Trevor Hogg chats with showrunner Simon Barry and his leading lady Rachel Nichols about doing some time travelling in the streets of present day Vancouver and the future of television…
“TV is more of a master to serve because you have this incredible schedule of production and post-production,” observes Simon Barry who wrote the feature screenplay for The Art of War (2000) starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), and is the creator and showrunner for Continuum [Showcase, 2012 to present]. “It’s close to the bone in regards to the time you have to make, get the show out and give it to the network. TV has a higher pace but film can be just as gruelling in terms of the demands of filming and the problems that have to be solved.” There is no two year wait to have an episode appear on the small screen. “It is a quick turnaround which in some ways forces you into a work schedule that eliminates a lot of second guessing and questions that you would normally have the time to ask when you’re doing a movie. It can make you more efficient in an interesting way.” The two storytelling mediums are moving in different directions. “Film has become more homogenized and risky; therefore, the choices have become things like franchises and sequels. That’s driven the risk adverse into a place where they feel that they have a bit more protection. Whereas in television that isn’t the case because you don’t have compete with The Avengers, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman and the Twilight movies as much. TV is a much more open field for competitiveness. Because of technology TV has become much more diversified in the way we watch and get our television. In the old days channels needed to rack up 10 to 15 million viewers a night for a specific show. Now because of the diversification of television you can target your audience for a specific show, get away with the low millions and still be considered a success. That helps television writers to expand their subject matter and the style of storytelling; it has led us to this renaissance.”
“My partner in the production Pat Williams [Deep Evil] had a scheduled meeting at Showcase and Pat is director not a writer,” recalls Simon Barry. “He was going in to meet with the network folks who were keen for him to bring them a project he was passionate about. Pat called me before the meeting and mentioned he was doing this. Pat didn’t have anything to pitch himself. ‘Did I have any projects of mine kicking around that I hadn’t sold?’ At the time I had developed Continuum to sell in the States which was where I was working exclusively at that point. But I had not had the chance to pitch it down there because I had been hired on by CBS to write a pilot for them. I mentioned this to Pat and he presented the idea in broad strokes to Showcase, the Canadian network; they were intrigued and asked to follow up with me for an expansive version of the pitch which I provided. That’s the way the process began.” A pilot episode was not produced for Continuum which revolves around Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) who is a detective from 2077 trapped in the present day. “There is no pilot process in Canada because the numbers here don’t make sense to spend a lot of money shooting them. They tend to develop a show longer and go straight to series. I was aware and keen on that because I had written at that point 12 unproduced pilots in L.A. for cable and broadcast networks. It is like a shooting gallery of opportunity there. The networks in the States each develop 50 scripts and will shoot maybe 10 pilots.”
“Anytime you get into a situation where you have 22 or more episodes per season you’re going to end up writing well into the production phase,” observes Simon Barry. “With a short 10 to 13 season I push my writers to try to get as many scripts as we can written before we start shooting episode one. By the time we’re shooting episode one we already know what the last episode is. We maybe haven’t written the final draft but we have certainly broken the story and have all of the scenes carded. That allows you to plant seeds in the first episode that payoff in a better way at the end. It allows you to look at the season as one cohesive chapter of storytelling as suppose to a running series of shows.” The idea of dealing with a truncated season appeals to native of Augusta, Maine who has appeared in Alias (ABC, 2001 to 2006) and Criminal Minds (CBS, 2005 to present). “I love doing 13 episodes,” remarks Rachel Nichols (Charlie Wilson’s War). “I’m not saying that the storytelling in the other shows I did suffered but it allows the storytelling to have a breather in the downtime between when a season wraps and when a season starts. The writers’ room gets a break. There’s more planning that can go into working on the following season. For an actor like me it’s wonderful because I shoot from November to the second week in April. I can go do movies and take some time off. I can work on my own projects. I can do pet projects with friends.”
