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Orphan Black 507: Writer Renée St. Cyr on Rachel’s shocking choice

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen Orphan Black Episode 507, “Gag or Throttle.”

“Who hurt you?” —Kira
“All of them.” —Rachel

The day that Renée St. Cyr was asked to join the Orphan Black writers’ room, she was sure she was about to get fired.

“I was originally hired as a writer’s assistant for Season 4, and I was brought in for four weeks,” she explains. “And then on the third week, [co-showrunner] Graeme [Manson] asked me to stay behind one day, and he said it was to discuss my work performance. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting fired. They want me to go. This is so embarrassing.'”

Instead, Manson asked St. Cyr to stay on as a story coordinator for the remainder of the season. Then she was asked to become a writer for Season 5, eventually landing the opportunity to pen this week’s stellar episode, “Gag and Throttle,” in which Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) frees Kira (Skyler Wexler) from the clutches of Dyad after discovering P.T. Westmorland (Stephen McHattie) has been secretly surveilling her through her Neolution-implanted eye.

“I identified with the episode’s themes so deeply,” St. Cyr says. “And we had a lot of great females in the room who were very expressive about this aspect of internalized misogyny, and what it is to be a female in the workplace, and patriarchy.”

She adds that “Orphan Black can be a very difficult show to write, and I feel lucky that I got an episode that I felt I could relate to so fundamentally.”

St. Cyr joins us by phone from Vancouver to tell us about all the big moments in the episode—including the shocking moment when Rachel plucks out her own eye with the stem of a martini glass!

This is your first television writing credit. What was that experience like for you?
I was originally going to co-write Episode 507, but Graeme was quite busy showrunning and working on previous episodes, so we pushed forward with that episode in the room, and he kept checking in and liking the work we were doing, and then I moved on and wrote the outline, and then he just told me that the episode was mine. So it was a really interesting way to go about it because it felt very natural.

This was a pivotal episode for Rachel, with some very disturbing themes. What were some of the goals you discussed in the writers’ room?
At the very beginning of the season, like in the first week, we talked about this, we knew that we wanted Rachel to have this anointing from P.T. where she would feel really for the first time in her life that sense of being loved unconditionally. She’s finally been ordained—this thing that she felt that she always deserved and was entitled to receive, she finally received—and it was all worth it. Like all the subjugation, the humiliation, the struggles, she’s here and she should be. So taking that away, showing that she’s being surveilled, that she has less autonomy than she’s ever had was the thing that we knew would be a fantastic moment. And we didn’t know whether that would mean that Rachel would dig her heels in and commit further to the institution and perhaps become meaner, or if she would betray P.T.

And then as the conversation evolved, the idea of plucking out her own eye seemed to really come full circle—because she had already lost it, and now it was her own choice, and that was a real eff you. We were like, ‘Yeah!’ It’s a very Orphan Black end.

It’s interesting to learn that the writers weren’t sure what decision Rachel would make about freeing Kira and outing P.T. as a fraud, because I wasn’t sure either. You really kept me guessing.
That’s really cool to hear, because you have an episode when it’s all hinging on decisions she’s making, and part of the mystery was when does she make those decisions internally. Because when she first discovers the betrayal of P.T., she didn’t immediately go, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go screw this up for him now,’ you know, ‘I’m gonna take away his golden egg,’ or that kind of thing. She needed to go through her own process and get there herself. So that was part of watching her untangle and process these really deep-seated fears and emotions, so it would become plausible that she, in essence, did the right thing.

