By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Dennis Heaton is a screenwriter who won recognition not only in the Canadian animated front with works like Yvon of the Yukon and Being Ian, but also has produced many a fond tale of terror—the most notable being Fido. This story was developed while he was still in film school; when he met Andrew Currie (the director). Together, they fine-tuned the screenplay into a wonderfully unique film. Interestingly, this writer sees the two genres, comedy and horror, two sides of the same coin.
“You’re essentially trying to craft the same unexpected outcome,” noted this filmmaker. “When the opportunity to craft what I loved came along, I jumped at it!”
In terms of recent works, Heaton is one of the executive producers and writers of Ghost Wars. This series is available on Netflix and is best viewed like drinking fine wine. It should be enjoyed in carefully measured sips so every detail can be taken careful note of. SyFy got first dibs in airing this program in the States, and I had to wait. Binge-watching is not advised.
Despite an uncertain future for this show (the news dropped months ago on SyFy about their position), Heaton is hopeful it can continue in some form. He mused at how a Christmas special can be nice. Until more information arrives from the top, he always moving forward than to grieve. He’s currently working on The Order—where the protagonists are thrust into a world of magic, monsters and intrigue.
The ideas Heaton comes up with is from the nurture his father helped hone while growing up. He fondly recalls those nights. “Pop would come home after graveyard shifts, wake me up and we’d watch horror movies—like the original King Kong and Frankenstein, together. My mother was horrified,” laughed Heaton.
In addition to all the movies he’s seen, he read Famous Monsters of Filmland to further his education. When he graduated from filmmaking school, he worked his way up the proverbial ladder to get to where he is now. He wrote for animation, developed material for live-action, produced and even did show-running. At the same time, he always knew writing was what he ultimately wanted to focus on. One joy was when he worked side-by-side with Gary Larson on a Far Side Halloween Special.
When he met Simon Barry (Continuum, Van Helsing) through a mutual acquaintance, a phone call later had them musing over the seeds that would grow into Ghost Wars. At the same time, the wondered what Vancouver, BC talent they could recruit to craft this show “It was a combination of some of Simon’s ideas and some of Chris Regina‘s (executive producer and liaison from SyFy) ideas. We worked with Jonathan Lloyd Walker (Van Helsing) and Rachel Beggs,” revealed Heaton.
He said each episode was influenced by a specific subgenre, and last year’s Fan Expo Vancouver hosted a panel where attendees can learn about what goes in the Writer’s Room. In this team, Karen Lam got the privilege to explore the possession scenario in “The Exorcism of Marcus Moon.” Heaton hired her because he believes she knows a lot about Japanese and Chinese horror because of her ethnic background. Her own work, namely Mythos and The Pit: A Study in Horror examines the paradigm in different ways. To have a team who understands the genre just as much as Heaton shows Ghost Wars has the right talent involved! It’s also about honouring the works that came before, including that of M.R. James, the godfather of the ghost story medium, and H.P. Lovecraft, the pioneer of cosmic horror.
“But we didn’t really want to get into Elder God mythology. We were more interested in just sort of having that pervasive feeling of doom Lovecraft incorporated into his works—that sense of no matter what happens. You’re boned,” revealed Heaton.
“When you’re playing with the mythology of a series, it’s that thing of indoctrinating a character into that concept of ghosts are real, vampires are real—they’ve always been around—it’s simply about how you’ve never seen them until just now. We were trying to find a way to allow for all aspects [i.e. interpretations -Ed] to exist.
“As a work of paranormal fiction, the science fiction is not necessarily out of place. Part of it had to do with the ideas being bounced back and forth between Simon and SyFy during the development cycle. They were in agreement that there should be more to what defines a ghost. A scientific explanation was offered. With the diverse cast coming from different woks of life, everybody in this sleepy community had their own ideas too.
“You had the religious point of view through Father Dan (Vincent D’Onofrio), the scientific explanation with Dr Barker (Kandyse McClure), the sceptical through Doug (Meatloaf) and the paranormal with Roman Mercer (Avan Jogia),” listed Heaton.
Revisiting the past is more than a colloquial term for these folks. They have sad truths waiting to reveal themselves to them. A bigger question is if more about those pasts will reveal themselves.
“We knew we wanted a few ideas ready, to have in position, for a possible season two. Going from being trapped on an island to a much bigger world was our intention,” said Heaton.
Another question was in what material did they look at during the two-week brainstorm?
The pods were not from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This producer said they were to provide a means for the spirits to regain their mortality. When they tried to possess an individual and failed, the only other option was to create these pods.
One of the show’s central theme is in what defines belief. Did the spirits who still lingered around because they fear the afterlife? One figure seems at peace and did not cross over in the last minutes of “My Soul to Keep.” When considering one important moment in the series finale, the honour gained in sacrificing one’s life for others to live is redeeming enough.
Heaton explained: “What we didn’t want to do is create a show where ghosts didn’t exist in the world until this accident at the science lab. That’s why Maggie Rennie is such an important character. She was the ghost that Roman had been seeing from the beginning before it all blew up.”
When that barrier in this metaphysical portal has been lifted, the next hurdle is to repair the physical damage done to the bridge in Port Moore. It’s uncertain if communications to Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is restored. Life goes on. Heaton is not directly involved in the negotiations but I’m hoping Netflix will pick up the saga. I’m one of the few who loves this show!
I’m hopeful it will continue in some form. Ghost Wars proves a series about the supernatural does not have to go meta. I tried getting back into that The CW program about two brothers, but it does not have that Eric Kripke touch. The brand of humour this show offers is not my cup of tea anymore. This Netflix/SyFy treatment instead, is! Whether this work ends up borrowing from Nowhere Man (or even The Prisoner) should it come back again (like some ghosts do), the idea is debatable. People can leave this isolated town, but what other trappings exist in a larger world populated by spirits is a scary thought in itself! Perhaps there’s a sinister agenda in the works.