Earlier this week “Helix” star Kyra Zagorsky and exec producer Steve Maeda took part in a conference call to discuss Syfy’s highly anticipated new series, which premieres tonight, and in case you’re wondering if horror fans should check it out…
We’ve already seen a bit of the show, and combining our first-hand knowledge with the comments of both Zagorsky (pictured) and Maeda about what’s upcoming, we say definitely YES!
The series is the latest brainchild of Ron Moore, creator of “Battlestar Galactica,” and Zagorsky’s co-stars include Billy Campbell, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Ghanimé, Jordan Hayes, Cat Lemieux, Meegwun Fairbrother, and Neil Napier.
Below are the highlights of the call along with a few photos from tonight’s premiere (which begins at 10:00 pm as two back-to-back episodes with limited commercial interruption). When you’re done with all that, head over to your On Demand channel to watch the first 15 minutes.
The setting of being up in the Arctic really seems to work well for this kind of thing. It makes you think of The Thing and films like that. Can you talk philosophically about why a setting like this works so well visually and emotionally for this kind of story?
Steve Maeda: It’s a setting that is great for us because it’s not the newest setting under the sun. It seems familiar enough, but I think we’re doing a pretty interesting spin on it. And what works for us really well is that it lends itself to a very claustrophobic environment because you can go outside but only for brief periods of time. It’s really dangerous. The weather is horrible, as I’m sure people who are in the Midwest and the East Coast right now can relate to.
And what it does is it forces you to be inside most of the time and that’s how we really saw this. That’s how Cameron [Porsandeh], who wrote the pilot script, really envisioned the thing to begin with… a contained environment… it’s almost like being set on a spaceship where you’re trapped inside with unseen horrors and then there’re all sorts of human problems as well that develop from that. So it really lends itself to the series as a whole.
What would you say to someone who says, “Oh, it’s just another zombie show”? What makes “Helix” more than that?
Steve Maeda: Our watch word over the season… our watch words were “not zombies.” There is certainly a human element to the show and a science fiction kind of trope that we’re sure to get compared to and that’s okay. I don’t mind that, but we’re really trying to not make it a zombie show. I would say the main difference about our “vectors,” as we call them, is that they are not kind of mindless sort of eating machines. That’s something that you’ll see in later episodes. They’re very scary and they’re human and they look horrible. But our team will discover teams into and around the virus and also what we’re going to find out about the vectors is that they’re incredibly smart and so they retain a lot of their intelligence, if not their humanity, which I think makes them very different from zombies.
And you know what? The comparisons will come and that’s okay. But we’re really trying to do something that feels different than the typical zombie show.
Kyra Zagorsky: I think also since the show is based in real science, there’re real life epidemic scares out there throughout history where there’re these huge viruses that have wiped out huge populations, and so we’re dealing with something that the CDC hasn’t seen before, but it comes from a virus. And so that’s something that’s based in reality. And then you put the science fiction on that and it’s a really interesting combination. I think that’s another thing that makes it unique.
Let’s cut to the chase – how gross will these guys, these vectors, be?
Steve Maeda: Well, we’re a little gross. I have to be honest.
Kyra Zagorsky: Yes, they’re gross.
Steve Maeda: There’s some gross going on. We definitely wanted to have our infected people, our vectors, as we call them, play that something was wrong with them so that they didn’t just look like everybody else. It can be a very horrific transformation. And so, yes… definitely… there are horror elements in there that we did not shy away from.
That being said, it’s not a gore fest at all. And while there is gross stuff that happens, we were not trying to come up with, like, the coolest way to do something really vile. I mean, there are gross things; but it’s not a gore fest. That’s the best way I can put it. They’re pretty gross and I like to watch gross zombies, but we really were very conscience about trying to steer away from that as much as possible. So our guys are gross but they’re gross in a different way.
There definitely are some horror moments in the episodes. There are scares and there is gross stuff that happens. We really, though, I think that was not where we tried to lean into. It’s not our strength. We don’t have the budget or the time to be able to, you know, out-gross or out-action a lot of the shows that are out there. So with us, it was much more about, okay, what’s the understandable character element that’s going on that we can relate to with the emotion in a scene that we can try to find? What’s the really cool reveal that we can come up with where you’re going to be like, “Oh, no way, I didn’t see that coming!”? And so that’s where I hope our strength is.
Kyra Zagorsky: If anything, it was more scary or disturbing than it is gross.
Steve Maeda: Disturbing, yes. I would say sometimes uneasy, unsettling, yes.
Kyra Zagorsky: Especially when you were at lunch and you had to sit across from the vector in the makeup. That was one of the things where we thought, okay, I don’t want you to just sit next to me at lunch when you’re in that makeup.
Okay, not zombies; what else do people with no preconceptions about the show need to know?
