A veteran of the Canadian film industry for over 20 years, producer Jennifer Kawaja had never shot in Northern Ontario until she worked on Cardinal, the serialized crime series starring Billy Campell and Karine Vanasse. The Canadian landmark show was produced by Kawaja and her business partner, Julia Sereny, through their production company Sienna Films.
As one of Canada's premier production companies, Sienna Films has become known for bringing quality, independent content to the screen. From indie features like Sweetness in the Belly, which premiered at TIFF 2019, and breakout comedies like New Waterford Girl, to television series like Ransom, Combat Hospital, and the South African co-produced series Diamonds, they've built a strong reputation in Canada and abroad, producing film and television for local and international audiences. Before helming Sienna Films, Kawaja was a partner in the Winter Films production collective, and brings decades of producing, directing, and writing experience to every project she touches.
Discovering Great Locations in the North
When it came time to develop Cardinal, Kawaja knew it would be important to capture the dark, brooding setting of Algonquin Bay. The fictional location in the Giles Blunt crime books is based on North Bay, so the city became the perfect stand-in for the story, and gave the production an opportunity to discover what Northern Ontario had to offer.
"As a production company, we always try to film in the best location that will suit the show," Kawaja says. "When we shot the first season up there, we fell in love with the place and with the crew we worked with. We had such a great experience overall."
Kawaja notes how much easier it is to shoot up North rather than in a major city like Toronto, where Canadian productions often struggle to compete financially with American shows, making it difficult to get more independent projects off the ground. North Bay's proximity to Toronto also meant it was cost effective and convenient to fly out actors as needed for the show.
When the first season of Cardinal was picked up by CTV, and later global platforms like Hulu and Canal+, Kawaja knew they had to return to North Bay to shoot the next season. She was eager to continue to develop the series in several key locations that helped to create the world of the show. Locations like Trout Lake, Mattawa River Resort, and the local mine all became an integral part of the series.
"It makes such a huge difference when you're welcomed as a production, and Northern Ontario welcomes you," Kawaja says of shooting in North Bay. "It became a bit of a home away from home."
Working with Incredible Crew, Supported by CION
As a well-versed producer, Kawaja counts the crew in Northern Ontario as among the best she's worked with, creating a can-do attitude on set and fostering a sense of comradery during the production. Up North, the weather and wildlife can be a challenge at times, but Kawaja was impressed by the crew's dedication and focus, where everyone was learning together and supporting one another as the show developed.
"The crew helped us so much to make the first season of Cardinal a success, and we were thrilled to get the opportunity to work with them again," Kawaja says. "By the fourth season, the crew were well-seasoned and we were all really comfortable working together."
Kawaja also notes the support provided by CION, as well as the town of North Bay and Sudbury, were invaluable, offering guidance on locations, crew, and talent to help keep the production going. For an independent project in its pilot season, the accessibility to locations and to a crew that supported the production made all the difference.
Creating Lasting Relationships in the North
After developing four seasons of Cardinal successfully, Sienna Films, in partnership with Streel Films, began working on its next project, Trickster—a six part, one hour television series for CBC based on the bestselling trilogy by Eden Robison. Though Trickster is set in a small BC town, Kawaja and her team loved shooting in Northern Ontario so much, they decided to film much of the exteriors for the show there. Not only was it a more cost-effective solution, it also allowed them to retain much of the same crew that worked on Cardinal, and reconnect with many of the same locations.
"We wanted to continue to share the experience of creating Canadian shows that really matter with that community," Kawaja notes. "They helped us to make Cardinal possible, and it just felt right to shoot there again for Trickster."
Another big draw to returning to Northern Ontario for part of the shoot was the presence of Indigenous communities in the area that the production could work closely with and learn from, collaborating with them to shape the voice and tone of Trickster. With the second season of Trickster set for March 2021, Kawaja is excited to return to Northern Ontario and pick up where the production left off.
"Stunning locations, great crews, and a welcoming community. In the North, there's pretty much everything you need," Kawaja says, "It offers such a range, and a lot of support, to make film and television successfully."