It is a magical thing when the stars align and ones interest and passions lead to opportunities. In words of Mrs. Rachel Lynde, one of the characters in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series, it is “simply providential.”
I have lived and breathed the life and work of Montgomery since I was nine, every few years diving back into her fiction or life writing, finding new perspectives. The Sullivan TV series certainly helped, as I was at that perfect age to receive it and would return to it often over the years (at least the first two). And, whether it was writing about children’s literature, the experience of Canadian teachers in 19th century Canada, or the Perfect Man Archetype, Montgomery always found a way in. That’s her appeal and what makes her continually relevant.
When it was announced that Breakthrough Entertainment had bought the rights to the Anne series and then that there was going to be a new movie, I was thrilled. I am kind of a sucker for all kinds of adaptations, fascinated by the choices that writers make to create something new. (I’m currently addicted to Anne of Green Fables, a modern retelling YouTube web series, which has the best casting of Royal Gardner. He has a man bun!) So, getting the opportunity to visit the set of this new film (airing on YTV on February 15) and talk with the people behind it really was one of those moments where all of my interests fused. And it was thrilling. And completely terrifying.
Before I got to set, I was pretty convinced that I would go all fangirl on cast member Sara Botsford (I had a total crush on her when she was on E.N.G.), and also not remember words when I met Martin Sheen. Also, why me? There are many other Montgomery fans who know more and would love to be there too. (I knew in a lot of ways the questions I would ask would be for them.)
I had also never been on a set before and wasn’t sure of the rules of conduct. When I heard the phrase, “press junket,” I imagined a hundred reporters (and me) in a crowded room screaming the actors’ names, with the pop of many a flash bulb (I know, how very 1940s of me). Luckily, I was partnered with Melissa Girimonte from The Televixen for the day and she showed me the ropes. I’m sure we are to be bosom friends forever.
We were picked up at 9 a.m. by one of the set drivers and taken to a secret filming site in Milton, Ontario, which was a working pioneer farm. Blue sky. Soft breeze. It was the kind of June day Montgomery would have loved. June was her favourite month after all, and so that, in addition to being near the part of Southern Ontario where she had lived during the later part of her life (Leaskdale and Norval), added to the perfection of being there. Also perfect? Hanging out with Kate Macdonald Butler, Montgomery’s granddaughter and the film’s executive producer, first.
I know Kate from the various Montgomery events I’ve attended, so my first interview felt more like old friends sitting down over tea to chat about movies and such. I think she might have been a bit nervous, too. This production is her baby, and there is a lot of pressure on her to “get it right.” She said that she cried every time she read the manuscript and she worked closely with the screenwriter, Susan Coyne, but at some point she had to trust in the decision of the team. “The stars aligned,” she said, talking about the production team. “[And] there is an emotional grounding of the story and the characters every step of the way.”
After speaking with Kate, Melissa and I toured the set, which they made to look as much like Prince Edward Island as possible. Financial reasons kept them from shooting on the Island, but were going to send a crew there to get some footage. The house, however, had green gables and certainly had that late 19th century architecture. I liked that they took the time shoot all over the house.
At one point, we got to watch the director, John Kent Henderson, do his magic. The scene I got to see was the morning after Anne arrives and Marilla and Matthew haven’t decided if they will keep her. She’s eating a piece of toast and is (in an Anne way) very excited about the possibility of jam. Seeing the three main talent work together provided insight into how these characters would reveal themselves. For a moment, I saw Marilla, Matthew and Anne. I got it.
We also got to see the costume van, where the designer, Michael Harris, demonstrated the meticulous detail he went through to make the costumes authentic to 1908, the year the movie is set. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the novel actually takes place about twenty years before that. However, Montgomery did play with her own timeline and having now seen the production, I’m not too distracted by this.) Harris’s research and awareness of the fabrics that would work with digital film and also be authentic to the period showed me that this team truly cared about what they were doing.
After our look at the costumes, we were driven back up to the house, where Sheen regaled us with a story about being on the set of Apocalypse Now. I don’t really remember it, but he was certainly a showman and a joker, singing on the set and comfortable in his skin. We got to chat with him after lunch, which he had spent with the thirteen-year-old Ella Ballentine, who told us later how much she enjoyed learning about acting from both Sheen and Botsford.
Luckily, I held it together when I met Botsford. She really is as awesome as I hoped she would be: grounded, professional and so invested in her creation of Marilla. We got into a really fascinating discussion about what a compelling character she is to play and the lack of interesting roles there are for women over a certain age. Sadly, she was my shortest interview because she had to get back to work.
After lunch, Melissa and I sat under a canopy with benches with Sheen, who spent the first ten minutes interviewing me about Montgomery. I was so flustered that I sort of went with it, until I was like, “Shouldn’t I be interviewing you?” I never really got to ask any of my questions because after Melissa asked her one question, he spoke for another fifteen minutes about life, the universe and everything. We covered everything from the movie to the state of the union. It was amazing.
What struck me was Sheen’s passion for humanity, which was why this movie was so important to him. As he explained, “If Anne of Green Gables isn’t about humanity, I don’t know what it is about. It’s about need. It’s about service.” He also described “Anne’s fire”: “This is what Anne inspires us to do … to go out of our way to become ourselves, which means we are capable of leading an honest life. We lead by example.” (Sheen certainly walks his talk, having created a friendship with Ballentine.)
Our interview with Sheen ended when he played Hide the Candy Bar with us. No joke. He hid a Kind bar in one hand and had us chose which hand it was in. I wasn’t sure if I should eat it, or keep it as a memento. (I ate it.)
Our day ended with Ballentine, who is adorable. They were about to shoot a winter scene and had put fake eyelashes with pretend snowflakes on her. (She batted her lashes and said, “Isn’t this pretty?”) She admitted that she is “very girly” and loved dressing in the “typical Anne Shirley outfit”—a green dress with pinafore. She struck me as quite grounded and aware of her good fortune and I thought it was very cool that, like Montgomery, who was published when she was 16, she has had some early success. She totally won me over.
Indeed, the whole production had.
— Melanie J. Fishbane (@MelanieFishbane) June 11, 2015
L.M. MONTGOMERY’S ANNE OF GREEN GABLES airs Monday, February 15 at 6 p.m. ET on YTV.