Touring Degrassi: an exclusive peak at the new set
By STEPHANIE McGRATH
TORONTO — In the middle of an industrial park in North York, Ont., an alternate teen universe is being born.
In about three weeks, a red brick shell of a building will be transformed into a buzzing school, complete with lockers, gymnasium and cafeteria, and a miniature street lined with the facades of brick houses that look like any house in any suburb (except for the fact that they’re supported by small wooden beams hidden in the back) will welcome the new, young cast of “Degrassi: The Next Generation”.
Shooting on the series begins July 3, which means the construction crew have many long hours of work ahead of them.
Some rooms are more intact than others. Lockers line one wall, which will eventually become the Degrassi school corridor once numerous step ladders are moved, sawdust swept, and walls finished and painted.
Across the enormous studio sits the show’s variety-store set, and just across from that, one of the teen character’s homes is being created. Standing in the “house”, you could convince yourself it was the real thing, if not for the few illusions you notice up close: staircases lead to nothingness and basement doors that hide the fact there’s no basement behind them.
Beside a set that will very shortly become a classroom sits a small structure that sports a black curtain, and a paper sign taped to the wall that reads: “Change room, please knock” – just another reminder that although the “Degrassi” universe will look very real on your TV in October, it’s really a world of support beams and doors that only take you to the next set.
But for the show’s writers, Yan Moore, also the creative consultant who worked on the original “Degrassi” and Aaron Martin, also a story editor, the quickly expanding set is only reinforcing a world they’ve been creating in their minds, on paper and in auditions. Walking through the studio, Martin and Moore are visibly excited about “Degrassi”. They point at various sets and explain who will live in that room, and then walk over to a underdeveloped corner strewn with sawdust and small bits of wood to demonstrate where the students will hang out together.
To them, very soon, the set will be a real place, where real issues and real teens will evolve.
When Canadian teens tune in to “Degrassi: The Next Generation” this October, they’re more likely to see actors who resemble their lab partner than the Holmes, Jacksons, and Van Der Beeks that people “Dawson’s Creek”.
“‘Dawson’s Creek’ is very soapy show, whereas ours is more issue-oriented,” explains Moore. “They’re going to see much more real kids. Remember the first season of ‘Dawson’s Creek’? Where they were all saying, ‘I may be 15’, but in fact they were 18, 19, 20? But our kids are within a couple years of the characters they’re playing.”
Adds Martin, “I think ‘Degrassi’ is more of a reflection of what it’s like to be a teen than shows like “Dawson’s Creek”, which have their place and everything, but you know, the kids on ‘Dawson’s Creek’ speak like they’re PhD students compared to what normal kids speak”.
In preparation for the new series, Moore and Martin have talked to teens, watched lots of TV, and read reams of magazines and newspapers, but each says the core issues that affected the teens who tuned in regularly to watch the exploits of Snake, Caitlin, and Joey Jeremiah on the first “Degrassi” in the ’80s remain pretty much the same as the viewers who will see a whole new set of “Degrassi” characters evolve this year.
“We’re dealing with split parents, parents with flaws (alcoholism), rumours, peer pressure, family life, dealing with siblings, dealing with friends, romance — yes,” says Moore. “Of course. Always”.
Yan and Martin are reluctant to give away any major plot secrets, but they do say they’re planning to stay far, far away from stereotypical teen characters.
“One person’s geek is another person’s love god,” says Moore, who admits to having a soft spot for the “nerd” because of his own nerdy past. “We’re trying to make them three-dimensional.”
That’s not to say that every “Degrassi” student will be loveable just because they have a back story. One character in particular is “anal to beat the band,” says Moore, while another is “awfully close to a bitch”.
“(It’s) one of our favourites,” says Martin lovingly about the less-than-pleasant character.
Both Moore and Martin say they love to create characters who will never win the Miss Congeniality title at school.
Says Moore, “You get in touch with …”
“Your inner evil”, finishes Martin. “Cheap therapy”.
Moore quickly comes to the character’s defence, explaining there is a reason for her madness: her poor relationship with her mother.
With all the new teen magazines, countless teen TV shows, and Freddie Prinze Jr. movies flooding the young market, will the target audience be too burnt out on their own generation to support a new show — even one that sports nasty characters with troubled pasts, on-again/off-again romances, and heavy family problems?
Martin thinks “Degrassi” could actually be an oasis of true teen experience in the middle of a wasteland littered with impossibly pretty “TV teens”.
