Tag Archives: Unspeakable

Pacific Screenwriting Program announces Robert Cooper as showrunner for the 2020 Scripted Series Lab

From a media release:

The Pacific Screenwriting Program (PSP) is pleased to announce Writer/Producer/Director Robert Cooper as Showrunner for the 2020 Scripted Series Lab. Cooper will be a mentor to six up-and-coming BC-based screenwriters selected to participate in next year’s program starting in January 2020. With Cooper leading the story room, they will work together to develop his original series in the PSP’s flagship training program now in its second year. Combining real-world story room experience, mentorship, boot camps, workshops and information sessions, the program equips writers with the skills, experience and connections necessary to establish a sustainable career in the province’s dynamic screen industry. The Pacific Screenwriting Program is a collaboration between Netflix, CMPA, the Writer’s Guild of Canada and Creative BC.

Robert Cooper most recently created wrote and directed episodes of CBC’s Unspeakable, following Canada’s tainted blood scandal. A lifelong dream project, the mini-series recently won the Leo Award for best dramatic series. Previously, he served as showrunner of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for BBC America, Netflix and AMC Studios, and is probably best known for having been showrunner of the record-breaking Stargate television franchise for MGM. He co-created Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe and served as executive producer, writer, and director of multiple episodes of all three series and two DTV movies. Cooper has been nominated and won several awards for both writing and directing, including two Hugo nominations and a Canadian Writer’s Guild award for best dramatic screenplay. In 2009, he was presented with an Outstanding Achievement Award for contribution to the British Columbia television industry.

The Scripted Series Lab is a 15-week intensive training program providing support and career- advancement opportunities for active and aspiring screenwriters from across British Columbia, where they receive the necessary support to expand their portfolio and pursue opportunities in the evolving TV marketplace. Throughout the program, participants hone their craft, strengthen their collaboration and presentation skills, and obtain a deeper understanding of the global television industry and how to market themselves within it. As the Scripted Series Lab showrunner, Cooper will mentor the six selected participants within a real-world story room over 10 weeks, breaking stories and writing scripts for the original project he brings to the room and will subsequently be pitching to streamers and networks around the world.


Shawn Doyle speaks of Unspeakable and some regrets playing Canada’s first prime minister

Unspeakable was, as the title suggests, once just that. The CBC miniseries delves into the tainted blood scandal in Canada that took place during the 1980s as the AIDS crisis was unfolding. A time when there was a misunderstanding in the disease, how it was spread and how some Canadians, as a result, were infected with Hepatitis C. It was something not talked about. Not anymore.

As I already covered in this previous story, writer Robert C. Cooper acquired Hepatitis C because of tainted blood. He turned his personal experience into the basis for Unspeakable, which 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.

Shawn Doyle stars in Unspeakable as Ben Landry, a journalist. By the end of Episode 1, Ben and his wife, Alice (Camille Sullivan), learn of their son’s Hepatitis C diagnosis and realize it could have been prevented. That sends Ben on an investigative path to find out who is responsible. We spoke to Doyle about his most recent project and reached back into the past to talk about his portrayal of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Give me the background, Shawn. How did you end up finding out about Robert’s project in the first place, and what attracted you to it?
Shawn Doyle: Robert approached me about doing it, and he sent me the first few scripts, and then a couple outlines. I didn’t know a lot about the scandal other than the fact that my mother stood the risk of actually becoming infected because she had a number of transfusions in the early 80s. I read the script, and Robert had told me to look at the character, Ben, that I played. I actually originally was more attracted to the other character, Will, in so far as he was more volitional, you know?

I suppose on an unconscious level, there was a resistance within me about playing a character that ultimately is so paralyzed, feeling so impotent at the top of the series. Robert and I talked about it, and he kind of clarified why he thought I was appropriate for Ben. Ultimately, the result of that conversation and reading those scripts, I was just honoured to play the role because it felt like he was really entrusting me with kind of an awesome responsibility.

This project was personal for Robert. What about for you? You mentioned your mother.
SD: For me, it was really about dealing with the humanity of his relationships, the minute-to-minute experience of trying to reconcile himself with his wife and his son, and also trying to seek some direction in his life. In some ways, my job as the actor was to fill those very human moments and allow the larger story to take shape as Robert dictated through the writing.

In the first episode, it’s established that we’re starting to find out information. There’s a virus that’s in the States and is creeping its way into Canada. There’s fear, but there’s also frustration, that people don’t seem to be taking this seriously. They think that it isn’t a big deal. That really resonated with me.
SD: Yeah, I think everybody is in the dark, and there was nobody to turn to. That’s kind of the clear message that comes through, and certainly, it doesn’t take much of an extrapolation to figure out current-day examples of the same thing. We trust all these governing bodies to guide us in the proper direction, be it health or environment or safety. Constantly, we come face to face with evidence that nobody really knows, and often, people don’t care.

Sometimes we get a little bit blasé and smug in this country. When it comes to something like this project, Walkerton with the water and people dying, or Maple Leaf Foods, people getting sick, contaminated foods … We really can’t afford to be smug in this country because stuff has happened here, and people have died in this country, too.
SD: I would second your statement there. And I would go so far as to say that we often thumb our noses at the States and feel that we have some sort of superiority when it comes to taking care of our own and not being affected by the same level of corruption. But the truth is, like you just said, with Walkerton, with this, with the fact that private blood companies are still on the rise in this country, are still trying to be not regulated. I mean, this stuff happens, and it will continue to happen unless there are watchdogs out there looking after everybody.

In something like Unspeakable a historical precedent is set. It’s based on real events. As an actor, is it any different taking on something that’s historically accurate, or something like Bellevue, where it’s fiction? Does that matter to you when it comes to a project? Is one more difficult than the other?
SD: I think that the subject matter dictates how difficult a project is. For example, I played John A. Macdonald, and that required very specific preparation in terms of dialect and movement and look. In some ways, that kind of work frees your emotional life because it supports all the other kind of work you do from the moment-to-moment acting work. In some ways, I treated this more like fiction than trying to portray a real-life person because, in fact, I was an amalgam of other people. It was less about trying to pin down a specific person, a specific character that existed, and more about just trying to find it in the moment with my fellow actors.

The speech Ben gives in Episode 1 is stirring. You’re under makeup and you can feel the age in your voice. You can just feel the weight of what’s gone on in Ben’s life coming through in his voice as he stands in front of that group of people. It was pretty amazing.
SD: Oh, thanks for saying that. That was one of the most terrifying days in my career, I would say, to get up in front of 300 background people and be in age makeup and trying to play someone in their 70s who’s gone through this experience. That all happened very early in the shooting, too, so it wasn’t as if I had the momentum or the weight of having done a number of scenes. It was really very close to the top shooting, and so it really relied on imagination and trust and just trying to jump off the cliff. Also, when you’re in that kind of makeup, it’s really important that you try not to act your age, act that age because it’ll just weigh too much. Yeah. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know if I want to see it, to be honest with you.

It’s so funny that you say that that was nerve-racking for you to be up in front of a group of people in makeup and saying that speech. That’s so funny. Out of all the work that you’ve done over the years, I find that interesting.
SD: Well, first of all, I hate speaking in public. I have a huge fear of it, as a lot of actors do unless they’re hiding behind a character. But secondly, there’s just so many traps to fall into when you’re playing … First of all, when you have a prosthetic on your face, and second, you’re playing such a different age. But more than anything, for me, it was the eagerness to try to capture the weight of history, the years that had gone by as he has struggled to keep a family together and not always won. I wanted to find ways to live that inside and not have to feel as if I had to act that, if that makes any sense, to present it. I didn’t want to present it. As much preparation as a five-page speech does in that context, it also requires time to just allow your heart and your mind to travel through what that must be like. Because again, we hadn’t done enough of the series yet for me to have physically experienced it, so it was all imagination. So, that’s what was terrifying about it.

Because you brought up John A. Macdonald. John A.: Birth of a Country was recently available on Encore +, so it’s readily available for people for free via YouTube. How does it feel to have that available online now for a new generation of viewers to see?
SD: I have very mixed feelings about it. I think it’s actually a very good film. I’m very proud of the work that we did, and I’m proud of the work I did. But post-playing John A. Macdonald, I discovered that I am First Nations. I have my First Nations status and I also now have a life partner who is an Indigenous artist, Métis, Cree and Saulteaux. My worldview of that particular part of our world has just expanded so dramatically, and I understand that there’s a glorification that happened in our production that I can no longer get behind.

Now, the idea was to do four films through his four major tenures as a prime minister. I think if we would have had that journey, we could see the frailty of the man or his flaws. We didn’t get a chance to do it in the one film, and unfortunately, we lionize him a little bit in a way that I regret based on what I’ve since learned about his behaviour towards First Nations people. Because when we did that movie back in 2009, I did my due diligence, and I read biographies and everything. There weren’t any anti-Macdonald biographies easily and readily accessible, so we didn’t dwell on that in the films, obviously. I didn’t really uncover that in my own research, and that’s something that I just have to carry with me.

So whenever things have come up with his anniversary a couple years ago, I have decided to kind of publicly talk about that, certain situations, because I think it’s important.

Unspeakable airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.


Links: Unspeakable

From Debra Yeo of the Toronto Star:

Link: Robert C. Cooper was one of many Canadians sickened by tainted blood in the ’80s. His new TV show reminds us of the tragedy
To say that the miniseries Unspeakable is a passion project for Robert C. Cooper understates his dedication to telling the tale of Canada’s tainted-blood scandal. For one thing, the Toronto-born writer, producer and director is part of the story. He’s one of the thousands of hemophiliacs who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood in the 1980s. Continue reading.

From Sabrina Furminger of YVR Screen Scene:

Link: ‘Unspeakable’ explores the worst public health disaster in Canadian history
Gay cancer. Gay plague. These were the kinds of words that were used to describe AIDS in the early 1980s. AIDS was dismissed as something not worth thinking about by politicians and medical boards on both sides of the border – this, as thousands of people suffered and died. Continue reading.

From Charles Trapunski of Brief Take:

Link: Interview: Unspeakable’s Sarah Wayne Callies, Shawn Doyle and Robert C. Cooper
“When we first presented to the writers and to the network, we presented a little too much factual information, but that’s where you have to start with something like this. You want to adhere to the truth as much as you can.” Continue reading.

From Bridget Liszewski of The TV Junkies:

Link: CBC’s Unspeakable brings tragedy close to home
“What drew me ultimately to the project, was the relationship of this family at the core of it and trying to hold that together, while also understanding how I could protect my son and repair the damage that’s happened between us.” Continue reading.


Unspeakable: CBC miniseries revisits Canada’s tainted blood scandal

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.