“We have this interesting transition point in television now where people are moving away from the weekly viewing towards a binge or season watching habit,” remarks Simon Barry. “We still have a big obligation to service the weekly storytelling which is important but we have one eye towards the future and that involves much more contained binge watching habits. What we are trying to do as writers is to satisfy both audiences which is not easy but there are always going to be a compromise from one end to the other in terms of those two audiences we’re trying to appease.” The leading lady for the Continuum indulges in binge watching. “I’m a big House of Cards [Netflix, 2013 to present] fan,” remarks Rachel Nichols. “When the second season came out my soon to be husband and I binged on it one entire weekend. It was amazing and so much fun. Now we love doing it. I didn’t watch Breaking Bad [AMC, 2008 to 2013] when the episodes were airing on TV. I would watch the whole season at once because I got on the train a little bit late. The whole idea of releasing a whole season at the same time has become a fan favourite because as soon as everybody binges on House of Cards season two they want season three right away. It’s interesting to see how that drives the demand for another season.”
“As storytellers we love the idea that Alec [Erik Knudsen], Carlos [Victor Webster], and Kiera are the eyes of the audience,” states Simon Barry. “Several characters can be identifiable in their own way to different members of our audience. Our goal was to create a group of points of view. From our point of view Kiera is the lead because she is driving a lot of the storytelling perspective. That’s not to say Kiera is the emotional or political nexus of the show. Her journey is one of discovery; it is one of change. Therefore this grey area is not designed for Kiera but for the audience. Kiera has entered a world that we’re more familiar with than she is. That’s an advantage because now your main character is coming from a point of view that she’s open to new ideas, to a journey and exploration, and education. The audience is set in their ways in how they see the world that their living in at that moment. If the show can at all change the way people perceive things or force them to experience something through a different perspective then we’ve accomplished something small but important in terms of the themes of the show. We’ve always looked at those grey areas as being something that you define not that we define. We wanted to put everything out there in a way that felt more honest. There’s no all good and all evil. But there are always shades of grey and if you look around the world you’ll know that there is.”
“I can’t imagine anyone else,” admits Simon Barry when talking about his leading actress Rachel Nichols. “At this point Rachel has been such a great collaborator; she is such a professional. Rachel is talented and sets the tone of the film set the way you want. She does her homework. Rachel is invested in the stories. It sounds cliché but she’s perfect. Was she our first choice? No, we had considered other people before Rachel. But at the end of the day I’m glad that didn’t work out because it wouldn’t have been as good a decision. Sometimes things happen the way they should and sometimes much better than the way you want. The story of how Rachel became involved with Continuum is a great one. She had gotten hold of a script and against even her agent’s suggestion she had gone out and auditioned on her own because she wanted to give it a shot. That was an important decision on her part which allowed us to discover her in the process of looking for the lead. Had it not been for her aggressive approach to the casting we might not have had that opportunity. It worked out perfectly.” Barry adds, “Pat and I had always loved the idea to counterpoint the science fiction element of the concept that we had to ground the show with people and a storytelling style that worked against the outrageousness of time travel. We had to firmly place it in a world that felt real. Rachel brought a sensitivity, strength, and raw sense that she belonged in this world.”
“I give a huge credit to Simon and to the writers’ room,” remarks Rachel Nichols. “The first script that I read before I got the job I was about 10 pages in and I thought I had to play this role. She’s completely awesome. I get to do everything from time travel to kick ass to have that emotion to have a family. For Continuum which is the biggest TV role besides from The Inside [Fox, 2005] that I’ve ever had and few people have ever seen that. Playing and building a character like Kiera with the collaboration of Simon and the writers’ room it never gets boring or old. The nice thing is I get to know her better, she gets to know me better and we’ve become even more one person as the seasons progressed. Even if you’re doing 22 or 26 episodes you’re not going to get tired of playing a role if you’re portraying a person who is evolving constantly.”
