There’s a good chance you’re already familiar what we’ll be showing you here. The group of buildings seen, looking convincingly like a pioneer community straight out of the Old West, are in fact a set and have appeared in countless films and TV shows. Perhaps even some you’ve watched. This is CL Western Town and Backlot, partner, not terribly far from Calgary, a major film production centre, and this place is kept busy meeting the needs of that industry.
Tag along for a behind the scenes look…it’ll blow your mind.
The “set” is located in the centre of a huge cattle ranch in the rolling hills west of Calgary. In spite of being close to a major population, the area around gives the impressions it’s remote, which is a major selling point. You can have the complete old west experience, a backdrop of hills, forests, grassland, with no signs of civilization anywhere, and still be close to all the amenities a film company needs. Experienced production crew, materials, extras, a major airport, a major highway, they’re all a stone’s thrown away.
The first production to occur here was 1970’s Little Big Man, that wilderness feel being put to good use for some of the outdoor shots. It was not until 1990s before the property was used again and sets put in. Productions shot here from that era include the Lonesome Dove Series, for which the set was originally built, and a whole mess of made for TV movies (most, ahem, instantly forgettable). With each passing year, more structures we’re added to the town, and others, like farms or “remote” cabins, in outlying areas on the property. It’s all well spread out.
More productions of note filmed here over the years include Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Nights with Jackie Chan, and the TV series Heartland, Hell on Wheels, the crazy-popular show Fargo, and most recently Wynonna Earp. The place is kept busy. Even so, there’s been ups and down within the industry with some quiet times – for example, some seven or eight years back, when due to changes in the way tax incentives were handled, business was driven away for a time. Things have picked up since that little “problem” was fixed.
Most of the productions shot here are for US audiences. Their strong dollar and those tax breaks spoken of earlier, along with a positive business environment make filming here cheaper than if in the States. And oh yes, there’s no shortage of scenery and settings, all close by, to help add to the appeal. “You can’t beat Calgary”, a statement heard many times from production types during the research phase of this article. The Canuck film industry is small and underfunded, so without this “US” work there’s no way a place like CL Western could survive.
The set is laid out like this…
At the centre of the expansive property is the town proper. It’s a fine representation of a boom town one might expect to find on the American Frontier circa mid to late 1800s. There’s a hotel, a saloon (of course), jail, hardware store, train station, Chinese Laundry, funeral parlour, a little church at the edge of town…all the usual suspects. The buildings visually are quite convincing and reflect the era well.
Interiors are usable for inside shots and not simply just empty shells with false facades. The buildings are “fakes” but darn they feel real inside and out. Quite the illusion and a testament to the skill and dedication of the organization and those they employ. Our guide this day, by the way, was kept busy searching for “dimes” inside the various buildings. Crews, it seems, plop them down in random places for her to find, a running gag of sorts.
In total there’s some couple dozen buildings in town, some newer, others dating back to the early days. Some things are permanent, others are used and torn down. Structures are custom “dressed” for each production and so can look different from show to show. Sometimes they’re made to look old and forgotten, other times as though just built. They might get painted different, trim is changed and so on, often ending up looking nothing like they did before. The place has many faces.
The town is about about a city block square. The view to the east is of rolling grassland – hard believe but Calgary is only some several dozen clicks away but out of view due to the lay of the land. To the south it’s trees and meadows. Since the set is in the centre of the property there’s no chance of development encroaching on it and ruining that old west vibe.
A treed rise flanks the north side of the property. To the west, it’s an unobstructed view of forested foothills and further on tall barren peaks. And since just beyond the property in that direction is the Kananaskis Wilderness Area, there will never be anything to block the view from that angle.
Behind the town, just few hundred metres away, is a huge staging area for crews and equipment. With only one production taking place on our visit, it was pretty empty. At times, the tell us, it’s close to overflowing.
In outlying parts of the property there’s other buildings scattered here and there. There’s a couple farm houses, one in use on our visit (Fargo), another, in an amazing open-range setting, that was being readied for some other production. Each is just as convincing as the buildings in town. Kudos to the CL Western company…everything feels “authentic”.
