The set of Discovery Channel´s Klondike in Alberta.
Photograph by: Courtesy, Dan Power , Handout
It’s an alarming spectacle to take in. Dozens of extras trudge slowly to a tent in between takes on the sprawling Alberta set of the Discovery Channel’s miniseries Klondike, all having an appropriate air of misery about them. The cameras may not be rolling, but they still appear fairly tuned into the despair of characters who have arrived in the Yukon just before the onset of winter. It’s actually a beautiful day in Alberta. Sweltering even. Unfortunately, for now, this is not particularly helpful when filming on the CL Ranch, a location west of Calgary where a booming Dawson City has been recreated.
Mother Nature often does her part to add authenticity to Alberta-shot period pieces, especially those epics with a man-versus-nature theme.
Today, however, it’s hot. Yet the extras who are working are supposed to look cold. They are bundled up. They wear scarves and hats. The women wear long dresses and coats. Many of the men sport long, unruly beards. They feverishly rub their hands together and huddle on what is supposed to be the less-then-welcoming docks on the Yukon River in Dawson City circa the late 1890s.
“It’s cold, remember,” Assistant Director Dave McLennan reminds the extras. “Brrrrrrrrr. Your hands and feet are cold.”
It’s not just the extras who are feeling the heat.
“We’re trying to pretend it’s winter,” says lead actor Richard Madden, attempting to cool off on the set in between takes. “I’ve got like 19 layers here and a dry suit. I’m so hot.”
The irony of enduring a day of uncomfortable heat is not lost on Madden. In a fairly short period of time, he has experienced some wildly divergent weather in Alberta. To Game of Thrones fans, Madden is the action-ready Robb Stark, a sword-wielding leader of men who has travelled all sorts of terrain during his battles.
But the frigid conditions the 26-year-old Scottish actor and fellow cast and crew endured on Fortress Mountain in Kananaskis Country just over a month ago was a whole different battle.
“The hardest bits I suppose were the first couple of weeks, which were probably the hardest couple weeks of shooting I’ve ever had,” he says. “That’s because there was the altitude and the cold. You’ve got four wind machines on you that are the size of a back of a car, or bigger. You’ve got guys shovelling snow at each wind machine. And it’s really cold. And you’ve got the mountain. So that was really challenging. You’re trying to do your job and act as well as dealing with really intense conditions.”
Madden, who plays real-life adventurer Bill Haskell in the miniseries, is not complaining. The adverse conditions certainly helped him find his character in the early goings. And it will no doubt help with the epic feel of the six-hour miniseries, Discovery Channel’s first scripted TV project scheduled to air sometime in 2014. Based on Ottawa writer Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich In The Klondike, the series mixes real-life events and historical characters such as Haskell, Belinda Mulrooney and Jack London with a tale of murder, greed and the dashed hopes of those who arrived in Dawson City consumed by gold-rush fever but usually ill-prepared and doomed to fail spectacularly.
Discovery has partnered with iconic British director Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and Calgary-based Nomadic Pictures, which also produces the Alberta-shot AMC series Hell on Wheels.
Having had much success with reality shows such as Gold Rush, Jungle Gold and Bering Sea Gold, Discovery was after a scripted project that explored similar themes.
“Our audience loves the idea of the frontier spirit,” says Discovery’s Dolores Gavin, an executive producer on Klondike. “That whole thing about man versus nature, man versus man, man versus self — those are themes we talk about everyday on Discovery. There was really no difference when we started talking about this project because there were those similarities.”
Epic themes require an epic look. Standing on the sprawling Alberta set on the CL Ranch, it’s clear that Discovery has jumped in with both feet when it came its first scripted series. British director Simon Cellan Jones, a veteran of top-tier television such a Boardwalk Empire, Treme and The Borgias, is at the helm. He oversees an impressive cast that includes Sam Shepard as a haunted man of God named Father Judge and British actor Tim Roth as a villain named The Count. Meanwhile, the production seems to have caught its two leads just as their stars were on the rise. Madden has won fame on Game of Thrones and was recently cast as Prince Charming in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Cinderella. Versatile Australian actress Abbie Cornish, who plays the entrepreneurial Belinda Mulrooney in Klondike, is perhaps best know for playing Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion’s Bright Star and just wrapped up a role in next year’s big-budget reboot of RoboCop after lead roles in films such as Limitless, Sucker Punch and Seven Psycopaths.
And while some of the events in Klondike are fictionalized, both Madden and Cornish did a good deal of research on their respective characters, digging up books and biographies to help get into the headspace of those who sought riches and adventure in the unforgiving Klondike during the gold-rush years.
This attention to detail is a hallmark of the production as a whole, particularly amid the meticulously recreated Dawson City. The impressive set was built up on an already existing town on the CL Ranch that has been a location for a number of Alberta-shot projects. With mud-caked roads, newly built businesses, piles of fresh lumber and dubious-looking meat sold off of carts, this Dawson City is an alluring mix of filth and boom-town commerce.
Massive dogs — Newfoundlanders, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Pyrenees crosses, among others — roam the streets with their owners, a realistic touch given that few horses survived the trek to the Klondike during this period.
“Discovery now knows how to build a town,” says Gavin with a laugh. “With our audience, we’ve got to ring true to the historical record. The action that is happening in Klondike was so immense in Dawson City. You can’t do that with eight or nine buildings, you need 30 buildings. So we have 30 buildings. If you really go back and look at the research, Dawson City was like Vegas. It was going 24-seven and you never knew what was going to happen.”
But while this miniseries may be aiming for feature-film production values, it is still television. Six hours worth of action has to be shot over 54 days, which requires long hours of perpetual motion in all sorts of conditions.
“I’ve really enjoyed the momentum of it, the impulsive nature of it,” says Cornish. “A lot of times, because Richard and I are the leads, if we get it in two takes then that’s it. We’re moving on.”
While Cornish did not shoot scenes on blustery Fortress Mountain, her first week shooting near Canmore involved learning how to become an expert dog sledder to believably play the resourceful Mulrooney.
“It was a very full-on week and very elemental and really set the tone for that landscape,” she said. “If we had just gone straight into Dawson City we would have no idea about what the outside of that landscape is. We just would have known the mud and the city and the rain.”
For Madden, the epic feel of Klondike is not only due to the massive sets and scenic vistas, but the intimate human drama of the stories being told.
“There is a huge part of the stories that can be epic visually because of what we see,” he says. “And there’s huge parts that are epic when its just a scene between me and Abbie Cornish and it’s just the two of us standing and talking. That’s more epic than any mountains in the background just because of the intensity of the scene.”
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