As a little girl, Gillian Horvath loved reading The Hardy Boys mysteries. She later became enamored of Sci-Fi/Fantasy stories by such authors as (the late) Anne McCaffery and Patricia McKillip. As these tales continued to unfold in front of her, Horvath dreamt of one day becoming a writer and, much to her delight, that dream became a reality.
“When I was in high school I was a poet and actually won some local poetry awards. So I thought I’d grow up to be a professional poet, and my mother worried about my future,” recalls Horvath with a chuckle. “I then started noticing the writing credits on my favorite episodes of my favorite television series, and if, say, Michael Gleason wrote a story I knew I was going to enjoy it. That’s when I also realized that there were television writers and that that was a job that people had.
“My Mom, bless her heart, when I told her I changed my mind and wanted to write for television for a living, she said, ‘That’s great. You can buy me a beach house.’ She immediately assumed that I would succeed at that, and unlike poetry there was a potential for buying beach houses in that line of work. Now fair to say I haven’t yet bough my mom a beach house, but I think she’s proud of me anyway.”
Highlander: The Series, Xena: Warrior Princess, MythQuest, Forever Knight, Andromeda, Flash Gordon, Painkiller Jane and Young Blades are among the many TV shows that Horvath has had the opportunity to work on over the years. Currently she is serving as a writer/supervising producer on Syfy’s Sanctuary. It was her professional association with fellow producer/writer James Thorpe that led to her coming onboard the series.
“James and I have worked together over the years on a number of series,” says Horvath. “We like each other’s work and working together, so he basically brought my name up to [Sanctuary creator/executive producer] Damian Kindler as well as [executive producers] Amanda Tapping and Martin Wood. We all met, we liked one another, I like the show, and that’s pretty much how I got started here at the beginning of season three. It’s a bit of a milestone when a TV writer gets asked back to a TV show. If you write one script and are asked to write another, you know you did a good job. If you do a year on a show and that’s followed by a second year, you know you did a good job. The only praise that really counts is, ‘Will you do it again,’ so I’m very pleased to have been here for two years now.”
In the writer’s first Sanctuary script, season three’s Trail of Blood, Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) and her team travel to the Colombian highlands in response to an SOS from Nikola Tesla (Jonathon Young). Upon arrival, they discover him trapped in a cocoon and being kept prisoner by an army of centipedes that have evolved from the vampire source blood. Tesla’s plan to recover the blood and use it to “resurrect” his vampire abilities puts his life along with those of Helen and the others in danger. Meanwhile, back at the Sanctuary, Kate (Agam Darshi) helps Bigfoot (Christopher Heyerdahl) investigate the death of an old friend. Like all new jobs, it took Horvath a little time to find her footing.
“Sanctuary has a very unique voice,” she notes. “There’s quite an intricate and tricky balance between the memorable and often hilarious dialogue. Many of the characters deliver such smart, clever lines, but the show also needs to push a lot of information as well as a lot of emotional weight forward with every scene.
“So when I first got here my pendulum swung too far in the direction of cleverness. My first draft of Trail of Blood was too clever by half. It was full of quippy dialogue and lost a bit of the path towards the emotional aspect of the story. That was the note that I got from Damian, so we put a course correction on it and I’m very proud of the episode that we actually made. Again, the tricky bit was achieving that balance of keeping the emotion of the story moving forward while also delivering great dialogue.
“There are two strands in Trail of Blood and they were initially meant to be separate episodes. One was a film noir story involving Bigfoot’s back story and a present-day murder that he is investigating. The other really just started with Tesla’s return. We knew that we were going to see him again and we bounced around a number of different ideas as to how he would show up, what kind of trouble he’d be in and how that story would come to the Sanctuary.
“We then came up with the idea of putting both stories together. We were having trouble breaking the Bigfoot story to fill five acts of its own episode, and we actually shot that entire story first. The way the [filming] schedule broke out, the first two days were entirely devoted to the B-story. At the end of the two days, the director [Steven A Adelson] and I felt like we had made an episode of Sanctuary already and were then going to make a second one with the other five days of the schedule. So that’s how we ended up combining the Bigfoot story with the A-story involving Tesla.”
Were there any specific production challenges with Trail of Blood? “Certainly the cocoon that Tesla was trapped in was sort of a challenge for all sides,” says Horvath. “In fact, I had to laugh when I received the prep memo for that week. When your calendar actually has something on it called ‘cocoon meeting’ you know you’re in the television business,” jokes the writer. “I still think of that as a challenge because I’m not entirely happy with the way it turned out onscreen.
“The sketches that were drawn on the white board [in the writers’ room] and the drawings by the production designer [Bridget McGuire] were better than what it was possible to build and use safely. The actor has to be hanging on it, so first and foremost it has to be safe, and if it loses a bit of the esthetic you were hoping for, well, that’s life. There’s an episode this [fourth] season where an actor is in a similar position of being sort of hung on a wall and it was done mostly in visual effects [VFX] this time. I haven’t seen the final effect on that yet, but I suspect that it will be a happier outcome. So lesson learned, I think.”
Magnus crosses Nikola Tesla’s path for a second time in Awakening, Horvath’s other contribution to Sanctuary’s third season. Our heroine helps “re-vamp” her former colleague, but in doing so inadvertently reawakens the vampire queen Afina (Aliyah O’Brien), who wants to once again rule over humankind. In the B-story, Kate is forced to face some demons from her past in order to stop a gang from kidnapping Abnormals.
“This episode kind of fell into my lap in a nice way,” says Horvath. “When we originally talked about this story it was right before our summer  hiatus. The way the third season was shot, we filmed 10 episodes, took the month of July off, and then we came back and shot the other 10 episodes. During the July hiatus, the writers were going to get a head start on the first three or four episodes that were going to be filmed when production resumed.
“Awakening was originally going to be written by [co-executive producer/writer] Alan McCullough, but because of Jonathon Young’s schedule with his theater troop, he wasn’t available during those first few weeks after hiatus. So this episode was put aside and we had to come up with another one to take its place. When Awakening was subsequently brought forward, I wound up being the one to write it. Actually, I wanted to write it, so I asked to write it and everyone agreed it was a good idea.
“It was a great episode to do because, again, whenever you have Tesla you know you’re going to have some funny dialogue and really witty moments. At the same time, this story also had to have such a deep heart to it because he’s in real danger. In those scenes where Tesla is making his last requests to Magnus, he genuinely believes that these are the last things he’ll ever see or do. I was excited to write the script and looked forward to seeing these guys perform it, because whenever you have Amanda and Jonathon, you do not have to worry about how things are going to turn out.
“I’d like to mention, too, that this is another case where the B-story is on a fairly separate track. There’s not a great deal of intersection between the two stories, which is similar to Trail of Blood. There’s one scene at the end that wound up not making the cut because the episode was way too long, so it’s only on the DVD extras. It’s a scene at the end where all our characters catch up with each other. The B-story with Will Zimmerman [Robin Dunne], Kate and Biggie turned out really nice as well. One of my favorite scenes, which is also my favorite Will scene that I’ve written, is the one with him and Kate in the gym where he’s sort of quietly demonstrating his psychiatric skills. We don’t get to see him use those skills too often because this is an actor series, so I just thought it was a beautiful moment to see him know exactly what to say and what not to say in order to give Kate a chance to unburden herself. It was shot totally with a green screen, too. So Robin and Agam basically had a weight bench and a door to work with. The rest was all acting.”
Sanctuary’s fourth season debuted back in October with a duel storyline involving Magnus trapped back in Victorian England and Will in charge of the present day Sanctuary network and trying to avert an all-out war between the world’s governments and thousands of Abnormals who have come to the surface from Hollow Earth. Horvath penned Untouchable, the episode to follow the two-part season opener and, like her previous two scripts, it had its creative hurdles that had to be overcome.
“Untouchable was not the type of story that I’m automatically drawn to,” says the writer. “I mean, Awakening was this big two-handed that was all about feelings. Not Untouchable. In some ways it’s the first episode of season four because the first two are the wrap up of last year’s cliffhanger. This episode puts into motion the story that will play throughout this season, all the way to the season finale.
