The season finale of the SCI FI original series Sanctuary airs this evening. This past fall Newsaama spoke with the series' series creator/executive producer Damian Kindler, as well as writer/executive producer Sam Egan in separate interviews....Damian Kindler - Strange New World
It is a chilly May evening and well past midnight in Gastown, one of the more “colorful” sections of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. The cast and crew of Sanctuary are settling in for a long night as they film a handful of scenes for the show’s two-hour opener, "Sanctuary for All". Among those working is series creator/executive producer Damian Kindler, who watches from a monitor as a police car slows to a stop in front of a curb. Two actors dressed as police officers get out of the vehicle and rush into a nearby building to investigate a disturbance. Sadly, both their characters meet an untimely end, which just happens to grab the attention of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman.
“The beginning of our story is set in the real world,” notes Kindler, who, despite the late hour, is still full of energy. “It is about one of our characters, Will [Robin Dunne], and his journey from the world he lives in, which he considers to be ‘normal,’ to the world of abnormals. When that happens, the scenes get a bit more heightened, the colors pop, there are more visual effects, etc. So it worked for us conceptually to start out at places like the street of a crime scene, which is where we are tonight, or a hospital, which we were at earlier this week. That’s all part of Will’s world before it changes. Once that happens, we go into the world of the Sanctuary and everything becomes very effects-driven. This should work out seamlessly because we have a great visual effects company working with us, so we’re excited about going from the practical to virtual as part of a hero’s journey.”
A former Stargate SG-1 writer/co-executive producer, Kindler teamed up with longtime SG-1 director/producer Martin Wood and SG-1’s Amanda Tapping (Colonel Samantha Carter) to turn his idea for Sanctuary into a reality. Together they raised the capital to produce a two-hour Internet pilot consisting of eight 15-minute episodes. The pilot tells the story of immortal scientist Dr. Helen Magnus (Tapping), who, assisted by her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup] and new recruit Will Zimmerman, investigates the existence of abnormals, bizarre creatures who have diverted from the “normal” path of human evolution. The webisodes premiered last year, and not long after the Sci Fi Channel expressed an interest in bringing Sanctuary to TV, much to the delight of Kindler and his associates.
“Mark Stern [executive vice president of original programming at Sci Fi] was very complimentary about the show,” says the executive producer. “He loved the concept, the players, etc. Mark is very exacting and one of the more innovative network executives out there, so it was incredibly flattering to have him show such an interest. However, there’s a difference between a group of people getting together and saying, ‘Let’s put something cool on the net,’ and a network like the Sci Fi Channel wanting to take it and make it a flagship show.
“So Sci Fi definitely saw Sanctuary as one of the really neat tent-pole elements to their fall  season. As such, they said right off the bat, ‘We’re going to meddle,’ and we were like, ‘Sure, let’s meddle together.’ We didn’t fear that. We know Mark well enough to know that his ‘meddling’ comes from a great place and yields great results. We also knew that a pick-up by Sci Fi would give us a global stage, so we saw it all as a win-win situation. They’re going to be the first network to successfully take something from the Internet and give it a full13-hour run on TV. I don’t believe that’s ever been done before. [ABC’s] Quarterlife lasted, I think, one episode and it was cancelled. So we’re the first web series to become a TV series, and I think that’s pretty neat.”
While the show’s original concept and cast remain the same, certain aspects of the script were tweaked and the Sanctuary web pilot was then shot a second time for TV. The changes, says Kindler, came in the form of a deepening and darkening of certain backstories. “Which we totally embraced,” he says. With significant input from Martin Wood as well as Sam Egan, who joined the show as a writer and fellow executive producer, those adjustments were made and principle photography soon began
“First off, we’re so lucky to have Sam Egan onboard,” enthuses Kindler. “He’s such a veteran Sci-FI show runner and an honor to work with. I learn from him every day. When it comes to the changes, we looked at the original web pilot and found we had a chance to appeal to an even wider audience than those who, perhaps, enjoyed just the gothic and film noir aspects of it. Of course, we wanted to continue delivering those same elements, but also widen the scope to flesh out more of an everyman [Will Zimmerman] along with, again, a normal world that’s a door into a far more spectacular world of abnormals and the paranormal.
