Why the World Needs Anne with an E
Behind the scenes of the hit CBC/Netflix series about Canada’s most beloved literary character
By James Mullinger
Photographs by Denis Duquette
Less than a year after Vancouver-born Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy for writing what is widely considered one of the greatest hours of television (“Ozymandias,” the third to final episode of Breaking Bad), she teamed up with a 14-year old Irish girl with no acting experience to change the landscape of Canadian television. This is the complete story — for the first time — of how a 111-year old novel has become a culturally relevant and politically important television show for our times.
It’s Monday morning. It’s humid. Very humid. A dozen or so people are clambering over a small window, perfecting the position of a tree and branches around a cottage. There is no breeze because we are in the vast cavernous space of a studio in North York, a suburb of Toronto. It’s the headquarters of Northwood Entertainment and home of the hit Netflix and CBC series Anne with an E. After two fantastically well-received seasons, production of the eagerly awaited third season is wrapping up.
The branches that are being so painstakingly arranged are barely visible in the frame I see on the monitors because the curtains are closed in the scene. But attention to detail is everything for Anne with an E. It’s part of the reason for its global popularity. That and staying true to the characters that Lucy Maud Montgomery created. And — crucially — staying true to the era, which means storylines that critics have deemed “modern themes.” Really— racism and homophobia are new to the world?
Award-winning director Paul Fox and showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett are studying the shot. I am introduced and they are charm personified, but I am reluctant to interrupt what is clearly a colossal creative operation. To my left, Amybeth McNulty — the 17-year old Irish actress who has embodied Anne so remarkably for three seasons — is rehearsing a scene with Joanna Douglas, who plays Miss Stacy.
Praise for the show has come far and wide. Thirteen Canadian Screen Award nominations in 2018 with three wins and thirteen in 2019 with four wins. Walley-Beckett won Showrunner of the Year at the 2018 Banff World Media Festival and a Writer’s Guild of Canada screenwriting award. Neil Genzlinger, writing in The New York Times, found this adaptation of the classic tale even richer than the novel, stating that “Ms. McNulty's Anne is still wonderfully ebullient and eminently likeable; she's just not the one-dimensional figure of other adaptations.”
High praise indeed, and I concur. This is a show that engrosses me and that I learn from. I have made it my life’s mission to know as much as possible about Atlantic Canadian history and culture. But prior to watching the show, I had known nothing of the Bog, home to African-Islanders in the 19th century.
It is a show that my eight-year old son and my mother-in-law love as much as I do. How many shows transcend generations like this? And no aspect of it feels like a compromise for any viewer. Moira Walley-Beckett has created a show as gripping and addictive and culturally relevant as Breaking Bad, the show with which she made her name.
“Every cog in the wheel is an important one,” she tells me.. “Every detail matters, especially when you are dealing with a period piece. This documentary level of realism that we insist upon needs close attention. Everyone is important, and it is such a big machine. On our big days, between cast and crew, 250 people are working towards one goal. That is a lot of moving parts.”
Lucas Jade Zumann, who plays Gilbert Blythe, is well aware of how these prop fitters wrestling with branches are the crux of the show. “In this business, if someone is doing their job well, no one will notice,” he tells me. “No one notices perfect sound mixing or an impeccable prop department, but they notice when it fails. Every person who is doing their job here is doing it so well that you can't even tell they're doing it when you watch the show. That is the real magic.”
Amybeth McNulty as Anne, and Lucas Jade Zumann as Gilbert Blythe
All of the actors I spoke to felt strongly that this attention to authenticity helps them embody the characters quickly and easily, vital on a set with this much going on. I have been on dozens of film sets. First as a reporter, then as a writer and producer. I know a good atmosphere from a bad one. And this set genuinely feels like a family. One without “creative difficulties” As Amybeth McNulty says over coffee during her morning break, “The entire cast and crew are my second family. The work that every one of them puts into their craft every single day is remarkable. They make the cold, long and tiring days fully worth it. I love them all so much.”
Executive producer Miranda de Pencier knew that finding the right Anne was crucial to the show becoming a reality and a success. “We opened the search for our Anne very widely because when you are looking for a 13- or 14-year old girl only in professional places, you get a limited pool,” she tells me as we sip iced water in her production office. “You may get girls who are less natural because they've grown up doing commercials, or who have learned things that are about how to perform rather than being present in the moment. And we needed an acting style that is as real as possible. We did an open call, and we auditioned 800 girls all across Canada and then hired casting directors in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver and London, and then we reached out to Australia. We also did an online call internationally. We ended up with about 1,900 auditions. We got that down to 100 to 150, then got that down to four. And then at the last minute we thought, "Let's bring that girl from Ireland who did a video of herself on her iPhone.
