Virgin River‘s seasons are typically built around three tentpoles, the season premiere, the finale and a big event episode in the middle that propels the storytelling with plenty of aftermath to deal with in the remaining episodes. Big town events in the mid-run episodes have included the Moonlight Mingle dance in Season 1, the Lumberjack Games in Season 3 and the Renaissance Fair in Season 4. In Season 5, which marked the first for the hit Netflix series with new showrunner Patrick Sean Smith at the helm, a wildfire threatening the town of Virgin River. Because of the scope, it took two episodes — 5 and 6 — to deal with the natural disaster and its immediate aftermath.
During the episodes, still reeling from being ousted as the town’s mayor, Hope (Annette O’Toole) rises to the challenge and leads the evacuation efforts. With help from Jack (Martin Henderson), she even secures desperately needed planes to drop water on the fire. It is touch and go for a moment as Lizzy (Sarah Dugdale) and Denny (Kai Bradbury) are trapped in an area engulfed by flames but they manage to escape. The situation is even more dire for Lilly’s daughters Ava and Chloe who are rescued from their burning farm by Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) and Jack.
There is more heartache for the series’ central couple as Mel suffers another miscarriage. Doc’s (Tim Matheson) vision deterioration is exposed as he and Cameron fight to save the life of a wounded firefighter, Cameron and Muriel start falling for each other while Brady uses firefighting skills he learned in prison to save Jack’s bar after teaming up with Jack to also save a girl lost in the burning woods during the evacuation of the nearby camp.
Removed from the fire danger is Brie (Zibby Allen) who is bravely facing her rapist in a Sacramento courtroom and, accompanied by Mike (Marco Grazzini), has to follow the events from afar.
In an interview with Deadline, conducted Aug. 18, the episodes’ director Martin Wood spoke about the challenges filming a forest fire during fire season in Canada where Virgin River is shot and the use of Volume production technology on a soundstage surrounded by LED screens for Lizzy and Denny’s escape. He also spoke about Mel’s miscarriage and the different way it was portrayed vs. Brie’s miscarriage in Season 3.
Wood spoke about the eerie timing of the episodes’ release on the heels of devastating wildfires in Maui and Canada. He also revealed an interesting link between Episode 5 and the big Episode 10 cliffhanger. Rest assured, the Q&A below won’t spoil the finale twist for those who have not gone that far into Season 5. But when you get to the end, check back Deadline for a deep dive into Episodes 9 and 10, dissecting all the twists.
DEADLINE: Episodes 5 and 6 involve a lot of visual effects, something not often seen on Virgin River. How big of an undertaking was pulling off episodes set against the backdrop of a massive wildfire?
WOOD: The hardest part of it was, it was middle of the summer at the height of fire season here in Vancouver, and there’s a No Burn law which says nobody can build a fire that is larger than about eight inches off the ground. Meanwhile, we were saying, we are just going to set this whole town on fire. So there’s a lot of planning that goes on that wouldn’t normally be involved in a Virgin River episode.
The visual effects that we use are the things that happen in the distance. And I think one of the things that we all decided right off the bat that we weren’t going to do was to use a lot of visual effects other than to show the proximity. Of course, that was something that we couldn’t do practically; if you are not Christopher Nolan, you don’t get that opportunity. So much of the distant work was not real and almost all of the closeup work is real.
So the forest fire was one part of it. And then when Lilly’s house had to be burned down; that was another thing we had to contend with. How do we deal with the real flames inside the building that we’re using and inside the set that we are using? It’s really just logistics that go on from that point and dealing with stunt people and effects people to make it look like Martin is actually running through flames.
We talked to Martin and he goes, yeah, I’ll run through flames for you. And so it became a point where we are setting flame bars just above where he has to run through with a blanket covered with fire retardant. He was a trooper with it as were our other cast members. One of them had to be a baby and of course he couldn’t have a real baby in there for that part of it.
The other thing is, driving through [fire] became one of the biggest complications for us. We used the light wall Volume and stretched it a little bit because, unless you create the footage in viz effects, you have to find it. And in that case, in post, I started looking for actual driving through a forest fire footage, which doesn’t really exist. I mean, people don’t think, oh, maybe I should have a film camera out here shooting while I’m driving through this deadly forest fire.
So what you see in the show is actually footage that we were able to scrape off the “stock” shot carriers: there was some footage from Australia that somebody had shot on an iPhone, there was footage from some news cameras. The longest piece of footage that I had was 12 seconds; we had other pieces that were six to eight seconds. Putting it all together and then make it look like an actual drive through that thing for Kai and Sarah was a lot of fun. And then, in the Volume stage, I had an actual real tree on fire drop in front of them. So all of that makes it look like you’re really involved in being in this fire.
DEADLINE: Along with the wildfire, there was a parallel storyline of Brie’s court testimony. Talk about that juxtaposition of the two, with the people in Virgin River and Brie facing different kinds of fears?
