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Executive producer Virginia Rankin breaks down Transplant’s origin story

Virginia Rankin has executive-produced some of the most compelling series in Canadian television. From 19-2 to Bad Blood and This Life she, and the folks at Sphère Média Plus, have brought unique characters and compelling stories to primetime TV.

The latest is Transplant. Airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CTV, Rankin’s newest project debuted to strong ratings in Canada. Starring Hamza Haq as Dr. Bashir “Bash” Hamed—a Syrian doctor with battle-tested skills in emergency medicine—it appears she’s got another success on her hands.

We spoke to Virginia Rankin about how Transplant was created, and how the TV market has changed for a company like Sphère Média Plus.

Take me back to the beginning. How did Transplant come about?
Virginia Rankin: I work very closely with Tara Woodbury, who’s our head of development, and Tara really wanted to do something around immigration and refugees. Her family, her extended family, sponsors a Sudanese refugee, so she has firsthand experience with it and so she wanted to do something around that. And my experience, in 20 years of television, is that it’s incredibly hard to tell those stories because mainstream networks are like, ‘Ah, it sounds like an issue. We don’t do issues.’ So, I sort of a little hesitant, but she was really passionate about it. And at first, we were bouncing around ideas like rom-coms and comedies and this kind of thing.

At the same time, we knew that [CTV] was looking for a medical show to replace Saving Hope. And we also knew that we wanted to work with Joseph Kay. I had had a great experience working with him on This Life. We sort of cornered him. We all kind of sat around and threw ideas around and then one night, in the middle of the night, they kind of all came together and the title Transplant came to me and that was some debate about whether it should be The Transplant, by the way, or Transplant. But for me, it was just Transplant and I saw the poster and on the poster was Hamza Haq.

We knew from working with him what a great guy he was and that he’s the full hero package. He’s charismatic, he’s handsome as anything, he’s got the acting chops and he’s a wonderful human being. My job was done and then it was over to Joe and Joe just took those simple elements and he went away and he did a lot of deep diving, a lot of research and he came back and he pitched us this beautiful story of Bash and his sister Amira as Syrian refugees and their new lives in Canada.

It was really all created by Joseph.

Just to clarify, Hamza was not attached. We didn’t say it has to be this guy and we hadn’t attached him in any way. We actually went through a full audition process before we attached him, but he did come on as a consultant. So he read the draft and gave Joe his thoughts.

He actually had to audition and we did audition a number of Syrian actors. We looked quite extensively at Arab actors. And when it came down to it, he was still the guy who we really thought could bring an audience to the show.

What is it about Joseph Kay that ticks the boxes when it comes to a showrunner?
VR: It’s how seriously he takes his job. It’s the research that he does. He has to really know his characters in a deep way. And he does that. He does that work. He’s a wonderful collaborator. I’ve worked on two shows with him now and I just love the creative conversation with him and how he listens and he thinks and he takes everything on board. And then he comes out with beautiful work. So, I can’t say enough good things about working with him.

As you said, Hamza is fantastic. You can’t help but cheer for this guy.
VR: He’s a leading man. He’s Omar Sharif and you don’t see that that often either. And frankly, I think we’re incredibly lucky that we kind of discovered him when we did. I mean, he already had it long CV, but certainly, this is his first major, major leading role. And I feel like a year or two from now we wouldn’t have been able to get him. So, I feel like he’s going to break out. But luckily for us, he loves the show. He’s really, really, really passionate about it and he works so hard and put so much of his heart and soul into it.

When you see NBCUniversal International Studios attached to this, I can’t help but think about the way that the market has changed and how it’s become truly international. As a producer, has there been a seismic shift in the way that you go about making television shows here in this country and how you shop them around?
VR: It’s interesting. It is quite different working with NBC than it has been working with the other international distributors we’ve worked with in the past. NBC sees itself as a studio. We don’t have a studio system in Canada. In Canada, we, the production company, sees ourselves as a studio because we own the copyright and the cashflow and we do all that stuff. But NBC does see themselves more like a studio. Their participation is on a level that they’ve earned that. And so they are much more actively involved than the experience I’ve had with other international distributors, which is great because you do want your show to sell around the world and they obviously know how to do that. So, we really appreciate their perspective and we really hope that the show does succeed in significant markets around the world.

