Sunday, March 27, 2011

Visiting Avonlea Village: Part One

I find it very interesting that the exterior sets for Road to Avonlea were constructed in Uxbridge, just a few kilometers from where L.M. Montgomery once lived in the Leaksdale Manse.  In the summer of 1992 or 1993 I had the incredible opportunity to visit the sets!

These first photos were taken before we arranged access.  Note the tiny lighthouse next to my head in the background.

One of the highlights of the visit was the Avonlea schoolhouse.  Where most of the buildings were just facades or shells, the schoolhouse was a complete interior/exterior set.  I'm just speculating but I would imagine this was because the hours you're allowed to have child actors on set are short so it would have been easier to film all the schoolhouse scenes together rather than moving back and forth from the exterior to the Toronto soundstage.  I remember clearly that the stones at the base of the building were just molded plastic but otherwise it was quite solid and realistic.

The village was built on land owned by the Nesbitt family on Concession 6 off Highway 21.  The blue Nesbitt farmhouse stood in for the King farmhouse.  We weren't permitted to get close to the house as the family actually lived there (I believe they still do).

The series had several art directors so I'm not certain who designed these incredible buildings but the work was truly amazing.  They were quite beautiful.  They came up with an ingenious idea to use crushed red brick to imitate PEI's red soil.  Near the entrance to the village was a huge pile of brick waiting to be used if necessary.

Watch for Part Two next week!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables

Kevin Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables is a beautiful and charming film that is incredibly faithful to L.M. Montgomery's novel; if not always in letter than certainly in spirit.  He selected all the most wonderful moments from the novel and managed to capture them wonderfully on film.
I remember watching this when it aired in parts on the CBC when I was a child and I have caught bits and pieces of it from time to time as it re-airs.  I watched it this week for the first time on DVD and I was a little worried that it might not hold up to the memories I had of it.  Fortunately, it remains wonderful to watch.  It has a timeless quality that will probably outlive all of us.
The casting of this film is really pure genius!  Megan Follows makes a wonderful Anne.  She does a great job of capturing the spirit of Montgomery's character and is very convincing as Anne at several different ages.
Though I always hear a bit of the voice of the demon from The Exorcist when she speaks, Colleen Dewhurst brings Marilla Cuthbert to life perfectly.  She's so wry and dark yet full of love that she's impossible not to like.  Richard Farnsworth is so sweet and sad as Matthew Cuthbert.  He had a career that spanned sixty years but I think this is his most memorable role.
Sullivan also managed to find a slew of other amazing international actors to populate his film. Marilyn Lightstone is the teacher we all wish we had as Muriel Stacy and Patricia Hamilton as Rachel Lynde is terrific.  She would become a favourite of mine later on Road To Avonlea. This film also features other performers who would soon take on new roles in Avonlea: Jackie Burroughs, Cedric Smith and Mag Ruffman.
Jonathan Crombie is pretty adorable as Gilbert Blythe.  He and Follows did a great job of creating a sense of first love.  Apparently, Schuyler Grant was originally considered for the role of Anne but Sullivan decided that role should be played by a Canadian so Grant became Diana Barry.  She's perfect in the role and goes on to give some memorable performances in the sequels as well.
The production did an amazing job of finding perfect locations to shoot in.  Only a very small percentage of the exteriors were actually shot on PEI.  Most of the film was shot in and around Toronto, ON.  The house used for Green Gables is actually a private residence and the filmmakers put up the picket fence.  The art team was lead by David Cronenberg's production designer, Carol Spier.
I have to mention Hagood Hardy's charming score.  Hardy passed away far too young in 1997 but his music really brings this film to life.  Somehow he's able to capture the spirit of Anne and translate it into musical form.  One of the things that Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story is really lacking is Hardy's touch.
Kevin Sullivan managed to capture some extremely memorable performances and some stunning visuals which make this one of the great contributions to Canadian film and television.  If you haven't seen this and you're a fan of the novel you really should check it out.

All images are the property Sullivan Entertainment.  No copyright infringement is intended.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Anne of Green Gables

I've just had the most incredible morning!  Earlier this week I began re-reading L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables for the first time in many years and this morning, over about four hours, I finished it.  I must admit that I had partially forgotten its magic.  So much time and so many changes have gone by since what Anne might call the "epoch in my life" in which I first discovered the Anne books.
As I lay reading this morning -- my slightly worn 1987 paperback edition with the Megan Follows cover -- so many memories came flooding back to me!  Not just memories of my previous readings of the novel but memories of my own childhood which can sometimes be forgotten in the blindingly fast evolution to adulthood.