WOOD: It was such a stark transition as you’re watching the show to be able to jump from the fire and the fury into this very sedentary set where the gravity of both of them is never locked but we just feel the tension in both continually rising through it. And I think what Zibby did so beautifully in that was she maintains the level of composure in order to be a counterpoint to what was going on in the rest of it.
For me what was really interesting was that the writers decided they were going to hold the moment that she finds out there’s a fire until after she’s gone through this very emotional thing. And that gave her another level to jump to once Marco comes up and tells her that Virgin River’s on fire and suddenly, she’s got that next level to get to, having to deal with it from a distance.
DEADLINE: Mel discovered she had miscarried early in Episode 5 but, maybe because of everything going on, she didn’t deal with it until the end of Episode 6. You also directed the Season 3 episode when Brie had her miscarriage, which was more dramatic, she was taken to the hospital. Talk about the difference in how the two were portrayed and the their connection as Brie’s rape trial in Mel’s miscarriage episode is a reminder of her own miscarriage.
WOOD: I think the difference is familiarity with what was going on for Brie and for Mel. In Brie’s case, she had no idea, she didn’t understand what was happening, so her first reaction wasn’t I’ve had a miscarriage and so it was contained to, there is something very, very wrong that has to be dealt with. And then once it came out that it was a miscarriage, that’s when she got to react to it. Whereas with Mel, Mel instantly knows, she has gone through that before, and the weight of it.
Alex and I talked about this quite a bit before she went in about what the reaction would be and what was written and what ended up happening for her was a little bit different in that it was so contained with her in such a beautifully emotional moment where it wasn’t the fear that Brie felt. Mel knows, and it’s just the weight that comes down on top of her. As the camera pushes in, the weight of it just keeps pressing her down and down, and she gets very small and immediately has to get big again.
Alex did a beautiful job of shrinking and then becoming big, the person who had the answers, who didn’t slow down, who didn’t do anything different because she realized that she carried that weight and couldn’t show anybody else. And then that final moment when Jack comes in for her [at the campground]. I had virtually no conversation with either of them about what would happen. Martin came in, Alex looked at him and you could see in her eyes — I intentionally shot her side first.
Without any words, this beautiful silent moment of her being able to finally say, there is this weight and she gets to share that with Jack, and then the look on his face on the other side is equally painful. it’s such a great way of ending that episode.
DEADLINE: That final montage in Episode 5 where Brie’s powerful ‘real heroes’ speech on the stand was illustrated by images from Virgin River with people in danger. Was there an inspiration for that and can you speak of your reaction when you saw the completed montage for the first time?
WOOD: That was a script-written montage, and it was always the idea of taking that long speech of hers and being able to say, this is what heroes really are and being able to show not just heroic success but also heroes in distress. And then we finish those themes afterwards, which I thought was a really great way of structuring the script; having Brie set it up so that we can come back to those situations — like the one with Doc and Cam with the firefighter — and now we have the resolve of that happens.
When I read a Virgin River script, I’m always so happy to see how plots are strung out the way that they are without feeling contrived. With an ensemble cast like this you get to move around a lot, and you get to change tempo a lot rather than having a core four, five people you just have to keep following all the way through a very linear sort of story. With a cast of 20, Virgin River allows you to be able to move story to story, breathe in between and then come back and be at the edge of your seat
DEADLINE: While Episodes 5 and 6 play like a thriller, they are still infused by classic romantic drama elements, like the Cameron and Muriel relationship, which starts to emerge here. Talk about striking a balance between the two genres.
WOOD: The cannon for Virgin River is to be able to find the “life goes on” regardless of what is happening around you in terms of relationships and things like that and often, especially with the Cam and Muriel relationship. The fact that the heat is on, and Doc is in such distress is really why it allows them to be in proximity and, in where they are allowed to, to have the conversations they’re able to have because of what’s going on around them.
I think sometimes situations give permission for the acknowledgement of something that often you wouldn’t be able to, and that’s again what Virgin River does very well; Mel and Jack are constantly dealing with relationship intertwined with life, Brie and Brady are constantly dealing with it, regardless of all the things that are pulling them apart. I think the Brie-Mike relationship is the easiest one to see because suddenly, Make it there. And the two of them have this opportunity to be together.
I wouldn’t say it’s the formula but I think it is very much part of the ingredients that have to go into every episode Is this understanding that things are going to happen, that Preacher is going to have in the back of his head this idea about Paige and Christopher the way that people do in life.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Doc. These are big episodes for both Tim Matheson and Annette O’Toole as their characters going through some pivotal moments, with Hope getting past the bitter disappointment from being unseated as mayor to help save her town and Doc coming to grips with the severity of his condition. What is your take on their performances and their characters’ internal drama in the middle of a crisis?
