In Feb. 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Alfonso Moreno for “10 questions.” Moreno has a long career in the entertainment industry that includes work on NCIS, The Practice, The Guardian – and many others. He is currently the showrunner for Hallmark Channel’s family-friendly hit, When Calls the Heart.
Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started with “When Calls the Heart”?
I have been fortunate to work as a writer and producer on a wide variety of series. I have written for CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC, Netflix, Syfy, USA Network, Lifetime and now Hallmark. These shows have included, The Practice, NCIS, The Guardian, and Drop Dead Diva.
Last year Brad Krevoy, who is the CEO of the Motion Picture Corporation of America, the production company that owns When Calls the Heart, contacted my representation and inquired as to my availability to work on the series.
At the time, I was unfamiliar with this show, so before meeting with Brad and Hallmark executives, the prudent thing to do was for me to familiarize myself with the series premise and the characters.
While I initially intended to just get a sampling of the episodes, that very quickly morphed into me binge watching the first four seasons in its entirety.
I immediately became hooked by the combination of humor, emotion and romance in the series.
You are the showrunner of When Calls the Heart. For those not in the entertainment industry, could you explain what a showrunner is and what your primary duties entail?
The showrunner is responsible for everything in the production, including the script, casting, wardrobe, production design, budget and post-production.
The fact is, I perform these functions in coordination with the creative executives at Hallmark and a fantastic group of dedicated professionals who have been on the show for many years, including our directors and line producers, post-production supervisor and department heads.
It truly takes a small army to produce any television series.
My primary duties include running the writers’ room, writing all of the final drafts of the scripts, and coordinating all phases of the production with directors, department heads and Hallmark executives.
The nature of a showrunner is so expansive. You touch every aspect of a show. Could you comment on how you take over a new show that has had a different showrunner in the past? What steps do you take to help the cast and crew make the transition as seamless and pleasant as possible?
The writing of the show takes place in Los Angeles and the production takes place in Vancouver.
Soon after I became the showrunner, I flew to Vancouver to meet with the actors and the crew. I felt that it was important that I meet everyone – and that they meet me. This helped create an open line of communication.
I ended up spending about half of my time during production in Vancouver. While most of that time, I was holed up in my hotel room writing, I ventured outside enough to get to know the actors and the crew. It was an invaluable and rewarding experience.
Another big factor in what was a seamless transition was that, entering its fifth season of production, When Calls the Heart was a well-oiled machine.
The cast and crew already excelled at their jobs.
Could you walk us through the calendar for Season 5 of When Calls the Heart? When was the series renewed, when did you start creating outlines, when did you run into your first hiccup that required some adjustments, when did filming commence and wrap, etc….
When Calls the Heart was renewed in April of last year. The writers’ room started in May. Production started in mid-August and ended on December 21.
Oddly, the show’s first hiccup resulted in me getting hired as the showrunner.
I was brought in mid-August to rewrite the When Calls the Heart Christmas movie. Hallmark executives and Brad Krevoy liked what I did with it, so I was then hired as the showrunner. As the production moved right from the Christmas movie to the subsequent episodes, I was working with the writers’ room under a severe time crunch to come up with new, compelling stories.
It was a labor of love for all involved; although I, along with the whole production team, got a few extra gray hairs in the process.
The only other hiccup was in September when one of our actors fell ill. We had to shut down production for a week. Fortunately, this actor fully recovered and we were able to wrap production before the Christmas break.
What kind of interaction do writers have with actors on “When Calls the Heart”? Is the synergy between those two groups more or less significant than other shows you have done? Is writer-actor dialogue helpful or harmful to the success of a show?
I have had quite a bit of interaction with the actors on this show – more than in past shows I have worked on.
At different times, either over the phone or in person, I’ve discussed storylines with all of them. There is no doubt in my mind that these conversations have greatly benefited the series.
Our actors have mulled over their character’s history and motivation for years, so it stands to reason that their thoughts on these matters would be invaluable.
I consider it part of my job to be open to different perceptions and opinions and then to filter these through my own personal sensibilities to come up with a finished product.
Hallmark is known for family-friendly entertainment. Are there a series of guiding values or best practices you use in developing episodes and programs?
The four previous seasons helped set the template for the tone of the stories we tell.
