Born and raised on the prairies, Anne Wheeler grew up entertaining with her Mother, a dynamite stride piano player, and exploring the open country north of Edmonton on her Appaloosa pony. By high school she was a piano teacher herself and an avid drama student, taking the lead in her school year plays and touring with a children’s theatre company during the summers. At University she took a Science degree in Mathematics but picked up enough credits in music on the side to allow her to become a High School Music School teacher upon graduation. A restless soul, she soon left this career to travel around the world, spending two years on the road, exploring Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia .
Upon her return she entered the world of filmmaking, joining a collective, called Film West Associates, dedicated to making indigenous films that addressed universal issues. It was there that she learned the craft of her trade, as the members were required to rotate the roles within the crew allowing everyone a chance to discover their talents and skills. If you directed a film, chances were you’d take sound or edit on the next. Driven by their sense of purpose and place, the nine colleagues were prolific, turning out dozens of films about the environment, native rights, women’s rights, western politics and people’s history. Within a year they were winning recognition at major festivals.
All of Anne’s early films are documentaries, though they often encompassed some form of performance and dramatic structure. GREAT GRAND MOTHER, her first film embraced the music of Ann Morifee and was cast from her circle of friends of family, who improvised, dramatized the experience of pioneer women – told through the letters and diaries of women who had settled the Prairies.
After leaving the Collective she worked for the National Film Board of Canada writing and directing out of Edmonton. Her Feature Documentary, A WAR STORY enticed the talent of Donald Sutherland to narrate excerpts from her father’s diary written during his three and half years as a doctor in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp. The production took over two years to complete, and was shot around the world following Anne in search of men who had been her Father’s patients in the harsh conditions of a hard labour mining camp in what was then, Formosa. With three of his oldest friends she went back to the camp and filmed some metaphoric dramatizations to provoke the sense of what her Father endured. She then returned to Canada and constructed a POW camp in Alberta and filmed period like footage to tell the story.
Feeling limited by the boundaries of documentary film she decided to cross over to dramatic film, starting with a series of short films based on short stories that were Canadian Classics. With so few women directing, she was determined not to fail those who followed – she made a dozen films before committing to a long form drama.
Her first Feature Film, LOYALTIES written by Sharon Riis, in 1985 starred Tantoo Cardinal, Susan Wooldridge, Tom Jackson and Kenneth Welsh. The psychological thriller is initiated by the suspicious arrival of an English family in northern Alberta. The wife immediately hires a Native woman to be their ‘Nanny” whose family is pulled into this family with a horrendous and secretive past.. The film was a critical success, winning awards in Houston, San Francisco, Toronto, Portugal, South Africa, Montreal, and of course, Alberta.
Next she took on the task of writing and directing, “COWBOYS DON’T CRY” (Ron White, Zakary Ansley), which focused on a bull rider at odds with his son and his declining career. The crew traveled to rodeos in southern Alberta capturing the real life of rodeo families as a backdrop to the drama. Produced by Atlantis Films producer, Janis Platt, the film opened the Olympic Festival in Calgary – Wheeler rode a Bull into the theatre, albeit a quiet friendly bull, that didn’t mind sharing the limelight.
“BYE BYE BLUES”, inspired by her mother’s war years as a musician in a small dance band , features a fantastic sound track and remarkable performances by a huge cast including Rebecca Jenkins, Luke Reilly, Wayne Robson, Stuart Margolin, Kate Reid, Michael Ontkean and Leon Pownall. The visuals from India to Alberta are stunning, shot by Vic Sarin, designed by John Blackie and produced with partner Arvi Liimatainen. Distributed all over the world and winning awards for its sensitive and uplifting romantic story, it continues to win new audiences to this day.
Taking a favorite book of her sons to screen, Wheeler made “ANGEL SQUARE” with a talented cast of young actors from across Canada . Set in the winter of 1946, this comic book mystery centers on a young man who wants to find out who beat up his best friend’s Father; an attack that the police refuse to take seriously. Combining live action with cell animation, this lively rendition is a Christmas favorite and boasts a wonderful performance from Ned Beatty playing a loveable but irresponsible Police Officer who delights in being Santa Claus every year. The film was invited to Berlin and won top honors in Germany at the Manheim Festival for Children.
