Based on the successful short fantasy film “The Portal”, Jonathan Williams’ eight part Canadian fantasy comedy web series “Riftworld Chronicles”, starring Tahmoh Penikett (“Battlestar Galactica”, “Continuum”, “Supernatural”) as the hapless wizard Alar of Caer Caladh, and Erin Karpluk (“Rookie Blue”, “Saving Hope”, “Being Erica”) as Kim, the journalist who slowly comes to believe that Alar may not actually be the lunatic she thinks he is, has just aired its trailer at this year’s SDCC. The web series premiered 13th July 2015.
By David Paul Mitchell, @HellingsOnFilm for SFFWorld.com
DPH: Hello, Tahmoh. Many thanks for giving us some time here. Welcome to SFFWorld. I’ve just watched the eight episodes of Season One and really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. Going back to the beginning, how did you come to be involved with the original short film “The Portal”?
TP: I came to be involved because my agent read the script for “The Portal” that was sent to her. She said it was fun and quirky, something different than anything I have done, and she suggested I should read it. I read it and we were able to time it out and squeeze it in right after the holidays a few years back, and we were able to shoot it then.
DPH: What was it about “The Portal” that gained such a fan following, do you think?
TP: I think it’s obvious that genre stuff has always been popular – it’s the biggest grossing thing out there in the industry now, I believe. I mean, if you look at all the major studios, the success of Marvel and DC Comics and their characters that they brought to life, they’re some of the most successful film franchises ever – that’s all genre stuff. Genre is for people with imagination. The fantasy world, wizards, dragons and people from different dimensions – it’s incredibly popular right now. Riftworld also has a little bit of everything for everyone: comedy, romantic comedy, and drama. That’s part of the reason why it is so popular and been so well received.
DPH: Fans of “The Portal” very keen to see it expand beyond a short. How quickly were you aware that this was a project that was popular and what happened next in the process of moving from short film to web series?
TP: We knew how popular it when we saw the fan response once “The Portal” was released. It got online and the fans were able to see it – they loved it. They wanted more. The Portal was only a short, but the fan response was tremendous. And then, of course, with the subsequent Kickstarter campaign to help fund and bring to life the web series, the fan response, again, was tremendous and overwhelming. I have to give a shout-out to a lot of the “Supernatural” fans because they, in large part, funded the Kickstarter campaign and the appetite for the show was obvious.
DPH: How involved in the process were you? Did Jonathan Williams keep you up to speed with how things were progressing?
TP: We had regular emails between Erin and I, who are producers on this project as well. They did the majority of the work, they were prepared for it, and that was always the game plan – they wanted to see it become something else. When the webisodes were written, Jonathan approached us to see if we were willing and able. And we didn’t know, after “The Portal”, how they were going to continue the story because there was some conclusion with “The Portal” so they changed some of the storyline and certain things didn’t happen the same way, but Alar and Kim and their dynamic was very much the same. Once we read the webisodes, Erin and I were both very excited to do more.
DPH: You’ve played a lot of dramatic roles. What are the challenges in working with a comedic script?
TP: The challenges with working with a comedic script are number one, the timing –the comedic timing. It’s a very different game. I don’t have a ton of experience with comedy, but I had done some in theater school, which I loved and miss. I love making people laugh. Obviously, when you’re working with a talent like Erin Karpluk who has done a lot of projects, specifically “Being Erica”, that is along the same vein and tone, it makes it a lot easier. We are also dear friends, so it doesn’t make the job as challenging as it sometimes can be when working with strangers. Most important is the writing though, the writing has to be good and Jonathan wrote some really, really funny scenes and characters. We did our part, as the actors, and brought it to life.
DPH: Jonathan Williams’ scripts don’t overplay the ‘fish out of water’ scenario, focusing much more on the dynamic between the characters. Kim initially sees Alar as a charming eccentric, then a potential schizophrenic, before realizing that there may be some truth in what he’s saying. How does Alar see Kim?
TP: I think Alar first sees Kim, in the beginning, he feels there’s a connection. Maybe from his world they trust in “chance encounters” and believe they are never really chance, but rather fated. He is immediately drawn to her and hopes that she can help him. Unfortunately, he maybe believes too easily that she indeed possesses magic, as she claims in that first encounter, and that she can aid in him getting back to his world. I think he is also frustrated with her, sensing that she doesn’t take him seriously. We see Alar really struggling because he’s used to a certain status and he’s also unable to use his magic to help himself in this Riftworld. He is so out of his element, not used to the way that people communicate in our world, their technology and customs. Their sense of humor, and how dry and cutting Kim can be is a little over his head. I think that’s the challenging thing that Jonathan did in this script. Making us see our world through Alar’s eyes, we can kind of reflect on some of the social graces that we are losing every day in our society. Through Alar’s perspective we can see we are now a society who are so obsessed with their phones and so distracted when they’re engaging with other people that we’re ironically drifting farther and farther away from each other, even when the technology is making us accessible and connected 24/7.
