To get to the Rosebud Motel, proprietors Johnny Rose and Stevie Budd, you drive northwest from Toronto for an hour, through fields of suburban McMansions, flat farmland giving way to rolling hills sheltering country estates with names like Windwood. At a certain point you turn right, climb a hill and round a corner, and there on your left, a little below the road, you will see it: the signature location of the television show Schitt's Creek.
You will also have to drive into the past. It is June 25, 2019, and Schitt's Creek is finishing filming on its sixth and final season. In several days all will be as it once was - that is to say, the building will still be here, but the Rosebud Motel will be gone.
Schitt's Creek tells the story of the Roses, a rich family that loses all its money and winds up living in two adjacent motel rooms in the moderately eccentric small town that gives the series its name. Stories of people who need to lose what they have in order to learn what they need are not new, but there is something especially original and touching about these characters, growing more real with each season, even as they remain outlandish, suspended between acceptance and a dream of escape.
Most of the main cast is working today. Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, who play parents Moira and Johnny Rose, were on SCTV and in four Christopher Guest movies together. Annie Murphy and Dan Levy - who created the series with Eugene, his father, and continues to run it - play their adolescent adult children, Alexis and David. Emily Hampshire, who plays Stevie, Johnny's business partner and David's best friend, is here. Chris Elliott and Jennifer Robertson, who play the Schitts, Roland and Joceyln, are here. Absent are Noah Reid (David's fiance and business partner, Patrick), Dustin Milligan (Alexis' veterinarian boyfriend, Ted) and Sarah Levy, Eugene's daughter and Dan's sister, who plays town waitress Twyla.
Dan Levy is not performing but is on set for questions, suggestions and last-days camaraderie. His vision transformed Schitt's Creek bit by bit from a fish-out-of-water comedy into something deeper, wider, more universal; in the bargain, he became something of a screen heartthrob and LGBTQ standard-bearer. (In Hollywood, the final season is being advertised with a Sunset Boulevard billboard of David and Patrick kissing.) The series, little noticed at first, gained traction when Netflix began streaming earlier seasons; it's going out as a legitimate sensation.
"It's beautiful, this part of Ontario," Dan says, monitoring the filming by video feed from around the corner of the building. "In the early days, people would camp because it's so long to get back to Toronto. The crew would set up little camping tents and fires. We'd play volleyball in the back when global warming hadn't hit us quite so hard and the ground was firm and not actually marshland."
Indeed, having rained the night before, there are muddy puddles to navigate in the dirt lot fronting the motel. Fleecy white clouds scud across a bright blue sky, providing enough intermittent shade to keep temperatures tolerable. "It's been terrible weather," says Dan, "and we've just been terrified. It was supposed to be raining all day today. We don't have any flexibility - there's so much to shoot in so little time and we have no budget for anything to change."
"It's been a real roller coaster of a week," says Murphy, taking a moment to talk in a room that smells of "mothballs and rat poison and the great outdoors". From the outside, one would imagine this to be the motel office, but it's a kitchenette that opens at the back onto a wide expanse of lawn. The rooms here, used to touch up hair or makeup, for costume changes, for walking out of a shot or into one, are even more cramped and dull than the ones into which the Roses crowd - or crowded. The interior sets, built on a soundstage in Toronto, have been struck.
Before Schitt's moved in, the Rosebud had been the dormitory for a basketball camp, and when someone tells you it needed airing out, it is clear they are speaking about years, not days or weeks.
"I thought I'd be sad," says Murphy, dressed as Alexis in party clothes, with hoop earrings you could toss a bean bag through. "But it's just made me a husk of a woman with no moisture left in her body. There's a part of all of us that's like, 'Oh, no! What have we done?' People are so deeply invested in the show and its message. But I think it's the right choice, and we were really, really lucky to be able to end the way Dan and the writers wanted to. All of the characters are going to be tied up in this beautiful little bow."