And how did you come up with her cutting her eye out—and with the broken stem of a martini glass, no less?
I think it was back in the summer, and I think I came up with the idea, but it’s such a collaborative process that I’m always wary of credit. But we knew that P.T. was kind of surveilling her and that was an original concept. It was his leash. And then we thought how horrendous that betrayal is, and the thing that we loved thematically is that he’s in her head, and he’s controlling her vision. He’s literally able to see what she sees, and if he wants to, he can moderate that, he can mess with it. And that is such an invasive feeling that when she feels this hatred and rage—to know that she has no privacy, to know that she’s dressed and he’s been able to see when she looks at herself in these most private moments in front of the mirror—it’s so intensely personal that it felt natural to just take that rage and go, ‘Get out of me. Get out of my head.’ And because she was drinking in the episode—and we’ve seen Rachel drinking these martinis before—she didn’t go up to her office to take her own eye out. She goes up there to send an email, and then he’s jarring her vision and it leads to this moment where she smashes this glass, and it kind of comes of the moment, rather than it being this more procedural thing.

I didn’t know it would be a martini glass. When I wrote it in an outline form, I just thought, ‘This feels natural.’ But we go through so many discussions, like ‘What object are we going to use?’ ‘Will it be a shovel?’ ‘Will it be another pencil?’ [Laughs.] You go through all the things, and for some reason it just kind of stuck.

There was a new musical cue under Rachel’s scenes in the last half of the episode that really added to the sense of foreboding and uncertainty for me. Was that the intention?
Absolutely. That was actually David Frazee, the director of the episode, who’s an incredible cinematographer, and such a deeply  emotional director. He really connects to the emotion and tension of a scene. I couldn’t have imagined a better director for this episode because of the way he connects to the story. He wasn’t about all this crazy action, he was trying to get inside Rachel’s head.

Basically, he had this idea before we even started shooting it. It was inspired by a film called Sicario that sort of had a similar soundtrack. He really felt that the scoring needed to have space, that it needed to be simple and have that weight to it. That was his idea. And I was like, ‘Absolutely,’ because it would be so unique to have a new scoring with her character that we’ve never had on Orphan Black, to really show that we’re in a really different world right now—which is in Rachel’s head.

So what will Rachel do now that she’s turned on P.T. Westmorland?
I would say that she’s in desperate need of allies. She’s betrayed Dyad and Neolution, and I would say she’s placed herself in the most vulnerable position she could. So that’s her current position, and her actions and who she becomes really come from having hit, in essence, rock bottom. It’s kind of a new Rachel here.

There was also a new Alison in this episode. What’s going on with her?
We see her in Episode 503, and she really goes through this beautiful thing where we tacked on her and Aynsley’s relationship, and how she was struggling when she first discovered that she was a clone. She looks at her life and she re-evaluates everything, like how real it is and why she made the decisions she made because now she’s meeting a scientist and a cop. She could have been any of these. And then she kind of feels really useless, because that’s how Dyad treats her. So in her going away, we wanted to capture the sense of rediscovery that people can have of themselves, that they can be anyone or anything and sinking into the endless possibilities.

It’s a little bit, I don’t want to say immature, but it was like me when I was 20 years old, me when I just wanted to say yes to everything because the world has these endless possibilities. We wanted to capture that enthusiasm of her really breaking down the fact that she was her mother’s child, and her really for herself wanting to dig deeper. So we’re having fun with exploring a side of Alison that can relate to these people who have these discoveries later in life, and it might come across as being a bit inauthentic, and she might be lying to herself about how she doesn’t need to tell Donnie what to do anymore. You know, the humour of who she wants to be compared to who she still kind of actually is. And it comes back to these ongoing themes in Orphan Black that relate to nurturing and nature, and then identity and choice.

It was great to see Scott (Josh Vokey) and Cosima have a moment together. Please tell me we’re going to be seeing more of them working together in the last episodes.
We’re definitely going to see more of them. Everyone’s kind of back together now—Cosima’s back from the Island, and Alison’s back in town—and there’s this desire to bring this Clone Club back to working together, and Scott is a big part of that. He’s been an ally fighting the good fight for so long with the team. I also loved that moment when we shot it; it was so beautiful. I immediately cried.

