What Can Horror Fans Expect from Helix? Kyra Zagorsky and Steve Maeda Talk its Chills, Thrills, and 'Not Zombies'
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.