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Alex Levine: ‘Bottle-Types’ and Contortionists

Back in the heat of summer, as we were breaking the season, we knew episode 305 was supposed to be a smaller “bottle-type” show, meaning we would lean heavily on our existing sets and try to shoot the episode in seven days. But as the season-long narrative unfolded, the 305 elements began to emerge: Sarah and Helena imprisoned next to each other in the rendition camp. Big escape set piece. “Breaking Prolethean” dance party. Cosima’s new flame. Contortionism! Doesn’t sound so small, does it?

And then David Frazee, one of our best directors, started making plans. He embellished the run-and-jump, extended the wall-climb, blocked out the braining of the soldier. He also worked with our production designer John Dondertman to make sure Sarah and Helena were visible to each other through the vent grating—making those scenes far more visually interesting, and far more technically difficult to shoot. By the time we were into prep, it wasn’t close to a bottle-type show…

My favorite part of producing the show was the planning and execution of the “contortionist” sequence. In researching prison escapes to write the script, I came across the story of a Chinese yoga master who escaped his prison cell by squeezing himself out through a meal-tray slot. He claimed he had a skin condition so a doctor would prescribe him ointment. Then he greased himself up and smushed himself under and out. And when I pitched it to Graeme, he just pointed his finger right at me. Yeah, Helena’s definitely doing that. Sometimes you just know when something fits.

We auditioned a number of gymnasts and hired a phenomenal athlete, Dora Yudeikin, to do the stunt work. Dora was so graceful and strong she had to be directed to make everything look harder, and we had to actually make the prison cell window slot much smaller. We also had to shoot the run-and-jump and the wall-climb on the same day as the contortionist stuff. So we had two units running simultaneously in the same space, sharing Tat and the stunt doubles. John Fawcett shot much of the contortionist work while David Frazee filmed the run-and-jump and the climb. At one point there were five Tat stand-ins or stunt doubles on one set. Crazytown.

I also had the great fortune to work with Ksenia Solo, Cosima’s new “friend,” Shay. I’d been a fan of Ksenia’s work on Lost Girl, and watching her and Tat in their two-handers was a treat. Tat and Ksenia have apparently known each other for a long time, having worked as child actors together. So they had instant chemistry, as I’m sure you noticed.

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But of course, the biggest thrill of working on this show is always the same: watching Tat work, watching her bring these incredibly diverse characters to vivid, electric, credible, indelible, can’t-stop-watching life. Some of her choices as Helena were jaw-dropping. And not just the big ones, like pretending to snap Paul in two through the cell bars. Tat’s Helena characterization is so subtle—a cackle here, a sigh there, is all she needs to deliver menace, laughter, empathy, or even heartbreak. Tat’s Helena carries her wounds on her sleeve, in her posture, on her brow. To see such fully formed characters appear on the set in front of you is mind-boggling. So yeah, even though I’ve been working with her for three years now, I’m still amazed.

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