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Set Design: Creating L.M. Montgomery’s Dream World

Benjamin Nicholas

The production design of any television or movie set –whether a project is being shot on location or in a studio – places the story in an authentic world for an onscreen drama to unfold in. A production set has its own story value, unique atmosphere and is usually interpreted by the Director, the Production Designer or Art Director as well as the Producer. The intent of this often visually elaborate backdrop is to not only provide a background for the drama to unfold against, but to ensure the set itself conveys great meaning in the story for the audience to interpret. A set is the gold dust that allows an audience to escape into the magical world of a film or television series.

In 1990, after bringing two sumptuously filmed mini-series on Anne of Green Gables to the screen, Executive Producer Kevin Sullivan’s thoughts were far away from the idyllic, small-town world of Avonlea, for which he had just won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. A good friend challenged him, “No one has ever made a long-running television show out of L.M. Montgomery’s other literary works.” Sullivan thought about it and accomplished the challenge, which became Road to Avonlea.

 Sullivan recalls “I became interested in creating a kind of a dream world set in Prince Edward Island. Inspired by what L.M. Montgomery described in her novels. I also wanted it to become a kind of fantastic place - that would provide an antidote of escapism from our contemporary society. And so, I dreamt it up with a very talented team and set the world in a place that really doesn’t exist anymore in North America.”  

Creating a set is not as easy as just dreaming it up! The Anne of Green Gables films were shot across a myriad of different locations and studio sets. It also used second unit photography shot on Prince Edward Island, that would provide Sullivan’s Anne films with the final patina of a lost maritime world he tried to portray from the descriptions within L.M. Montgomery’s famous novels.  However,Sullivan wanted his next foray to be even more convincing than his last. Sullivan and his team dedicated many hours brainstorming and bringing ideas to life.

In addition to proximity, time and financial costs, the producers decided to construct the entire Village of Avonlea in one location surrounded by sweeping fields, pine forests, a pond and many woodland trails. The property he chose was used for the reverse of the Green Gables house in his Anne films. It had played as a spectacular vista for the tender scene where Matthew dies and where Gilbert finds Anne in the finale of the film.

The chosen private property was a farm near Uxbridge, Ontario, about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. The rich landscape it offered was located in an area close to the hamlet of Coppin’s Corners next to the Durham Regional Forest off of Concession Road 6; on what was formerly the Robert Nesbitt Farm. The property was actually near the Leaskdale Manse where L. M. Montgomery settled with her husband in1911.

 

 It was a farm full of cinematic vistas; with several original 19th century buildings tucked away into a variety of landscapes. The 370-acre farm property became host to over 20 buildings in the end - designed and constructed on the location by Art Directors Perri Gorrara, Marian Wihak and Nancey Pankiw. All of the series exterior scenes were filmed there, while most of the interior scenes were filmed in a studio in Toronto.

The property became so renowned amongst tourists and visitors to the area that when the village buildings had to be dismantled upon the series’ conclusion, many residents of Uxbridge wanted to explore ways to preserve the picturesque village at another location. Unfortunately, the buildings were nothing but imaginary shells of plywood and paint. They had been permitted by The Uxbridge Township to be constructed as sets only and the production was legally obliged to have them completely dismantled once the series was no longer being produced.

The prospect of turning these sets into actual functioning buildings would have been cost-prohibitive. So, it was a poignant day when many locals gathered to see the buildings being torn down by the production construction crew. Many people were able to grab a window or a piece of bric-brac before the buildings all disappeared under the wrecking ball.

Over the course of seven seasons the production design of the village of Avonlea and the landscape it was set against had become like a studio back-lot. It was so vividly appealing for audiences that the property became a signature in many of Sullivan’s other productions (including Love on the Land, Lantern Hill, The Piano Man’s Daughter and Promise the Moon) each of which was filmed (or partly filmed) at this unique rural location.  

Scratching below the surface of these productions, one can see how Sullivan has been able to create a vivid and seamless alternate reality for his dramas to unfold against, thanks to the painstaking detail achieved through costume design, set design, and Sullivan’s authentic choices: from props to period locations. All of these extraordinary details combine together to enable audiences to enter his onscreen world and suspend their disbelief -  and for many, to never want to leave!

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