Nurses: Directing, Editing, And Designing A Hit Show During A Pandemic

Directors Winnifred Jong, Jordan Canning, Kelly Makin, Picture Editors John Nicholls, Erin Deck, Teresa Hannigan and Production Designer John Dondertman about making TV in Toronto, filming during COVID-19, their favourite scene of the show and the Director/Editor/Designer relationship.

DGC Ontario Production Nurses premiered in Canada on Global TV in January and will make its US premiere with preview episodes starting December 7th on NBC. Filmed and set in Toronto, the series follows five young nurses working on the frontlines of a busy downtown hospital, dedicating their lives to helping others while struggling to help themselves.

The first season of Nurses has become an instant hit with Canadian audiences. With the premiere garnering nearly 1.3 million viewers, the series launch became the most-watched premiere episode of a scripted Canadian series in over two years for total viewers.

Director Winnifred Jong on set
Director Winnifred Jong on set

What do you love about making TV in Toronto? Can you tell us what it’s been like during COVID-19?

Director Jordan Canning: We have some of the best crew and on-screen talent in the world here in Toronto. The more I work here, the more I love building that circle of colleagues and collaborators. [I love] recognizing names on upcoming crew lists and getting excited about working together again. Filming during Covid…well, I’ll say it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. You get used to it (although I truly can’t wait to burn my face shield when this is all over). What I can say is that productions have done an incredible job with their protocols and making sure everyone’s concerns are heard. Every single crew member is invested in making sure we can all keep this industry going through the pandemic, and it’s been really heartening to see how diligent everyone is being. With all the regulations in place I honestly feel safer on a film set right now than in a grocery store!

Director Winnifred Jong: What I love about filming in Toronto is that it’s a vibrant, diverse, open city. It can service big budget American shows, be the home and heart of Canadian television shows, and still have room for the indie scrappy filmmaker. [It has everything], from access to amazing locations to some of the best talent in front of and behind the camera.

Since I worked on one of the first shows to resume filming during Covid, I can attest that with regards to protocols, the production was held to the highest standard of safety, employing consultants to create a comprehensive Risk Mitigation Plan. Because all protocols were mandatory, [including] strict daily screening and frequent testing of the cast and crew, we felt safe to continue working and successfully wrapped without a single incident.

Director Kelly Makin: Nurses was one of the first productions to shoot during Covid. The first day back, the Line Producer whispered in my ear, “the whole Canadian film industry is depending on you to follow protocols and make your day.” Due to the extensive planning and a dedicated crew we made our day and continued to for the rest of the shoot. There were certainly times where I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie with all the gear we had to wear, but the producers had done an excellent job in setting up strict protocols and supporting us as we learned a new way of filmmaking. Although everyone was social distancing, I felt closer to the cast and crew than I ever have.

Picture Editor Erin Deck: I love working in Toronto. The post community is a large family and it’s been hard not to be able to socialize with friends at work. I have to say, it’s been amazing how quickly and completely everyone I’ve run into at work has taken on all the protocols and safety measures relating to Covid.

I was lucky to jump on Nurses during the tail end of summer, and what a fantastic experience. Everyone is so nice and helpful. I really enjoyed my time on Nurses.

Picture Editor Teresa Hannigan: Editing during Covid has presented its own set of challenges.  Instead of cutting from home, on Nurses, we have been able to work out of the Technicolor building, albeit with lots of protocols in place.  It has gone well and not least because I’m lucky to be part of a really great post team.

Picture Editor John Nicholls: When we first came back, the prospect of editing during the pandemic felt very daunting. It’s easy to forget now that the ball’s been rolling for a while, but Nurses was one of the first shows back. We were all hoping that the cast and crew would be safe, and wondering where and how we’d get dailies, as well as how we’d be doing cuts. Thankfully, and this goes hand in hand with what I love about working in this city, the people all pulled together and made it work. Through whatever hardships or struggles, we had to get things up and running smoothly, [and] as a team we all just worked together to make that happen. It’s honestly to this production’s testament – both on set and in post — that no one got sick. I often got asked if the amount of footage was lessened post restart, but it never was, so the end result never suffered. I’m truly proud to be part of this group of people, and when they get to see these shows on air, I can only hope I’ve made them proud.

Production Designer John Dondertman: Aside from sleeping in my own bed and seeing my awesome family every day, the great thing for me about working in Toronto is that I have a solid network of contacts that can provide everything we need for the art department. The city has specialty printing, prop making, furnishings, wallpapers, etc., and these businesses deliver on film production timelines. Toronto has built a great supply chain of artisans and technicians, as well as a number of great new studios. I’m also fortunate to have a solid team I’ve worked with for many years who love making movies, and [who] bring their ‘A’ game every day. Here in Toronto, anything you can dream up is possible. 

On Nurses, our producers had a very diligent system to deal with Covid. The series is mostly shot in the studio so we are easily able to follow protocols. The prep crew worked from home, which meant the offices were less than 1/2 capacity, which also made for a (sometimes too) quiet but safe environment. 

Director Kelly Makin on set

Describe your favourite scene from the show.

(Possible Season 1 & 2 Spoilers ahead)

Director Jordan Canning: Anytime I get to work on Nurses, it’s such a fantastic experience. The producers and showrunners are some of my favourite people to work with, and both seasons I have been super fortunate to get a really amazing script from writer Seneca Aaron. I’d say my favourite scene (or sequence of scenes) was this year in season 2. Seneca wrote this hilarious patient character who had come to the hospital because he’d eaten too many edibles and thought he was dying. I got to cast my good friend and amazing talent, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, who just knocked it out of the park. We were all biting our hands trying not to laugh during takes. It was a fun one.