Another guiding principal I used is whether I would enjoy sitting and watching this episode with my children.
As a parent, I’ve experienced that sinking feeling when watching something with my kids that suddenly became not appropriate for them. These uncomfortable situations have honed my sensibility as to what is and isn’t family-friendly viewing.
Finally, Hallmark executives review the storylines and scripts. Obviously, no one knows the Hallmark brand better than Hallmark.
As a showrunner, you have a lot of people looking to you for leadership. What efforts do you make to inspire and motivate the cast and crew?
The fastest way to inspire and motivate your cast and crew is with a great script.
If the script is a compelling, emotional story that will give the audience goosebumps at times – and make them chuckle at other times, the cast and crew will respond and do what they can to lift the material to even greater heights.
We have a great group of professionals, both in front of the camera and behind it. These people put in long days – mostly twelve hours, but sometimes longer. Oftentimes, they work outside in the cold and the rain. Everyone takes pride in their work and they want to be inspired by the stories we tell, so I and the other writers work hard to deliver on that.
The greatest satisfaction I get during production is when I walk on the set and there is a real positive buzz amongst the cast and crew about a newly published script.
I know that if the script has them talking, then it will resonate with the audience, as well.
When Calls the Heart is unlike almost anything on television outside of Hallmark. What is it about this show that appeals to the appetites of viewers at a time when most television is replete with profanity, graphic sexual content, and violence?
Currently, the television landscape is saturated with violent and graphic shows. Obviously, these shows are not suitable for family viewing. In addition, I’ve spoken to people, who tell me that when they come home after a hard day at work, they don’t want to be shaken and unnerved by a television show.
On the other end of the spectrum, if a parent chooses to watch a “children show” with his or her kids, for the most part, they are stuck watching half-hour comedies that tend to embrace a silly sensibility.
What When Calls the Heart offers is a drama that deals with both adult and children issues.
We endeavor to amuse and to conjure goosebumps and heartfelt tears.
We know we are doing things right, because our audience continues to increase and now other networks are climbing aboard the family-friendly train and are trying to create this type of show. In a world where everything is cyclical, it is really great to be ahead of the curve.
You have fans across the world. They speak different languages. They have different family situations. Why do you think the theme of faith as found in When Calls the Heart transcends so many boundaries?
Because this theme, along with the themes of forgiveness and community, are universal.
It is my job as a storyteller to test our characters by putting them in really difficult positions. The more emotionally difficult the circumstance, the more we can experience the better angels of our nature in a resolution. When Calls the Heart taps into the universal desire to be part of a community that pulls for each other.
How would you describe When Calls the Heart to those who have never seen it — and why should they start tuning in now?
I have been sprinkling in my description of the series in the answers above.
But to give you an overview, Season 5 takes place around 1915 in the Northwest. The country is on the cusp of becoming the modern world, but it is not quite there, yet. In the town of Hope Valley, there are still more horses than there are cars. Elizabeth, a young school teacher, has fallen in love with a Mountie, who (at the beginning of the season) is off in the Northern Territories fighting a band of outlaws. Her best friend, Abigail, serves the community both as the Mayor and as the owner of the only café in town. Bill, the Sheriff, endeavors to keep Hope Valley safe.
Through various storylines, our town residents are going to face hardships, both financial and emotional. At times, they will be in danger. Other times, they’ll need to solve mysteries. Throughout, everyone’s strength of character and community resolve will be put to the test.
For those who have – and haven’t – watched the series, I can promise that Season 5 is the most gripping, heartwarming, amusing and emotional season to date. It will be a weekly hour well spent.
Let’s pretend Hallmark asks you to do a “When Calls the Heart” episode in which a mysterious visitor comes to Hope Valley and seems to know everything about the childhoods of the entire town. What kind of story might you write to weave together an overarching narrative that connects the new town in an inspiring way?
Wow, this is a tall task. Hope Valley has become a collection of characters from different places. For someone to know everything about everyone’s childhood might require some magical element.
It reminds me a little of the Christmas episode that started season four where a peddler spread the Christmas spirit through what appeared like magic.
In this scenario, I am not sure how to create an overarching narrative off the top of my head; but if I figure it out, I’ll be sending you a release form to sign, so I can use it!
Selected quotes from this interview were used in a Feb. 13, 2018 article in the Deseret News.