Unleashing Mr. Darcy is a movie that always has held a special place in my heart because I have connected with practically the entire cast through interviews and more. I have also connected with some of the people behind the scenes, most notably, David Winning. During my nearly two years of interviews, anyone who has ever worked with David lavishes such astounding accolades on him that there are times I have questioned whether he was human or not. 🙂 Well, we have been attempting to schedule an interview for over a year, and David finally found time in his frenetic schedule to answer a few questions, especially in light of his upcoming premiere, Engaging Father Christmas. This is an interview I am extraordinarily excited to present to the Hallmark community!
RH: What inspired you to have an interest in film? Feel free to elaborate.
DW: I actually started out at the age of nine as a ventriloquist and magician. Used to do shows for schools and libraries, etc. before discovering a passion for special effects. I started making films when I was young. Dad got me a Kodak Instamatic Super 8mm camera that I was glued to for most of my teens.
When I was ten, I became obsessed with creating effects with superimpositions, double-exposures, and pixilation. This is an animation technique where you use live actors and move them a bit at a time to create flying sequences or driving on the ground with an invisible car. My interest in film as stories began to develop and it just became a very serious hobby through my teens, starting with a documentary about my parent’s trip to the zoo in 1971.
I directed a short film when I was seventeen called SEQUENCE; it was kind of a precursor to STORM. Got a Canada Council grant and shot it on 16mm with friends in the summer of ’79. Much fun. You can watch the early stuff on YouTube; it’s labeled “Backyard Epics.”
My first professional job was working as a dubber-loader for a sound studio in Calgary. I also got experience as a director’s assistant at ACCESS Television, an educational programming channel in Alberta that produced docu-dramas. I directed my first feature STORM at age twenty-two in 1983. This led eventually to directing episodes of Paramount’s FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES in Toronto. Thirty-one features and twenty-eight series later, I’m still around 🙂
I struggled for a long time in my twenties working on passionate projects that took years to finish. Most of my twenties were spent making my first feature STORM, which I loved. In some ways, you realize later that if you hadn’t spent years making those first films, you wouldn’t have had the career that followed because STORM led to everything else I’ve ever done.
I was asked at age twenty-seven to direct episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series for Paramount Pictures Television which was filming in Toronto, Canada and that became my first paying job. Success in the entertainment business seems to always be a matter of good timing. “When Preparation meets Opportunity,” as the saying goes…
I have a box full of super 8mm films I made between about age ten and sixteen; I plan to go through it someday and transfer it all over to DVD or digital just to preserve it. Spent many years of my teens making films with friends in the backyard and coming up with all sorts of strange and exciting stories to amuse ourselves. Some of them are pretty good too! I’ll have to put them as extras on some of my features like M. Night Shyamalan does. Might be worth a chuckle.
My idols growing up were Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter, two complete opposite ends of the spectrum. I’ve been making films since I was in grade school, have always had a passion for it and am happy that I’ve been able to carve out a career doing this kind of work. I was born in Calgary, Canada and lived there thirty years. Moved to Vancouver in the early ’90’s for work, then south to LA in 1996. Got my green card, then five years later applied for US citizenship (lots of hoops) – in 2003 I became a US citizen so I’m officially dual now with Canada.
I love LA. It’s an oasis and a haven to run away to for me. To be honest, I’m seldom there because of all the travel—and so I treat it as my own vacation of sorts. Most of the time the past few years has been split between Vancouver and Toronto—with a four-month tour of duty in Budapest, Hungary for ABC’s DINOTOPIA in 2002 and Scotland for the Merlin project in 1997. Fortunately, work has provided me with chances to vacation AND work in Eastern Europe, Scotland and the U.K. I’m probably happiest when I’m getting off a plane and starting a new job somewhere. There is never enough time to do it all.
In the 1980’s, Alberta was mainly used as a location for U.S. productions. The indigenous feature film industry, such as it has become, hadn’t taken hold yet. I was paying my bills as a bouncer, a PA, an office runner and an extra on Superman 3, which was shot in Calgary the summer before I filmed Storm.
Storm was shot at the end of summer, 1983. I was twenty-two and had just told my dad I wasn’t going to film school. Instead, I was going to blindly make my first feature with the money I had saved. We did twenty days in the woods of Bragg Creek, Alberta with a crew of five and a cast of five – a very small bones production. We shot all day until the sun went down five days a week. I remember it being kind of like a great summer camp project. I had saved money to buy enough physical 16-millimeter raw film stock to shoot at a meagre 3:1 filming ratio – and did a lot of praying. I had some great help from the local film community in Calgary. We hired cameraman Tim Hollings, who was then working at CFCN television as a news cameraman, to be the Director of Photography. Storm was actually filmed with the news department’s 16mm Arriflex BL. Per Asplund was the soundman — and later also the editor of the new sections — also a veteran of local news and documentary work. My friends Stan Edmonds, now a big makeup artist and teacher in Vancouver, and Michael Kevis, at the time, a London Film School student, filled out the rest of the crew. Bill Campbell was the film’s editor and took several years putting it together painstakingly with me.