In 1990 Anne moved with her family to B.C. and settled on Salt Spring Island. Her work continued to take her back to the prairies, first to Manitoba to direct the adaptation of “THE DIVINERS”, by Margaret Laurence, a two-hour movie for television for Atlantis Films and C.B.C.. Much revered and studied in Canada, it was a challenge to cast the lead character of Morag, at three ages. Most Canadians have studied the novel and have a vivid image of this character and a sense of ownership. Sonja Smit took the lead and the movie won the Genie for Best M.O.W. in Canada that year.
Anne’s first ‘American’ experience was a good one, with producers Eileen Berg and Harold Tichner, directing “Other Women’s Children” for A.B.C.. Starring Melanie Mayron, the story is about a Pediatrician caught up in the lives of her patients at the cost of losing her own family. Shot in Vancouver with Crescent Films, and based on the book of the same name, it garnered a Cable Ace Award for Performance, and was shown on Lifetime in the United States, and Superchannel/C.B.C. in Canada.
“THE WAR BETWEEN US” was an important personal film for Anne, as it explored the Japanese community in Canada during WW2. Written by the granddaughter of the lead character, the true story tells of a remarkable friendship spawned between two women on opposite sides of the war. Wheeler took a small but resilient crew to New Denver – 12 hours by car, north of Vancouver. The film was lovingly shot by Rene Ohashi, whose own parents had been detained in this town and featured Robert Ito who was also detained there as a young man. Mieko Ouchi whose parents suffered the consequences of internment, played the lead role with an authenticity rarely found in historical movies. Robert Wisden, Shannon Lawson and Ian Tracy play townspeople in a mining community that was forced to accommodate the influx of 20,000 internees in a valley shut off from the world. The War Between Us garnered several international awards including the Special Jury Prize from the Houston Film Festival, the Red Cross Award for Humanity, the Critic’s Choice Award at both Monte Carlo and the Charleston Festival in West Virginia, and a Cable Ace Award for Best Foreign Programming in the U.S.
In 1996 Anne moved to Vancouver and put her directing career aside, to write and produce “MOTHER TRUCKER”– The Diana Kilmury Story about a Teamster woman who fights her way to the top in order to combat corruption within the union. Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, Produced by Laszlo Barna, the MOW aired on Turner Television in October 1996 and on C.B.C. (largest Canadian audience to that time for a M.O.W.) in February of 1997 and for the second year in a row, her work won the Cable Ace Award for Best International Programming.
In 1998 Wheeler directed the first three pilot episodes of “Da Vinci’s Inquest” for Chris Haddock (Writer/Producer) and Lazslo Barna (Producer) setting the style and cast of the show with the team. She was involved in the series for several years and is extremely proud of this series which garnered 34 wins & 53 nominations – in Canadian competitions and abroad.
“BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE”, was an international hit, returned Wheeler to Feature Filmmaking and her love of comedy. Invited to the Berlin Film Festival, it soon opened in Germany to more than 300 theatres, and ranked 31 st in the Hollywood ‘s Reporters top 200 Independent films of that year. This funny and insightful movie written by Peg Thompson, produced by Sharon McGowan continues to be sold world wide and is becoming a collector’s item.
“MARINE LIFE” based on the book of the same name by Linda Svensen starred Cybill Shepherd in the role of a lounge singer, single mother who supports her eclectic family while trying to carry on her romance with a younger man, played by Peter Outerbridge.
“SUDDENLY NAKED” starring Wendy Crewson, Joe Cobden and Peter Coyote which was also chosen to go to the Berlin Film Festival. Wonderfully witty, this story centers on an older woman, younger man – both possessing brilliant minds, who connect with each other on the net, but discover they are totally different in person than they imagined. Hosting a slate of 38 songs in its sound track the film dances through a story of opposites attract and finding love when one least expects it.
Having a love of Canadian Fiction, Wheeler adapted Alice Munro’s short story, “A WILDERNESS STATION” which begins with a young woman in the 1800’s turning herself in to the authorities for murdering her husband. She has married a homesteader before really knowing him and over time falls in love with his brother. Beautifully shot in northern Manitoba by David Frazee, it was released on DVD by Lionsgate Video and is now called, EDGE OF MADNESS.
