I really liked last night’s episode of The Leftovers. It was another of those single-character pieces that gives the focal actor a chance to shine, and Carrie Coon, as Nora Durst, did just that. She’s always been one of the show’s more intriguing characters, but we got to see her at much greater depth. Her meeting with Holy Wayne obviously changed her—she’s no longer stalking her ex-husband’s lover, or buying cereal for her kids and, more subtly, not influencing her interview subjects. I hope she and the Chief get together.

My latest book review: Riders on the Storm by Ed Gorman. I haven’t read enough by him.

I recorded several of the James Garner films that TCM ran last Monday and we watched two this weekend. First was Marlowe, based on the Chandler novel The Little Sister. It’s from 1969 and Garner’s character is not too many steps away from Jim Rockford. The film also stars Carroll O’Connor, Rita Moreno, William Daniels (St. Elsewhere) and, yes, that’s Bruce Lee martial-arts-ing himself off the edge of a building. I’ve seen this before, but it’s been a long time. Have to say I thought it was only passing fair. Garner is fine, but the story wanders at a leisurely pace and the plot is convoluted. Plus Sharon Farrell as “Orfamay” is annoying.

Then we watched The Americanization of Emily, which I’d never heard of before. Apparently it was only released on DVD in 2005. It was Julie Andrews’ second movie, filmed before Mary Poppins was released. The script is by Paddy Chayefsky and the film also stars James Coburn and has Keenan Wynn in a bit part as a besotted sailor. Garner plays a “dog robber,” a guy who kowtows to the every need of his Admiral. Sort of a Radar O’Reilly crossed with Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey. Personal dresser and procurer. Garner likes this gig because it means he won’t have to face military action. He’s not ashamed to call himself a coward. However, his Admiral goes a bit dotty in the weeks leading up to D-Day and decides that the first man to die on the beaches of Normandy will be a sailor, and he wants it filmed for posterity (and to keep the Navy from being disbanded after the wary). Andrews plays a British driver who catches Garner’s eye: she lost a brother, her father and her husband in war. She refuses Garner’s offer of chocolate (he can get his hands on any luxury item, despite rationing) because the British aren’t supposed to be enjoying the war. It’s from 1964 and is quite surprising for its anti-war stance, given the era. Garner vehemently believes that everyone who dies in war should not be automatically considered a hero. He doesn’t want young men back in the States to be deluged with “hero” stories that will inspire them to sign up and risk their lives. It’s an occasionally hilarious movie (Garner is always walking in on Coburn in bed with a different woman) with a serious message. We both loved it.

I’m watching Haven from the beginning to prepare for an essay I’m going to write in advance of Season 5. It’s surprising how much I’ve forgotten about the story. On one hand, I wish I’d done this before I went to the set, but on the other now that I’ve been to the set I’m picking up on all sorts of little things. For example, the cell door is made of wood, so the sound it makes when it slides open or when someone slams their hand against it is all done in post production. I’ve sat at the Chief’s desk and wandered around inside the offices of the Haven Herald. I saw Vince & Dave’s tandem bicycle and the books stacked up in the stateroom of Duke’s boat. I made it to the end of the second season yesterday, plus the out-of-series Christmas episode, which is a lot of fun, especially since it is in part inspired by Under the Dome.

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In Country

This morning, I started my first new short story in a while. I was inspired by a British news article I saw last week and I’ve been building up an alternate storyline around it for the past couple of nights. It’s not there yet—I have no idea where it’s going—but I wrote out the opening scene that I dreamed up overnight. The characters don’t have names yet, just placeholders, but these couple of pages help set the tone.

I find myself reading two short works based around the Vietnam war. The first is Buddha Hill by Bob Booth, part of the Necon Novella series. It’s about an Air Force newbie who arrives in Vietnam and his experiences on base. It also ties into the monks who used to set themselves on fire in protest. There’s  a cute, oblique Stephen King: The protagonist picks up a copy of Startling Mystery Stories at the BX and likes a story called “The Glass Floor,” except, he says, “There is just no market for this kind of thing…the poor bastard was probably doomed to spend his life working in some factory.”

The other is Riders on the Storm by Ed Gorman, a short novel in his Sam McCain series. It’s set stateside and features a murder where a Vietnam vet is the prime suspect. It deals a lot with the war’s aftermath and the contradiction between its overall unpopularity and the attitude toward people who protested it.

I just finished Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta and posted my review. I tore through this one and now I have to go back and read his other books. Dude can write.