Director Winnifred Jong: No spoilers, but I love scenes which combine jeopardy, heart, and humour. We had a scene where one of our characters was performing an emergency procedure [with] high medical and emotional stakes, and the actor had to deliver technical jargon while telling a light-hearted story to distract the patient. I had to get the medical [technicalities] and the tone just right.

Director Kelly Makin: One of my favourite sequences starts in a hospital chapel where a mother prays for her daughter who is being operated on. I shot her through the chapel’s stained glass and then brought a piece of the glass into the operating room to shoot through as the doctors fight to save her daughter. Visually, it tied the sequence together and underlined the characters’ spiritual belief.

Picture Editor Teresa Hannigan: Being [in] season 2, Nurses has already established a style.  In this Covid-era, I think it would have been harder to work with producers and directors without that in place.  My favourite sequence is from the ending of episode 210 “Struck.”  Two of our main characters express their growing attraction for each other but from either side of a glass door.  Covid has become a reality and cancelled their date.  This begins a sequence depicting the harsh life in the hospital as the virus escalates.  John Fawcett directed the episode and shot these scenes with lots of moving camera and off-speed shots to create a dynamic energy.  The sequence, and season 2, ends with a dedication to all our health care workers.

Picture Editor John Nicholls: An editor describing a favourite scene from their series is tough. To be honest, it can go one of two ways. For example, an almost ‘technical’ favourite (meaning how well something put together can flow, an improv bit you made work, or maybe a troublesome moment that was improved upon, etc.) or it can be an audience reaction to the work. Without revealing too much about the plot since it hasn’t aired yet, there is an emotional build in my last episode of the season where our story goes through pain, relief, laughter, a love ending, and love beginning — it gets me right in the feels every time (I’m a big softie, sue me). Fast forward now to our various streaming notes sessions, and the people involved (independently of each other) kept commenting on how emotional it made them feel (one even cried!), so it’s an example of it all coming together on a flow level. I was [also] able to illicit the audience reaction that I’d been hoping to.

Production Designer John Dondertman: One of my favourite scenes from Nurses season 1 is when Wolf is taking care of a monk who is in palliative care. Wolf decides to do “magic” mushrooms with the monk and together they tour the hospital, which showed my hospital set in an interesting way. The scenes are touching and humorous, and this adventure leads to a life-affirming conclusion. 

Can you elaborate on the Director / Editor / Designer relationship?

Director Jordan Canning: I have such respect for editors, especially on a TV show where they are working on several episodes at once and also needing to keep multiple storylines in their head from the overall arc of the series. I love getting to dig in with my editor and am always a little amazed by how quickly and efficiently we can get to a director’s cut in only a few days. 

Director Winnifred Jong: The director/ editor relationship is collaborative and close, [with] both trying to achieve the best storytelling. With television, you have to quickly find the working relationship with a balance of respect and communication. It’s definitely harder to develop this over Zoom; you miss the personal aspect of getting to know one another when you’re in the edit[ing] room together.

Director Kelly Makin: Teresa Hannigan and John Nicholls, who cut my episodes, are very talented editors and it is always a pleasure to see how they interpret and improve on the material I give them. I started in the editing room, so I like to take the time to hone my director’s cut. Even with the time constraints, both these editors are fully committed to getting the best out of the material, which is a great attribute.

Picture Editor Erin Deck: The relationship between editor and director on a TV series is sadly short. It feels like you just start to get into a groove and then it’s over. We make the most of the time we have together!

Picture Editor Teresa Hannigan: Because of Covid, we worked without directors in the cutting room.  I sent my assembly and subsequent cuts to the director who sent back notes.  We’d usually have phone conversations as well.  I also used Zoom calls to screen and talk through changes.  As time goes by, this process will get more and more streamlined.  It will be interesting to see if this way of working with a director will continue post-Covid, at least on TV series.   

Picture Editor John Nicholls: I always [liken] the editor/director relationship … [to almost that of] Robert Duvall ‘Godfather consigliere’… [and] Don Vito. They entrust us to put together, through our own eyes, the best interpretation of what they’ve shot. If required, [they also entrust us] to make suggestions on performances or pick-ups, [to be] a sounding board for ideas/issues, and [to] be their eyes on the material as they progress through the shoot — all to make sure it’s working. The assembly is then whittled down, massaged, and transformed during their cut, as it evolves into a piece of art that will stand on its own. That’s why I akin it to ‘Consigliere to the Don’, to be that first person who sees the product as it’s been born on a sound stage someplace, and to make sure its best interests are being taken care of as it rolls along.

Production Designer John Dondertman: I love and need to hear a director’s ideas and concepts. I like discussing floor plans and camera angles, and working out colour, texture, graphics, you name it. Collaborating is the best part of my job. Often it’s about getting the shot. Nurses has brought together a fantastic group of talented, diverse, interesting, and accomplished Canadian directors from across the country. My goal is to realize the director’s vision for the individual episodes down to the smallest details. Between my art department, props, and sets, we work and hope to exceed expectations. The goal is to create positive energy in the physical sets that can inspire the actors, director, and camera team. 

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