What can you say about Bash’s journey through the first season of the show?
VR: The journey of Bash is, to a certain extent, to allow himself to release some of his secrets because some of his secrets are kind of killing him. He’s carrying guilt and trauma as any refugee will have, any survivor will have. And he’s sharing those things and he perhaps needs to share them more for his own sake, for his own survival. So that is his character journey, which is to learn to let some of those secrets go.

The first episode ends with Bash sitting down with Jed Bishop and Jed saying, ‘Let’s have that job interview over again.’ Is this going to be a mentor-mentee type of relationship, a father-son relationship between these two?
VR: Yes, yes, absolutely. There’s the father-son dynamic there and like any father-son or parental relationship, it’s not always nice. It’s not always pretty. So on both sides, there’s rebellion from the son figure and there are disappointments from the father figure, it’s all of those variations of the father-son relationship.

Transplant airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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Murdoch Mysteries showrunner Peter Mitchell looks back on Season 13

Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched the Season 13 finale of Murdoch Mysteries, “The Future is Unwritten.” 

Well, Murdoch fans, what did you think? After a week filled with comments about Julia’s smooch with Dr. Dixon, George’s kidnapping by Amelia and thoughts on Ms. Hart, it all came together quickly on Monday night. By the time the dust had settled, George had talked his way out of a calamity (I honestly thought he might meet a grisly end), Dixon revealed himself to be a silly boy looking to add notches to his bedpost, and we understood a lot more about Violet Hart.

We also saw William and Julia reconcile and reveal some true honesty. That’s something that has been missing a tad with our favourite couple and just one of several questions I asked of showrunner Peter Mitchell.

Before we get to that, here’s what he had to say about the title of the episode: “The title of the episode, ‘The Future is Unwritten,’ comes from a documentary about Joe Strummer. Because Joe was such a positive life force, I always think of it as meaning the world in front of you has limitless possibilities.”

Congratulations on 13 seasons.
Peter Mitchell: Oh, thank you.

Violet Hart’s storyline has evolved from this somewhat wide-eyed person that was brought into the morgue by Julia. Has this evolution been organic?
PM: Well I mean we had Rebecca, who was super sweet like Mouna Traoré. But when Shanice comes in, I think the very first thing she says to Julia is, ‘I don’t expect to be working for you for very long.’ She comes in as a vitamin salesman, and sort of off the very top says, ‘You ain’t the boss of me.’ A character who you could never really nail down. I mean she shows up, she tells Ogden she doesn’t believe in God, she tells Murdoch she does, and then she shows up at the funeral of a strange baby, and is either crying or pretending to cry. We’ve always tried to keep her a bit elusive.

You must love it when you’re reading people that absolutely hate Violet Hart, or love Shanice in her portrayal.
PM: A million years ago I worked on a show, and one of the actors was a guy called Cedric Smith, who’s a well-known older Canadian actor. And he was always like, ‘It’s more fun to be the bad guy.’ It’s often more fun to write for the bad guy.

OK, let’s talk about Watts. His storyline this season has been fantastic. He’s gay. Again, was that an organic storyline? Was that feedback from Daniel? 
PM: That was probably a bit more organic. And I think that the way that Daniel portrayed the character, it was with the writers easy for us to go, ‘Yeah, that wouldn’t be a surprise.’ I don’t think we plotted out a three-year arc that would uncover a secret, other than it seemed like although some of the fans had a hard time accepting that this could indeed be possible, it never seemed to us that it was a huge leap. And Dan was super pumped to do it, sort of like off to the races.