If you travel a little farther down the road past the motel, you come to a little village, which is not Schitt's Creek. (The buildings that serve for the series' other signal locations - the Rose Apothecary, the boutique David runs with Patrick, and the Cafe Tropical, where Twyla works - are an hour to the east.) Here, in the miniature Hockley Community Hall (built 1894), lunch is being self-served. Eugene Levy, in shirtsleeves, is sitting with directors Jordan Canning and Andrew Cividino, both of whom are working today. Scenes for five different episodes are being shot, mostly in front of the motel, but also in a nearby field.
"It's hard," Eugene says, of the coming end. "But you can't go there. You can really slow down the day. You've got to redo makeup. Touch up the eyes again."
"I'll cry on Thursday," says Canning. "That'll be a tough one."
"This was a project I had to succeed in," says Eugene, "getting this idea off the ground, because it was the only time in his life Daniel came and said, 'Do you want to work on this with me?'
"At the beginning, I was in a slightly different frame of mind, more kind of mentoring - 'This is what you have to do here. Be careful what you're doing there.' It didn't take long before I realised, 'All I have to do is give him some space and not crowd him with what I think.' I could not be prouder of what he's done, and I'm really glad I had the opportunity in my life to be able to say we had a good run working together, me and my kids - Sarah too. It's just been a joy."
Did Dan come to tell him he wanted to end the show?
"We had a conversation, and he told me what he was thinking, and I said, 'I'm right there.' This is the natural end point for character growth, for the relationships, and anything after that is just more of the same. Then you get into the dangerous territory of diminishing returns. It's a clean out."
"I'm glad we're ending at the motel," says Hampshire, sitting cross-legged in a director's chair between takes. Where Stevie is guarded and contained, Hampshire is open and fleet, a fast talker, a runner, not a walker. Driving back from lunch, she had mentioned that the motel's clothesline had triggered a memory; now she is looking at it. "That was one of my first scenes. I remember I had the [cleaning] cart, and David and Alexis were there and I wanted to invite them to a tailgate party. And it just reminded me it was such a different relationship then. Fans do these compilation videos and they'll put in stuff from Season 1, and Dan will forward me one - 'You're such a baby' - and I'll forward him one - 'We're so old.'
"We finished shooting in the office and were moving on to something else and Dan was like, 'That was the last time we were in that place,' and I'm like 'Oh!' I'm glad he didn't tell before." She's taking the stag painting that hung on that set home with her. "It's huge. It's going to fill my entire apartment."
It's expected that actors speaking to the press about their latest project will describe it as the best experience of their life. It does actually seem to be the case that the people of Schitt's Creek are crazy about their show and one another. "This is like being at camp with your best friends," says Hampshire.
"I do see a future in which a road trip movie needs to happen with me and Dan. I can't see us all not doing something else together." (In the near term, Dan has rented a villa in Italy and invited some of the cast over - it's there that he'll learn of the series' first Emmy nominations in July. "We're going to see Elton John and just have some fun together, no deadlines, no sides to learn. It defuses the permanency of the last day of shooting.")
They have already had their wrap party. "There were a lot of people," O'Hara recalls, "wild, drunk and excited and emotional. And we've done a clip package at the party every year, but they did extra and they had moments from all six years, with Sarah Levy singing, 'There are places I remember ... ' There was a lot of crying."
"This year was sort of very anthemic, empowering, a lot of Queen," Dan says. "Noah sang Elton John's Daniel, which was a loving tribute, but I'm pretty sure he dies in the song, so ... There's always a show-stopping Noah moment at the karaoke, because he can sing, and the rest of us just scream into mikes. I thought it would be sadder, but I think we've all decided that it's better for our sanity if we choose to be excited rather than melancholic."
"Love" is a word you hear a lot here, not in the casual, hyperbolic, verbal air-kissing Hollywood sense, but the real emotion, the spiritual state, the intentional action. "No one ever talked to me about how this show was going to be written from love and about love," says O'Hara. "It never came off as any kind of agenda. It's just the world that Daniel would love to live in."
She is fighting a cold. "It's really hard to keep my eyes open. My eyes just want to be asleep, closed."
