By Sara Lynne Wright
CAMERON PORSANDEH KSG '04 is the Creator & Co-Executive Producer of SyFy's Helix.
Q. Where did the idea for HELIX come from? Do you write what you know?
A. I do write what I know, but more often it simply serves as the launching point for the story. I was in the Arctic Circle years ago and two things struck me:
It seemed like the closest to being on the moon that you can be on earth. It was stunning. The landscape was barren and haunting, and I thought someone should do a show set there. The kinds of people who would choose to live there are equally compelling. Werner Herzog did a documentary called ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE EARTH about the kind of people who would inhabit a place like the base on HELIX. I wanted to do a show that took place in the Arctic Circle filled with people on the fringes of society who have found another community among themselves.
Are there any themes in HELIX that are especially personal to you?
A. I was in an elevator and a girl I had dated years before got on with her new boyfriend. It was the longest elevator ride of my life. So I thought about how to translate this emotional experience into a TV show.
In HELIX our lead flies up there with his estranged ex-wife to meet his infected brother, who had slept with the ex-wife years before causing the divorce in the first place. I wanted to take a slightly nontraditional love triangle and put it in a pressure cooker. They’re in an Arctic base, the world’s falling apart for thirteen days, and all hell is breaking loose. I wanted to create the most messed up family reunion ever, but more importantly a love triangle in a way we hadn’t seen before.
Q. Is there any advice you would give to people who want to do what you do?
A. Not really. I feel like most of people I work with took radically different paths to get to where they are and it’s sometimes hard to find meaningful common threads. HELIX began as a tough sell –- the premise, and mythology, was just so peculiar. The first piece I’d optioned off was a cop procedural, so there was a certain push do another one. HELIX required me taking two months off of everything else, reading a pile of library books on my own, and then just taking a chance and writing the thing. So all I can really say is if you have an idea you think is the coolest thing ever, just write it. Most likely nothing will come of it, but if it happened for me, there’s no reason it couldn’t happen for anyone else.
Q. What location do you use for the Arctic Circle, and was it a challenge?
A. Shooting in Montreal was definitely a challenge. Our writers room was in Los Angeles, so we couldn’t walk across the lot and talk to the crew or the actors. They were in a different time zone in a different country – often shooting would begin at 4am our time. A lot of the interaction with the cast was phone calls while driving to work. It’s not a challenge unique to our show, but it’s certainly a big one, especially in the first season. But once you know the actors and they know their characters better and better, it gets easier. We have a great cast.
Q. You’ve had tons of experiences outside Hollywood. What was the moment you decided to move into entertainment?
A. If I had to point to one moment, it was in Ethiopia. There was a kid watching WILL AND GRACE. This kid was gay in a community where that wasn’t tolerated. And I thought, there are lots of ways to make the world a better place: Building infrastructure in developing countries, economics, politics, being a doctor…and all those ways are important. But another way is to just let people know they are connected to a bigger world. TV does that. I had spent so much of my life up until then trying to be a good "citizen” or whatever you want to call it, but at that moment it occurred to me that entertaining people is a good way to contribute too. Watching him watch that show, I thought, "I want to do that."
Q. What was the first thing you sold?
A. It was that cop procedural, but the real story was rooted in a couple who couldn’t afford to leave each other because their home had fallen in value. So it was two people trying to move on with their lives, but stuck living in the same house. I loved it. Ultimately, it didn’t move forward, so next I wanted to do something radically different. That’s what HELIX was.
Q. Anything you want people to know about before the show starts?
A. The story is meant to be a sort of unpredictable joyride, a rollercoaster. But by the end of the first season one thing that was really important to me is that we answer the questions we raised at the beginning. Some of my favorite shows in the past didn’t do that, which was frustrating to me at the time. So we will get answers at the end of the first season that should catapult us into season two, while also playing with some larger philosophical issues including about what it means to human in a rapidly changing world. Science fiction gives us the license to talk about some pretty unusual stuff on tv, and we try to take advantage of that.