Montgomery does such a superb job of capturing the spirit of youth; not at all carefree but so strong as to be able to overcome almost any obstacle.  As an orphan who had rarely been treated with kindness, Anne Shirley was never carefree and even after she moved on to her life at Green Gables she was never spoiled or coddled.  And though her heart was often heavy her imagination and love of the gifts of nature made her seem carefree.  It's amazing to compare the way children are raised today to Anne's upbringing (fictional though it may be).

Though I love towering skyscrapers and bustling cities, at the moment I've overcome with a nostalgia for a time I never knew when a child might not taste ice cream until the age of 11 and time spent relaxing was all the more rewarding after one had worked hard all day to help feed and clothe the family.  Just as Anne thought the days of Camelot, as described by Tennyson, were "so much more romantic than the present," I admit to feeling the Victorian days described by Montgomery seem so much more romantic than our present.

There are so many things to love about this book!  The story itself is of course charming, heartbreaking and romantic.  Montgomery's voice is wonderfully pleasant to read.  Her vivid and loving descriptions of locales on Prince Edward Island are a love letter to the island and even if the reader has never been there the descriptions recall to memory other natural settings, just as beautiful, that most people could never describe with such simplicity or charm.  But for all that, it is truly the characters of Anne of Green Gables that make it so personal and memorable.

Anne Shirley (Anne with an 'e') is one of the greatest literary heroines ever created and it is a crime that she is not more often remembered alongside Alice (of Wonderland), Dorothy (of Oz) and Jane Austen's heroines.  I can say quite earnestly that I think Anne embodies the best qualities of the human race and I think that if everyone took some of her lessons to heart the world might be a better place. Montgomery's other characters are just as wonderful!  Everyone must have known a busybody like Rachel Lynde and a mild-mannered sweetheart like Matthew Cuthbert.  Marilla Cuthbert is a wonderful example of a woman caught between two worlds as the Victorian Empire gives way to new roles and new ways of living for women in the twentieth century.

For me, the heart of the novel is really in the relationship between Anne and Marilla as they figure each other out over several years.  Anne transforms Marilla's somewhat sad, conservative life with her whirlwind of enthusiasm.  It seems to me that, through Anne, Marilla is able to see the world with fresh eyes; which makes her condition at the end of the novel all the more painful.  In turn, Marilla is able to temper some of Anne's wild qualities.  She bestows upon the child gifts of knowledge in how to run a household and also the gift of work ethic which helps Anne get so very far in life.

I remembered keenly over the past week how much I fell in love with Anne's scrumptious vocabulary, including words like "enpurpled" and "thrillier."  I can imagine these probably seemed quite strange to readers in 1908 and there were probably many Marilla Cuthberts who forbade many Anne Shirleys from reading such frivolous nonsense!  I have often said that it is sometimes wise to lose one's self in nonsense in order to truly figure out who one actually is.  I have read that the original manuscript was rejected by several publishers until it was finally bestowed upon the world in 1908.  I'm so thankful that it was!  I'm excited to re-read the rest of the Anne books now as I prepare to visit Green Gables this summer.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Meeting Michael Mahonen

I've had a couple of near-meetings with the cast of Road To Avonlea but, thus far, I've only actually met one of them; Michael Mahonen who played Gus Pike.  Pike was originally only meant to appear in two episodes but critical and fan response to Mahonen's performance was so great that he eventually appeared in 28 episodes.  Mahonen received three Gemini nominations for his work on Road To Avonlea.  He also received one for the role of Lee Colgan in the CBC mini-series Conspiracy of Silence.

After Avonlea, Mahonen had many guest starring roles in both American and Canadian television series.  As a huge Star Trek fan, I was thrilled to see him as Brone in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Nemesis."  

In 2003, Mahonen began work on Sandstorm; a feature drama about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China.  He wrote, directed and produced the film with an entirely volunteer cast.  I met him at the Wizard World convention in Toronto in 2010 when he was promoting Sandstorm.
Mr. Mahonen was wonderful to meet.  He took the time to speak with me about Avonlea and about Sandstorm and we've since chatted a bit online.  I'd love to work with him some day.  He's a great Canadian actor and filmmaker who deserves to be well-known worldwide.

Requisite Films is the name of Mahonen's production company and the official website is the best place to find current news about his new projects.