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FOOTHILLS MAGAZINE: Region touts long list of film credits

From 2023's The Last of Us to 1983's Superman III, the Foothills has only built momentum as a film making hub.

There are rolling hills, golden farmland, an evergreen boreal forest and snow-capped Canadian Rockies, punctuated by historic towns, each with their own character.  

“The Foothills region lends itself perfectly to filmmaking because it has these diverse backdrops,” says Brock Skretting, head of advocacy with Keep Alberta Rolling, a non-profit organization that advocates for the Alberta screen industry.  

“It's in the name, the Foothills leading to the mountains, you’ve got wooded areas, you’ve got small towns that all have unique looks.”  

While the region is a ‘Goldilocks’ zone environmentally, he also credits the amicable relationship between municipalities and production companies for turning it into a film-making hub.  

“There’s lots of reasons for it, but one of the main reasons is just how welcoming the communities themselves are and the leadership in those communities,” Skretting says.  

“From councillors and elected officials to business owners all the way to MLAs and MPs, everybody’s kind of pushing for the Foothills to continue be one of the hubs for Alberta film.”  

Western TV drama Heartland began in 2007, orbiting the Foothills and erecting Maggie’s Diner, Tack & Feed Store on 3 Avenue in High River, a touchstone for fans of the show, now running into its 16th season.  

The region’s film credits stretch back to Superman (1978) and Superman III (1983), which turned High River into the fictitious Kansas town Smallville and made famous a home on the east edge of town now referred to as the ‘Superman House’ for its role as the home of Clark Kent’s high school sweetheart, Lana Lang.  

Most recently, HBO’s limited series adaptation of hit videogame The Last of Us was shot almost exclusively in Alberta, with the Episode 9 finale drawing over 8.2 million viewers.  

As Joel and Ellie, played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, respectively, made their way through a post-apocalyptic America, their All-American trip was, in reality, all Canadian scenery.  

Making it into the show were several locations around the Foothills, including Priddis, High River and Okotoks.  

“It showed just how diverse the locations are,” Skretting says. “You’ve got the ability to shoot in national parks and provincial parks, but the post-hospital escape showed the juxtaposition of the beauty of the mountain backdrop and the ugliness of the situation they find themselves in.” 

After seeing significant film crew presence in February 2022, the Suntree neighbourhood of Okotoks made its debut in episode seven and eight, with the two protagonists fighting off cannibal cultists on Suntree Lane and the adjacent Suntree Park.  

Episode three featured the Priddis General Store, and High River’s Beechwood neighbourhood, vacated following the 2013 Alberta floods, was transformed into ‘Bill’s Town’, shifting focus from Joel and Ellie to tell the story of Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s Bill and Frank.  

The value of these productions isn’t lost on Okotoks Mayor Tanya Thorn. 

“I think it’s a great thing for the region,” Thorn says. “We, as residents, get to see the output; you get to see the community on screen and for me it’s been fun watching The Last of Us going, ‘Oh that’s there, oh that’s that community,’ so that’s been a great part of the series.  

“You feel a bit more connected to it.”  

Thorn also sees the value those thrills and the making thereof bring to her community.  

“The other side of it that we don’t see is the economic impact of film in our communities,” she says. “When The Last of Us was filmed here, there were over 27 businesses in Okotoks, that we’re aware of, that were impacted by that.  

“That can range from getting coffee to actually buying construction equipment to modify a home and make it look like the apocalypse, so there’s all that extra stuff that adds to the economic value of community.”  

That value carries on well after the production packs up, with many communities seeing a residual influx of tourism as a result.  

“You know, people go to High River to see Maggie’s Diner, huge fans of the show, so it brings people who normally wouldn’t be in our region into our communities because they’ve got a connection to that community because of a TV show or movie,” Thorn says.  

Other shows have graced the historic downtown area of Okotoks, with sci-fi series Wynona Erp shooting on Elma Street, the Okotoks Erratic, and other spots, as well as Joe Pickett, which has set up in multiple locations around High River and Okotoks, including the historic storefronts where Bistro 1882 and Rumpled Quilt Skins reside.  

"We’ve done quite a bit of work creating a general film-friendly policy that puts us open for all types of films, and we worked with Keep Alberta Rolling to build a resolution to Alberta Municipalities around the tax credits,” Thorn says. “The province heard our message and changed the way it’s working.  

“It benefits us all, whether it's a major production or our local film crews, to be working with them.”  

Thorn and council have been working with the Okotoks Film Society to flesh out a film policy that can work for any scale production. 

That activity translates into quality jobs too.  

Tom Benz, a business marketing agent with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 212, explains that of the over 1,000 crew members working on The Last of Us, most would likely reside in Southern Alberta.  

“The fact of the matter is we have 1,500 members, and when a show like The Last of Us comes in, we had 1,300 positions, sometimes for a day, sometimes for the whole show,” Benz says.  

Other episodic productions such as Heartland, Joe Pickett and Ride provide a smaller, yet steady flow of work into the region, he points out.  

“There’s a lot of people coming into the County on episodic television just from those three shows alone,” he says. 

It isn’t just the big productions injecting cash into Alberta’s economy, though. While they get the most attention for their international renown, Skretting points out smaller productions keep the cameras rolling between those big splashes.  

“It’s not all about being the biggest worldwide hit,” Skretting says.   

“Television shows that come back year-after-year to sustain an industry, and also those mid-sized productions, Hallmarks and indies, they keep people employed.”  

The continued work on smaller productions allows for members of Alberta’s growing screen and film sector to build out their skills and refine the already formidable workforce.  

“The result and effort of those results is seen on screen, but the opportunity to learn on smaller shows with mid-sized or smaller budgets allows people to step up into higher roles to sustain employment, stay in the province, make mortgage payments,” Skretting says.  

“We can only do as much as we have trained crew and can only train the crew if they have consistent work – it's that constant chicken-egg situation, but it’s been good, everybody’s working together.”

Brent Calver

About the Author: Brent Calver

Award-winning photojournalist for the Western Wheel newspaper covering Okotoks and the Foothills region.
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