Interview: Kyra Zagorsky and producer Steve Maeda discuss Syfy’s new show ‘Helix’
For Syfy fans the winter television seasons has gotten off to a cracking start with returning shows and new shows to boot.
One of Syfys newest shows, which has gotten a lot of great buzz about it is ‘Helix,’ which is the newest series to be produced by ‘Battlestar Galactica’ re-imaginer Ron D. Moore.
SciFiPulse recently attended a press call about ‘Helix’ with Executive producer Steve Maeda and series star Kyra Zagorsky.
Here are a few of the highlights from that call.
SciFiPulse: The setting for this new series really seems to work well. The show being set in the arctic puts us in mind of much of the tense drama we seen in ‘The Thing’. I’m just wondering if you could talk us through why you think the setting works well for taut drama as well as that visual storytelling aspect?
Steve Maeda: Sure. 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, who wrote the pilot script, really envisioned the thing to begin with, which was a contained environment, someplace, you know, it’s almost like being set on a spaceship where you’re trapped inside with, you know, 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.
SciFiPulse: Where do you guys shoot the show. I know that its shot in Montreal, but is all shot in the studio?
Steve Maeda: We are shooting in Montreal. The writers were all in Los Angeles where it’s actually kind of balmy right now. But Kyra and the rest of the gang, we’re up in Montreal. We’re pretty much all studio shots because we started in the summer. I wish we had the budget to be able to go to the Arctic and really do it.
But I thought the group up there – the crew and all our production people – did a phenomenal job and maybe that’s something, Kyra, maybe you can talk more about that because you were there having to deal with our snow and all that stuff.
Kyra Zagorsky: Yes, it was pretty incredible. We had a room that we called the freezer. If you were shooting in the freezer that day, that was sort of a joke. But the fake snow and how they would do it, they’d get the fans going, and it was – it looks incredible and the only thing that was tricky is it was supposed to be freezing, we had these huge arctic, you know, coats on.
But there were a couple of times that we did end up moving the set outside to shoot some of the outside scenes just because we needed a bit more space and that ended up being a little bit more helpful and easier to breathe, too, when you’re dealing with some of the fake snow stuff. But it was a lot of fun and it looks amazing.
Steve Maeda: It’s pretty incredible what they managed to do up in Montreal getting it to look like, you know, a blizzard in the Arctic.
SciFiPulse: We’ve watched the pilot episode thus far and really like the show, but suspect that you’ll most likely have a misguided critic out there who will dismiss ‘Helix’ as just another zombie show. What would you have to say to someone like that?
Steve Maeda: Yes, our watch word over the season, or some of 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.
And 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.
SciFiPulse: Kyra, Billy Campbell and Hiroyuki Sanadaare are both so intense on screen. What’s it like working with them in person? What do they bring to the table?
Kyra Zagorsky: Oh my gosh. Well, working with Billy is incredible. I mean, he’s technically amazing. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s a master at what he does. He’s very emotionally connected and full and always available and powerful.
And so it’s an interesting combination. And the other thing about him is that he’s a blast to work with. He’s so funny. For me, the thing that I love about the show is the psychological thriller aspect of it.
And it’s frightening and it’s scary and there’re all these things that happen. You have these really dramatic scenes and then you get in a scene with him and I can’t tell you how many times I would start cracking up. And Steve was there for some of that.
But he is just so funny and he’s just a blast to work with. And Hiro is somebody that I’ve always admired since I saw him in The Last Samurai. I think he’s an incredible person and artist and he is always right there for you and he’s always supporting the story to its fullest.
He was amazing. I learned so much from just being in the room with him. So I think, for me, they just raised the bar for me and it feels like, as an actor, you’re only as good as your scene partner and I feel like anything that I do well on this show is probably from being in scenes with those two. So it was a pretty exceptional experience.
Steve Maeda: And I feel like we’ve really got a pretty incredible cast chemistry as well. I mean, considering that we have some of our actors who have been doing this for years and years and years and, you know, some that are like Billy, who are household names, and then others who you may not have seen before.
And I think everybody really elevated and brought their A-game to this and I’m hoping that, in addition to the folks you recognize, there’s going to be some real breakouts in this as well.
SciFiPulse: What is it that you both enjoy about this series?
Kyra Zagorsky: 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, you know, the pilot was a great template and really set the stage for us. But then Syfy just gave us free reign and said, you know, 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 where 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. So, you know, sometimes directors get hired into TV shows and it’s so formulaic and they’re kind of a slave to whatever everybody wants them to do.
But 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.
SciFiPulse: You have a fairly closed ensemble on ‘Helix’ how is that different from an acting standpoint to having say weekly guest players coming in to play one shot or recurring roles on a series?
Kyra Zagorsky: You know, we actually do have a lot of guest cast. That’s the fun surprise about the show.
Because when you think about – how many was it, Steve? There’s 103 scientists on the base?
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: Yes, 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.
Steve Maeda: Yes, that was part of the challenge, too, with the show, I think. The claustrophobia plus the cast, in a sense here, which is how do we open the show up? And that was something that we were very conscience of in sitting down and trying to plot out stories.
You know, what can we do? How can we open up this base and make the world larger? And part of it was getting outside when we could. And the other part of it was actually, literally going deeper and unpeeling the layers of the onion and finding that the surface level of this base is just the beginning and that there’s much more going on in and around and underneath.
SciFiPulse: One of the key relationships in the show thus far seems to be with Dr. Walker and Dr. Farragut. Are likely to develop this relationship arc as the show continues?
Steve Maeda: I mean, from our point of view, the characters always had a relationship even in the very early drafts of the pilot script. We deepened that a little bit. We complicated it up as we were conceptualizing the show very early on.
And that was part of just trying to, again, load up the show with a lot of potential drama to play out because we knew we were going to be stuck up at our base for the 13 days and so for us, it was trying to really make that character sing and have a lot of really interesting things to go through.
And I would say, in a lot of ways, Walker, at least you know, as the show progresses, becomes very central, without giving too much away. It’s a pretty important role and it’s a pretty interesting character. And we’ve got some, you know, good-ratings willing, we’ve got some interesting places to take her.
Kyra Zagorsky: Yes. And I think something that – when – just coming into the series and, again, as I was mentioning, I didn’t know where the show was going to go, but just knowing that this character is my ex-husband and then we’re here to do this job.
And some of the things that would start to come out and just kind of playing with Billy and a new episode would come and you see some interesting little dialogue between them or what’s going on.
But they had marital problems, you know. It’s one of those things that you just kind of bring relationship history and see that there is definitely a personality thing that happened between these two.
I think Walker’s character is something that I discovered from the information of just things that would happen in the show, which she’s the type of scientist that I think that really likes to be in the field. She’s very accomplished.
She’d already, you know, she’s won an award. She’s gotten herself to the top of the field in her work. And I think that what she’s about, you know, at this point in her life was about trying to really be out there helping people. Like, go to these countries and get right in the middle of the virus and get hands on and be there.
And I think there is a difference in their personalities and that maybe he was a little bit more in the lab kind of thing. And so you just start to see some of these interesting personality clashes of where they’re going to start having some issues with each other.
And it comes out in some pretty cool ways in some of the episodes. I particularly had some fun working with him when we had Jeremiah to direct because he’s got such an interesting style. I mean, he directed Christmas Vacation, and that’s just one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies.
My brother and I would watch it every year without fail. It’s so good. And so he’s got such a great, quirky way about him already that he really pulled out some of the interesting marital stuff between us that was really – it was fun.
And so that’s what would kind of happen, is like I said, I would discover it as we would go and then Billy and I would play with each other and it’s just – you’re just bringing human relationships to the table, you know, and seeing where it goes.
Steve Maeda: Yes, and part of what we try to do, as well, is make them all – 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.
SciFiPulse: Kyra, how is this role different from other projects that you’ve done in the past?
Kyra Zagorsky: How’s it different? Well, most of the time, what I’ve done in the past is come in and do these really cool guest stars. And so being in a show where you are one of the core cast members, that’s going to be one thing that’s going to be a hugely different experience.
And you’re kind of creating. When I’ve come in to do guest stars for shows, there’s a sense of being in somebody else’s playground. And usually it’s a great experience but you come in, you know, ready to go and prepared and you have this amazing experience and then that’s it.