I’m hanging with The Leftovers, although many people are jumping ship because of its lack of incidents. There’s no identifiable villain other than the shadow of the past, the mysterious event that has rocked everyone’s understanding of reality. There are interesting developments, but no real goal. There’s no ultimate mystery to solve, no island to leave, no villain to vanquish. Still, I’m fascinated by it and curious to see where the story is headed.

I recorded the TCM James Garner marathon yesteday, so I know what we’ll be watching this coming weekend, and beyond…

I’d heard a lot of good things about Snowpiercer, so I found it OnDemand this weekend. It’s a fascinating post-apocalyptic story set entirely on a massive train that is a self-contained ecosystem, hurtling on a thousands-of-miles course around the world once per year. It’s been running for over 17 years when the story starts. The world outside is frozen because of an ill-advised strategy to end global warming.

The wealthy are at the front with lavish accommodations, food and perqs, while the poor are back in steerage, jostling for space and eating gooey protein slabs. After yet another insult to their dignity, they decided to press forward to the front of the train to take control and have a variety of encounters along the way, many of them violent. I especially liked the shooting match between train cars that happens when the train is in the middle of a sweeping curve.

Tilda Swinton is the face of the opposition, adorned with big teeth and a funny accent, reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher. Assisting the resistance is a Korean man and his daughter, the latter having been born on the train. He designed the security system, so he knows how to defeat the locks at each stage, and she is prescient, able to sense what they will face when a door opens. They perform this service in return for a drug. Nothing is quite what it seems, though, and there are surprises aplenty as they make their way from car to car. Some stunning visuals and a very clever plot. Though it’s been described as a horror film, I’d categorize it more as a thriller.

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Pining for the fjords

I haven’t read a Dean Koontz novel in quite a while. The last one, I believe, was From the Corner of His Eye, and I was not impressed. However, when NetGalley offered a proof of The City, I decided to give him another try. Again, not so impressed, as you might tell from my review. He’s off my list. I did like Linwood Barclay’s new thriller, No Safe House, even though I didn’t read the book to which it is the sequel, and enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s The Drop and Sarah Pinborough’s Murder, as well as JK Rowling’s new one, The Silkworm. I had some issues with the new Robert McCammon, River of Souls. (Reviews at the links).

I read Michael Koryta’s The Prophet last year and really liked it. I’ve been hearing a ton of good things about his new one, Those Who Wish Me Dead, so I picked up a copy at Necon and got him to sign it. The opening chapter is amazing, and the setup has me intrigued, so I’m looking forward to this wilderness adventure with two sociopathic killers (who remind me of the cousins from Breaking Bad, only chattier) in pursuit of a teenage witness who has been placed in a small group of troubled teens for survival training.

I went to Monty Python Live (Mostly) Encore last night with high hopes. I really expected to laugh my butt off. I watched Flying Circus a lot when I was in high school (it’s hard to believe there were only 45 episodes) and I remember seeing Holy Grail  for the first time in the dorm cafeteria—reels of film projected on a screen, not video—during my first year at university. We howled at everything, even the moose-themed credits and the sackings. There may have been beer involved.

I was the only person in the theater last night until about 15 minutes before the show started. The grand total was 11. Oh, what it must have been like to be at the O2 amongst 15,000 people. Laughter is contagious, and being with so many other fans enables laughter. Our audience was mostly silent. There were a few chuckles here and there, and I laughed a lot during the dead parrot sketch, which has long been a favorite. I laughed especially at the parts where Cleese messed up and lost the thread of the sketch, which he did here and in the “crunchy frog chocolate” sketch. I could have done without the long orchestral prologues (one per act), though I amused myself by noting that the conductor bore a striking resemblance to Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad. There were a lot of song-and-dance routines, some of which didn’t feature the Pythons at all. If you distilled all the live sketch work, that aspect took up maybe 45 minutes, an hour, tops, out of three hours (including a 30-minute intermission).

I wanted to enjoy it more, but I came away feeling a tad disappointed. I probably would have regretted not seeing it, but I won’t be lining up to buy the inevitable DVD release. Some of the sketches fell flat for me. I like Michael Palin a lot, but the Blackmail sketch just didn’t work at all, and the appearance of Mike Myers for no apparent reason simply baffled me. There are better ways to use cameos, like the one featuring Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking, which was pretty funny. I liked Cleese’s off the cuff remarks about the newspapers that have been bedeviling him lately and Palin’s advice to him across the counter to not waste oxygen on them or give them any publicity, which felt unscripted. It wasn’t dreadful, but at the end of the evening, my butt was still attached. I hadn’t quite managed to laugh it off.

