In the Director's Chair with Sanctuary's Martin Wood

By , Contributor

Chris Helcermanas-Benge/Sanctuary 4 Productions

Director Martin Wood doing what he does best on the set of Sanctuary

What do Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Andromeda, Earth: Final Conflict, Silk Stalkings, and Jeremiah have in common? Why, Martin Wood, of course. For over 20 years, this multi-talented professional has worked as a director and/or producer on these as well as other TV shows and made-for-TV movies.

Since 2008, he has served as executive producer and in-house director on Sanctuary, the fourth season of which finishes airing this month on Syfy. Wood directed four episodes this year, starting with the season opener “Tempus,” in which the show’s heroine, Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping), is trapped in Victorian England and struggling to stop her old adversary Adam Worth (Ian Tracey) from altering Earth’s timeline.

“This is probably the best Sanctuary episode we’ve done so far,” says Wood. “It’s set in the 1880s and is 100% Magnus back in time, in fact, two Helens — the one from the 1880s and our Magnus back in that time and hunting Adam Worth. One of the fun things about this episode is that we shot it all inside the studio, and at the last minute I said, ‘And it’s going to be raining, too.’ We had these rain wands and other pieces of equipment all set up, so that in almost every scene outside it’s pouring. Speaking of the exterior scenes, Anthem Visual Effects did an amazing job, because every time you see a wide shot of London in the episode, it’s digital. They built everything from scratch and it’s quite remarkable how those scenes hold up.

“’Tempus’ was written by [series creator/executive producer] Damian Kindler, who decided, ‘If this is going to be the first show of the season, it’s not going to be a regular Sanctuary episode. It’s going to be a taste of what’s possible when doing Sanctuary,’ and that is you can go back in time and talk about what happened. Again, in this case we put our Magnus back into that time and we’re experiencing events with her, and not in the way she first experienced them. We’re seeing sort of the anomalies of a woman from the 21st century in a place that she knew in the 1880s. However, her language is wrong - she swears - she’s dressed wrong, her weapons along with her fighting style is different, and everyone reacts to that. Where did this come from? How did this happen? What are you talking about? Why are you speaking like that?

“At the same time, we’re seeing a much more demure Magnus, and Amanda did a remarkable job of making the distinction between the two. It was quite something to watch her make the transition. She’d be in one costume and it’s the Magnus who is hard and has been jaded by decade after decade of life as well as hardship. Then you see this 30-year-old Magus from the 1880s who’s fresh and living for the first time. Her face is also different, because when Amanda changed costumes, her face changed, too. You had these two women in the same shot a couple of times and it’s just amazing to watch.

“Our Magnus also has this big fight with the John Druitt [Christopher Heyerdahl] from the 1880s, which is really cool to watch because she knows fighting techniques that he doesn’t, and Magnus just takes him on and takes him apart. All the years of anger come through in her fight with Druitt, and only two shots of it are with a stunt double. Everything else is Amanda. There’s also a neat scene between Druitt and Magnus with our Magnus listening. It’s one of my favorite scenes that I’ve directed. In fact, it’s one of the first things I put on my new director’s reel. Chris did a great job in it and there’s all this wild stuff going on between the 1880s Magnus and Druitt. Meanwhile, the Magnus of our time is reacting to it.

“The biggest difficulty for me as a director with this episode was trying to re-create 1880s London using twists, turns and angles on this very, very tiny set. On top of all that it was raining. So it was one of those Rubik’s Cubes that you had to sort of work around, but it was an incredible start to the season.”

In “Monsoon,” Wood’s second directorial outing for Sanctuary’s fourth season, Magnus is among those held hostage in an airport on the African island of Grande Comore by a trio of Abnormals that are looking to steal a sample of a deadly virus with the potential to wipe out millions of innocent people.

“This is another Damian Kindler script and he wanted to write a Die Hard-type story for Magnus,” explains the director. “She’s trapped on this island off the coast of Mozambic and is forced to fight, which she does in a totally Magnus, cool and Bruce Willis/Die Hard kind of way. The challenge with this one was making an island out of Norco, our studio. We actually shot it across the street from Norco and set up these big green screens outside. Every time our characters looked out the window of the airport or were outside, they saw Mozambiic, but, in fact, it was all green screen. When you watch the episode, if you didn’t know that, you would think that we went on-location to Africa to shoot it.”

In Sanctuary’s first season, the director co-wrote the episode "Fata Morgana" with Damian Kindler, and this year he not only penned his own script, “Icebreaker,” but directed it as well. In it, Magnus, Will, Henry (Ryan Robbins) and Declan (Robert Lawrenson) are stuck on an icebreaker in the Bering Sea along with the Magoi, an Abnormal that defends itself by manipulating its victim’s perception and taking his or her form.

“Damian walked into the writers’ room and said, ‘This is the idea we want to purse,’” recalls Wood. “I had been talking about doing a story on a ship, and Damian said, ‘How about an icebreaker?’ Everyone liked that, so Damian handed it [the idea] over to me and the writers and said, ‘OK, good luck. I’m off to write ‘Fugue,’ which was episode eight, the musical one.’

“Damian was unbelievably supportive. He said to me, ‘Look, my door is wide open. Walk in and talk to me about the story or anything you want. I’m completely here for you. I’d just like you to do as much of it [the writing] on your own as you want. If you want someone else to write themes for you, I’ll do it. I you want someone else to write acts for you, I’ll do it.’ I’d been rewriting a number of scripts over the past couple of years, though, so I said to Damian, ‘Why don’t I just pick this one up and run with it.’