“We brought these five finalists to Toronto, and within a day we were down to two. We went into a friend's backyard with Amybeth and another girl, and director Niki Caro (Mulan, Whale Rider) got them to play this imagination game of talking to flowers and the bark of trees and blades of grass. There was just a real playfulness that Amybeth had and a real authenticity. She hadn't had as much experience, but you couldn't keep your eyes off of her. She was so soulful and so connected that no matter what she was doing you wanted to watch her. We felt that with time she would get there. She's more than gotten it — she's extraordinary. She has a lot of the qualities that Anne has. She's incredibly smart; she's very kind and full of joy and curious about the world and very openhearted to all kinds of people. It's her open heart and her open spirit that enables her to remain connected to the universe, to the camera and therefore to the audience. I think Lucy Maud would be a fan of Amybeth’s.”
Needless to say, McNulty remembers the moment well. “I was in complete disbelief when I got the call. After the final audition, we had come home to Ireland, and I was certain I hadn't got it. I thought I had done a terrible job and that I wasn't even close to what they were looking for. When we got the phone call and my Nana told me we would be moving to Canada for six months, I burst into tears. I was running up and down our hallway trying to get out all the emotions I had. It was wild for little old 14-year-old me to say I was going to be on Netflix. It all felt very surreal, and I don't think I entirely came to terms with what was going on until I had my hair dyed and had my first costume fitting. I still have the diary I kept from season 1, and reading about all my thoughts and feelings is such a joy. I guess it's all one big story for my grandchildren.”
Before any creative project, there is always an idea. A person with a dream, a vision. And that person is creative juggernaut Miranda de Pencier. “I had been tracking the rights and wanting to do a new, fresh version of Anne of Green Gables for a while, and I'd been thinking of a feature film or series,” she says. “In general, I'd been kind of looking around and noticing that a lot of countries were doing new versions of their classic novels. That was resonating.
Miranda de Pencier
“I was with my 15-year-old nephew for a weekend, and he was showing me his Instagram account with all of his 13- and 14-year-old female friends in their bikini tops. I thought, ‘What's happened to feminism? Why are these girls just all putting themselves out there in this physical way?’ And then I turned to him: ‘Aren’t you curious about what these women think? Don't you want to project how they think and not just how they look?’ He was rolling his eyes at me, and I thought, ‘Oh, I've become the boring old aunt,’ but it really started to resonate with me. The fact that we don't have many strong, independent female examples in media. There are lots of not-great projections of sexuality and of images of women.
“And then I went to look again to see about the rights to Anne of Green Gables and the book had entered the public domain. I had begun working with Moira on this project called The Grizzlies (their ground-breaking and uplifting feature film telling the true story of a lacrosse team from the Arctic town of Kugluktuk), and I thought she would be amazing for an Anne of Green Gables adaptation. She had just won the Emmy for Breaking Bad, and I figured I wouldn't be able to get her, but I kept saying, ‘I think there is a way to do this where it can be more than a show limited to Canadian audiences.’ From the beginning we talked about wanting to create something that was contemporary, that was feminist and that would speak to today's audience. And then Moira wrote this incredible pilot script.”
“I remember exactly where I was when Miranda called me,” recalls Walley-Beckett. “It was the day that I was wrapping Flesh and Bone, my limited series for Starz. I was in my office feeling as though I had just survived an earthquake, and the phone rang and it was Miranda. She was like, ‘Anne of Green Gables!’ She told me the rights were available. I thought immediately that there was no way that I could do it unless I could do it my way. I needed to find a way to contemporize it. I didn’t want to do something that had come before me. She told me to read it and then hung up.”
The “modern themes” that bothered critics were not a stretch for Walley-Beckett. In the first season, childhood trauma was a theme. In the second, racism, homophobic bullying, menstrual periods. And season 3 is set to go further, with plotlines about Mi'kmaq persons. These themes are not only contemporary; they are historically accurate. As Walley-Beckett says, “They just never talked about it. Anne was abused and she was traumatized. For me, that material has always been timeless, but timeless and topical. And sadly, we are still discussing so many of these topics today — prejudice against people who come from away and bullying and gender rights. These topics are alive and well.”
She wrote the whole first season by herself. And for season 2 she brought in a team of female writers. “I had always planned on adding diversity to the show,” she says. “That is why at the end of the first season I sent Gilbert away — to expand his horizons. I wanted him to come home with a person of colour, which is why he met Sebastian (a Trinidadian sailor played magnificently by Canadian actor Dalmar Abuzeid) on the steam ship. When we started digging around, and we found out about the Bog district of Charlottetown — we are all Canadian, and none of us had heard about it. We were just appalled. But thrilled creatively that we could tell that story.”
I wonder aloud how it is that such an important part of this country’s past isn’t taught in schools. Walley-Beckett pauses for a moment, then hits the nail on the head: “Because history is written by the winners.”