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Necon 34: On Lovecraft’s trail

Back from Necon. People ask me how many times I’ve gone, and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. I believe my first time was in 2003, the year I had a story accepted to Borderlands 5. I went six years in a row, and then missed out on 2009 and 2010. I was back in 2011, and attended last year and this year, but I’m not entirely sure about 2012. I don’t think I was there that year. So this would make my ninth.

Connections were a little dicey on the outbound trip. A squall blew through Houston while we were on the way to the airport, which delayed take-offs. My flight pushed away from the gate right on time, but we stayed on the tarmac for nearly an hour. Given that I had a 50-minute connection at Dulles, that was bad. I received a text from United saying they had rebooked me on the next flight between Dulles and Providence which, unfortunately, wasn’t until the following day. However, we made up most of the time en route, so I had fifteen or twenty minutes to scramble from gate C-high number to gate D-high number. Got there with a few minutes to spare and, fortunately, I didn’t have any checked bags to worry about.

I arrived at the Necon hotel by mid-afternoon on Thursday. Found Brian Keene via Twitter and hung out with him in the lobby for a while. The highlight of the evening was a concert given in the courtyard by Kasey Lansdale, the daughter of Joe R. Lansdale and a fine musician in her own right. Her concert brought everyone to the courtyard. On Thursday night, people tend to be scattered, so this was a good thing, and everyone stayed on afterward, so there was a lot of socializing. Surprise vocalist at the show was Chris Golden, along with backing vocals by Amber Benson (who you may recognize from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she’s also an author). Thursday was also the first appearance of the famous Saugies, which are cooked in the courtyard and consumed with the (usually alcoholic) beverage of choice.

I was very pleased to get a chance to meet and talk to another writer Guest of Honor, Michael Koryta, whose novel The Prophet I’d read recently and enjoyed. His newest book, Those Who Wish Me Dead, has been getting rave reviews. I haven’t read it yet, but I bought a copy at Necon and got him to sign it. Koryta has ten books out (nine of which are optioned), so I’ve got some reading ahead of me. He’s one of the people who seemed to get Necon right away, and I think he enjoyed himself. Also had a good talk with Amber Benson about Scandinavian TV shows.

On Friday, I was shanghaied into joining the “best books of the year” kaffeeklatsch in the atrium, which was well attended and interesting. With four people on the panel with varied reading interests, people were pretty much guaranteed to come away with a good list of potential material to read. I was also co-opted onto the non-fiction panel, which turned out to be an interesting discussion of book reviewing, primarily. Sixteen of us went out to Jackie’s Galaxy, our regular Necon restaurant, on Friday night. That evening was the toastmaster’s welcome, aka Jack Haringa’s pre-roast warm up. Then it was the mass signing, followed by a return to the quad until the wee small hours.

On Saturday, a group of us that included Brian Keene, Mary Sangiovanni and Nick Kaufmann took a meandering tour into Providence to track down a few sites that have Lovecraft connections. Last year we visited his grave. This year, we went to the house where he wrote many of his most familiar works, another house that was an inspiration for one of his stories, and a graveyard where he and Poe used to hang out. That’s where I’m standing in the accompanying photo, taken by Brian.

In the afternoon, Jack interviewed the writer guests of honor for two hours. Saturday evening’s entertainment consisted of the “even longer than the game show” talent-less show, which was enhanced this year by the presence of a gong, followed by the roast. Usually the people organizing the roast use one level of subterfuge to misdirect the victim. This year, there was an additional level as the person who was roasted thought he was hosting the event. When Nick discovered how he’d been tricked, the look on his face was priceless. The roast is a no-holds-barred insult fest, and the honoree isn’t the only victim. There is a lot of collateral damage. Afterward, a small group of us stayed in the bar until the even wee-er, small-er hours of Sunday morning. Then I had to get up and head for the airport for the return trip.

It’s hard to convey what Necon really is. It’s a conference unlike any other. Repeat attendance is high and it’s addictive. If I can only swing one convention a year and I have to choose between Necon and, say, World Horror, Necon usually wins. It’s a family reunion, in a sense, and there are people who have been to almost every one (and a couple of people who’ve been to them all). Sure, a little business is done on the side, but it’s more about making connections. Those connections often give rise to writing opportunities in the future, but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s something of a busman’s vacation. I always come away from the four-day weekend simultaneously exhausted (I don’t function well on 4-5 hours of sleep for three nights in a row!) and rejuvenated. The weekend is full of little moments that you could never really explain to someone who wasn’t there, but it’s kind of magical.

