Real-life soap unfolds in Toronto hospital

Shots flash on the screen of a woman being rushed into emergency with her arm so badly broken bones protrude through the skin.

The show is Downtown Angels, a new docusoap that just wrapped shooting in a Toronto hospital.

Coproduced by Lon Appleby and Howard Bernstein of Infinite Monkeys and Mark Shekter and Garry Blye of Microtainment Plus, 13 half-hours of the $1-million series will air on Discovery Channel in Canada starting Wednesday, Sept. 1 at 10:30 p.m.

The action unfolds at St. Michael’s Hospital, where seven camera crews spent three weeks from June 11 to July 4 capturing intense surgeries and real-life human drama.

‘The blood and the gore is not our focus,’ says Bernstein. ‘Sure, you will see it, but what makes it different from other docusoaps we’ve seen is that we’re not looking for the adrenaline or fast action, we are really focusing on getting to know the people.’

Prior to the shoot, the producers spent four months at the hospital seeking out the series’ main ‘characters,’ members of the hospital staff who had the confidence to take the camera into their lives and who could ‘think out loud.’

They decided on three medical teams – a general medicine unit made up of a staff doctor and her residents, a cardiologist and his residents, and the only female neurosurgeon in the hospital.

A camera crew was assigned to each team, while two crews were stationed in the emergency room and two dedicated to the big stories of the day.

‘We structured it to account for a lot of hits and misses,’ says Appleby. ‘We could have shot it in a shorter period of time, but we are accounting for that margin of misses and we don’t want to be desperate for stories.’

Five days prior to wrapping, the producers had about 70 stories that include lots of up-close surgery and personal triumphs and tragedies.

‘It is very intense in terms of following the operations and surgeries. We are looking at the human drama as well, which defines these stories more than anything,’ says Appleby. ‘We are looking at how people cope and make decisions in crises and how relationships unfold. When you can be close to people in crisis it becomes extremely dramatic.’

* The final artist

On the heels of a three-month stint in the Czech Republic where they shot two films in The Artists’ Specials children’s series – Goya: Awakened in a Dream and Rembrandt: Fathers and Sons – Devine Entertainment’s David Devine and Richard Mozer are back home in Toronto prepping for the final installment of the series.

Winslow Homer: The American Original, number six of six in this latest series of children’s tv specials, tells the story of 19th century American artist Winslow Homer, known for his watercolors and magazine covers depicting the ugly realities of the Civil War. Deeply affected by the horrors of the battlefield, Homer became a recluse following the war and turned his hand to innocent portrayals of youth. He was, says Devine, ‘the visual aid to Mark Twain.’

‘Why we liked him is there are a lot of modern-day similarities to the situation in Bosnia and Serbia where civil war impedes on the rights of young people and suppresses their self-esteem,’ says Devine. ‘We are trying to make a mirror-image film that defines the horror of war and the beauty of innocence.’

The project is a Slovak coproduction and is being shot for $1.3 million on locations throughout Southern Ontario. Preproduction got underway June 28 and shooting wraps Aug. 14.

Graeme Lynch (Road To Avonlea) is the director, Michael McMurray (Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict) is the dop and Heather Conkie, who recently picked up an Emmy Award for writing Galileo: On The Shoulders of Giants from The Inventors’ Specials, penned the script.

The Artists’ Specials follows Devine’s Composers’ and Inventors’ Specials and will air on hbo in the u.s. Negotiations are still underway for a Canadian broadcaster.

Next on the agenda will be a series on either great explorers, sports figures or writers.

* Rick Nelson’s story from Pebblehut

After a four-week shoot in Toronto, production wrapped July 9 on Pebblehut Productions’ tv movie about ’50s teen legend Rick Nelson.

Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson (Such A Long Journey), The Rick Nelson Story was in development for about a year and will be the first of many biographies of rock ‘n’ roll legends to air on American music station VH1 and Citytv in Canada. Pearson Television International will handle foreign distribution on the $4.5-million project.

The story is told in a ‘purely dramatic’ fashion, says producer Susan Murdoch, and illustrates Nelson’s life from age 16, when he was performing on tv with his famous parents Ozzie and Harriet, to his comeback in the ’70s. The story is bookended with Nelson looking through a scrapbook reviewing his life on New Year’s Eve, 1985, the night before his fatal plane crash.

Most of the action takes place in and around l.a., with Toronto standing in for Tinseltown. Some filming took place in private homes, but the majority of the film was shot at a Downsview soundstage where a replica of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet set, which was modeled after the Nelson family home, was built. To differentiate between the Nelsons’ on- and off-camera lives, scenes of their tv world were shot in black and white.

Finding an actor (or actors) to fill the role of Rick involved an extensive cross-country search.

‘We follow [Nelson] from 16 to 45, and the question was, if we got someone in the 16-24 range would they be able to cut it in the 40-year-old range,’ says Murdoch. ‘Until we found the actor, we didn’t know if we were looking for two people or one.’

Cast in the role was Gregory Calpakis (Fifteen Moments, The Hunger), a young Montreal actor who, with a little help from the hair and makeup departments, was able to handle the range of ages.

(Meantime, Calpakis is off to Vancouver to join the cast of Cold Squad.)

Rounding off the Nelson clan are Jamey Sheridan (The Ice Storm, Jumping Jack Flash) as Ozzie and Sara Botsford (e.n.g., The Arrow) as Harriet. Arlene Sarner, a Canadian living in l.a., penned the script and Tony Westman was the dop. Jonathan Goldsmith is handling the music.

* TIFF calls for volunteers

With less than two months to go before festival fever hits t.o., the Toronto International Film Festival has put out a call for volunteers.

Around 600 able bodies, 18 years and older, are needed to fill a variety of positions including ticket takers, tearers, checkers and click counters, and to help out with information assistance.

Festival organizers need around 20 people to help around the headquarters, about the same number at the airport, and translators, especially those who speak Spanish.

Three recruitment sessions are being held beginning Saturday, July 10; Wednesday, July 14 and Saturday, July 24.

Those interested can call the volunteer hot line at (416) 967-7371.