Seated in the sun on a plastic chair on the walkway that runs the length of the motel, O'Hara is in full Moira regalia - though because Moira's outrageous wardrobe and wigs are considered spoilers, she is covered with an extra jacket and a hat. There is a newspaper photographer on the set today, and fans have gathered along the road that overlooks the motel. She is watching them watch her watching them. Whenever anything they shouldn't see or hear is happening, anything that might give away the direction of the season, they will be asked to move away a little.
"It's such a surprise that I would wear black and white," O'Hara jokes.
"When we're actually doing a scene, I'm not thinking about [the end]. But then it hits me, looking around at this funny motel. I think as much about it being a place where the kids from basketball camp would stay. It started really rough. First and second seasons, it was, 'Please say "action" so I can get out of this room.' It's much nicer now.
"Our show is a bit of a late bloomer and I'm grateful for that," she says. "Who wants to peak early? [Viewers] are seeing the show that we did for ourselves, as opposed to doing things when you're aware of an audience. Even after the tour, Daniel said, 'OK, now I have to go back and write and forget that I saw this, forget I experienced this.'"
The tour: In September 2018, the cast gathered before a rapturous crowd at LA's Ace Hotel theater for Schitt's Creek: Up Close & Personal, an evening of stories, clips and games whose tickets had sold out in no time at all. Surprised and gratified, they took their live show on the road around North America to packed houses and standing ovations.
"They're there as much for each other as for us," O'Hara says of the fans. "It's almost that we don't have to be there, but we brought them together somehow."
One by one, scenes are written into history. Johnny and Stevie. Roland and Johnny. Stevie and Moira. Alexis and Johnny. Moira and Johnny and Roland and Jocelyn. Small adjustments are made between takes: Stand a step back, come in a beat later, move a hair faster, struggle harder. Hampshire, pushing a cart down the walkway, comments on her own performance as she gives it: "I don't know why I got an accent there... This is the room I'm going to, I should stop here." O'Hara plays with the music of her lines, turning "vigilante" and "vandalisation" over in her mouth, putting a hint of air between the syllables, stretching some out like taffy, pushing vowels into new shapes.
For all that the end is near, it's a pleasant day on a country road. Birds are singing. A school bus drives by, a hand waving out the window. Crew members pitch in egging a car for a scene. O'Hara's husband, production designer Bo Welch (Men in Black, A Series of Unfortunate Events), is visiting, as is executive producer Andrew Barnsley. It's not a party, but there is something convivial going on alongside the work. Late in the day, production stops for several minutes, while O'Hara brings out a cake - someone is turning 25 - the cast and crew sing and Elliott attempts to plant a slobbery kiss on the birthday boy.
"Hysterical tears are not the most productive thing to be experiencing when we have three pretty big days out here," Dan muses, "but I've found myself in the most random of times just completely falling apart. To people who don't know what's going in my life, I look a little unstable. You get flooded by memories. Every little thing carries slightly more substantial weight than it did before."
Retiring the series "was a really tough decision, obviously, because I love these people and would love to work with them for 50 years," he says. "But I love the show more. Our viewers have such an intimate connection to it, and for them to question why we're still on the air is not a place that I ever want to find myself."
Who will be on hand when the last bit of footage is shot?
"Everybody. It's a big scene, actually. We always do a little bit of some Champagne and make a toast. But, yeah, it'll be messy. Annie legitimately called me saying she wants an EMS crew there.
"I'm not good with letting go of things, generally speaking. I'm the person who worries, 'What if I throw something out or give it away and need it later?' It's a similar thing I'm experiencing with this. But in a weird sort of philosophical way it's been an amazing exercise in appreciating what you have, respecting the process and letting go."
In fact, he isn't entirely letting go. "If we feel like there's more story to tell, then great - let's do a movie, let's do a holiday special. I'm by no means saying I would never want to revisit these characters. I would love to. I have been saying to our production design team, 'Document everything, 'cause if we have to rebuild this down the line, I want it saved for posterity.'
"I don't know what will happen to this," Dan says, indicating the funny little motel that has been at the center of his life for six years. "If this were a bigger show, we'd have just bought the property by now."
-Tribune News Service