“The showrunner job is the one that starts the process of the scripts and ideas,” explains Simon Barry. “It goes all the way through to the delivery of the episode. I’m the one set of eyes essentially making sure that all of the different parts of the machine are in synch. I can’t do it all. I’m managing a massive group of people who are much more talented than me at their specific duties.” Rachel Nichols is impressed by the ability of Barry to orchestrate the series. “The show is complex and I can always call Simon. If I have question and need help or forget the rules of time travel or whatever the case may be I can always call them. That’s the definition of a good showrunner. It’s someone who makes themselves available not only to me but to every actor. Simon is always willing to change things. Change the writing or add a story point. Someone who is flexible but knows the story they have in mind and what they want. Someone who is a team player makes a huge difference. Simon being accessible allows for this atmosphere of creativity and the feeling that there are no stupid questions. That’s the baseline for at least that’s how I feel when I’m on-set everyday. You can ask Simon anything and he’ll give you the absolute straight answer. That kind of openness generates a great show, and a happy cast and crew. You have to be transparent, available, and friendly. Friendliness goes a long way.”
“I would want to sit down and talk with Kiera about time travel, what she misses the most, and what she likes the most from this time compared to that time,” reflects Rachel Nichols. “I have this weird theory that time travel turns people into old souls. It’s the type of person you would like to sit down and have tea with and pick their brain. I would want to talk about Sam and her husband and that fish out of water experience of going back in time 65 years that I’m playing everyday when I’m at work. We would be very similar. We’re driven, loyal, have a tendency to go rogue, make good friends, are good to our family, sometimes we speak when we shouldn’t, and bowing down to authority is not our strongest trait but there’s always the respect there.” Portraying someone who is unfamiliar with the present day requires playing a mental mind trick on oneself. “A lot of the times it’s a reverse psychology with me saying, ‘Here’s Kiera in the present day. Think about this situation if it was you in the future.’ We try to find those little areas and nuances where her futureness can come out whether she doesn’t know what the Bat signal means or she can’t drive a car or she’s amazed by running water or she has never seen a horse before. We find those moments and keep that thread going throughout the show.”
“I believe it’s the key relationship of the entire series,” notes Rachel Nichols when discussing the interaction between Kiera and Alec Sadler who is portrayed by Erik Knudsen (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). “In season three we go through our ups and downs. When Kiera arrives through various mechanisms of her future tech, the idea that this 17 year old kid is using a radio frequency that nobody knows about but she’s on it. She comes to find out the Alec Sadler runs the world in 2077. When Kiera arrives back 65 years Alec is the only person who knows where she’s from and what she’s doing and is on her level. He’s her guide through season one and her best friend. The relationship definitely goes through the ups and downs because the idea is that she always needs him but he doesn’t need her. Alec wants to live his life because he doesn’t want to be that he turned into the future. He’s friends with her so does that mean he’s going to be that man? Thankfully, Erik is a fantastic actor. As the seasons progress there’s more strain put on their relationship because there’s this struggle within him to try not to be the man of the future. But for Kiera who is trying to get home Alec needs to be the man of the future. Season three is a turning point in that relationship because after two seasons of wanting to go home Kiera realizes that she is trying to get back to her relative crappy future just for two people, her son and husband. It’s very selfish if she has the opportunity to make the entire world better for humanity in the future. Alec and Kiera are at odds for most of season three. I’m happy at the idea that they will be reunited as friends in season four.”
