Keeso and Holmes (centre)
You have to go pretty far back to find another Montreal-set, English-language dramatic TV series. Unless you count dramedies like Naked Josh, the last one was Urban Angel, produced in 1992. When it came time to adapt the hit French police show 19-2, however, there was no question for writer/producer/showrunner Bruce M. Smith’s mind that they had to keep the show set in Montreal.
“When I was first approached about the show, Echo Media had had success with the French version — I think they were doing the second season at the time — and they were pitching the CBC’s English network with the idea that, yes, it could be set in Toronto or Vancouver or somewhere else,” explains Smith. “When I was approached to do the show, I watched the French show, loved it and said ‘No, you can’t set it anywhere else, because a key character is not just the city but the culture and the police culture.’ This is a show about the Montreal police culture and that wouldn’t work in Vancouver or Toronto. You’d have to change the heart of the show.”
One of the most striking things for anyone who’s seen the original show is that the English-language version has retained 90 per cent of the francophone character names, despite the fact that it’s entirely in English. For Smith, the decision was an obvious one.
“Montreal immediately became part of the pitch and the issue there was how to deal with the language. My idea was that Hollywood solved this problem 100 years ago. When they go to Paris, everybody speaks English. The assumption is that we’re understanding the French — not that they’re English. In Montreal, most of the police work is done in French, so the concept is that they speak French all the time, you just magically understand it.”
“The French show is made for an audience that is expected to know Montreal,” says Smith. “Our show is designed for an audience that doesn’t know anything about Montreal. If they do, great, that’s a bonus. So our approach to the city as a character is different. We have to explain the particular idiosyncrasies that are proper to Montreal, and we have devices to do that because Ben (the character played by Jared Keeso) is not from Montreal.”
Adrian Knight, an experienced location manager (on On the Road, Life of Pi, Taking Lives and even Battlefield Earth) is in charge of finding and managing 19-2’s various locations for the show. A show like this one, where the characters are mobile and respond to several different situations in each episode, needs a ton of locations. “That’s the beauty of it,” explains Knight. “We can feature Montreal in all of its beauty and its ugliness. We can show all sides of the city as it is. Obviously, it’s fictionalized, but we don’t have to change storefronts and so on to make it look like another city.”
Montreal being used as itself also allows the filmmakers to work within the urban space in a realistic way, which isn’t always easy or logical in the confines of a shooting schedule. “There are always logistical considerations that force us to grouping together, as best we can, any and all locations. We definitely use some creative latitude when portraying one neighbourhood, perhaps, as another. We’re not bound by the boroughs or districts so we can cheat one part of Montreal for a different one.”
I bring up the fact that the great majority of the films I watch for Made in MTL limit themselves to the same locations, namely Old Montreal and tiny portions of downtown. “We try to avoid the clichés as much as possible. Because we’re not trying to recreate somewhere else, it’s basically as is, if you will,” explains Knight. “It’s not that we never shoot in Old Montreal but it tends to be very expensive and restrictive in terms of what you can and cannot do on different days of the week.”
In terms of adapting the original series, Smith likens his approach to the one taken by the American version of The Office: The early episodes are almost direct remakes, but as the series progresses it moves further and further away from the original. “We started very close to the French show, but now by season three, they’re completely different,” says Smith. “The original relied on a bit of suspension of disbelief, which works because the actors are so damn good,” he says, referring to the fact that Keeso’s “innocent country boy” character is much younger than Legault’s. “For us, you know, it’s the reality of patrol life. You know, there’s no English equivalent of Claude Legault, almost, so we weren’t looking to cast name actors. It just wasn’t built that way.”
One of the major differences is that the character of Nick in the original series was of Bulgarian origin and wrapped up in the doings of his family within the Bulgarian mob. In the English version, he’s played by a black actor, which inevitably leads the plot in a different direction. “Once we cast Adrian as Nick, one of the things I really wanted to do was not particularly change the character based on who we cast,” says Smith. “If you cast a black guy as Macbeth, you don’t change Macbeth. (…) It’s a completely different world and completely different culture. We based it on the traditional anglo black culture of Little Burgundy that’s basically disappeared and the more Haitian community in Côte-des-Neiges and Montreal North and places like that. Nick is of Caribbean descent and Tyler (played by Benz Antoine in both versions) is Haitian, so we tried to represent that. Nick is part of a culture that used to be a huge part of Montreal and isn’t anymore and Tyler is from a culture that is a significant black culture in Montreal.”
This also helps the show move away from the third season of the French show, which was beset by many budgetary and schedule constraints and was rather coldly received by fans and critics alike for its rather cavalier approach to wrapping up loose ends. “We ended up going a completely different way in our third season,” explains Smith. “They were writing to wrap up their show. Who knows, we might not get a fourth season, but we’re not trying to end it.” ■
UPDATE: Season 3 of 19-2 will air on Bravo beginning on June 20. The show has been renewed for a fourth season.