Dean Bennett has directed 39 episodes of Heartland, including the pilot, in addition to A Heartland Christmas. He has directed the last five season finales – from Season 4 to Season 9 – and directed this weekend’s finale, “Greater Expectations.” Heartland – to the joy of fans everywhere – was just renewed for Season 11.
1. What is the process of taking an episode – or scene – from page to film?
One of the most interesting parts of working on Heartland is the fact that we anthropomorphize a little bit with the horses – we try to keep things as real and true as possible – but there’s no question that we see ourselves in the animals that we spend time with. Sort of see them slightly from a human point of view. A big part of what my job as director is, is to take a scene that’s going to involve a horse, and let’s say it’s a specific horse behaviour. The horse behaviour might be that a horse is upset, and we want it to look aggressive or we want it to look retreating – that’s my word, that’s not a horse word, I know, but it’s sort of a dramatic word, we want to have a sense of the horse moving away.
Most of our horses are movie horses – insomuch that they are just so used to being on set. They are not disturbed by a microphone boom or anything like that – but, we are asking them to do behaviours that are trained out of them, for lack of a better word. They are settled horses that are well trained and they are not going to look aggressive or frustrated or frightened or things like that. So, what I do as a director is break down what the script asks for, and I have to figure out how we do that with the wranglers so that a horse can be doing what it normally does. We shoot in many little pieces, sometimes even using tricks like reversing the tape or the film – we always refer to it as film, but it’s not film any more. We use every trick in the book we can so that the horse will not be stressed in any way shape or form, but will appear to be perhaps stressed, or aggressive.
It’s really done in endless edits, it’s done using bait – a horse will frequently have a partner horse, just from being kept in the field together for years. Certain horses will do anything to be with their “buddy” horse so we will simply separate the horses – have them together at the beginning of the shot and pull one horse away and then release the other horse so that it will race across a round pen for instance, or across a field. As a director I need to figure out how to do starts and finishes, probably one of the toughest things we do because for instance, a horse charging Amy, or Georgie, one of those characters – in a round pen. Of course, these horses are not going to charge a human. They may run to a trainer, holding grain or a liberty horse – we use a number of liberty horses as well that will come to a signal. The problem is the signaller, the trainer, has to be out of the shot so we use other tricks like a split screen, but most often we use the edit, where we might use a horse with a rider on it and shoot the feet, taking off quickly, then we cut to what we call the A to B horse, the horse chasing its friend, or running towards its buddy horse, just outside the shot, and then we need to come up with another shot of where the horse stops, frequently that one would be using the same buddy horse. A lot of times they have to stop anyway and then it’s just camera angles.
So, I take all of this wish list of ideas, this sort of broken down thing that I just gave you, and we approach the wranglers and we do a meeting with the wranglers. Then the wranglers go out and work with the horses in question and in some occasions with a new horse, they will audition many horses – they are looking for horses that will naturally do versions of what I just said. Frequently we work with two horses, one that might be very calm and one that is a bit more excitable; sometimes even a third horse, one that is very green. We will intercut the behaviours we need for beginnings and endings. The wranglers will go out and find those horses, they might work with them for a few days – they will usually do a show and tell for me, as a director – and possibly with the writers as well in case they need to make some adjustments.
On the shooting day, I take that plan that we have come up with and we shoot it in accordance with that planning, and very specific. There are times where we have to figure out something on the fly because sometimes a horse just doesn’t want to do the plan as we thought it might. We’ll have to come up with some other idea. Generally speaking, almost all the behaviours that we put forward are filmed in that way, where things are broken into their component parts and each little piece is figured out how to do it. We might work for 20 minutes just to have a horse appear to take off fast. There are lots and lots of tricks when you’re working in the round pen; you might just be sending a horse around and be able to use some other moment. A lot of times moving a horse from side to side, shaking a grain pail from one side to another, will get a horse to step quickly towards feed or something like that.
You’ll take all these little broken fragments and moments and create this scene – hopefully completely honouring the horse’s normal behaviour – but we are looking at it through the lens of a human. So thus the reason I used anthropomorphize because certainly we like to treat them as characters and we like to care about them as much as anyone does with any pet, for lack of a better word. Not that these are all pets, but that’s the approach in general.
2. You’ve been involved with Heartland since the very beginning; what are your thoughts on why the show has been so successful?
I think the show has been successful because – and this might sound almost cliché – but the heart in Heartland clearly meets – I don’t want to use the word old-fashioned, but there’s a classic thing we used to do when we were growing up – I’m dating myself a little – but of watching the Sunday night at 7:00 show, sitting around with the family and watching a show about family. I’m going all the way back to the days of Bonanza and shows like that. It’s also a Western world, it’s also a ranch world that is unique. There are a few other shows that have dabbled in this world, but it was very unique. For some reason, I believed in it from the get-go; usually if you do a pilot, you realize there’s a less than 50 per cent chance it’ll ever see the light of day, but for some reason I felt this one would. It was because it felt like a Sunday night at 7:00, gather the family around and spend time together.