“We had a number of discussions with Mark Stern, and then Sam, Martin and I spent a lot of time fleshing out what the show could be without it losing its vision. Ultimately I feel we achieved that and we’re really pleased with the way the pilot feels. Some scenes have been re-written, expanded upon and deepened in order to convey more information to the audience. So it’ll be a real treat for those who watched the webisodes because they’re going to see bigger, juicier, more character-driven versions of what they’ve already seen. It’s almost as if you saw the original film school version of [the 1971 feature film] THX 1138 and then got to watch the actual feature version with the bigger cast and things of that nature.
“As far as character development during Sanctuary’s first season, I can tell you that they will constantly be fraught with issues,” continues the executive producer. “For Will it’s assimilating into this brand new world and understanding that his relationship with Helen Magnus did not begin at the start of the show, but rather when he was a boy, which is revealed in the pilot. In fact, Magnus was not far away during the events surrounding the death of Will’s mother, which he witnessed. So there could be more than just a simple case of Magnus watching over this boy growing up to be an outsider. There might be other aspects of Will’s background tied to the world of the abnormals.
“With Magus, she is beginning to confront the issue that a group called The Cabal might be using someone from her past, John Druitt [Christopher Heyerdahl], as a weapon against her and her daughter Ashley. She is also facing the fact that The Cabal has been in existence for a very long time and she has awakened an extremely powerful giant with a very specific and nefarious agenda as far as her work with abnormals. I should point out, too, that there is a relationship between abnormal creatures, monsters, mutants and the future of humanity, and that Magnus’s work, in effect, becomes a central element to the agenda of some scary people.
“Last but not least there’s Ashley coming to terms with the truth that Druitt is her father. That is revealed in the webisodes and then again to the audience in the two-hour pilot. However, Ashley does not find this out until later in the season and this discovery changes her allegiances at a crucial moment in our story. Also in the pilot we set up a rather cryptic background between Druitt and Magnus and their connection to a Victorian era Flatliners-type group called The Five, which Magnus and Druitt were a part of and that may or may not be in existence today.”
Let’s fast-forward now to mid-August and another visit to the Sanctuary set. This time around, the cast and crew are inside the studio and busily working on the season one episode "The Warriors", penned by Sam Egan. He and Kindler are on hand to watch a scene being filmed that involves over three dozen extras and guest-stars, one of whose features is hidden under some very realistic-looking prosthetics.
“Sam and I wrote this season together; I wrote seven scripts while he did six and we collaborated throughout,” says Kindler. “One of the stories I’ve always been interested in telling was kind of an abnormal fight club story, and when Sam and I first started talking about this season we both agreed that would be a pretty cool episode. We began developing it with writer/producer Peter Mohan, but he then became quite busy with some other work and production issues required that we then take the script in-house.
“Peter’s contribution was significant and then the rest is Sam’s vision of how we should go about telling this story and what it should mean. He’s done an amazing job and this is going to be one of the highlights of this season where you’ll see abnormals doing some really neat fighting, and one of our heroes becoming an abnormal and getting into the ring. I think it does a wonderful job of showing the different types of stories we can tell on Sanctuary. There are actually a number different tones, some very intimate, others quite psychological, and a couple that are full-out action/adventure, which is what "The Warriors" is all about.”
Kindler chuckles when asked about some of the scripts he wrote. “Mine are the ones that the crew hated because they had, for example, planes in snow, big fans and wind machines,” he jokes. “I’m extremely proud of the challenges I kept throwing at the crew as well as cast and they kept responding positively and turning out brilliant results. "Kush" is an episode that opens in a downed plane in the Himalayans where a group of crash survivors try to deal with a deadly creature they were transporting and who has gotten loose. As the story, unfolds it becomes a Ten Little Indians-type scenario where one-by-one something is picking these people off and every death poses a bigger mystery.
“There’s another episode I wrote called "The Five", which is three stories in one. One has Magnus at a conference in Rome where she’s attacked by a group of people and is forced to flee. In the process, she hooks up with an old friend who turns out to be part-vampire. Meanwhile, Will is at the Sanctuary dealing with a problem there, and then we have Ashley being kidnapped by Druitt, who begins to tell her the truth about everything. We’re constantly cutting back and forth between all three stories, and then they eventually dovetail into one.”
