On a Monday May afternoon, Dr. Will Zimmerman is in deep trouble. Although details are still sketchy, what is known is his plane crashed somewhere in the Himalayas and to make matters worse, along with his enigmatic boss Helen Magnus, there is a monster on board. Things may sound grim but in reality, actor Robin Dunne is sitting comfortably in Vancouver’s Norco Studios. The location, the creature, the environment, heck almost everything involved here, is nothing more than Hollywood magic and all part of a groundbreaking new Sci Fi Channel series called Sanctuary.
“This is episode five and it has been very trying because we are stuck in this tiny plane set and we are all in parkas, hats, and coats pretending we are freezing together when we are trying not to faint from heat exhaustion,” explains Dunne. “That is the cool thing about every episode you get; there is always something interesting to do. The green screen frees things up so we can be trapped in a crash at the top of the mountains in a snow storm or we can be on an island in the north of Scotland. It is a really exciting feeling. From my perspective as an actor, I can’t wait to see what is going to happen in every new script.”
Unlike anything else currently on television, Sanctuary is an ambitious project that launched on the internet where it found a loyal audience before being snatched up by the Sci Fi Channel for a 13 episode order. The series follows a group of people - Will, Magnus, and her headstrong daughter Ashley - seeking out monsters and the unexplainable and providing them with a safe haven while studying them. On top of an engaging premise and complex characters, what truly makes Sanctuary unique is its use of modern day technology. In the wake of such feature films as Sin City and 300, Sanctuary employs an almost entirely green screen virtual reality, and a minimal amount of props, to create its innovative universe.
“Right around the time of those movies, [director] Marty Wood called me and said ‘Hey listen, we are doing this thing,’” recalls Dunne. “We were just going to shoot a couple of scenes as a promo for the show. I read the script and really liked it. I had worked with creator Damian Kindler before too so I knew his writing. Then Marty said they were doing it all in green screen and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I had obviously worked with green screen before but only in pieces here and there, like ‘Here is the monster’ and everything else was practical. And a show that is 85 percent green screen, or whatever the number is, I really wasn’t sure what to expect.”
“Then of course right around that time we saw films like Sin City and Sky Captain,” he continues. “You start to see these films and what we can do is pretty amazing. I remember being with Marty up here in Vancouver and we watched Sin City. There is a setting on the DVD so you can view it all in green screen. I was totally hooked, especially when a little while after shooting our promos, I came back a few months later and saw what these guys did and how they were able to do it. I remember looking at this stuff and thinking how amazingly rich and detailed it was. It was literally like watching a moving graphic novel, like the coolest graphic novel you had ever seen, but in moving pictures. I was totally blown away and from there it started to dawn on me how amazing this new medium could be.”
Recruited by Magnus, Will is a forensic psychiatrist for the F.B.I. who is reluctantly sucked into this bizarre world.
"The thing about Will is he has this faulty curiosity that he can never turn away from,” says Dunne. “He is not going to ere on the side of being safe. He has been trying to find something out about his past and along comes Magnus who invites Will to the Sanctuary. Magnus gives him a glimpse of this huge world he had no idea existed and she knows he won’t be able to turn away. Once he sees what is going on, he totally dives in. It is cool for me to play this character because I tend to be the eyes of the audience.”
“There is also a secret in Will’s past with the death of his mother that he’s been trying to find the answer to all his life. There has been this internal struggle going on because part of him wants to believe what he saw was true and the other part wants to believe it was part traumatic shock or a vision. Once Magnus opens the doors to the Sanctuary, he realizes what he saw was real. That is another reason he is hooked and the more background that is given, the more interesting it is.”
Keeping the elements that fans already loved, the show has been tweaked and will once again jumpstart from the beginning.
“It kicks off with Magnus picking up this abnormal little boy that she is trying to bring to safety,” reveals Dunne. “With Will, he has been brought to the scene of a crime where he has seen this boy as well. He has been trying to convince his colleagues in law enforcement that there is more to this than they are thinking. Of course, the police just want to wrap it up quickly and move on to the next case. That is where Magnus and Will’s paths meet. She brings him into Sanctuary and says ‘I need somebody like you. This is the world and this is what is really going on. These dreams and nightmares you have been having since a child are true. Why don’t you come work with us?’ Then it is about the internal struggle of Will trying to figure out if he can say goodbye to his normal life.”
With its unlimited possibilities, Sanctuary will entice viewers with self contained stories as well as an overall arc.
“It is going to be a mix of both,” confirms Dunne. “So far, we definitely have the episodes that are playing to the larger audience and the character development is streaming through all 13 episodes. We do have stand alone episodes like the one we are shooting right now which has Magnus and Will in a FUBAR situation.”
If there is one recurring threat, it is John Druitt, or better known in some circles as Jack the Ripper, whose ability to seemingly manipulate time and space have increased his bloodlust and turned him into one of the most notorious killers ever.
“Yeah, John definitely comes in and out of the show,” reveals Dunne. “He is part of the over arcing. He rears his head every now and then and it’s all part of this big puzzle at the end. It’s more Magnus he is after and sometimes I get caught in the middle.”
With credits that include Dawson’s Creek, The Big Hit, and Species III, Dunne has had some exposure to special effects but nothing on this scale.
“As an actor, you know the movie you are making and what it looks like because you are there,” he explains. “It’s not so much of a surprise to you when it is all put together. For this show, I am seeing it for the first time as the audience does as well. I am constantly surprised with the stuff these guys are doing and the scope. It’s just amazing. I am a comic book guy and grew up on comics and sci-fi films. I was a big Spider-Man geek when I was young. When I was really hitting the comic book years, Web of Spider-Man was coming out and I just got right into it. It was a little darker and edgier. I was an X-fan and a lot of other stuff but Spider-Man was my go to.
"It is fascinating to see the transformation comics have gone through, going from a closet guilty pleasure, to something that is so unbelievably mainstream. The fact that Watchmen made Time’s 100 best novels is fantastic. That is basically what we are trying to do with this show is make it smart and cool. Yes it is going to be a wild ride with monsters and mutants, but hopefully people are going to see it is grounded and there is some weight to it.”
It could be hard to grasp what is required in each scene yet rather than storyboard every frame, the actors rely heavily on direction and their own boundless imagination.
“We get the script, we read through it, and then when we get to the stage, I count a lot on Marty,” reports Dunne. “We did the first few episodes with him and basically we mind map it out so we all know what the parameters and dimensions of the space are. Every now and then, Marty will call ‘Cut!’ and say ‘Hey Robin, you just ran through a wall.’ Of course, there is green tape on the green floor but we are just talking it through. There is a lot of me saying ‘Walk me through this. What are we doing here? What are we looking at?’ The good thing is we are on episode five now so I am getting to the point where I am really understanding the Sanctuary and its dimensions. I now have a mental picture when I walk in. It is a lot of description and sometimes we are looking at pictures.”
Having a series green lit at all can be a long painstaking process so getting Sanctuary from an internet sensation to regular television feels like a real accomplishment. Naturally, an enthusiastic Dunne believes all their passion and hard work has really paid off.
“This is the coolest job I have had in my career so far!” he concludes. “Without sounding cheesy, it really feels like a family atmosphere. The fact that it came together the way it did, it makes the experience that much better because it is almost like a cause. We all came together to do this little thing and then we got to the point of the webisodes and then trying to get it on television. We all believed in it, gave up other gigs, held out, and were along for the ups and downs of the rollercoaster. To get it here, that is what makes it special to me. Now we are here and really appreciate getting to do this everyday.”