Some additional filming occurred for a week the following summer–specifically the opening campfire sequence and Lowell’s nightmare involving some university campus chases and the like. In 1987, the production regrouped to add the additional running time requested by the distributor. The film was eventually blown up to 35 millimeters for theatrical release by CANNON and video release from WARNER BROS. Sold about 16,000 copies which was considered success for a little movie from Canada. And that little film was thirty movies ago; not sure where the time went but it went by quickly.
By the time you were twenty-seven, you began your thirty-year or so career of directing network television. While it is probably difficult to answer these questions, please try if you can–What were one or two of your most challenging network film/show? What was one of your easiest (if such a thing exists) or one of your least stressful?
I’m pretty proud of just plain “surviving” in a very tough industry. Lots of twists and turns over the years. My favourite feature project I’ve directed before the Hallmark streak would probably be EXCEPTION TO THE RULE, starring Sean Young, Eric McCormack, Kim Cattrall and William Devane.
There have been so many great moments over the years. I think one that sticks in my mind is taking EXCEPTION to the 1997 Houston Film Festival and showing it to a packed movie theatre. We won Best Thriller that year and it was just a wild night. Nothing like watching one of your films with six hundred excited moviegoers; people jumped and laughed in all the right places and afterward, Michael Bateman, the film’s editor, and I answered questions for about an hour. I think that’s really the payoff for all the hard work, to see a movie with a crowd and have it really work for them.
I’ve also done work on nearly thirty television series over the years. Some drama, some westerns, a lot of SCI FI. Kevin Sorbo’s sci-fi series Andromeda, the family and the series, was a major piece of good fortune for me obviously for quite a few seasons. Also, I really enjoyed the dramatic impact and powerful writing of the Pax series TWICE IN A LIFETIME, which was like a Canadian version of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL. I directed ten episodes in 1999 and 2000 and got to work with a brilliant producing-writing team of Steve Brackley and Pam Long. Also in the first season, I got to work with the old master Barney Rosensweig who created Charlie’s Angels among other things in the ’70’s. The series was a remarkable blend of humour and bittersweet drama and I got the chance to direct some amazing guest stars and characters actors from Patrick Duffy to Michelle Phillips, Markie Post, Bruce Boxleitner, Earle Hyman, Daniel Baldwin, Martin Mull, Jere Burns and Brent Carver.
I’ve never had the total control since my first feature that I had in the 80’s and I’m finding a desire to get back to my roots. Episodic television has been very seductive, lucrative and educational, but you really hunger to get back to the reason you picked this business–independent features. That’s happening now. Danny Boyle’s film 28 DAYS LATER starring my friend Naomie Harris (DINOTOPIA, MONEYPENNY in the BOND FILMS) has such a profound effect on me, in terms of what can be done with low-budgets and the sheer independence — and I’ve been so inspired to get back to indie features. That’s where all the fun is anyway.
But working for Hallmark has been such a pleasant surprise. I didn’t see this coming back when MAGIC STOCKING was being filmed two years ago, but I’ve had such a blast – and such a lucky run of good movies to work on. The fan support and the ratings have been icing on the cake. I’m thrilled that the movies are working.
My mother is 94, and not a slow 94 – very active. I want her to able to watch my stuff because she’s certainly not lining up to see VAN HELSING. I love being involved with inspiring drama. I think in dark times, people turn to the movies for escapism yes, but also to rediscover some heroes. Good old-fashioned family values, mixed with some humour and romance. Nothing wrong with feel-good entertainment.
I could be wrong, but I think Magic Stocking may have been your first Hallmark film (though you did some other family-friendly films). Unleashing Mr. Darcy is, however, the one where a lot of people first “discovered” and recognized your talent as far as Hallmark goes. Anything you’d care to share from the filming of either of these?
In this genre, I’ve directed a few Lifetime and UP TV movies…directed Valerie Harper in the first UP movie shot in Vancouver – The Town That Came A-Courtin’. I was lucky enough to be asked to direct MAGIC STOCKING for Hallmark in the fall of 2015, and that started me on the journey I’ve been on ever since. THE HEART OF THE MOUNTAIN, currently in production for 2018 release, will be my twelfth movie for the network (Magic Stocking, Dashing Thru the Snow (Santa scene, uncredited), Unleashing Mr. Darcy, Tulips in Spring, The Convenient Groom, A December Bride, The Mistletoe Promise, While You Were Dating, Engaging Father Christmas, Falling For Vermont, and Finding Santa).