Like the Sanctuary webisodes, the TV series takes advantage of both practical sets and a large amount of green screen work to create the enormous Sanctuary facility that is Helen Magnus’ base of operation, as well as the exotic, and often dangerous, locales that our heroes end up in. The show is also being filmed using the revolutionary RED ONE camera technology.
“It’s the first full digital camera that gives you a feature film-like look,” explains Kindler, “and because there’s so much information coming through that camera it really helps with our visual effects creation, which is a great thing. One or two features have been shot on it and everyone loves it. So we’re having a blast diving in with both feet and using one of the most anticipated cameras ever to come out.
“With the TV series I think you’ll find we’re doing a little more practical work in the sense that we have some standing sets, like Magnus’s office and some hallways in the Sanctuary. That said, we’ll be using a lot of green screen and there’s a huge amount of visual effects work in each episode. So it’s a 25% practical and 75% green screen show, and we’re constantly raising the bar on the practical side to match how cool the CGI [computer-generated image] is.”
There are countless people in the entertainment industry with ideas for movies or TV series, most of which are never realized. With that in mind, Kindler is grateful for having had the opportunity to bring Sanctuary to the Internet, and now again to the small screen.
“Believe me, there were so many moments of, ‘This is crazy. How are we going to get this done?’ and we just kept pushing until it took,” he says. “Now we have the job of producing a TV series, which is where we wanted to be. We’re thrilled about what we’ve achieved so far and excited about what’s to come. I think Sanctuary is the type of show with an infinite number of stories that can be told, and I’m looking forward to telling them all.”
Sam Egan: Executive Action
He has gone to The Outer Limits, consulted with Quincy M.E., bore witness to an apocalyptic future alongside Jeremiah and even crossed paths with the Masters of Science Fiction. For over three decades, Sam Egan has helped steer the creative courses of numerous TV programs as a writer and/or producer. Nowadays he is serving as a writer/executive producer on the Sci Fi Channel series Sanctuary, which stars former Stargate SG-1 leading lady Amanda Tapping as Dr. Helen Magnus, a scientist trying to figure out how a group of creatures known as abnormals are linked to the human evolutionary track. It was several months after a two-hour series pilot premiered on the Internet that Egan became involved in the project.
“I was a bit of a latecomer to the show, which had already established a web presence,” notes Egan. “[Executive producers] Damian Kindler, Martin Wood and Amanda Tapping had given birth to this program; it was Damian’s concept to begin with and then he brought in Martin and Amanda. I subsequently became acquainted with it and was a fan long before I had any inkling of my involvement in the series.
“When the Sci Fi Channel took a look at Sanctuary and said, ‘Hey, this would be a great TV series,’ they were kind enough to think of me as someone who might be able to pitch in and jump into the trenches with these very talented people. So I had to play a little bit of catch-up, but at the same time I think it was a help to have someone in there with a fresh eye who hadn’t been steeped in the history of the project. This person could then just take a look at it and offer some creative ideas that would test the show’s original premise, as well as maybe throw in a new twist or two. Happily, the person they chose was me, and I literally jumped at the opportunity.”
Although there were some changes made when moving Sanctuary from the Internet to TV, its executive producers made sure certain elements remained the same. “I think regardless of the medium, whether it’s the Internet, TV, or for that matter a motion picture, the fundamentals are in the storytelling,” says Egan. “They are universal and they prevail. That said, TV is its own very unique animal as is the Sci-Fi viewer. They’re very loyal if you’re true to them and your concept. Of course you emphasize the show’s cool factor, but you must also emphasize the fundamentals of story and character. So in terms of a TV series, you want to establish a core audience and then expand the demographics in order to draw people in who may or may not necessarily be Sci-Fi buffs.
