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Sean Davidson - Clock ticking on 11th Hour launch (October 14, 2002)
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Clock ticking on 11th Hour launch
By Sean Davidson

Mention a good movie about reporters to the makers of The Eleventh Hour and the room just about explodes with excited chatter. All the President's Men, His Girl Friday, Broadcast News, The Insider. They've seen and studied them all.

"Fantastic phone calls!" says director David Wellington of the 1976 Watergate saga. "Some of the best phone calls ever in movies. I loved the whole procedural aspect of President's Men, all the simple things. And the best phone filters in the history of movies. Perfect sound on them."

"I love His Girl Friday," co-creators Semi Chellas and Ilana Frank nearly squeal in perfect synch when someone brings up the 1940 Cary Grant picture. "That's one of my favorite movies ever," Chellas adds.

All that enthusiasm and research is, it seems, being put to good use on the set of the new Alliance Atlantis dramatic series, which debuts on CTV Nov. 26 at 10 p.m. The Eleventh Hour, Canada's only new English-language drama this season, follows the exploits of investigative reporters at a venerable TV news magazine of the same name, not unlike 60 Minutes or W5. John Neville (The X-Files), Sonja Smits (Traders), Tanya Reid (Da Vinci's Inquest) and Peter MacNeill (Psi Factor) are front and centre as the senior newshounds, part of a well-rounded cast that includes Waneta Storm, Shawn Doyle and Jeff Seymour. Each hour-long episode follows the often circuitous path of an investigation from lead, through research and interviews, into dead-ends and behind-the-scene battles, to the eventual broadcast and possible blow-back.

Frank (The Life Before This, Salt Water Moose) and Chellas (The Life Before This, Dead Aviators) pitched the idea in 2000, shortly after seeing The Insider. "It was funny because neither Ilana nor I had worked in TV at all," says Chellas, "so we had to sort of ask questions about how it works. It seems like a really large world to explore."

Both are sitting on a couch in a dimly lit production office, deep inside the military-base-turned-studio in north Toronto where season one has been shooting since August. Wellington is making short work of his lunch at the desk, on which an infuser is burning some kind of scented oil. "Every morning reading the papers and listening to the radio going up to work is, like, 8,000 more story ideas," says Chellas. "But it's not a show about breaking news, it's a show about investigative journalism, which can take a long time." "The intricacies of that procedure are what really interests us," adds Frank. "The [news] stories are sort of secondary. It's about how difficult it is to get any story."

Wellington (Dead Aviators, Queer as Folk) is directing seven of the first 13 episodes and, armed with a creative producer credit, gets to establish the look and feel of the series - using "elegant, carefully composed shots, more in the tradition of big-screen feature films," he says. Each ep is budgeted at $1 million, backed by Telefilm Canada, the CTF and the Independent Production Fund. He and DOP Steve Cosens (Flower & Garnet) are shooting on 16mm, using low-speed stock, long lenses and a few other tricks to get a 35mm look.

The Eleventh Hour, the show within the show, is headquartered high in a downtown Toronto skyscraper a stylish all-ergonomic, all-neutral workspace precisely strewn with dog-eared newspapers, magazines and stacks of VHS and NTSC tapes. A dozen desks are clustered in a bullpen area, which is surrounded by several executive suites and a wall of video monitors. Great effort from the set decorators has clearly gone into all the accumulated faux clutter. These are the desks of people who live at their desks.

(It is, however, still too neat to pass for a real newsroom. There were no half-eaten, week-old cheeseburgers in sight, nor any Nerf sports equipment.)

On this particular afternoon, cast and crew are working through a scene in episode five. The show has just been scooped and crestfallen reporters are watching their story air on a competing program when MacNeill's character, Warren Donohue, appears and summons one of them with a snap of his fingers.

"There's a dude here to see you," says the aging newsman, jabbing his thumb at the lobby. The young'uns snicker as he huffs out of sight. Dude?

It all looks very promising, but there are more than the usual number of swords hanging over this show. This is the same studio that housed The Associates, the short-lived lawyer series from AAC that CTV sent to the gallows after just two seasons. And earlier this year, not long after the show was greenlit, AAC announced it was moving away from TV production, sidestepping in July from Standard & Poor's Movies and Entertainment subindex to that of Broadcasting and Cable TV.

AAC will turn out just roughly 74 hours of TV drama this season: 13 one-hours each of Cold Squad and Eleventh Hour, plus a possible 48 one-hours of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami.

The Eleventh Hour will also debut at the end of a year during which pundits have repeatedly declared Canadian dramatic TV to be as dead as Louis Riel thanks largely to the elimination of the CRTC's drama incentives for broadcasters and, more importantly in this case, the drying up of key international markets.

Anne Marie La Traverse, AAC senior vice-president, television series and movies, agrees the world market is tough but insists she's not worried. "We're making it first and foremost for Canadians," she says. "It's very, very identifiably Canadian."

As for changes in AAC's focus, La Traverse says those won't affect The Eleventh Hour. "Alliance Atlantis is staying away from industrial shows," she says, "as in Earth: Final Conflict or Beastmaster, shows that were made for the syndication market in the U.S....We're going to make big-event, American-type shows and we're going to make them for the Canadian market."

The key to staying on the air, and proving the doomsayers wrong, she says, is staying in the same timeslot. CTV has scheduled Eleventh Hour at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, opposite NYPD Blue and Judging Amy. She's optimistic it will stay there. "The most important thing we need is commitment from our broadcaster and a really steady timeslot without preemptions, without being moved around," she says. "That's a huge part of the success of any show, that the audience can find it."

October 14, 2002

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