on behind those pretty doors. The Anime mask has that hyper-real quality and it ties into that aesthetic. That’s as much as I’ll say. Maybe that’s too much already!
SFCB: One thing that I've seen a lot of fans mention online is that the guy who killed the two girls in the opening scene, while popping up here and there, hasn't been caught. It's been two seasons now and he has played such a miniscule role, and I think a lot of people are wondering if he'll be back and if so if he could perhaps face his just due, or whether he was simply a Maguffin of sorts. That it doesn't as much matter who he is, but that his actions set in motion the battle between Mike and Ray.
ADRIENNE: In a way, yes he’s a Maguffin. He exists in so far as he brings forth the plot elements that allow Mike and Ray to collide with each other. Even though we don’t find out what happens to him, we feel his impact as he sets the wheels in motion for everything to come to a head between Mike and Ray. And on a little tangent this ties into something I talked about on our Facebook page in regards to season three.
Even though we don’t see Ray Prager in season three, Ray lives on in how Sadie now deals with her life and her role as a rookie cop in training. You feel him alive and well in her, haunting her and almost motivating her actions as if he is whispering in her ear. We love playing with those kinds of elements in the series. And we know there is going to be the rallying cry – of “ how could you not show Ray this season!!!” but, trust us, you’ll get just as wrapped up into season 3’s new antagonist IVAN, played by Michael Nardone, as you did with Ray and Pen, but in a very different way.
SFCB: At the end of Season two we see Ray Prager escape, and leave a gift for Sadie in the back of their car. Will we see the character of Ray again in either Season 3 or the movie afterwards?
JANIS: Absolutely! In Season 3 Ray doesn’t make a physical appearance but the effect he’s had on the characters is always present. None of our main characters can escape from the torment or memories that they have of him. As for the Durham County movie – he’s definitely back!
SFCB: There's a scene in Season two where Mike and Pen are talking and you have the feeling that their relationship is heading to a more intimate level. And he's frustrated because of his rage when dealing with someone he was trying to arrest, and she makes the comment about "I remember you telling me this in our session last year", and the look on his face as he simply responds "did I?", just briefly, caused me to realize how uncomfortable this could be. In a lot of relationships the partners don't tell each other everything. They may love the other person 100% and trust them 100% but there's always going to be things that they don't or feel they CAN'T tell the other person.
And here Mike's in a situation where he has said things to his therapist that he perhaps could never bring himself to say to a lover, and now he's put himself in that very situation, and it doesn't seem to be something that he is entirely comfortable with. Opening himself up that much to another person. I was wondering if that was a conscious idea in the writing and filming, or is that just something that is perhaps open to interpretation?
ADRIENNE: This was absolutely intentional. I think it’s a very human trait to not be honest and real with the people closest to you because there’s the fear that that honesty will be too hurtful or brutal and will cause you to loose everything that you have invested in those relationships. So it’s easier to come clean with a stranger. And that’s certainly the case with Mike Sweeney.
SFCB: An interesting dynamic for me in Season two was the fact that this therapist in Pen Verity, was herself, for lack of a better word, damaged. Here's a woman that is tasked with helping others through their trauma, and she herself is unable to properly handle her own. This brought to mind the fact that even therapists have therapists, and it sort of makes you wonder whether she was either in denial of her issues, or perhaps just felt like many people do, that she could somehow manage it on her own, and discovered too late that she couldn't.
ADRIENNE: Gary, you are answering your questions superbly! Well-considered. Pen is in a very strange emotional place – because she is actually watching herself becoming unhinged . She is viewing herself from her objective therapist’s perspective. She can see how she is burying herself in denial and even outwitting herself with rationalized justifications for her behaviour. She is in a strange controlled state that is starting to unravel, which later in the series goes out of control. It’s a testament to Michelle Forbes’ brilliance as an actor to be able to play such a fascinating multiplicity here.
SFCB: I was on the IMDB page for Durham County and I saw a post by someone that had titled their message board post "Why the hell are nearly all the cast and crew Canadian?" and thought that was hilarious. It was someone that obviously didn't get the memo on the show, and perhaps envisioned a Canadian takeover of television. It made me wonder, what was the most memorable feedback you have gotten on the programming that you have done?
“The first season scared the hell out of me... Check your neighbour before you start the new round! Second season, I'm ready!!!” - XfloryelmustangX Youtube.com
“What a mind trip this one is!! I had to tape every episode and watch it again to catch everything I missed the first time. This one is SPOOKY!” – carolynsimons60 Youtube.com
“I actually really like Penn's character (or Michelle's character, actually). Talk about complex and conflicted…very hamlet - descent into madness...” - Terri Facebook.com
“Epic and haunting. I felt the darkness coming out of me.” – SartaqKhan tv.com/durham-county
SFCB: What can you tell us about what is in store for the upcoming third season of Durham County?