DPH: In “The Portal” we see a conclusion in which Alar and Kim do have a future beyond the portal. Has Jonathan given you any clues as to where the relationship is heading in “Riftworld Chronicles”?
TP: He’s given me some clues; we have talked about it a bit. I don’t want to get into it too much. Otherwise, that will compromise future storylines, but I think it’s safe to say that we are going to see more of how Kim is actually connected to Alar’s world. It’s very cool that Alar recognizes and sees the pendant that Kim’s mother is wearing in the picture, and he’s curious about it when he asks her, but doesn’t force or press the issue. There’s obviously something about that same symbol in the picture of Kim’s mother and the coins that Alar has. We will understand that more in the future episodes. We are hopefully going to see more of Alar’s world, too, and some of the characters that come from his world, like the ones that he refers to. Maybe even his evil sister, who sent the assassin after him to try and kill him. We touch on many different aspects of future story lines and potential arcs that we will get to enjoy if we get to see more of “Riftworld: Chronicles”.
DPH: In “The Portal” we do get a sense that Alar does actually have powers. So far in the web series, that’s still very much open in terms of does he/doesn’t he? Was that a conscious change to take more time based on having more episodes in which to develop that possibility? If so, how did that change affect the dynamic between the two characters?
TP: It’s safe to say that’s exactly the case. In the opening scene, we see Alar arrive through a portal, which he has obviously manipulated himself and when he looks at his map it’s clear from his reaction that he’s lost. We can trust early on that this man does have some sort of energy or some sort of magic. He is able to travel through dimensions or around his own world. Alar has pressing duties to attend to and he’s not happy that he’s teleported or transported to another dimension. “The Portal” was a one-off, in a sense. Jonathan has since manipulated the story just enough that we can explore Alar and Kim’s journey over the course of a series.
I think it changes the dynamic in the way that there was so much conclusion to “The Portal” at the end. We get a flash of Alar and Kim and a small child, who are married and seemingly living happily every after in Alar’s world. We don’t get anywhere near that point, yet, in Riftworld and hopefully we will start moving in the direction over the course of a series.
DPH: Jonathan’s script really allows supporting characters to have their moments in very funny ways. What were some of your favorite scenes to play in Season One?
TP: There were many. I really enjoyed the hospital scene where we go down and we are dealing with the obstinate nurse. That scene was hilarious to shoot and we were all cracking up while doing it. It was a blast working with the extremely talented Munro Chambers who plays Kim’s brother, too. The scene where Alar and him have apparently just finished smoking some funky stuff and they’re laughing and regaling each other with stories in his room, with Alar wearing a bath robe too small for him, were great. The fact is there were so many funny scenes. With the exception of Erin and I both getting sick with the flu in the middle of the shoot, we had so much fun the entire shoot. Erin and I also have some great chemistry and we were constantly cracking each other up– it was often hard to keep a straight face. There was also a great scene that we shot on the subway where Alar thinks he recognizes a woman in a Burka, and he’s trying to give her a compliment about a recent battle where he felt that her people were key to that victory. Kim is losing her patience at this point and really embarrassed, once again, after she scolds him and the woman doesn’t acknowledge his compliment, he truly wonders whether he has any connection to this Riftworld at all.
DPH: If you could offer your characters any advice, what would it be?
TP: You have connected with this woman, Kim, for a reason. As much as she is frustrating you and not believing in your quest and your story of who you are, do not lose faith in her for she will help you out eventually. The universe made it a point for you two to meet.
DPH: The fantasy genre is hugely popular. We’re seeing this with series such as “Game of Thrones” and in the gaming community. Amongst the biggest selling books last year were the new editions of the “Dungeons and Dragons” rulebooks. Have you ever been interested in the fantasy genre before your involvement with “The Portal” and “Riftworld Chronicles”?
TP: I’ve been a fan of fantasy like most from an early age because of authors like JRR Tolken and movies like “Legend” and “The Dark Crystal”. When I was a kid I also used to love reading Conan the Barbarian – I loved that stuff. My uncle used to read it, so I loved those magazines and graphic novels. I also had a period where I was into Heavy Metal magazine in my early 20’s. I like genre stuff – I like so much of it. Fantasy genre is a little bit more specific and has a huge fan base. I haven’t played D&D or any of those games, but I have friends who have and were big fans of it. It’s a very, very popular genre that has a cultish fan base that is incredibly passionate and involved. I think this is something that they’re really going to enjoy and we get their support and loyalty soon.
DPH: You’re a very busy working actor. How easy or not was it to schedule shooting for “Riftworld Chronicles”?
