Van Helsing’s Simon Barry Talks Showrunning, Casting, and World-Building [Exclusive]
A funny thing happened on the way to Simon Barry‘s next gig. After Continuum wrapped up last year, Barry was looking for another project when Van Helsing came his way. A spin on the vampire tale, the series was the brain child of playwright Neil LaBute, who had tried his hand at TV for DirecTV’s Billy & Billie and AMC’s Hell on Wheels but had never been a showrunner. Barry was hired to help LaBute shepherd the show into production and was co-showrunner for the entire first season. He also wrote three episodes and directed two.Â I chatted withÂ him this week about that partnership and what to expect this first season.
While LaBute had worked in TV before, getting a new show off the ground was an entirely different animal, and Barry wasÂ excited to get the call. “Chad Oakes and Michael Frislev, producers onÂ Hell on WheelsÂ and Fargo, contacted me because they had been given the approval to move forward on Van Helsing, he recalls. “Neil, although incredibly experienced, hadn’t been in the hot seat on a showrunning duty before. They were hoping I could be his right hand [running] the five-ring circus that is putting together a show from scratch.”
“When I heard that it was a show about vampires and Neil was involved, I thought it was unusual and fresh and [would be] really interesting. I met withÂ him and discovered he was a huge fan of genre and vampire lore. He wanted to take aÂ different approach… a different entry point toÂ what he’s known for. We had an opportunity to do something unpredictable and permission to go outside the lines of what would be expected in a Syfy show.”
“I came in at the very, very beginning before we hired any writers. My job was essentially to support Neil. He’s the creative guide of the show and the arbiter of what we are creatively choosing. In every sense, he’s the true showrunner. I was trying to help him manage the massive amount of people and resources that go into the job in a way that allows him to deal with the creative part and me to deal with the management stuff.”
“Since we were based in Vancouver, he was relying on me to staff the room with people I knew or had a connection to or could get a reference for. Once we started the room, I was there to make sure that the production [stayed on] schedule and to spread work outÂ among theÂ writers soÂ he could focusÂ on the strong creative instincts he has and keep the throughline intact.”
“Once we were in production, I could share some of those nuts and bolts responsibilities with him, helping cast our key creatives, our DOP Brendan, our production designer, our casting director. We were in aÂ position that Neil wasn’t [to select local talent] and have Neil approve them. Once we started shooting and the scripts were being delivered, I could take a big step back from my responsibilities to Neil and I could focus on directing.”
“By the time we were halfway through the season, it was time for me to get ready direct my two episodes. At that point he was taking over 100% the showrunning.” Barry wrote the secondÂ episode this evening, “Seen You,” as well as episode 7, and he directed episode 10, and wrote and directed episode 11.
I’ve said before that this show tapped into my personal wish list of casting fantastic Canadian talent, and Barry says they were thrilled with who they got. “Between Neil and myself and Chad, we…looked at who we would like to work with, who would be more than capable and punch above our weight. It’s not a big budget show, and we felt like the talent and the cast were going to carry so many of the things we wouldn’t be able to do with the budget,” he explains.
“The idea was for us to think about the characters and actors we wanted to match up. We also discovered actors in the city we hadn’t worked with who were incredibly talented. There was a great opportunity for us as filmmakers to stack the deck in our favor. We had ideas of cast in mind even when we were writing. We had certain favorites and started writing to them as actors. Hell on Wheels was great for us because we got Jonathan [Scarfe], Tim [Guinee], and Chris [Heyerdahl].”
“They’re unbelievable. With Kelly [Overton] being so good, we needed cast that would rise to the level that she puts in with professionalism and dedication. We really were going for an all-star team and we got it. When that happened out of the gate, I knew we had a bird in the hand in terms whether we had something that would be watchable and interesting, because that talent is phenomenal.”
The two-part premiere tonight starta in theÂ thick of the actionÂ and dials back to how it all began, and that was always the plan for how the show would kick off. “We always wanted to throw the audience into it as it had already happened. Our argument for that was that we would be right on the heels of that with a flashback that would give it some context,” says Barry.
“That made it more interesting. The audience wants to be challenged and to catch up a little bit vs. knowing exactly what is going to happen. It was a way for us to do all the [origin] scenes we wanted to do without the audience waiting for something to happen. We’d already front loaded it with episode one, where we establish the stakes and situation so it puts everything that happened prior in a different kind of context.”
While we got flashbacks of Axel, Doc, and Vanessa, Barry explains we won’t see flashbacks of the newcomers, but we will learn more about them. “We didn’t feel like their backstory was best served through flashback,” he points out. “Instead, we will parse it out through conversation and character development so we’ll get to know them better as the season continues.”
You might have noticed in the end credits that there’s mention of a graphic novel, but Barry says that didn’t factor into the creation of the series. “I never saw the graphic novel and I didn’t know about it until about three months into production. In the writers room, it never came up,” he says.
“We had been working off a pre-sales document that Syfy had sent to us, but for the most part we had started from zero, with very broad strokes, like names, vampires, and post-apocalyptic. We took that world and the situation that vampires had risen and we jumped off from there.”
Van Helsing airs Fridays at 10/9c on Syfy. Check back next week for Barry’s thoughts on episode 3.
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