The Chart-Topping Show Finds the Beauty
of Community in Southern British Columbia
by Rachel Llewellyn
All photos courtesy of Netflix, unless otherwise noted
An hour north of Vancouver, intrepid location manager Robert “Fluffy” Millar/LMGI bushwhacked through dense coastal forest flanking the upper Cheakamus River, looking for the next astonishing backdrop for Netflix’s surprise hit series, Virgin River. “I spent the day out there trying to chase down certain GPS coordinates with my camera strapped around my neck and a phone in my pocket,” says Millar. “If I can get somewhere to get an amazing shot, then I’m like, ‘production can get here, too!’ That was always my idea.”
Adapted from Robyn Carr’s award-winning 22-book series, the show follows Mel, a Los Angeles nurse practitioner played by Alexandra Breckenridge. She leaves her tragic past behind to set up a small practice in an idyllic Northern California town that resembles a Thomas Kincaid painting, Mayberry and Cicely, Alaska, from Northern Exposure, all rolled into one. Here she finds love with bar owner Martin Henderson as Jack. This surreal, green-carpeted paradise is found in Canada’s most western province, British Columbia.
Virgin River’s atmospheric forest dreamscape is a cleverly pieced-together patchwork of postcard-perfect shots. When Millar emerged from the undergrowth at House Rock, a kayak put-in at the lip of a rowdy class four rapid—he knew that in spite of the logistical challenge, he’d found the spot for a dramatic confrontation between Jack and Mel that production would not be able to resist. “Oh, compromises will be made to get them here!” he mused.
On Vancouver’s mountainous coast, the landscape is as ripe and evocative as the show itself: Its glacier-scraped granite cliffs, heaved up by earthquakes and volcanoes and veined by miles of lush green waterways, are a breathtaking scrim for the wholesome romantic drama stealing hearts around the globe. Clotted with log jams, frothing rapids and depending on the season, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, the Cheakamus flows through more than 40 miles of mossy granite swaddled in Douglas fir, hemlock and cedars to feed the broader Squamish River, which winds behind Jack’s Bar in the fictional town of Virgin River before draining into the Pacific at the head of the Howe Sound a few miles to the south—all within Indigenous Squamish Nation territory.
A film entertainment hub with a robust production infrastructure and a growing skyline, where several shows are being filmed at once, Southern British Columbia is a sprawling, complex social ecosystem built at the intersection of Indigenous sovereignty, environmental stewardship, and thriving outdoor recreation and film industries. And as Virgin River goes full steam ahead filming Season 5 after Season 4’s record-breaking June debut, Vancouver native Millar and a homegrown crew say the glue that holds the region’s collective interests together is the same ingredient behind the show’s remarkable production story and the secret to its incredible success: kindness and community.
Building a World
Millar was brought on to the series in its second season by Vancouver-based Hans Dayal/LMGI, who assumed the role of production manager after working as the show’s location manager on Season 1. He had zeroed in on the small town of Squamish, just 30 miles north of Vancouver, to provide the contours for the fictional town of Virgin River. Working with production designer Tony Devenyi, showrunner Sue Tenney and producer Ian Hay, he helped map out the town and find recurring locations like Mel’s cabin, the charmingly traditional open-plan Murdo Park Caretaker’s Cabin in North Vancouver, expertly designed and built out by Devenyi and set decorator Mecca Thornhill. Dayal also secured Hope’s colorful and historic 1920’s bungalow and doc’s practice, a stately three-story late Victorian mansion in New Westminster. Jack’s man-cave country bar is a real-life riverside restaurant in Brackendale called The WaterShed Grill that was built by the sister of Squamish Nation Chief Bill Williams.
Dayal says the creators aimed to show a more personalized, mature side of the Vancouver area, which is popular real estate for action-packed sci-fi movies and young adult superhero shows like The X-Men, Supernatural, The Flash, Arrow and Smallville.
Millar swung into the show’s stride quickly, catching up on the dailies from Season 1 and Dayal’s scouting photos and driving around to filming spots to introduce himself. “It was really nice taking over the show and reaching out to the locations from Season 1 and they all said, ‘I’m so happy you guys are back, it was wonderful, and your crew is so amazing!’ and I thought, ‘This is great! I’m already coming into an established family that’s respected and everybody loves it.’”
