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The producers of POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY were acutely aware how easy it is to deliver a bomb instead of a bouquet; their series, after all, comes from a now-defunct film franchise. "We were doing year one of LIMITS when MGM approached me with the idea of turning POLTERGEIST into a series," recalled executive producer Richard B. Lewis, one of three partners in Trilogy Entertainment Group (Pen Densham and John Watson are his colleagues; together they boast an impressive series of credits, including BACKDRAFT and BLOWN AWAY). "I thought they were nuts. What would we do, have Jobeth Willians and Craig T. Nelson move into a new house every week?"
The answer was to do what FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES attempted: milk the potential audience draw of the franchise's title for all it is worth, and concoct an entirely new story concept. For this, Lewis relied on his background as a university anthropology major. "The supernatural is not my cup of tea, but I thought about its historical roots, how man's understanding of it came about," he recalled.
Lewis created a would-be history where having a sixth sense used to be normal. "As time went on, socialization gradually robbed man of these powers. But the supernatural is no less potent today, still with us and wreaking havoc," he said. "With this groundwork laid, I fashioned a premise. What if there was a group of people who never lost touch with their powers? They and their successors would form a tightly-knit group like the freemasons, and go about dealing with paranormal activity in secret. They grow wealthy and powerful, and assume the guise of charitable societies like the Pew Foundation. Their headquarters are mansions and museums, and they are the sole individuals preventing us from being taken over by sinister forces." Officials at MGM and Showtime lost no time greenlighting this revamped version of POLTERGEIST. There was little doubt Trilogy would film POLTERGEIST in Canada—on the same Bridge Studios lot that OUTER LIMITS inhabits. "It's worked out quite well," said production designer Sheila Haley. "OUTER LIMITS has two studios, and so do we, plus a small commercial stage. Together we've taken over the entire complex!"
Unfortunately, producers have not avoided troubles endemic to shooting in British Columbia. The pressure to find unfilmed portions of Vancouver is intense because location-heavy series like X-FILES, OUTER LIMITS and others dominate the landscape. "It's a real headache," said Lewis. "And let's not talk about getting a good crew. We had to hand-pick ours. Vancouver is very, very busy, but you can't compare it to L.A. in terms of resources."
There is also bureaucracy to deal with, as POLTERGEIST discovered while filming a portion of the pilot in nearby Victoria. No sooner had electrical equipment been unpacked than a city inspector threatened to halt production because the gear lacked Canadian Standards Association stickers.
Famous is the story of how unionists forced Clint Eastwood out of the province to neighboring Alberta to film UNFORGIVEN, because teamsters demanded that they, instead of a long-time colleague, drive the star's private trailer full of prop guns which were also subject to bureaucratic red tape.
High costs coupled with bad attitude have compelled other prestigious features to seek greener pastures Today, Vancouver plays host largely to TV movies. "It's not even ideal for television anymore," said a POLTERGEIST staffer who wished to remain anonymous "It rains all the time, and there really isn't the diversity of locations people are led to believe. If it weren't for the exchange on the US buck, we would be in North Carolina or Los Angeles quicker than a jack rabbit with a hand grenade up its ass."
POLTERGEIST'S two-hour pilot began filming on Halloween, and wrapped in mid-December. Lewis, who co-wrote the script, enlisted key talent from the award-winning LIMITS pilot "The Sand Kings," including director Stuart Gillard and star Helen Shaver. Initially, Lewis doubted the veteran film actress would agree to do a series. "But we enjoy a good rapport, and she liked our ideas. Plus we pay her well, and two years of steady work is nothing to sneeze at."
The Canadian-born Shaver is no stranger to Vancouver. "She has family there, she knows the place, and I don't think she'll have much trouble spending eight months of the year there," Lewis mused.
Shaver plays Rachel Corrigan, a psychiatrist who journeys to Ireland to visit the grave of her recently- deceased husband. Through a bizarre series of events, he is resurrected by dark forces, and proceeds to seduce her. The result is a demon fetus with an astonishingly fast growth rate. Rachel's ordeal puts her in contact with "The Legacy," a group of paranormal investigators working from a mansion on San Francisco's Angel Island.
Led by Derek Rayne (Derek de Lint, of SOLDIER OF ORANGE fame), the group travels to Ireland and discovers that demons are using ancient sepulchers to achieve physical incarnation. The idea of a secret organization doing battle "with things that science cannot explain and religion chooses to ignore," as actress Shaver cheerfully informed on-set visitors, has spooky promise.
Indeed, a stroll through the JUMANJI-sized Angel Island mansion, which takes up an entire soundstage and was built by production designer lan Thomas, amply reflects the foreboding mood the series may impart. The sprawling set has numerous banquet-sized rooms and catacombs of corridors and staircases. Oak paneling glows in golden pools of light, the ornate furniture really does seem museum-quality, and only the T-shirted technicians hurrying to and fro shatter the illusion the mansion houses a group of grimly-determined ghostbusters.
Sheila Haley, who assumed Thomas' duties after the pilot wrapped, noted the challenge of bringing POLTERGEIST to life is in the details. "Doppelganger," a first season show set in Egypt, required lots of authentic looking artifacts and a mummified cat. Noted Haley, "We spent all our time pouring through historical books to get a specific prop to look just right such as scrolls bearing a credible-looking ancient language for an episode called "The 12th Cave.'"
Besides her devotion to the minutiae, Haley and her four person staff must also deal with the usual volume of set construction within their hectic seven-day-per-episode schedule To wit: a cave in the basement of the mansion accessed "through a cleverly-designed series of doors and bookcases. It sounds simple, but it takes forever to get something like this to look clever onscreen."
With OUTER LIMITS sharing the same studio lot, there's hardly enough room left to build the sets, let alone make them look clever. "We use the special effects stage for carpentry," Haley laughed.
For different reasons, POLTERGEIST'S visual effects are as challenging as production design. Noted Santa Monica-based effects coordinator Elan Soltes, who also supervises OUTER LIMITS in a rotating schedule with another Califomian coordinator. "It's a nightmare trying to avoid people's expectations about what ghosts should look like. We're doing our best to avoid cliches, and also effects that look computerized." Soltes, who did the effects for the LOIS & CLARK pilot, helped provide 60-70 effects shots for the POLTERGEIST pilot; subsequent episodes will boast several dozen computer generated effects apiece.
Soltes is not "a super fan of horror," but one genre film he admires and is drawing inspiration from is the 1964 Robert Wise classic THE HAUNTING. "It was scary as much for its use of sound and stillness as for its effects," he recalled. "So our rule of thumb is less is more. We want to get the mind's eye working.
In fact, the bulk of Soltes' computers are kept busy "sketching out matte elements and pre-visualizing effects It's an enormous time-saver. Plus, everything on this series is filmed digitally to take into account the advent of high definition television. Computers have really become practical tools instead of glitzy effects toys."
Now that POLTERGEIST has become a TV institution, Lewis chuckled at the thought of becoming TV's King of Fright. "I grew up having the crap scared out of me in the movies, but I never thought I'd be working my damnedest to scare others."
POLTERGEIST, he noted, went through its fair share of production woes (what he won't say, other than to suggest they were crew-related), and continues to be a tough act to pull off. "Our goal is to make this a big, scary, classy ride. We pay the crew generous wages, because there's no doubt filming this is painful."
Added Lewis with a noticeable trace of pride, "We have a budget 50% less than that of X-FILES" (which, incidentally, clocks in at almost $2 million per episode). "I challenge anything they're doing, whether it be the story, acting or effects, with what we're doing The final product looks great. In fact, we even have a cult following of our own."
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