Chris Potter on acting and directing on Heartland

Today's guest blog is from Chris Potter, and he answers some questions about Heartland Season 14, directing on the series and the departure of Graham Wardle.
Chris Potter directing an episode of Heartland (RESCUED HORSE SEASON FOURTEEN INC.)

Hello Heartlanders,

Welcome back to a brand new season.

One we might all agree has been "for the ages."

The CBC Digital media team has asked if I would answer some questions with regard to the episodes I directed this season.

The answer is Yes!

So, let's "Blog".

Question: How do you feel about Graham Wardle's departure from the show?

With a few minutes of online research, anyone can discover that over the decades many successful TV series have experienced the loss of a lead character. Shelley Long from Cheers, Steve Carell from The Office and Game of Thrones, who virtually rewrote the playback on killing off lead characters, to name just a few.

Individuals seek change in every walk of life.

Graham Wardle gave a 100% effort during his years on Heartland. Though it may only take an hour to watch, it's important to remember that it took Graham 6 to 8 months to complete a season each and every year. 

If Graham were my son, I'd be glowing with pride for his achievements.

I wish him continued success. It was a pleasure working with him. 

Question: What is your process and what were the challenges of directing episode 1403 and 1404?

I was assigned Episode 3, "Making Amends", co-written by Heather Conkie and her daughter Alexandra Clarke, as well as Episode 4, "Through the Flames", written by Ken Craw.

I wrapped on Season 13 in late August of 2019. Little did we know that a full year would pass before we would roll cameras on a 14th season of Heartland.

The progressive uncertainty brought on by the Covid pandemic was shutting down our industry and sidelining performing artists the world over. The Heartland window was closing on completing a season of 10 episodes.

In late August, I received a text from Executive Producer Dean Bennett that stated we were ready to roll, and I would be needed in Calgary the second week of September 2020 to begin filming.

The part of the text I'll never forget informed me that the producers would like me to direct Block 2 (episodes 3 and 4) and that the scripts were currently being extensively re-written due to casting. They would not be available for me to read. 

But... the 'train derailment' and 'grass fire' were still in episode 4.

What?? Train derailment? Grass fire?


Where am I going to find a location to derail a train, create explosions, open flames, heavy smoke and Fire Crews to fight it, in the middle of pandemic restricted conditions?

Important to note, the director's success is fully dependent on support from and communication with numerous creative departments that make up a production team. Just read the credits at the end of any show for proof.

On Heartland, we have an intense 15-day pre-production schedule prior to filming each block of shows. It is in these ongoing production meetings that we iron out the challenges and logistics that each episode may present. Teamwork is the key.

As Director, I am assigned an assistant directing team whose talents make my work achievable.

Back to the Train Wreck :)

Leave it to our talented locations manager, Brian Dunne, to find an Albertan acreage owned by a train lover.

Not only had the property owner turned his ranch land into a train themed family campground, but he also owned an adjacent property with kilometres of usable track and a collection of functional rail cars that he had accumulated over the years. Knowing that the list of alternate choices might be limited to none, I made this our first choice.

Dale Marushy became our new production designer for Season 14. What he and his team accomplished in turning that set into what you see in "Through the Smoke," deserves recognition. It was literally a "trial by fire" victory for his department.

Another new addition to the Heartland production team this season was David Benediktson and his special effects team that provided the fire, smoke, explosions etc. throughout the episode. Top shelf pros.

 * The most important step of my directing process is my first read of the script. No distractions, no interruptions. I disappear inside the story. I reappear on a visual path. The rhythm, pace, colours, textures, light and dramatic beats all inform the tone of the episode I want to deliver.

As a Director, I try to give the Heartland audience more of what they expect. I don't try to reinvent the wheel.

Having a great working relationship and trust in Director of Photography Jarrett Craig and his camera team is the icing on the cake.

Question: How do you act and direct at the same time? Which do you prefer?

I prefer doing both at the same time. I feel fully engaged giving everything I can offer. I feel fortunate that our producers have shown faith in my ability to do both. But... if I had to choose one, it would be acting.


Mastering the craft is a lifelong pursuit. I love the moments between "Action and Cut". 

Everything outside of those moments is just 'waiting'...and life of course.

*Acting and Directing demand opposing energies.

As a Director, I'm actively engaged with a crew and expected to lead them through our day as scheduled. The days are long and can be physically and mentally exhausting depending on location and weather. Somewhat like doing a jigsaw puzzle outside all day.

As an actor, I need to calm my mind and harness my internal energy in order to focus, concentrate and, most importantly, listen, when I am performing in a scene.

Calming breaths are helpful for both jobs. :)

Question: Is being an Actor an advantage when Directing an Actor?

It certainly provides an understanding. Not sure if it is an advantage.

One thing that is guaranteed on Heartland is the beauty of the animals, the surroundings of the Rocky Mountain foothills and the long spectacular views.

But the writing and performances of the actors bring our viewers back each week.

I believe in actors. No matter what level of experience they may have. I believe that if they are on our set, they have gone through a long process to be there and they have my support.

I try to quickly identify their strengths and let them know I believe in them.

I encourage them to be confident in their abilities and choices. I let them know I've got their backs.

As for our lead characters, well, I think they know that I'm wise to their tricks and if I catch them coasting I won't let them get away with it. HaHa.

There is nothing more exciting and entertaining for me than to watch Shaun and Megan Follows take a scene off the page as in Episode 4, Scene 51 "Through the Smoke."

Or Amber and Michelle work their magic in Episode 3, Scene 29 "Making Amends."

I just keep the cameras still and let them work. Beautiful.

Question: What was it like working through the pandemic?

Heartland began filming its first season in 2007. The summer was extremely hot and dry as I recall. The ranch lands and foothills were parched and brown. Dry, hot and dusty. Subsequent seasons followed with days of relentless rain, early snowfalls, and plummeting early fall temperatures. Lou married Peter in -30C weather. The girls in dresses the guys in suits, having to walk outside from the parking lot to the church, more than once.

In 2013, Calgary and specifically High River, home to Maggie's Diner, was wiped out by historic flooding. We were working there that day and had to scramble to get out of town. Forest fire smoke has delayed filming. Golf ball sized hail has assaulted our crew on remote mountain and hill top locations. Ominous electrical storm fronts have closed in on us and left us all scrambling for cover. We even had a tornado bearing down on us at Heartland ranch sending us into panic mode before it made an abrupt turn away.

And that's just the weather!!

So, if you think a little pandemic is going to scare the most resilient group of people I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Think again.

Kudos to the specialists that implemented and oversaw the system of health and safety protocols that we followed this past season.

Hugs and handshakes to a cast and crew that doesn't scare easily.

Heartland season 14 required a 4-month, 24hr a day commitment from every single individual.

No one wanted to be the person that brought Covid-19 to work. And because of the quality of the individuals who make up the Heartland production family. Nobody did!!

Health and happiness,

I hope you all enjoy season 14 of Heartland.



Here's a preview of Heartland Episode 1403, directed by Chris Potter. -BW