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Orange is the new POTA

We were in a drought for so many summers here that we’ve almost forgotten what “normal” is like. Normal in Texas is temperatures in the high 90s / lower 100s with a 30% chance of rain every afternoon, which translates into about 30 minutes of heavy showers almost every day after 3 pm. That’s what we’ve been getting this year, and I don’t think many people are complaining (except those people whose houses have been struck by lightning).

I first discovered the Planet of the Apes around the time the TV series came on in the 1970s. I was hooked immediately. Because there weren’t video tapes or DVDs at the time, it took me a while to see the movies, so my introduction to them was via the novelizations, which were pretty good, and the graphic adaptations at the back of Planet of the Apes magazine, which I stumbled upon at the local drug store. I read the Pierre Boule novel that got this franchise started while in high school. I’ve now seen the movies any number of times, as well as the cartoon version, the ill-advised Tim Burton movie (Helena Bonham Carter made a cute chimp).

The most recent movies have taken the franchise to a whole new level. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a re-imagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and the new one, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the modern equivalent of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. These aren’t remakes in the conventional sense, which is why I used the word “re-imagining.” You can trace their ancestry, but these versions have bigger budgets, bigger visions and bigger ideas. They’re smart movies regardless of their heritage, and it seems like they’re getting the recognition they deserve, too, which is nice. Some interesting decisions were made in the latest film. First, only a decade has elapsed since the ape uprising, and the apocalypse came in the form of a simian flu rather than a nuclear war. Most of the apes haven’t learned to vocalize—they use the sign language that Caesar was taught. Unlike Battle for the Planet of the Apes, there hasn’t been a role-reversal, even though the scene where the apes pen up the humans is still there. Different context. Apes shall not kill apes is still a mantra, with as many exceptions as in the original. The characters, simian and human, are multilayered and textured. Even Gary Oldman, who is often just a big crazy meanie, has a human side. I am very impressed by the thought that went into this story and encouraged for what the future may hold. I liked all the little call-backs, too. Like naming the orangutan “Maurice,” a nod to Maurice Evans who originated the role of Dr. Zaius. Well done. Go see it, even if you aren’t familiar with the original series or the previous film. It’s good stuff.

I’ve been aware of Orange is the New Black in a vague way, but for some reason never got around to watching it until the past week, when I binged my way through all 26 episodes. I liked most of Jenji Kohan’s previous series, Weeds, and you can see the same hand at work. Piper isn’t exactly Nancy Botwin, but they have a common ancestor. Nancy even did a stint in prison. One thing I really enjoy about the series is getting to know the backstories of the various inmates. How they ended up in their current situation. These are interesting characters. My favorite is Nicky, the heroin addict with the crazy hair. She gets some of the shows best lines and situations. I just hope that she manages to resist the temptation that was placed in front of her at the end of the second season. Everyone gets interesting character arcs, too, even the guards. Healy, for example, started out as a nice guy and then turned into a bit of prick but, by the end, had sort of redeemed himself. You can understand where he’s coming from and how he could feel betrayed. Pennsatucky is a real trip. The show could make you feel bad for the old lady inmate who got dumped, and the one who had cancer (best use of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on a TV show ever). Like Piper, you start out wary of Red and manage to turn the tables with her. And “Crazy Eyes”—what a seriocomic tragic character. Gah! Now I have to wait another year for the third season. It will be interesting to see the repercussions of Piper’s actions with respect to Alex.

This season of 24 was one of the best ever. It helped, I think, that it was abbreviated to just 12 episodes. Putting it in England was a nice touch, but the producers also made it a no-holds-barred story, too. No one (except, perhaps, Jack) was off limits for terrible treatment and/or death. Nice cleaver scene, too. Jack is bad-ass, but pissed-off Jack is a wonder to behold. Of course he had to go mano-a-mano with the martial arts guy, but I’ll grant them that indulgence. Bonus points for the use of the silent clock.

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What I did on my summer vacation

Necon—which we regulars call “Camp Necon”—is coming up. It’s my writer’s vacation retreat each most years, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I won’t be on any panels (I was scheduled for one, but it conflicted with my departing flight), but I’m gonna have a good time all the same.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I went on a Maritime Canadian vacation. When we first planned it, we were only going to go to Halifax, where we both attended university, but I decided to turn it into a bit of a road trip adventure.

