If Schitt’s Creek fans thought Catherine O’Hara was deserving of more awards attention before, the season-five premiere should settle it beyond a shadow of a doubt. The episode finds O’Hara’s Moira Rose traveling to Bosnia to film her “comeback vehicle,” The Crows Have Eyes III: The Crowening. Initially, the movie’s jaded young director, Blaire (no last name), shows zero interest in discussing Moira’s extensive script revisions. “It’s an apocalyptic fantasy about mutant crows; I think we all know what we’re making here,” he says. (“A timely allegory about prejudice,” she answers.) But Moira will not be deterred. She later reminds him of a lesson she learned during her soap-opera days, when she was asked to play her own father who became pregnant despite a vasectomy and portray what remains the longest-running demonic possession in daytime: “We were No. 1. Every project has potential. If you allow yourself to see it, and give it the respect it deserves, others just may follow suit.”
The episode, written by executive producer/co-star Dan Levy, culminates with Moira standing in a large nest in front of a green screen and delivering a stirring monologue as Dr. Clara Mandrake — who’s now half-human, half-crow. To quote Blaire (guest star James Cade), “I don’t know why, or really even how, but something about this actually works.”
So to figure it out, Vulture spoke with Levy and O’Hara to break down just how and why this standout scene actually works.
Viewers may recall that Moira was actually offered the role of respected ornithologist Dr. Clara Mandrake back in season three, when the franchise’s first sequel, The Crows Have Eyes II, was being cast. She turned it down after learning she’d need to pay her own way to Bosnia and live with a local family. Though O’Hara laughs at the idea that Moira starring in the slightly better-funded Crows III is “a win” for the character, that’s how the writers viewed it.
“We wanted it to be impressive for her,” Levy says. “I refrain from saying impressive generally, because it’s not. But you know, when you’re dealing with the kinds of offers that Moira is, this is a really big opportunity.”
He admits there was a moment when he wondered if they’d gone too far. “How are we going to pitch this to Catherine? ‘Hey, Catherine, so welcome back. This episode you’re gonna be in a nest dressed like a bird,’” he remembers thinking. “We’d sort of written ourselves into this position where we know she plays a doctor. We know that it’s about mutant crows, and that she should inevitably become some kind of beacon of light to the mutant-crow community. That she should take it upon herself, mid-mutation, to really rally the crows and say, ‘We deserve more.’ What I did not script was how Catherine would interpret that.”
The Brilliance of Catherine O’Hara
Levy wanted O’Hara to have free rein to create Dr. Mandrake’s look with her makeup and hair team (Lucky Bromhead and Ana Sorys, respectively). The majority of their discussions with Levy and the episode’s director, Laurie Lynd, were about how much to reveal in the earlier scenes. They voted to have just the eye makeup completed when Moira first appears and has her inaugural tête-à-tête with Blaire. Then, when it’s time for her to school him on a proper work ethic, she dons her full, ridiculous, plume-laden costume — complete with a spiky, feathery wig that you know both Moira and O’Hara loved, and a beak, courtesy of prosthetic makeup designer Mark Wotton.
“There was a lot of talk about how much beak,” O’Hara says, chuckling again. She learned how much changing your nose changes your face while working on SCTV, so it was important they all agreed on what stage Dr. Mandrake was at in her transformation. “For me, anything in the visuals has got to be organic to the character, serving the script, and funny,” she explains, “and at the same time, if possible, it’s gotta be kinda either weirdly attractive or weirdly cool.”
While the CGI crows circling the nest are also impressive — Levy estimates they took four different passes at the effects because, “You wanted there to be a legitimacy to this film, and also, you want there to be the potential for it to be good” — what really sells the scene is O’Hara’s performance.
She knew she had to deliver the monologue with conviction and make it as dignified as possible for Moira, who’s desperate to make this moment work. “She puts 200 percent of herself into this, but I know playing her that in the back of her mind it’s like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing? Is this really gonna lead to anything? Do I look foolish?’ All the things that I was feeling,” O’Hara says.
Like Moira, she did her research. She watched videos of crows. She read about how smart they are. She worked on copying their head moves, because they really don’t stop moving them. “I’m laughing that I’m taking this as seriously now as I did then,” she says, describing her process. “I tried to imitate their caw, and then thought, Well, how does that translate into a voice?”
That half-human, half-crow voice — Levy wishes he could take credit for scripting it, but he didn’t hear it until O’Hara used it on set. “I’m enough of a hambone that whenever I’m doing something like that, I want to save it for when we’re shooting,” she says. “Like I want to [in Dr. Mandrake’s voice] get the laugh. Like, ‘Look at me! Look at what I came up with!’ … I save it, and then hopefully it works. But the first time you open your mouth in front of people is always kinda scary when you’re trying something new.”
She needn’t have worried. Although the background actors hired to portray The Crowening crew were directed not to care about Moira’s efforts, it’s difficult to imagine how they, and the real Schitt’s Creek crew, and the castmates who showed up to watch off-camera (“We were all there,” Levy says) didn’t ruin every take by laughing.
The answer is simple: “Because you’re stunned,” Levy says. “Catherine will absolutely roll her eyes at the importance that I give her performance, but, as a spectator, you’re watching a woman who is incomparable at what she does, make comedy at the highest level of her person. There does come a point where you should be laughing, but instead you’re in awe. And then, of course, we laughed. By the second or third take I was laughing. And then when I was editing, I laughed.” (No, there’s no footage from the nest that he was forced to cut for time: “We were not gonna lose that quality content, mainly because it cost us a fortune. We are a very tiny show, and that is well beyond our production means,” he says. “But no, you can’t cut that. The edit-room floor would just light on fire.”)
The true beauty of Moira’s The Crows Have Eyes III experience is that its effect on her will last longer than those Bosnian uppers she took for her long journey home in the season’s second episode. Seeing her back in her element, proving that she’s quite good at her job (in her own way), marks an important chapter in the show’s history.
“The Crows movie is finally her lifeline. She has something to wake up for in the morning. She is no longer defined as a woman trapped in a town; she’s now a film actress and now things are going great,” Levy says. “As a writer, what that’s allowed us to open her up to this season is really quite something.”
O’Hara sees it as Moira relaxing a bit more than she has since arriving in Schitt’s Creek. “You know when you have that big, fun thing to look forward to, you’re just a little cooler about everything around you? She lets her guard down a bit, because she thinks she’s out of there. That movie’s gonna do it for her.”
Levy won’t say whether we’ll ever see more footage from the film, but it’s a safe bet we’ll at least get merch — definitely illegitimate, maybe official. (“Funnily enough, the Crowening Bosnia crew T-shirt was part of our wrap gift this year. It very likely will end up on RoseApothecary.ca,” he says.) In the meantime, he teases that a made-for-TV movie from Moira’s past will resurface in the second half of the season. It made him laugh just as hard.
“It’s another one that we’re thinking, ‘What exactly is this one about? And who did she star in it with? And how did it end? And what was the fight about with the actress that she was in the movie with?’ I think the key to Moira’s story is having multiple layers, each sort of stranger than the next, and ultimately coming out of that experience feeling okay about it, but the audience is thinking, Why would you ever agree to that?,” he says. “That’s when we know we’ve got it right.”