Joanna Douglas, who plays Miss Stacy, grew up in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa, and related to Anne growing up. “I grew up watching Megan Follows as Anne. Once I found out I got the part, I went back to the books and read the first three again. I understand how the fans feel because I am a fan of the books and the shows.”
Jamie Douglas as Miss Stacy
Meeting Moira and Miranda was stressful, such was the respect she had for them: “I was slightly intimidated! I was so nervous, but as soon as I got to set Moira was there, and she asked if she could give me a hug. She was just so welcoming. Miranda is this other incredible, strong personality, and she is very easy to be around. They are such lovely women — and brilliant — and I'm very lucky to have the opportunity to be part of this creation of theirs.”
Netflix does not release numbers, but facts speak for themselves. Three seasons, and extra episodes added for the second season. But de Pencier almost didn’t take their call. “The CBC were wonderful, super supportive and fully on board from the beginning but we needed more money if we were going to have higher production values. I was in the middle of filming in the Arctic, and my assistant said this woman from Netflix is trying to reach you. And I thought, ‘Okay, that's great but I can't really talk to her right now.’ And my assistant said, ‘She really wants to talk to you about the Anne of Green Gables project.’ Normally I would never blow off Netflix. I was thinking at that time that I wanted to sell to independent companies and being able to control a bit of those sales. I wasn't trying to play hard-to-get — I was so busy — but it may have seemed like that!
“Finally, I talked to Netflix, and they let me know that a different division had fallen madly in love with the script, and they really wanted it. They wanted to understand what our vision was for it and inquired about what we needed. Eventually, one night at midnight Moira and I got on the phone, and we talked a little bit more creatively with them. The next day they made an offer. As partners they have been amazing. For the most part they are hands-off creatively, which has given us a lot of freedom to build and make the show that we want to make.”
As showrunner, Moira Walley-Beckett is on set at all times, but she prefers to write at home. “Even when I was on Breaking Bad and we were in a room together all day, we still got sent away to write wherever we wanted. I always went home. There is something about the little safe chrysalis and proximity to dogs that I need. That first year of writing Anne was tumultuous. I was mostly at home — at that time my soulmate dog was dying of cancer, so I took us away to a cabin in northern California. That is where the gestation of the first three episodes started. We would walk in the morning, and then I would sit down and write. That's the type of schedule I enjoy even now. When I'm writing I must be in nature in the morning … and then it's dinner time!”
For the second and third seasons she formed a writers’ room. “If you set the intention to have a positive environment, then that is how it's going to be,” she states matter-of-factly. “It's arduous work. If somebody is feeling belittled or if the room is competitive, then it is not going to go well. You want everyone to feel comfortable, confident and engaged. ‘No’ is not a word to use in that environment. You just keep it open. After we sit and talk globally about the arc of the season, every episode is microscopically broken down with excruciating detail. Every beat, every moment is known. Then a writer gets assigned that episode and makes the characters talk. Then it comes back to me for review.”
All the actors I spoke to said they find it very easy to get into character because they know that the costumes are authentic and their surroundings feel authentic and historically accurate. “That was a mandate out of the gate,” she says. “I wanted us to smell the ocean of the Maritimes. I wanted red soil everywhere. I wanted that soil on the boots and on the hems of the skirts. My cast don't wear makeup, except for Amybeth’s freckles.”
If one character is crucial to the story, old and new, it is Marilla Cuthbert. Multi-layered female roles are not quite as scarce as they were, but this one attracted BAFTA-winning British actress Geraldine James to the part, despite it taking her away from her home in England and her grandchildren for six months of the year. Meeting her was something of a moment for me. When I was growing up in Maidenhead (a small town west of London), she was its most famous daughter. Her success in shows such as Band of Gold and The Jewel in the Crown made a younger me believe that there might be life outside Maidenhead. A town where I was told I would amount to nothing and set apart for being a bit different. She gave me something no one else could. Hope.
Something that she felt when she got the part of Marilla. “For a woman, it used to be that you'd be playing the mother, the wife, the mistress, the girlfriend. Whoever it was, it would be a cardboard cut-out, one-dimensional. So to find a character that is as rich and interesting as Marilla is fantastic. But I believe that finally people are realizing that women don't keel over once they hit 40. Playing Marilla has been an incredible experience. The characters are so complicated — Matthew is complicated, Diana Barry is complicated, Gilbert and Marilla too. They are this sort of feast to get into. It's a mixture of emotions. It's silly and funny, upsetting, exciting and so gripping. It presents such amazing insights into humanity.
Geraldine James as Marilla Cuthbert
“When I read the pilot script I was just thrown into this extraordinary Canadian world, having had no links to Canada before. That is the real genius of Moira and Miranda. I believe this show is the story that Lucy Maud Montgomery would have come up with had she written it 70 years later. When you read the book, the things that Anne comes up with give an idea of how far her spirit is speaking. You feel how much she wants to do. I honestly believe that if she could have, she would have. She just couldn't. We're just dealing with First Nations issues now, and First Nations persons are here on set, grateful that we are depicting this period honestly, telling the truth and doing it in a way that is interesting and educational and entertaining and great.”