A rainstorm swept through Houston just before our flight, which delayed our departure. I was a little worried, since we had a tight connection in Detroit. Delta now lets you connect to their site in flight, even if you don’t buy WiFi, so I could check up on things. Unfortunately, the site wasn’t updated with our departure, so the alerts grew increasingly alarming: you’re going to miss your connection. Click here to make alternate arrangements. However, the alternate arrangements always involved new flights starting from Houston and we were well into the flight! As it turned out, we were only a few minutes late arriving, and our connecting gate was next to the one at which we arrived. One really nice thing about the Delta app is that you can follow your luggage, and we were able to confirm that our bags had made our connecting flight, too. Useful information, although it wouldn’t be so nice to see that your bags hadn’t made the connection, or were now en route to Katmandu.

Our first stop in Canada was Prince Edward Island. No, that’s not exactly true. Our first stop was at Tim Horton’s in the Halifax airport. We stayed over at the airport hotel and headed off to PEI the next morning. I haven’t been to the island in 40 years, give or take, and my daughter has never been. We crossed the Confederation Bridge for the first time ever on Monday morning and meandered our way to Cavendish, where we visited the Anne of Green Gables tourist attractions. There’s a small museum where we caught a short video about Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life. Then we went through the barn and toured the house that is set up to replicate the one Anne Shirley lived in. Apparently many international tourists come there thinking Anne was a real person. Across the road, there’s a site I’d never visited: the place where LMM grew up. Her mother died of TB when she was two, so she was raised by her grandparents. All that remains of the house now is the stone cellar and a water well, but there’s a bookstore nearby run by relatives. We were treated to a nice talk by a woman whose husband was the great-grandson of the people who raised LMM. She was old enough to have attended LMM’s funeral in 1942, though she didn’t say how old she was at the time.

After Cavendish we went to Charlottetown. If I’ve ever been there before, I don’t remember it. It reminds me a lot of Halifax, in condensed form. The waterfront even has many of the same businesses. Preparations were well under way for the July 1st (Canada Day) celebrations, and it’s the 150th anniversary of the conference that led to the formation of Canada. We walked all over, including a trip through Victoria Park.

The next day, we went to southern New Brunswick to spend a day visiting with my relatives. We had a lobster feast that evening, the first time my daughter’s ever had it. It rained hard during our drive back to Halifax on Wednesday afternoon. The rental car was prone to hydroplaning when there was standing water, so we took our time. We were in no rush, and the sun stayed up until after 9 pm.

When we got to the hotel, we were informed that there was a package for us in the room. The publicist for the Syfy series Haven, which films in nearby Chester, had delivered an amazing gift basket that contained Haven goodies along with chocolate and other delectables. I’m still working my way through it. There was also a DVD that contained an episode of the show and an hour-long behind the scenes feature, so we watched that during the evening. I wrote about our visit to the Haven set earlier: that took up our Thursday. We went to my daughter’s favorite pizza place when we got back into the city.

On Friday morning, I had a taped interview lined up with the German TV station VOX. They have a thing coming out this fall and had reached out to me a few weeks earlier. Rather than having them schlep all the way from NY to Texas, I suggested they come up to Halifax, which worked into their schedule. The interviewer and her videographer arrived on Thursday evening; unfortunately, their gear did not, so we had to push the interview until late in the morning. I spent nearly two hours with them, though the first 30 minutes mostly involved getting the lighting right in the hotel suite where they were set up.

Once that was finished, I walked down to the Public Gardens to meet up with my daughter. We toured the waterfront, had a beavertail (our first) and wound up at the farmer’s market, where we had my daughter’s favorite tamales. She met up with some friends and I had a beer and a salad at a sidewalk cafe on Quinpool, where my daughter joined me later.

All too soon, our Maritime adventure was over, and we headed back home on Saturday afternoon, after having a donair at King of Donair on Quinpool en route to the airport.

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Movies and TV, oh my

We saw Jon Favreau’s new film, Chef, last weekend. A cute flick. Favreau wrote, directed and starred as the chef who works in a restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. He gets into a social media tiff with a food critic (Oliver Platt) and, with the encouragement of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and maitre d’ (Scarlett Johansson), goes back to his roots and bonds with his tech-wizard 11-year-old son in the process. It’s partly a road movie, wandering from Miami to L.A. via New Orleans and Austin, and very few will leave the theater without a massive craving for Cuban sandwiches. The power of Twitter is part of the story, and the way they depict tweets flying off into the ether is funny.

While on vacation, we watched the Veronica Mars movie. It was okay, but Mars (from Neptune) gave up on some long-held things far too easily, we thought, and the wrap-up was a little simplistic and convenient. Good seeing the old gang again, though. Light frothy entertainment. Then we saw The Bag Man, starring John Cusack and Robert De Niro. I’d never heard of it, but the trailer was intriguing (and far better than the film proved to be). The first hour was good. Twin Peaks vibe in a remote hotel where Cusack, a gun for hire, is supposed to be paid for his latest gig. The wheels start to fall off in the third act, and there’s a fourth act that felt ripped from a totally different movie. We did insufficient research before watching it OnDemand. The Rotten Tomatoes score is 10% and the viewer score was around 30%.

We watched the Masterpiece Theater two-parter, The Escape Artist, starring David Tennant as a defense barrister who has never lost a case. He doesn’t mind defending the scum of the earth, because everyone’s entitled to a defense, but then bad things happen. It’s always fun watching Tennant and the story was gripping and intriguing, with a particularly wicked ending.

Finally got around to seeing the Orphan Black finale. At some point this show is going to get so bogged down in mythology and so confused that the writers aren’t going to know what’s going on, either, but I’m willing to check out Season 3. The dance scene was clever, but mostly from a “boy, that must have been hard to film” perspective rather than a story-telling perspective.

Still enjoying Murder in the First, which continues to remind me of the better aspects of The Killing. James Cromwell showed up for a couple of episodes as a high-priced defense attorney. 24 is surprisingly good this time around. I didn’t even mind the cheap trick with the president. Lots of people getting shot to death or tossed out windows. And then there was the aircraft carrier thing. That’s gonna suck.

The Bridge is coming back soon. I want to check out the Swedish second season, too. Also watching Longmire, Major Case, and Rizzoli & Isles. Solid return for Covert Affairs, too, which more people should be watching. One of the smarter spy shows out there. And then there was Under the Dome. The recap episode was worth watching, because it’s been nearly a year, and then all manner of chaos in the first episode, including the deaths of two much-loved characters. Especially the second one, who managed to survive much longer than in the novel, but will be missed.

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Welcome to Haven

While we were on vacation in the Maritime provinces last week, my daughter and I had the chance to visit the set of the Syfy TV series Haven, which is a loose adaptation of King’s Hard Case Crime novel, The Colorado Kid.

I first met HCC editor/publisher Charles Ardai at the World Horror Convention in New York in 2005. We’ve kept in touch over the years and I occasionally expressed a desire to visit Haven, a show on which he’s a writer and producer. While I was planning this vacation, he was able to put me in touch with the right people.

Of course, it was the one day of our trip where it absolutely poured. I think the total was something like 25-30 mm for the day, which is around an inch. We didn’t let that dampen our spirits, though. We were determined to have a good time, and we did. As it happened, this was the last day of filming before a hiatus that would last until after the July 4th weekend, so everyone was in a good mood. They were finally going to get some sleep.

The first surprise, though, was finding this gift arrangement in our hotel room when we got to Halifax. In addition to all manner of chocolates, nuts, chips and fudge, we found two Haven hats, two T-shirts, two DVDs (containing the Season 3 episode Real Estate that takes place in a haunted house on Halloween, a lengthy making-of, and footage from Comic-Con), two mini graphic novels, two Grey Gull bottle openers and other trinkets. My daughter asked me if I often got treated like this.

We headed out to Chester that morning, about 50 km down Nova Scotia’s south shore, past Peggy’s Cove. The studio is located in the Chester arena, with Studio A in the hockey rink and Studio B in the curling rink. It’s a good arrangement: the arena would otherwise be unused during the summer. After meeting our host, Skana Gee, the unit publicist, we were given a tour of the facilities, meeting many of the behind-the-scenes people along the way, and of the constructed sets, which include the police station, the hospital (both set up contiguously: you can walk down the hall from one room to the next), Audrey’s apartment and Duke’s boat. The attention to detail is amazing. The jail’s rungs look metal, but they aren’t, the walls look concrete (ditto), and everything is dressed to the nines, including wanted posters that often feature crew members accused of nasty crimes. There are all manner of inside jokes, if you look closely enough. My daughter, the English Literature major, was particularly interested in the books used to dress the various sets, especially those in Duke’s boat.

Next, we were handed off to one of the drivers, a guy named Bruce who took us all over Chester, Mahone Bay and Lunenburg to see the locations used for many of the exterior shots. We saw the town hall that doubles for the police department, for example, and little side streets or random buildings that were used in various episodes. Real churches and buildings that were converted into churches. The street the gigantic boulder rolled down in the first season. The beach where the Colorado Kid was found. Many other familiar locations from the show. Bruce was an engaging and entertaining tour guide who is also a musician, so we talked about many of the people he’s worked with and the places he’s gone with his music. We also stopped off to see the Bluenose, which has just undergone an expensive and controversial makeover.

