Interview with Executive Producer Steve Maeda & Star Kyra Zagorsky from Helix

helixcall110asmallSyfy’s latest offering, Helix, premieres tonight. Helix is an intense thriller about a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control who travel to the high-tech research facility, Arctic BioSystems, to investigate a possible disease outbreak, only to find themselves pulled into a terrifying life-and-death struggle that may hold the key to mankind’s salvation or total annihilation. However, the lethal threat is just the tip of the iceberg, and as the virus evolves, the chilling truth begins to unravel. Billy Campbell (The Killing, The 4400, Once and Again) stars as Dr. Alan Farragut, leader of the Centers for Disease Control outbreak field team called upon to investigate and control a potential outbreak. Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine, 47 Ronin) also stars as Dr. Hiroshi Hatake, director of Arctic BioSystems and its mysterious viral research program. Helix also stars Kyra Zagorsky (Supernatural) as Dr. Julia Walker; Mark Ghanimé (Emily Owens, M.D.) as Major Sergio Balleseros; Jordan Hayes (House at the End of the Street) as Dr. Sarah Jordan; Meegwun Fairbrother as Daniel Aerov; Catherine Lemieux (White House Down) as Dr. Doreen Boyle, and Neil Napier (Riddick) as Dr. Peter Farragut.

Recently, star Kyra Zagorsky & Executive Producer Steve Maeda spoke to the press about the show, so check out what they had to say!

On why the setting 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, 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.
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On the location for filming the show

Steve: 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: It’s pretty incredible what they managed to do up in Montreal getting it to look like, you know, a blizzard in the Arctic.

On why this is more than just another “zombie” show/film

Steve: 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: 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.

On what they like best about the show

Kyra: 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: 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: 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.

On whether she knew her character’s future or had to learn it as she went along

helixcall110bsmallKyra: I had to discover it. I had to discover everything and that was, I think, part of the fun in being on the show. It was so exciting. You could not wait to get your next script to see what was going to happen to you.

But there were a couple of things. The only information I got was that I had a history with Billy—with ‘Alan’—and with his brother, ‘Peter,’ who’s played by Neil. So, that was the only information that I was given.

So that was interesting. By the time I was working through the third episode, that was the piece when I really felt I’d gotten myself kind of grounded into the character.

I feel like when I find the character’s darkness, when everything opens up emotionally, that’s when I started going, “Okay, now I’m starting to really feel like I’ve got a handle on her.”

And what was great is, when I first got up to Montreal and I met with Cameron and Jeffrey Reiner, we had a talk and I just realized this is my role. This is it, you know. So I have no idea what’s to come, but I have to just trust that I’m her and start working with her.

Steve was great to work with, too; when a new script would come out and I had questions about things, I would always write to him and I’d have a dialogue with him about things, just figuring out what her character is made of. So it became a really interesting team collaboration. It was pretty incredible. But it was all a big surprise for me.

Steve: That’s pretty typical, too, for a serialized show. And even though you have certain things figured out, you don’t have all the pieces when you begin. We had a pretty solid idea of where we were heading through the 13 but I’ve heard it described before, which I think is a pretty apt analogy of, we know that we’re starting off in Los Angeles and we’re heading toward New York. But along the way, you may not know that we’re going to stop at Omaha and then, three episodes in, you’re like, ‘Omaha sounds pretty great.’ And so you can take that left turn or right turn still heading toward your same place at the end, but you can discover things along the way.

And what’s great about that is you can discover things in the show story-wise, but then you also discover, as you see your actors, you discover who they are and they bring things to the character that you may not have seen before.

And that’s really wonderful, to start watching the dailies and start seeing the cuts and to see what our actors were bringing. Then we went, ‘Oh, well hey, how about this?’ And it gives us, you know, more ideas, which is really nice.

Kyra: You guys took me for a great ride in this series. I had the best time and, yes, Walker goes through some amazing things. It’s pretty incredible. Every episode was pretty dynamic.

Steve: It’s a pretty tough 13 days for Walker.

On the relationship between Dr. Walker & Dr. Farragut

Steve: 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: 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: 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.

On the series and Kyra’s character

Steve: Oh, that’s a good question. I would say it – the way that we’ve been describing the series both in, you know, in press and then just in talking about it in breaking stories, it is an outbreak show, at least at the beginning.

And 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 any more, which I think is great, and that’s, you know, as I was talking about earlier, the freedom that Syfy gave us to kind of go out and say, ‘Hey, it starts as this, then it becomes that,’ you know, go, see what direction that takes you in, that was pretty incredible and allows us to have the show be – 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: Well, I would describe her as a very intelligent, accomplished woman in her field. She’s one of the top scientists with the CDC. And the thing that I loved about this character is that she was incredibly ambitious and got herself to where she is in this line of work but she exists for purposes outside of her relationships which I think is a really important thing for female characters in film and TV.

And so although I am the ex-wife of Dr. Alan Farragut, that’s not at all what my purpose is in the series. I’m there because I’m trying to, you know, deal with this virus. I’m there to do my work as a scientist. I’m passionate about my work.

But she’s an independent woman and she does have her flaws in her relationships. She’s just a very full human character and I think that’s what I really loved about her. Because sometimes when we’re creating strong females, we give them a weapon and, you know, turn them into something macho or, you know, or often it has to be a superhero character or else, you know, she has to be a full on business person and has to be cruel or something.

And there is something about this character that I just thought she’s just a full-bodied human character. You know and – but she’s got a lot of purpose outside of her ex-husband and I think that’s what keeps her active and interesting.

Steve: Yes, that’s what we were very conscience of, I think, when we were trying to talk about the characters and really round them out. And we got a lot of – we had many, many discussions about the female characters and how to really make them feel, you know, as real as possible to have to be credible as scientists, to have them be really smart, to not have them just be defined by their relationships.

And, you know, it’s easy to fall into those kinds of tropes. We try very hard not to do that and to, then, of course, you see what your actor or actress brings and it’s like, okay, good. We can do that as well. Oh, look, you know, they’re very good at this type of thing or this type of scene and let’s play into that.

Let’s actually embrace – you know, initially the – I can tell you that the Dr. Jordan character, who’s played by Jordan Hayes initially was a character that we thought was going to be very backstabbing and was going to be kind of an Eve Harrington character from All About Eve.

And when we actually got our actress and watched Jordan and we’re like, well, we could kind of play that but that’s not really who she is and not who she’s playing so let’s try and steer the boat in that direction and it worked great. I think she was wonderful.

And with Kyra, she, I think for me anyway, Kyra really inhabited the role as it was written and then brought extra depth to it as well and we just kind of ran with it and she was really wonderful.

Kyra: It’s a kind of a dream role. There’s so much that I have to go through emotionally, physically, intellectually. It’s the whole package. So yes, I couldn’t be happier being able to work on this show.

On the “claustrophobic” aspect of the story lines

Steve: Well, it’s a really good question and it’s something we talked about at length when we were initially, you know, kind of developing and talking about the series.

And the idea was, one of the things that was really important to us is to get outside whenever we could. And, of course, outside means, you know, either in our refrigerated room or, you know, out on the green screen, you know, 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: Yes, and 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: Yes, and 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 for, you know, in a building, a big, giant laboratory structure in Montreal and then a fair amount of green screen and, you know, exterior and interior green screen work.

So the idea was to, you know, 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.

On whether or not the virus outbreak story line freaked them out

Kyra: Yes. Especially with the first couple of episodes, I mean, as Steve mentioned before that 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, you know, 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 mean, 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, you know.

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, you know, 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, you know, total annihilation of the whole planet. So what do you do there?

Steve: Yes, 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, you know, 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.

And 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 the kind of outbreak and epidemic stories not only are they something that people can really relate to but also it tends 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 is, does this bring out the best in you or is this going to bring out, you know, the shellfish kind of side that is, you know, more just concerned with self-preservation? And that is just automatic drama which was great.

Kyra: 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 You Tube 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.
Lots of information, but the show sounds like it’ll be great, so do check out the 90-minute premiere tonight on Syfy at 10/9c!

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