Steve Maeda: The way that we’ve been describing the series both in press and then just in talking about it in breaking stories, it is an outbreak show, at least at the beginning. It starts off as a show about this terrible outbreak that happens in this very remote and dangerous location. And our team has to go up and deal with that. What then happens, though, it’s hard to describe because it’s – we don’t want to give too much away, but it becomes a mystery and it gets very deeply into science fiction and it gets very much into thriller and mystery elements.
And what you thought the show was going to be about is not what the show is about anymore, which I think is great… you think it’s one thing and then it turns out well, wait, it’s also about this. And – but wait a second. It’s also about that, too, and that’s a lot of fun.
Kyra Zagorsky: It’s frightening and it’s scary and there’re all these things that happen… I love the psychological thriller piece of it. I think that because we are trapped in this isolated environment with a deadly virus, what’s really interesting is that everyone’s darkness comes out because we’ve got these life and death stakes going on and then there’re these interesting relationships going on but we can’t quite deal with the relationship right now because we’ve got something better to do, which is survive.
But it takes some of the characters to some very dark places and they start doing things that they might not do if they were in regular circumstances. And so their true humanity comes out, the good and the bad. And I think that’s what’s so interesting about the show and, for me, the unique part of it, the psychological side of it.
Steve Maeda: Yes, I would absolutely agree with that. And for me, on top of that, I would say the main thing for me, as I stand back now and look back at the season that we’re finishing up, is Syfy in particular – both Sony and Syfy – but Syfy really wanted us to get out of the box of a typical outbreak show. And from the very beginning the pilot was a great template and really set the stage for us. But then Syfy just gave us free rein and between studio networks, Ron Moore, and everybody, we all tried to put our heads together and say, “What can we do? Where can we take this show? It starts in one place and then goes someplace hopefully really unexpected where we want the audience to play along and say, “Hey, I know what’s going to happen here. Of course, it’s going to be this,” and then have it be something completely different.
And we tried to do that with creative choices we made, with story ideas, with some casting choices, whether characters live or die, with music choices, with how we edited the show. And so that was really fun to have the creative freedom to be able to get outside of the typical show box.
Kyra Zagorsky: And something else that was fun, off of what you said, Steve, is that because we had the 13 episodes right away, every director would come in so excited to go with their own creativity… everyone came in with their own style and it blends together with the “Helix” style that was set. But at the same time, they’re bringing their own ideas and their own input. And so they were so pumped to be there. And it was really fun working with all of them.
Is there any concern about viewer fatigue with it being such a claustrophobic setting?
Steve Maeda: It’s something we talked about at length when we were initially developing and talking about the series. One of the things that was really important to us is to get outside whenever we could. And, of course, outside means either in our refrigerated room or out on the green screen exterior, but at least we were outside and didn’t have four walls around us.
And then the other thing we did was just think of ways that we could open up the show. And one thing we’re doing – I don’t think I’m giving too much away on this – is, while we’re not doing flashbacks, part of what the virus does is it makes you hallucinate. And so hallucinations play a fairly good-sized piece of certain episodes. And what they allow you to do is go to places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. And I’ll leave it at that.
Kyra Zagorsky: I think the other side of that is embracing the claustrophobia and that’s kind of what a huge piece of this show is, just watching people go through having to be stuck in that. And so I think the audience is going to feel some of that. It might not be comfortable, but it’s really cool to just kind of be experiencing that along with the characters that you’re watching. So yes, you’re in that same room again. There they are. They’re stuck right there and you’re right there with them empathizing for what they’re going through. And so I think that’s what can help the audience connect to the humanity and, again, the good and the bad of each character, of what happens.
Steve Maeda: The challenge for us was to figure out how to use those rooms again and again and again, those locations, and we are a combination of some sets that we built, of some labs that we actually repurposed, a big, giant laboratory structure in Montreal, and then a fair amount of green screen and exterior and interior green screen work. So the idea was to try to keep it as real as possible, use whatever we could, try to get different looks at it, put people in different types of situations and then also to, again, open the show up as much as we could by going a place you wouldn’t expect to go outside, by going to a place you wouldn’t expect to go inside.
And then, even though you’re still in this very inhospitable place that’s kind of closed in, it’s a pretty big base and I feel like we got good use out of our sets and you shouldn’t feel like, oh, we’re back there again. It feels like we – I think, anyway – like we use things the right amount.
So we’re not stuck with just seeing the same actors over and over again along with the rooms?
Steve Maeda: There’re 106 scientists – yes, 106 scientists on the base and a bunch of support staff. And then we have people – there are some other people that we won’t mention, but just to know that there are other cast members who kind of come and go.
Kyra Zagorsky: And there’re a lot of surprise characters that you just would never expect and that’s what’s kind of fun about it. There’s a huge element of surprise that starts to happen pretty soon in the series that there’re some pieces where I have a whole episode where I’m not working with any of the core cast but just other interesting characters. So it’s pretty fun. It kept it interesting.