The other element that is so powerful is the focus on animals and specifically on horses. I used to be a hired hand on a farm/ranch; we had a couple of horses and 300 head of cattle. Although I did not grow up on a ranch I learned how to ride a horse and get out and check the calves in spring. I feel an affinity for the animals. I’m a pet lover myself, cats and dogs as well. The power and the mystique of horses are so powerful, and the show has tried hard over the years to honour that, to make the horses be characters, as much as anyone else in the show. You amplify that by the deep, deep care and love of horses and animals that Amber Marshall has and Alisha has as well; those moments are completely and utterly honest – in fact, a lot of scenes could not be done if it were not for their natural animal instincts. I mean instincts to understand animals. You could not shoot a lot of these scenes if you did not have Amber and Alisha. They literally make things work that otherwise wouldn’t, because they have animal instinct, in a very powerful way.
3. What do you enjoy most about working with the horses on the show?
Aside from what I just said, in terms of just loving animals, I was drawn to animals. In terms of working with the horses for me, it’s partly the human combination as well. It comes from being a director. You have a mission to tell a story, and you also have a clock running, and a lot of money going through that clock. What I love is watching how beautifully and wonderfully trained these animals generally are. I think sometimes we will take animals that are not as well trained because we want a very untrained look. Working with the horses is such a dramatically powerful, beautiful beast that could obviously turn on you in a heartbeat, but doesn’t, and works so carefully to step around everybody and everything. It’s literally one of the most beautiful animals on the planet. So acclimatized to working with humans and it’s that dynamic, that energy that’s between us, it’s never lost on me. Every day that I get to work with the horses, I work with deep appreciation for both them and the wranglers and the trainers.
4. Tell us about how you became a director for Heartland.
I grew up in a home that happened to not have television so I think I was destined to find out what that was all about; I loved anything to do with motion picture, movie pictures and films and certainly in school we would see films; I was powerfully drawn to motion pictures. I ended up when I was in my early 20s taking a night class in basic movie making. Before the course was complete – it was 10 nights – I had already made contact with the instructor and was setting about starting to work for him as a camera assistant.
It meets many, many needs. Working as a director I get to work with horses, which I have done as a hired hand; I get to work with cameras, which is obviously another industry all together, photography; you have to understand writing and drama, so the whole storytelling element of it; and then combining all of that with the visual, and music plays a part, sound is a powerful part in the show. It meets a need in me to work in many different areas with just one idea.
It’s a little bit like conducting an orchestra I would say, but it helps for somebody whose mind kind of bounces around a lot, to be able to use so many areas of interest. So I followed through, I started as a generator operator, and then I worked as a gaffer, and then I worked as a camera assistant and camera operator; and then moved into directing. I’ve directed commercials for a lot of the car companies, and food chains, and telephone companies. I started working in series television, North of 60 comes to mind; Caitlin’s Way comes to mind; it was a show that had a few horses in it. And then I was asked to do an interview with Michael Weinberg [Heartland’s producer]. I read the script for Heartland, and this is 11, 12 years ago. We had a great meeting and he asked me to direct the pilot for them so that’s kind of the really short form version of how I became a director.
5. What is the most difficult or complicated horse scene that you’ve had to direct?
One of the most difficult actually kind of sums up a lot of what I said at the beginning; at the very end of Season 8, it’s the episode where Ty and Amy get married, and at the very end of the show they are driving away on their honeymoon. In the meantime, Georgie is out in the backyard and she’s approaching Trouble. She’s out there alone, with this horse, and this horse is aloof, out behind some round bales, and it suddenly charges her. Right as it’s charging her, Amy happens to look outside the window of the car they’re in, and sees the charge, she screams for the driver to stop, and they look out the window – actually, step out of the car – thinking they’re going to see Georgie hurt. At that moment, Georgie raises her hands – this is all happening out in an open field – the horse stops, just short of her, and allows her to touch the horse.
That was a difficult scene. Most of the time is spent on the horse charging; we used, I’m going to guess, three horses in that work. Most of all the close-ups would be done with one horse as I recall. Just to get the horse – that was a liberty horse, a horse that would come on command – but you need to get all of those different speeds to happen. So we used different horses for that; we used what we call an A to B horse, which is a horse that will go to a buddy, for part of it; that horse always takes off quickly, so we were able to use that for the take-off and part of the run; the stop was the liberty horse, and then we may have used a third horse, I’m not sure, that’s two or three years ago now. That was a situation where sometimes a liberty horse – because of the filming – has to stand a few seconds too long and loses interest in the trainer. That was a time when that particular horse, who did brilliant work for us, but it decided that it wanted to go check out other parts of the field. It literally was mostly about that, about fixing that up.