I’m so glad fans responded so strongly to DARCY; it was a dream project from the start. Such a pleasure working with Cindy Busby, Ryan Paevey, Titanic’s Frances Fisher, and just the whole cast and crew. They made me look good, and let’s not forget the wonderful dogs. We used actual prize-winning show dogs making the film, and a lot of the handlers you see in the movie are the actual owners — very proudly showing off their furry friends. And the dogs were so well-behaved. Forty-seven million Tweets about DARCY online broke the network’s record for social media. Very proud of that, and everyone else’s hard work on the movie.
Now you’re doing the sequel to Finding Father Christmas–Engaging Father Christmas (and next year, maybe another one). What do you find especially appealing about these movies?
Our friend Terry Ingram directed the original Finding Father Christmas last year. The response and ratings were so overwhelming, Hallmark smartly decided that some sequels may be in order. I was asked to direct the sequel and had an absolute blast working with the beautiful Erin Krakow, iconic Wendie Malick – and the charming Niall Matter earlier this year. It airs November 12 and with any luck, the reaction will be as strong.
This is a different story for our favourite couple this year. Miranda returns to the sleepy town of Carleton Heath but something isn’t quite right, and they have a bit of a mystery to face and to solve. The film was also a great chance to work with LA super producers Libby Beers and Patricia Clifford. Also got to reunite with my old boss from NIGHTMAN days, producer Ted Bauman. And of course the source material, a wonderful sequel by author Robin Jones Gunn. I’m hoping we did a good job and audiences will tune in again November 12 because a little bird told me there may be another installment in the wings.
What I hear over and over again about you is that you appear to be a true professional on set who is laid back with the actors, but always taking care of every detail with such grace and poise. You never appear angry like the caricature of directors that we often get in our heads. How are you able to maintain your cool on set and always seem so kind and relatable?
I worked for a lot of screamers coming up. And I used to mutter to myself that “Gee, if I was doing your job, I’d never treat people like this!!” Ha. Be careful what you wish for. The honest answer to this very kind question is I had the life-changing good fortune to be chosen and raised by incredible parents in hometown Calgary, Canada. My father was a Ph.D. chemical engineer, Mom was a dietician and homemaker, my brother was a social worker and builder – and along comes me wanting to go to Hollywood. And my father never batted an eye. Whatever is your passion was supported. And I have them to thank for strong values, ethical treatment of others – and following your dreams. Also, I’m really, really prepared. Anger is just fear disguised. By the time I get to set, fear is long gone. You direct these movies a hundred times in your head, in a hundred different ways – long before you arrive on location.
I guess I just like working with different creative people and I like the initial planning stage. I usually have a newsprint pad and a pen and I just start scribbling stuff and making some plans. The first time you read the script, you begin to formulate exactly how you will stage the sequences and scenes. You have to do a lot of the planning ahead of time so that the entire army of a creative and technical production team can assist and support you in getting the show made.
Quite often the specifics of scene blockings happen on the day when you have the actors on set. Often this is their first chance to add input. It becomes a conglomeration of elements. Scenes in scripts will usually remind me of other scenes from great movies I saw as a kid. So they become homages to the classics. That’s what keeps me inspired anyway.
The creative side of me believes filmmaking is an art form, but the process is a little like painting a picture when seven people are holding the brush. The director is the ringleader; the job is to get creative forces working together to get the best result. I like to create an environment that’s fun for people to work in. It’s such a delicate balance, especially when you’re trying to coax the best performances out of actors, especially when the material is tough. You have to create a little cocoon for them to work in. In science fiction, for example, the task can be harder because many elements physically don’t exist on set. I’ve always said I think the best actors are in SciFi. They’re really working with just their imagination in some scenes.
In addition to Engaging Father Christmas, what other current/upcoming projects can you mention?
Don’t tell Hallmark, but I would be perfectly happy to keep telling these inspiring, loving stories for the rest of my career. Agent and manager in LA have other plans. I’m hoping to do some more work on Van Helsing should it be renewed for season three by SYFY Channel and Netflix. There is a potential theatrical release heavy drama filming in England in the new year called Volcano. And now that I’ve been able to work for great producers Vicki Sotheran and Greg Malcolm (Finding Santa, Heart of the Mountain) – I would love to be reunited with Erin Krakow and Daniel Lissing – and get a shot at directing some episodes of When Calls The Heart.