Why the decision to have Julia kiss Dixon? It felt as though she was instigating it.
PM: I think it’s incredibly attractive to have somebody attracted to you. And at certain times in your life, I think you just feel like you need that. Her views about lust versus love might be completely different than William’s. This might be water off a duck’s back to her. Or it might be something she’d never would have gone through with. I think, probably in my heart of hearts, that if it had have progressed much further, she probably would have said, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I don’t think she was opposed to a little first base action. I don’t think it makes her cruel. I mean I’ve already stated my case that I don’t think it makes her evil or unredeemable.

And I think if the fans were honest with themselves, I think they would admit to certain urges in their lives they may have had.

William hasn’t been the most attentive this season.
PM: I would also argue if I had to, it wouldn’t have mattered how well or poorly William had treated her. I don’t think it’s like a deficit on William’s character because Julia got momentarily interested in another guy. I don’t think it’s punishment, I don’t think it’s any of that stuff.

Regarding the 200th episode, was there a special kind of pressure that you felt as a showrunner and as a writer when you’re reached that landmark number?
PM: Oh yeah. Yeah, 200 was an opportunity to get some kind of oomph. And I think 200 was also significantly long enough to celebrate the show in its totality. So that’s why we wanted to have guest stars that spanned all the way back to the first season. We wanted to have shout-outs hidden in the script that referenced the balloon ride from like eight-gazillion years ago, the bellman from the honeymoon on the heels of the 100th episode.

We wanted to populate it with Easter eggs, and we wanted to sort of, as opposed to being sombre, or serious, or any of that shit, we just wanted to celebrate kind of the zaniness that Paul Aitken and the rest of the writers bring to the show, so we had a fucking death-ray. There was a lot of hat-tipping going on. And we just wanted to populate it with that other aspect of the Murdoch thing, the historical guest stars. Allow Murdoch to be surrounded by his peers, i.e. the smartest people in the world, which he is one.

Season 14 has not been announced. Anything you can tease in case it happens?
PM: The little tramp might make an appearance. Not Julia, but Charlie Chaplin. Hopefully the same as last year, and hopefully we’ll do it a little bit better.

 

What did you think of the Season 3 finale? Which storyline was your favourite of the whole season? Let me know in the comments section below!

Images courtesy of CBC.

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The Oland Murder peels back the curtain on a high-profile East Coast death

The story ticks all of the boxes for a true crime fan like myself.

On the morning of July 7, 2011, multi-millionaire Richard Oland, of the Moosehead Brewing family, was found beaten to death in his Saint John, New Brunswick, office. His son, Dennis, was quickly identified as the main suspect and convicted of the crime. After spending 10 months in prison, the verdict was overturned and Dennis was released.

That’s where Deborah Wainwright came in. The award-winning director and Gemini and Canadian Screen Award-nominated producer was there with her team to film everything that happened in the planning for the trail.

Debuting on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, the four-part The Oland Murder delves into the family, the police, the investigation and the result of the retrial in a truly compelling way. We spoke to Deborah Wainwright about the project.

How did you find out about this in the first place? 
Deborah Wainwright: Richard was murdered in 2011, but it was probably 2014 that I first sort of paid attention to the case. Of course, 2015 is when Making a Murderer hit. Everybody was talking about it. And this case kept popping up on my homepage and I didn’t really pay much attention except that patricide is certainly horrifying. And so when Dennis was convicted, I was like, ‘Yikes, that’s quite the story.’ And I started to pay attention as he was applying for bail, pending appeal, and he kept being turned down for bail, pending an appeal over and over again.

I thought that was curious. So I started reading all of the news articles and watching all the news clips that I could find on the story, trying to figure out why he wasn’t being granted appeal. And eventually, I thought this guy’s going to win his appeal. He’s going to be granted a retrial. So it just kept hopping across my home page and then I thought, ‘Well, wow, if I could find a way to be able to tell this story if he does get granted a retrial and I have the opportunity to follow that story as it’s happening, that would be a really unique situation.’ I can’t think of another case in Canada that did that.