Also seen was the “Weight Station” cabin – dense us forgot to ask what’s with the name. BAD journalist! Looks like it could double as trapper or prospector’s cabin. There’s other buildings too, a roadside diner, other wilderness cabins, a mine site, not all visited by Team BIGDoer. We were pushing the time limits as it was and so some parts just had to be missed. Still, we got to see most of it. Maybe…just maybe…we could come back for a part two. I could see some night shots working…
The firm keeps a large warehouse of “props” for set decoration that are then rented to the various production companies. There’s a huge selection of furniture, household items, costumes and everything needed to adorn people or places, mostly authentic period pieces, all carefully inventoried. Outside a stack of caskets await their next assignment. These are essential for any old west production – think about it, every western you’ve watched…there’s a funeral scene. It’s almost a cliche in that genre.
Further up is a storage area for really big stuff. On our visit it was occupied by train equipment used in the filming of Hell on Wheels, their fate uncertain now that production of the series has wrapped up. The locomotives and cars are fabricated props – mostly so, it seems some parts on some rail cars were authentic old – and are made of wood, foam, fibreglass and other bits. Still, they are rail cars in the sense. To move them up and down the track, a modern road/rail shunter is used. This show covers the building of the US Transcontinental Railway, circa 1860s.
Not all scenes for Hell on Wheels were filmed at CL Western, with another competing “filming” property southeast of Calgary being used at times. But that’s another story. Side bar: we’re working to get entry into that “set” as well.
The CL Ranch, home to this set we just explored, is a large and historic cattle operation dating back to the late 1800s. The movie biz is a sideline of sorts for the owners – that’s how big their cattle interests are! The “CL” brand was registered by the original land holder, of who the current owners are descendants.
This piece was born of another, a shorter write up we did for the Alberta Government about the the history of film production here in the province. We should be visiting other movie sites soon as the series advances and will post follow up articles here when that happens.
A sampling of the productions shot at CL Western: Fargo TV Series (Current), Wynonna Earp TV Series (Current), Hell on Wheels TV Series (2011-2015), Diablo Film (2014), Away and Back (Big Sky) TV Movie (2014), Mutant World (Fallout Asylum) Movie (2014), Forsaken Movie (2013), Klondike TV Series (2013), Dead in Tombstone Movie (2013), Heartland TV Series (2011), Hanna’s Law TV Movie (2011), When Calls The Heart TV Movie (2008), Prairie Schooner TV Series (2005), Broken Trail (Daughters Of Joy) TV Mini Series (2005), September Dawn Movie (2005), Shanghai Nights Movie (2002), Monty Walsh TV Movie (2002), Johnson County War TV Series (2001), Roughing It TV Mini Series (2001), Almost America Movie (2000), For All Time, TV Movie (2000), Papa’s Angels TV Movie (2000), After The Harvest TV Movie (2000), High Noon TV Movie (2000), Shanghai Noon Movie (1999), Cross Fire Trail TV Movie (1999), The Jack Bull TV Movie (1998), You Know My Name TV Movie (1998), Ebenezer TV Movie (1997), Honey I Shrunk The Kids TV Series (1997), In Cold Blood TV Movie (1996), Rose Hill TV Movie (1996), Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years TV Series (1995), Lonesome Dove TV Series (1994), One More Mountain TV Movie (1993), Black Fox TV Movie (1993), Little Big Man Movie (1970).
The firm’s website: CL Western Town and Backlot.
More posts to keep you busy…
Keeping the Faith – time for pinball!
The Clearwater – a working drive-in theatre.
Red Rock Coulee – stunning geological formations.
A day with the Battle River Railway – ride a train with us.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: January 2017.
Location: West of Calgary.
Article references and thanks: CL Ranch and CL Western Town Organization, Teresa Copithorne, Ashley, our guide, Noah Hawley, Nomadic Pictures.
This site is not open to the public.