[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Simon Barry is one of our favorite folks working in TV, with credits from Continuum to Van Helsing and now he’s on Syfy as the creator and showrunner of Ghost Wars, airing Thursday nights at 10/9c. Initially teased as more of a boogedy scarefest, the first two episodes have instead been much more character-driven than I expected, and very Canadian in its leisurely pace and plotting. So, of course, I’m all in on that. I chatted with Barry today about the show, and current projects airing this month in Canada and the UK.
Ghost Wars came about as a an idea pitched from Syfy that Barry then pitched back as a fully formed series. “While I was doing Van Helsing, I was approached by Chris Regina. He was really keen on doing a show about a haunted town. He had mapped out on a whiteboard a schematic about what he was hoping to do–a haunting on a large scale, a ghost story in a traditional sense. Nothing as detailed as you would need to film, but he had a notion of what he wanted to put on the air,” he recalls.
“He gave me the opportunity to pitch him back a more thoroughly detailed version of his idea with mythology, an inciting incident, more specific character beats, and an arc in terms of the direction of the show. I was very lucky. That doesn’t happen very often that an executive hands you the keys to do something.”
“I was very fortunate to be given that chance and give him back something he liked. He had so much faith in the team making Van Helsing, that he felt like this was a good model to repeat with a different idea. I was quite happy to take a chance, I spent a couple of months working on the pilot, which gave us the greenlight to go to series and hire a writers room.”
The writing team on Ghost Wars is all Canadian and half are women, something that both Barry and his co-showrunner, Motive‘s Dennis Heaton do as a general rule and without much fanfare. “I went after Dennis directly as a writer because I know that he’s a real aficionado for horror and paranormal and he is also someone who I could count on, because the amount of work running a show is so massive. I knew I could count on [him] to share the load,” he says.
“It’s a huge undertaking, especially a new show [and] when there’s no pilot. You have to do so many things with the assumption they’re going to work, and you don’t get to test anything. Everything is done in a vacuum. Having a second set of eyes and brain and second showrunner-level writer/producer next to me was a great place to check in with each other at the early stages [and ask], “Is this going to suck, is this going to make audiences happy, is this going to track?”
“There’s not a lot of ability for course correction. By the time we came onto the air, we had shot every episode and edited almost every episode. We needed as many eyes on the ball in a critical way as possible. He was the perfect partner–a tough critic and someone who loves the genre and who knows how to solve problem at a script level at and editing level. We were keen to make a show that we would both want to watch that would entertain us. Finding those things we both love, we hoped that would open the show to a bigger audience.”
“We sat down and said, ‘Let’s put together the room we want.’ Rachel Langer was someone we both wanted to work with again. We had the opportunity to work with Damon Vignale, who I had not worked with but Dennis had on Motive. We had the chance to bring in some junior-level writers. I had known Sonja Benneitt through her husband, Stephen Lobo, who was Kellog on Continuum.
She wrote Preggoland, which I really enjoyed and she’s known as an amazing, accomplished actor [she’s also onscreen in Ghost Wars as bartender Karla]. I knew she was getting into TV writing and she was working Kim’s Convenience. We were keen on making a Vancouver-only writers room [so Vancouver writers could stay home]. She was local and emerging and she’s a new voice and we thought she’d be a perfect accompaniment.”
“Karen Lam, who Dennis knew and I had worked with on Continuum…had a great horror craft, has written and directed horror movies herself, and really knows the audience and a lot of the mythology and traditions. She was another obvious pick for a voice in the room to bring expertise and a fresh voice to the process.
Similar to his good fortune with Van Helsing, Barry assembled a first-rate cast, and he says it was a combination of personal and professional connections and good writing, plus a show that defied the expected idea of a supernatural ghost story.
“We might have had the advantage of [presenting] a show from a certain point of view that people had made their mind up about it and then opened the script it up and started reading and realized, ‘Oh, that’s not at all what I thought it was,'” he explains. “And they made the assumption that the show would deliver what was on the page. You surprise them and make them see something beyond the one-line pitch of the show.”
“At the beginning of the process, we had actors that we were friendly with like Kim [Coates] and Luvia [Peterson] and relationships with people like Kristin [Lehman], and the producers had a relationship with Meat Loaf.”
“We had to get Avan [Jogia] and Vincent [D’Onofrio] to commit [on] the merit of what we were doing. They took the time to read the script and absorb what was happening and responded the way we hoped. It was a mix of [favors] of asking [people we knew] to read and going the traditional blind way and hope the script is your best weapon and sells your show in the best way possible.”
“When we got Vincent, we knew we had done our jobs as writers and we had an opportunity to make a show that was much more than the audience expects. When people were talking about the show, they maybe were not going to give it a chance, but they did because of [our cast].”
As we’ve seen in the first two episodes and will see again tonight in “The Curse of Copperhead Rose,” Ghost Wars spends a significant amount of time on the characters, and that evolved among the writers. “We didn’t sell the show that way, but in the writers room we did make the decision in the first half [of the season] to dig into the characters in a way that would give them [each] a moment. In the second half, we get into a more ensemble nature where you hopefully are attached and more invested and it pays off in a very entertaining and surprising way.”
Switching gears to true crime, Barry is also a creator on City TV’s Bad Blood, starring Anthony LaPaglia and Coates, which is currently airing in Canada. He got the production up and running before heading West to shepherd the first season on Ghost Wars, and was drawn to the project because it had a tie to his hometown of Montreal.
“I was approached to do it. There’s a book called Business or Blood about the Montreal mafia written by [Peter Edwards and Antonio Nicaso], two incredibly knowledgable journalists, who covered the organized crime beats. They had done this incredible document of the entire history of this particular story of the underworld which is tied to the American mafia because Montreal was an entry point,” he explains”
“Vito Rizzuto had managed to bring all these rivals together as a conglomerate and it made for a peaceful organized crime environment. There was a lot of overlap between organized crime, the government, and police, promoting nonviolent and cooperation. In the middle of his reign, he was [jailed for five years in the US and] the crime families went to war. When he got out of jail, the calm businessman approach he had taken was thrown out the window.”
“It was this great Shakespearean story. I was interested for that and that it was an unusual story that hadn’t been told. I grew up in Montreal, so I was fascinated by it. I brought in Michael Konyves, who was also from Montreal, who I thought would be an asset who I could trust to do the things I would have done in that spot. I was available to him when he needed me. He was the de facto showrunner and did a great job. It was beautifully executed.Â I think it turned out wonderfully.”
British audiences can see Creeped Out, the 13-episode horror anthology series for kids on which Barry consulted, beginning Halloween night on BBC Children. “They were looking for someone to come in as a creative advisor and help them on some of the process as it went forward. It was an ideal opportunity to have a bit of an influence and help problem solve on a show that was going to be shooting in England,” he shares.
“I couldn’t be there for the filming but I could help the team that was really smart and together solve some problems together and deal with script issues beforehand that were, for me, things I knew would come up and be problems later on. I could help them fit the show in the box and help with some of the genre beats that we all felt needed to be fresh and original.”
That included working with two Continuum alumni, Shelley Eriksen and the late Denis McGrath, on a couple of scripts. “It was fun project to work with people I know and like and it was nice to get to know a whole new group of people in UK who are very good at what they do. It’s a half-hour anthology with a horror cred. It’s not super hard-core, but it’s still quite freaky, actually. I’m pretty happy with that.”
Ghost Wars airs Thursdays at 10/9c on Syfy. The first two episodes are online now at syfy.com
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