The Road to Virgin River
Millar’s early interests put him behind a drum kit instead of a camera. A metal musician and Army Cadets drummer, he considered a military drumming career but moved to Vancouver to become a rock star instead. Working a security gig at Vancouver Film School to pay the bills also earned him free cinematography and editing classes, and he instantly clicked with the controlled mayhem and camaraderie of production. It’s no wonder that Millar uses tactical terms to describe his job: a film shoot is a “campaign” or a “field exercise,” accidental scene walk-ons are “civilians.” As a PA, his on-set callouts were closer to a drill sergeant’s bawl.
“It reminds me of a military unit coming in to do a task. Every department has its own choreography, but everybody is synchronized to get to one goal. Everybody is moving forward to the pointy end of the stick for the director’s vision, and I just love the organized chaos.”
Millar got a few gigs from school connections and slept overnight in a Subway restaurant booth to get to his first union job: as location production assistant on the 2000 film Screwed, starring Norm MacDonald, Dave Chappelle, Danny DeVito and Sarah Silverman.
He applied his Army Cadets training and boundless curiosity to developing cold-weather location chops on shows like Underworld: Evolution with Kate Beckinsale, and A Dog’s Way Home with Ashley Judd in Squamish, where he worked with the support team on Ice Road Truckers and learned how to transport gear and mobile shelters using snowcats. “We’d be on the mountain in the dark in 30 feet of snow with snowcats and snowmobiles—it was a blast,” Millar recalls. “I really got geared into doing critical site logistics.”
He developed a well-rounded ALM career on hit projects like Riverdale and the Fifty Shades movie trilogy, and when he was approached in the summer of 2019 by Hans Dayal to fill his spot as location manager, Millar was ready.
Devenyi says that Millar is a good match for the show’s emotional quotient. “Robert approaches the scripts like an actor does: What is the essence of the character, what is the essence of the location? They’re not just looking at if there’s parking nearby or if this is a cheap location. If it’s the top of a hill or 100 miles into the bush, he’s always going that extra mile and getting into the character—he’s really tireless in finding the right thing.”
“The producers wanted it to be a little bit more textural than your standard romantic drama,” says Dayal. “It was a great chance to build the Virgin River world.”
It Takes a Team
“The creative team is always open and receptive to new and even unconventional ideas about a scene and its setting,” says Millar. He feels that the secret to the show’s astonishing production value is having a mostly local team who knows the area, loves the outdoors and brings its own experience to bear on anchoring the action against storybook-beautiful backgrounds.
“Having directors, producers and a production designer that are familiar with the region really adds more sets of ‘eyes’ that help speed up the location selection process, even in advance of actual physical scouting,” he says. “The North Shore was Ian Hay’s backyard growing up. Tony knows these areas as well because he’s designed some of the amazing shows—and then to have Stargate series directors Martin Wood and Andy Mikita, Vikings: Valhalla director Monika Mitchell—all these great directors are from Vancouver.”
“I knew right away that nature was going to be a character in the show,” adds Devenyi. “It’s a universal thing and it’s truly spectacular here in BC, and clearly people around the world in other beautiful places are drawn to it.”
“I’ve been mountain biking on the trails and hiking and finding littler corners here for years,” says Hay. “I’ve grown up here and there are times we literally say, ‘We went on a dog walk, or my wife goes to this waterfall—do you guys know about it?’ There are by-the-way places, small rivers and waterfalls and mountains that we know about, so it’s a lot easier. We don’t have to have huge dollars to show the beauty of our mainland.”
“A lot of the amazing transition shots between scenes in Virgin River are shot by our drone team, Action Aerials,” Millar adds. “Rob Wood is the aerial camera guy. He and his partner capture shots of mountains, lakes and rivers all across BC.”
A couple months into filming Season 2, just before Thanksgiving 2019, Season 1 was released to overwhelming critical and popular acclaim. “It was gangbusters, the press lost their minds,” recalls Millar. “We were number one on Netflix for so long and I was looking around at my team going, ‘What have we hitched our wagon onto now?’ It was awesome!
“And speaking about the “Location Team” experience itself—it is one of THE most collaborative groups I’ve had the honour of working with. They really are self-powered perpetual motion machines. I am always in awe of what they accomplish in such a short time frame across many kilometers of real estate. I am incredibly appreciative of their energy and commitment and grateful to be a part of this amazing team!”
