From left: Neil Macdonald, Jay Bulckaert, Jayden Soroka, David Hamelin, and Pablo Saravanja workshopped pilot episode scripts for their Dead North TV show last month. Photo: Neil Macdonald
Dead North film festival founders Pablo Saravanja and Jay Bulckaert say they are embarking on their biggest project yet.
The filmmakers, also the founders of the Artless Collective production studio, are producing a television show based in the same cinematic universe as their annual horror, sci-fi, and fantasy film festival.
Dead North, founded in 2012, welcomes short movies submitted by teams from across the North – handing out awards known as Zombears in a range of categories.
Saravanja and Bulckaert have partnered with Outpost 31, a similar organization in Whitehorse, to produce a TV series featuring six one-hour episodes.
Right now, both creative organizations are writing pilot episodes. Later, they plan to reach out to past Dead North directors and writers and invite them to be a part of the project.
They are hopeful filming for the series will begin next year.
Saravanja explained that like the film festival, the series will focus on sci-fi, fantasy, and horror in the circumpolar world – but the ideas explored may also live within the realm of possibility.
“A lot of the fantastical elements are going to be grounded in real science,” he said, such as climate change, the future of the Arctic, and melting ice caps.
“It’s a way to introduce interesting ideas [and] social commentary, but in an entertaining way.”
The two said it was too early to reveal specifics about the pilot episodes, as the writers are still working on them – but Bulckaert did say “they will be crazy. I can tell you that.”
Not ‘people from Toronto’
Nothing will happen to the film festival, said Bulckaert. People across the north will still have a chance to make films over two months and have them premiere in Yellowknife, in late February or early March each year.
“We want to look through the roster of all of our Dead North filmmakers and pick out the best people that we think can pull off a one-hour episode of television,” he said.
While Bulckaert admitted few, if any, northerners have that sort of experience yet, he said no-one knew what they were doing when they started the film festival either – and films from Dead North have gone on to play at Cannes.
“We will work together as a team just like a proper TV show,” he continued.
“So we’ll sit in a writers’ room together and throw around ideas, and then people will go away and they’ll have to deliver scripts.”
The duo wants the television series to be “as northern as possible” – hiring directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, camera operators, and sound engineers who live in the North.
However, they expect outside help may be needed to fill senior production roles, where that experience may be lacking locally.
“What often happens for stuff like this is you come up with an idea, and then you end up having to give it away,” said Bulckaert.
“And then it’s people from Toronto doing the show. That is specifically not our goal.
“[Northerners] have proved themselves with short film. I think we can now move on to the next stage, which is to do a TV show and prove ourselves with that.”
Saravanja added there will be reserved directing roles for northern women and Indigenous creatives.
“We want voices from across the North who tell stories differently,” he said.
“It’s important for us that, if we have lots of strong female characters, they’re not written exclusively by men – and if really crucial Indigenous stories need to be told, we’re not the ones to tell them.
“There are incredible Indigenous storytellers. Those people should be the voice. We want to support that, and produce it, and help take their storytelling to the next level.”
Heading to Netflix or HBO?
Part of the appeal of the TV show is the economic benefit Saravanja and Bulckaert feel it could bring to the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
“If we can pull this off, it means that we will be in production for probably four to five months a year,” explained Bulckaert.
“And so it could mean work for 100 people between Yellowknife and the Yukon for six months out of the year for five years straight,” he said, noting that each episode will require a crew of 30 to 40 people.
“That is massive in terms of the economy, what it does for the film industry.”
He said even if the show only lasts one or two seasons, that stills means 100 professionals in the North will have had the opportunity to work on a high-level project.
Right now, Artless Collective and Outpost 31 are working on polishing the first two scripts.
“[We were] inspiring each other with our ideas and trying to figure out where the weaknesses were in each other’s stories, and where some things could be sort-of exploited to make them more scary or more interesting or more clever,” said Bulckaert.
The filmmakers are also working on identifying where the series will live.
They are dreaming big, hoping the show will one day be show on on Netflix, HBO, or Shutter, which they described as “the Netflix of horror films.”