Unspeakable director Robert Cooper chats with Joan Miller, film commissioner for the Vancouver Island North Film Commission on set at St. Joesph’s Hospital in Comox Thursday. Photo by Erin Hauschak

Tainted blood mini-series producer draws from personal experience

Filming of Unspeakable wraps in Comox Valley Friday

As a writer, director and executive producer of an eight part mini-series about the Canadian tainted blood scandal of the early 1980s, Robert Cooper knows the story well.

The series, which is shooting in the Comox Valley, is also very personal for the Canadian filmmaker: he was born with hemophilia and required blood products during the scandal.

“(Hemophilia) is a genetic disease that affects your blood clotting and you require a blood product in order to have your blood clot – it can affect you in minor or major ways. In the ’80s when HIV and other infectious diseases like hepatitis were infiltrating and affecting the blood system, hemophiliacs – because they depend on blood; take a lot of it – were largely affected by that unfortunate situation.”

While he did not get HIV from tainted blood, he has drawnon both his own experience and that of others to create Unspeakable, which is set to air on CBC and Sundance Channel in the U.S. next January.

The Vancouver-based production is shooting at two locations in the Valley – the Comox Valley Airport and St. Joseph’s General Hospital, which served as hospitals in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver because the look changes from floor to floor.

“This is the first time shooting in the Valley,” explained Cooper, whose is known for his work on the Stargate television franchise.

“There are certainly logistical challenges around it because we were a production that was originally built to work in Vancouver, but it’s something we’ve been looking at since the opportunity was presented to us in the fall, but our production team has done an amazing job making it an incredibly seamless process.”

While the blood scandal affected the Canadian health care system, Cooper explained it is a global story, and added it is about human beings struggling with health issues in a world in which bureaucracies, money and institutions rule.

“I feel like that is something everyone can identify with. We all have our struggles. I think that is the reason we seek out stories like this because there is a community in finding commonality – the same human experience and it makes us feel like we are not alone.”

The production — which stars Sarah Wayne Callies (Colony, Prison Break, The Walking Dead) and Shawn Doyle (Desperate Housewives, Big Love) — has been very co-operative with the other parts of the building that are still being used, such as The Views.

Joan Miller, film commissioner for the Vancouver Island North Film Commission said the production serves as an opportunity for graduates from North Island College’s TV & Film Training Programs to gain work experience, as well as for many local services to be contracted, including restaurants, hotels and security firms.

As for the shift from sci-fi to drama, Cooper said the drama genre presents its own challenges, but noted it is very rewarding to have people engage in conversations or scenes about real emotion and real-life stakes.

“Everyone who has been part of the cast and crew have talked about [how], particularly in Canada, these types of shows don’t get made all that often, and it’s a rare opportunity to really tell a human story about us that is important to our country.”

Shooting in the Valley for Unspeakable ends Friday, but the production is set to wrap at the end of June, with an estimated air date of January 2019.

For more information on the mini-series, visit unspeakableseries.com

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