As season after season was greenlit by Netflix, Millar and his team riffed on the location range, introducing viewers to natural features and buildings as grand and striking as the storyline: Charmaine’s baby shower at a stunning golf resort, Paige’s bakery truck at the panoramic Cleveland Dam, Mel jogging along the taffy-pull arc of the Lynn Canyon suspension bridge, a romantic moment between Brie and Brady in front of a restored art deco theater, Preacher and Paige’s intimate walk in the Capilano River Regional Park, Mel’s pregnancy revelation atop the breathtaking Cypress Mountain, the soaring granite apron of the Stawamus Chief Mountain, and establishing shots of sweeping water features like the 230-foot Brandywine Falls near Whistler.
Virgin River’s writing and production is geared toward widening the genre’s traditional fanbase.
“It’s timeless, ageless,” says Dayal. “Even though it’s contemporary, it’s its own state.” There’s a strong community ethic, too: Instead of earbuds and iPads, there’s coffee klatches, craft circles, town-wide picnics and festivals, and impromptu gatherings at Jack’s Bar.
“There’s none of that toxic animosity that seems to be prevalent out there in the media sphere now,” observes Millar. “Virgin River provides a chance at hope that we could get a real world like that someday.”
Even the darker themes of loss, trauma and danger seem bounded within an emotionally open framework of recovery and redemption. And love, while often fraught or frustrated, is always hopeful and unspoiled by cynicism. “Mel has a lot of tragedy in her life but she’s not a tragic character,” says Tenney. “Jack has issues in his background, but they don’t define who he is. We love good drama.There’s all sorts of stuff that we love to put our characters through but at the end of the day they rise above it.”
The COVID Challenge
Season 3 began filming in August 2020 as soon as lockdowns were lifted in the thick of the COVID pandemic. “I think we were the first English-speaking Netflix show to go to camera once the restrictions were released, so we were kind of developing the protocols as we went along,” says Millar. “Netflix actually has their own COVID-testing lab down the street from our studio. They knew all the private companies were going to get overwhelmed, so they went into conjunction with a local doctor and built the Netflix lab knowing that testing was going to be de rigeur in the film industry.”
The pandemic also gave Millar opportunities to encounter new tools that expanded the show’s technical vistas. “We tested these cameras from Insta360 because the LMGI had Coffee Tuesdays during COVID on Zoom, where you’d sign up and learn new things. One week was about technology, and I just fell in love with these cameras and what they can do.” He and lead scout Sarah Whitlam took an Insta360 camera each, made full-circle images of select locations, then shared them on a digital library. They could also be used to produce remote, real-time 360-degree images for video conferences, effectively taking 40 people on a live tour of Lilly’s farmhouse during a production meeting.
And the camera’s utility is evergreen beyond remote work, adds Millar. “Coming back for Season 4, we were a little more relaxed with COVID and we had new protocols, but we still use the camera to build our photo library, so it’s great technology.”
Another logistical challenge in Season 3 came in the form of the Lumberjack Games, an axe-tossing, tree-sawing logger sports extravaganza filmed over seven days at the Grouse Mountain ski resort, vacant thanks to COVID. Already familiar with the spot from his key location production assistant work on American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, Millar knew he could generate badly needed revenue for the resort while capturing incredible views. “It was such a joy working with Grant Wahl, the resort’s director of operations, and their team, there’s so much mutual gratitude because they got the income and we’re getting these ridiculous amazing visuals.
“I was taking a dirt bike up and down the back forest service roads to figure out how to get the trucks up there. Transport was leery about the 45-minute drive up and back, and the only other way is these two massive European-style James Bond gondolas.” So, they moved the equipment to the peak in the empty gondolas, built tents for extras and gear, and waited for the completion of a week-long set build. Then over the long Thanksgiving weekend—just before filming was to start—a windstorm destroyed everything. The crew rallied, shot what had remained standing, and rebuilt what they could as they filmed.
“You’re on a mountain in the middle of October and it’s getting close to ski season, so the weather is always going to be a factor when you’re at elevation,” says Millar. “The teams were such troopers up there, just phenomenal. Then two days to wrap, a snowstorm came and buried a bunch of our electrical gear and crushed our tents, thousands of dollars in damage.” Millar feels that the resulting scenes of Jack and Mel hurtling through the spectacular landscape on a zipline made the extreme effort it took to shoot well worth it. He also hired Grouse Mountain staff to teach the cast the literal ropes and reached out to the producer of the actual lumberjack games who brought in a crew of real-life loggers to chainsaw, log-roll and speed climb in the background.