It was interesting to see Sarah tell Mrs S. to keep her cool when they were trying to get Kira back from Dyad. This is definitely not the Sarah from Season 1.
This has actually been a series-long goal with Sarah, which is about how she might be stepping into S’s shoes, really learning from S, learning to really think before she acts—because that is very S, and then Sarah goes off half cocked. And that’s the thrill of Sarah Manning, is seeing how she gets things done and she’s always a little crazy. Like she throws herself into these wild situations, but the way that Sarah does it, she lives from this visceral heart place, and she’s got this anger at her heels that keeps her going, so it was understandable as a character when we watched her do that. But seeing her when it really counts, when they’re really out of options, that she can see clearly when S can’t? It was seeing Sarah have that maturity that S has always been trying to teach her.

Is Kira safe now that she’s back with Sarah?
I can’t say much, but one thing I can say is what Rachel has done—the email that she sent off and how she’s betrayed P.T.—has thrown Neolution into temporary chaos, and it allows there to be some breathing room.

What can we expect from P.T. Westmorland in the final three episodes?
Losing Rachel in this way was a stupid thing on his part, because she was very loyal, and it’s putting him in a more desperate place, with his back up against the wall. And what we wanted to see was kind of who this character was without his Victorian airs. Who this man is when he’s not posturing as a more elegant eugenicist? We’ll dig deeper into his really quite grotesque and narcissistic psychology.

Getting your first writing credit on the last season of Orphan Black is pretty special. What will you remember about the experience?
I really want to give tribute to the very talented genius Tatiana Maslany for the way that she delves into the complexity of these characters. She’s so open to have discussions, so we’re getting as close to something true and relatable that will resonate with people as we can. She is incredibly generous with her talent with the other creatives on the show. And, obviously, to Graeme Manson for being this incredible writing mentor and for giving me that opportunity. And David Frazee was such a phenomenal director to work with. He’s endlessly passionate. I don’t know where he gets all his energy from. His face is always an inch away from the monitor, and there was zero power struggle between us, and I think that was a very unique experience because I don’t know how often that happens between directors and writers. He was looking to me for any note after every scene, and I felt that as a female in the television world that my voice was very much represented and heard and respected throughout the whole process. It was a really exciting experience.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Space.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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Orphan Black 507: Rachel questions her place in Neolution

Orphan Black‘s final season has been a strong one, filled with startling revelations, shocking deaths and deep dives into the inner lives of the Leda clones, but this week’s new episode—which puts Rachel under the microscope—is easily the best of the season so far. It’s an intense character study from the teaser on, and it genuinely keeps you guessing right up to its stunning, but fully earned, conclusion.

Here’s what Bell Media teased about “Gag or Throttle,” written by Renée St. Cyr and directed by David Frazee.

As P.T. Westmorland demands a more aggressive approach with Kira, Rachel discovers a dark secret that makes her question her place within Neolution. Sarah fights to save her daughter.

And here’s what we can hint about the episode.

Kira becomes a lab rat
With Susan out of the way, Westmorland and Coady push for more invasive procedures to be used on Kira—which forces Rachel to face some uncomfortable truths about Neolution.

Just who is P.T. Westmorland?
Last week, it was revealed that P.T. is a fraud, and this week Cosima digs further into his past.

Auld lang syne
Season 5 has seen a lot of old friends and foes return both via flashback and plot twists, and this instalment is no different. Count on seeing at least three familiar faces pop up.

New wig alert
Expect more than one character to sport a new (or old) ‘do.

New music alert
There is a new musical cue near the end of the episode that truly elevates the drama. Writer Renée St. Cyr tells us this very deliberate musical choice came courtesy of director David Frazee. (Look for my chat with Renée after Saturday’s broadcast.)

Whoa!
That’s about all we can say about the ending.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Space.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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Discovery’s Daily Planet dives into Shark Week

Shark Week certainly knows how to make a splash with big-name hosts and special events. The American Chopper cast (remember them?!), Les Stroud, Craig Ferguson and Andy Samberg have all taken a turn hosting; this year it’s actor-producer-director Eli Roth. The tentpole event for 2017 takes place on Sunday when former Olympic medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps gets into the water for Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White. Me? I’m more interested in what the folks at Daily Planet are doing.

