Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched the season finale of Cardinal: Blackfly Season “El Brujo”!!
Well, Cardinal fans, were you shocked by the season finale of Blackfly Season? Although I’ve read the books, Thursday’s climax still left me breathless. My heart went out to John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) when he realized the person who’d jumped to their death was his beloved wife, Catherine (Deborah Hay).
That wasn’t the only stressful moment during “El Brujo.” In true, nail-biting fashion, the fates of Terri (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and Kevin Tait (Jonathan Keltz) were up in the air when it appeared Leon Rutkowsky (Dan Petronijevic) and Ray Northwood (Bruce Ramsay) would get their final sacrifice. As it was, the bad guys were arrested in time—I was secretly hoping they’d be killed—and order was restored.
We spoke to Blackfly Season showrunner Sarah Dodd—who most recently served as a co-executive producer on Motive—to talk about her experience adapting Giles Blunt’s novel for television, the challenges of filming night scenes and what’s next for John Cardinal.
Before we get into specifics about this season and the season finale, can you tell me how you became involved in Cardinal in the first place?
Sarah Dodd: I was working in London, England, on a series called Ransom. And that show has among other production partners, Sienna Films. So, when I was in their story room on Ransom, they were looking for showrunners on Season 2 and 3 of Cardinal. They called me and asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I’ve always wanted to do a limited-run murder mystery series like this. I’m a big fan of all the Scandi-noir stuff and shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch and The Killing. So, I said, yes that I would love to. I came back to Canada at the end of the summer in 2016 and read all six books that Giles Blunt wrote and that was how it started.
Was there any nervousness on your part? Giles Blunt established this world in his book and Aubrey Nealon set the stage in Season 1.
It was both terrifying and inspiring. The books are very cinematic. Giles is very good at writing a scene and I was inspired by how much was there in the material. I was definitely daunted by the big shoes I had to fill from Aubrey’s season. I was a huge fan of Season 1, so it was a brass ring. I just had to go for it. But, always in the back of my mind was, ‘I have to be true to it and really honour Season 1 and not disappoint the fans.’ My biggest fear was that everyone who fell in love with Season 1 would be disappointed in Season 2. [Laughs.]
But, at the same time, I was working with a great advantage because I was writing for Billy Campbell, Karine Vanasse, Glen Gould and all of these actors in my head.
What did you learn about the differences between writing a six-episode season and an 18-episode one?
It is less daunting because it’s only six episodes but in other ways, it’s a completely different art form for me. It’s a miniseries, so it’s long-form and I have done so much episodic that this was very new for me to carry one case over the course of six episodes. I had never done that before so writing a new genre, basically, was exciting and scary. We also only had five weeks in the writer’s room to break all six stories and walk out of that room knowing how to write up our outline. We couldn’t have done that if we didn’t have the book. We added a lot of characters and storylines that weren’t in the book and we changed a lot of things and made some adjustments, so it was challenging in that way.
What did working on Cardinal force you to do as a television writer?
I think that Jennica Harper and Alison Lea Bingeman would agree that it was a really fantastic opportunity to dig deep into character. The other noticeable difference for me was less dialogue. The standard one-hour episodic that I’m used to writing is dialogue heavy and with Cardinal we had to find ways of cutting way back. Less was more, especially John Cardinal. He doesn’t say much. Neither does Lise Delorme, really. In their scenes together, so much of what they say passes between their faces. The other big thing is that when we were breaking the episodes we were working on index cards with a colour-coded system. We made sure that we had a specific colour that was the visual card. There was no plot, we just knew we wanted an image there. It wasn’t part of the story. The landscape of Cardinal is character in the show, so we were breaking story, plotting characters and thinking a lot about visuals.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Jeff Renfroe? He directed all six episodes and established a wonderful colour palette and look for Season 2.
I thought that Daniel Grou and Aubrey did a wonderful job in Season 1. Everybody talked about that dark, cold landscape and how much landscape was a part of the show. And my story takes place in the summer, right? The first conversation I had with Jeff was, ‘What will be our birch tree? What will be Cardinal’s mind palace, for lack of a better word? What are we going to see when we are trying to get into the emotion of the characters?’ From a writing perspective, we always thought about cottage country in the summer. Boats, beaches, campfires and going to the bar in the summer when the sun hasn’t even gone down yet. Bugs swarming you. And then I looked to Jeff and Dylan Macleod, our cinematographer to undercut that so that we always have that eerie feeling that things aren’t quite right. Our touchstone was that there was a rot behind the beauty. A decaying quality.
How did you go about choosing your writing team?
Both Sienna and Bell were very supportive of me finding the right people for my little room. I had just worked with Jennica on Motive and we get along really well. Not only is she a very good one-hour procedural writer but I also know her as a poet so I knew she would be able to bring that lyrical, metaphorical quality to the writing and in the imagery. And she’s also got comedy chops. I had met Alison socially but I had never worked with her before, but we share an agent and Alison has had a project in development with Sienna, so they knew her and she’d done 19-2 with Bell so they knew her. And I knew from my group of writer friends that Alison was good with one-hour procedurals not only with breaking but with serialized storytelling in This Life. We had a telephone conversation and I got to know a great new writer in the process. We also had a fourth person in the room named Gemma Holdway who was our intern at first and then was upgraded to story editor.
Bruce Ramsay played a wonderful bad guy in Ray Northwind.
Casting that character was huge. When we were developing the series and writing the scripts always in the back of our minds was, ‘Who are we going to get to play Ray?’ It can’t be the moustache-twirling stock villain. It has to be someone with some pain and some layers and a bizarre, otherworldly confidence. It was a tall order and we were thrilled to get Bruce.
Terri ends up being a real bad-ass and flat-out saves Kevin in a lot of ways in the finale.
That was another conscious change that we made from the book. She gets a little forgotten about by the end of the book and we thought that because we’ve invested so much time with her and she’s really put her life on hold to come and extricate her brother from a bad situation, we didn’t see her as someone who would just give up. We think she’s a fighter and wanted to have her be active in the finale.
How long did the fight scene between Cardinal and Ray last when it came to filming it?
It was faster than you might think because we had a lot of camera coverage and we covered it from every angle. Every filming day was packed and Jeff had so much to accomplish and that day was no different because we had stunts and underwater work and working in the dark. I had a lot of discussion with Jeff and Dylan in pre-production about motivating light at the camp. In the book, the place is completely off the grid and it would have been all lanterns and candles and flashlights but because we needed some practical lighting to motivate Dylan’s lighting along the walkways and down by the shore so we could see the actors’ faces and know what was going on we said, ‘OK, they have a generator somewhere.’
If anyone has read the books they know Catherine dies at the beginning of the third novel, By the Time You Read This. Why was it decided she would die at the end of Season 2?
There were lots of conversations around that to make sure it was the best choice. For the writers, we thought that if we didn’t end Catherine’s story there that if you looked back over the six episodes of Season 2 you would say, ‘What is Catherine and Cardinal’s story?’ There is a strong beginning because she’s out of the hospital and is well and back at work. Their daughter is doing well in Toronto. But there is always this undercurrent of when is the next time and it’s inevitable there will be a next time. Cardinal is ready to hang it up so that he can be there with Catherine so that maybe there isn’t a next time. That, of course, is a dream.
What did you think of Season 2 of Cardinal? Are you excited to see Season 3? Let me know in the comments and check out the Season 3 teaser trailer!