Real-life flood drama hits Alberta-shot TV and film productions

The fictional railroad town of Hell on Wheels faced some real-life drama on Thursday, as raging waters from both the Bow and Highwood rivers swamped sets and led to a frantic evacuation of cast and crew.

It was one of four locally shot film and TV productions, including a unit shoot for the Christopher Nolan directed sci-fi epic Interstellar, that were interrupted by massive flooding in southern Alberta.

But Hell on Wheels appears to have been hardest hit.

Roughly 160 cast, crew and extras were evacuated on Thursday from the sprawling sets of the post-Civil War series shot near Okotoks, which is about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. The set is near both the Highwood and Bow Rivers.

“When I saw mammoth trees floating by I knew we were into something that we’d never seen before in our lives,” says Hell on Wheels’ Calgary-based producer Chad Oakes. “We pulled the plug. We got all the animals, the horses, all the equipment, the crew members, everything was evacuated in an amazing 30 minutes. It was all hands on deck, all departments. Once the last semi-truck trailer full of equipment made it to he top of the hill, the Highwood gave out first and then the Bow. It jumped the banks and wiped out the road. Right now there is no access to the set.”

An insurance adjuster was to survey the damage on Monday, but pictures taken Thursday show the sets covered with water.

The stars of the series — including Anson Mount, Common and Colm Meaney — were flown home as many of the hotels and condos where the actors stay during production are in the downtown area and other communities that were evacuated. The series is now taking its hiatus, which was planned to start June 27, a week early. The AMC western’s third season is scheduled to premiere Aug. 10. The production was in the midst of shooting its sixth of 10 episodes.

Oakes says he is optimistic filming will resume and the season will be completed on time.

“We are huddling today and all this week, working during the hiatus, to figure out when we can get back to shooting and how we can salvage the rest of the season,” Oakes said. “We still have four and a half episodes left to do … We are hoping and praying we can get back to work July 9. There might be some creative solutions while we’re able to rebuild the Hell on Wheels town. That series was not the only local production affected. Oakes’ Calgary-based Nomadic Pictures is also producer of the Discovery Channel’s miniseries Klondike with Richard Madden, Abbie Cornish and Sam Shepard. The period drama, which was shot at the CL Ranch near Springbank, had finished filming but flooding has prevented crews from properly wrapping up the site, Oakes said. Meanwhile, a third Nomadic TV project that is still in pre-production stages has had to cancel scouting locations in High River, the town hardest hit by floods in southern Alberta.

The devastation of that town will also have a long-term impact on the CBC family series Heartland, which is currently 30 days into shooting its seventh season. While much of the show is shot in Millarville and at the Currie Barracks in Calgary, producers use High River as a stand-in for the fictional town of Hudson. Portions of the show are also shot at a backlot in Bragg Creek, which also suffered damage, said executive producer Jordy Randall of Calgary’s Seven24 Films. But High River is the site for Maggie’s Diner, a set that often plays into Heartland storylines. It was swamped with flood water along with the rest of the town.

“It’s a very regular and central kind of location because it’s our only set in a town setting where people are meeting,” said Randall, adding that the production also uses High River’s streets and storefronts for shooting. “It’s really the centre of the activity from a town perspective. We had scripts written that we were about to start shooting that took place there. So step one is to rewrite some of those stories so those things happen elsewhere”

Production has not stopped on Heartland. Cameras started rolling again Monday in Calgary, Randall said.

Future production troubles obviously pale in comparison to what High River residents are facing themselves, Randall says. He said cast and crew are distraught over the disaster that has hit a town and plan on holding fundraisers for it.

“It’s become our home,” he said. “The face of Heartland continues to be High River and High River has embraced us as part of its tourism platform. That is our home in the show. To see what they are going through out there is just heart-wrenching.”

Pre-production of the Hollywood sci-fi film Interstellar, which is to be directed by Christopher Nolan and star Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey, was also briefly interrupted. The film is operating under a shroud of secrecy and different name south of Calgary, with sets being built between Okotoks and Longview. Damian Petti, president of IATSE Local 212, confirmed that production was only two weeks into constructing sets for an August shoot.

“The construction crew was evacuated and I think the office was too,” he said.

Nevertheless, by Monday both the production office and construction crews had gone back to work.

Source: The Calgary Herald

Photograph by: Courtesy, Bill Ives, Handout
Image: Flooded sets of the AMC western Hell on Wheels.

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