Heather Conkie is the much-beloved “Queen of Heartland”; she’s the behind-the-scenes orchestrator of all of the story lines in CBC’s hit show Heartland. Heather has been working on the show since its beginning, and she gives us a bit of information on the show’s inner workings.
1. As the executive producer for Heartland, what exactly does the job entail? What is your favourite part about being the executive producer for Heartland?
On Heartland, I’m the first one in – creating the seasonal arcs with the writing team, and the last one out – completing the post production sound and music. At the start of production there are lots of layers to my schedule. We’re prepping two episodes and shooting two others at the same time. We’re editing and doing post production all at once. We edit in Calgary, but I go back and forth from Calgary to Toronto for the sound and the music mix. My calendar is insane. It’s colour coded. Luckily, I have a great team that keeps me very focused. I also have a fabulously supportive husband and daughter in Toronto who have had to adapt to this crazy schedule. I couldn’t do this without them.
My favourite part? I love writing, but the real thrill for me is to see all the Writers’ scripts take life through the incredibly collaborative process from start to finish. The talented directors, our fantastic cast, the crew, the editors, our composer and all the people involved in the production contribute so much to what that finished product is. When it all comes together and it’s beyond our expectations – thatʼs the thrill.
2. Is it difficult finding fresh, new ideas for Heartland? How do you come up with ideas?
Iʼm not going to say it isnʼt difficult to come up with new ideas, especially at the 10th season mark. But itʼs imperative that we stay fresh and I canʼt say enough about my very talented team of writers, Mark Haroun, Ken Craw, Pamela Pinch and Bonnie Fairweather. When we first gather to discuss ideas for the new season itʼs really difficult to look at that blank white board. But we brainstorm story points and character arcs and nothing is thrown out without exploring it – even some of the craziest ideas can lead to the best end result.
The one thing we do know before we start each season is where our arcs are beginning and where they need to go. In other words, we always know what the season ender is and then we have to figure out what our characters need to do to get us there. For the season one conclusion, we knew we wanted Ty to disappear back into his old life. In season two, we wanted to end with the first “I love you” confession between Amy and Ty which, after a whole lot of ups and downs, evolved all the way to the Amy/Ty wedding at the end of season eight and the “Youʼre going to be a father”
ending of season nine.
Every Heartland character has their own arc, not just within individual episodes, but within the season as a whole. And because we have such a large ensemble cast, the trick is to wind up all their individual arcs into a whole so that we reach our desired emotional conclusions with all of them. Itʼs a bit like putting a big jigsaw together.
3. Do you have any equestrian experience yourself?
Not really – unless you count two weeks at a horseback riding camp when I was 13 and a wonderful ride on a beach during a vacation many years later. But since Iʼve been in Calgary Iʼve gone out riding with our wranglers a few times and Iʼve learned a great deal about equine behaviour during my experiences on set.
4. Do you have a favourite story line or arc from any of the previous seasons?
I still have a great love for Amyʼs story arc in season five. It starts with a magical moment when she sees a trainer doing liberty work with a pair of beautiful white Andalusian horses in the middle of nowhere. It marked the beginning of Amyʼs fascination with liberty work. And for her part, Amber Marshall enthusiastically embraced learning the art of liberty with the same passion as her character. As the episodes progressed we watched Amy persevere with training Spartan, experiencing both setbacks and progress and in the last episode of the season, she did an incredible liberty performance for the trainer who had started her down that road. I think the most amazing part of that story arc was watching Amber, in real life, follow a parallel course with Amy, as she learned the art of liberty and was obviously in love with doing it. She did a huge portion of her own stunt work that season.
One of the stories that made me cry the most while I was writing it was “Ties Of The Earth” in season nine. Itʼs the story of the passing of Jackʼs beloved horse, Paint. I think everyone who has ever lost a pet responded to it, including me. I was a puddle.
5. What should fans look forward to in season 10?
Season 10 is full of surprises. Itʼs a time of change, with some of the family members making decisions about the future that will expand their horizons and take them on new adventures. In the writing room we call it the season of “Great Expectations” because, of course, the last lines of Amyʼs dialogue in the closing episode of season nine were “Youʼre going to be a father.”
6. How did you get involved in Heartland?
I came on board after the pilot episode was made and the series was put into development. One of the shows I had been a writer on for many years was Road To Avonlea for CBC and Disney. The executives at CBC knew my work and suggested I meet with the producers. I was thrilled when they offered me the role of show runner. I jumped at the chance. It has been and continues to be a dream job.
7. Why do you think Heartland has been so popular?
Iʼm not sure I know the whole answer to this question. I think, that even though it is set in the here and now, it still represents a kinder, gentler place where people want to go. Itʼs definitely a show that families can and do watch together. And it appeals to all ages. Apparently our demographic goes from four to 94.
There is also the fact that we do 18 episodes each year, which makes it possible to see all four seasons. Heartland is a very outdoor show, so not only is it cinematically beautiful to watch the vivid changes of scenery as time passes, but the audience really has the feeling that they have lived through a year in the life of the extended Bartlett family and shared in all their experiences. It makes me very happy to talk to people about the show and quickly realize that our characters have become extremely real to them. Itʼs as if theyʼre part of their own family. And itʼs to our actorsʼ credit that the audience feels that way. Iʼm also proud to get so many texts and letters that say our show has brought back the family dinner to their households.
8. What are the difficulties – and joys – of writing for horses?
To get the real answer to this you should sit in on one of our wrangler/stunt meetings that we hold before we shoot the episodes. As writers, we tend to create stories for the horses in the same way that we do for any of the other human characters on the show. They have arcs. They have feelings. I admit, we do tend to get pretty anthropomorphic with all the horses in the series, which means our scripts give human emotions and actions to our four legged friends. All of these directives are met with blank stares from our wonderful and experienced cowboy wranglers. Usually followed by the question: “You want Spartan to do what???” But Iʼm always blown away with the results that these fantastic horsemen and women get. Who says a horse canʼt look close to tears?
9. Back in season one, Heartland writers took inspiration from Heartland the book series. Is this still the case, or has the show evolved so much that it’s a “whole new world?”
The series of Heartland books was a terrific bonus. Not only did we already have a loyal following of readers before we even went to air, but it gave us inspiration for our first story ideas. We looked to those books for inspiration and ideas. We also made some changes and added additional characters. But producing the number of episodes that we do, we inevitably ran out of the book stories pretty much near the beginning of season 2. Heartland, the television series has become a world of its own.
10. Do you have any last words for fans of the show?
We wouldnʼt be here without our fans. I know that sounds like a cliché, but itʼs true. They have been incredible. They are intensely loyal and involved. Social media is has been a big boon for Heartland. The series has an online presence unlike any other Canadian television series. We have almost 300,00 followers on Facebook. Whenever thereʼs an event that fans are invited to they turn out in droves from all over the world. Everyone involved in the Heartland series appreciates our fans and weʼll strive to continue to deliver the episodes that they love, the stories they can relate to, stories that make them laugh and cry, for as long as we possibly can.
11. Tell us about Beyond Black Beauty, a film you are currently working on? What is it about, and when it does it come out?
Beyond Black Beauty is still in its earliest development phase so, unfortunately, itʼs too soon to say anything about it, except that my partner in the project is my daughter, Alexandra Clarke, herself an accomplished writer.
Readers can enjoy profiles of six or more actors with Star Crossed Horses. Meet Madison Cheeatow, CBC Heartland’s Jade Virani, and meet Graham Wardle, CBC Heartland’s Ty Borden, and 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.