It was very important to de Pencier that a plotline include Indigenous persons. “During the filming of the first season, Moira and I discussed wanting to explore the First Nations experience and Moira made it a reality in season three. The writers researched who was on the island and what was true. We also had to find a First Nations actress aged 12. We did a big open search, and we looked from the west to the east of Canada for a young Indigenous actress, and we got a slew of auditions. We brought in four, and we worked with them for two days along with famed acting coach Melee Hutton. We really saw who could connect and who could be real, and who liked the playfulness of acting. That's how we found 12-year-old Kiawenti:io Tarbell, a Mohawk, who plays Ka’kwet. She had done a little bit of singing and dancing and other creative arts, but she had never acted professionally. She's a natural. Brandon Oakes, who plays her father, is also Mohawk. They are both from Akwesasne, a Mohawk community outside Cornwall, Ontario.”
At the core of all of this is a place. Namely Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. One of the most beautiful and magical places on earth, it remains a destination for international travellers all year round.
McNulty had not been to the Island before filming the first season. “It was the very first place we ever filmed,” she remembers. “There were a lot of scenes in a buggy by a cliff, and the scenery was simply stunning. It reminded me a lot of Ireland, which is where I've lived my whole life, so I suppose I felt very much at home, which was a comfort.
“I remember going into the Anne Of Green Gables stores and being greeted so warmly. I couldn’t tell anyone why I was there, but I got a lot of compliments on my hair and was told I looked just like Anne — they didn’t know just how much that really meant to me. I’ve carried those images of PEI throughout the entirety of filming since it is such a big part of Anne's imagination and love for nature. Prince Edward Island is a magical place. It's Anne who attracts so many here, but it's the place and the people that bring them back again and again.”
Miranda de Pencier was 12 when she first visited Prince Edward Island. “My parents wanted us to see the East Coast, so we went to Halifax and Newfoundland and Labrador and we stopped in PEI. We went to see the musical, and I fell madly in love with it. I was one of those kids in singing, acting and dance classes, but musical theatre was really my heart. And I hadn't seen a lot of live musicals at that time. To see Anne on stage was amazing. I had read maybe half the book, but that was my first time really seeing it come to life.
“A few years later, I ended up playing Anne in my high-school musical. I loved playing her so much. To be able to dance and sing and be this character with all this energy and imagination was a perfect role for a 14-year-old girl. In that audience happened to be Sarah Polley's mother, Diane Polley, who was a CBC casting director at the time. She came up afterwards and gave me her card. She said, ‘We're holding auditions for a film version of this and you should come.’ I showed up at the audition, and I stood up on the stage and performed this big grand version of “Anne of Green Gables.” Having never acted on screen before, I didn't realize how dialed down you needed to be, and they told me to dial it way down! And they gave me another script and they wanted me to read for Josie Pye, which is the part I ultimately got. So my history with these characters goes far back.”
Geraldine James remembers her first visit to the island vividly. “It was quick. I was offered the job, but I had to be cleared by the gods that are Netflix. I arrived, I did a costume fitting, and the next morning I was on a plane to Prince Edward Island. I went off with the costume designer, and we drove around and explored the island. It was so beautiful, a magical place. We were on a small island on the eastern coast of Canada that I had never heard of a few weeks prior. Then I was riding in a buggy along a rather dangerous cliff with all this wonderful red soil, and Amybeth was sitting next to me. I told her, ‘If I tell you to jump, you must jump because it means I will be taking this buggy over the edge of this cliff because I'm not sure how to drive this thing.’”
Everyone is fully aware of the colossal responsibility to stay true to the Island; to Montgomery’s vision and the character of Anne. “Anne is such an iconic, beautiful, fiery young girl and having the opportunity to play her over these last few years has been not only a joy but an honour,” McNulty tells me as the day draws to a close and we walk towards her trailer for one final costume change. Sunset is looming, but the cast and crew are working just as hard as they were 14 hours ago to get everything wrapped impeccably. “I do relate to her in many ways, of course. I talk too much, I'm a self-confessed bookworm, and I try to stand up and say something when I see wrongdoing. But Anne has also taught me so much. I've been in her shoes for quite some time now, and the emotional ups and downs, and the journeys she has gone through, I feel I've been there with her the whole time. We have grown up alongside one another, and I think that is such a gift to have. I don't know what I will do after Anne. Who knows if I'll ever work again — and if not, I can honestly say that's okay. Whatever happens, Anne will stay with me throughout the rest of my life, and what more could you ask for?”
Season three of Anne with an E airs globally on Netflix from 3rd January 2020
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe please click here.