Posts Tagged ‘Alan McCullough’

Sanctuary’s Alan McCullough – The Write Touch

January 24, 2010

Writer/co-executive producer Alan McCullough in his Sanctuary digs. Photo by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions

When Stargate Atlantis‘ TV run was brought to an end after five years, series writer/producer Alan McCullough, who had previously served as a writer/story editor on Stargate SG-1, relocated from the Pegasus Galaxy to take on a new creative challenge. He joined Sanctuary as a writer as well as co-executive producer and penned four scripts for the show’s second season. In his first one, Hero, Chris Gauthier, best known as Walter in Eureka, plays an ordinary man who is transformed into an unlikely costumed crusader against crime in the show’s fictional New City.

Hero was a really fun script to write,” says McCullough. “It’s a fast-paced and humorous episode, which I never really had the opportunity to do on Stargate. There was always humor embedded in the dialogue in Stargate, but it was rare that I got to write a comedic script. There were people who were sort of the go-to guys for that; Martin Gero and Brad Wright, in particular, and Rob Cooper also wrote a couple of great comedy scripts and Carl Binder wrote one, too. So when I came on Sanctuary there was a chance for me to do the same.

“In Hero, our people are on a mission to track down an Abnormal when all of a sudden they’re thwarted by a guy in a neoprene suit. He drops out of the sky, grabs the person we’re chasing and flies off, so we’re left wondering where the hell this guy came from and how he can fly. He’s apparently human and appears to be wearing a homemade outfit, but nevertheless seems to possess miraculous powers. Chris Gauthier played the part to a tee. He was hilarious in it and brought so much to the role.

“The actual shooting of this episode was difficult because there were a lot of stunts. We actually brought in a flying rig which, I believe, is one of the most advanced ones you can get. I’m not well-versed in the technology of it, but you sit in front of a giant computer screen and program in all the moves you want to do and draw all the vectors on the screen. The operator then turns the rig on and it flies you around in the exact way that it was programmed to. So they did a full day of shooting just with that rig and came away with some fantastic stuff, including a scene where, at one point, our superhero has to fight a monster.

“Again, it was a fun episode and Chris has a blast and we had a blast working with him. It was a nice break, too, in the season. We had just come off shooting the two-part End of Nights, which is an energetic and tension-filled story where we’re fighting for the survival of the Sanctuary, and if you saw the episodes you know that something big happens to one of our characters at the end of part two. Then in the following story, Eulogy, we’re dealing with the death of a character. It’s a very poignant episode, so it was good to then come in with episode four, which was lighter in tone and a total breath of fresh air. Personally, I think Hero is one of the best scripts I’ve ever written and one that I’m really proud of.”

There was a very specific idea in mind for McCullough’s next Sanctuary script, Veritas, but, as is often the case in the world of TV, it eventually evolved into something quite different. “We started out with marching orders to come up with a background story for Bigfoot [Christopher Heyerdahl],” explains the writer. “We pitched story after story to the Syfy Channel but there was always one thing they didn’t like, so we would go back and try to retool the script. However, by pulling out that one thing, the whole story collapsed.

“So we’d start fresh, and ultimately we came up with a story that the network loved but that had nothing to do with Bigfoot’s back story whatsoever,” chuckles McCullough. “It does, however, involve Bigfoot in a very major and pivotal way. At the very beginning of the episode, Will [Robin Dunne] arrives back from a trip and he’s frantic; he’s been told that Bigfoot has been killed. Will goes to the morgue where he finds Bigfoot lying there with two bullet holes in his chest, and we further learn that Magnus [Amanda Tapping] is the prime suspect.

“From there, it becomes a bit of a murder mystery that takes place within the context of the Sanctuary. They have specific charter rules for how they deal with situations such as this, including summoning what’s called The Triad, which is a group of telepaths that arrive on the scene and start questioning people. Within the Sanctuary network we have individuals with these incredible abilities, so why not use them to solve crimes. Will, of course, sets out to prove that Magnus had nothing to do with this, but the deeper he digs, the more evidence seems to mount that she actually did shoot Bigfoot.

