Filming new Anne series entirely on P.E.I. 'impossible,' producer says

The newest version of Prince Edward Island writer L.M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, a series entitled simply Anne, is now half-way through shooting its eight episodes, mostly in Ontario.

'We did our best to match the stunning and magically original red roads of P.E.I.'

'We've crushed hundreds of red bricks,' and spread them on dirt roads in Ontario for an authentic P.E.I. look, says the show's executive producer. (Submitted by Miranda de Pencier)

The newest version of Prince Edward Island writer L.M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, a series entitled simply Anne, is now half-way through shooting its first eight episodes, mostly in Ontario.

It started production in P.E.I. in late August, and will wrap up Feb. 3 with a planned air date of "spring." The bulk of the shooting has taken place in Ontario, not on the East Coast where the novel is set. 

"We would love to shoot more of it in P.E.I.," said Miranda de Pencier, the show's executive producer, by phone from Ontario. "One of the biggest things, as you can imagine, is logistics." 

Even with its big budget, de Pencier explained the show couldn't afford to transplant the more than 200 cast and crew needed for each episode — people who are mainly now based in Ontario. 

"To bring them into the Island, cost-wise, was just impossible for us," she said. 

'Feed the Island into the souls'

The crew spent what writer Moira Walley-Beckett called "an epic few days" shooting outdoor scenes on P.E.I.'s shorelines and red roads, an "amazing and extraordinary" experience de Pencier said was invaluable to the show's authenticity, and employed about 25 Islanders as well as other crew from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

They also plan to return briefly to shoot a few wintry scenes. 

Amybeth McNulty as Anne and R.H. Thompson as Matthew, shooting in P.E.I. in late August. (Marvin Moore)

"We banked a lot of material that we'll be using throughout the season," de Pencier explained. "It was important so we could go back to Ontario and make sure we were getting P.E.I. right."

"It was really wonderful to be able to feed the Island into the souls of our actors and our key crew so that we could bring that knowledge to the production every day here in Ontario," she said, adding 15-year-old Amybeth McNulty, who plays Anne, fell in love with the Island on her first visit.

"That was important for her, to really glean the true P.E.I.," de Pencier said. 

R.H. Thompson, who plays Matthew in the series, has East Coast connections and de Pencier notes that his authentic Maritime accent had to be toned down because he sounded too unlike the other actors. 

Crushing bricks into red roads

The crew has been carting around truckloads of red roads in Ontario.

"We've crushed hundreds of red bricks that we crush into red sand and we carry it everywhere," she said. 

"We did our best to match the stunning and magically original red roads of P.E.I.," de Pencier said. They also found an existing Pickering, Ontario farmhouse that de Pencier said looks very much like Green Gables — but had to replace its new roof. 

Notice how the pavement of downtown Millbrook, Ont., has been camouflaged to look like P.E.I.'s rusty-red soil — using tonnes of crushed bricks. (Courtesy Lance Anderson/Peterborough This Week)

The team even makes sure the hem of the women's skirts are scuffed with red dirt, she said, "to make it feel real and earthy and authentic." 

Reproducing the 1890s with a "documentary level of realism … not a teacups and doilies version," is what the production is striving for, de Pencier said.

Big budget

"Anne has a much higher budget than typical Canadian dramas," de Pencier said, although she declined to be specific. "Ours is a period drama budget — comparable to U.S. and international cable dramas." 

Anne executive producer Miranda de Pencier works on site in P.E.I. in early fall 2016. (Submitted by Miranda de Pencier)

According to the internet, U.S. cable dramas cost $2 million per episode on average. 

"We wanted to make this a definitive Anne for this generation, and we wanted to put a lot of money and production behind it to make it sumptuous and beautiful, and shoot it really like mini-feature film every episode, not small television."

Ensuring details are real, such as hand-stitched seams on costumes and lighting with candles and oil lamps, adds layers of cost too. 

Embellishing Anne

De Pencier is very familiar with the story of Anne — she played the lead in a school production of the musical and was scouted there for the 1985 Kevin Sullivan production, in which she played Anne's nemesis Josie Pye. 

Past met present as a big camera shoots an historic street scene in Millbrook, Ont., filling in for the fictional village of Avonlea, P.E.I. (Courtesy Lance Anderson/Peterborough This Week)

While agreeing Kevin Sullivan's 1985 Anne of Green Gables with Megan Follows "knocked it out of the park," she argued that's no reason not to revisit the story — pointing to British television and film's constant reinterpretations of classics like Pride and Prejudice

"The idea was hey, let's do a version that's going to speak to today," de Pencier explained. "And let's do a version that's an ongoing series, because we haven't seen that before." 

'Going between the pages'

Anne series writer Moria Walley-Beckett, who won two Emmy awards for her work on AMC's wildly popular series Breaking Bad, will add in characters and dialogue not seen in the book, de Pencier reveals.

The producer says attention to historic detail is very important in this new version of the Anne story. (Courtesy Lance Anderson/Peterborough This Week)

"What Moira's doing is going between the pages, between the words, and coming up with new adventures for Anne that could have happened," de Pencier said. "We're using the iconic moments from the novel, but we're also building more."  

For instance, Jerry the Green Gables farm hand — mentioned briefly in the book — has been expanded into a leading character in the series. 

'Delicious surprises'

"It's risky," she admited with a laugh. "Like any interpretation of any beloved novel, there's going to be people that like parts of it and people that don't." 

'We wanted to make this a definitive Anne for this generation,' says Anne executive producer Miranda de Pencier, who once played the titular role in her high school production. (Submitted by Miranda de Pencier)

"There's some new delicious surprises," hinted de Pencier mysteriously.

CBC will air the episodes first, then they'll be made available on Netflix in the U.S. 

These eight episodes take a 13-year-old Anne through her first year at Green Gables. De Pencier hopes the show will be renewed for seasons to come. 

Anne writer Moira Walley-Beckett and executive producer Miranda de Pencier share a recent red carpet event in Toronto. Walley-Beckett has won two Emmy awards for her work on AMC's Breaking Bad. (Moira Walley-Beckett/Instagram)

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca