David Paul Hellings talks to “Riftworld Chronicles” writer/director Jonathan Walters.
DPH: Hi, Jonathan. Thanks for taking time out to chat to us. Before we get around to talking about “Riftworld Chronicles”, I’d like to ask about your background. Were you always involved with the creative arts?
JW: I went to film school and have been working in the industry ever since. I have done all kinds of jobs – from lighting technician to cameraman to generator operator. I’ve always been doing my own creative projects on the side – but after directing some early short films I took a huge detour into screenwriting because it seemed like my biggest weakness. In 2008 I finally got into the Canadian Film Centre’s Feature Film writing program, and since then I have been getting steady work as a writer. Recently I’ve felt that my screenwriting is where it needs to be to launch my directing career – so I’ve been diving into that.
DPH: How did the idea for “The Portal” (the original short that became “Riftworld Chronicles”) come about?
JW: I read a lot of Fantasy novels as a kid. I played Dungeons and Dragons and lots of RPG video games (still do) which influenced me. I’ve also always loved comedy. I guess The Portal was a synthesis of these two passions. The idea of a guy from Middle Earth walking around and talking all Medieval on the streets of Toronto struck me as pretty funny.
DPH: How soon after its release did you realize that there was a fan base that wanted to see it move beyond a short?
JW: It was before I ever saw “The Portal” play in front of an audience, actually. I cut a trailer for the short film which really took off online. I always knew Tahmoh and Erin had big fan bases, but until we released the trailer I didn’t know the extent of it. Tahmoh was doing Supernatural at that point which has one of the strongest fandoms out there. Erin’s Being Erica fans were demanding something new. They all loved the trailer for The Portal and helped spread it around – (it now has almost 4 million views) – which ultimately got the web series green lit.
DPH: How early into the process did you decide on casting Tahmoh Penikett and Erin Karpluk? What was it about them that attracted you?
JW: I was holding out for recognizable talent to star in The Portal, but we were really lucky to get Tahmoh and Erin. To be honest it was my girlfriend who put me on to them. She’s more in tune with the TV audience zeitgeist than me, and she insisted that, “People love these guys”. I studied their work and I thought they were perfect for the roles. They are both seriously talented, veteran TV actors who know how to give a grounded performance in a heightened Sci-Fi world. The crazy coincidence is that they are friends in real life but had never worked together – which is partially why they agreed to do the project. Their early letters of interest helped us pull together financing for The Portal.
DPH: How long did it take to complete “The Portal” from start to finish? Was there anything about the production that helped you creatively or technically with “Riftworld Chronicles”?
JW: It was almost two years from when I started writing the script until The Portal was picture locked. It was an ambitious project and a huge learning process for me. The part that really dragged on was the visual effects, because we were working on favours – but it was so worthwhile it in the end. Creatively, I’d say the coolest thing about doing the short first was establishing the characters. It made writing Riftworld really fun because I could actually picture Tahmoh and Erin speaking the lines. Technically we borrowed a lot from The Portal – including Alar’s costume and footage from the opening sequence. Having these elements already in place allowed us to put money into other things.
DPH: Because of the success of “The Portal” with its fans, the next stage was then to develop it into a series. Can you tell us something about that process in terms of the creative side and the financing aspects?
JW: A lot of people, myself included, wondered how this short film could possibly be expanded into a series, but at the same time people seemed to want more. We already had the basic character relationship dynamic that worked. I just needed to tweak the set-up so that Alar gets stuck on Earth for much longer. The harder part was fleshing out the world that Alar comes from and laying the foundations for a much more open-ended, sprawling plot that could last for seasons of television if necessary. Financially it started with the Independent Production Fund. They fund Canadian web series based on the performance of proof-of-concept clips. In our case this was the trailer for The Portal. The next step was bringing the masterminds at Sienna Films on board as executive producers. They helped us negotiate with broadcasters which resulted in CBC getting involved. That made it all feel real. The final piece to the puzzle was a Kickstarter campaign that we conducted to raise money for post production. It was a tricky process but having such great fan enthusiasm for The Portal made everything easier.
DPH: In “The Portal” Kim is a travel agent. You changed that in “Riftworld Chronicles” so that she’s now a magazine fact checker aspiring to be a ‘serious’ journalist. What was the reason for the change in occupation and how has that developed the character?
JW: Good question. I also miss Kim as the jaded travel agent, but I felt confined by it. I decided that giving her a larger career ambition was important to setting up a show with longevity. As an aspiring journalist there’s more room for her to grow – and also an opportunity to get her out of the office while pursuing her stories. Having her interested in hard-hitting, real-world issues makes her a good foil for Alar’s larger-than-life fantasy character. She’s still a disgruntled employee of a large company – but her investigative skills set up interesting possibilities for the mystery elements of the show.
DPH: The script is very witty and one of the things I liked about it was that supporting characters get their moments. The coffee shop and the hospital were great examples of this. How early into the process did you decide on this?
JW: Well I think small roles can be among the most memorable, and you should always put effort into making them three-dimensional. It’s funny though, because those two episodes you mentioned were the first two I wrote – before I had the rest of the story figured out. Perhaps that’s why they have sizeable minor roles who don’t appear anywhere else. It’s sometimes hard to attract great actors to make these smaller roles shine. Fortunately my casting director, Stephanie Gorin, is one of the best in the city. She deserves all the credit for bringing these talented cast members to the project.
DPH: Do you shoot the scripts as written or was there any room for improvisation and input from the cast? I imagine time is pretty restrictive schedule wise?
JW: We were tight for time, and I do usually like to get at least one take as written, but if the actor wants to take it in a different direction I’m happy to let them. We had a few improvised lines make the cut. A memorable example is in Episode 5 – Wes offers Alar weed: “You want to smoke a bowl?” and Alar responds “Sure!” Brilliant.
DPH: You’ve kept SFX to a minimum, which obviously allows you to focus the budget in other areas and also focus on characters. If you’re successful expanding “Riftworld Chronicles” into a one hour per episode series, how much of a role will SFX play?
JW: The story and characters come first for me, but a one-hour version would certainly have some pretty cool Special and Visual effects. That said, I would try to use them tastefully and make them as believable as possible. I’d rather spend all the money on two or three memorable FX sequences than spread it out over ten not-so-great ones. It helps to have a VFX wizard as one of your producers – Bob Munroe and his team at Keyframe did an amazing job on the web series and got me dreaming about what would be possible with a longer format show.
DPH: There’s a very funny scene between Alar and Kim’s brother Wes (Munro Chambers) in which Alar is mistaken for a fellow gamer. As a gamer myself, I noted the term ‘Armour Class’ being used. Am I mistaken or was that a “Dungeons and Dragons” reference? Are you a gamer yourself or any experience of that world?
JW: Yup. Big gamer. I have two X-boxes, two Playstations and two TV’s in my living room. Jealous? Call of Duty. World of Warcraft. Skyrim. You name it. And like I say I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons. I have a kid now – which eats into the gaming time… but I still chip away at Dark Souls II when he’s asleep. It’s always been a long-term goal of mine to translate RPG game worlds into film.
DPH: You’ve adopted a very logical approach with the entire process. Starting with a short film, gaining interest, expanding into an eight part five minutes per episode web series, building up the fan base, now moving towards a possible one hour per episode series. Was this always the game plan?
JW: The short film was originally conceived as a proof-of-concept for a feature Rom-Com idea I had. Talking to producers afterwards, it seemed there was way more interest in TV. I think having a plan is good – but it’s also important to stay flexible, recognize opportunities and listen to what the fans are saying. We’re not sure where it will ultimately lead… hopefully a longer format TV show – but a video game and comic book are also being talked about.
DPH: How does shooting in Canada differ from, say the US? There seems to be a lot more options and support for projects like “Riftworld Chronicles” in Canada?
JW: I have never shot in the US – so I can’t really tell you what that experience is like. We are definitely fortunate, though, to have extensive public funding for film and television in Canada. The Independent Production Fund is a great example of a program that provides opportunities for new voices and gives them a great deal of creative freedom. I think it’s pretty forward thinking, and could result in Canada producing some of the best web-based content in years to come.
DPH: What were the biggest challenges you faced during production and post- production?
JW: One of the biggest challenges on set was the weather. Shooting Tahmoh in a sleeveless vest outside in December in Toronto was crazy. I wouldn’t do it again because it put a real strain on his performance and a limit to how long we could shoot outside. We didn’t even have trailers for the actors to warm up in. Post-production wise I’d say the short delivery schedule was the toughest thing. It took us nine months to do the post on The Portal and yet we turned around Riftworld, which is three times longer, in just over three months. It was pretty intense.
DPH: What’s more likely at the moment: a further web series or a TV series? Is there any known time line at the moment? How long will fans have to wait?
JW: Hopefully they will both happen. I’d love to give fans a Season Two of the web series while the TV show is being developed… but currently there is nothing concrete. A lot depends on how many views we get for Season One, so if you’d like to see more, please share the links far and wide.
DPH: Without giving too much away, what sort of challenges will Alar and Kim be facing in the future?
JW: Well an ancient conspiracy of epic historical significance, for starters! The veil between the dimensions is thinning. More and more Riftgates will appear… and when they do, there’s no telling what will wander through. But ultimately, for Alar and Kim – the greatest challenge they face is each other.
DPH: If budget was no problem, what else would you add to a future series?
JW: I would shoot an entire season in Alar’s world. In his world there are Gryphons, Firedrakes, and Giant Centipedes. Trust me… it’s very cool.
DPH: Thanks very much, Jonathan. And best wishes for “Riftworld Chronicles”.
My pleasure. Thanks for the interest in our project!
This interview originally appeared on SFFWorld: