Everything about Murdoch Mysteries, eh?

Interview: Murdoch Mysteries focuses on murderous fashion

Michelle Ricci calls her writing career on Murdoch Mysteries serendipitous, and one can’t help but agree.

It wasn’t long ago that the Toronto native was living in Los Angeles with her boyfriend—writer, producer, filmmaker and military advisor Mir Bahmanyar—when he called her over to the TV. Murdoch Mysteries was on the tube and she quickly became hooked. Unable to work in the U.S., she sat and read scripts and thought she could write better stuff. She enrolled in the Canadian Film Centre‘s Prime Time TV Program on a whim and jetted to Toronto to participate in the course with executive producer in residence Peter Mitchell, who the following year became the showrunner on Murdoch Mysteries.

The rest is, as they say, history. Ricci is now a co-producer on CBC’s Monday night drama, and has written some of the program’s more risqué scenes, including mysteries involving nudist colonies, the beach and this week’s caper regarding a killer corset and an intimate moment between Miss Moss and Dr. Grace. If you want Victorian scandal, call on Ricci.

How did the idea for a killer corset come about?
Michelle Ricci: The world came from an article that I read about corset manufacturing in Toronto. I brought it into the writer’s room and said, “Here’s a world that we haven’t explored. What’s more Victorian than the corset?” We all thought that would be a unique thing to get into. I don’t remember who came up with the idea of the killer corset. It wasn’t me. That just seemed like a such a perfect, Murdoch-ian way to kill someone that we went with it.

We’re still grappling with what is considered beautiful, aren’t we?
Very true. Especially at that time, women were not considered functional beings. They were decorative, which is hilarious because women of the lower classes had to work just as hard as the men did. The fashion had nothing to do with what women had to do every day. I found out a lot of interesting stuff about corsets while I was researching. They were very affordable up to very expensive, depending on the materials used. Every single woman wore a corset, no matter what her social status was and I wasn’t expecting that. It was a mandatory element of dress.

I was on-set during the filming of this episode [check out some rehearsal footage below], and someone joked that your scripts always end up having people in some state of undress. The nudist camp episode, this one …. is it true?
That’s so funny. I have never thought about that before but I guess it’s true. I also did Loch Ness where they were all in bathing suits. Maybe part of it is just a new way to explore the era and the kind of things we don’t get to see all the time. The bathing suits were cool because they’re hilarious. The nudist thing was interesting because it was happening at the time and it’s something that you would not consider from that time period. And for this … I don’t think I went into this thinking that Ogden would get down to her skivvies, but it just seemed like a perfect way to go.

I know that Hélène Joy broke her arm in real life right around when this episode was shot. Was her character’s injury added to the story so that a cast could be shown on her arm?
The injury was written into the script from the very beginning, the only part that changed was her actually breaking her arm in the scene. The whole corset almost squeezing her to death was always in the script. It just turned out to be the perfect plot for her to break her arm so that we could use it in the next episode. She broke it during “Temple of Death” and was broken during “All That Glitters,” but it was covered up. They did an excellent job of covering it up.

The scene between Miss Moss and Dr. Grace was pretty intimate for Murdoch Mysteries. Are you expecting any kind of blowback from the fans? Did the CBC ask you to tone anything down?
Not this time. Everyone was comfortable with our level of boundary-pushing at this stage. Even though it’s edgy for Murdoch, it’s still within the boundaries. It’s still just a suggestion.

What is your writing routine? Do you like to write episodes in the room with everyone there, or do you like to go off by yourself?
I’m actually all over the place. It depends on my mental state on any given day. I do need quiet, so being in the room is great in some ways and not so great in others. [Laughs.] If I have to write a script and we’re in the office I may take a day off to write at home or I’ll go off somewhere else to write, otherwise I’m not getting anything done. If we’re not at that stage, I might go to the library or the coffee shop or stay in bed. I’m all over the place.

I can’t pin down a routine. I live in anger and frustration. It’s horrible. I’m a horrible person to be around.

Let’s talk about the Canadian Film Centre. What has it meant to your career? I’m assuming everything.
Everything. If I hadn’t met Pete … I was at the CFC and was telling everyone how much I loved the show. I was really annoying. Pete told Paul Aitken I was a fan and passed him a sample of mine to read having no idea if they were even hiring. Then Pete ended up getting the job as the showrunner the following season and because I hadn’t shut up about how much I loved the show, he hired me on. I don’t know how I managed to get so lucky in such a short period of time.

Are you at the point where you’re pitching your own ideas for shows?
Yes and no. Yes, my agent would love me to be. No, I just haven’t had the time. This season in particular has been very busy for me.

What’s the best part of the job?
I love the research because we’re researching something different and unique and it’s Toronto history and I’m from here. I find out things that I grew up around that I didn’t know about. I joke that when I walk around the city I know more about Toronto in the early 1900s than I know about the city now.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Tonight: 19-2, Murdoch Mysteries, Strange Empire, Airshow

19-2, Bravo – “Disorder”
While the squad is dealing with the aftermath of the tragic school shooting, Audrey (Laurence Lebeouf, DURHAM COUNTY) returns to duty still deeply traumatized from her own ordeal. Ben (Jared Keeso, FALLING SKIES) gets suspended and must undergo therapy as his partner Nick (Adrian Holmes, ARROW) tries to lend support.

Murdoch Mysteries, CBC – “The Devil Wears Whalebone”
Murdoch discovers that fashion is murder when a model is killed during a protest at a designer corset show. Guest starring Kari Matchett.

Strange Empire, CBC – “End Days”
An army of militia men is hired by Slotter to secure his power in Janestown. Kat goes in search of weapons and makes a plan to take the camp back.

Airshow, Discovery – “Cleared for Take Off”
In the series premiere, a new AIRSHOW season begins with tragedy striking early. Former bush pilot and airline owner ‘Super Dave’ Mathieson has cashed in everything to chase his high-flying dreams. Piloting a half-million-dollar aerobatic plane, Mathieson is willing to risk it all to become an AIRSHOW star. Meanwhile, tornados threaten to destroy wing walker Carol Pilon’s vintage biplane before her season even gets off the ground.

Review: Murdoch Mysteries mines silver and Group of Seven

If only Canadian history classes were as entertaining as an episode of Murdoch Mysteries. My favourite instalments are the ones that delve into real-life history or introduce actual historical characters into them, so I was positively giddy with “All That Glitters,” which managed to combine Ontario’s silver rush with Aboriginal rights and the Group of Seven.

Inspector Brackenreid’s paintings—done while he was convalescing following the harbourside beating—were given the spotlight when Julia entered one in a Toronto art contest.

“I see a creative vision taking hold. You seem to be capturing the essence of the north woods,” Julia told Brackenreid of his work, which featured abstract trees painted in oranges and yellows. The reason? He’d run out of green. Lori Spring’s energetic script called for the painting to be stolen not because of the canvas but the high-priced frame it was in. That didn’t deter a fresh-faced young man from paying $15 for the work, telling Brackenreid the work inspired him to walk a similar journey with his own art. The budding painter? A lad named Tom Thomson.

Murdoch_art

When Monday’s story wasn’t teasing with the fictional inspiration that led to the Group of Seven, it was grounded in many references to Ontario’s rail history, from the Don Station (which was located on Queen St. at the Don River), to the Northern Ontario Railway (which became Ontario Northland). The railway adventure for Crabtree and Murdoch began with “Eagle Flight … murder,” muttered from the mouth of a dying man on the steps of the Constabulary. Graham, the victim, had been a surveyor for the Northern Ontario Railway; a hidden compartment in his suitcase revealed a map and sent the coppers to Haileybury, Ont., where a burgeoning silver strike was about to consume the area.

There were plenty of suspects in Graham’s murder, from a railroad magnate upset Graham was planning to have the train trail moved to Mack, a strong-willed prospector who had the hots for Crabtree. The real killer led the story in a dark direction: Migize Pimise (Eagle Flight in English), an Ojibwe man who wanted the silver vein kept secret. His worry was that once the government discovered there was silver on their land, they would be forced to move off the reservation. Unfortunately, it proved to be true both in Spring’s script and the panel that was the final frame of the episode: “In 1903, silver was found near Cobalt, Ontario. The provincial government extinguished the Indian land title.” A sobering fact indeed.

Notes and quotes

  • Continuity error! The flask Graham was carrying was much smaller than the one Murdoch and Dr. Grace examined in the morgue
  • I wasn’t even a little surprised that Crabtree takes his own pillow when he travels
  • “Nature. I’m not sure I care for it.”—George
  • Question: Murdoch revealed he’d once been a lumberjack. Has that been talked about before?

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Tonight: 19-2, Murdoch Mysteries, Strange Empire

19-2, Bravo – “School”
The entire squad is immersed in an intensely tragic school shooting with consequences that will profoundly impact all of their lives. The tragic events that unfold during the season premiere set the stage for 19-2’s overarching themes of introspection, trust and loyalty during Season 2 on Bravo. Featuring a haunting uninterrupted, 13-minute, single-camera tracking shot, the season premiere has been recreated for English audiences by renowned director Podz, who directed the same episode of the original French-Canadian version of 19-2 to critical acclaim.

Murdoch Mysteries, CBC – “All That Glitters”
Murdoch and Crabtree follow the silver boom to Northern Ontario to investigate the murder of a land surveyor.

Strange Empire, CBC – “Confession”
Chase Sloat is hounded by ghosts. The women use his troubled mind to their advantage as the Slotter household turns on itself.

Interview: Murdoch Mysteries channels Indiana Jones

William Murdoch, swashbuckling treasure hunter? Well, not exactly, but Toronto’s most successful detective did find himself in several tight spots during Monday’s newest episode while he hunted for the elusive Holy Grail. Paul Aitken’s script certainly tore a page from the Indiana Jones trilogy, right down to mysterious iconography, secret passages and deadly traps.

“Temple of Death” was also the latest instalment to employ the skills of Robert Crowther and his team over at Rocket Science Visual Effects, who have been working on Murdoch Mysteries for years. Some of the scenes Rocket Science has done for Murdoch include the outside of the temple in Monday’s storyline and the expansive Toronto waterfront from this season’s debut. We spoke to Crowther about the work he’s done on Murdoch Mysteries.

You’ve worked on several different projects over the years. Hannibal, Murdoch, The Listener, Todd & the Book of Pure Evil. It must be fun to jump back and forth among different genres.
Robert Crowther: It’s definitely interesting. Every day is a new problem to solve, really. Any dramatic project comes down to the same thing: how do we tell the story? And in visual effects there is a lot of problem solving. Something has been written and the first thing that runs through my mind is, “How the hell are we going to do this?” [Laughs.] So you have to go through a process of problem solving, really, to determine the best way to show it. And in all cases, even on a larger project, cost is always a factor.

How did you get into the visual effects game in the first place?
I kind of fell into it. I had an opportunity out of York University to do a summer internship at a visual effects company and it wasn’t really even something I was looking into at that time. Once I had some exposure to it I realized that it really fit the kind of talents and interests that I had. I had more than a better than average technical ability but also an interest in storytelling and picture. I thought I was going to be a director, but the reality of the world hits you and at that time there were definitely more opportunities in the visual effects industry. It’s something I found my way into at that time.

I really wanted to be in films and even back then I realized that being a member of a filmmaking team you are very, very involved in the way the story is told. Often, you can have your own level of influence. So though I never did become a director, I do find visual effects to be a very satisfying creative outlet.

What falls under your responsibilities at Murdoch Mysteries?
What’s evolved over the last few years is that rather than be involved in every episode there are a few episodes throughout the season that need a little more assistance from our side than the others. I’ll focus a little more on a certain number of episodes. In Season 8 there were probably four episodes that needed a little additional guidance. It starts with the script and I break down what I see to be an opportunity to use a visual effect or it’s not possible to get the shot through practical means. We’ll start with a read-through and then a meeting and discussion about the different options or approaches we can take to a problem. There is also a budget process as well, determining what the show can afford. Then we plan scene by scene what we’re going to do.

I go on the tech surveys as well in preproduction and I’ll go out to the locations and figure out what we’re going to shoot. I’ll consult on how a visual effect should be executed within the location or the set we’re in. I’ll go there on the shoot day as well to work with the director and director of photography to put the camera in the right place to get the footage we need. There are often camera details we need to get our hands on.

Foster

In Monday’s episode, there is that shot of the temple that Murdoch and Crabtree enter. How much of that had to be worked on by your team? What did you add that wasn’t there?
Most of the frame was modified by us. We had a real location for it. There is a beautiful cemetery mausoleum—The Thomas Foster Memorial in Uxbridge, Ont.—where we shot both interior and exterior. The exterior we shot as-is and we had the art department dress some vines and things on the building—it doesn’t have those now and it’s kind of in an open field—but we had to make it look like it was surrounded by 30 years of tree growth. So we had the actors do their dialogue do their lines with the set dressing around them and then we extended all of that. We added vines that go all the way up to the top, we didn’t replace the roof per se, we just integrated it better and replaced the sky. All the foliage around it is added by us as well.

Your team recreated the wonderful Toronto lakeshore for the season premiere. Can you talk about how you came to create that for the show?
That episode started with the script and Peter Mitchell had already mapped out what happened at the docks and wanted to create this sketchy part of Toronto. Most of the time Toronto plays as Toronto the Good. He needed this other place and had already set it up in the previous season. That was the central challenge at the beginning of Season 8, to make a new part of Toronto for the mystery to play out. I don’t even know where the initial thought to not shoot at dockside came from. It might have been Armando Sgrignuoli or Stephen Montgomery who sort of said to us, “Can you make this look like the waterfront of Toronto?”

After scratching our heads for awhile, we worked with some existing location photographs. We had some great footage from Season 7 where we had done the Keewatin crossing Lake Ontario. We had a lot of footage of Lake Ontario and we knew that any view from the Toronto harbourfront would look out on the islands. We took a lot of pictures and once we looked at them we realized we could create the harbour of the time. The other part of it, of course, is that today you have the island ferries and a few sailboats in the harbour. But in that time you had lake freighters coming in both directions and pleasure craft and the ferries, so we started working on CG vessels to populate the harbour and make it look busy.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I think it’s got to be having a final product that you can be proud of. In any creative process there is quite a lot of doubt and quite often we’re doing things we haven’t done before. If you’re not doubting what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something that’s too easy. I like to think that we challenge each other every time and the payoff is seeing that put to picture with all the sound added and telling a great story.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.