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Discovery's first drama digs for gold

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Richard Madden (left) and Augustus Prew in Klondike.


Richard Madden (left) and Augustus Prew in Klondike.

PASADENA, Calif. -- OK, so it isn't exactly about science.

But it's completely about the process of discovery.

Which is why, it seems, the usually fact- and documentary-based Discovery network chose Klondike, a three-part, six-hour miniseries that examines the perils and profit of the Yukon gold rush, as its first foray into script-drama programming.

"At the core of who we are, Discovery is about man's relationship to nature," executive producer Dolores Gavin explained during Discovery's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "Sometimes, that's a beautiful relationship, and sometimes it's an agonizing relationship, and in the end, it's always a meaningful one. So with that we decided we wanted to get into the scripted genre and tell stories that are very relatable to our audience.

"About three years ago, we had a pretty simple conversation at (Discovery) headquarters, and we just started by saying, 'OK, what are the stories we haven't told?' Obviously, we have a very successful track record in the reality space with (the unscripted series) Gold Rush, so we said, 'What about the real gold rush?'"

And with that, the nugget (pun fully intended) of Discovery's first scripted-drama project was formed.

Klondike, which airs over three nights beginning Jan. 20, is based on Charlotte Gray's book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, which follows the fortune-seeking adventures of seven strangers as they fight for fortune and survival in Dawson City, circa-1897.

The series stars Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), Abbie Cornish (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff), Tim Roth (Lie To Me) and Johnny Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and was shot last year in and around Calgary in locales and weather selected to represent the most challenging of gold-rush frontier conditions.

The intense 56-day shooting schedule took cast and crew to mountain elevations above 6,000 metres, into ice-cold raging rapids and potentially dangerous avalanche zones, working for extended stretches in temperatures that dipped below the -20 C mark.

All of that, combined with the fact the actors were dressed in period-appropriate (and therefore not exactly toasty-warm) attire, amounted to some pretty difficult days for cast members playing outdoor scenes.

"There's so many photographs from the time that informed us so much, in terms of the costume and what they were actually wearing that, you know, we could do it quite realistically and dress exactly how they would have done," said Madden, who portrays Bill Haskell, a young New Yorker who heads north in search of adventure after deciding a boring existence at a desk job is not what he's after in life.

"It was really miserable a lot of the time, actually, because it was freezing... When we were up the mountains, we were at (6,000 metres). You drive into base (camp) in the morning and get into period costume, and then take a snowmobile as far up the mountain as you could. And then you'd hike 45 minutes to get to the top, which is like there's no air and you can't really breathe, and then we'd start shooting."

Madden also found himself diving into an icy-cold river for a scene involving a rapids rescue.

"Yeah, it was dangerous," the Scottish-born actor recalled. "We did some tank stuff for the underwater stuff, but we actually had a camera in the water on the day we were doing that as well, and I did throw myself into the rapids. They were real rapids, and we were all on speedboats trying to achieve something really difficult and mad. But it was brilliant... I got there and I was like, 'Oh, we're not actually using this, are we? That's really dangerous.' And then I just kind of convinced myself that it was a studio and we could just turn the rapids off if it got dangerous.

"I think what is so good about this show is that we don't rely heavily on CGI or VFX for a lot of it. For most of it, we were actually there doing it."

According to series director Simon Cellan Jones, the most difficult day of shooting involved capturing footage of a huge avalanche, which was created with the help of mountain-safety experts who dynamited a snow ridge while numerous cameras captured the action from multiple angles.

"The big avalanche in the beginning of the first episode... involved blowing up huge amounts of snow and making it fall down the mountain," he explained. "That was the most complex (scene) because we only had one chance at that and we had to sort of shoot people running away from it and then use the same shots and actually have the snow coming down, and if we got that wrong, you know, we blew the whole movie.

"We lost quite a few cameras that day, I have to say." Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2014 D3

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