Fortunately, we had a fantastic trainer and he was able to get the horse back, get his attention and we as a crew just stayed incredibly focused and then we got the shots.
I would say liberty work in a big open field is among the toughest, just because of the distraction and the time it takes to film. It took easily a full morning just to do the portions of that, and for us a morning is six hours.
6. What has been your favourite episode to direct?
There is so, so many, and we usually have at least three storylines in each episode. I’ve been very fortunate to have some good ones. We had the wild horse – what I would call the wild horse episode – I think that was in the middle of Season 7. In episode nine and ten when we got to work with horses that were on the wilder side, not many of them had spent time in training. I think some of them had none. Amy going blind, being kicked by the horse was a very difficult one to do as well.
One of the tougher ones – one of the emotionally tough ones that I really enjoyed shooting, but was a very sad story of Grandpa Jack having to put down Paint, or almost having to put down Paint, and Paint ultimately dying. I just thought everybody’s work in that was phenomenal and there was a situation where a liberty horse would lay down, and could lay down for long lengths, long periods, without stress, it was a one of the most amazing sights that I had seen. One of our trainers had this grey horse that could lay down on a mark, several times in one day, just astonishing from a horse point of view. I think that was one of the most moving days of my life, was the incredible respect I had for obviously the horse, profoundly the horse, but also the trainer. All of this done just quietly, just with visual commands. The horse would just slowly bend down on one knee and then lay down on its side, and then lay there as though dead, or dying, with no other tricks, just quiet talking from the trainer. Amazing, probably one of my favourites. You just felt so honoured to be with a beast that had that focus, and that love for his trainer.
7. What are some of the new filming techniques used in Heartland? (For example, I’m fairly sure some of the shots have been taken by drone.)
The drone is relatively new to us; I think we used it principally just for the last year, and possibly a little the year before. What I love about it is Heartland – I’ve always felt, ever since the pilot – and continue to feel this deeply – Heartland as a show, as set in the Foothills of the Rockies in Canada, and in Alberta…that must be shown to be a character. Our sense of place is partly why I think people tune in on Sunday night, is to spend time in that world. So the drone has given us just another element; it is a tool like any tool that could easily be overused, but it allows us to see the landscape in a greater way, in a stronger way. I think it’s been a fantastic addition and a tool to what we’re doing. Probably the most obvious tool that people would notice.
We’re able to see that we are out in the mountains. Technicians who have done some lab work for us years ago when we were using film in Toronto would think we were shooting against backdrops sometimes, because everything was too perfect. No, those clouds actually come over and rain on us.
8. The weather in Alberta is very changeable; is it difficult to keep the same “look” from shot to shot?
It’s very difficult, and to that we owe incredible debt of gratitude to our cinematographers, directors of photography. Jarrett Craig is the present director of photography and Craig Wrobleski before that, and Malcolm Cross. Weather in Alberta is a cinematographers’ nightmare. It can be a director’s nightmare, but we rely on them to be able to light in such a way, and to also read the skies – literally we have people staring at the sky, sometimes going up onto a high hill to see what weather is coming. Our assistant directors are constantly planning around, checking in with the weather department, looking at radar, and we’re making weather calls all day long in summer, all year long. The weather changes so frequently, and it’s incredibly difficult. Ultimately, if you just look at shows from a weather point of view you can see the anomalies, but we feel that because the cinematographers can adjust things somewhat, they’ve just done an incredible job of making the stories as seamless as possible. The weather affects your day profoundly. Sometimes you’re huddled under a shelter for an hour, an hour and a half, waiting for a hailstorm or a powerful rainstorm to go through. And then in September suddenly you can just be pelted with a blizzard, and have all that snow gone the next day. A lot of adjustment in the schedule, and sometimes just hoping that the audience will take the ride with us.
9. What are you most proud of regarding Heartland?
I think I’m most proud of that the stories are still rooted in its initial love of our small family, and the horse stories. Even though a temptation could be to look away from the horses, the horses have actually dominated and are the most necessary portion of the show. I’m thrilled that we have a great writing department, they have always shown us the way. It is about stories of the heart. Every episode to me has an emotional ending, I think you feel something at the end of every episode. I think that’s most important to me.
10. Did you direct “Greater Expectations,” and what can viewers expect from this season finale?
I did direct episode 18 of this season. I think people will find it a beautifully satisfying season ender.
“Greater Expectations,” the Season 10 finale of Heartland, airs on CBC on Sunday at 7 p.m./7:30 p.m. NT.
Readers are also invited to meet Graham Wardle, CBC Heartland’s Ty Borden, to meet Shaun Johnston, CBC Heartland’s Grandpa Jack, and meet Michelle Morgan, CBC Heartland’s Lou Fleming and meet Miranda Frigon, CBC Heartland’s Janice Wayne.