A&E » Arts

Whistler: more than music, mountains and mayhem

Series positioned as a hip, sophisticated mystery with a sense of humour



ART: Something by Warren Miller

CAP: Will shooting in HD replicate create awe-inspiring Warren Miller-type visuals? Whistler’s Janet York hopes so.

Whistler will get the star treatment in an upcoming CTV series of the same name. Principal photography for Whistler will begin Nov. 16. Producer Janet York, of Boardwatch Productions, is hoping that the show will air this spring on the heels of the Torino Olympic Winter Games.

"We’re hoping to build on that interest in winter sports," said York. "But you know how things can change at networks."

Indeed. The one-hour drama was considered dead in the water this June when it was turned down for funding by the Canadian Television Fund. In Canada, without the CTF, it is nearly impossible to get a show produced, since initial broadcast fees only serve to pay a fraction of a show’s cost.

The rejection was shocking. Atypical of industry standards, CTV had submitted only three shows to the funding body. Common practice is to throw everything you have at the wall to see what sticks. (CBC submitted 27 shows and Global applied to fund 11.)

"If it wasn’t for Sam Feldman, John Morayniss and Bill Mustos, we wouldn’t have had the reversal of fortune we had," stated York.

Mustos is senior VP of dramatic programming for CTV, Morayniss is co-founder of Blueprint Entertainment, Boardwatch’s production partner, and Feldman is executive producer for the series.

Feldman is also head of the country’s leading entertainment agency, the Vancouver-based SL Feldman and Associates. SLFA has supervised soundtracks for numerous film and TV projects. York works with the agency, heading its Big Pictures division. As the moving force behind Big Pictures, York has produced on the feature Rare Birds and the TV series Big Sound . Broadcast in 2000-01, Big Sound was a comedy set in the music industry that featured musicians playing themselves.

Approached by Whistler creators John Barbisan, Patrick Banister, Mindy Heltzon and Susan James, York realized that the series would be a perfect fit with Big Pictures’ mandate: developing fast-paced music focused television.

"Music will be more important in this show than on usual soundtracks. We’ll be using techniques like needle drop and featuring local indie artists," explained York.

From the music to the actors to the five scribes holed-up in the writers room (a rarity in Canadian TV), the show is 100 per cent Canadian-made – a point of considerable pride with York.

"We have great crews here," enthused the producer. "The talent pool in Vancouver is very deep; the talent is stunning."

Without the CTF reversing its decision, it is unlikely that the show would have had the luxury of remaining entirely Canadian. The most obvious funding options would have entailed the producers entering a foreign co-production agreement to raise the necessary $1.4 million per episode. The budget is high by Canadian standards, but essential if Whistler is going to succeed, both here and there .

There is the U.S., where the show has been picked up with the cable network, The N, also known as Noggin. The network has made its name by broadcasting edgy youth fare like Degrassi , My So-Called Life and Clueles s. Adding Whistler , with its 15- to 40-year-old target demographic, to its line-up is clearly an attempt to age-up the channel and broaden its appeal.

"It’s a true-blue drama," says York. "It’s very clever, hip and sophisticated. The writing could stand up to anything currently being made. I gave the first two scripts to Sam (Feldman), he read them and said, ‘Where’s the next one?’"

Described as "an action-packed ride through the politics, especially the personal ones, of a high-end resort town, where family and interpersonal pressures are ready to blow" the premise of Whistle r may seem familiar. On the surface, it’s suspiciously like The Mountain , last year’s ill-fated WB series about life in a ski resort.

However, York says setting the shows in mountain resorts is where the resemblance ends. Whereas The Mountain used soap opera structure to move along the story of the prodigal son’s return home, Whistler promises to be headier fare.

"It’s The O.C. meets Twin Peaks ," stated the producer.

And it’s the surrealistic Twin Peaks -feel that is sure to have viewers tuning in. Like David Lynch’s late-’80s series, it’s the death of a popular local youth that creates a mystery from which the dramatic tension develops in Whistler . While Lynch had viewers wondering who killed Laura Palmer, York and company plan to engage their audience with the story of a local golden boy who returns with a medal from Torino and a host of endorsements, only to succumb to a suspicious death.

"We’re aiming at a 15- to 40-year-old audience, but anyone interested in serialized, multi-line stories, like Desperate Housewives , will enjoy it. And there’s a real sense of humour in the stories," said York.

The producer is also counting on stunning visuals to complement the writing and put the series head to head with its most obvious competitors.

"In terms of style and direction, the demo gets compared to The O.C. The show is great in terms of how it gets shot and how the characters are so fully developed," she said. " Whistler will be shot in high definition. It will look fantastic."

Asked about a visual benchmark, she considers the options and then says, with a laugh, "Warren Miller."

Although the show is set in Whistler, most of the filming will occur in a converted warehouse in Langley. York says that the ongoing work on the Sea to Sky Highway, and unpredictable road closures, made it impractical to set the production in, or closer to, the resort. However, series-establishing and "flavour" shots of the village and surrounding community will be plentiful.

While the show’s March debut is months away, the producers are already considering a four-season cycle. This would provide them with the magic number of shows necessary for syndication and take the show all the way up to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. And who knows, it might just generate a few more bodies on the slopes in the meantime.