“With Sanctuary I felt a large part of my mission was to come in and kind of test the concept and see how we could make this a show where viewers would want to invite us back into their homes week after week. It had so many strengths going for it, though, that it wasn’t like we had to reinvent the wheel. I thought the concept was very strong and really interesting, as were the visuals and the cast. I mean, Amanda Tapping is just one of the luminaries in this world and flat-out one of the best actresses I know. As for Robin Dunne [Dr. Will Zimmerman] he’s a total natural and intuitive as well as unerring in his acting choices. So all the makings of a strong TV show were there, and the crafting of story and script is, again, fundamental in that process. With that lie the creative challenges and opportunities.”
In Sanctuary’s two-hour pilot "Sanctuary for All", forensic psychiatrist Will Zimmerman is unexpectedly drawn into the world of Dr. Helen Magnus following a double murder committed by a seemingly innocent child. Magnus subsequently recruits the young man to help her along with her fearless and beautiful daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup) and Sanctuary’s resident techno-troubleshooter Henry (Ryan Robbins) with their work involving abnormals. When it comes to the overall story arc of the show’s 13-part first season, Egan hints at what is to come.
“I don’t want to let too many cats out of the bag, but sufficed to say that John Druitt [Christopher Heyerdahl], who was the adversary in the pilot, figures prominently in one of our major story lines,” reveals the executive producer. “Although we see him apparently vanish into the ether by the end of the two-hour opener, he will assert his presence again and present complications for our heroes, especially Magnus. There is also a strong story arc which I will only characterize as saying that in the world of abnormals, there are those who would exploit the power and special abilities of certain abnormals for their own gain.
“So Sanctuary has a dual mandate, which is to probe and explore the wonders of the abnormal world, while at the same time protect the public at large from those abnormals who present a grave threat to innocent people. On top of that, Magnus and the others must deal with certain organizations that have their own dark agenda insofar as these abnormals. I don’t want to get too much more specific than that because I really invite the viewers to take that journey with us.
“I will add that one of the cool premises of the show, which isn’t really a secret to those who’ve seen the Internet pilot, is that Dr. Magnus originates from late 19th century England. So when our story begins, she’s already been around for 157 years. The original experiments that resulted in Helen’s longevity affected others as well, and those individuals will gradually make their presence known as the series unfolds. And John Druitt is, in fact, Jack the Ripper, and not only was he Dr. Magnus’ first patient, but also her betrothed. In the pilot, John refers to a group known as The Five, and anyone who watches the first half-season will get hints of the significance of that very small but illustrious group and what they hold in store for the Sanctuary team.
“I’ve probably spilt too many beans, but hopefully that will intrigue Sci-Fi audiences to tune in and see for themselves what Sanctuary is all about.”
Prior to becoming involved with Sanctuary, Egan worked on the aforementioned ABC-TV limited run series Masters of Science Fiction, which presented classic stories written by such Sci-Fi literary giants as Robert Heinlen, Harlen Ellison and Robert Sheckley.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to adapt the opening episode, "A Clean Escape", by Nebula Award winner John Kessel,” says Egan. “It starred Judy Davis and Sam Waterson, who are some pretty heavy-hitters for TV. Each week, though, we had people like John Hurt, Brian Dennehy, James Cromwell, Terry O’Quinn, some real star power, and despite being buried on a Saturday night in August, we were very proud of the work we did. It was also that rare bird on TV, the anthology, which took me back to my days on The Outer Limits and making a little movie every week, so that was fun.
“And then just recently filming wrapped here in Vancouver on a script I wrote for the upcoming Sci Fi Channel miniseries Mirabilis [a.k.a. Dragonsteel] which is the world of fantasy, sword and sorcery. I don’t have an air date yet, but it’ll be four hours long and I’m looking forward to seeing that brought to the small screen.”
While writing for TV usually means burning the midnight oil, tight deadlines and oftentimes numerous last-minute changes, your work makes it to the screen much quicker than it would in the feature film world. However, that immediacy is only part of what makes a career in this industry rewarding for Egan.
“There’s nothing I like more than to see the collaboration of all these talented departments that go into making these shows what they are,” says the executive producer. “It’s fascinating to be able to share creative ideas and draw from their various areas of expertise. In the end, my words are brought to life by talents other than my own, and that exchanging of ideas is what I find the most satisfying and what keeps me young, despite all evidence to the contrary,” jokes Egan.