From a viewer’s perspective, I have come to find that seeing your name on a project seems to guarantee an excellent film/show that never disappoints (and I’m not just saying that). How are you as a director able to ensure that every project you do has that standard of excellence? (And I do mean this–there are directors who I will watch anything they direct, and some who I won’t. You are one that I will always watch and I have never been disappointed regardless of the network.)
Very kind of you. Whatever I’m bringing to these films is for others to talk about I guess. I’m just trying to interpret them in a way an audience will respond to. I’m glad these movies resonate with the fans. I laugh and cry on set directing them too, believe me. I just hide it. I’m as invested in the characters as the viewers become, and I think you HAVE to — to do your job well, and to tell these stories with the passion they require. Truth is these movies are all shot incredibly quickly; usually fifteen days – barely much over two weeks. Prep is usually the same number of days. Bigger budget one-hour television shows sometimes will shoot for eight or ten days or occasionally follow with a few days of second unit shots, etc.
Production meetings are held in the boardroom all week during the prep period. The director and producers usually meet with the different department heads: wardrobe, special effects, props, etc. in individual meetings to discuss the particulars of the episode. This is in effect where the show is created – because all “limitations” are presented to you and you have to make critical decisions that become set in stone. Obviously, this is where a skill for pre-visualization is paramount; keep in mind, the prep period is only a few days and suddenly you’re on set. Then just before the first day of filming, the main production meeting occurs where all department heads gather. The assistant director reads through the script from page one, while simultaneously reviewing the shooting schedule – triple-checking that all materials are ready for each day’s work. This is the last chance we all have formally to make sure our heads are all on the same show and things are ready to go.
The clock is your enemy more in television movies than feature films. Television is a producer’s medium and as an episodic director, you can begin to feel like a hired gun or substitute teacher to an existing and familiar family. Feature films are more the realm of the director. You have more control and certainly, my feature experience has been far more personal. On normal big-budget features with a “normal” schedule, you shoot in the area of two to three pages per day. On Hallmark TV movies, because of the nature of the beast, you’re tackling anywhere from eight to twelve pages a day. Makes the day go very quickly. You start the day with a simple actor rehearsal so everyone can figure out what needs to happen to get the scene completed. Ideas are usually tossed back and forth and it becomes a bit like molding clay. Then the actors are released and stand-ins take their spots so the lighting crew and director of photography can light the set once the action has been blocked out. Sometimes it’s a bit like watching grass grow.
With your busy schedule, how on earth do you do it all? It seems like you never slow down. How do you do it?
Ha. I’m very organized. Good book-learning as a child. Also, I’m trying to elevate multi-tasking to an art form. Making movies is kind of what I do. And there is a fear that realizing your dream is such a lottery-win – that it could end as easily as it has started. So I’m just trying to get enough done while there is time and opportunity. And it’s not lip-service, but the fans need to be thanked for their incredible devotion to Hallmark and these wonderful stories we’re telling. Because without them there would be no movies. Thanks so much to all the fans for the great support of Hallmark.
Being quite forthright, I honestly don’t know what I could say that would improve this whirlwind biopic of David’s life that details his general outlook on film and the industry today in addition to his vast and remarkable career. He packed so much meat into his thought-provoking and impressive responses that all I can state is the following.
For all this time, I have heard David commended by the actors I have interviewed, and some of those I count as very dear friends. While I never doubted what they told me, and I was aware of the fact that they were lauding David in a singularly special way, there is nothing like hearing it directly “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak.
Even in a cursory read of David’s insightful and informative answers, one cannot help but witness the kindness, attention to detail, humility, and above all, his genuine, burning passion for what he does. While everyone I have interviewed possesses some degree of drive in their chosen profession, David is amongst those whose enthusiasm is so poignantly evident that even a casual observer will discern David’s authentic love for this business. Every word of his explanations reveals the heart of a man who is unselfish, creative, intuitive, benevolent, and zealous.
Therefore, I entreat all of my readers to tune to Hallmark Movies & Mysteries tomorrow night (November 12th) for what is bound to be an epic premiere–Engaging Father Christmas. Furthermore, take a look at the links David has so graciously provided and even consider following him where applicable. Although I know that the actors are often the primary reason fans watch while the crew typically fades into the background, I hope all of us Hallmarkies comprehend the undeniable truth that without passionate directors like David, we wouldn’t have the caliber of movies and stories being brought to our screen. He has raised the bar, and each time he directs a film or show, he has genuinely birthed a miracle. I have been a devoted fan in every sense of the word, but trust me, I am now even more inclined to be dedicated not only to David professionally but personally as well. He has made the conscious choice in this business to bring stories to life that resonate with people on a profound level, and as he injects illumination into our dark society, I cannot help but thank David from the depths of my soul for his perseverance and initiative.
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