Balancing her career between Features and Television has been Wheeler’s happy challenge and one that paired her with Producer, Bernie Zukerman, numerous times. First she did A SLEEP ROOM, a mini-series based on a book of the same name about Dr. Cameron and the Allen Clinic in Montreal during the fifties when hundreds of patients were used as guinea pigs in a wild attempt to brain wash them into sanity. Shot in Montreal the drama is brilliantly performed by Nicola Cavendish, Donald Moffat, Masha Gagnon , Leon Pownall, Eric Petersen, Marina Orsini, Gabrielle Rose, and many others and won top honors at the Canadian Gemini Awards.
Next Wheeler directed THE INVESTIGATION with Zukerman, which examined the R.C.M.P. and their pursuit of Clifford Olsen. Human error and weaknesses within the upper ranks of the police force resulted in this brutal man escaping arrest time after time, while young children went missing and turned up dead. The MOW was produced for CTV and starred Nic Lea, Lochlyn Munro, David Warner, Paul Coeur and others – and was written by Bruce Smith.
For the winters of 2003 and 2004 Wheeler stayed in Toronto to direct ten shows of THE IS WONDERLAND, a dark comedic look at the legal system which centers on a motley group of lawyers that stand up on behalf of our most unfortunate citizens in the courts of Toronto’s downtown courthouse. Written by George Walker and Dani Walker, and produced (amongst others) by Bernie Zukerman, the series starred Cara Pifko and Michael Riley.
And for something completely different she agreed to join the gang from THE BEACHERCOMBERS for Christmas 2004 for a comedy on ice, as a team of old timers take the local team on for a game of holiday hockey right. (Unfortunately the night before the shoot, Wheeler fell and broke her ankle and ended up directing from an electric scooter. She found it to be very versatile on ice and an effective source of sympathy.
2006 took her to South Africa to do the pilot for the hospital series JOZI-H, an intense drama set in the emergency ward of the largest public hospital in Johannesburg . She had the incredible experience of auditioning hundred of actors, and scouting this fascinating city for stories that had never been told before on television. As part of her research she visited several hospitals, some used to train doctors from all over the world in trauma. The work load is so intense and vital that it is closer in likeness to a war zone that an urban hospital.
She returned to make Christmas on Chestnut Street (2007) for Lifetime Movies with Jack Nassar and Debourah Gabler, producing. The comedic script revolves around one neighbourhood that gets caught up in a Christmas Light competition and must be reminded that Christmas is about peace and goodwill.
Me, Mom, Dad and Her, a another Lifetime Movie followed, this time for Insight Productions, shot in southern B.C., a story about a teen-ager who is left floundering after a painful divorce and finds refuge with her new step Mother. Melora Hardin plays the woman who brings the disjointed family together after the daughter runs away from a life she finds too difficult to face.
Living out Loud is another family in crisis drama, this time centering on a family that survives a cycle of cancer, learning to never take life for granted. Produced for the Hallmark Channel, it starred Gail O’Grady, Babz Chula and Michael Shanks.
Anne has directed a number of Movies and Episodes for Hallmark – Mail Order Bride, When Calls the Heart, The Color of Rain, A Country Wedding, Stop the Wedding and Chesapeake Shores.
Episodic television continues to be her mainstay while trying to mount her own productions. Ongoing Series like Cracked, Crash and Burn, Remedy, Reign, Private Eyes, continue to take her across the country.
With up to half a dozen projects on the go at all times, she has no plans for retirement. A lot of her enthusiasm comes from the pleasure in “Passing it On”. Both of her sons and her husband are in the business which furthers her commitment to the industry, hoping it stays alive and well out west! She loves to try anything new, and takes on the occasional speaking engagement as a storyteller and raconteur. Now living in White Rock, just south of Vancouver, B.C. and in LaManzanilla in Mexico, her films have touched the hearts of a wide audience, earning her SEVEN HONORARY DOCTORATES, THE ORDER OF CANADA and most recently she became the FIRST WOMAN DIRECTOR in Canada to receive a LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, FROM THE DGC.