TP: It fortunately fell into place right after some other projects for me had completed. We shot for three weeks just last December, the only downside of that being I’m rolling around in a vest in minus twenty to thirty degree Celsius in downtown TO. We committed and got it done. Once we read the scripts and the production team let us know that it was all doable and in place, there was an overall attitude of “Let’s do this – let’s make it happen.” Because of our tight budget, they asked Erin and I to share a two-bedroom condo, which ended up being ideal. We got up every morning, ran our lines, went to work together, got back, ran our lines and then each went to bed, and then up in the morning to do it again. We had a long, three-week process. It was very intense at times, but we had a blast doing it.
DPH: Can you tell us a little about the working process of “Riftworld Chronicles”? Time is always gold during production, but did you get any input during the script or production stages?
TP: It’s like anything else, just at a different pace: we have limited budget, we’re shooting shorter episodes, and everyone on set has to work at a different pace. It’s very efficient, you only have so many takes, you have to move forward, and you have to trust in your instincts and the work you have done already. You have to just go for it and try to bring it every time. There was definitely the feeling on set that we were all doing some great stuff, but that we had to motivate and work efficiently together. Erin and I are very proud of the finished product and we couldn’t have done it without this tremendous crew and production team.
DPH: What was the average shooting day like?
TP: Erin and I would get up at 5:45/6 AM, shower, meet in the living room, make a little breakfast, drink some coffee, run our lines. We would head to work, get into hair and makeup, get ready, and we’d shoot. We were very tired at times. We would sleep on the floor in the makeup room, or anywhere we could, in between takes. We were working hard, but we got it done. Funny, because it felt at times like a long, yet efficient, shoot. At the same time in hindsight, it was in actuality a really quick and short shoot.
DPH: As you probably know, in the UK and Europe, the arts have seen major cuts in terms of Government support. I get the impression that Canada still very much understands the importance of the arts and is prepared to back them. Is that the case?
TP: Unfortunately, we have a government, right now, that doesn’t support the arts enough. They’ve done massive cuts across the board. The CBC is an iconic Canadian institution and this federal government of ours slashed their budget in half a couple of years ago, literally in half, causing massive job cuts. When forcing a publicly owned broadcasting corporation to incorporate corporate and private advertising, it compromises its integrity. These massive cuts have cost Canadian projects in the arts and it’s really unfortunate. I am hoping, to be honest with you and not to get too political, that we get rid of this government that has been in power for a number of years. They’ve done many negative things to this country in such a short amount of time. I optimistically look forward to when we get a new government in power that supports the long tradition of arts in Canada, which we as a nation are very proud of. Canada has produced some of the most exceptional and recognized artists in the world, specifically in this industry and also some of the most well-known musicians, dancers, sculptors and painters. I look forward to that being supported and encouraged again.
DPH: Have you noticed any major differences between working creatively in Canada as opposed to other countries?
TP: I don’t know about working creatively. I mean, culture-wise, comparing the two obvious ones: Canada and the U.S. there are many similarities and some subtle differences. There’s one thing I’m proud of about Canadians: we are a humble people. We work our asses off in this industry; the work ethic in Canada in this industry is exceptional and recognized. Canadians in this industry are grateful to have the work. The crews are often exceptional. The crews are obviously great in the States, too, but culturally if I was going to mention a noticeable difference, it’s Canadian humility. Which I think for the most part is a good thing, but could maybe be argued as a negative at times. Look, this is predominantly an American industry and we’re so grateful that our cousins to the south have shared that industry with us. It is flattering to hear from many of the directors and producers I’ve worked with though, that some of the crews in Canada, Vancouver in particular, in their view are some of the best in the world. They appreciate the work coming up here and people really give back. They reciprocate with really long hours and a passionate commitment to the project they’re on.
DPH: Final question: what challenges would you like to see for your characters in Season Two or if, as is hoped, “Riftworld Chronicles” does get to make it into a one hour per episode series? Are there any particular scenarios? And any particular types of villain or monsters that appeal to you?
TP: I mean, we have already been introduced to one of the monsters, one of the villains, who is going to trying to kill Alar; he follows Alar to the Riftworld and is hunting him down. Alar mentions to Kim how dangerous these guys are – that they are a race of trained assassins. I think we can guarantee there’s going to be an epic battle between them. I want to see more of that in future, potential episodes of Riftworld. We should get more action from Alar. We should be able to see his martial capabilities and also his magic.
Challenges, obviously: he’s stuck in this world and he’s trying to get back. He is forced to protect Kim and her brother, too. I want to see more exploration of Alar’s world and with some introduction to characters from his world.
DPH: Tahmoh, many thanks for taking the time and best wishes for “Riftworld Chronicles”.
TP: Thank you so much for the interview. I appreciate it. Be well.
This interview originally appeared on SFFWorld: