I was always the kid who tried to peer behind the stage at theatrical shows. I was sometimes more fascinated by the crew moving backdrops or folks in black with headsets. Or, I’d pester the birthday party magician to give up his secrets. I bought magic trick books and tried to do them myself.
I always thought that what went on behind the scenes was as important as what was happening on stage.
I got that chance when I was fortunate to visit the set of Global and ION TV’s Private Eyes to see how it all came together. It’s a complicated answer, but I managed to figure it out.
You see, there’s a particular rhythm to the way a TV shoot functions. As soon as the director shouts “cut”, a frenzied ballet of motion begins as writers are asked about particular lines, or the principal photographer jumps off his chair to critique about movement on the stairs in the background. The, during that brief window of opportunity, the caterers rush in to drop food on the craft table for the production staff and waiting cast to pick at.
It looks chaotic but it’s remarkable everyone knows their place, and it’s fascinating to watch.
I’m writing this from an elevated chair watching producer/director Shawn Piller meticulously watch a scene for the 12th time. By this point, I know the lines as well as the actors do; though I would hardly put myself in a comparable talent level as the iconically recognizable Jason Priestly or the stunning Cindy Sampson.
Actually, as I’m writing this, Cindy Samspon is taking a minute to welcome a guest and even though she’s been doing the same scene for the last 2 hours, her energy is incredible. She’s in great spirits, making the visitor feel like a million bucks.
Life is busy. One of the writers is surrounded by a zone of calm; perched on her producer’s chair like a sphinx, she is fine-tuning dialogue on demand while, presumably looking at word files to check continuity of future episodes. She’s also watching the video feedback on the monitors in front of me intently. Multi-tasking at its finest, but I’ve never seen it done so calmly.
I have a 12-year-old and a six-year old; chaos is my constant companion – and I thought I knew multi-tasking.
I’m on microphone, listening in. The scene has been stopped because of background noise, but the background noise in the scene is negligible to me. I clearly lack the attention to detail needed for television direction.
Now, my attention has turned to Jason Priestly, working on lines. Actors use their cell phones rather than paper scripts now After ten minutes of study, he’s got them down pat and is ready waiting for Piller to call the cast to scene again. Professionalism at work, people.
It’s a truly privileged place to be on set, listening to conversations and being trusted with these behind-the-scenes moments. I wish there was something dramatically juicy and salacious to report, but this is a focused set. They’ll be here until 2am working on this season premiere until it’s done. These folks aren’t prima donnas nor do they cater to any other actor stereotype you can think of. They’re getting a job done, and I’m completely engrossed in watching the grips at work.
Actually, I know it’s trite, but I haven’t heard one note of frustration and I’ve been sitting here for about six hours. I don’t think I’ve even heard anyone swear. Well, one of the grips made a fart noise but that was on purpose and we laughed conspiratorially.
No … it’s the mood. This episode is being shot on location at the Japanese Cultural Centre here in Toronto. Perhaps the Zen of this place is rubbing off on me but I was expecting bad tempers, frustrated artists and technicians and, no pun intended, a whole whack of drama. But these people know their tasks, are committed to them and are smoothly going about their business.
How do they do it? It’s a strange life. Intermittent bursts of activity surrounded by long spells of waiting while other actors run their parts or scenes are getting prepped for a different angle. Then there’s the personal life: if you’re on set, you’re on set until 2 or 3am. I mean, Cindy is actually moving house this weekend. While she’s shooting. Yeah. I’m looking at the vanity she’s buying for the new place. It’s nice, but I’m a typically tasteless guy with no sense of interior fashion; what do I know.
Well, I know professionalism when I see it.
“Are you ready for me?” She shouts, literally bouncing from her chair to the scene, putting on her character as easy as putting on a sweater. Yup, they’re ready for her and as soon as “cut” is heard, she’s back to laughing with fellow cast member, Farah Merani. It’s a great scene, by the way. Lots of laughter and yet, Priestly, Sampson and Merani don’t stop even though the scene is done. They’re just nice people, enjoying working together. Do they ever get tired?
I love the end of the scenes. Bloopers don’t really exist on this set; but trailaway lines said in between “cut” and the time it takes for the shot to wrap do really convey the sense of camaraderie amongst the cast. Figuring out the context behind the inside jokes has become somewhat of a pastime for me.
Break-time right now. Cindy and Jason are talking about Erkel. Remember that show? I’m finding it extremely difficult to resist laughing at Beverly Hills, 90210 icon, Jason Priestly, who arguably was one of the embodiments of social acceptability, talking about watching Erkel, his diametric opposite. After all, the guy did help define male cool for an entire generation of television watchers. Even a Star Trek nerd like me knew he was a role model for cool that I couldn’t socially live up to.
… Still can’t, actually.
But, speaking of Star Trek, I wanna hang out with Shawn Piller. Son of ST:TNG showrunner, Michael Piller, this guy is who I want to hear stories from. But he’s too busy, pulling both producer and director duties on this episode. He’s focused on getting the shot done but damn welcoming and making room for visitors. Still, you can tell by the way he talks about the story of the episode, this is his craft. He has a family legacy in television production that goes beyond Star Trek, and for me? That’s a really high standard.
Laura Vandervoort walks in at that point, for her upcoming guest spot. I know she’s starred in too many productions to count, but she’ll always be Supergirl to this hopeless fan-boy. Dazzling in her red kimono, Laura is one of those performers who you can’t forget meeting. Private Eyes has scored some major guest talent this season. While I don’t want to give away the full roster, the fact that Laura is here just adds such a degree of finesse to an already excellent production.
I really enjoy this show, but in answer to what makes it so good? The answer is clear: it’s commitment. What’s going on behind the camera is just as important as what’s going on in front if it. There’s talent and professionalism, but I also saw a lot of commitment.
But – and I have to be honest here – I felt like a kid again. Watching the grips, AD’s, the efforts of the property master and the camera master was like watching the magicians reveal their tricks. Seeing Sampson, Vandervoort and Priestly perform their craft was gaining practical insight into the actor’s craft that rises above the petty speculation of an actor’s life. Witnessing Piller in action was a hint of what his dad must have been like in managing his own shows, but this isn’t his father; this is his own production and while he owes some small part of his background, this is his own contribution to the Piller legacy of excellence, and in my eyes, that’s a really high standard.
The secret behind excellence is commitment. That’s what you get when you watch an episode of Private Eyes. There’s a whole line-up of excellent guest stars to adds to the measure of this show, including Laura Vandervoort, Jan Arden, boxing legend George Chuvalo and even The Edge’s 102.1 FM, Fearless Fred.
I love this show – and I hope you enjoyed this look behind the curtains with me.
Cosmopolitan appeal with a Toronto edge. Season three of Private Eyes is in production now, and the second half of season two starts on May 27th. Make sure you tune in.