And sometimes, like, for certain shows, especially in the SciFi world or Supernatural, like the Stargate, those things that I’ve done, there’s a sense of your character kind of lives on with certain people and that’s kind of fun about how SciFi works but with this. You’re creating a playground, as far as the cast goes.
So it’s great because it gives me a lot more ownership of my craft and of where I go with it and being able to bring my full experience to the part just because I’m there from the beginning.
Steve Maeda: Yes, I think that’s a really good way to put it and also, I mean, for us, it’s a great opportunity as opposed to, you know, the feature version of this which would be, you know, two and a half hours long and you’d introduce a character and you’d meet them and spend time with them and then resolve it and you’d be done.
This is the 13 hour version of it and so it really allows you to spend some time with these people, really let the relationships play out. Somebody that you thought was, you know, this horrible, horrible person in the beginning ends up not being quite so horrible or at least you understand where they’re coming from and you have time.
You can go for episodes thinking one thing about a character or a relationship and then find out six episodes down the road that wait a second, there’s more to this than I thought. And so that was our challenge is making sure that that stuff happened and still felt credible.
SciFiPulse: As already pointed out ‘Helix’ has a fantastic cast. So we’re wondering if you guys have any stories you could share about your experiences during the filming?
Kyra Zagorsky: While filming. Oh, my gosh, well…
Steve Maeda: When you’re spending, you know, 12, 13 hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six days a week, with those people…
Kyra Zagorsky: Well, there is something that was really hilarious and it was during the pilot and it was one of my favorite moments because it was such a pressure day, it was such an intense day and the working conditions were kind of crazy because we were in those suits that you see and sometimes they’re a bit tricky to work in because you can’t really hear everyone outside.
And so they had to figure out ways to rig the mikes into the helmets so that you could at least hear the person in the scene with you and sometimes that was tricky.
Or if you move a certain way and your air gets shut off – so there were certain things that we had to work around with the suits. And there was just this one day that was just so intense all day long. And then we get into doing some of the dialogue in the scenes and Billy has to talk to Neil’s character and Billy’s character’s name is Alan and his brother’s name is Peter.
But, you know, I guess he just didn’t have the registered in there yet. He’s trying to start the scene and I’m completely connected emotionally and I’m right there and then he starts looking at Neil’s face and starts going, “Alan, Alan,” calling him his character’s name.
And it – he didn’t register. So instead of, you know, I thought the more he says it then it’s going to wake him up and he’s going to stop and he’s going to realize what he’s done. And he just didn’t. He just kept going deeper.
And I lost it. It was just so funny because the tension was so high and then, you know, we’re in these really dramatic close ups and he just had no idea that he was even doing it. So there were things like that that would happen that were just so funny that if the audience knew what was going on with some of these really intense scenes, they would just, you know, they’d be amazed.
And then there was one really interesting day. It’s a very cool scene. I can’t wait for you all to see it. I think it’s in Episode 6 maybe. But Jordan’s sitting there and at one point, and Hiro is a hero—He just is. He’s just magic.
Like, he kind of happens to be in the right place at the right time. He’s kind of like the secret little ninja. And I won’t tell you how it happened but somehow Jordan’s hair started to catch on fire. And Hiro grabbed it, gets it out and it was just a split second and it was just – no words were spoken. He just kind of handled it and everybody else was starting to freak out.
And I thought this guy really is a ninja. Like, what is going on here? Yes, I mean, we had so much fun. And there’s so much that happened. It’s like a big mess of crazy experiences but yes, that first thing was always calling Neil his character, it was just was so funny, because the thing is, he did it two days in a row.
Yes, and I thought, this is great. I will never forget this. It was so funny, but yes, there were lots of good times on set.
You can catch the second episode of Syfy’s new series ‘Helix’ this Friday on Syfy Channel.
Written By: Ian Cullen
Ian Cullen is the owner of scifipulse.net. A wannabe musician. Ian is a legend in his own mind and when not working on the website host the hugely successful SFP-NOW Podcast he can be found skulking around empty corridors. A longtime fan of genre television and movies Ian was also a producer on the Reality On Demand web-series and has even been published in the official Star Trek Magazine.
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