We next visited the Grey Gull, Duke’s bar, which is a full set constructed from an old fishing shack. Exteriors of Audrey’s apartment are also filmed here, but for reverse shots from inside, shot on the sound stage, an enormous photograph duplicates the view seen below. We got to go inside and look everything over. There’s Canadian Tire money pinned to one wall, and surf boards hanging from the ceiling (Eric Balfour, who plays Duke, is an avid surfer).

We then drove by the house used for the haunted house episode (it’s much smaller than it appears to be on the show) and went to the Haven Herald news office, which is another full set absolutely littered with inside jokes. The newspaper pages that are seen in the opening credits are on one wall. In the back room there’s an old style printing press with all the bits and pieces. One set of filing cabinets is labeled with the names of King works, many of them unreleased, like Keyholes or Aftermath, and with dates that are significant to King’s biography.

We had lunch at the studio (next to the hockey changing rooms!), where we were introduced to many of the people who contribute to the show, which has a crew of nearly 100, many of them locals. Everyone was really friendly. Everyone.

We also got to chat for a while with Shawn Piller, the executive producer who was also part of The Dead Zone series on USA a while back. Then we went to the morgue, where the publicist and a cameraman did a long filmed EPK (electronic press kit) interview with me, bits and pieces of which may show up in various social media venues and maybe even on the season 5 DVD. The interview was “crashed” by one of the guest stars, whose identity I’m not allowed to reveal, but whose appearance livened up the banter a great deal!

Then we were driven over to the active set, where scenes from the eighth episode of Season 5 were being filmed in a house. Quarters were cramped: it wasn’t a huge house and an amazing number of people were crammed into it. We sat at the back, behind the director and the director of photography in what’s called “video village,” where we could see the A and B cameras and listen to the dialog on headsets. The real action was taking place at the other side of the house. We could occasionally see the actors through the doorways, but mostly watched the video displays. After five years, the production has turned into a well-oiled machine. The people are familiar with each other and everyone seems to get along well. There’s a lot going on around “the talent”—they are the focus of all attention ultimately, but it’s a kind of controlled chaos. They’re shifted and moved around, made up, rigged with gadgets, measured with tape measures, shown where to stand and then, all of a sudden, it’s “action” and they’re fully on. During rehearsal, they mumble out the dialog without any rhythm or feeling, but when the cameras are rolling, take after take they’re fully present. Sure, the occasional line gets blown or a blocking action is flubbed, but it is amazing to see all of this chaos gel into something magical. There’s no momentum for the actors to build up to a shot. They get stopped and started and have to be where they’re supposed to be emotionally in that moment, even if it’s from a totally different part of the episode than the scene they shot a few minutes earlier. It’s impressive to watch.

During a break when the cameras and lights were being moved so that the same scene could be filmed from the opposite direction, stars Emily Rose and Lucas Bryant came over and spent some time with us. (Balfour, who you may also know from 24 and as Gabe on Six Feet Under, had already returned to California.) Bryant posed with us for a picture, but the set photographer asked for a do-over because he said that it looked like Bryant was holding my daughter hostage. Since this is well into the season, which hasn’t yet debuted, I can’t say a word about what we saw, or about guest stars who haven’t yet been announced, or anything like that, but I’m looking forward to seeing the scenes in their final versions later this fall.

After a couple of hours in video village, listening to the rain carom off the roof of the house, creating a dull roar overhead, we decided to head back into Halifax during a brief easing of the weather. The cast and crew had another couple of hours of work ahead of them before they would get to go home. Here are a few photos from our visit (if you’re reading this on LiveJournal, you’ll probably need to pop over to my website to see these):

We had a great time in Haven, even though our “trouble” is apparently that we are rainmakers. “Five years we’ve been filming and you picked today to visit,” the supervising producer said. (Rain isn’t all that unusual on the coast of Nova Scotia—one year it rained for many more days than it didn’t during Haven’s production schedule.)

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Non-stop action

We watched the second season of Derek this weekend. Only six episodes, which we divided over two nights. Sad to see Dougie go in the first episode, but apparently the actor was terribly uncomfortable acting with other people, which explains why so many of his scenes in the first series were “diary” scenes, where he was talking to the imaginary documentary filmmakers.