WOOD: I think what’s interesting to me is that with Doc and Hope, we have a relationship that is so foundational to who they are that there’s an awful lot that can happen between the two of them that would normally, if you saw it happen you’d go, oh, that’s going to destroy things, that could hurt things. But because they’re so familiar with each other, and Annette and Tim play that familiarity a lot, in the way that they get angry with each other, the way that they deal with…
As much as they’re fire and water half the time, the foundation of who Doc and Hope are is this brilliant beautiful love story. I think it’s my favorite love story that happens in [Virgin River] because it is never as volatile as it shows up to everybody else. in their hearts, those two are there for each other all the time; there’s no vacillating as much as the situation puts them into, like with Muriel coming in. You saw it again at the end of last year with Hope’s accident and Doc in the hospital.
It shows up very much the same way it does for them at the end of Episode 6 where Hope comes into the office as Doc realizes that he has to admit he can’t do what he really wants to do. Again, it’s that unspoken bit where the two of them are able to turn to each other very much like what happens with Jack and Mel — that’s the years of their relationship showing up and how they react to each other –as Hope, feeling helpless to do anything about it, tells him, “It’s going to be okay. I’m here, we are in this together.”
DEADLINE: Beyond bravery and redemption in the case of somebody like Brady who helped save the bar, what are other main themes in Episodes 5 and 6?
WOOD: One of the things was take our character of the town and alter it in a way that brings the town very much together in a way that we haven’t seen Virgin River come together before. For me there’s certain redemption for Virgin River being this pokey little place that doesn’t have a main street that you see the community come together and the fact that they’re all looking for solutions and all pitching in. In the heat of the moment with Jack and Preacher and Brady, when they are putting out the fire, is where you realize what friendship really means and what trust really means.
With Virgin River over the course of five seasons, we’ve seen lots of regular, everyday trust issues come up, regular, everyday friendship issues come up. In an episode like these two — specifically these two where you are at a fever pitch of a trauma, of an emergency — that’s where you get to see all of these things coalesce in a way that you normally wouldn’t get to see.
And I think that that’s one of the things that’s really interesting about Mike and Brie who are separated from it, because you really feel that they’re very distant from this and they’re very separated from what is happening but everybody else in Virgin River, all of our other characters, you get to see how they’re dealing with it individually and you get to see how much Virgin River depends on Virgin River.
So I like the fact that this actually brought the town itself, the character of the town. We talk a lot in our meetings about how we’re going to portray things that are making Virgin River itself feel like one of the characters in the cast. This really does it better than most of them have been able to.
DEADLINE: How does it feel for you looking back at those episodes amid news of devastation in Maui and Canada? I literally woke up to a headline this morning that a wildfire jumped a lake, Okanagan in the town of Kelowna very similar to what happened in the show when the fire jumped Virgin River.
WOOD: It’s very interesting because I have a friend who’s directing a TV movie in Kelowna right now. They had to be shut down last night as they were evacuating when people’s houses were going up. And we were talking about exactly what you and I were just talking about now, how when it came down to it, people left their positions, they said I have to go, my family needs me right now. And you got to see that event does exactly what we were trying to portray in Virgin River, how that emergency situation changes everything In an instant.
I think that’s one of the things that actually happened very well in our episodes, and what we did with it was remembering that instantaneous change from I have to go take the dog to get his nails clipped to that is gone out my head, now I’m dealing with it. It’s what’s happening right now in the world; Maui was one of those things, it happened so fast, without any warning. You can really see the impact it has on the humanity of the place. And you also see now, when people are talking, how that coalesces back into community. This is what we need, what Lahaina needs.
That was to a small extent what we were able to do with the episode of Virgin River, say the same kind of thing was happening and it didn’t tear anybody apart. That coalescing of the community is — as tragic as it is for it to have to happen — the bright star of it is being able to bring everything together, and that’s happening in Kelowna. Right now as we speak, my first AD at the movie I’m shooting had to run back yesterday to his family and quite honestly he was saying. my friend’s house is about to burn, I need to be there.
DEADLINE: You have directed multiple Virgin River finales including the one where Mel revealed her pregnancy but wasn’t sure about paternity. Did you see the bombshell at the very end of Episode 10/Season 5 Part 1 finale coming?
WOOD: Because I’ve been with the show for so long. I know the evolution of some of these things, where [series creator and former showrunner] Sue [Tenney] was taking it and what Sean and [EP] Richard Keith have been talking about, what they’re going to do with it.
I hope it doesn’t — don’t Tom Holland me on this one — but I was actually sitting in Brie’s mom’s house, while [Episode 5 and Episodes 11-12 writers] Erin [Cardillo] and Richard were sitting beside me, and the idea for the finale came to them. They were describing it to me so I knew in about Episode 5, when we were starting to shoot it, what they were going to do with them. I really love the fact that I can give you that snippet of where they came up with it. I think they had a discussion with Sean at that point about what they wanted to do with it, and they were sitting there with their laptops open typing away at that final episode.
DEADLINE: Do you have any any idea what’s happening in the Christmas special Season 5 Part 2? Anything you can tease?
WOOD: I think I can say that it’s different than what everybody originally was thinking it was going to be, and it’s different than any other Virgin River episode.