Inside APTN’s rule-breaking sci-fi drama Skye & Chang

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As an aboriginal filmmaker driving towards mainstream media, Loretta Sarah Todd recalls a revealing struggle on the set of the APTN drama pilot Skye & Chang: how to convincingly blow up a car on the cheap.

“I knew I needed to do something that would really show I could kick ass,” Todd told Playback Daily about the need for theatrical gestures when shooting a one-hour episode of her female buddy drama that mixes sci-fi, crime and action elements.

“If I wanted to play with the big boys, I would have to do the action adventure things well,” she added.

The problem is blowing up cars to make the Skye & Chang leads Sera-Lys McArthur and Olivia Cheng cool under fire was prohibitively expensive and mired in red tape.

“We couldn’t actually blow up a car. Insurance costs are high, you need licences and permissions and the fire department needs to be there,” Todd explained.

For a low-budget pilot shoot, the trick was installing gas lines in an old car to produce flames and an heroic explosion worthy of Hollywood.

“We didn’t totally blow up the car. But there was something still in the car that blew up, and it didn’t require the fire department to be there,” Todd recalled.

The need for showmanship over substance in Skye & Chang via an improvised explosion also underlines the goals aboriginal filmmakers like Todd ‎pursue to further their careers, and the limits in which they struggle.

“This is the kind of world I want to imagine, where aboriginal women are empowered, where they are engaged with their community, where they have friendships outside the community, from every class, culture and gender,” the Skye & Chang creator says of the drama’s main characters.

Skye Daniel (McArthur) is young Cree/Metis woman who moves easily between the white and Native cultures, while Emily Chang (Cheng) is a refugee along with her family from China.

Both young women live in Vancouver’s Chinatown, where they are bodyguards to the rich and famous and run a martial arts studio.

The action in Skye & Chang comes from the friends-turned-business partners combining flying kung fu kicks with an ability to solve and thwart global conspiracies and criminals.

The irony is Skye & Chang, while ending up with APTN, started out in development at the CBC as a buddy drama between a Native and Chinese man.

But as Todd continued developing the project, it increasingly veered towards becoming a female driven, sci-fi/martial arts mash-up set in Vancouver.

“I couldn’t help myself. The science fiction wants to come out. So I went for it,” she remembers.

The irony is, just as Todd recalls her sci-fi roots in old martial art movies with Skye & Chang, the veteran filmmaker is also straying from her aboriginal roots with credits like Kainayssini Imanistaisiwa – The People Go On, Today is a Good Day: Remembering Chief Dan George and Tansi! Nehiyawetan, a children’s series on APTN.

She recalled as a young woman being told by a Native elder to leave science fiction behind because it was other-worldly.

“We have stories on earth and we should focus on stories here,” Todd remembers being told  by the elder.

But unable to give up her fascination of sci-fi, the aboriginal filmmaker made it front and centre as part of Skye & Chang.

And as much as there is a theoretical side of Todd, a graduate of the film school at Simon Fraser University who also completed a Rockefeller Fellowship to New York University, the director also embraces the ‘show, don’t tell’ style of TV production.

“As a kid, you see these films trying to tell you what to do. I rebelled against that,” she explained.

Todd instead was drawn to films that showed, that took audiences on journeys.

“Making the story accessible is very honourable. I don’t think it’s just TV, something to be dismissed,” she added.

The mash-up of varied TV genres is also deliberate in that Todd recognizes a future for Skye & Chang will depend on finding financial partners beyond APTN.

“I’d be keen for APTN to continue partnering with the project. It speaks to young Native women – even though she (Skye) has supernatural powers, she’s also human,” the director explained.

The one-hour pilot for Skye & Chang was made with financing from the Canada Media Fund, APTN and provincial tax credits, and production services from Qube Film.