Frontier by Take the Shot Productions is a historical drama set at the height of the fur trade era in North America. A long time in the making, Executive Producers Alex Patrick, John Vatcher and the Blackie brothers, Peter and Rob, originally pitched a different idea to Discovery. While they liked the concept, the broadcaster asked if they would consider doing a drama based on the fur trade. Discovery saw an opportunity and thought the team that created Republic of Doyle could make it happen. From there, the team went with Discovery to Netflix, where they partnered on a cross-platform delivery. First airing on Discovery, the show then hit Netflix US and CraveTV in Canada.
Fur trading (Photo credit: Duncan de Young)
Doing extensive research on the fur trade in Canada, Peter was shocked by the vast amount of knowledge he hadn’t covered in high school. With decolonization just starting to reach a critical mass, he reveals that “our show has ambitions to tell a part of how complex the cultures in this country are and look critically at ourselves today.”
It became increasingly clear to the team that the treatment of the original peoples of North America is a “willful blind spot that we carry nationally and that’s not right.” It was a humbling moment, uncovering more of the truth and recognizing that as the creators of the show, they all came from one perspective. But instead of shying away from the subject they “looked at it really hard.” Peter relates that the prejudice he experienced as a Newfoundlander provided a window into empathy. “We began to try and understand as much as we could through research and reaching out. And we realized that the only way to tell it was from multiple perspectives.” Ideas for characters then began to emerge and the story followed.
John Vatcher directs Allan Hawco (Photo credit: Duncan de Young)
The key was through addressing stereotypes. In casting, they learned a powerful lesson when they received a heartfelt and critical letter from an Aboriginal woman, pointing out the myths they would be perpetuating if they did not reconsider certain characters, especially the roles of Indigenous women. Deeply appreciative of her feedback and guidance, the team asked Elle – Maija Tailfeathers, of Blackfoot and Sami heritage, to join the team as a consultant. Soon they brought on additional Aboriginal experts, including those more familiar with the Swampy Cree, the main people living around James Bay where the story is largely set. From here, the team felt like they could have “a healthy dialogue about the truth of things.”
With the central character Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a Métis, straddling the cultures of both his Cree mother and Irish father, Peter and Rob found a way in. Peter explains that a mixed-race character provided a more objective view and a liberating story structure. Like Declan, Jason comes from mixed-ancestry. He is Native Hawaiian and Irish American. And he is mean with an axe, as Jimmy Kimmel will attest! But otherwise, he couldn’t be more different. John describes him as “an emotionally intelligent, playful, giant-hearted man.” A true ambassador of the show, we can expect to see a lot more of Jason.
Declan Harp (Jason Mamoa) (Photo credit: Duncan de Young)
In Season 2, we’ll see another character come to the forefront. Sokanon, an Ojibway woman and part of Declan’s group of rebels, comes into her own. Played by the talented Jessica Matten, the story will tackle more stereotypes and “a tremendous amount of grey morality.”
In telling historical fiction, Peter points out that “you have an obligation to somehow tether it to history.” Part of how they achieve this is through the authenticity of the experience, both for the viewers and the actors. In Episode 103, John describes how he and Jason decided to film a scene outdoors instead of in a tent. It was February and there was 70cm of snow. “We wanted to make it more real, grizzled, to show the fortitude of the character.” With all of the crazy weather on location in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the team has to be prepared for anything, “like being out there in the blizzard changing lenses.” Luckily, most of the crew is from the province and are conditioned for it. Apparently, some even find it motivating!
Peter Blackie on set (Photo credit: Duncan de Young)
With Season 2 likely airing in late 2017 and Season 3 hopefully soon in development, the show will continue to explore this important time in Canadian history. Already garnering seven Canadian Screen Award nominations, winning Best Achievement in Make-Up, the team is exceedingly proud of what they’ve accomplished so far. With articles in the Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, New York Times, and Pop Sugar and with Netflix’s promotion on the talk show circuit, Discovery has a hit on its hands. Still half a year to go before the next round, re-watch Season 1 on CraveTV and connect with the show and its stars on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.