The show’s narrative pace offers continuity challenges, too. Shooting a days-long storyline over five months in an area with profound seasonal changes means adjusting technically and logistically to melting snowlines, shedding deciduous trees and whip-fast weather shifts. “We’re always trying to make December look like June,” says Hay. “When we did the cannabis camp for the first time, we were on location for three days and you need continuity, but the first day we showed up there was 3½ inches of snow on the ground and we weren’t expecting any. We thought that there’s no way we would be able to keep that for three days because in Vancouver it usually rains by the next day, so it was a bit of a panic. But luckily, the weather gods were with us, and it stayed cold and there was no rain for three days and it all worked out.”
Tenney explains how they worked the surprise snow into the shot: “We figured out a way to make two areas. It makes sense that the pot farmers would be hiding out at a higher level and then grow level is lower, and the production value from that was amazing. I find if you lean into problems, you’ll find a solution quicker and better. You have to be ready to move and pivot.”
Millar says driving and indoor shots, close angles that hide dead branches, utilizing the greens department—and adding even more green in post-production—also help camouflage the seasons and the passage of time.
Backing up the shoot schedule for Season 5 solved the temporal problem but created another: public parks, trying to catch up on revenue lost during the pandemic, prohibited filming in the summer to keep the campgrounds open for tourists. “We did start six weeks earlier than last year so that we could actually capture more natural trees and greens longer, but the logistical caveat is we can’t shoot any provincial parks in the summer,” says Millar. “So, we have to search for more private forests and engage the Squamish Nation and Ministry of Forests.” Other areas are closed due to fire season, when the danger posed by a stray spark in the warm, dry conditions is just too great.
Within these lean parameters, the creative team’s strategy for Season 5 is ambitious: As character storylines culminate, an epic event will bring the town together—which means incorporating more CGI, consolidating locations and finding new far-flung places to take the script. As the story blooms in the hands of new showrunner Patrick Sean Smith, location manager Fiona Crossley has come aboard to support Millar in developing the expanding narrative map.
Building Relationships: Kindness and Community
Virgin River is filmed on an intricate system of municipal and provincial roads, public parks, private property and back country—much of which is Indigenous land that’s home to several tribal groups. “The Squamish Nation is one of the largest Indigenous First Nations groups in in BC and there’s an immense amount of relationship between all the First Nations in BC and the lower mainland and the film industry,” Millar says. “We work with all these different nations intimately to get permission to go on their lands. On the first day of filming 50 Shades of Grey, we had a tribal elder come down and smudge the set and bless the set.
“We knew that we were on unceded territories and just wanted to pay our respect for the chance to live work and play here. It’s great building that relationship and learning how to orchestrate and synchronize all the different entities at the same time has been a big fun learning curve.”
The terms of that relationship include responsible stewardship of the sweeping natural beauty Virgin River captures on film. Canada manages its public lands and forests efficiently so that crews can find unspoiled views relatively close to civilization, allowing creative leads to utilize a small area for different purposes. “We would be somewhere in the middle of a forest that looked like you were deep in Yosemite and there was literally a Starbucks 15 minutes away,” laughs Tenney. “Canada has all these fantastic parks and areas, and they keep them so that they can be utilized by everybody in the community and in doing that they also help us highlight the beauty of Canada. I do take great pride in showing off how amazing British Columbia is.”
Millar is careful to curate eco-ethical work habits to keep BC beautiful. “Make sure it’s pristine when we leave, like camping: Leave no sign, take pictures, don’t take stones and leave the place better than it was when you got there.” He says Netflix is also encouraging production leads to explore sustainability initiatives like electric vehicles for cast transportation, plugging into a location’s power grid to run equipment, and using new mobile electric generators in environmentally sensitive areas. “It’s just one massive uninterrupted power supply the size of a small truck that’s just pure power, and they’ve got a green vinyl wrap so they almost disappear.” Vancouver has also launched an initiative to build a citywide network of clean power kiosks near the most common parking and film locations and offers a deep discount on film permits if crews can eliminate the use of one diesel generator per day. The city of Squamish also enforces waste and wildlife policies and best practices established by the 2006 Reel Green Initiative, which helps the film industry reduce environmental impact.