“It’s a real mindbender of an episode where, quite honestly, all is not revealed until the very end. We designed it so that at every single turn you think, ‘Oh, they’re going to tell us who really did it,’ but you get no satisfaction until the story is nearly over. This was another fun episode for me to write and, coming off Hero, much more of a subdued, emotional type of potboiler. We had a great guest-cast, too, including Erica Cerra [Deputy Jo Lupo in Eureka], who did a fantastic job playing one of the telepaths. And Amanda Tapping did an incredible job directing the episode.”

The writer’s third Sanctuary script, Penance, reunites Helen Magnus with an old friend, Jimmy, played by Tapping’s former SG-1 costar Michael Shanks (Dr. Daniel Jackson). Although it would have been tempting to pair them up on the screen, Shanks actually shared the majority of his scenes with the show’s newest castmember, Agam Darshi, who plays Kate Freelander. Writing-wise, this one was a bit of a whirlwind for McCullough.

“We received notes on the outline last Friday night from Syfy,” he recalls, “so I started writing the script on Saturday and Sunday and, hopefully, I’ll finish it up today [Monday, June 1st, 2009]. It’s certainly the fastest that I’ve ever had to turn around a script. This one starts out with a really action-packed teaser where our characters are in Old City to meet an Abnormal who’s a ‘mule.’ By that I mean he has a pocket in his body that can transport hazardous or very sensitive material, and in this case he’s carrying a container for us in his belly.

“So we get there, but, of course, the bad guys are on our tail and all hell breaks loose. Our people get separated and Kate and Jimmy end up trapped in a derelict hotel room. Kate has been shot and the two of them spend a considerable amount of time together getting to know one another. In the process, Kate opens up to Jimmy and we discover a great deal about her past, including how her father was killed. With Kate being a new character this season, we felt this was a good opportunity for audiences to learn more about her. Meanwhile, Magnus and everyone else are out there looking for Kate and Jimmy, and it’s a bit of a chess match to see who’s going to arrive first and save the day.

“The neat thing about this episode is that we’re going to be doing some location shooting. We do almost all our filming downstairs in the studio, much of which is using a green screen, and we also shoot outside on the studio lot or in the nearby streets. We usually don’t have trucks to go out on-location with, but for episode eight [Next Tuesday], we’re packing up all our equipment to go film at a pool. Thanks to some scheduling magic, we have the truck for the rest of the week, so we’re taking advantage of that and going to shoot for two, possibly three days on the old Watchmen set. At least that’s the plan. We went out to look at the set, which is on Marine Way, and we’re going to use that as Old City. It’s perfect because the story has a lot of skulking around as well as gunplay and a bit of a car chase, so I’m really excited about that.”

Despite being a freshman with Sanctuary, it has not taken McCullough long to find the voices of the new characters he is writing for. “Obviously I’d worked with Amanda before, and although this is Helen Magnus and not Sam Carter, I still hear Amanda’s voice in my head, so it’s just a matter of finding the right words,” says the writer. “Ryan Robbins, who plays Henry, has a very distinctive voice, so I seem to be able to hear his voice quite easily, too.

“The character I struggled with the most was Will. I’ve since found his voice a lot more, but with my first script, Hero, I really struggled. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone picked up on that. The episode moves so quickly and there’s so much going on that I don’t think you would have the time to sit there and think, ‘Hmm, that didn’t quite sound like something Will would say.’ I noticed it, though, and when I’d write a line I’d think, ‘That doesn’t sound right,’ so I’d delete it and write another one. So it took me a while to get Will’s dialogue to sound right, but episode seven is wall-to-wall Will and I think I found his voice a little better for that one.

“It helps, too, that Damian Kindler [series creator/executive producer] is always around, and we go through the scripts with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll look at each line and if there’s one that bothers any of us, we’ll find another way to say what it is we’re trying to say.”

The writer’s fourth and final contribution to Sanctuary‘s second season is part one of the show’s two-part season ender, Kali. The germ of the idea for this episode came from a prior one, while the setting was the result of a previously discussed story that never came to be. Catching up again recently with McCullough, he was happy to talk about Kali‘s development.

“Earlier in the season we were breaking a story called Justice,” recalls the writer. “It was set in a small town, which is tough to do on our show as we don’t have suitable sets and didn’t want to go out on-location. So Martin Wood [executive producer/director] proposed setting Justice in a Mumbai slum, as that would be relatively easy to re-create. We loved that idea so much that we decided to save it for the [season] finale. Unfortunately, Justice never got produced, which is too bad because it was a great story.

“The idea for Kali came partly from Veritas, where we introduce an Abnormal called Big Bertha, who is capable of creating earthquakes. I’m pretty sure it was me who suggested that we use Big Bertha in the season finale as well. I proposed that Magnus had lied to the heads of the Sanctuary network about destroying the creature and secretly kept her alive in an enclosure at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. And then later on in the writers’ room, we came up with the idea for the Makri, the small spider that telepathically links to Big Bertha.

“We went back and forth for weeks with this story,” continues the writer. “It’s probably the toughest one I’ve ever had to break. We knew we were on to something and felt like it could be big, but we just could not find the story for the life of us. Eventually, and after numerous rewrites, we shaped the story into Kali, parts one and two. Later in the process I was reviewing part two, which Damian wrote, and went to him with a logic problem. Basically, something Will was doing made no sense. And I distinctly remember what followed next; Damian sat back in his chair, thought about it for a long time, and then said, ‘I think I know what to do – Will has to dance a Bollywood number.’

“I nearly fell off my chair. He was exactly right, of course, but I thought we’d be marched right out of the TV business for good if we tried to do a full-scale Bollywood number in a Sci-Fi show. Luckily, Mark Stern [Syfy’s Executive Vice President for Original Content ] bought into the idea and off we went.

“Also late in the game, Damian, Martin, Amanda and Robin were invited to Tokyo by Syfy Asia and decided to take advantage of the exotic locale to shoot a scene for the show. We brainstormed and felt it belonged in my episode, and it turned out to be a great way to start things off. Shooting the Mumbai sequences took place on our [studio] backlot, which is where we built a massive labyrinthine Mumbai slum, and it looked photo real. To top it off, it was over 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 Farenheit, pretty much the whole week we were filming. Everyone was dying from the heat, but it helped with the authenticity. I’m not sure how we’re going to replicate that in part three, which will likely be shot this coming February or March.”

Having thoroughly enjoyed his first year with Sanctuary, McCullough is eagerly awaiting the start of work on season three. “I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge of us doing 20 episodes and really pushing the boundary with our season [story] arcs,” he says. “And also somehow getting ourselves out of the conundrum we created at the end of Kali, Part 2.”

Steve Eramo

As noted above, photo is by Jeff Weddell and copyright of Sanctuary 2 Productions, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!

Sanctuary’s Damian Kindler – Creative Spirit

November 13, 2009
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Sanctuary creator, executive producer and writer Damian Kindler. Photo courtesy of Damian Kindler

Last fall, The Syfy Channel added a new face to their stable of strong heroic female characters, Dr. Helen Magnus of Sanctuary. As head of a global network of facilities, or Sanctuaries, she as well as her daughter Ashley, techie Henry Foss, and forensic psychiatrist Will Zimmerman, risk their lives to protect humankind from creatures called “Abnormals” and vice versa. Created by Damian Kindler and executive producer with Martin Wood and Amanda Tapping (Magnus), the series made the jump in October 2008 from web-based to the small screen. Season one was a hit, and earlier this year, Kindler was back on the show’s Vancouver set with the cast and crew to start production on year two, which began airing back in October. As with the first season, the prep process was an involved one.

“Alan McCullough [series co-executive producer], Sara Cooper [consulting producer], James Thorpe [creative consultant], who came to us a bit later on, and I spent last Christmas as well as this past January and February developing story ideas and inching towards Bethlehem if you will. And sure enough it all eventually came together,” says Kindler, taking a break in-between production meetings.

“So we went forth and came up with this big two-part second season opener, End of Nights. We’re very proud of the episode and the performances in it are amazing. Our story opens six weeks into Helen Magnus’ search for her daughter Ashley [Emilie Ullerup], and it’s quite revealing about the way the Sanctuary works in a larger sense. You actually get to see other Sanctuaries around the world because there’s a global threat that’s made very real. We’re also made privy to how the Cabal plays its hand, which affects our heroes in a bad way. Essentially, it’s a giant kind of worldwide James Bond-ish, action-packed chess match between Magnus and the bad guys. There are some really cool human moments and Martin Wood just directed the hell out of it in a very short time.

“At the end of part two, people who are interested as well as invested in the show are going to be blown away because things careen into this incredible shock. Look, this sounds like I’m playing up the PR spin on the show, but we’ve literally pulled our heads up from the rabbit hole recently, looked around and said, ‘The first four or five episodes we’ve done are terrific.’ Season two is rolling out in such a smooth and heightened way, and the network has been incredibly generous with their feedback and saying how there has been a quantum leap in the way Sanctuary feels and in the entire creative process.

“The episodes are ramped up, revealing and really good character stories with cool monster beats. I think the show has definitely hit a very important stride right out of the gate in season two, and I don’t say that because it was all part of the plan. I thought we’d just continue on, but there was something about the wind at our backs when we sailed into season two that was extremely confident. We had been given this chance to come back and do this all over again. It was such an amazing life-changing experience doing the first season and everyone was so excited about doing a second season that they’ve brought their A+ game to the table.”

Last season, Kindler and his fellow writers established Sanctuary‘s main characters, and this year they will be building upon those foundations with some big twists and turns to come. “This season really is about the characters,” notes Kindler. “In season one we played through the growing global threat and shift in power. It was all very Lord of the Rings-like. This time around, though, I felt that we really needed to get to know not just our characters individually, but how they work as a group and how they like or don’t like one another.

“There are changes that happen to our heroes in the first three episodes this year that are profoundly dramatic. I mean, at the end of the season opener Ashley is killed – she dies saving her mother. During the final moments of End of Nights: Part 2, Magnus watches as Ashley is blown up and the screen then goes black. So viewers are left with this very harsh vision and they subsequently need some sort of ‘let down,’ which comes in Eulogy. One of my favorite episodes this year, it’s written by Sara Cooper and has Magnus and Will [Robin Dunne] playing out the possibility that Ashley could have survived, but in the end, coming to the realization that she is, in fact, gone.

“When I initially showed the ending of this episode to a few people there wasn’t a dry eye, and there are two reasons for that. One being that there’s an actual memorial service for Ashley, and then there’s a little bit of a ghostly visit where Magnus has a vision of her daughter and they say goodbye. Also, there was a woman named Nora O’Brien who worked for both Syfy and NBC and who died suddenly. She was very close friends with a lot of us here at Sanctuary, so Martin, Amanda and I came up with the idea of dedicating a story to her this season, and we all agreed that Eulogy would be the perfect one.

“This is one of those episodes where I believe Sanctuary is at its finest because it deals with the characters in such a human way. The thing is, it’s cool to have a very structured plot, a clever plot twist or high-concept idea, but if it doesn’t service the characters, then it’s not going to feel like a Sanctuary. It’s going to feel like a CSI only with monsters. There are moments in this story between Will and Magnus where you expect things to get overwrought, but, instead, they become quite realistic. Eulogy also features a really neat hunt for an escaped Abnormal. So it’s fun, too, and it serves to sort of reset the series if you will.

“I’ve just written an episode called Next Tuesday where Magnus and Will are stuck in the central well of a decommissioned oil rig. They’ve been trying to transport a sea monster to the Sanctuary, but their helicopter becomes tangled up in the guide wires hanging above the well and this creature escapes. And to make matters worse, there’s a second monster, too. We shot the episode on this cool set where we got to spend some time with Magnus and Will. I wanted to give you a chance to watch these two people bickering about their lives. Yes, there’s a monster and how are our heroes going to get out of there, but more important is the question of what happens when you spend 30 or 40 minutes of almost real time with your two leads talking to each other as people. Our goal was to have an ongoing personal conflict between Magnus and Will and watch that get resolved while being sure we told a cool monster story.”

As if Ashley’s death is not enough to deal with, the dynamic between our characters is further turned upside-down in season two of Sanctuary with the introduction of a new character, con artist Kate Freelander (Agam Darshi). “I’m going to totally mea culpa here and say that every show runner is like, ‘I want a Han Solo on my series,’ and that was our idea with Kate,” admits Kindler. “There are obvious ways you can go with a character like this. You can make her tough, but there was something cool about making Kate a bit like Ferris Bueller, where she’s working for the bad guys because that’s who’s paying her. Deep down, though, she’s really a hero who has sort of been in denial and hiding for a while. All she needed was to find someone who she could trust.

“Kate Freelander is an opportunistic freelance operative who has been working for the Cabal as well as other people. She knows about Abnormals, is very good at what she does, and crosses paths with our gang in part one of End of Nights when she kind of mucks things up for our heroes. Basically we’re trying to get to an Abornmal before the Cabal does, but Kate spirits him way before we can do that. There’s a big car chase – they used my car, by the way, and drove the heck out of it – where Kate is eventually caught and interrogated by Magnus. There’s a very kind of gripping scene where Helen is pretty out of control when it comes to dealing with her. Kate manages to escape, but she eventually ends up at the Sanctuary, a bit out of an attraction for what they are doing, but mainly out of desperation because the Cabal has put a hit out on her.

“She’s somewhat reluctant at first to help Magnus, but slowly becomes more cooperative,” continues the executive producer. “Kate is sort of the person in the middle and you can’t quite trust her. She’s an opportunist who has a very selfish way of working, but she’s changing. Kate is inspired by our heroes, but she has a different style, and that’s important when it comes to our storytelling. She thinks outside the box. Where we might take a very scientific, academic or particularly structured approach to a problem, she’ll be like, ‘Why not just call this guy. He has what we need. Who cares where it came from.’ Kate gets stuff done, and I like that because it shakes up some of the pomp and circumstance of our story, making it a bit more streetwise and fun as well.

“We had auditioned Agam Darshi for roles in the past and had always been impressed with her work. She’s a great actress who brings a lighter, edgy, interesting, mischievous tone to a lot of the stories that we’re doing. At any given moment, Kate could potentially steal something for money and then turn around to Magnus and the others and say, ‘But I never saw it.’ Again, though, she slowly begins to realize the value of the work that the Sanctuary team does.”

Kindler chuckles when asked to talk about some of the more memorable episodes from season two of Sanctuary. “More memorable than hanging a real helicopter over a pool of water?” he asks with a smile. “Well, our season opener has something like 400 VFX [visual effects] shots, and Eulogy is beautifully done and well-directed. Episode four, Hero, is, I think, the first openly amusing episode of Sanctuary that we’ve ever done. Anyone who is a fan of comic book heroes will love this one. I’m guessing it will be a fan favorite; I know it’s one of ours this year and it guest-stars Chris Gauthier [Vincent] from Eureka, who is a wonderful actor. It has some really good monsters in it as well as some funny, rather poignant beats, and overall is just a good, back to basics fun romp.

“Episode five [Pavor Nocturnus] is an unbelievably unique experience. It’s what looks like an alternate future gone to hell. Magnus wakes up in the Sanctuary and it has literally been abandoned for years and years, and the outside world is in such disarray. The story is dark and strange and has elements in it that are very disturbing. There’s an interrogation/torture scene that some people will watch through their fingers. Fragments is a neat episode, too. It’s a strong Henry [Ryan Robbins] story that was directed by Steve Adelson, who did Instinct last year.

“The episode we’re currently filming [early June], Veritas, which was written by Alan McCullough, is wonderful and Amanda is directing it so well. She’s an incredible director, and that’s beyond just delivering cool visuals and amazing performances. Production-wise, Amanda is bringing this story in under-budget and early, which is very difficult to do on our limited budget.

“Like I said, I’m so happy with how things are going this season. Again, the show has found its groove, and it really had to because it’s been paired with Stargate Universe. So Sanctuary can’t sort of just keep bubbling its way upward. It had to find its legs and run, so the pressure is on for season two, and so far so good.”

Launching Sanctuary‘s original two-our pilot on the Internet was a huge accomplishment for everyone involved with the show, and then bringing it to TV was yet another major creative hurdle surmounted. It has proven to be a great deal of work, but you will not hear anyone complaining.

“We’re all exactly where we want to be, doing exactly what we want with exactly the people we want to be doing it with,” says Kindler. “As sugary sweet as that sounds, though, the truth is there’s nothing better than appreciating what you have. It’s been such an amazing, crazy train ride getting her, and there were so many moments where it should have gone off the rails and crashed into the river, but it didn’t.

“Every time there’s a problem, like, oh, boy, here’s another late night at the office, or, here’s another weekend I have to spend writing, or whatever, you realize what enormously high class ‘problems’ these are. This is what we want to do. We don’t have any big plans for global domination…yet,” jokes the executive producer, “but if the series could just keep building upon its fan base that would be great. That’s all we ask.”

Steve Eramo

As noted above, photo is courtesy of Damian Kindler, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!