Daily Planet‘s Shark Week coverage airs Monday, July 24, to Friday, July 28, at 7 p.m. ET on Discovery and features hosts Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in Toronto presenting truly compelling segments during special episodes of their nightly science series. One preview segment next week finds Tong in the water with the toothy critters.

“I’ve gone diving enough times with sharks that I don’t think my heart rate changed at all,” Tong says alongside her co-host after completing filming at Ripley’s for the day. “I was more concerned with getting the right shot than the fact there were these massive animals around me. I love them and they’re so beautiful.”

“This really drives home that we practice what we preach,” Riskin says of Tong jumping in the water with sharks. “We want to show that, for the most part, sharks are not vicious killers. We put the more valuable co-host in the water to prove that she wasn’t going to get hurt.” Debuting in 1988, Shark Week has become a must-see event thanks to show titles like Shark: Maneater or Myth?, Teeth of Death and Anatomy of a Shark Bite. This year boasts programs like Great White Shark Serial Killer Lives, Great Hammerhead Invasion and Shark VortexThose outrageous titles may attract eyeballs, but the truth about sharks is much more mundane.

“The truth is, we have lots of stories this week about people who are in the water with great white sharks without a cage and they’re fine,” Riskin says. “They know what they’re doing and they would never throw the kid from the Nirvana album into the water with a shark.” He adds these experts know how the predatory fish posture and communicate what their intentions are. The result? The charisma and fascination surrounding them is still there, but the fear drops. Segments that Tong and Riskin introduce on Daily Planet include “Touching Great Whites,” as Jean-Marie Ghislain and Martin Kochling leave their dive cages behind to swim with sharks off the coast of Guadalupe Island; “Liverless Sharks,” regarding the mystery surrounding sharks washing up on South African shores with their livers expertly removed; and “Dead Whale Feast,” which—from its description—could be the gross-out of the whole lineup.

“Marine biologist Choy Aming is on a whale carcass bobbing in the middle of the ocean and all of these different species of sharks start coming up and feeding on the carcass while he’s sitting on it,” Tong teases.

“It’s in the sun, it’s baking and it’s decomposing,” Riskin adds. “He said it was like standing on a school bus made of tissue paper and covered in olive oil. A carcass is full of calories and animals need calories. A carcass in the ocean; what a great place to be.”

Daily Planet‘s Shark Week coverage airs Monday, July 24, to Friday, July 28, at 7 p.m. ET on Discovery.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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Comments and queries for the week of July 21

Not happy that Private Eyes is wrapping up already. I feel like we’ve just started watching it and it’s done! Sucks that we have to wait a year to see it again, what gives? —Joyce

Global cut the season in half for some stupid reason, so now the 18 episodes are being split and the last nine episodes of Season 2 are gonna be on next summer. Believe me, I hate it too. I don’t understand why they would renew it, only to end up showing half this year and half next year. —Samantha


I’m disappointed that [You Gotta Eat Here!] has been cancelled. My family has used this show as a food guide, we are a hockey family and when we are on the road in different towns and cities we’ve tried many of these great restaurants thanks to the shows recommendations. It will be sadly missed. —Danny

I strongly disagree with the cancellation of the show. My family and I have found great restaurants all because of it. America had Man vs. Food. America had DDD. And now Canada has nothing? Food Network … dumbest move by far. And as for the host? He as Canadian as it gets. Funny, quirky, whether he knows about food or now, who cares!! He’s a great host, with a great personality on screen. There are restaurants who need exposure and this move damages Canadians. —Deje

 

Got a question or comment about Canadian TV? Email greg.david@tv-eh.com or via Twitter @tv_eh.