How did you get Dennis to sign on and his mother to sign on? How did you convince them that you were a documentarian, that you weren’t going to take advantage of him?
DW: I’ve been asked that question a lot. And the first time someone asked, ‘How did I get access?’, I was so shocked. I said, ‘Because I asked.’ But I also think there was a little combination of the timing and the fact that I’m from the other side of the country.

Once I was in, they definitely expressed unease for agreeing. They definitely expressed unease with the way the case has been handled in the media. They didn’t feel it had been handled fairly by the media. So I do think that perhaps it was partly because I was from Vancouver and perhaps they hoped that I was coming with more of an open mind because as I say, I didn’t know the Olands. I didn’t know Moosehead. I didn’t know anything about it. I just saw this as an opportunity to tell the story of an ongoing trial.

Do you think maybe part of it was so that they could tell their side of the story?
DW: Absolutely. I mean, no one had been told their side of the story. And I think that’s a decision by the Oland’s to be quiet, to just be stoic and quiet and try and get through it together. Oh, I think it may have bitten them in the butt a little bit because people can only tell the stories that they are given access to. They knew because I’m a documentary filmmaker my goal was to tell the truth and to tell every bit of the story that I can. I can’t be one-sided.

And so they knew that they were going to be some things that were going to be uncomfortable. You mentioned Dennis’ mother, the widow. Having a sit-down interview with her was really something. And this was, gosh, six years later, seven years later, that I interviewed her after her husband had been murdered and her son had gone to prison and was still going through this. She was so brave and what a gift she gave me by allowing me to just sit down and ask her some really uncomfortable questions.

Something that I found really unique in your storytelling was the court transcripts. You couldn’t be in there with a camera so you used animation and it was wonderful.
DW: Oh, thank you so much. I will happily tell you, our animator is our wonderful graphic artist. His name is Vern Giammartino. He’s in Toronto and he is absolutely brilliant and also hilarious. We knew we wanted to animate it because of course, you can’t put a camera in the courtroom. So we talked about making it look like courtroom sketches. We really wanted the viewer to feel like that they had been sitting in the courtroom watching it go on.

What do you think happened?
DW: Of course I have an opinion on the verdict and who the killer is and so on. I and my colleagues sat through every day of the trial and all of the pretrial motions, so we have a lot of information that didn’t even make it into the film. We worked so very hard to craft a story that is balanced and fair and truthful.

The Oland Murder airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Murdoch Mysteries’ Shanice Banton: “I hope that you understand Violet a little bit more”

Violet Hart is perhaps the most galvanizing character on Murdoch Mysteries. Facebook feeds have been devoted to her conniving and plotting, with many comments simply stating, “I hate the character, so congratulations to the actress!”

That’s music to Shanice Banton’s ears. The actress, who has previously starred on Degrassi: The Next Generation and Lost Girl, has portrayed Violet Hart for a mere 33 episodes but has made a huge splash on a show celebrating 200 instalments. When we first met Ms. Hart, she was selling vitamins. Now she’s a coroner accused of murder. With Monday’s Murdoch Mysteries season finale upon us, we spoke to Banton about the brouhaha surrounding Ms. Hart.

Give me your origin story. How did you end up playing this character of Violet Hart in the first place?
Shanice Banton: I was shooting another project and this opportunity had come up, just like a regular audition, and I ended up putting myself on tape for it, I believe. Same old audition style, regular audition style and they told me they wanted to have me on, and that was it.

What were your initial thoughts? Coming off a show like the Degrassi or Lost Girl, you’re coming onto Murdoch Mysteries, which is a period drama. Was your initial reaction, ‘Yeah, get me into some of that old clothing!’
SB: Yeah. It kind of took me back to high school, ‘Ooh, this feels like theatre.’ This is exciting, but you’re doing it for film. It’s amazing because I’ve done a lot of older plays and stuff like that in high school.