(Synopsis of Season 3)
“In Season 3, Durham County focuses on a task force that covers crimes along the 401 highway corridor. Mike Sweeney, now the Superintendent of the Durham police precinct, is on this force, which, when the episode opens, is investigating the murder of two young drug runners. Mike wonders whether these deaths are warnings to other runners or the beginnings of a gang war. Mike’s challenge is how to get through the language barriers and trace the crimes to sources, which may be here or overseas. Durham, because of its proximity to the 401 corridor, is a transportation hub, one stop on a crime corridor. Nothing has roots here, but everything passes through.
Ivan Sujic (ex-military), partners with Mike on the task-force, is investigating the drug-trafficking murders. Mike quickly learns that Ivan is distraught because his wife, Katya, is missing and didn’t return from a trip to the United States. The friendship between the two men, a friendship that grows and deepens, also becomes for Mike, a murder investigation. Mike suspects that Ivan’s troubled brother-in-law, Miro, may have something to do with Katya’s disappearance and that Ivan may know something about it.“
Adrienne: It was a fascinating process to cast Ivan, who is the main antagonist this season. What we were looking for was someone who could emanate the kind of person who had been through the unspeakable in war and had actually crossed the line in committing unspeakable acts, yet still projected, and was able to express, a sense of humanity about him, which is a very difficult balance and tension to find. We found this actor in Michael Nardone, who had this incredible ability to project a man who’s lived a thousand life-times, yet you are so drawn to him. You see him in the series do an unspeakable act of violence and yet you can’t dismiss him. There is something about him and his need to experience an awakening and to redeem himself that is extremely compelling to watch. And the dynamic between Hugh Dillon and Michael Nardone is spell-binding.
Janis: Although we’d started the audition process very early, we were only a week away from prep and we still hadn’t found our main antagonist. Finally, we got in touch with Michael’s agent in the UK (he’s Scottish) and he did a self tape. But at that time he was doing a children’s show so what he had to do was go into a storage room and get his friend to read the other lines. They put a camera up on an ironing board and he did this fantastic audition for the character of Ivan and we thought, ‘If he can be that emotional and be that empathetic and do such a great job when he’s basically playing to an ironing board, think what he can do if he has a crew and director.’ And he’s been fantastic.
SFCB: I've noticed that you two have done a lot of projects together. One of those that you two worked on was the series "Bliss". This was an interesting project, as it explored women's sexual desires and fantasies from the female perspective. Often we see films or shows that are made by men and for men and everything is sort of geared towards a male audience. And so it's kind of interesting, at least to me, to see people out there like yourselves, or others like Susie Bright who also has put out anthologies of erotic short stories, and even audio recordings as well.
And I think that the reason why there isn't more is perhaps our society has tried to push preconceived notions of what women think like. For years it seems that women were not looked at as having "those thoughts", and it's interesting to me how that was such a prevalent school of thought, so much so that when someone like Nancy Friday, for example, comes out with her book "My Secret Garden" in the early 70's it caused quite a reaction.
How do you view the progress that has been made in that regards where today there seems to be more programming and literature out there that reinforce that that is not the reality?
ADRIENNE: It seems now that the female characters depicted in literature and media are being portrayed with more depth around who they are as sexual beings – warts and all. THANK GOD! Look at Lisabeth Sandler in “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” - hers is a very complicated sexuality – largely in reaction to how she was subjugated to the horrors of confinement by a sadistic psychiatrist at a psychiatric Institution. It’s all about Lisabeth trying to claw herself out of that. And she goes to some very controversial places. I love that these books were written by a Man – Stieg Larsson. It just makes total sense in terms of reality and sophisticated drama to give the sexual side of the female characters a complexity that is rich, raw, unpredictable and not so pretty at times. That’s what’s real.
SFCB: So what does Back Alley Films have in store, post Durham County?
ADRIENNE: There are lots of exciting things on our plate. We are developing an awe-inspiring series with Karen Walton, the writer of the movie GINGER SNAPs. It’s her first original television series called ODARK – that will bend the minds of loyal viewers.
We have two movies in development with HBO CANADA: DURHAM COUNTY the movie written by Laurie, as well as a movie called THE LOVELIES written by Sharon Riis about five women who, while visiting their men in prison, get stuck in a room together with a dead woman during a prison riot. We’re closing deals on a few other exciting feature films and also developing a new series from Laurie Finstad. So lots of fabulous irons in the fire!!!!
SFCB: Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.
ADRIENNE: Thanks for spending the time to come up with so many thought provoking and intelligent questions. It’s refreshing.
To check out the website of Janis & Adrienne's company "Back Alley Films" click HERE
To find out all the news about Durham County check out the official Facebook page by clicking HERE