“That’s a big responsibility, and Untouchable is far more intellectual. Damian actually told me, ‘Channel The West Wing and [the show’s creator] Aaron Sorkin.’ I told him, ‘I love Aaron Sorkin, but I’m not him.’ So getting used to a mode of writing and writing dialogue that is not my typical style was quite daunting, but, honestly, I can be even prouder of it than an episode that would have been easy to write. I had to really dig deep and couldn’t look into my usual bag of tricks, so I’m very pleased with what I did.
Magnus (Amanda Tapping) and Will (Robin Dunne) are once again in the middle of mayhem (and a Jakarta market) in season four's "Untouchable." Photo by Chris Helcermanas-Benge and copyright of Sanctuary Productions.
“We were so fortunate to get Brian Markinson for the role of Greg Addison. His character is recurring this year and Brian is such a talented actor that it made for terrific days on-set. One other cool thing that I have to mention about Untouchable is that the night market in Jakarta was an actual build. It looks so amazing that I think some people will assume it’s a visual effect, and yet one of our stages was transformed into this market that you could walk though. Only small areas of it were set extensions. The market was supposed to be at a canal, which we didn’t have, so that was VFX. However, the market itself was real and set dec did an incredible job. Sometimes they get a little overlooked because fans are so aware of how much is done in the computer, and beautifully by Anthem [Visual Effects]. But there are also things that are done practical and beautifully on-set by our production designer and conception team.”
In the upcoming season four Sanctuary episode The Depths, Magnus and Will are trapped in a cave-in when they travel to Bolivia in search of a legendary Abnormal. Because this story is yet to air, Horvath has to be rather cryptic when speaking about it.
“If you look back through the history of Sanctuary there is an episode every year where Magnus and Will are trapped somewhere and have no one to interact with but one another,” she explains. “I feel quite honored that I got to write this episode. In the past, these types of stories have always been written by Damian, who knows these characters so intimately. He really put his trust in me to write The Depths and make some choices about what I believed would be the issues between Magnus and Will. Much of what I came up with has made it into the final cut, which I’m so pleased about as well as feel blessed that I’ve managed to, I guess, plug into these characters over the past couple of years and get them right enough so that the story felt right to everyone here.
“What else can I tell you about The Depths? Well, again, this episode has a little B-story. It’s almost like this is my gimmick where I’ve always got this other story that we cut away to. The behind-the-scenes truth of this B-story is that because of scheduling logistics there had to be some scenes that didn’t have Amanda or Robin in them. So we came up with this neat little Henry-heavy B-story which I loved writing. Ryan Robbins [Henry] is another one of these guys who’s just so talented and I was able to give him humor as well as heart to play. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be on-set that day, but I knew those scenes were going to be so much fun to watch.”
Listening to the writer’s voice it is obvious that she has enjoyed her second year with Sanctuary. “I mentioned before about the milestone of coming back for a second year on a show, and there is something about coming back to the characters that you’ve grown fond of and developed a familiarity with, “says Horvath. “That’s true of the crew as well as the look and feel of the show and how the other writers work, because it’s not just me who came back. Alan McCullough and James Thorpe have both been here since season two, so it’s the same team who has been working together for two years in a row. It just becomes quite comfortable and intimate and you really can feel confident when you’re working on a story. You know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, so it was truly a pleasure once again this year.
It is the team aspect of the work that Horvath relishes most when it comes to working in the entertainment industry. “I like to be on the writing staff of shows,” she says. “I don’t enjoy freelancing, so over the years I’ve taken a number of jobs that other people might have turned down because they thought, ‘Well, I’m too busy,’ or, ‘I’m working on my pilot or feature film and don’t want to take time out to do a TV show.’ I, however, love being part of the entire creative process and everything that comes with being on a team that’s making a TV show together.”
As noted above, photos by Carole Segal or Chris Helcermanas-Benge and copyright of Sanctuary Productions, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!