I was a teenager in the early 80s, and I remember when the AIDS crisis began. It was a mysterious disease killing people and no one seemed to know why. Being a teen, I was caught up in my own life, one of high school and part-time jobs so I wasn’t aware of the very Canadian angle to the story that included a second virus called Hepatitis C.
Robert C. Cooper was infected with Hepatitis C through tainted blood back then. Now the man behind such series as Stargate and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is telling the story on a world stage. Unspeakable, premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, tells the story from the perspective of two families caught in a tragedy that gripped Canada, as well as the doctors, nurses, corporations and bureaucracy responsible.
Unspeakable stars Sarah Wayne Callies, Michael Shanks, Camille Sullivan, Shawn Doyle. We spoke to Cooper, Callies and Doyle about the project during a recent media day.
Robert, I know about the personal story and the connection to Unspeakable that it has. How did it end up coming to CBC?
Robert C. Cooper: Well, I had a relationship with CBC … and I will forever be indebted to [them] for allowing me to tell this story. I was exposed to Hepatitis C. I spent 30 years or so dealing with that, trying to get rid of that after several arduous treatments, but then in 2014 I was finally cured. I took a treatment that worked finally, and I think some of the catharsis of that gave me the strength and energy to in some ways stop being a victim. I looked at it more from the point of view of the storyteller. And also felt like I had maybe come to a point in my life where I was a little more mature and had a little more ability to be fair and take a more, certainly not objective, more objective point of view of the story.
Having said that, what I did was write this stream of consciousness, angry diatribe that I just said, ‘Sorry, but this is what I have.’ And then, actually, the folks at CBC admitted later that they had not ever bought into so much development on so little. It was just really an angry rant.
In a way three and half, four years later, that’s the most important thing that translated into the show, which is that I knew from the get go. Once I dove into the research, much of which I myself didn’t know.
I became aware of the scope of the story. And I was incredibly daunted and terrified taking this on, and wondered sort of in a way what I had gotten myself into, but felt like if nothing else we would never be able to tell the whole thing in eight hours in a dramatic format. What we needed to was somehow convey the emotion of what it was like to live through, and to translate that experience from a more emotional standpoint.
The anger, the fear, the terror that you felt, and the sadness that the victims who didn’t make it carry with them. Their families, the survivors carry with them everyday. So yeah, it sort of became more and more of a holy crap, this story is almost too big.
What I think what’s unique about it from a storytelling point of view is incredibly challenging when we started getting down to executing it is that unlike a lot of disaster stories it’s not just about the one event. It’s about the long haul.
How old were you when you got diagnosed?
RC: Well, like the story it’s not 100 per cent clear. What happened was when I was about 14, I got sick. They didn’t have a test for that, and so what they did was they called it Non A and Non B, and then it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that they actually came up with a test that told you, ‘Oh yeah, by the way you have this.’
And by the way, that’s how I was told. ‘By the way you have Hep C.’
Sarah Wayne Callies: What was the germane thing they were addressing to which the by the way?
RC: This and that. You’re all good, and on the way out …
Sarah, why did you get involved?
SWC: Well, I was growing up in the States at the time it was going on. My parents had a catastrophic marriage. My dad’s second marriage was no better. The people who taught me what love was was a gay couple named Joe and Clifford. And they had fun, and they cooked together, and they inspired each other. It was this beautiful relationship.
And then one day when I was in junior high my mom came home, and said, ‘Joe has AIDS.’ We didn’t even know he was HIV positive, and he was one of our closest friends. And watching him die … it left a really lasting impression on me, and so when Rob brought this up to me, the Hep. C angle was new to me. The Canadian part of it was new to me, but the idea that we’ve castigated and isolated parts of our populations and decided that it’s OK if they die of diseases.
And Rob’s mentioned this before, but also at a moment when at least south of the 49th peril the media is under such a concentrated attack. This is a story about two men who are journalists who investigate and write books and bring things to light that protect the public.
Like Ben going into his editor saying this is story, and basically the editor saying it’s not a sexy enough story type of thing. It’s just incredible to look at it back with 2018 eyes, and just think that that was the way that everybody thought.
Unspeakable airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.