Obviously hair, makeup, costumes, all that helps make this character.
SB: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we have Deb [Drennan] who does makeup and she is just super amazing at transforming me so that I would fit absolutely perfectly for that time. Exactly knowing what to do. And with Joanna [Syrokomla] as well, she’s been doing some amazing, amazing things like pulling things from these New Age stores, like Zara and cutting things together, building things for the character and it’s amazing. They even collage and such and without those things, until I stepped into my costume, until I step into makeup, that’s when I really feel like, ah, I’m Violet Hart now.

They really help shape your character. So I’m so glad that we have a team that’s amazing at that. Really awesome.

It was interesting to see how Violet was introduced. She was at a show and she was selling vitamins. Julia took her under her wing and, right from the get-go, we knew that Violet was different, that she was ambitious. How much of the character was described to you in those first few episodes of those first few scripts? 
SB: A lot of it was just taking it, what I’d been told what she would be like and reading the scripts. [She] was just really pushing the ambition and wanting to get something out of life and get to the next level.

You don’t see Violet as an evil person. She’s an ambitious person, right?
SB: Yeah, absolutely.

How do you feel about playing one of the evilest characters on Murdoch Mysteries?
SB: I feel good about it. I feel great actually. It’s fun. No, honestly, it’s always fun to play these characters. I’m glad that she’s stirring all the other’s troubles in the end. And, you finally get to see who is Violet Hart. We’ve all been wondering. And I think what’s happening here in this last little bit is really going to show that. It is exciting.

Showrunner Peter Mitchell has always said it’s a lot more fun to write for a character like Violet Hart. You’ve already hinted at the fun you’re having.
SB: Yeah, that’s super fun.

On the Facebook pages, the compliment that I see the most is, ‘hate the character because the actress does such a good job.’
SB: I love that. That’s amazing.

What’s it like working with Hélène and Yannick?
SB: They’re really great. When I first stepped onto the show and even up to now, it’s like I’m settled more into my character now than I was in the beginning. But working in the early stages, they were just so planted in their characters and scene actions. It’s really been great to watch them work together and have scenes together and it’s funny, off-set we’ve made a lot of jokes, it’s always great. And the crew is really awesome.

What do you want to say to the fans about this character and how they feel about her?
SB: Well, first of all, I want to say thank you for all the great comments on people hating her. I hope that after this episode you can get to understand her a little bit more and see where she’s coming from and have a little bit of a change of heart.

 

Have you changed your tune on Violet Hart? What do you think will happen in the finale? Let me know in the comments below.

The Season 13 finale of Murdoch Mysteries airs Monday at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Comments and queries for the week of February 28

I saw the first episode of Tribal last night and thought it was great. I’ve really liked Jessica Matten in Frontier and Burden of Truth and she deserves a leading role. Brian Markinson was great too in bringing the bigoted white guy to the series. They had great chemistry together. I expect by the end of the series the two characters will be drinking beers on the porch reminiscing about their cases. The script was well written too. I look forward to many more years of this show. —John


We are lucky to have our cable provider carry the CBC here in Ohio. My mom introduced me to the detective looking for “finger marks” and we have enjoyed the characters and mysteries. Watts is fantastic, Murdoch is wonderful, Margaret a hoot. So much to enjoy.

It is, however, not without disappointment. The loss of Parker feels wrong. One can recognize human complexity and that people do bad things and still know when a line is crossed. I feel the this temptation of Julia maybe an unnecessary line to cross. I compare her actions to Brackenreid. When Margaret left him, he was with a woman, but stopped and voiced his love for his wife and respect for his marriage. Julia? Only a phone call prevented anything from escalating with Dixon. On top of this, hearing William, the supposed love of her life, did not give rise to regret or a voice of her love for husband and her marriage. It was Dixon that left without her asking him to leave. Thirteen years of this couple and then that reaction?

I hope if the writers choose this cheating route they have the guts for the fallout. The fallout probably should include the marriage ending. How can he ever trust her again? Another pretty face comes along to tempt her, then what? I hope Murdoch isn’t left pining for her or even having to fight for her; let her fight for him. Invest in a love interest for him too. People do bad things and there are consequences. Julia decides to cheat, there needs to be consequences. —Jennifer

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

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