Reel People: On the set of Continuum

Behind the scenes of Showcase's hit sci-fi series

It's a sunny morning in late January when I step onto Continuum's permanent set, located in the basement of the CBC's downtown headquarters.

My goal is to get a glimpse into the inner workings of a Vancouver television series, and it doesn't get more "Vancouver" than Continuum.

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Showcase’s hit sci-fi series — which stars Rachel Nichols as a cop from 2077 who follows a group of terrorists back in time to 2012 — is both shot and set in Vancouver.  

More than 160 cast and crew are required to bring each episode of Continuum from concept to completion, the unit publicist tells me as we pass through a cavernous set-building workshop and into a hallway lined with doors where my footsteps are the only ones that seem to echo.

First lesson of the day: only unknowing journalists would wear clickety-clackety heels to set. (I spend the remainder of the day treading lightly on the balls of my feet.)

We pop our heads through the door of the main soundstage, which contains the tech-heavy office set for Alec Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen). The crew is setting up for the first scene of the day, and so we begin combing through the adjoining dressing rooms in search of a crew member with a few minutes to chat about life on the Continuum set. 

When we stumble upon Courtney Frey, 1st assistant make-up artist, she’s studying continuity pictures of Nichols. Such photos are essential tools when you’re shooting scenes for two episodes — and from two distinctly different time periods — in a single day. “There’s a lot of stuff happening, and we need to be prepared,” she explains. “It keeps you on your toes.”

As we soft-shoe our way back to the main set, I nearly bump into Amanda Tapping, who is directing back-to-back episodes after directing one in the previous season. 

The previous day, she’d tweeted that she was “psyched and scared and excited” to be back in the Continuum director’s chair (she used the hashtag “directorangst”), but moments from shooting I observe only calm and ease — no visible traces of fear or angst. 

She slides into a chair in front of a couple of monitors, confers with director of photography Dave Pelletier seated beside her, and calls “action!”

The scene is a tense interaction between Alec and Madga Apanowicz’s Emily, who I am shocked to see because her character was killed in one of the episodes I’d watched during my research binge. (The publicist tells me it’s okay to mention Emily’s presence because photos of the actors shooting new scenes together had already surfaced on the internet; just remember that Continuum regularly switches between time periods, and so she might or might not be a flashback.) 

During the take, Tapping is laser-focused on the monitors. Once she calls “cut!” she’s out of her chair, quietly consulting with the actors.  They shoot the scene a few more times; during and after every take, Tapping smiles broadly. 

There is laughter between takes. The vibe on the set is happy. The crew is delighted with Tapping. They wrapped early the day before and, given the speed with which they’re moving through the current shot list, they’re poised to do so again today. 

Soon Apanowicz is wrapped and has a moment to chat. “[Continuum] is lightning in a bottle,” she says. “You don’t get it in every show, and you don’t get it in every cast and crew, but there are times when everything comes together, and everyone appreciates it, and I feel like Continuum is one of those.”

In the middle of the afternoon, Continuum’s executive producer, Simon Barry, arrives. He sits down with me in the middle of a yet-to-air set that wows me with its steampunk detailing. 

As Continuum’s chief architect, Barry holds to the answer to a question I’ve pondered since the pilot: why did he decide to set Continuum in Vancouver when so many other locally shot series choose not to?

In short, Continuum is set in Vancouver because no one said it couldn’t be. “The idea [for the show] was location-proof. These are big concepts — time travel, and the politics of corporations, the politics of freedom fighters and terrorists, and the politics of what the present means to the future — and so where the show was filmed, or what city it was set in, was always secondary to the mythology,” he says. “Given that we were a Canadian show, we bluffed our way through just not trying to reset it. We said, ‘It’s Vancouver — let’s just see how far we get before somebody says we have to set it in Toronto or New York or LA.’ No one ever did.”

As a storyteller, he draws his inspiration from “the world that we live in.” 

“One of the traditions of science fiction,” he says, “is you get to talk about things directly in an indirect way, draw real-world events, real-world concerns, plug them in to the show, and because we’re telling the story through the prism of science fiction, no one really looks at it as being overt. Yet our fans and the people who watch the show know that we’re tackling things like globalization, terrorism, corporatization, and privacy issues.”

Back on the main stage, they’re shooting a scene involving Kiera and Alec. Standing next to Tapping is Luvia Petersen, who portrays future terrorist Garza. Today, however, Petersen is shadowing Tapping, soaking up knowledge from an actress who learned about directing the very same way: by shadowing directors on her breakout series, Stargate SG-1

“[Tapping] knows when to step in and give a piece of direction, and she knows when to step out of the way,” Petersen tells me between takes. “This is a great crew, and they know what they’re doing. She is so good at picking her moments.”

At 5pm, dinner is called. Cast and crew head upstairs to eat while Tapping darts into a dressing room to review shot lists for the following day’s location shoot and answer a few of my burning questions. I ask about the anxiety she mentioned on Twitter. 

“I think each time, I would like to say you get more confident, but that’s not true because I still feel like throwing up the first morning on set,” she says. “My job is to tell the story and to tell it in a visually beautiful way, [and] to understand technically what I’m doing, but then the actors have to understand their process through the arc of the story, so that weighs heavily on me, coming from an acting background. ”

Tapping feels other big responsibilities, too: to create a joyful mood — “the more joyful the mood, the more productive you are, and the more creative people feel”— and to ensure that everyone — producers, writers, actors, and crew — feels “safe.” 

“Sometimes you’re on sets where you can barely get the air into your lungs,” she says. “This is a joyful set. I get nervous, but I love it.”

My day ends as it begins, at the main entrance to the CBC. The sun is setting; I realize I haven’t seen it in nearly seven hours. As I make my way home through the rush-hour crowds, I think of the Continuum cast and crew who still have a few hours to go before wrapping for the day. 

Continuum’s characters live in our future and recent past; in the present, the show is contributing much to the fabric of Vancouver, on screen and in the heart of downtown. 

 

Continuum returns for its third season on March 16. 

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