The show doesn’t break a lot of new ground in the second season, but the stuff about the old folks keeping track of Hannah’s efforts to get pregnant are pretty hilarious, and Kev has his usual mix of godawful sexist / sexual obsession and occasional bursts of humanity. A nice arc with Derek and his dad, and it was good to see Hannah confront the new guy at the end and maybe get through a little. It’s a very sentimental show with a good heart. Tugs at the heartstrings.

We saw Non-Stop, too, the thriller featuring Liam Neeson that will probably never be available as an inflight film. It was decent and effective (except for the little bit of fortuitous levitation at the end). It’s sort of an Agatha Christie whodunit, too. Everyone is a potential suspect, including Neeson’s extremely and credibly flawed character. I was sure it was this person and then sure it was that person, and then someone else. Free-flowing suspicion. The actual resolution was, perhaps, a little less rewarding than many of my suspicions, but still, we enjoyed it.

Down to one more episode of Orphan Black. I don’t think I could explain to anyone else everything that has happened this season, that’s how convoluted it is. It was good to see Allison’s husband grow a pair and step up, especially after she out-jackhammered him in the basement. Still enjoying it, have no idea how it’s going to wrap up and basically I’m just along for the ride.

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In the First

I published a couple of reviews last weekend, one for a book I enjoyed, and one for a book that I struggled to finish. I leave it to you to deduce which was which: One Kick by Chelsea Cain or Robogenesis by Daniel H. Wilson. I’m currently reading Phantom Instinct by Meg Gardiner, which features a former cop who has a very strange affliction due to a contrecoup injury.

Both of the movies we watched last weekend were based on true stories. First we saw The Monuments Men, starring Clooney and Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and Lord Grantham Hugh Bonneville. A solid, reliable film starring solid, reliable actors. There were some interesting moments but no overall real suspense as the story played out much as one would expect. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. A good story, well told. Then we saw 12 Years a Slave, which is not light viewing by any measure. You have to wonder what effect playing vicious, evil characters like that has on a person’s psyche after a while. It was interesting to learn that some freemen were sent back into slavery, even though they had documentation that they were free: they simply couldn’t gain access to it once trapped. Tough to watch.

I had already seen the first season of Derek, Ricky Gervais’ surprisingly touching and soulful series about a man whose mantra is “be nice.” He works in a nursing home and is much beloved. There are only seven episodes that run 25 minutes each, so you can tear through the whole thing in an evening, if you want. Watched it again with my wife last night as a prelude to the second season. For a while, I thought that the story would have been much better without Kev, the gross, sexually obsessed character, but I now realize that without him the story might have been schmaltzy and saccharin. He keeps the pendulum from swinging to far in that direction. And then there’s Doug, the hapless, existential everyman who’s been the caretaker / Mr. Fix-it for a decade. He’s the voice of cold, absolute reason. Also the guy who doesn’t take anyone’s crap and sends people running once they’ve worn out their welcome. And, finally, Hannah, the long-suffering and obsessively caring manager who is really the story’s heart. Gervais’ characters in other series tend to be boorish, but not here. Definitely worth seeing, and I’m looking forward to the second season.

For a moment in one of the final scenes of the new series Murder in the First, I thought I was having a flashback to the 90s. The guy standing next to Steven Weber resembled Tim Daly and they were dressed like pilots. Not that Steven Weber’s character ever dressed like a pilot (see picture) on Wings. This new show is reminiscent of The Killing. One case will occupy the entire summer season, and it’s as much about the private lives of the two cops as the case. The woman detective is a divorced single mother struggling to make ends meet and by the end of the first episode her partner is a widower. The initial murder has connections to an asshole version of Steve Jobs, and then there’s another death that is also apparently connected. The early reviews said that the series finds its stride in the second episode. We’ll see. It’s not bad so far—just nothing new.

I thought briefly that Orphan Black might just have jumped the shark with last week’s episode. Yet another clone? But this one is a lot different from the others (in fact, they are all remarkably different from each other) and gives Maslany yet another chance to shine. The story has more twists than a strand of DNA, but it’s never dull.

I finished the third season of Death in Paradise, which has been renewed for a fourth. It’s a whimsical cozy detective show set on a fictional Caribbean island. There’s a new DI this season, a bit of a bumbler, and the stories are very much inspired by Agatha Christie, with arcane clues and motives, and a summing up at the end in front of the suspects, but it’s fun. Sometimes I figure out at least half of the truth ahead of the big reveal but often I’m in the dark until the end.

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