“I think what’s happening is that the teen genre has gotten to a point that it’s regurgitating the same thing over and over again, and I think that’s why in some ways ‘Degrassi’ is a good antidote for that, because it’s not the typical teen show that’s been out for the last 10 years,” he says. “Kevin Williamson’s (‘Dawson’s Creek’) kind of stuff, which was really cool when it first came out, has become a bit played out, and I think teens are seeing through that now, so it’s good for ‘Degrassi’ to come at this point.”
“Degrassi” is obviously more than just a day job for the two writers.
“I hope it actually does talk to the kids,” says Moore, “actually does communicate. Hopefully it will affect kids lives the way the previous one did. The previous one is still alive on the air. It would be nice to keep on talking to kids like that.”
Take a virtual tour of the “Degrassi” set with our exclusive photo gallery HERE.
Thursday, June 7, 2001
School’s back in at Degrassi
By JIM SLOTEK
“So, uh, what do you wanna do tonight?”
“Mmm, get a pizza, watch Degrassi Jr. High.”
“You got a weird thing for Canadian melodrama.”
“I got a weird thing for girls who say ‘aboot.’ ”
— Chasing Amy
Who says dreams don’t come true? Not only is filmmaker Kevin Smith finally getting a role on Degrassi, but he’s going to be Caitlin’s boyfriend.
Smith (Clerks, Dogma) has long made his Degrassi jones public — using it as fodder for movie lines and writing a paean for Details mag for the show (which ran in the U.S. on PBS).
And yesterday, at a press conference to launch CTV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation — featuring both grownup originals and a whole new cast of kids — Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler revealed that the show’s most famous diehard fan is indeed joining for a one-off appearance in the pilot episode.
“When Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) returns, she has a boyfriend who’s an aspiring director from the West Coast. It’s a cameo part played by Kevin,” said Schuyler, who shepherded the show through its days on CBC as Kids Of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Jr. High and Degrassi High.
In a further embrace of its retro “hip” cachet, the new Degrassi has rock ‘n’ roll auteur Bruce McDonald (Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) along as a director.
“About a year and a half ago,” said Schuyler, “my old creative partner, Yan Moore, and I were talking and he said, ‘Linda, if we followed the chronology, Spike — who had a child out of wedlock — her daughter would now be 12 and entering Degrassi Jr. High.’
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness, has that much time gone by? And then it triggered an idea. We’d been talking for a while about making another teen show. And it was, ‘Wow, maybe it shouldn’t just be another teen show.'”
Completing the circle was the fact that Ivan Fecan, who put Degrassi in primetime on CBC in the ’80s, is now CEO of CTV.
In this and other ways, she admits, it was deja vu. “We sent researchers into the schools to ask what’s the same and what’s different. In terms of matters of the heart, they’re the same — the zit on your nose and wondering whether you’re going to be ready to have sex. What’s different is that 17-year-old who’s ostensibly doing homework on the computer is listening to downloaded music, the TV set is on and the ICQ is flashing (on the monitor) as he talks to his friends online.”
In keeping with this, the new Degrassi will have a Web site (www.degrassi.tv) with a “virtual school” to which people can “enroll,” ensuring a steady stream of e-mails from their classmate characters and buzz about ongoing subplots.
Yesterday’s press event brought out the four returning cast members who’ll be in the one-hour pilot episode — Pat Mastroianni (Joey), Mistysyn (Caitlin), Stefan Brogren (Snake) and Amanda Stepto (Spike) — along with new kids with character names like Ashley, Paige, Liberty, Spinner and J.T.
Miriam McDonald, who plays Spike’s 12-year-old daughter Emma, called the casting “the most exciting thing in my whole life.” But said, “I didn’t watch it when it was a series ’cause I wasn’t born and I was a little bit too young.”
Mistysyn, Brogren and Mastroianni have all had their L.A. experience (Mastroianni was in Godzilla playing a jet pilot who got eaten). Stepto, who’ll be a regular on the new series along with Brogren, travelled and taught English in Japan.
Meanwhile, cult status caught up to them. “I was outside and a young lady saw me and said, ‘I feel so old,'” said Mastroianni. “I know how she feels. We’re a voice of that generation.”
“It happens sometimes that the show is on (in reruns) and my friends are going, C’mon! We gotta watch it!'” says Brogren. “I’m like ‘It’s okay, I was there.'”