Midcoast Weekender

Maine-based creator of PBS' 'Mercy Street' earns Gracie Award

By Susan Mustapich | Jul 16, 2017
Courtesy of: Erik Heinila/PBS Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, right, creator and producer of PBS' "Mercy Street," on the set with actress AnnaSophia Robb.

SOUTH PORTLAND — A fascination with the lives of nurses working behind the front lines during the Civil War led longtime television show producer and Maine resident Lisa Quijano Wolfinger to create the PBS series "Mercy Street," and to win a Gracie Award in June.

The Gracies recognize programming created by women, for women and about women in media and entertainment, and are named for the late comedienne and star of radio and screen, Gracie Allen

Wolfinger accepted the Entertainment Producer's award at the 2017 Gracies Gala in Beverly Hills, Calif. This year, the Gala's award winners included actress America Ferrera, star of the NBC comedy "Superstore," the ensemble cast of "Call the Midwife" and the the limited series, "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."

"It's a huge honor," Wolfinger said. "People take it very seriously in Hollywood. It was an amazing evening. It was fun to be in that rarefied atmosphere of kick-ass ladies who do kick-ass things."

Wolfinger, who lives in southern Maine, also has many ties to Midcoast Maine. She lived in Lincolnville Center for a number of years, and enjoyed summers in a family home in Lincolnville Beach. Her aunt and uncle Meg and Paul Quijano own the Smiling Cow gift shop in Camden, her husband, Kirk, worked in Camden for 15 years at the film company Varied Directions, and her father, Carlos, founded the organic compost businesses Coast of Maine.

She has a long history producing television programs, founding Lone Wolf Media with her husband in 1997. The independent television production company develops and produces programming, and has grown to become a leader in factual entertainment, from high-end expedition specials to action-packed reality and prime-time docu-drama.

In 2014 Lone Wolf Media added Sawbone Films to the company, a new division specializing in scripted programming. This addition opened the way for the development of "Mercy Street," and other programs Wolfinger hopes to launch in the future.

The idea for "Mercy Street" came to her several years before the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2015, when she "was trying to come up with a fresh perspective on the Civil War, for a possible docudrama." She had an idea about Civil War medicine and the doctors and nurses who were the unsung heroes of the war.

While researching, she came across writings about the female nurses of the Civil War by Louisa May Alcott and a woman named Mary Phinney, who became the Baroness Von Olnhausen through marriage.

Alcott wrote "Hospital Sketches" after serving as a nurse near the front lines for only three months before contracting an illness that forced her to return home. Wolfinger was inspired by "Hospital Sketches," written during Alcott's convalescence. She saw in Alcott's book a mix of drama and humor, which, set against the horrors witnessed in the military hospitals of the era, gave the story a quality similar to the television show "Mash."

In Baroness Von Olnhausen "Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars," the widowed baroness wrote about her experiences as a nurse during the Civil War in Alexandria, Va.

Reading Von Olnhausen's writings about Alexandria, "got me incredibly excited," Wolfinger said. She became fascinated with the setting of Alexandria, which was the only Southern territory occupied by the North for all four years of the Civil War. It represented the North and South living side by side, and was the destination point for thousands of escaped slaves, with a large population of refugees from slavery, she said.

With Wolfinger's concept of a hospital in a Civil War border town, Sawbone Films brought in writing partner David Zabel, writer/director of "ER" fame, from Scott Free, Ridley Scott's production company.

Wolfinger's excitement was shared by Beth Hoppe, chief of programming at PBS, who gave her an opportunity to take the idea for a docudrama to another level.

When Hoppe saw that Wolfinger had Zabel onboard, she encouraged the development of an original PBS scripted drama, which would be its first original drama in more than a decade, Wolfinger explained. Unlike the many British television dramas drawing audiences to PBS, including "Downton Abbey," "Sherlock," and the new "Prime Suspect," "Mercy Street" would be American-made.

The excitement turned into a passion for the actors who were cast in the series. Wolfinger saw that they "poured their souls into it, because it meant so much to them."

"We were lucky to attract a very talented group of actors on 'Mercy Street'," she said. "Many, like Josh Radnor and Gary Cole, signed on because of the opportunity to bring such an important and timely chapter of American history to life."

She believes that it helped the cast that 'Mercy Street' was filmed in historic settings in Virginia.

"The entire ensemble thoroughly immersed themselves in the period," she said. "They were all inspired in their own way — AnnaSophia Robb, who plays young Alice Green, wrote her college thesis on the changing roles of Southern women during the Civil War. Hannah James and Jack Falahee ["How to get Away with Murder"] unearthed actual love letters between their characters (Emma Green and Frank Stringfellow) at the Virginia Historical Society."

While Lone Wolf Media is based in South Portland, Wolfinger spent little time in the area while "Mercy Street" was in production. For the past two years, she was "involved in all aspects of writing and production, from researching, breaking down storylines in the writers’ room, vetting scripts, consulting with experts on historical accuracy, and working with my production team in Richmond making sure that they fully realize our vision," she said.

She was also involved in casting, scouting locations, prepping directors and post-production editing of the episodes in Los Angeles.

"Making an episodic series is much more than a job; it’s more akin to birthing and raising a child! There is no such thing as time off," she said.

As described on the series' website, "Mercy Street" is inspired by real people and events, taking place beyond the front lines of the Civil War in the chaotic world of the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Va. The story takes viewers outside of the battlefield and into the lives of Americans on the Civil War home front as they face the challenges of one of the most turbulent periods in our nation’s history.

Season 1 is set in the spring of 1862, and follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict: Nurse Mary Phinney, a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green, a naive young Confederate belle. The two collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel, which has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria served as the melting pot of the region, with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded fighting men from both sides, runaway slaves, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

In Season 2, allegiances blur and loyalties shift as the war pushes the drama beyond the hospital. The episodes expose the growing chaos at Alexandria’s Mansion House, the precarious position of the Green family and the changing situation of the burgeoning black population.

The show's first season reached 14 million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated drama for the 2015-16 TV season on PBS, behind "Downton Abbey," according to various television industry publications. After a hugely successful first season, the second season was run in a new time slot, which, along with PBS's difficulty in financing its own drama, may have contributed to the cancellation of Season 3. according to Wolfinger.

For those who missed "Mercy Street" the first time around, or who want to see it again, Seasons 1 and 2 can be watched on Amazon Prime.

Currently, Wolfinger and Lone Wolf Media are busy producing a series on American history for the Smithsonian Channel, and a number of NOVA shows on archaeology.

She is also developing new scripted ideas, one of which is set in Maine and is "getting a lot of interest."

Courier Publications reporter Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at smustapich@villagesoup.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jul 16, 2017 17:12

A wonderful read! Camden once again in the spotlight of talented movie people.

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