Nearly 3.5 million viewers tune in each week to watch the latest episode of “When Calls the Heart,” a series about a 19th century teacher in a small mining town in the Canadian West.
But the journey to success has been a rollercoaster ride, with the latest blip being the Hallmark Channel’s firing of star Lori Loughlin, who portrayed coal miner widow Abigail Stanton, after she and her husband were accused of paying $500,000 so their daughters could attend the University of Southern California on the crew team, even though neither had rowed in high school.
Earlier this month, Brian Bird, an executive producer of the seven-season series, recounted the turbulent journey he and Michael Landon Jr. followed after agreeing in 2007 to produce a movie based on Janette Oke’s beloved books. Bird, who wrote screenplays and produced episodes of “Touched by an Angel” and movies such as “The Reckoning,” “The Shunning” and “The Last Sin Eater,” was a keynoter at Oregon Christian Writers’ summer conference in Portland along with novelist Francine Rivers, author of “The Last Sin Eater,” “Redeeming Love,” and the award-winning Mark of the Lion series.
As I listened again to Bird’s words, I thought about the two local teenagers who recently underwent brain surgeries. The Toledo community has rallied around Jessica Hull and Riley Birdwell with prayer and support, including a Music in the Park fundraiser Sunday afternoon.
Bird and Landon began filming the “When Calls the Heart” movie in Alberta, Canada, in 2007 with a $4.5 million budget.
“It was sailing along beautifully until September of 2008,” Bird said. “Remember when the sky was falling on everybody? The whole world was in a (financial) meltdown. It was a scary, scary time for all of us.”
Finances faded halfway into production. The producers had spent $1.5 million and owed the same amount to actors, crew, vendors, and others.
“It’s not the same thing as losing a spouse or getting a diagnosis of cancer or a tumor,” Bird said. “I’m not going to pretend the stakes are that high, but in the film business, it’s like a brain tumor on your movie for the money to fall apart when you’re already filming. It’s the worst that could ever happen to you.”
Bird and Landon sent everybody home, shut down production, and left Canada with their names on the “you-know-what list.” They had no clue how to fix it. They had 11 days of beautiful film in the middle of a movie, but it was worthless.
Bird stopped at a lawyer’s office on his way home. He felt as if they’d been hit by a drunk driver.
“It was a disaster for our families because when you’re a producer on the film, you’re the last person to be paid,” he said. “I had a year on the table that I had to walk away from. And I don’t know too many people who have a year in the bank. It was ugly.”
He figured his 25-year career in film had ended. He needed a job to provide for his family.
“We all get hit by drunk drivers in one way or another,” Bird said. “We’re all going to end up getting giant bags of problems in our lives, whether it’s physical or financial or losing your loved ones. I learned a lot about myself, and about God, the promises of God, what it means to make personal sacrifices, how to let go of my ego and my pride.”
They had two choices — walk away from the original production and start over or try to finish the original film and redeem their good names. They spent the next several years pitching the film to investors and studio executives. They found a champion in Brad Krevoy, producer of “Dumb and Dumber.” In 2010, Hallmark Channel executives agreed to provide $1 million to finish the film — in Romania.
Then Bird and Landon discovered the lead actors were booked for three years. Bird said they needed to finish the original film to claim $850,000 in tax credits from Canada to help pay back what they owed.
Landon called him up and asked what he thought of a journal. They brainstormed the idea of weaving memories from two decades earlier into a new film with a younger Elizabeth Thatcher, a niece of the original who would wind up somewhere else.
“We start to spin on this idea. … Then at the end of the conversation, we just go — that is so lame.”
But Hallmark accepted it and focus groups loved the finished movie. It served as a pilot for a six-episode series shot in Vancouver, B.C., which grew to 12. The first show aired Jan. 11, 2014, and fans swarmed to social media, calling themselves the Hearties. A closed Facebook group drew 10,000 fans (and it’s up to 73,000 today).
“We finally realized what was happening,” Bird said. “‘When Calls the Heart’ was filling a deeply understood need for faith- and family-friendly programming. Nobody anywhere was doing it.”
After the first season, Hearties handcrafted 2,500 hearts thanking Hallmark for the show and asking for season two. They strung the hearts together and mailed them to the network, where they were draped through the offices. Hashtag Hearties trended nationally on Twitter.
“If you find people that are hungry, and you give them food, they will love you,” Bird said. “They will be loyal. They will evangelize for you. People are starved for hope and faith and love in our culture.”
When the lead romantic actor wanted to move on, the writers killed him off. Still the Hearties remained faithful.
Then another apocalypse occurred after they filmed season six.
“My good friend Lori Loughlin got in trouble,” Bird said. “And we had already delivered 10 episodes of Lori all through them.”
They took a creative hiatus, cut her from the show, shot new material, and aired the revised season, which was the highest rated on cable television. Bird admitted part of that might have been ambulance chasing, with people wondering how they would handle the scandal. But the show will begin airing a new spinoff Friday—what Bird called “a derivative of our derivative show.”
“I don’t know where it’s going to end,” Bird said.
Bird said he learned four things from his crazy experience:
Hold onto what’s true in your life — family, friends, faith, and God’s promises even in the midst of doubt and a lack of confidence.
There’s no such thing as being uncalled — when he wanted to quit, his pastor of 20 years, Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren, said if God calls you to work, you don’t get to un-ring that bell, even when it’s not easy.
Persistence beats resistance — there’s no such thing as giving up. Failure is never an option.
Finally, the journey is just as important as the destination.
“When we started this journey literally 11 years ago, we could never have anticipated the heartbreak and the grind,” Bird said. “But we could never have anticipated the huge blessing we had to come. We had to wander through the desert to get to Hope Valley because God cares more about our character than our comfort. Testimony always trumps trials. Failure always comes before redemption.”
As I joined more than 150 people at the Kemp Olson Park to hear Toledo alumni musicians Mason Gaul, Kaitee Carney, and Tyler Crawford perform Sunday, I thought of the blessings that had grown from the terrible heartache experienced when Jessica and Rylee collapsed and underwent brain surgeries. I thought of all the people who had prayed for their recovery. I gazed at the girls walking in the park, alive and well, flourishing and beloved by their community.
Their testimony will indeed trump their trials.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.