There’s a large amount of dishonesty and duplicitousness that plays among its principal players. Can you talk a bit about the abundant amount of withholding that goes on?
Steve Maeda: It’s kind of a dramatic staple but, yes, we absolutely came to this with the idea that the series plays out in a pretty tight time period. We’re doing this idea of having each episode be a day. And so the idea was not to flash back and not to show what people were doing before the show started. We really wanted to keep it as contained as possible as far as keeping the timeline tight and the jeopardy up.
And so it really was loading characters up. We had a lot of discussions before we even started, talking about what the second episode was going to be, in loading characters up with enough back story that would allow things to spill over and play out over the course of the 13 episodes of the season.
So yes, we really, really wanted to make sure that everybody had enough going on with them that once the tension increased, once things were going really poorly, which happens really fast, that we had characters who had their personal situations which could spill over. And so everyone’s got an agenda. Everyone’s got secrets, every single character. And some of them are big – giant – you know, things that will impact the plot; some are smaller, but just as important character secrets. And we just really tried to load everybody up as much as possible in a way that felt credible but also gave them lots to play once things started to go down the toilet. So we were very conscience of that.
Can you talk more about the human side of things? Will we see much drama mixed in with the sci-fi and horror?
Steve Maeda: All of our CDC scientists are incredibly accomplished and incredibly good at their jobs but also very flawed characters who have maybe not handled things so well in their personal lives. And that usually brings some pretty rich drama forward.
Finally, what about the realism of the show? Was there ever a time during filming where the virus itself, what it does, freaked you out?
Kyra Zagorsky: Yes! Especially with the first couple of episodes. As Steve mentioned before, there’re a lot of twists and turns that happen where the series starts as one thing and it starts to become something much bigger and much darker and more interesting. But in the beginning when you’re looking at this and you’re thinking about it, the CDC gets brought up to this place to deal with this virus and it’s something that they’ve never seen and that, in itself, is quite frightening in a story because this is something that happens all the time, a real life epidemic scare, you know.
I think there was just a couple reported cases this last week in Vancouver of some deaths of people passed away with H1N1. You know, it’s something that’s really out there for people. People are trying to make decisions about whether they should vaccinate their children or not, which is still a big debate. It’s something that is a true fear for people. So when we were getting into the story in these first few episodes and you’re seeing these people who are at the top of the CDC, they should have every answer. It’s almost like a God complex. And they don’t know what to do. I think that’s pretty terrifying. And when we didn’t know what was going to be happening next as an actor, with where the story was going to go, that’s an interesting thing because you just think I have no idea what I can do. How much worse can it get and I have no handle on it. And now, at some point, this is going to get everyone sick and we don’t have any answers. And that’s pretty frightening because that’s total annihilation of the whole planet. So what do you do there?
Steve Maeda: That’s one of the things we really played with, this notion that we have to keep this thing contained and we have to solve it or figure it out or at least keep it here in this place because if it gets out, it’s going to be a calamity. And so that’s the thing that our folks, our CDC scientists and the other scientists, are not only scared for their own lives but scared of what might happens if this thing gets out. So we really play with that and kept that very much alive throughout the course of the series. It’s scary. It’s an invisible villain. You can’t touch it. You can’t taste it, but it’s there.
These types of stories I really like and I had done research on them before just because I was interested in them. But this kind of outbreak and epidemic stories not only are something that people can really relate to but also tend to either bring out the best or the worst in people and sometimes both because people get so terrified, they’re so scared of what’s going to happen, that they don’t know how to deal with the situation. And that’s something that we really, really tried to play a great deal. Does this bring out the best in you, or is this going to bring out the selfish kind of side that is more just concerned with self-preservation? And that is just automatic drama, which was great.
Kyra Zagorsky: And then also, you’re getting this information that you want to study and you want to sound educated when you’re in the scene and know what it is that you’re talking about, what it is that we’re working from, that we’re doing. So for those of us that were working on that stuff in the show, we’re doing a lot of research so it’s kind of fun. It’s kind of like going back to science class, you know, and I spent a lot of time with YouTube trying to discover, okay, how does this thing work when you’re dealing with this type of microscope and blah, blah, blah. But then suddenly you start seeing all these interesting articles and you’re researching, oh, okay, so Spanish Flu. Let me get back to this, you know. I haven’t studied about the Spanish Flu since I was in school, you know what I mean? But then you start really reading up on things and I think there was some article that had come out around when I was working on Episode 9, I think, and I think it actually came from the CDC, but it was something about are antibiotics becoming obsolete.
And that’s kind of frightening, you know, when you’re thinking about, wow, in this day and age, so what does that mean, then? People just have to deal with whatever happens? So there’s a lot of real life things that were coming up while you’re just researching the sci-fi stuff along with things based in facts that start to make you a little bit more aware of how dangerous things can be.
Our thanks to Kyra and Steve for their time, moderator Stephen Cox, Garrott Smith, and everyone at Syfy.
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