Another compounding factor for Millar is the sheer number of projects filming in the Vancouver area, with 50 to 60 shoots rotating through at a time. Millar maintains a friendly collaboration with his creative neighbors, coordinating their shoot calendars to prevent overlap and rotating parking lot access.
The qualities of kindness and generosity that shade the story are a fictional echo of the production’s genuine regard for the community it works with. At the House Rock kayaking site, the greens department discreetly covered a memorial wall with moss out of respect for those who lost their lives in the Cheakamus River, and the show made donations to outdoor search-and-rescue groups. Sustainability coordinator Diana Johnson donates leftover food to pet shelters and animal rescues, and the modestly budgeted production is known for giving big at food drives and community service events. Millar himself put together a Virgin River gift basket complete with a cast-autographed Jack’s Bar menu for a United Way benefit auction. “That is very telling how positive that crew is, how members deserve all their success,” says Dayal. “It’s just natural that good people are going to be rewarded with a successful show.”
And fans seem to agree. With billions of viewership minutes that topped blockbusters like The Queen’s Gambit and Stranger Things, the popular response to Virgin River has been phenomenal. The romance sizzles behind the scenes too, as Preacher, played by Colin Lawrence, finds new love with kung fu instructor Julia—played by his real-life spouse, Lucia Walters. With its multigenerational love stories and few of the cast members under 25, the over-50 demographic is tuning in voraciously, too. Millar says the soapy storyline is popular in South America, with one Brazil-based Facebook fan page clocking a quarter million likes on a recent post announcing that Season 5 filming had begun. “People like to watch beautiful people fall in love,” agrees Devenyi. “It seems to strike a chord in that it just has the right amount of intrigue, along with the beauty of the show.”
Even exacting fans of the Robyn Carr novels are creatively satisfied with the production team’s rendering of their beloved series—including the structural and tonal tweaks made to appeal to a broader viewership. “They’ve really stretched the fan base, and that means that it’s building its own audience regardless of the source material,” says Dayal. “A lot of shows tend to not be able to do when there’s such a theology around the world, but I think Virgin River does that really well.”
The show’s wholesome energy has created a backwash of goodwill from viewers that seems to resonate on a deeper level than simple fandom. Proposals and pilgrimages are common sights at favorite filming locales. When Martin Henderson posted on social media that it was chilly filming at Jack’s Bar, a woman from his home country of New Zealand hand-made and shipped wool clothing for the cast. Then she called the real-life WaterShed Grill to ask how many employees were on staff and made wool socks for every bar worker.
Devenyi says he met a young woman inspired by the show to move from Scotland to Vancouver. “She just thought it was so beautiful she had to come and live here. She and her mother are huge fans and now they face time while they watch it together. It’s really amazing.” Sue Tenney recalls another woman whose mother was going through cancer treatment. “She told us that the only thing that she would get up for was to watch the show. I’m proud of it and I’m glad that I am part of something positive when there’s so much negativity in the world. I think that those big overall themes are love and hope and family—the family you make and the family you belong to. Everything else is just icing on the cake: great acting and fantastic costumes and beautiful pictures.”
With themes of optimism and kindness, family and community running through the show like the Squamish River itself, the generosity of spirit that draws viewers to the show’s warm, woodsy narrative extends beyond the camera frame. “We have a crew that’s wonderful, probably the nicest crew in BC,” says Dayal. “The cast is just amazing, lovely gentle people. Everybody is just nailing it, the directors are amazing, so it’s just a really great vibe. Every show that I’ve ever worked on where the crew and the production is a happy place, the show has been successful.”
“I really like the kindness and collaboration of the production,” Millar concludes. “In Virgin River, they’re always trying to help each other and similarly in production, we work together—everybody always pitches in. That’s what we do in Virgin River—we take care of our neighbors because they’re our family.”
VIRGIN RIVER Location Department:
W. Robert “Fluffy” Millar/LMGI | SLM
Fiona Crossley | LM (Season 5)
Kassandra Rockandel | KALM
Steffi Matheos | ALM
Sean McVicar | ALM
Lily Ditchburn | (Trainee Assistant LM) TAL
Sarah Whitlam | Location Scout
Zoë Galloway | Location Office Coordinator