“Learning a fight scene is much like learning a dance,” notes Rachel Nichols who was a dancer while attending high school in Maine. “You learn a couple of beats at a time whether you’re pirouetting or throwing a right hook or a left kick you learn pieces at a time and string those pieces together. A big fight scene is like a big dance. I’ve always loved the physical aspect of the role that I play. I love doing fight scenes primarily because they look so awesome when they’re cut together. I do as many of my own stunts as they will let me safety wise. I have great doubles for things that I can’t do like being thrown through a glass wall. There is a certain element of my dance background that helps as far as the coordination goes.” In regards to interacting with visual effects, Nichols remarks, “A lot of it is imagination based. I haven’t had to act off of any real visual effects. Even when my son was a hologram they brought in the actor Sean Michael Kyer [Girl in Progress] who plays Sam in episode five of season two so he was there for me. If you have to do a scene opposite someone who is not there I do my prep work before thinking about that person in seeing, smelling, and touching them and knowing that they are there. It takes a vivid imagination but to do this job it takes a vivid imagination. If you believe what you’re doing is what you’re saying and seeing then you are absolutely doing, saying or seeing what you believe.”
“It’s a great opportunity with Sci-Fi to talk about themes that are relevant to today’s world without feeling like you’re preaching,” believes Simon Barry who has incorporated reveal events like the Occupy movement into episodes. “It’s nice with the genre that we’re in we get to speak to a lot of social commentary without being seen as preachy or political because there is that Sci-Fi element which makes it quite fun to play around with certain themes of today,” states Rachel Nichols. “We do definitely involve a lot of the things like government versus corporation control. Even the idea that everybody in the future is on the grid which is something a lot of the future tech we use in the show is completely believable. It might happen. We get to speak to the detriment of that. You see what 2077 is and none of us like it very much. We get to look into the future and the past without anybody telling us that we’re being judgemental.” The genre also presents some problems. “With science fiction it adds another layer of complications sometimes because the shows tend to be more demanding of the audience’s attention and information,” observes Barry. “We rely on the network to tell us when we’re pushing too hard in one direction or another in terms of complications.”
“We’ve worked with four different DPs [Directors of Photography] over the course of the show,” states Simon Barry. “We’ve worked with many directors. In the first season my producing partner and I had a style of shooting that we liked and we would impart that to them. As soon as that season had been produced we could show other directors what we were looking for. There was a much less verbal communication required because you could watch the show and say, ‘That’s the look and style of the show.’ People would either get that or they wouldn’t. Certainly in the first season we definitely had to sit down and articulate what we were looking or in terms of the style and look of the show. Pat and I are former camera guys. We became friends both working as assistant cameramen about 20 years ago. We were predisposed to visuals even then and so that was driving a lot of our decision-making about who was going to direct, who was going to shoot, and also in terms of the design of the show, who we wanted to work with. It’s also about the temperament of the crew. You want people who get the way you want to work not just what you want to shoot. There’s a style of shooting and production that lends itself to a team.”
“Now that we’re in season three we’ve got a lot of the same directors who come every season,” remarks Rachel Nichols. “Jon Cassar directed the first two episodes of the show ever and he was on 24 [Fox, 2001 to 2010] for years. John did every other episode of 24. I would prefer that. I’m a huge fan of Simon as a director; he’s a great director. I’m a huge fan of Amanda Tapping [Arctic Air]; she has come in and directed a bunch of episodes. I would like the continuity of having the same two directors for every season. We’re block shooting episodes and we shoot a couple at a time. It would be helpful to do that but most TV shows don’t. Luckily I always have access to Simon. It is hard for a new director to come in because they don’t know the show as well as the actors. Now that we’re in the groove and we have all of our directors that we use every year its fine because they all know the show. With a show like ours which is so specific and there are so many rules whether it’s time travel or how my future tech works or what I can do. There are so many tiny pieces that someone who is not there everyday or every other day might not understand or recognize or pay tribute to in their episode. With a complex show the fewer the directors the better.”