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Helen Shaver found her “creative home” on Orphan Black

The first time Helen Shaver saw Tatiana Maslany on screen, she knew she wanted to work with her.

“I was asked to sit on the jury of the Whistler Film Festival about five years ago,” Shaver recalls. “I was adjudicating films, and there was a small Canadian film called Picture Day that was one of the films that we were looking at. That was the first time I’d ever been conscious of Tatiana, and I watched this movie, and my mouth just dropped, like ‘Who is that?'”

Months later, Shaver was flipping through TV channels in the middle of the night and stumbled upon a first season episode of a new sci-fi series starring a familiar face. She was enthralled. “The next day, I called my agent and said, ‘I want to do Orphan Black,'” she says. “‘It’s a fabulous show, and it has that young woman, Tatiana. I want to direct her.'”

Not only did Shaver’s phone call manifest her wish, but it led to one of her best creative experiences in a 20-year directing career that includes gigs on such TV shows as Judging Amy, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest, Vikings and Anne. “I love Orphan Black,” she says, phoning from Los Angeles. “I loved my experience there. For me, as an artist and a collaborator and filmmaker, it really became a creative home.”

Shaver directed only three episodes of the Space hit—which is currently airing its fifth and final season—but she has lensed some of the most memorable scenes of the series: Helena watching Rachel and Paul have sex through her sniper scope, Alison and Donnie twerking and Paul’s death.

And then there are the Cosima and Delphine scenes.

In portraying Orphan Black‘s main romantic couple—coined Cophine by fans—Maslany and co-star Evelyne Brochu have screen-melting chemistry on their own, but Shaver’s direction managed to kick it up a notch, expertly excavating the conflicting motivations pulsing beneath the characters’ tortured scientist/experiment love affair. For example, there is no scene that captures the essence of Cophine’s complicated history more succinctly than in Season 2’s “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est,” where shots of a fearful Cosima receiving an injection are intercut with images of Delphine comforting her.

The same goes for Season 5’s “Ease For Idle Millionaires,” when the couple finally chooses to stop fighting each other and accept the complex dynamics of their relationship, the camera swirling around past and present versions of them as they build up to a kiss. After the episode aired two weeks ago, Cophine fans swarmed Twitter to post their appreciation of Shaver’s work.

So what is Shaver’s secret to directing such emotionally effective scenes?

“There are many, many elements to the director’s job, but the primary one to me is that the director is the container, the safe room in which actors are willing to speak their personal truths through the mouthpiece of the character,” she explains. “My willingness to be present, it creates a safe space, a womb some might say, where the actors can expose themselves through the characters to each other—and as you see with these two women on screen, it’s compelling beyond belief.”

And Shaver has another directing superpower.

“I’m not afraid of actors,” she says. “I don’t feel the need to minimize that. I truly respect actors.”

While that may seem like a given for someone working in the TV industry, Shaver learned that not everyone shares her view when she crossed over from acting to directing in the 1990s. During her first-ever production prep meeting, someone made a comment that she never forgot. “We were talking and I said, ‘Oh, the actor will need blah, blah blah,’ and somebody—a writer—said, ‘Oh, it’s just a f–king actor,'” she recalls. “And ‘f–king’ was not the important adjective; the important adjective was ‘just.’ The thing is, most people have no concept what acting is, what the internal process of acting is, what the vulnerability, what the exposure, what the trust is, the waiting for an hour while they set up the lights, and now there’s only 10 minutes left and now do your close-up. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and you’ve been up all night talking to your mother because your father is sick, you still gotta do your close-up. It doesn’t matter. And because most people don’t have a concept of what that is, many people feel like they are held captive by the actor. You need them, but, damn it, there they are with all their humanity and foibles and all the things that you can’t control, and so they are afraid of the actor—and fear is the antidote to creativity.”

“The other thing that happens is kind of a sycophant approach of talking to an actor as if they are a child,” Shaver adds. “Or some emotionally disturbed adolescent who’s going to tear the place down and run screaming from the room or something.”