“We have an incredibly supportive writing staff - [co-executive producer] James Thorpe, [supervising producer] Gillian Horvath and [co-executive producer] Alan McCullough - who at the time was also busy working on his own script. They were all there to help me. We had a junior writer on the show this year as well, Aida Croal [story editor], who was very cool. She did a lot of work on ‘Icebreaker’ as far as breaking the story down with me. The two of us organized the ideas and then Aida handed it over to me. I then sat down in front of my computer and started writing all the dialogue.

“The thing about ‘Icebreaker’ for me is that it was a very procedural and specific house of cards where everything had to work and be so tight in the script,” continues the director. “If it didn’t work, if someone found a card that they could pull out, the whole thing would fall down. It was a serious house of cards and it took a great deal of brain power to stack up all these cards and then go, ‘OK, have I covered all the bases?’ I mean, it’s not like the types of scripts that Damian Kindler writes, which are these beautiful dialogue-driven scripts that are so dramatic that they grab your heart and rip it out. ‘Icebreaker,’ however, is one of those stories where you move from here to there and with that movement you get all the drama in it,

“It was a really good experience for me to write something like that, and then walk in and direct my own script, which I’ve never done before. I sat down with it and thought, ‘Well, I can’t ask who wrote this crap,” he jokes. “It was just me with my own stuff, and when I was shooting it I had to be very careful with certain physical things, like the fact that the Magoi can’t physically do anything. It’s all mind tricks with them, so I had to make sure that the Magoi never actually did anything, and that’s hard, especially because it was part of the house of cards I was building.

“By the way, just so you know, James Thorpe and Gillian Horvath were the card pullers here. If there was a card that was loose or didn’t look quite right, they would ‘yank’ it. The litmus test, though, was Damian Kindler and Amanda Tapping. I was nervous handing them both a copy of the script and wanted to see what their reaction was. Amanda came up to me and said, ‘It’s great!’ and then Damian gave me a giant hug and said, ‘Thank you, it’s a terrific script.’ Best of all, they didn’t pull out a single card, either.”

The director took a page out of his days on Stargate SG-1 when it came to working on his next season four Sanctuary episode, “Chimera.” “I did an episode of SG-1 [season six’s “The Changeling”] where Teal’c [Christopher Judge] thinks he’s a fireman,” says Wood. “I remember Brad Wright [SG-1 co-creator/executive producer] coming into my office, putting the script down on my desk and saying, ‘This is a directors’ dream because you can do anything with it.’

“’Chimera’ was the same thing. It was written by James Thorpe, who came into my office with the script and said to me, ‘You’re going to love this, but Anthem and [visual effects supervisor] Lee Wilson are going to hate it,’ because it was basically all these giant visual effects builds. One of the reasons this episode was written is because we love Ian Tracey and his character of Adam Worth. We wanted to bring them both back but couldn’t think of a way to do it because we turned Adam into ash at the end of ‘Tempus.’ So we brought Ian’s character back in this fabulous way as a computer-generated image.

“I love this episode, and it’s one of my favorites, too, this year because for a director it challenges you in every way possible. You have to think spatially on green screen, and that’s an amazing experience when you’re working with actors like Amanda Tapping, Ian Tracey and Jonathon Young [Nikola Tesla]. I recently worked on a movie and trying to cast it was hard. I sat with the casting director and said, ‘The problem we’re having with casting the lead woman character in this movie is that none of the actresses are Amanda Tapping.’ She said to me, ‘You’re right. You are so spoiled.’

“I’ve worked with Amanda Tapping for 15 years, who is one of the best actors, certainly in all of North America, and trying to use someone new is very difficult. That didn’t strike home until I was trying to cast another project. Amanda is remarkable in ‘Chimera,’ as are Ian and Jonathon. James Thorpe did a terrific job with the script. When he was done with it, he handed the script to me. I then put it into my computer and started making all these little weird tweaks. Between the two of us we made it as complicated as possible for a director, and then I had to direct it,” he says with a chuckle. “There were moments where the DOP [director of photography, Gordon Verheul] and the script supervisor looked at me and said, ‘We have no idea what you’re doing right now,’ and I said, ‘That’s perfect. I’ll keep doing it.’”

Wood’s final directing contribution to Sanctuary’s fourth year is “The Depths,” written by Gillian Horvath. “This is a brilliant script with Magnus and Will on their own in a cave,” notes the director. “Every year we have an episode where it’s just the two of them, and in this season’s ‘The Depths’ we see Magnus and Will slide very much out of character at two different times. They’re under the influence of something and don’t realize it.

“This episode is a stepping stone to the season finale, [the two-part “Sanctuary for None”]. It’s a very emotional and character-driven two-person piece, and as I’ve said this before, a two-person piece is the hardest to direct because you’re in the same spot all the time. The toughest part of ‘The Depths’ was that script was so big that we ended up nine minutes over when we finished the edit. So I had to take nine minutes of story out of it, which was extremely hard to do. You’ll be able to see those on the DVD but not in the actual episode.”

Wood directed Sanctuary’s first and second season finales as well as “Out of the Blue,” the first half of the year three finale. This season, he turned the reins over to Damian Kindler, who directed the aforementioned “Sanctuary for None.”

“I had been offered this movie by Luke Perry, who I’d worked with on Jeremiah,” says the director. “He had been asking for two years to do these Goodnight for Justice TV movies and I finally said, ‘Hey, you know what, I can make this happen.’ I went to Damian and asked if he was OK with it. Damian said, ‘I would love the challenge,’ and he did an incredible job with the two-part season finale. It was hard for me to let go, but I did, and while Damian was busy filming, I was prepping this movie, which I then went out and shot with no green screen or visual effects at all. It was just a cowboy movie with stagecoaches, horses and gunfights, and I had a lot of fun doing it,” he enthuses.

Please note, all photos above by Chris Helcermanas-Benge and copyright of Sanctuary 4 Productions.

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