Sanctuary has come a long way since it debuted as an eight-part web series in May 2007. The science fiction show, which stars Stargate alumnus Amanda Tapping, successfully made the leap to television and has gone on to secure four seasons. The third was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America this week and the fourth debuts on Syfy in the United States and SPACE in Canada on October 7.
I caught up with Sanctuary creator, writer and executive producer Damian Kindler on set recently during the final days of filming Season 4. He was in a position that just a few years ago he told me he saw himself occupying only in nightmares: The director's chair.
Kindler was filming the season four finale, coincidentally revisiting his first directorial experience for the show - the last episode of season three. It testifies to the confidence he has in Sanctuary and himself that he'd got the cast and crew away from the green screens the series has been famous for and onto a Vancouver street. At night.
The bustle of activity under the spotlights and the line-up of military vehicles loaned from a local prop supplier exemplified how the show has expanded beyond its digital origins to become a fully-fledged action adventure series. Given the shoot's nocturnal timing, this was an impressive set-up for a comparatively inexperienced director working on a largely independent production with a relatively small budget.
Kindler gave me some insights into why he eventually took the plunge and got behind the camera, how the writer and director in him interact and how the show he is credited with creating has changed over the years.
When I spoke to you back in the webisode days you said you had nightmares about directing...
Turns out they were all real. It was more like a warning.
What changed your mind?
Just getting in the chair and doing it. I mean, it's one of those things you just have to kind of go right outside your comfort zone and get involved in. Also, it's a different thing when you've been producing a show for a number of years and you're supervising with the directors and you realize that you have a lot of credibility and you know how to understand things.
I think it was just one of those things where Amanda had directed, [executive producer] Martin [Wood] obviously was directing so much. I felt that it was one of those things that really I wanted to experience. It was unique and it was a challenge that I felt ready for and I had a lot of support from Amanda and Martin and the actors. And definitely the crew are incredible. So it was definitely sort of the right evolution and something to try and it's been really, really enjoyable.
It's an easier process for me because obviously this is the show that I'm helping to shape but it has a lot of challenges. You don't want to let anyone down, you don't want to take it for granted and you don't want to behave with any kind of ego or make it about vanity. It has to be in service of the show. So I guess you could say I overcame my fears and jumped at the challenge.
How does Martin Wood feel now that you're taking over his job?
I think he's relieved. He gets to spend more time with his kids and doing other things. I think he's very proud because I've learned a huge amount from him and still do. He's been great.
It is mad. They're both mad. They're two of the hardest things to do in television. But the story demanded it and you have to swallow what you bite off. If you write 'Exterior, Night in Old City,' you'd better be prepared to go shoot that.
Was it your choice to do the season finales or is that just the way it fell out?
No, I was going to direct the one before this, episode 12, and then there were some scheduling changes and director changes and there was a project that Martin was interested in doing and so he asked me, he and Amanda both asked me, if I would do both. It was definitely not something I wanted to do [laughs]. I was looking forward to a very well-earned rest after a full-on season.
The writers start much earlier than the crew and the shooting crew. We've been working really hard since February. One of the joys of being a writer is that when you've finished writing the last episode you can just put your feet up while they shoot it for the next couple of weeks. Instead, as soon as I'd finished writing it was full-on prep and now we're shooting 17 days and six of those are nights.
How do find the writer part of you and the director part of you get along? Is the writer always complaining because the director keeps changing things?
Well we've each fired ourselves. It's an interesting process. I think it is much, much harder to direct something you haven't written, whereas whenever I've directed something I've written, like the musical episode and half of this [episode], it's much easier to have all the answers.
The directors, when they don't write, often spend a lot of time getting into the script and asking questions so that they can answer all the questions. Everybody from crew to the art department to visual effects [and] especially the cast have a million questions about what's going on and why from the creative to the practical. It's much easier if you've been part of the genesis of the idea and the execution of the script from the get-go.
That doesn't mean you have all the answers. In fact, it's one of the glaring holes that can come up when people ask you and they know you should know because you wrote it and you go, "Ouch, I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote 'the pterodactyl swoops in and eats the baby,'" or something horrible like that. It seemed like a good idea at three in the morning when I wrote it.
How would you describe your directing style?
Chaotic and then I just let other professionals do the job better than me. I don't know. I think that it's pretty early on. I've only directed four episodes but I don't know if I have a style. Good question. You'll have to ask someone else that. How about this: Tired and not cranky.
It was really just kind of mapping out the best way to tell these stories visually. Really experienced directors have a lot of tricks up their sleeves: How to get things done; how to get them done efficiently; when to really lean into something and film from a lot of different sides and get lots of coverage of things and when to do things cleverly in one or two shots. I didn't have all those skills.
As a writer I have all sorts of tricks. I know how to bang off scenes really quickly, I know what scenes I don't need in the story and what scenes are really important. For directors it's a different style. So it's just kind of... I'd say the biggest challenge was just that I lacked experience. And I think that you also learn not to be so slavish to the script. You have to be able to know what's important and what doesn't need to be there and you land on your feet creatively then.
How would you say that the show has evolved in the four years that it has been on air?
I think it's looser, I think it's funnier; I think it takes more chances willingly. I think it's really quite focused on the characters. We rarely, rarely center stories on guest stars. It's definitely evolved. Our guest cast or recurring cast have really grown and have been brilliant. Jonathon Young, Ian Tracey, now this year Brian Markinson, they've all been wonderful. Pascal Hutton. We've really been able to grow more stories organically out of having people who really fit the world of Sanctuary and join us again and again. So we kind of have a deeper and more colorful palette to work with.
Season 3 of Sanctuary has been released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America by eOne and will be available on DVD in Britain from September 26th.