Obviously, that’s not the environment fostered on Orphan Black, a show that depends on the gifts of its lead actor more than perhaps any other TV show in history, and a show whose lead actor is known nearly as much for her tireless work ethic as she is for her mind-boggling abilities.

“[Tatiana] is just an extraordinary talent,” Shaver says. “Just the breadth of her gift, her willingness, her gift, her intellect, her spirit, her no fuss, no muss [attitude]. And with the extraordinary amount of work that that woman did, there was never a complaint. Just exemplary.”

Shaver also credits Orphan Black co-creators and showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett with giving her the freedom to get the most out of every scene. “The line between writing and directing is not this hard line like some showrunners have, you know, ‘I say she picked up the teacup on this word, so that’s when the teacup gets picked up.’ That’s a sort of thing that exists certainly in some productions, but from the get-go, I was really offered the opportunity to take the material and direct it as a little movie the way I saw.”

That approach allowed Shaver to choreograph the pivotal scene in “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” where Rachel sexually dominates Paul in a chair. “The original script, for example, was that Rachel pushes Paul onto the bed and climbs on top of him,” she says. “So I looked at the script and said, ‘OK, Graeme, so we’re looking for female dominated sex, right?’ And he says, ‘Yes.’ So I go, ‘OK, let me think about this.’ During the course of prep, I conceived this whole thing where it was out in the living area of the space, and I thought Rachel is not doing anything for his pleasure. He is there for her. And all of that was not just allowed but encouraged and embraced in the environment that was there.”

Shaver also switched up Cosima and Delphine’s flashback scene in “Ease For Idle Millionaires,” animating a formerly staid scene with all the emotion the situation demanded. “The scene in the flashback was written that they’re sitting on the couch and that’s how it played out in the first rehearsal of it, and it was quite quiet and passive in a sense,” she recalls. “It was a little conversation, and I said, ‘No, wait. Hold on. Let’s go to the beginning of this moment. What is the beginning of this moment?’ There’s this huge betrayal that Cosima is recognizing and also this recognition that she is property. All these things, the pain, the tearing away, the outrage, the betrayal, how can you even stay sitting on the couch beside [Delphine]? And bang, Tatiana was up and then Evelyne was up, and we shot that a number of times, allowing it to evolve in its own way each time. And then in the cutting, once they got into an embrace, using bits from multiple takes so that it builds that kind of cacophony of emotion, which is true to what happens to a human being, not just on the outside but on the inside when such a moment is going on.”

Shaver gives props to Maslany and Brochu for forming a “circuit of energy” with her in order to better understand—and ultimately elevate—the scene. “That’s a complex moment, and these women, as they have each time, completely gave themselves to the moment, to me. And I take it quite personally. I feel like I’m being given an enormous gift. I mean what is greater than to be trusted?”

And while the Cophine scenes will always have a special place in Shaver’s heart—”To me, love is love, and love is the only thing that is real,” she shares—she has a few other favourite Orphan Black memories as well. “I’d say the delirium in Episode 306 [“Certain Agony of the Battlefield”] that begins with Sarah in Mexico going into her dream state through the tunnel into the kitchen with Beth. I’m extraordinarily proud of that on every level. I think it’s exquisite performances—or performance,” she corrects herself, laughing. “It’s all her! I think visually, in terms of my work with the camera, that’s a beautiful piece of work. And the sequence with Helena, Paul and Rachel, I love that very much.”

Most of all, Shaver says she will always remember her relationship with Maslany—who drew her to Orphan Black in the first place, and with whom she will team up with again in early 2018 to film Pamela Sinha’s Happy Place. 

“I remember the day that Tatiana and I met,” she says. “Even though I’m certainly old enough to be her mother, we recognized each other immediately. It’s as if our souls are the same age, or as if we live in the same … whatever. We exist with the same sort of principles.”

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Space.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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