“The hardest scene I’ve ever shot where I was in the zone on the day but wondered about it afterwards was episode five of season two where I essentially say goodbye to my son,” reveals Rachel Nichols. “It was such an out of body experience because it was such a painful scene to shoot even though I don’t have my own child. I didn’t know how I would feel and watched it. It was excruciating to watch and I don’t need to ever watch it again but that scene turned out extremely well. Then there are other scenes like action sequences which you think, ‘Oh, I don’t know if they’re going to be able to cut that together? Is it going to work? I don’t know if I did everything right.’ In the season opener when I fought with Luvia Petersen [Battlestar Galactica: The Plan] there was a big time crunch to shoot that fight scene. When there is time crunch to shoot a fight scene sometimes things get sacrificed or you’re missing certain beats or you have to edit the whole fight to make it a lot shorter. I was pleasantly surprised when I watched it because that edit ended up being fantastic. I try not to have too much expectation when it comes to specific scenes or episodes. I don’t see episodes until they’re literally on TV.” Simon Barry has harder time defining specific scenes that were a pleasant surprise to him. “I watched the cut for episode 13 for season three and we have 36 hours of show now cut in the can; it’s way too much material for me to find one thing that encapsulates all of the moments. In all of those episodes there is at least one or two that come out differently in way that it’s a happy accident or improved because of the hard work of the people who are making the show.”
“Kiera has been everything I wanted,” remarks Rachel Nichols. “She’s stretched me. She’s challenged me. There’s never been a dull moment. I love playing her. Her future is going to be interesting. I’ve always contended that there’s this rogue part of her which might go completely go off the grid or choose a different course. In 2077 Kiera Cameron knew what was right, what was wrong, what was good, what was bad, black and white. It was very cut and dry to her. But then she comes to the present day and she’s suddenly realizing all that glitters is not gold. She’s questioning, ‘Was she on the right side? Even though the tactics of Liber8 were immoral and violent maybe their end goal isn’t so bad given how the present day looks compared to the future. Kiera has gone through this huge moral questioning. She questions everything she thought was so true in the future even down to her husband and what exactly was he doing that day she was sent back in time accidently at the execution. Kiera has never become complacent because I would avoid that. The idea in season three that Kiera has come to the realization that she needs to stay here. Kiera loves her husband and her son. She has the opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone in the future. That was surprising for me as well. Simon has always told me if I want to know something about the next season I can ask him but I never want to know. I like being surprised. At the end of season three there is a definite turning point for her and that will lend itself well to a completely different Kiera in season four. I can’t talk about any of that because Simon will kill me!”
“I lived in Vancouver from 1986 to 1995. Then I lived in L.A. from 1995 to 2008,” recalls Simon Barry who has relocated to the city where he attended university. “Vancouver is a character for sure but we’re trying to make a show that could take place in any city anywhere in world. We’re trying to make our mythology larger than the location.” Rachel Nichols has settled in the place in which she works. “I had never been to Vancouver before I started filming the show. When I moved here on January 5, 2012, I had never seen the city before. It does rain quite a bit here but on a day like today where it’s clear and gorgeous it is one of most beautiful cities in the world. In Continuum we’re saying that Vancouver is Vancouver. We’re not saying that Vancouver is New York or Toronto or San Francisco. We do try to make it the everyday city. Now in 2014, I live here full-time, I’m about to marry a Canadian and spend most of my life here. I’m a huge fan of shooting in Vancouver.” Producing a television series is much like embarking on a road trip. “You can never predict all of the details that drive a story,” notes Barry. “We have always been driving towards the same destination we’ve just taken a lot more side trips than we planned.” As for how long he can envision Continuum continuing, the Leo Award winning showrunner for the series remarks, “I’ve always thought that seven to ten seasons would be a great opportunity to tell the full breadth of the story that I had in mind and the writers have added to in the years since then. You don’t get to choose that in this business so hopefully we will get that chance.”
Continuum images courtesy of Showcase/Shaw Media.
Many thanks to Simon Barry and Rachel Nichols for taking the time to be interviewed.
Episode 309: “Minute of Silence” airs Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showcase.
Kiera and Carlos, reeling from a shocking loss, hunt down a ring of enigmatic high-tech thieves, even as a handsome, yet distant amnesiac begs for help in discovering his identity.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.